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February 29, 2012
Your shiny new surveillance dystopia, freshly unpacked
Posted by Patrick at 11:58 AM * 98 comments

Read (or at least skim) this all the way to the end. Note the interesting distinction implicit in the last line. Then note the source.

By the way? It’s working.

February 28, 2012
2012 Graphic Story Hugos
Posted by Avram Grumer at 10:14 PM * 36 comments

(Sorry. I should’ve finished this up weeks ago. I’m sure lots of people have already submitted their nominations.)

Each year that the Best Graphic Story Hugo award category has existed, I’ve complained about all the great work that doesn’t even get nominated. I won’t be able to afford a Worldcon membership this year, so I can’t cast a vote or submit a nomination myself, but I figure I can yell “Hey, Worldcon members! Comics!” in the vicinity of some deserving stuff.

The one I’d vote for

Finder: Voice
Written and drawn by Carla Speed McNeil
Latest volume of the amazing science-fiction series Finder. This is also the first volume to be published by Dark Horse Press, instead of McNeil’s own Lightspeed Press. You can find it in comic stores, or get it from, Barnes & Noble, or Powell’s. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the earlier books — this one was written to be new-reader friendly.

The story? Rachel Grosvenor is competing to join the social aristocracy of the arcology-state of Anvard, which in her case (as one of the Llaverac clan) means passing a sort of combination beauty pageant and dog show. But then the centuries-old heirloom ring she needs to qualify is stolen. Fortunately Jaeger Ayers, a professional “finder” with an aptitude for locating lost things, is a family friend. Unfortunately, Jaeger’s nowhere to be found. Trying to find the finder takes Rachel into the (both figuratively and literally) dark parts of Anvard, the crime-ridden levels where poor people live, the parts of the city that she’s never really even had to think about before.

McNeil has not just the science fiction writer’s knack for thinking about how cultures work, but also a strong sense for how people work, how they interact and think. And she’s got the artistic chops to convey thought and emotion through facial expression and body language. I cannot think of a comic published in 2011 that is more deserving of the attention of science fiction fans.

Also worth your attention

Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life
Written and drawn by Kit Roebuck
I can’t summarize this better than the author did: “A philosophical road comic about two unemployed robots on an improvised interplanetary voyage of self discovery.” One hundred strips, forming a continuous story. Started several years back, but finished in August 2011. There’s also a book planned.

Written and drawn by Christopher Baldwin
Comedic space opera. A group of contemporary Earth people are scooped up by an alien and drawn into the politics surrounding an attempt to free an enslaved alien species. Full of space battles, inter-species sex, and parliamentary maneuvering.

The Abominable Charles Christopher
Written and drawn by Karl Kerschl
A beautifully-drawn story about a forest full of talking animals, and a childlike yeti who I think might turn out to be Enkidu.

Written and drawn by Trudy Cooper
Hilarious fantasy porn webcomic (don’t click that link at work unless your boss is relaxed about that kind of thing) that just published its first collection in book form in November 2011. Well-drawn, and one of the funniest humor comics on the net. OK, here are some clean ones: one, two, three. While many of the strips stand on their own, there are also some recurring characters and multi-strip plots, so you’re best off scrolling to the bottom of the Archive page and starting from the beginning.

Still more

Dicebox (written and drawn by Jenn Manley Lee) would also be a strong contender, but I think it’s ineligible. Even though the print collection just came out last year, it collects material that appeared online up through 2010, I think. A similar problem keeps me from suggesting Starstruck (written by Elaine Lee, art by Micharl Kaluta and Lee Moyer), which just had a great big deluxe print edition come out last year, collecting comics printed over the previous couple of years, themselves reprinting material going all the way back to the ’80s. If not for the wording of the Hugo rules, I’d have a really hard time figuring out which of these two or Finder to recommend for the award.

I’ve also heard really good things about The Meek (by Der-shing Helmer) and Gunnerkrigg Court (by Tom Siddell), but haven’t gotten around to reading either of ‘em yet. (I’m actually way behind on Dicebox as well. And only got around to Starstruck last week.)

February 25, 2012
What a tangled web we knit
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 08:29 AM * 84 comments

One of the things one notices, reading about publishing, is how trouble just seems to follow certain people around. An imprint they own will fail in some horrendous and spectacular fashion. So they start another, and it all goes wrong again. They create a new parent company, and its properties also go south in regular and predictable ways. Word gets out that authors aren’t being paid (or paid on time, or the right amounts). Excuses and promises are made. Holding companies fall and rise again under new names. Lather, rinse, and repeat with new authors.

The fiction world is used to this kind of thing. There are resources like Writer Beware and the Absolute Write Water Cooler where these stories get told for the edification of the community. We’ve even done our small part here on Making Light.

As I’ve been discovering over the past few months, the craft world has its own trouble-magnets, vendors whose yarn never seems to arrive with the people who order it and publishers whose magazines change names and holding companies when the going gets tough. But there’s no investigative subculture that I’m aware of; the main online hangout for the fiber arts community, Ravelry, is not externally indexed and is limited to registered members. It also actively discourages the sorts of discussions that make up AW’s Bewares, Recommendations and Background Checks board. (I don’t blame the owners of Ravelry. It would get messy, and not every community is run by a Mac Stone.)

So when one of my friends mentioned that a British magazine had failed to pay his wife, a knitting designer, and that this magazine was known in the community for that kind of behavior, I could investigate the matter a little. But all of the useful sources were behind the Ravelry password, and few of them were as blunt and clear as your average fiction publishing trainwreck narrative. I found it fascinating—but unbloggable.

Well, the murder’s out on the wider internet now. Eight days ago, Ruth Garcia-Alcantud of Rock and Purl wrote an open letter to the publisher in question, not naming them. It got picked up and retweeted within the community, and she followed it up with a more specific entry. Other designers and bloggers, such as Anniken Annis, Joy Gerhardt and Alex Tinsley have also described their experiences. I won’t repeat the stories here; you should click through and read them in full. The short version is that designers talk about seeing their work in knitting magazines, but not getting what their contracts say they should receive in return.

It’s worth, when reading these accounts, understanding a little bit about the process of selling knitting patterns to magazines. It’s interestingly similar and dissimilar to selling fiction to paying markets. I’ll let my friend explain the typical lifecycle of a pattern sale:

[F]or the vast majority of patterns, the process starts with a publisher announcing a call for submissions, generally including a theme, sometimes including a “mood board” or image collage, and including expected milestone dates (submission deadline, finished pattern deadline, sample deadline, anticipated publication date). A designer will submit materials called for in the call for submissions, generally including at least some of a written description, a sketch, and a swatch showing stitches that will appear in the finished work, done in an appropriate needle gauge and an appropriately sized yarn, but usually not in a yarn of any specific make or color. The publisher chooses on the basis of such submissions. Note that these submissions do not include complete patterns or complete finished objects.

When the publisher chooses a pattern, they reply with a proposed written contract. Designer and publisher negotiate as necessary, and sign contract. (Negotiation is usually quite brief.) Designer and publisher correspond regarding what yarn would be good for the pattern and approximately how much is needed. Publisher sources the yarn and sends it to designer free of charge; this is called “yarn support”. Designer writes the pattern and knits one object in the pattern, of size requested by publisher, for purposes of photography and other publicity; this object is the “sample”. Designer sends pattern and sample to publisher. This fulfills designer’s obligations under the contract. Depending on the contract, publisher’s obligation to pay may be triggered on receipt and acceptance of pattern and sample, or may not trigger until actual publication.

Contracts may vary, but generally, ownership of the sample remains with the designer, and ownership of resulting photographs remain with publisher. Copyright of the pattern remains with the designer; publisher receives distribution rights for a few years, generally exclusive, but not always. Publisher receives and retains samples for photography and promotion purposes, but does not own samples, and is generally obligated under contract to exercise reasonable care with samples and to return them within some set period (generally matching the term of exclusive distribution rights) after publication.

From my further reading, I gather that the designer may sometimes supply the yarn for the sample rather than the publisher so doing, and that some contracts leave ownership of the sample with the publisher rather than the designer. But the important aspects of the transaction are: supply of yarn to the designer, ownership and treatment of the sample, timing of payment, and distribution rights. Only the first of those seems to have gone well, perhaps because without the sample the design can’t be published.

I’ve done some searches on the people and entities described in those blog entries, just to verify the details. Sometime before 2005, Kerrie Allman started an online knitting magazine, MagKnits. She took over a yarn supplier, HipKnits, in 2005. In 2008, she and Louise Butt founded a company called KAL Media. It ran a series of craft magazines, both online and in print, including MagKnits (which was closed abruptly in an internet firestorm in 2008), Yarn Forward (which closed in 2011), Knit (started in 2011, but continuing YF issue numbering and publishing at least one pattern contracted to YF), Inside Crochet, Sew Hip, Handmade Living, and Simply Beautiful. KAL Media closed in 2011, and has just been liquidated. The last-surviving iteration of magazines is now published by All Craft Media, whose sole remaining director is Wayne Allman. The group is also launching a new magazine, Modern Quilting, on the 28th of this month.

Now, it appears that the internet has just fallen on Allman and ACM over the past few days, probably as a result of the blog posts. She’s been getting the same kind of edge-case crap that people who catch the Net’s roving eye always do (having got some of it myself, I sympathize), but she’s also got some genuine opprobrium coming her way. Damage control has started: yesterday, ACM announced that Kerrie Allman “will…move into a new role”, and [another name]* will take over as publisher.

I suspect Allman is not a scammer like Robert Fletcher, but more akin to Sandra Hicks of Aspen Mountain Press—a publisher who got overwhelmed and lost track of the details.

Unfortunately, those details seem to have included payment of designers (including my friend’s wife), the return of samples, the tracking of rights on patterns, and the supply of promised yarns to sock and amigurumi clubs. [New editor]*, the Allmans, and everyone associated with those presses, has a lot of work ahead of them to make things right with the crafting community. I suspect that, having broken silence, the people affected are unlikely to keep quiet if this doesn’t happen. I’ll certainly be watching with interest.

Also, and more broadly, I’m interested to see what mechanisms the crafting community develops to police itself. Having seen the particular ways that Ravelry has grown over time, I suspect that said mechanisms will be fascinating.

ETA: There is now an Absolute Write Bewares, Recommendations & Background Checks thread on All Craft Media. If you’re not familiar with Absolute Write, this room there is a place for people thinking of submitting to a given publisher to discuss their experiences. It’s a good clearinghouse for stories of non-payment and other issues, as well as for positive experiences and general knowledge-sharing.

* Name redacted by request—Abi

February 23, 2012
An Hour In Sp@m
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 06:31 PM *

Varney opens the treasure-house of his knowledge….
—Varney the Vampyre; or, The Feast of Blood

Would you like to look behind the scenes, to peer in upon the doings of the gnomes high in the glass-and-steel headquarters of Making Light? Come then, with me, to view their doings. Come to view An Hour In Spam.

The example that you see on the left (click it to see it at a larger, readable level) does not come from a particularly active hour. (The hours from three to six in the morning Eastern time can see many times this many spam attempts.) Let me go over what you’ll see.

On the left, the little square check box allows the gnomes to indicate which post or posts are to be operated upon. Choices include Publish, Unpublish, Delete, and Mark As Spam. Moving to the right, the little orange triangle marks these comments as Unpublished; Held For Moderation. (A green triangle marks a Published Comment, while a purple one marks Known Spam.) All that we are looking at here is the Moderation Queue.

Next, to the right, comes a block of text; the comment itself. Links aren’t shown here (nor are paragraph breaks, italics, blockquotes, and so on). Oftentimes the gnomes can tell just by inspection whether a comment is a spam or ham. They can check the box and do a group action.

Next line down on each comment, we see four columns. The first, on the left, is Edit. When the gnomes click there, they move to the editing screen (example to the right).

The second link is the Commenter. Sometimes it’s obvious that this is a spammer: Few people go around with names like Cheap Viagra No Prescription or Auto Scratch Remover. Sometimes, however, it’s a human-sounding name, like Caleb Hutchcraft or Marina Gordon. A click there brings up the Show All By screen.

The third column shows the name of the thread where the comment appeared. That link goes to the editing screen for each particular post.

The fourth column shows how long ago the comment was posted. That isn’t a clickable link.

The last column, on the far right, shows the IP address whence the comment was posted. This is a live link to a Show All posted from that IPN. This is less useful than it could be: Nearly all spam is posted from compromised addresses.

After we’ve checked the boards for posts that are labeled Spam by the commentariat, and those spammish posts are Unpublished, the next thing that the gnomes do is go to the moderation queue and start reading the comments one-by-one with the Edit link.

The gnomes have a pretty good memory for prose, and a decent eye for patterns. As each post is examined, they look for patterns in the e-mail addresses, in the commenter’s names, in the URLs of the websites being advertised, and in the text of the comment itself.

When a real comment from a real person appears, the gnomes instantly publish it, after checking to see which filter was triggered that moved the post to moderation. Sometimes, it’s a filter that they’re not going to remove (e.g. malformed URLs) because, even though those filters occasionally hold up a real person, they tend to stop dozens if not hundreds of spam posts every day. Other filters which less-often stop spam are removed.

The other posts — the ones where the filters didn’t stop the spam — the gnomes use to build new filters.

The way that works, the gnomes find what look like key phrases. They Google those phrases, to see if they mostly show up in spam comment posts (e.g. “center to heart”). Then they look at the phrases immediately before and after the key phrase.

Spammers have gone to mad-libs style comments. I suspect that the word-and-phrase lists they use are either comma-delimited or single-quote delimited, from the bizarre ways in which commas and apostrophes are used in many spam comments. A comment with no space after a comma, or one with no apostrophe in a standard contraction, is, more than nine times out of ten, a spam comment.

Let me show you what a filter looks like:

/a (useful|informative|helpful|educational|benificial|beneficial|) (and|along with) (funny|interesting|amusing) (publication|write.?up|essay|post|article|submitting|submission|script)/i

One of the words in each set of parentheses, separated by vertical bars, is substituted into each slot. Thus, that filter will stop “A useful and funny publication” or “a helpful along with amusing article” or any other combination you can build out of that list. The “/” character tells the filter where the phrase starts and stops, the small-letter i after the second slash means that both small letters and capital letters will trip the filter. And the .? mark means that any one character will match: write-up or write up or writeup will trip the filter.

I regret that comments on the sorts of things that the gnomes gnome is likely to get that comment gnomed. But … the gnomes will release those comments soon enough.

So ends our tour of one of the floors in the landmark glass-and-steel tower. Please stop by the gift shop on your way out.

February 22, 2012
It’s Lent!
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:17 AM *

For how long and to whom?

  • Yes, but do you know what I’m knocking with?
  • Yes, but we can never go back to Burger King again.
  • My brothers are fine; I gave up drinking for Lent.
  • You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, and now you are a trout.

February 20, 2012
I’ve never seen it quite so clear
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 01:40 PM *

I know it’s not the dark, ominous dystopian future because humans are their own masters. No one’s work is doled out automatically by a computer via synchronous API1 with SLA2, particularly not as part of a parallel processing array.

Oh, wait… 3

Still, it’s not the clean, clinical future, where meat is grown in vats of nutrient fluid.


Could be worse. Could be that downright strange future where robotic insects are mass-produced, awaiting only electricity to flap their artificial wings.

Hang on…

Right, then, do I have to bring up the damned proof by absence of jetpack again?

Oh, for crying out loud.

  1. Application Programming Interface
  2. Service Level Agreement
  3. Typical that it’s the spammers that get there first. It was always going to be either them or the pornographers.

February 16, 2012
Open thread 170
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 01:19 AM *

Were I to distill the Aubrey-Maturin books of Patrick O’Brian into two sentences, it would be these ones from Desolation Island:

They played, not beautifully but deep, ignoring their often discordant strings and striking right into the heart of the music they knew best, the true notes acting as their milestones. On the poop above their heads, where the weary helmsmen tended the new steering-oar and Babbington stood at the con, the men listened intently; it was the first sound of human life that they had heard, apart from the brief Christmas merriment, for a time they could scarcely measure.

Continued from Open thread 169

Continued in Open Thread 171

February 11, 2012
We’ll make an example of him
Posted by Patrick at 10:11 PM * 52 comments


has sought to prohibit Freidrich from publicly identifying or marketing himself as the creator of Ghost Rider, on the basis of the ancient legal principle of fuck you I said so and I can afford more lawyers than you so shut up.
How’s that “intellectual property” law working out for you, working writers?

February 08, 2012
When we were young, we talked about ideas. Now all we talk about is words.
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:17 PM *

From Marx, Anarchism and Web Standards, which Patrick sidelighted the other day:

This tendency [using terms of art to increase information density] means that most language that’s specific to a domain will generally trend towards the usable at the expense of the learnable. The impact this has on individuals new to the domain, however, is that of a wall. An impediment. Overcoming this obstacle requires a bit of good faith on the part of the beginner; to cross quickly over the chasm between beginner and expert, they must recognize and respect this aspect of the conversations they will invariably become a part of. When faced with a term that is used in a strange way, beginners should ask for clarification, and not start arguments over semantics they don’t yet even understand. Experts will recognize these arguments as coming from a place where concepts are not yet fully understood, and while they may recognize the need to help educate, if the newbie is being belligerent, they may just ignore them instead. Nobody wins; the signal/noise ratio has been decreased, the beginner doesn’t learn, and everyone’s time is wasted.

I read this and my moderator ears pricked right up. This is one of the classic failure modes of online conversation, particularly in social justice and civil rights circles. I estimate that it leads to wank, flamewar and exasperation about 75% of the time it appears.

What happens is this: a conversation will be bubbling along nicely, and someone will start questioning whether the term “racism” really covers the matter at hand—and doesn’t cover some other point they’d like to bring in. Or “sexism”, or “misogyny”. Is “homophobia” really a fear-based phenomenon? There’s always at least one person who thinks that all these baked-in inequalities are bad and all that, but that everyone’s energy really should be spent finding a better word than “privilege” to describe the situation. As long as we don’t fall back on “patriarchy” or “kyriarchy”, of course.

Sometimes it’s a genuine derail—someone doesn’t want to hear what’s being discussed, and starts a vocabulary fight to shut the conversation down. Your basic troll, looking to start something any old way, will have this technique in the arsenal.

Other times, the commenter is one of those people who has their ego shackled tightly to their intelligence, and prides themselves on the idea that they could, given an afternoon and plenty of tea, finally resolve this whole free will/determinism thing once and for all. So they’re trying to reinvent generations of scholarship and jargon-polishing from scratch, only better this time (because they’re involved). ‘Splainers of all stripes fall into this category, as do people whose worldview derives from an insufficiently nuanced set of base principles. They don’t really care how the content of the conversation comes out, as long as they’re on the podium at the end.

And sometimes, alas, it’s just someone who’s been argued into a corner on other matters, and is now fending off all comers in all ways. Those are the saddest ones. I try not to let that happen here, though I do fail at times.

But every now and then it’s the real deal—someone for whom the world is unfolding in a new way right then; they’re groping around for the next key and the next lock to put it in, becoming addicted to the sensation of a bunch of disparate phenomena fitting together into a new conceptional whole. You can tell these ones because they start discussing the terminology shortly after it first appears, using open questions, and genuinely responding to replies. These guys are pure gold, worth all the wankers and infraponts you have to put up with to get to them.

Of course, every conversation, and every community is different. Your mileage may vary. Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear. Please wait for the ride to come to a complete stop before exiting the vehicle.

edited to add:

The other way that these things go wrong is when the community reacts to someone of the third or fourth types as being type one or two.

Sometimes it’s bad pattern-matching, particularly in places where there have been far too many genuine trolls, derailers and ‘splainers. So it happens more often in political contexts than it does in, say, scientific or bookbinding communities, where the population of people with the impulse to intervene destructively is so much smaller.

And sometimes it’s that communities, like people, can tie their egos to their collective rightness. Then every newcomer with a question becomes a knight approaching the dragon’s cave: clearly on a quest, and about to get flamb├ęd.

February 05, 2012
Dear sir or madam, will you…
Posted by Patrick at 10:13 PM * 19 comments

Three years in the making, it’s I’m Not the Road, Whisperado’s first full-length album. Fourteen songs—twelve Jon Sobel originals, plus the spectacle of me taking lead vocals on songs by Richard Thompson and Gillian Welch. So long in production that in the time we took to make it, we grew from a three-piece to a four-piece. Also, Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the Union, Louis Pasteur took credit for the germ theory of disease, and both Italy and Germany managed to unify as modern nation-states. I know, nothing good will come of it! Still, without these important events you wouldn’t have the Blanton-Webster Band and you definitely wouldn’t have I’m Not the Road. So there’s that.

Buy a CD—or download mp3s—on CDBaby.

Download digital files—optimized with the tears of Andy Hertzfeld—from iTunes.

Free samples:

  • Over You. (“That is one truly unreliable narrator.” —Emma Bull)
  • Look At Miss Ohio. (I turn a brooding song by the great Gillian Welch into something, well, loud.)
  • I’m Not the Road. (Our jam band song! Look for us at Bonnaroo. Keep looking.)

About those “Facebook revolutions”
Posted by Patrick at 07:44 PM * 32 comments

Noting the propensity of “social” Internet services to pat themselves on the back for their role in various uprisings against oppressive regimes, an activist in Bahrain politely asks these companies to please extract their collective head from their ass.

Many prominent internet companies brag about offering services that help people “connect” with one another, making information more “open” and “transparent” and that they seemingly promote freedom of speech, access to information, and are sympathetic to the various struggles for human rights.

It therefore baffles me how little consideration they have for those individuals who need to be protected online especially if they use the internet as a resource to engage in risky (but necessary) activities. Anything from discouraging anonymity on the likes of Facebook and Google+ to requiring legit photos on sites like LinkedIn, not realizing that some of us live in areas where human rights advocacy is not just frowned upon but severely punishable by our governments. Anything you do to protect yourself—these companies consider to be against their “user agreement” forcing you to reveal sensitive information, making this field 10 times more dangerous just so these companies can be more “relevant” and therefore profitable. The problem is that we can’t just simply quit these services. We need them as tools to empower our work.

Every other week I’d get an email from an internet service stating that my account has been deleted or disabled.

Why? “You’re not using a real photo.” No, I use an avatar, which they deleted, and then another avatar, which they also deleted, and attempted to keep it empty, which they didn’t allow, and then finally resorted to just having a logo—but uh oh! Disabled again. This is despite my several attempts at communicating this to customer service reps at these companies. They couldn’t care less. Regardless of what their CEOs say at tech conferences. Irrelevant. They do not abide by these values when it comes to managing their companies and reviewing their user agreements and privacy policies. Do we matter?

If these activists actually mattered as much as the titans of “social” claim they do, their problems and needs could have been addressed in ten minutes, years ago. Companies with the size and cash-flow of Google or Facebook could put a team of 100 people onto this and figure out how to make the necessary execeptions by lunchtime tomorrow. It’s obvious what actually matters to them.

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Dire legal notice
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