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July 30, 2010
Open thread 144
Posted by Teresa at 01:47 PM *

144, two to the fourth times three squared, also CXLIV in Roman numerals, 10010000 in Binary, 12100 in Ternary, 220 in Octal, 100 in Duodecimo, and 90 in Hexadecimal, is the sum of three squares (42 + 81 + 81), and of two consecutive primes (71 + 73). It is the square of 12, the 12th Fibonacci number, the only Fibonacci number (other than 1) that is a square, and the 12th square number, following 121 and preceding 169; and furthermore, the sum of its digits is a square as well. It is one of the largest numbers that has its own name (a gross) but is not a factor of 10, and the smallest number that has exactly 15 divisors. It is also the Intel 8086 instruction for “no operation,” the measurement in cubits of the wall of New Jerusalem shown by the seventh angel in Revelations 21:17, the atomic number of unquadquadium (a temporary chemical element), and the number of words in English currently known to rhyme with wolverine. Its common properties are abundant, composite, even, evil, powerful, and practical; its rare properties are Fibonacci, hungry, and square. In the same way that 17 and 37 are perceived as exceptionally random numbers, 144 is perceived as an exceptionally square one. Its big brother, 144,000, is significant in a number of different religious traditions, and a favorite with apocalyptic theoreticians.

July 27, 2010
Posted by Debra Doyle at 01:28 AM * 191 comments

Guest Blogging by Debra Doyle.

Things writers worry about, number I’ve-lost-track-by-now (because writers worry about everything, all the time): It’s no secret—at least, I certainly hope it’s no secret—that Jim Macdonald and I have a book coming out today: Lincoln’s Sword, from Eos.

Thumbnail image for Lincoln_Sword_med.jpg

This is a book—an alternate-historical fantasy novel—about the Civil War. The opportunities this presents for giving offense to somebody—or somebodies—are manifold, starting with the novel’s genre and going on from there.

Some people dislike alternate history on principle: they feel, so far as I’ve ever been able to follow their arguments, that making counterfactual assumptions about historical events and personages for the purpose of entertainment is disrespectful of something. (I’ve never been clear on whether it’s the dead, or historical truth, or what that’s supposedly being disrespected, but that’s probably because my sensibilities are insufficiently refined.)

Other people consider it unseemly to use fantasy as a vehicle for writing about certain subjects—the logic chain there apparently being that fantasy is inherently trivial, and that therefore to write fantasy about a subject is to trivialize it. It’s probably not necessary to point out that I don’t agree with this assumption, but it never hurts to say so for the record, either. So: I disagree.

Also, the Civil War is a subject about which a great many people feel very possessive. They do not like it when somebody gets it wrong, and “wrong” in this case can mean anything from “she screwed up the uniform flashes and buttons” to “she failed to speak kindly of X/unkindly of Y.”

Furthermore, the Civil War is a subject with an awful lot of there there. Concentrating on any one aspect of it, within the confines of a novel, is inevitably going to mean not dealing with any number of other aspects, and at that point you’re a fit victim for the “there is no mention of Z in this book” line of criticism. For which the only honest answer a writer can give is, “A book about Z would have been a different book, and the book that I wanted to write was this one.”

Why would we—why would any writer—want to open a can of worms like that?

Well, for one thing, those worms come from a rich soil. The Civil War comes as close as anything else does to being the Matter of America, in the way that the Arthurian mythos is the Matter of Britain and the legends of Charlemagne are the Matter of France. A topic like that can generate stories like a garden in summertime generates zucchini. And if not all of those stories are confined to sober historical realism … well, cooks in summertime do some strange things to zucchini, too. Good ideas, like good vegetables, shouldn’t go to waste.

The first seeds that would eventually become our garden full of zucchini alternate-historical Civil War fantasies were planted in a short story about something else altogether. Maybe I’d better let Macdonald explain that part.

JDM here.

The secret origin of both our Civil War fantasies is here: In our short story, “Uncle Joshua and the Grooglemen,” first published in Bruce Coville’s Book of Monsters in 1993, and reprinted in New Skies, (Patrick Nielsen Hayden, ed.) in 2003. The important part was this paragraph:

Uncle Joshua wasn’t anyone’s blood uncle, but a wanderer who’d come by the Henchard farm one day two winters gone, traveling on foot from some place farther north. He wasn’t much of a farmer, but when he went off into the woods for a day or a week at a time with his long flintlock rifle, he always came back with meat. He brought in more than enough food to earn his keep, and in the evenings by the fireside he told marvelous stories of distant lands.

As it happened, those stories were American Civil War/King Arthur crossovers, but I couldn’t say so without giving away the surprise ending.

Back to Doyle:

So we knew that these stories existed, somewhere out there in the story-ether. Then, several years later, Macdonald had a dream:

JDM again: And in this dream I saw a sailing ship with bare spars racing against a steam locomotive on the land, and beating it. And from this I knew that I had the What If of What If the Union had a Pegasus-class patrol hydrofoil during the American Civil War? (But was still using muzzle-loading black-powder cannon, and all other tech was mid-nineteenth century.)

I started writing a novel based on that idea during Viable Paradise II (1997). And in the fullness of time, it became Land of Mist and Snow, a 2007 release from Eos. (Link takes you to the first chapter.)

This left us with another novel in the contract. The idea of the Civil War as America’s answer to King Arthur was still there, and (as noted) had preceded the idea of the magical ship. So that’s what we wrote. Or tried to write.

At first I thought that it was going to be about General Philip Sheridan, and the Quest of the Sank Greal Liberty and Union:

General Philip Sheridan awoke.  He was lying under his coat, his head on his saddle on the ground.  NameOHorse stood nearby, hobbled, cropping the sweet new grass.

Sheridan rolled over, looking across the field to the distant trees, a low mist clinging to the grass.  As in amaze he turned his gaze, he saw that he was utterly surrounded by a ring of mushrooms.  They had not been there the night before, he was certain.  He rose, and donned his coat, pulled his hat low over his eyes, then saddled and mounted.

And as he pricked over the lea he heard a sad voice come to him, a maiden lamenting, saying, “O! who is more sorrowful than I?”

And General Sheridan rode to where the sound was issuing, and there he saw a beautiful maiden lying on the ground, her clothing in disarray about her, and her hair pinned to the ground with seven iron spikes.

“Who art thou, and who hath used thee so cruelly?” mathelode bold Philip Sheridan.

“Alas,” quoth she, “It was a catiff General who used me so, and I am Liberty hight, who thou seekest.”

“Alas, then,” quod General Sheridan, “For thou art mistaken.  I do not seek Liberty, but rather another. Yet I am loathe to see a maiden, widow or wife mistreated, and will rescue you if I can.”

And even as he spoke he looked about, and there he espied a General clad all in gray, sitting easily on a horse just beyond a stream.

“There,” quod the maiden, “Even there is the man who did use me thus.” And thus she made her woe.

“Say then,” quote bold General Sheridan, and turned his horse toward the strange General, “who art thou, and who dost thou serve?”

“I am Nathan Forrest hight,” quod the unco General, “and Braxton Bragg is my master. Here I stand and thou shalt not pass.”

“Then have at thee,” said General Sheridan, drawing his sword and spurring across the leven.

And even then did General Forrest draw and cantered forward until he stood on the near side of the ford, where sweet water flowed from a spring. And such a pass at arms few had ever seen than General Sheridan and the Grey General by the ford, for each turned as quick as thought, and the clashing of their swords was like unto the sillibance of serpents, or the wind in the pines, that thicks man’s blood with cold.  But even as they fought, first on one side then the other of the stream, and stirred to mud the sweet waters, yet neither could touch the other.  They fought together thus, and the sweat ran down their brows, as the sun rose and the mist vanished.

Then of a sudden, without a word, the Gray General did turn and vanish, as if he had been a sprite.  Then did General Sheridan return to where he had left the maiden with her hair pinned to the ground, but no matter how he sought, he could not find trace of her.

“This is wonder strange,” then quoth the General, and with that he did decide to return to Washington to tell President Lincoln of the ferlie he had seen, for that President Lincoln was a man of great wisdom and know thereby what others could not see.

(Actual first draft of first chapter.)

That didn’t last too long, and General Sheridan never shows up in the book as submitted. Instead, the main character turned out to be Cole Younger, of the James/Younger gang of bank robbers. Funny how that all worked out. And this link takes you to the first chapter as submitted, and as you’ll find it when you go to your local bookstore and buy your own copy (for there’s a hard winter coming, and you’ll want to lay in eight to ten cords of this book).

Originally Doyle wanted to call the book To See Beyond the Union, and I wanted to call it No Star Obscured, but the publisher thought Lincoln’s Sword would be a better title, and so, of course, it is.

Back to Doyle.

As it happens, both of the titles that didn’t get used are references to Daniel Webster’s Second Reply to Hayne, the speech that ends with the words “Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!” Which is, I still think, a good quote to stick onto a diptych of novels about the American Civil War.

I say “a diptych” rather than “a novel and its sequel” because Land of Mist and Snow and Lincoln’s Sword don’t actually take place in the same fictional universe—though there are similarities between the two books that go beyond the presence of sparkles in the cover art. (Sparkles are turning into the go-to signifier for “fantasy elements included here” in the same way that zeppelins stand for “alternate history.”) Exciting battles on sea and land. Guest turns by the fantastical alternate personae of respected—or notorious—historical figures. And sex magic. Macdonald says that I have to blog about the sex magic.

Which, honestly, I didn’t intend to have in the book when we started. But then we were writing the final action sequence of Land of Mist and Snow, in which it became both morally and tactically necessary to break a particular piece of extremely powerful magic, and by the time I’d finished writing that scene I realized that the book’s two main characters had just gone through a sacred marriage. (And believe me, writing a scene like that when both of your first-person narrators insist on maintaining a proper degree of circumspection and formality can be…challenging. You also end up researching a lot of details about Victorian underwear, most of which you don’t actually use.)

Then Lincoln’s Sword came along, and in this book it wasn’t a marriage, it was an initiation, the coming-together of two characters who’ve been playing a mystical game of hide-and-seek (rather like “The Two Magicians”, only different) for most of the book, with the goal being to learn and to impart crucial knowledge.

At least this time I already had the Victorian underwear pages bookmarked.

July 26, 2010
…And you too, CNN
Posted by Teresa at 09:11 AM *

See my previous entry, Are you listening, Google? It’s me, Teresa. A few days ago, I almost wrote about the same subject: having websites try to force me to agree to let them propagate information about my activities on their site to other sites and organizations. In particular, trying to force me to tie my participation on their site to my Facebook page, when Facebook has repeatedly demonstrated that it can’t be trusted with its users’ privacy.

The site that did it a few days ago was CNN. They’d put up an article called News sites reining in nasty user comments, about news sites discovering the need to moderate user misbehavior in their comment threads. (More of that cutting-edge reporting they’re so famous for.) When I went to post a comment in their thread, I found I had to register first. That’s fine; I don’t mind site registrations.

The trouble was, they only gave me two options. One was that I could sign up through Facebook, with all that that entails. The other was that I could sign up for their site alone. Either way, I’d have to accept their Orwellian-named “Privacy Policy.”

The initial reason I didn’t register as a CNN site user—ironically, when you consider that I was trying to comment on an article about news sites requiring commenters to use real identities—is that they refused to let me voluntarily sign up under my real name. CNN’s site registration system only allows you 3-12 characters for your name, and my surname alone takes 13-14.

In the end that was just as well, because it slowed me down long enough to take a good look at their policies. Here’s what the registration form says:

CNN will use the information you submit in a manner consistent with our Privacy Policy. By clicking on “sign up” you agree with CNN’s Terms of Service and Privacy Policy and consent to the collection, storage and use of this information in the U.S. subject to U.S. laws and regulations. (learn more)

For our international users, please be aware that the information you submit when registering for our services is collected in the United States of America. In addition to being subject to our Privacy Policy, the collection, storage, and use of your data will be subject to U.S. laws and regulations, which may be different from the laws and regulations of your home country. By registering for this service, you are consenting to this collection, storage, and use.

In the United States, we don’t have many laws protecting our personal information. We need more than we have. The alternative, the one we’ll get by default if we don’t do anything, is to have our online identities mediated by Facebook. If the government had proposed an online identity system that prone to holes, leaks, and exploits, we’d have been up in arms.

Moving on now to the policy itself:


Thank you for visiting, a site presented to you by Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. (“Turner”). Your privacy is important to us.

It’s like those call-waiting systems that keep saying “Your call is important to us.”
As such, we provide this privacy statement explaining our online information practices and the choices you can make about the way your information is collected and used at this Turner site, and among Turner’s network of affiliated websites (“Turner Network”), which includes any sites or services owned, operated or offered by or on behalf of Turner or its affiliates.
There’s a little box on the registration form that comes already checked. It says “Yes, I would like to receive occasional CNN member updates about new features and special offers.” It isn’t clear whether opting out of that checkbox keeps Turner from using your information in all its contemplated ways. My guess is that it doesn’t.

If I’m right about that, you have three choices: (1.) using the CNN site and letting it use you; (2.) the same, only with added Facebook badness; or (3.) not participating there at all.

The Information We Collect

At some Turner Network sites, you can order products, enter contests, vote in polls or otherwise express an opinion, subscribe to one of our services such as our online newsletters, or participate in one of our online forums or communities. In the course of these various offerings, we often seek to collect from you various forms of personal information. Examples of the types of personally identifiable information that may be collected at these pages include: name, address, e-mail address, telephone number, fax number, credit card information, and information about your interests in and use of various products, programs, and services.

At some Turner Network sites, you may also be able to submit information about other people. … Examples of the types of personally identifiable information that may be collected about other people at these pages include: recipient’s name, address, e-mail address, and telephone number.

At certain parts of some of our sites, only persons who provide us with the requested personally identifiable information will be able to order products, programs, and services or otherwise participate in the site’s activities and offerings.

We, our service providers, advertisers and partners may collect various types of non-personally identifiable information when you visit any of our sites.

This is the relatively innocuous early section of the policy. Later on, the range of things that can happen to your data gets much more alarming and expansive. It looks like they expect that most people who bother to read it will quit partway through.
A representative list of the types of non-personally identifiable information we may collect include: current Internet protocol address and type of browser you are using (e.g., Firefox, Internet Explorer), the type of operating system you are using, (e.g., Microsoft Windows or Mac OS), the domain name of your Internet service provider (e.g., America Online, Earthlink), the web pages you have visited, …
That’s no more than any site can tell about you when you turn up on their doorstep. In most cases, they can also make a rough guess about your geographical location. By itself, the information is relatively harmless. Don’t let that reassure you.
… the content you have accessed and the advertisements you have been shown and/or clicked on.
That’s a tad more intrusive.
How We Use the Information

We may use the information you provide about yourself to fulfill your requests for our products, programs, and services, to respond to your inquiries about our offerings, to offer you other products, programs or services that we believe may be of interest to you, to enforce the legal terms that govern your use of our sites, and/or for the purposes for which you provided the information.

If you didn’t opt out of the checkbox, “the purposes for which you provided the information” imposes no limit on Turner’s behavior.
We sometimes use this information to communicate with you, such as to notify you when you have won one of our contests or when we make changes to our subscriber agreements, to fulfill a request by you for an online newsletter, or to contact you about your account with us.

We use the information that you provide about others to enable us to send them your gifts or cards. From time to time, we also may use this information to offer our products, programs, or services to them.

The information we collect in connection with our online forums and communities is used to provide an interactive experience. We use this information to facilitate participation in these online forums and communities and, from time to time, to offer you products, programs, or services.

What you gradually find out is that when Turner talks about offering “products, programs, or services,” third parties may be involved; that those third parties may have access to quite a lot of personal information about you, because Turner reserves the right to combine your non-personally-identifying information with information from other sources; that those third parties aren’t bound by this privacy policy; and that Turner offers no guarantees that the information they collect about you won’t escape into the wild.
If you choose to submit content for publication (e.g., a letter to our editors, comments sent to our television personalities, a posting to a blog or a discussion board), we may publish your screen name and other information you have provided to us.

We may on occasion combine information we collect through our sites with information that we collect from other sources.

And there is the hole big enough for an elephant to walk through. The problem isn’t having single sites or single databases get hold of too much information about you; it’s what happens when you crossbreed those databases. Your email address, ISP, and approximate geographic location, combined with the very revealing social linkage of Facebook, plus (say) the videos you favorite (i.e., bookmark) on YouTube, your publicly readable Amazon wishlists, and the articles you promote via Digg or Reddit or, plus standard name-and-address databases, plus detailed voter-behavior databases (which are commercially available), can add up to a startling amount of information about you.

We’d worry about making our diaries public because that would tell everyone what we think. We’re less clear about the implications of letting strangers collect information about what we want, what we like, what we buy, and what we habitually do late at night when we’re tired.

We sometimes use the non-personally identifiable information that we collect to improve the design and content of our sites, to deliver more relevant marketing messages and advertisements and to enable us to personalize your Internet experience. We also may use this information to analyze usage of our sites, as well as to offer you products, programs, or services.
They keep using that phrase.
Information Sharing and Disclosure

We may disclose personally identifiable information in response to legal process, for example, in response to a court order or a subpoena.

That’s normal.
We also may disclose such information in response to a law enforcement agency’s request, or where we believe it is necessary to investigate, prevent, or take action regarding illegal activities, suspected fraud, situations involving potential threats to the physical safety of any person, violations of our terms of use, to verify or enforce compliance with the policies governing our sites and applicable laws or as otherwise required or permitted by law or consistent with legal requirements.
I believe that reduces to “We reserve the right to do anything not specifically prohibited by law.” And as I noted earlier, U.S. law doesn’t prohibit much.

We’re now getting into the more alarming parts of Turner’s privacy policy, past my hypothesized point where they expect people will have stopped reading.

In addition, we may transfer personally identifiable information about you if we, or one of our business units, are acquired by, sold to, or merged with another entity.

Our agents and contractors who have access to personally identifiable information are required to protect this information in a manner that is consistent with this privacy statement by, for example, not using the information for any purpose other than to carry out the services they are performing for us.

I beleive that translates as, “Our employees and contractors are not supposed to mess around with your information for their own amusement or gain on company time.”
Although we take appropriate measures to safeguard against unauthorized disclosures of information, we cannot assure you that personally identifiable information that we collect will never be disclosed in a manner that is inconsistent with this privacy statement.

We may disclose personally identifiable information to third parties whose practices are not covered by this privacy statement (e.g., other marketers, magazine publishers, retailers, participatory databases, and non-profit organizations) that want to market products or services to you.

If a Turner Network site shares personally identifiable information, it will provide you with an opportunity to opt out or block such uses either at the point of submission of your personally identifiable information or prior to any such disclosure.

I’m going to skip forward to the end, where there’s a bit of information which I believe is pertinent to Turner’s promise to give you “an opportunity to opt out of or block such uses.” It says:
We will notify you about material changes in the way we treat personally identifiable information by placing a notice on our site. We encourage you to periodically check back and review this policy so that you always will know what information we collect, how we use it, and with whom we share it.
Sure. We’ll all put a regular reminder on our calendars so we’ll remember to check for changes in the Turner privacy policy. We’ll remember to keep a copy of the previous version, too, so we can compare them.


Turner/CNN, if you’re listening: No. I will not sign up for that. If I want to discuss one of your news stories, I’ll do it on a forum that doesn’t reserve the right to sell my participation and identity to anyone that offers.

July 25, 2010
Are you listening, Google? It’s me, Teresa
Posted by Teresa at 11:14 PM *

Dear Google:

I”d rather write you a letter, but I already know you make that impossible, so I’m going to have to air this in public.

I’ve had a YouTube account for a long time, starting well before you bought them. Tonight was the first time I tried to upload a video. I can’t do it. iMovie keeps telling me my password is wrong. It isn’t. I checked.

I googled on the problem, and immediately found several authoritative sites that discuss it. When I read them, they all said the same thing: if I have a Gmail account, I won’t be allowed to upload iMovie files using my YouTube account. I’ll be forced to use my Gmail account.

No, Google. I won’t do it.

Last time I changed my YouTube password, you wanted me to crosslink my Gmail and YouTube accounts, so you could cross-propagate information from one account to the other.

I said no. I especially and particularly said no to your happy plan to take that crosslinked pair of accounts and propagate god-knows-what information from them to Facebook. For my benefit, you said. So my friends can find me, and see what I’m doing, and I can see what they’re doing. Which is utter codswallop, because it’s really about you and Facebook getting to track who my friends are and what information I share with them, the better to market to us all.

Absolutely not, Google. I have never agreed to let you intermediate my online identity, or my online activities. I certainly haven’t agreed to let Facebook do that, or any of the other companies that are far too eager to do so. What I do on YouTube is between me and YouTube. What I do with Google searches or with Gmail are likewise meant only for those sites and services.

Am I going to have to scour all the data I can reach out of those accounts, and then shut them down? Because I’ll do that before I’ll let my writing, my relationships, my tastes, my interests, my research, and my workflow become “fungible content” for you or anyone else to slice, dice, repackage, and sell to strangers.

Especially Facebook! Are you out of your mind? You’ve got some very smart people working for you. Go ask some of them why I might not think it’s a swell idea for Facebook, that impenitent mendacious serial offender against privacy and prior consent, to automatically receive ANY information about my activities elsewhere in the online universe.

What next? Are you going to automatically crosslink Google accounts and Google Image results with Facebook’s mega-creepy facial recognition project? You know, the one that’s building an enormous database of real photos linked with real names and online usernames? Facebook has long since made it clear that they’re never going to respect user privacy; and you, dear Google, already know way too much about us all.

That’s why I’ve signed up for an account with Vimeo. They haven’t asked me to “friend” anyone. That’s good.

Sorry to use a cliché, but I will not friend Big Brother. Big Brother is not my friend. Neither is Facebook. And, now that I think about it, neither are you.

July 21, 2010
Julian Comstock, “tomorrow never happens,” and whether characters can only be gay if the story “needs” them to be
Posted by Patrick at 01:38 PM * 360 comments

This began as a quick email to Jo Walton, but I decided it was a post for Making Light instead. Hi, Jo!

I’m reading Paul Kincaid’s review of Julian Comstock on, and although Paul is a pal and it’s a thoughtful review, I’m having a mild case of “did we read the same book?” Paul thinks, for instance, that the Dominionist church in Wilson’s future “dictates every aspect of everyone’s life,” whereas in fact one of the things that fuels the plot is that nobody has the technology necessary to actually dictate any such thing. Wilson’s future is one of reversion to Victorian-style self-enforcing conventionality, complete with a big city (New York City, in fact) with a lot of demimondes in which people break various rules in the shadows. There are tyrannical authorities, secular and religious, who will do bad things to you if you get on their bad side, but they don’t have Orwellian powers of panopticon-style surveillance.

More to the point, though, Paul seems to have completely missed the fact that the book is extremely funny. He has a thesis going—he’s arguing that three of this year’s five Hugo nominees are about the decline of America, in different ways—and while this thesis allows Paul to say some insightful things, it also seems to have blinded him to the genuine exuberance and joie de vivre that’s also part of Wilson’s novel.

I finished Julian Comstock not with a sense of tragic glumness, but with a sense that, whether or not anything like the novel’s scenario ever comes to pass, the book is right about the future in important ways: (1) History is not a smooth ascent. It may not even be an ascent at all. Sometimes things get better, sometimes they get worse, sometimes we just get by. (2) Life goes on anyway. The world is rarely all one thing. (3) Even in times of horrifying decline, people come up with peculiar and inexplicable personal ambitions. The narrator, Julian’s longtime sidekick, wants to become a writer of boys’ adventure novels. Julian, even after becoming President, is obsessed by the dream of making a movie about the life of Charles Darwin. Why? Well, why not? Julian Comstock brings home the same news as Janis Joplin’s remark preserved in Making Light’s commonplaces: “”Tomorrow never happens. It’s all the same fucking day, man.” This is a tragedy only if you were previously under the impression that the universe has promised you a life in which everything gets steadily better forever.

But what I was most amused by was yet another outbreak of that thing we saw in some of the reviews of Farthing:

We are meant to see the tragedy of Julian Comstock as being the tragedy of America (though in that respect, his homosexuality seems an unnecessary distraction).
Yes, it’s our old friend Unecessary Homosexuality! It’s okay for people to be gay, but they should be civilized about it and only actually do so when the plot shows up with a clipboard and says, “Okay, I need a gay person now, so be gay.” Gay people being gay just because some people are gay? Not done. Uneccessary. A distraction.

And this, children, is how we construct a world of marked and unmarked states.

July 19, 2010
Me? I was the baker’s daughter. You?
Posted by Patrick at 09:55 PM * 117 comments

PNH: “So, it’s not that Gawker and 4chan are at war—”

TNH: “O holy fucking one-mile-on-a-side cube of schadenfreude”

PNH: “—Although they are. Rather, it’s that I learned this fact—”

TNH: [inscrutable facial expressions of starry bogglement]

PNH: “—from New York magazine’s gossip column.

TNH: [an assortment of punctuation marks unattached to actual words]

PNH: “We have lived into the future, and it is barely comprehensible to us.”

July 17, 2010
“The defeats which surrendered Algiers to the Frank have been strangely and nobly avenged”
Posted by Patrick at 09:19 PM *

Whatever you’re doing, put it aside and read this blog post about the amazing life story of Abd el-Kader, nineteenth-century Algerian emir, who led his people in resistance to the French for fifteen years, in a military effort so notable for its honor (he was at pains to treat prisoners as well as possible, and in fact turned female captives over to the care of the person he trusted most in the world, his mother) that it attracted worldwide attention—for instance, just months before his final capitulation in 1847, the founders of what became the county seat of Clayton County, Iowa named their town Elkader, creating the only municipality in the United States named after an Islamic revolutionary.

But that’s just the prologue, because ten years later, in riot-torn Damascus, the same el-Kader who had been the scourge of his homeland’s Christian invaders wound up organizing the rescue of thousands of endangered Syrian Christians, personally facing down mobs as he did so, in an effort so successful and so spectacular that the dumbfounded French awarded him the Legion of Honor, alongside a torrent of other honors from the nations of the world.

The older I get and the more I read about the nineteenth century, the more I’m impressed by the sheer prodigiousness of some of its leading figures.

Blogger Rany Jazeyerli normally blogs about the Kansas City Royals. He takes up this subject because…but that would be telling. Go, read, be amazed.

July 16, 2010
Further Thoughts on “I Write Like”
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 09:24 PM *

So I went to the I Write Like site, subject of the post just below, and entered this text:

asdp0o pvpm eropms spe pebps.

And it told me I write like James Joyce.

Not even trying? Not even rational! Therefore, I asked myself, what’s the scam? So I looked at the rest of the text on the results page:

Great job! Do you want to get your book published?

“I have personally read through thousands of book proposals in my career as a publisher and agent. I know what these professionals are looking for—and what they are not looking for.”
— Michael Hyatt, Chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Learn how to secure a book publishing contract!

That little bit includes two links, both to the same page:

Yep, it’s SEO. And they’re using social engineering to get those links wide-spread and high in the Google stats. Helpful little cut-n-paste code to put in your blog!

But wait! There’s more!

Go over to that advertised page, and you’ll find a pair of $19.97 e-books by the above-said and afore-mentioned Michael Hyatt. These books promise to tell you such insider secrets as how to “avoid the three items you should NEVER include in a fiction book proposal.” Wow, I can’t wait to find out.

So, who’s Michael Hyatt, and what is Thomas Nelson?

Do you all recall Harlequin, and their recent dip in the vanity pool? Harlequin wasn’t the first or the only formerly-legitimate publisher to go down that road with Author Solutions. No, that honor goes to Thomas Nelson. But, since Thomas Nelson is a “Christian Publisher,” no one noticed at the time. Indeed, Thomas Nelson’s journey to the dark side is even sleazier than Harlequin’s. While Harlequin created a new imprint, “Harlequin Horizons,” as their vanity brand, Thomas Nelson used the name of an existing and formerly legitimate imprint, WestBow, for theirs. Thus, anyone checking up on the publisher’s name before submitting would find a long history of reasonably-selling books by known authors.

This “I Write Like” site isn’t remotely legitimate. No, they aren’t trying; or, anyway, they aren’t trying to analyze writing samples: They’re trying to lure newbie authors to the rocks and shoals of vanity publication.

[UPDATE 18JUL10]: The link has been changed from Michael Hyatt’s e-books to King’s On Writing at Amazon. I apologize to Dmitry Chestnykh for thinking that he didn’t really exist and was entirely a creation of Thomas Nelson to drive clicks to their site.

July 15, 2010
“I write like who?”
Posted by Teresa at 11:38 PM *

The I Write Like meme is running through blogdom like a virus through a second-grade classroom. Neil Gaiman tweeted,

I cut and pasted a couple of chunks of ANANSI BOYS into Write Like 1 was Stephen King, the other was J R R Tolkien. How odd.
That’s actually one of its more sensible results. Stephan Zielinski’s been testing it:
Is the code even trying?

If you like, you can enter text at, and it will generate an allegation that the text is written “like” that of someone famous. Now, I’m sure it’s doing something kinda computational with its input, but…

H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness (from here): George Orwell.

George Orwell, Burmese Days, chapter one (from here): Margaret Mitchell.

Charles Manson quotes (from here, both pages, with the words “Charles Manson” removed): Kurt Vonnegut.

Mao Tse Tung (in translation, sources of quotes removed, from here): Kurt Vonnegut.

Unabomber’s Manifesto (from here): Mario Puzo.

Hitler’s Mein Kampf, chapter one (in translation, from here): Ernest Hemingway.

And so forth. You see the problem.

Of course I had to test it. I started with the long passage about fanfic Patrick quoted from me in Fanfic: force of nature. It said I write like David Foster Wallace. That was okay; he was a good essayist. Then I tried it on Rowling’s being sued for plagiarism again, starting at “What’s really happening here” and ending at “sold to Bloomsbury.” It said I write like James Joyce. That was more puzzling. So I fed it the section on unreliable magicians from my entry at on issue #1 of Sandman, from “Let’s look at Roderick Burgess” to “run out of time,” and it said I write like Dan Brown.


I do not write like Dan Brown. What that passage has in common with Dan Brown is vocabulary. I don’t know what they’re using as their sample of James Joyce, but I’ll bet it matches vocabulary in my piece on Rowling and plagiarism. Likewise, I’ll bet the fanfic paragraph matches the vocabulary of their David Foster Wallace sample.

Fraud! Cheat! Writing an application that could analyze prose style would be a real achievement. Writing one that compares vocabulary (and probably a few other characteristics like sentence length) is trivially easy. I’m not saying I could do it right this moment; I’m just saying it’s not hard.

Foo. Wanted cool; got balonium.


#121 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2010, 07:14 PM:

Maybe it has something to do with the author’s diet?

banana banana banana banana banana - Kurt Vonnegut
peach peach peach peach peach peach - Agatha Christie
watermelon watermelon watermelon watermelon watermelon watermelon - Mark Twain
broccoli broccoli broccoli broccoli broccoli broccoli - Chuck Palahniuk
steak steak steak steak steak steak - Ian Fleming
clam clam clam clam clam clam - Chuck Palahniuk
squid squid squid squid squid squid - Mario Puzo

And putting my previous comment into the mix:

word salad word salad word salad word salad word salad word salad - P. G. Wodehouse

The eyes are not here
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 10:16 AM *

One of the less pleasant things I’ve read recently is the account of a list of some 1,300 people living in Utah whom the list compilers claim are illegal aliens. This list was delivered, along with a cover letter (pdf), to law enforcement officials, the media, the Utah legislature and governor, Homeland Security, and the Utah representation in Washington. The list is largely or completely Hispanic, and contains names, addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, and, in the case of pregnant women, due dates.

News sources have already identified people on the list who are legal. They’ve also found people who are frightened, distrustful of their communities, and badly upset.

The anonymous producers of the list, who claim to be a “large force of tax-paying citizens…who live throughout the State of Utah”, say that they created it by “observ[ing] these individuals” in their daily lives, and then enriched and refined it with information obtained by “legal Mexican nationals who infiltrate their social networks”. They claim not to be a militia, named organisation, cult, gang or terrorists. They say that they are not violent and do not support violence. They claim to be doing this out of love of the country and their state, their government and their Constitution.

My reaction to that little cluster of assertions is “Nonsense”. The more a group emphasises its size and breadth while staying in the shadows, the more I think it’s a lone individual or a tiny clump of people* trying to leverage their influence with the media. The betting in the commentary I’ve read is that the data was illicitly obtained from government sources, which provides another good reason for the collators to hide their identities. According to the NYT article on the matter:

Improper release of information from state records is a misdemeanor. The medical information on the list, however, from the notations about pregnancies, could potentially elevate the criminal implications far beyond that, to felony charges and lengthy prison sentences, for violation of federal medical privacy laws.

I certainly hope so. I’ve seen comments that suggest that this kind of release should be covered under “whistleblower” statutes, a suggestion that leaves me faintly ill. What a marvelous way to ensure that people never tell the government the truth again!

Oh, and the letter includes this paragraph, which could have been written at any point from the landing of the Mayflower on:

We see a direct relationship between these illegal aliens and the escalation of crime in our communities in the form of drug and alcohol abuse, theft and domestic violence. Our country cannot — and should not — continue to support this type of situation. They need to go — and go now.

Now, I am not the target audience of this missive, so I suspect my rather negative reactions are not the hoped-for results. But what I see is a force that’s far more destructive to the health of the nation than an influx of illegal immigrants: the idea that we should spy on our neighbors.

* Cue chorus of “The Lurkers Support Me In E-mail”

July 08, 2010
Open thread 143
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 03:51 PM *

  • Red roses
  • Matching tattoos
  • A postage stamp upside down on the envelope
  • Meg’s stolen glove
  • Welsh spoons
  • A curl of Marianne’s hair
  • A puukko in her sheath
  • The quarterback’s letterman’s jacket
  • Cupped coins and worn ones
  • A knitting sheath
  • Claire Standish’s earring

(breadcrumb trail back to Open thread 142)

July 06, 2010
The Netherlands make the final
Posted by Patrick at 04:24 PM * 102 comments

Where, depending on the outcome of tomorrow’s match, they’ll be facing either Germany or Spain. Gosh, no historical resonance to either of those rivalries.

Although, granted, while the Spanish boot may have stood on the Low Countries for a longer time, at least they didn’t steal all their bicycles.

In IM, our co-blogger in quiet semi-rural Oostzaan reports that she’s been able to hear when the Dutch score without turning on her TV. Here’s a thread for the World Cup, whether you’re bemused or obsessed.

Consider this your gilt-edged card on a silver salver
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:14 PM * 179 comments

As our Esteemed Readers are no doubt already aware from their perusal of recent Open Threads, a Gathering of Light will occur in short order at a carefully selected venue in the San Francisco Bay Area, to wit, Breads of India. This establishment, which is quieter than the location of the previous gathering, may be found at 948 Clay Street in Oakland. It is therefore at a conveniently small remove from the 12th Street BART station. The telephone number, should anyone feel the need to contact the restaurant in that fashion, is 510-834-7684; those who prefer to obtain their information from the Internet may consult this map.

This gathering will take place on Friday 16th July from the hour of six in the evening. It would be greatly appreciated if those who plan to attend would trouble themselves to mention the fact here. Among those who have already stated their intention to grace the occasion with their presence are Serge (who has kindly organized the event), Lizzy L, Kathryn from Sunnyvale, Tim Walters, and (if we are fortunate) Dawno. I will also be in attendance although, I regret, without Emily.

You are strongly encouraged to be in attendance lest by your absence you become a regular quadrilateral.

July 05, 2010
It’s a scorcher
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 01:43 PM *

The news headline says it all: “Blistering heat expected in Northeast”

A heat wave of historic proportions could strike some Northeastern states as forecasters warn of prolonged triple-digit temperatures that could trigger “a dangerous situation,” the National Weather Service advised Monday.

“Dangerous,” did the man say? Try “deadly.” We’re talking about increasing humidity and increasing heat, which is the formula for hyperthermia. And that’s a condition that can kill within minutes. The very young, the very old, and the already-ill are at greatest risk.

What to do about it? Drink plenty of fluids, keep your electrolytes up, wear loose light-colored clothing, stay out of the sun (or if you must go out a big floppy hat and a parasol wouldn’t be amiss), and watch the people around you. If they’re showing the signs and symptoms of hyperthermia you have it too.

What are the signs and symptoms? The most serious is Heat Stroke:

  • High body temperature.
  • Decreased level of consciousness.
  • Change in behavior.
  • Not sweating in a hot environment.
  • Skin may be flushed or pale, depending on whether vasodilation has shut down yet.
  • Signs of shock: elevated heart rate and breathing; decreased blood pressure.
By the time you’re there, though, you’re already in trouble. If you or someone near you starts getting muscle cramps (an early symptom of heat stress), take action to self-aid or buddy-aid.

Check out these earlier Making Light posts:

As always, I am not a physician. I can neither diagnose nor prescribe. The information presented here is for entertainment purposes only and is not intended as advice for your particular condition or situation.

July 04, 2010
Introducing Emily
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:35 PM *

I may have mentioned that I’m changing jobs; indeed, this is my last week at the old place. My new job is south of the river IJ, in central Amsterdam.

Unfortunately, central Amsterdam is pretty much Bike Theft Land. And whenever I go there on my bike, I feel like a well-dressed stranger in a bad neighborhood: vulnerable. It’s just too expensive a shape to sit outside every day south of the river. So I decided that I’d get a somewhat more inconspicuous commute bike and save the touring bike for weekends in the park.

May I therefore present Emily the bike?


I’ve no idea why she’s named Emily; she simply is. Like every bike I’ve ever owned (except Slime, the ill-fated green one), she’s dark blue. She’s about five years old, and is basically a 3-speed Dutch mom bike. Think of her as the equivalent of a Volvo station wagon. I bought her from the village bike store for €150, which is about the best price you can get on a bike with gears that hasn’t been stolen.

So what makes a Dutch mom bike?

Step-through frame

Step-through frame is the new name for ladies’ bike. The low crossbar not only means that I can wear my long skirts on the bike (to be honest, I wear them on traditional men’s bikes too), but also that I can get onto it easily even when it’s heavily laden. I mean, I can get on a men’s bike that’s already got a week’s worth of groceries in the panniers, a basket on the front, and a small child on the back, but it’s just not that much fun to do so.

Step-through frames are increasingly popular these days. It used to be that a young man wouldn’t be caught dead on one, but I see as many teenage boys on step-throughs as I do on high-crossbar styles. Because Dutch bikes aren’t trying for maximum stiffness at minimum weight, there’s little practical argument for any other structure. And since even the disabled cycle, there’s a substantial market for easy-on, easy-off bikes. I suspect they’ll be the default in another decade or two.

Coat catcher

You can barely see it in the picture, because it’s transparent, but Emily has another feature that makes her useful for skirted cyclists. The top portions of the back wheels have guards over the spokes that prevent them from shredding long skirts or long-skirted coats.

Incidentally, if you cycle in skirts and can’t get one, you might want to make your own.

Fully enclosed chain

Most Dutch bike chains are at least guarded; Emily’s is fully enclosed. That’ll keep the rain (and my trouser legs) off of it, but it does make a little more work for the periodic chain cleaning and re-oiling. This is the sort of inconvenience that may mean I take her in for services rather than doing my own bike work. (Then again, maybe I’ll just learn to take it off.)

Disk Drum brakes (thanks, kid bitzer)

Now those, I’m leaving to the bike shop.

Sturdy back rack with snelbinder

It’s not uncommon here for adults to perch on the back of someone else’s bike. So the rack has to be strong enough to take more than just a week’s groceries or a few small articles of furniture.

The person most commonly on the back of this bike will be Fiona, perched on a folded towel, with her arms around my waist. At six, she’s not that much of a weight on the cycle. Since she finds it tiring keeping her feet out of the spokes, I’m planning on adding some footrests, which can be purchased and mounted on the frame.

Another thing of interest on the back rack is the snelbinder (literally, quick-tie): the black, white and grey thing attached to the back axle bolts. They’re ubiquitous here, but I gather that when Patrick brings his bike to the shop in New York, the staff find the specially imported spellbinder strange and kind of neat. So I guess everyone else in the US just uses elastic spiders with hooks on the ends?

Nighttime visibility gubbins

The bike has a dynamo-powered headlamp with halogen bulbs. Most Dutch bikes do have dynamo headlamps, simply because that means you never run out of batteries.

Also visible in that picture is the white reflective strip along the outside of the tires. Those, or a ring of reflective material woven in and out of your spokes, are mandated by law here. They’re hugely effective, side-on. I’ve driven up to a T-junction at night and seen two ghostly circles drifting by, even when the cyclist hasn’t bothered with any other form of illumination.

There is also a battery-powered back light, which includes a sensor function to turn on when it gets dark. I haven’t mastered those intricacies, so I switch it on manually.


The police levy a stiff fine if you can’t produce a dinging noise to warn people to get out of your way (running them down without warning is considered unsporting). When I test-rode this bike, I thought it lacked a bell, but it turns out to be the flying saucer-shaped thing just above the left handgrip (rotate the widest portion to ring it).

Ring lock

Another ubiquitous feature of Dutch bikes, which I had never seen before moving here, are ring locks. They are generally attached to the frame and send a curved bar through the spokes of the back wheel. One of their real advantages is that the key stays in them when they’re unlocked, so you never get to your destination and find you’ve left the key of your lock behind.

(One of the real disadvantages of a ring lock alone is that someone—OK, someone strong—can pick the bike up and carry it off while it’s still locked. Alternatively, ordinary mortals can just drag it away.)

My ring lock has a space where you can plug in another lock cable. These ones generally have a loop at one end, so one passes it around an object, through the loop, and then into the ring lock to be secured at the same time as the main ring. I don’t have such a cable—I have a heavy orange-covered chain with its own lock instead—but I might get one someday.

Wide stance

Note the very long kickstand. Just as one wants the bike stable while mounting, and therefore appreciates a step-through frame, one also wants it stable after dismounting. I wouldn’t let go of the bike with a human being on the back, but with such a well-braced kickstand, I’ll have an easier time of unloading the crate of beer from one pannier and the six-pack of 1.5 liter cola bottles from the other.

I kinda like her already. She’s a bit of a chopper: one leans back slightly when riding her, and her front wheel feels like it’s sticking out a good deal.

I hope she doesn’t get stolen.

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