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January 29, 2010
Amazon & Macmillan
Posted by Patrick at 11:29 PM *

From the New York Times’ “Bits” blog: Amazon Pulls Macmillan Books Over E-book Price Disagreement.

Tor is part of Macmillan, but I have no more idea what’s actually going on than you do. And yes, I’m not thrilled with that fact.

UPDATE: John Scalzi making tons of sense. Also, TNH weighs in.

FURTHER UPDATE: CEO John Sargent has issued a statement.

January 28, 2010
Whole Foods: Selling the highest quality natural & organic wingnuttery
Posted by Patrick at 01:00 PM * 358 comments

I don’t generally run around obsessing over whether everyone I purchase goods or services from agrees with me about everything. But famously-crackpot Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has now made himself sufficiently repellent that I very much doubt I’ll ever feel like spending a dime in one of his stores again. Not content with peddling rich-guy “libertarian” attacks on health-care reform, asserting that climate change is a fraud designed to “raise taxes and increase regulation, and in turn lower our standard of living and lead to an increase in poverty,” comparing unionization to herpes, and getting caught playing sockpuppet games on financial message boards, Mackey is now…charging his employees more for food if they fail to meet his arbitrarily-chosen cholesterol, blood pressure, and body-mass index criteria.

As Paul Campos points out, this isn’t just tinpot CEO paternalism; it’s also junk science:

In terms of BMI, the Whole Foods discounts correlate with increasing mortality risk. The most sophisticated study on this subject, published in 2005 in JAMA by Katherine Flegal et. al., used a BMI of 23-24.9 as its referent category for baseline risk of mortality. (This corresponds with the higher end of the government’s “normal/recommended” weight range of 18.5-24.9. The lower one goes in the “normal” weight range, the greater the mortality risk becomes, so using the top of the “normal” range as the referent category actually minimizes the risks associated with “normal” weight). It found 86,000 excess deaths per year in the United States associated with “normal” weight when compared to the mortality risk among people with BMIs in the 25-29.9 range.

You’re reading that right: Whole Foods’ employee discounts based on weight are inversely related to mortality risk. So you have a policy that’s not merely discriminatory on its face, but completely irrational on its own terms.

(2) The highest employee discount has no floor, only a ceiling. In the Flegal study, underweight (BMI < 18.5) was associated with a stratospheric increase in mortality risk. (This remains true even when the data is controlled for smoking and pre-existing disease). But if you’re an underweight college student suffering from an eating disorder and working as a checker at the Boulder Whole Foods (not a hypothetical as anyone who has ever shopped there can attest) you get a 30% discount for maintaining the “healthiest” weight.

It’s entirely arguable that I should have been eschewing Whole Foods already. I buy stuff from other companies whose behavior annoys me, because life is too short to be constantly maintaining a boycott list ten miles long. Moreover, when WF first started opening stores in New York City a few years ago, the grocery scene throughout most of the five boroughs was dire. (For years TNH and I noted that whenever we got to shop in a big, well-appointed suburban grocery, our reactions tended to be much like those of émigrés from the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union: You have such many foods in your United States! And so fresh!) And jokes about “Whole Paycheck” notwithstanding, I’ve never minded paying a premium for groceries that are genuinely fresh, wholesome, and tasty—we find that when we have attractive and interesting supplies at home, we fall prey less to the temptation to eat out or order in. But more recently, high-quality NYC grocery alternatives have multiplied—alternatives run by people who evidently think that good unions make for good business.

Ultimately, as Matthew Yglesias pointed out a while back:

[T]here’s asking a CEO to pander to your prejudices, and there’s pressuring a CEO not to go out of his way to offend your prejudices. Corporate executives have a lot of social and political power in the United States, in a way that goes above and beyond the social and political power that stems directly from their wealth. The opinions of businessmen on political issues are taken very seriously by the press and by politicians on both sides of the aisle. Once upon a time perhaps union leaders exercised the same kind of sway, but these days all Republicans, most of the media, and some Democrats feel comfortable writing labor off as just an “interest group” while Warren Buffett and Bill Gates and Jack Welch are treated as all-purpose sages. One could easily imagine a world in which CEOs were reluctant to play the role of freelance political pundit out of fear of alienating their customer base. And it seems to me that that might very well be a nice world to live in.

At any rate, very few businesses go as far as Whole Foods in marketing their products specifically as part of a quasi-politicized left-wing lifestyle and few CEOs go as far as Mackey in public advocacy of political views that are only tangentially related to his business. If Whole Foods shareholders were to start to wonder whether having their corporate brand dragged into the health care debate is really a smart use of their assets, I would call that a good thing.

January 27, 2010
Open thread 135
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:05 PM *

Kodak introduced its 135 line of film in 1934. It was the mainstay of journalists and hobbyists until the advent of good affordable digital cameras. Most people* who have taken their photography at all seriously have worked with it, including me.

When I was about sixteen, I suddenly discovered my parents’ darkroom1. I’d asked for, and got, a reasonable 35mm SLR camera for the previous Christmas (a Pentax ME Super; I have it still). I read a lot of photography magazines and shot a few rolls of slide film (all the rage at the time).

But one day I was in the basement looking for something or other, and remembered that my parents had said that space was light-tight and set up for developing and printing2. And as I moved all the junk off of the enlarger and found the rather elderly chemicals, I realized that I was fascinated by the idea of developing and printing my own pictures3. Absent some substantial investment, that meant black and white print film, so I abandoned slides and color. (Besides, this was going back to basics. Foundational learning. The heart of photography. I talked like that a lot.)

My parents4 handed me a beaten-up, chemical-stained copy of Horenstein’s Black and White Photography and left me to it.

For about six months, I did nothing else with my leisure time. I’d get a roll or two of film after school on a Friday, shoot pictures in the park on the Saturday, and spend the Sunday in the darkroom developing the previous day’s roll and printing the previous week’s negatives.

My mother said my photos looked like I’d just pointed the camera everywhere and taken pictures. I was (and am) obsessed with pattern and detail: the ways that trees grow and distribute their foliage, the shadow of a window screen on eggshells, the effect of strong side lighting on a single ornament. I struggled to get the camera and enlarger to reveal what I loved about the world.

And one day in the early autumn I realized that I was not Ansel Adams, and indeed had no idea who I was or wanted to be as a photographer. And so I piled the stuff back on the enlarger, left my bottles of developer and fixer and my boxes of paper where I’d found my parents’ old supplies, and locked the door again.

And because life does imitate the circular art of storytelling, my sister wandered into that small, dark space under the stairs fifteen years later, cleared all the junk off of the enlarger and dug out all the chemicals. She photographs people, and does beautiful, painful things with the camera that would never occur to me.

I got back into photography a few years ago, taking more detailed, patterned pictures on a digital cameraphone, but it was a mild dilettantism in comparison. There’s simply nothing like a teenaged darkroom obsession.

  1. Yes, I knew it was there the whole time, under the basement stairs, usually piled high with things we didn’t need enough to keep in a more accessible location.
  2. Its only defects were its small size and a lack of running water.
  3. This is not unrelated to the impulse that drove me into bookbinding.
  4. One of the great gifts of my upbringing was their habit of leaving little land mines of creativity lying around. The darkroom. The mandolin. The loom. The books of poetry. The paintings. Some of these were side effects of their own creative bursts, during which they did an exemplary job modeling craftsmanship, curiosity and obsessive learning.
* [ETA] …of a certain age. I’m sorry if I got hackles up; I’m not used to being one of the Old Folks in the conversation. I shall arise and go now, and grow a lawn so I can tell the whippersnappers to get off of it.

January 26, 2010
A job like any other, a life like any other
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:22 PM * 35 comments

Last year’s Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal included the astonishing account of an auto-appendectomy in the Antarctic in 1961.

Apparently Leonid Rogozov, doctor to the the sixth Soviet Antarctic expedition, recognized in himself the symptoms of acute appendicitis. When other treatments failed, he briefed other members of the expedition on how to assist him and operated on himself. Read the article yourself, if you have, erm, the stomach for it. (It’s not graphic, not even the photos. Honest.)

I’d doubt it had it been published in another journal, or in April, or if one of the article coauthors were not his son. As it is, I’ve simply added another layer to my astonishment at what people can do when they have to.

Rogozov himself shrugged off his accomplishment, saying that it was simply “A job like any other, a life like any other.” That may be the neatest part of the whole story.

January 18, 2010
“SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious”
Posted by Patrick at 03:27 PM *

Jo Walton, at, on how we read, or fail to read, science fiction:

My ex-husband once lent a friend Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. The friend couldn’t get past chapter 2, because there was a tachyon drive mentioned, and the friend couldn’t figure out how that would work. All he wanted to talk about was the physics of tachyon drives, whereas we all know that the important thing about a tachyon drive is that it lets you go faster than light, and the important thing about the one in The Forever War is that the characters get relativistically out of sync with what’s happening on Earth because of it. The physics don’t matter—there are books about people doing physics and inventing things, and some of them are SF (The Dispossessed…) but The Forever War is about going away to fight aliens and coming back to find that home is alien, and the tachyon drive is absolutely essential to the story but the way it works—forget it, that’s not important.

This tachyon drive guy, who has stuck in my mind for years and years, got hung up on that detail because he didn’t know how to take in what was and what wasn’t important. How do I know it wasn’t important? The way it was signalled in the story. How did I learn how to recognise that? By reading half a ton of SF. How did I read half a ton of SF before I knew how to do it? I was twelve years old and used to a lot of stuff going over my head, I picked it up as I went along. That’s how we all did it. Why couldn’t this guy do that? He could have, but it would have been work, not fun. […]

Because SF can’t take the world for granted, it’s had to develop techniques for doing it. There’s the simple infodump, which Neal Stephenson has raised to an artform in its own right. There are lots of forms of what I call incluing, scattering pieces of information seamlessly through the text to add up to a big picture. The reader has to remember them and connect them together. This is one of the things some people complain about as “too much hard work” and which I think is a high form of fun. SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting.

Lots more, all smart. Read the whole thing. Comments turned off here—go comment there!

(Generally, if you’re not reading Jo Walton’s posts on, you’re missing some of the best practical SF criticism in years. This link gets you roughly the last couple of months’ worth, but she’s been posting at this rate pretty much since we launched the site a year and a half ago.)

January 16, 2010
Wanna Buy a Caboose?
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:02 AM * 39 comments

Stopping by the Tilt’n Diner tonight on our way to Arisia, spotted a flyer pinned to the corkboard in the entryway:

Caboose for sale:

Northfield, New Hampshire
Fully contained.

To see, or for more info, call Ron 603 286 4155 or 603 455 2659

There was a nice photo of a caboose in Boston and Maine colors, number C 127. It’s currently located at Northfield, New Hampshire.

Here are photos (not the one that was on the flyer) of C-127.

How often is it, when you get a model of your vehicle, you get a model of your vehicle?

Darned odd things you see on local cork boards.

[UPDATE] Ron gives many more details, and an asking price ($20K), here.

January 15, 2010
Beating airport chemical detection systems
Posted by Teresa at 04:30 PM * 95 comments

I think about this every time I see a news story about the DHS/NTSA developing elaborate systems that test travelers for trace amounts of chemicals used in explosives.

How do you beat that? By seeding the travel environment with the target chemicals. For instance, you could sprinkle them into the upholstery and/or carpeting of buses, trains, and airport taxis. Travelers who came into contact with them would pick up trace amounts, which would set off the airport chemical detectors. A system that’s swamped with false positives is as blind as one that can’t detect what it’s looking for, and it’s a hell of a lot more nervous.

The beauty part about doing this is that it’s so easy. You don’t have to build a working bomb, learn to fly a plane, target a specific flight, buy a plane ticket, or pass through airport security. All you have to do is sit back and keep pressing the DHS/NTSA’s panic buttons.

Chemicals aren’t terrorism. Terrorism isn’t air travel. Terror is an effect. I don’t know anyone who was made more fearful by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab setting fire to his crotch. I know a lot of people who are afraid to travel because they’ve heard reports of abusive behavior by security personnel at borders and airports.

Next: figuring out how to put miniature cap pistols into coin-operated toy vending machines at highway rest areas near border checkpoints.

In the navy, between the wars
Posted by Teresa at 10:19 AM * 54 comments

Not your usual images of our fighting men at work and play. Wish I’d found these earlier; they’re going away too soon. When you click on the links, scroll down to see the larger versions.

Close friends.
A couple of guys on the deck of the USS Idaho. It’s safe to say they like each other.
A couple more guys on deck.
Still more guys. Wish he’d identified them.
A sailor in grubby work clothes, in front of what I think is a signaling device.
Practicing fisticuffs.
A formally posed group.
An informally posed group.
Mugging for the camera.
More mugging for the camera.
On shore—at a guess, in Honolulu.
On shore, wearing a lei.
Touring the cane fields.

The past is another country. I may speculate about some aspects of it, but I can’t really know.

January 14, 2010
The New York Times gives Harold Ford, Jr. enough rope
Posted by Teresa at 02:43 PM * 79 comments

Allow me to recommend this NYT interview, in which one-time Tennessee congressman and would-be New York senatorial candidate Harold Ford Jr. reveals that he’s set foot in Staten Island once, when his helicopter landed there. He’s marginally familiar with one section of one subway line. He opposes Obama’s health care bill. He has a history of opposing gay marriage. He also has a history of supporting proposals to give local police the power to enforce immigration laws: a disastrous policy in a city where two-thirds of the residents are first- or second-generation immigrants.

His plan to encourage hiring is to slash corporate taxes and give employers a payroll tax holiday. He approves of the massive bonuses the bailed-out Wall Street banks paid a handful of their employees. And while it’s not surprising that he’s against capping executive compensation—it’s estimated that he’s getting paid at least a million a year—the rationale he gives is astounding:

“I am a capitalist,” he said. “I believe that people take risk, and there are rewards if they do well; they should lose if they don’t.”
Uh-huh. Risk takers. Rewards for doing well.

So read the interview already. It’s a work of art.

Suggestions for further fun: Glenn Greenwald blasts Ford’s privileged status, and his twisted notions of what constitutes capitalism. Campaign Diaries dissects Ford’s missteps and flip-flopping policies. Huffington Post characterizes the interview as “the New York Times basically allowed Ford to stage his own political autoerotic asphyxiation.” Politico dishes. Brooklynbadboy at Daily Kos takes his turn at the piñata. And Ford’s hoped-for opponent, incumbent NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, says “Bring it on.”

Posted by Patrick at 01:55 PM * 72 comments

I started coughing during the Christmas-through-New-Year’s break, and it got gradually worse; I’ve been home from work for nearly two weeks now.

I’ve seen doctors. No, it’s not H1N1. (Yes, I wondered.) It appears to be a viral lung infection made worse by allergies. I’m taking stuff and I tentatively think I’m on the mend. But if you’ve been wondering why I’ve been slow to get back to you, even by my usual lousy standards, that’s why.

On the bright side, it appears I’ll be going to Aussiecon 4 later this year. Cool. I’ve never been south of the Equator. Fluorospheric advice about things to do in and around Melbourne would be gratefully received. (It’ll only be me, not TNH, alas.)

January 11, 2010
Open thread 134
Posted by Teresa at 10:22 PM *

From Smithsonian:

An Assyrian clay tablet dating to around 2800 B.C. bears the inscription: “Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”

Universal Lending Library Amnesty Thread
Posted by Patrick at 06:16 PM *

All right, who did we loan our Firefly DVD set to? And can we get it back?

Feel free to use the thread to recall other strayed books, records, DVDs, and similar media.

January 07, 2010
Colebrook Humane Society
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:50 AM *

Short version: The local Humane Society’s shelter burned.

Three links to LJ for this one. 05Jan10, 06Jan10, 07Jan10.

If you want to read the story (with photo) at the Colebrook News and Sentinel, look fast. It’ll vanish when the new edition comes out next Wednesday.

Tip jar for donations here.

Pass it on.

[UPDATE] Video of the fire, from the Colebrook Chronicle.

[UPDATE 2] The property is for sale. 1.7 acres, $35K.

We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire Nuku Nuku
Posted by Avram Grumer at 02:24 AM * 32 comments

A few lines from Wikipedia’s summary of the anime film TAMALA2010: A Punk Cat in Space:

The film is in a large part a cartoon cat version of Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 […] It begins in Meguro City, Tokyo, Cat Earth, a world of corporations and commercialism, where a giant mechanical Colonel Sanders wanders through streets with an axe embedded in its head repeating an advertisement for meat over a loudspeaker.

(via Calamity Jon)

Also, looking over Pynchon’s page on Wikiquote has me determined to finally get around to reading Gravity’s Rainbow. Might need new glasses for Against the Day, though.

And hey, look:

“If America was a person, — and it sat down, — Lancaster town would be plunged into a Darkness unbreathable.” — Mason & Dixon (1997)

“If the U.S. was a person,” he later became fond of saying, “and it sat down, Columbus, Ohio would instantly be plunged into darkness” — Against the Day (2006)

January 06, 2010
The tastemakers of tomorrow
Posted by Avram Grumer at 11:13 PM * 40 comments

As further proof of Jim Henley’s boast that SF&F geek culture is the new mainstream, the NY Times has run an article about something bored role-playing gamers have been doing ever since the white box days: Packing dice together in odd configurations.

I look forward to the upcoming five-part series investigating the world of doodling on graph paper and quoting Monty Python.

January 03, 2010
*Spoilers* Paranormal Activity *Spoilers*
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 07:26 PM *

Paranormal Activity is supposed to be the Scariest Movie Ever.

It was also famously made for just $10,000.

I’m planning to see it on DVD right after supper. Then we’ll discuss it here with SPOILERS.

Did I mention there would be spoilers?

Much like the Cloverfield discussion, I intend this to be a What Do You Do In These Circumstances type of discussion.

Scholarly works to avoid citing at all costs
Posted by Teresa at 05:03 PM *

We missed an opportunity back in August 2007, during a discussion of Wikipedia’s structural defects, when a series of comments by Emma, Sisuile, Oldsma, and Sisuile again gave rise to a great idea:

Sisuile @163: I gave up on Wikipedia when someone kept changing the articles on fertility/sex gods and goddesses to reflect Victorian social mores. The best bit was from the talk:freyja page: “Uhm, you’re talking to someone who reads mythology books intended for high-schoolers and over…” After that? Even though response was required and given, I lost hope in the editing process. God forbid someone come along and cite the Eddas.

Oldsma @216: Oy, I can imagine if some Wikiwanker got hold of the Holldander Poetic Edda, which changes the sex of Sun and Moon. Or Guerber’s Myths of the Norsemen, which uses (e.g.) Tennyson as a source and has bits that no one has ever found any source for. But it’s in print! It is citeable! It must be true!


Sisuile @273: There is a reason the Holldander in the university library gets “vandalized” every so often with a tag on the front cover—“Do not use for scholarly research. Do not cite. You will be laughed at.” We aren’t particularly certain who does it, but the librarians seem to object.

The prof who does the Norse Myth class has a list of “Books to Avoid” for each of his classes and commentary about why one should avoid them. Since he’s generally quite witty, this list has been the source for much amusement.

Now that is a Making Light thread I’d love to see: Scholarly works to avoid citing at all costs.

Who’s game? I’ll volunteer to start it with the Gale Group’s “Contemporary Authors” biography series, an unending font of misquoted excerpts and erroneous citations. My favorite example: I once saw a chapter in one of their volumes that combined excerpts from criticism and reviews of librettist Robert Wilson, author of Einstein on the Beach, with criticism and reviews of novelist Robert [Anton] Wilson, co-author with Robert Shea of the Illuminatus! series. When the person editing the chapter can’t tell that those are two different authors, you have to figure you’re not getting the benefit of careful scholarship.

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