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July 30, 2012
The Official Olympics Watching-and-Kibbitzing Thread
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 04:35 PM * 142 comments

The London Games of 2012.

The only rule: Don’t harsh my squee!

July 29, 2012
One of the best pieces of historical writing I have ever read on a blog
Posted by Patrick at 04:45 PM *

Ex Urbe. Via Jo Walton, who said “It’s about Machiavelli and leaving Florence, but it’s actually about what’s important.”

I loaded it into a browser tab and left it there for over a week, unread. Don’t make the same mistake.

July 28, 2012
How to have a problem with fannish things
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:37 AM *

It’s been a heck of a week for feminism in our neck of the internet, it really has.

First there was Joe Peacock’s rather unfortunate rant about women who don’t meet his standard of geekitude. Mercifully, I only ran across it via Scalzi’s rebuttal and general manifesto on what it is to be a geek*. But it was still an unpleasant read, as much for the careful explanations of how his screed was not sexist as for the actual complaints he articulated.

So I was a little a-twitch when I saw Jim Hines’ tweet† about a Reddit thread where rapists are telling their stories. There’s a good deal of discussion going on about whether that conversation is a good idea or not. Jezebel thinks it is. Hines disagrees, and has withdrawn from a Reddit Q&A as a result. I know, and I see that he knows, that the separate sections of Reddit are not accountable to one another for their respective content. But I get the feeling he’s just too put off to want to deal with any aspect of the community. I can’t say I blame him.

And then there was this morning’s LJ reading. I was aware of Genevieve Valentine’s unpleasant experiences at Readercon this year, which led her to report someone to the concom for harassment. Because she’d helped a friend with a similar report in 2008, and seen that miscreant expelled and banned for life, she trusted that her harasser would be as well. Unfortunately, she has now heard that he’s only banned for two years, as long as the concom don’t hear any bad stories about him in that time.

Reaction has been universally negative, both about the penalty (particularly since it violates the con’s own written policy, eroding trust in whatever rules they write next) and about the reasons behind it (“he realized what he had done and was sincerely regretful of his actions…[i]f, as a community, we wish to educate others about harassment, we must also allow for the possibility of reform.”). A growing list of people are questioning whether they want to keep Readercon on their list of regular conventions.

It can be hard, reading this sort of thing, not to lose heart about our community (even while rejoicing that it contains people like Scalzi, Hines and Valentine). It can be hard, as well, to be fair to people who don’t seem bothered by these issues.

My own coping strategy, when I despair, borrows a lot from How to be a fan of problematic things, but turned around the other way.**

Explain the bad points. We’re pretty good, in the fannish community, at articulating when there’s a problem (vide supra, frex). I find those articles interesting even when I’m not involved in the original problem. I tend to link to interesting ones here and on Twitter, both because I like reading them and because I know others find them useful references.

Acknowledge that the other person cares about the thing in question. Some people like problematic things for deep social reasons that I didn’t see, or that don’t work for me. And sometimes they care simply because it makes their synapses fire in a pleasurable fashion. There is not yet a great enough oversupply of joy in the world to render “it makes my day brighter” a negligible, disposable value.

Assist in productive conversation about the issue. We all know the drill. Listen generously. Speak carefully. Preserve nuance. Value attention and thoughtful interaction. Discourage demands to be spoonfed or attempts to derail. Acknowledge others as genuine, valuable human beings. Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate.

Find a way to go on that adds to our strengths and reduces our weaknesses. I choose for myself what I will and will not support. I try to respect (and defend) others who make different decisions, particularly if I know they’ve based those decisions on careful thought and on principles that I respect. I try not to make too many assumptions about others based on their associates and their fandoms, and hope that they will return the favor. Instead, I try to use what they say and do as the basis for my judgments. It’s the equivalent of reading the original texts rather than the translations.

Of course, this is all hard work. It can require significant emotional control (or frequent dandelion breaks). It can make it difficult to form movements and create effective boycotts. But there’s a lot of value in resisting the temptation to turn all of our issues into black-and-white, good-and-evil conflicts. After all, real life is complicated. More than one contradictory thing may be true at the same time. The same book may help one person out of grave trauma and gravely traumatize another.

The other thing I do is to go reread something our nerdycellist said in a previous thread:

In dog training there is a thing called the Extinction Burst. Let’s say you’re training the dog to not bark when someone comes to the door. You’ll be chugging along, working your operant conditioning like a boss, and you’ll notice your dog is finally starting to catch on. “Oh, you mean if the doorbell rings and I woof my servant monkey turns her back to me and ignores me, but if I don’t make a noise I get a treat? Awesome!” But just when you think the dog has it all down and it possibly the smartest dog in the universe, your friend will ring the doorbell and the dog will go bugshit crazy, barking, woofing, yelping, whatever, and you’ll just want to sit down with a pitcher of margaritas and give up. Don’t do that. Keep going, because what you’ve just experienced is the Extinction Burst. A few more tries and your dog will be so silent it’s like she’s bored whenever the doorbell rings - like she never even reacted in the first place.

Whatever divergent strategies we each take to dealing with sexism, discrimination and rape culture, I think—I hope—we as a larger community are getting somewhere. I suspect that much of what I’ve been reading about these past days is part of an extinction burst for some of the bad stuff.

(If not, I guess we just have to keep working at it.)

* I did have my own problem with part of his argument, which he did address when I brought it up. I still have a deeper, wider issue which I may write up sometime, but the margins here are dedicated to something else.
† He has since deleted that tweet, for which I’m grateful. I clicked on the link, and wished I hadn’t. The top story didn’t trigger me, but I know a number of people whom it would have knocked down for hours. Or longer.
** Of course, this is really just an instantiation of the abstract “disagreeing with people you love” model. Fandom is, after all, a community.

July 21, 2012
Chicon Plans
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:14 PM * 370 comments

So it’s just over a month to Chicon, and plans are starting to be made in the Open Thread. But it occurs to me that not everyone who might be interested reads the Open Thread, and I thought we’d pull the discussion into its own space..

So who’s going? Are people planning any get-togethers? Is anyone looking for a rommate, or a room? Rides?

(I, alas, am not on the continent and can only attend vicariously. Or, perhaps, virtually.)

July 20, 2012
Cutting a great road through the truth to get to the Devil
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 03:48 AM *

Lately, my Twitter stream has been going through an iterative discovery cycle over “Shell’s Arctic Ready campaign”. I’ve seen lots of retweets from the social gallery, where (in theory) the public has been making sport with the chance to caption various Arctic images1. I have a real dislike of “crowdsourced ads”, partly because I have professional graphic-designer friends who would like to make a living. So I tended to avoid the whole thing.

Well, I was right to, but for the wrong reasons. It turns out to have been a hoax by Greenpeace. So was the viral video and the gormless Twitter stream, neither of which particularly registered on my radar.

I have two problems with this.

The first one is that I don’t think portraying Shell as inept is a very wise choice. If they wanted to influence public opinion, I suspect they’d pay decent money and get someone who knows what they’re doing to manage a new ad campaign and run a Twitter account. If they’re not doing that, it’s because the general public is not currently the target audience for their PR budget.2 But when we are, trust me: it will be a competent effort. If we’re only braced for buffoons and clowns, they’ll succeed at whatever spin they’re trying to convey.

The second, larger problem, is that Greenpeace lied to us. This wasn’t a nod-and-a-wink parody; this was a dedicated effort to deceive. They played the public for patsies and herded them like sheep. That kind of contempt for the people whose support (financial and otherwise) they need is inexcusable. For me, it puts them in a box with people like Bush and Blair, who were also flexible with the truth for the greater good3.

Basically, Greenpeace polluted the information stream. Now, I know that our common discourse is already thoroughly befouled. But that does not mean it’s OK to add yet another dose of rainbow-shining toxic sludge to the mix, not even in the cause of righteousness. Indeed, especially not in the cause of righteousness.

We need more truth, not less. Don’t lie to me for my own good and expect my support, Greenpeace. Just don’t.

  1. I’ve been struggling not to call them LOLar Bears
  2. The fact that we’re not, and the question of who is and how that money is being spent, are a whole ‘nother ball of fish.
  3. Even though I share Greenpeace’s goals more than I did Bush and Blair’s.

July 17, 2012
Refrigerator Pickles
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 06:01 PM *

So, it’s summer. Cool salty things are nice. This led us to try making … pickles. They were waiting for us when we got home from Readercon.

I can report that the attempt was a complete success:

Spicy Refrigerator Pickles

  • 5 3-to-4-inch-long pickling cucumbers
  • 1½ cups water
  • 1⅓ cups white vinegar
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh dill weed
  • 6 tablespoons white sugar
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons coarse salt
  • 2½ teaspoons pickling spice
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Stir, and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours, until the sugar and salt dissolve.

Put the cucumbers in a wide-mouthed, lidded, non-reactive container. Pour in the liquid to cover. Refrigerate for 10 days. Eat within 1 month.

July 15, 2012
Stack ranking
Posted by Teresa at 05:08 PM * 155 comments

I don’t want to say “there’s a big buzz on the internet” about a subject you probably haven’t heard of unless you read business news. If you do, odds are you already know that the August edition of Vanity Fair will have a major article by Kurt Eichenwald called “Microsoft’s Lost Decade.”

Vanity Fair Daily published a short teaser/summary of it, Microsoft’s Downfall: Inside the Executive E-mails and Cannibalistic Culture That Felled a Tech Giant:

Analyzing one of American corporate history’s greatest mysteries—the lost decade of Microsoft—two-time George Polk Award winner (and V.F.’s newest contributing editor) Kurt Eichenwald traces the “astonishingly foolish management decisions” at the company that “could serve as a business-school case study on the pitfalls of success.” Relying on dozens of interviews and internal corporate records—including e-mails between executives at the company’s highest ranks—Eichenwald offers an unprecedented view of life inside Microsoft during the reign of its current chief executive, Steve Ballmer, in the August issue. Today, a single Apple product—the iPhone—generates more revenue than all of Microsoft’s wares combined.

Eichenwald’s conversations reveal that a management system known as “stack ranking”—a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor—effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

This strikes me as magical thinking: you make your company more competitive by making its internal departments and individual employees compete with each other. Wherever it comes from, IMO it’s profoundly dysfunctional. Business is about getting work done — unless you’re in a line of business where that work consists of figuring out who’s a star and rewarding them, which is rare.

Companies and departments are by nature internally cooperative clusters of people who are working on the same projects and/or issues. Turning employee evaluations into a game of winners and losers and stars, and employees into competing gameplayers, is not a good way to get work done.

Another way to look at stack ranking is as a mechanism for concentrating rewards on the people most likely to be hired away, or to be tough competitors when employed elsewhere. I can see how that might appeal to executives who are into the theory that you have to pay inflated salaries to get top-gun executives, which has been the basic rationale for the ongoing inflation of executive salaries. I can’t construe that as a counterargument to my opinion that it’s not a good way to get work done.

The “grading on the curve” aspect of it is also defective. Basic managment theory limits the number of employees that can report directly to a single boss. Any department that’s small enough for everyone in it to be reporting to the same boss is too small a sample for that boss to be grading them on a rigid 20-70-10 curve.

Besides, as any kid who got curve-graded in school can tell you, it’s no guarantee of high-quality work. If all the students in a curve-graded class slack off, they don’t all get a D or F. Instead, it gets easier to get a B. If all but a few students slack off, it’s a good bet that the ones who don’t will get an A. Now translate that into the essentially cooperative workplace. Is it really a good idea to reward employees when their co-workers fail?

(If you know in advance that 10% of the employees in your department are going to get fired, one logical answer is to always keep a few redshirts around. This frees up the rest of you to stop worrying, and work on the stuff you were hired to do. Any good work you get out of the redshirts is pure profit.)

Stack ranking also fails to take into account what kind of work is being done. Sometimes fast-moving highly profitable achievements rest on an earlier foundation of slow incremental work on less-than-tractable problems. It’s not unusual for a department to do both sorts of work. Which kind gets rewarded for being productive? Which gets the bad reviews and firings?

I’ll absolutely question the use of stack ranking as a motivational device. Doing good work, looking ahead, helping to create a strong, smart organization, and refraining from doing evil should be enough to get any employee a good annual review. If what it gets them is a note in their permanent record saying it wasn’t enough, and they should have done more, they might feel motivated to try harder next year, and in a few cases may try harder the year after that; but mostly not, and sooner or later they’re all going to lose heart. People want to care about their work. If you break their faith in their job, it’s hard to win it back.

It’s a miserable system for managers, too. Say you’ve put together a great department — competent, well assorted, good work proprioception, with high productivity and high morale. Now impose a rating system that tells you that your department manages its people neither better nor worse than any other department. Be forced to label 20% of your people winners, without reference to the rest of the department’s work that makes theirs possible. Label 70% of them as timeservers and underachievers, no better than they should be. Label 10% of them failures, or even fire them, when you’ve spent all year trying to help them be good at their jobs.

I’ve managed employees. Having to do that to them would be a breach of trust. You’re the mechanism that applies a dishonest ranking system that hurts them. If an employee doesn’t already feel their performance warranted a bad review, there’s no satisfactory way you can explain to them why you left them out of the winning 20%, or the reasonably safe 70%. You may protest that the ranking system is flawed and arbitrary, but you’re still the person who arbitrarily ranked them.

Some articles I found interesting:

Vanity Fair Daily: Microsoft’s Downfall: Inside the Executive E-mails and Cannibalistic Culture That Felled a Tech Giant

Erika Andersen at Forbes: The Management Approach Guaranteed To Wreck Your Best People

IDC Analysts at Computerworld UK: Microsoft, Big Data and statistical idiocy. Stack rankings: An example of the misunderstanding and misuse of statistics

Steve Gall at Walden University, 2005: Human Resource Management: Issues related to the use of the stack ranking method in conjunction with the employee performance review for promotions and benefits

Eric Novinson at The Motley Fool: Stack Ranking and Value Traps

Julie Bort in Business Insider: Microsoft Isn’t The Only Tech Company Doing Forced Employee Ranking

Marco Chiapetta/Microsoft Insights at Network World: Microsoft’s ‘Lost Decade’ sensationalizes common issues among large corporations


Keith K. @46 recommends an interesting link:

One genuine question I have is how well [stack ranking] works with certain modifications. At Valve**, they use stack ranking, but it’s done by peers, not managers. I wonder if this changes the dynamic at all. Also, Valve explicitly cites teamwork as one of the components measured for stack ranking. I wonder if this changes the dynamic enough to erase the downsides of stack ranking.

**The game company responsible for Portal, among other classics. If you haven’t seen it, look at their employee handbook, which describes a ridiculous democratic utopia with no set internal structure. It is, by far, the most entertaining internal company document I have ever read.

I’ve read some pretty darn amusing internal documents, but the Valve Handbook for New Employees is a goodie. Have a look. I’ve always taken it as an article of faith that your co-workers know you. I’m now chewing on Valve’s theory that you can run a company on that basis.


Heresiarch @57 on blind competitive pressure as an evolutionary force:

One of the things it has consistently produced … is cooperation. Time and again, it’s turned out that in a cutthroat take-no-prisoners dog-eat-dog existential battle of all against all, the most winningest strategy is working together. What these competition-inducing schemes to improve upon the inefficiency of group production constantly miss is that group production originates in the first instance by out-competing everything else. Cooperation is where competition leads. Trying to use blind evolution to improve upon cooperative systems is like noticing that great square wheel you made is getting rounded on the corners from wear, and setting about sharpening them back up.
(Emphasis mine.)

July 14, 2012
100 years of Woody Guthrie
Posted by Patrick at 10:38 AM * 19 comments

Woody Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, 100 years ago today. On the manuscript of “This Land Is Your Land” submitted to the US Copyright Office, he wrote: “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”

One suspects that Guthrie would have been just fine with this version.

Open thread 175
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:43 AM *

Stopping by an Open Thread on a Summer Evening

Whose plums these are I think I know.
He left them in the icebox, though
He should have known we’d be by here
To eat them, with a chilled Bordeaux.

The plum guy’s from the Fluorosphere;
Thus ought to know the things that we’re
Prepared to do before the dawn
And that those plums might disappear.

It’s hungry work to stay logged on.
Thus, when the tea and scones are gone,
We gnomes steal in on silent feet
To eat those plums beside the lawn.

The plums are tasty, dark and sweet,
But I have spam I must delete
And one more chapter to complete
And one more chapter to complete.

Continued from Open Thread 174

Continued in Open Thread 176

July 13, 2012
The London Olympics’ wacky “linking policy”
Posted by Patrick at 03:23 PM * 69 comments

Spotted by the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal: The London 2012 Olympics organization evidently believes it can control who does and doesn’t link to their web site:

1. Agreement to these Terms of Use
BY USING THE SITE, YOU INDICATE YOUR AGREEMENT TO BE LEGALLY BOUND BY THESE TERMS OF USE, by our Privacy Policy, our guidelines on Use of the Games’ Marks, the terms and conditions governing use of the London 2012 eTendering service (“eTendering User Agreement”) and any other notices, guidelines and rules published by us on the Site from time to time (each of which is incorporated into these Terms of Use by reference), and by all applicable laws and regulations governing the Site and/or relating to the protection of the Olympic, Paralympic and London 2012 brands and preventing the creation of any unauthorised association with them. You further agree to the use of any information that we may gather relating to you as a result of your use of the Site, as further described in our Privacy Policy. […]

5. Linking policy
a. Links to the Site. You may create your own link to the Site, provided that your link is in a text-only format. You may not use any link to the Site as a method of creating an unauthorised association between an organisation, business, goods or services and London 2012, and agree that no such link shall portray us or any other official London 2012 organisations (or our or their activities, products or services) in a false, misleading, derogatory or otherwise objectionable manner.

That will certainly work! Because nobody on the Internet would ever respond to something like this by portraying the organization in question (or their activities, products, or services) in a derogatory or otherwise objectionable manner. Like, for instance, remarking that the London Olympics’ mother dresses them funny.

UPDATE: Cory on Boing Boing says: “Hey, LOCOG! I think you’re a bunch of greedy, immoral corporatist swine who’ve sold out London to a bunch of multinationals and betrayed the spirit of athleticism and international cooperation. You’re a disgrace. And I’m linking to you. In a most derogatory manner.”

ANOTHER UPDATE: Evan Goer, in comments, points to this.

July 12, 2012
Driving Around New Hampshire
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 02:37 PM * 8 comments

So there you are on Jeopardy!® It’s time for Final Jeopardy, and the category is Popery Potpourri. You write down your bet. You bet everything because in that category who wouldn’t? The answer comes up: “Built in 1823-1824 by Rev. Virgil H. Barber, S.J., it’s the oldest Catholic Church in New Hampshire.”

Think music.

The time comes for the contestants to reveal their questions, and you’ve written, “What is Old St. Mary’s in Claremont?” You’ve won it all! The studio audience applauds as Alex Trebek congratulates you and invites you back tomorrow.

How did you know about Old St. Mary’s? Because you, gentle reader, are a Fluorospherian. (She is! Hurrah for the Fluorospherian! And it is, it is a glorious thing, to be a Fluorospherian!)

So… there I was driving east along Main St. (NH 103/12), Claremont, when I spotted a historical marker: FIRST ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH

Southerly on Old Church Road is located the first Roman Catholic edifice in New Hampshire. It was erected in 1823 under the direction of the Reverend Virgil Horace Barber, S.J. The building serves St. Mary’s parish and contained the first Roman Catholic school in the State.

What could I do? I turned right onto Plains Road. Across the bridge/dam (at the waste-water treatment plant) on the Sweet River, the very first left (kinda easy to miss) is Old Church Road. Follow Old Church Road (don’t make a mistake and turn left on Old Twistback Road—just don’t) about a half mile. And there, about a hundred feet south and across the street from the pre-Revolutionary Union Episcopal Church you’ll find it.

Rev. Daniel Barber, at one time the rector of Union Episcopal Church, crossed the Tiber to the Romish faith in 1818. Let us speak now of his son:

In 1816 Rev. Virgil Barber, an Episcopal minister and principal of an Academy at Fairfield, N. Y., son of Rev. Daniel Barber of Claremont, N. H., observing a prayer-book in the hands of a Catholic servant, made inquiries which resulted in his giving up his school and pastorate and becoming a Catholic. Afterwards, by agreement between himself and his wife, they separated. He and his son entered the Jesuits, and Mrs. Barber and her four daughters entered convents. Father Barber was ordained in 1822 and sent to Claremont, where he built a small brick church and academy, still standing; and according to Bishop Fenwick in 1825 there were about one hundred and fifty persons, almost all converts, attending it.

The church backs up onto St. Mary’s Cemetery, part of the West Point Burying Ground.

The first thing that you notice, walking up to St. Mary’s, is how very narrow the church is. The style is Federalist, merging into Gothic Revival. The seminary was on the second floor of the church; Rev. Barber and the school’s students lived in an attached wooden house on the south side of the building.

The plaque above the door reads:

In lasting memory of Reverend Virgil A. Barber, S.J. Who built in 1823-1824 this venerated “Old Saint Mary’s” New Hampshire’s first catholic church and the adjoining Claremont Catholic Seminary New England’s oldest Catholic School of Higher Learning The N.H. State Council, Knights of Columbus Erected this tablet 1939
Yes, the plaque really does have a typo.

Old St. Mary’s was abandoned in 1870 when the new church was built downtown. For the next fifty years Old St. Mary’s was used as a cemetery tool shed.

The plaque on the stone pillar to the north of the church reads:

OLD ST. MARY First Catholic Church in New Hampshire built by Father Virgil H. Barber, S.J. 1823-1824 Renovated in 1964-1965 by the Knights of Columbus of the State of New Hampshire

One more bit of writing: Rev. Barber’s cenotaph on the north side of the building reads:

Rev. Virgil Horace Barber, S.J.
Founder of “Old” St. Mary Church & Seminary
Born: May 9, 1783
Ordained: December 3, 1822
Died: March 28, 1847
Buried: Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Blessed are they who die in the Lord… their bodies are peacefully laid away but their name lives on and on.
Sirach 44:14

43° 22.989’N x 72° 22.308’W

July 09, 2012
Yankee Drollery
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:28 AM * 46 comments

As you travel around the New England states, particularly the secondary roads, you’re frequently surprised by little wayside parks, picnic areas, family graveyards, and historical markers. You never know what you’ll find; if you have some time it’s fun to stop and explore.

It’s a good idea, when you’re driving a long way, to stop every two hours or so, get out of your car, walk around, stretch your legs. And so, at just such a time, I came to a little roadside park on the west side of Island Pond Road (VT Rte. 114), between Lost Nation Road and Hawk Rock Road in East Haven, Vermont (population 301).

You can see a bit of the parking area in the photo here. Farther back there’s a trim green with a couple of park benches and a stone memorial marker. That memorial marker has a plaque attached, informing all of the importance of the place.

Here’s a closeup of that plaque.

You just never know what you’re going to find in New England.

44 deg 40.534N
71 deg 52.873W

July 08, 2012
Dysfunctional Families: Fish Hooks
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 03:04 PM *

In the previous DF thread, OtterB linked to a post on Responsibility, fault and blame by Michele Sagara. It’s a very good mediation on the imperfections of child-rearing, from the perspective of someone who is both a parent and a child. It closes with an excellent metaphor for these things that stick with us, and how it feels when we try to get away from them:

I don’t want to say “let go”, because that’s a mischaracterization. If something has fish hooks in your psyche, you are not exactly holding on. But…at that point, I could begin the task of pulling them all out.

But the entry’s got more in it than that just last line. It has, running through it like a vein of gold in rock, the reason this community has grown to encompass people whose families were not abusive or unambiguously dysfunctional, but who still find themselves in need of our kind of help.

…lack of intent doesn’t somehow magically make the pain go away. My sister’s pain did not magically go away. So I think it’s really, really important to acknowledge the source of the pain. I don’t think there is anything wrong - at all - with saying, “My parent’s divorce - which was the only solution for the two of them - totally bottomed out my emotional life and my ability to trust or rely on people” or a similar variant.

The inverse, “Husband and I were living in a war zone; we had to split up - but it really undermined my child emotionally, and she’s still paying for it” would also be the same: it acknowledges two sets of unhappy facts.

Sometimes people set these hooks in their children because they’re bad parents, or all-consumingly selfish, or were so profoundly damaged by their own upbringings that they were incapable of doing better. But sometimes these people get hooked without intent or notable failure. Shit does happen.

Sagara’s a parent as well as a child, so she also understands the ways parents can get themselves into emotional knots that exacerbate unintended damage. It’s a good explanation for how otherwise thoughtful, kind people can fumble and fail when dealing with their children’s pain.

But frequently, parents, being people, see what they themselves intended. They take adverse reactions to a lack of intent to harm as a huge, personal criticism - and they deflect. They tell you you shouldn’t have been so sensitive. They are trying to protect themselves, all these years later, from blame. From guilt and the certain sense of their own failure. Failing one’s child is profound. It is the edge of a colossal void. It is one of a parent’s greatest fears.

Terrified people seldom behave rationally or sanely.

These observations are not meant to diminish the very real damage that profound familial dysfunction has done some of our members, nor to excuse the thoroughgoing failures of care that they have suffered. But it goes a little way to explaining, and I hope welcoming, those members of this community who otherwise feel that their troubles (painful as they are from the inside) are not, from the outside, sufficient to give them the right to speak here.

Continued from here. Continued here.

July 07, 2012
Dig Two Graves
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:24 PM * 177 comments

Let’s do the short version of this. An author gets a less-than-five-star review of his book. He blogs that he plans to write a revenge review. Then he does so.

So why am I writing about this? I’d never heard of any of the people involved before yesterday. This is just more Internet Drama, all forgotten by tomorrow. Why am I piling on?

Well, you’ve seen the various particles and sidelights and parahelia: They’re all visible in the sidebar right this minute.

Why not call out trolling—bullying—when I see it?

The author is Phil Torcivia. Let’s look at our guy. His thesis is, “When you forgive, you encourage bad behavior.” So, therefore, by his lights I shouldn’t forgive him for his bad behavior.

This is a fellow who fantasizes about committing murder:

I’m not allowed to euthanize him, oh, but I fantasize about it—sliding that needle into a vein while he sniffs and whimpers. One final gurgle, then off to the glue factory for Mr. Boogers.

But that isn’t the main thrust of his blog post. Oh, no. It’s the lead-up to the main event. Someone has dared to dislike his book:

A fellow author has left a nasty review on one of my books. (See Rachel’s review here.) If I forgive her, she’ll do this to others. Instead, I’m going to read one of her books (already started and it is god-awful, as expected) and trash the shit out of her in a public forum by posting a one-star review. I also have a social media army I can enlist to assist me in the defensive assault. I hope she learns that her bad behavior must cease.

What was this horrible review, the one that leaves this woman liable to destruction by Phil Torcivia’s “social media army”?

I love a good parody - and parts of this are actually funny. I found the story started smack bang in the middle of all the action and it was a bit daunting working out who everyone was and even who was talking at any given time since there is a lot of talking brackets and not so many ‘Bea said’ and ’ Mormon said’ etc. Once I’d settled into the style, there were a few laugh out loud moments - most of these occurring when the actual Fifty Shades characters were sliced into the story line. This books does show some potential.

Heck, that’s a good review. It states what the reviewer liked, didn’t like, and gives examples. It ends on an encouraging note.

Phil apparently doesn’t know what reviews are, what they’re for, and who they’re for. Reviews are a reader’s reaction to the book. Reviews are not for the author. They aren’t for marketing the book. Reviews are meant for other readers, to help them decide whether to read a book. Private feedback to the author (such as Phil Torcivia claims is appropriate) won’t do that.

Reviews aren’t meant to help the author improve his art. If the author wants help he can get his writing group or beta readers or his editor to make suggestions.

We’ve talked about The Author’s Big Mistake here before. The Author’s Big Mistake is replying in any way whatsoever to a bad review. The term seems to have been coined by Paul Fussell. And really-o, truly-o, pay attention to this. Do not make the Author’s Big Mistake. Because you know the proverb, “When you set on the path of revenge, first dig two graves”? You can watch that get played out every time someone commits the ABM.

Here’s a post that authors who plan revenge for negative reviews ought to read: How to respond to negative reviews.

Fun Facts!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is funny and insightful and a classic, has 11,212 one-star reviews. Eleven thousand, two hundred, and twelve.

Phil ends his screed with this:

So, the next time someone offends you, pause to see if the offense was accidental. If it was intentional, don’t forgive—punish.

So who does he attack? The reviewer he attacks—threatens with a revenge-review, then carries out that threat—is a woman. In the comment thread following the “bad” review Phil only replies to people with obviously feminine names—and then only to browbeat. One of those women felt threatened enough to remove her comment, and to remove her comments on other boards lest he track her down.

Moving on, with jaw-dropping lack of self-awareness, while all this was happening, Phil tweeted: “If you’re an avid reader and will post honest reviews on Amazon in exchange for free books, join here. [URL]” The irony, it burnsssss us, my Precious. One can only wonder what might happen if one of those “honest reviews” was less than five stars.

Since Phil says, more than once, that “authors need to eat,” and “I’m trying to sell books and put food on my table,” maybe he ought to pay attention to this:

“I’ve seen way more readers turned off books by author behaviour than by bad reviews,” claims one of the Book Lantern bloggers, a group of young readers from all over the world, citing recent incidents of “authors and editors muscling in on reviews, being very aggressive or judgmental of bloggers”.

Forgiving, heck, not caring about, bad reviews is in his own self-interest.

[UPDATE 1] All comments on Rachael’s review have been deleted from Amazon.
[UPDATE 2] Phil’s revenge-review has been deleted at Amazon.
[UPDATE 3] Rachael’s review of Phil’s book is gone now too.

See also:

Do I dare disturb the universe?
Posted by Avram Grumer at 07:07 PM *

I forget if it was on 9/11 itself, or some time not much later during the political aftermath, that I was over at Patrick’s & Teresa’s place, and we were talking about how much it felt like we were living in a science fiction novel, and then tried to figure out who was writing it. I also don’t remember if we settled on someone, but Ken MacLeod and Bruce Sterling both came up as possibilities.

We seem to have left the Sterling/MacLeod/whoever era, and entered a new one. A few weeks back, we had that outbreak of weird cannibal incidents, implying that we were in a zombie story, leading the Center for Disease Control to deny knowledge of “a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead”. We all know that government denials are an important first stage of a fictional zombie outbreak, but zombies are so popular, this could be the work of any of dozens of authors.

But now the US government, for some reason, feels it needs to officially deny that mermaids exist.

Zombies and mermaids? This can only mean one thing: It’s Seanan McGuire’s world that the rest of us are living in. I should’ve guessed when Doctor Who came back on the air. Next month we’ll be seeing news stories about giant insects battling it out with teams of musical monster slayers riding rainbow-colored ponies with magnetic hooves.

(Hey, Seanan, while you’re molding all reality, couldja maybe hook a buddy up with a lottery jackpot? Doesn’t have to be a big one.)

July 06, 2012
Holding vulnerability in the palm of your hand
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:46 AM * 69 comments

In the most recent thread on banking technology and how it goes catastrophically wrong, Dave Bell linked to an article in The Register about the possibility of an Android spam botnet. Interesting stuff.

Terry Zink, who blogs about cyber security on the Microsoft Developers’ Network, posted an entry entitled Spam from an Android botnet. He writes that, based on the header and footer information from spam sent from compromised Yahoo! accounts, he suspects that there’s a botnet running on Android mobile devices.

Geo-location of the IP addresses points to phones in Chile, Indonesia, Lebanon, Oman, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Ukraine, and Venezuela. As Zink says:

I’ve written in the past that Android has the most malware compared to other smartphone platforms, but your odds of downloading and installing a malicious Android app is pretty low if you get it from the Android Marketplace. But if you get it from some guy in a back alley on the Internet, the odds go way up.

I’ve also written that users in the developed world usually have better security practices and fewer malware infections than users in the developing world. Where are almost all of those countries in the list above? Mostly in the developing world.

The Reg article prints Google’s denial, suggesting that the headers and footers have been altered, and that the botnet is really run from PC’s. Zink says he considered that possibility, but finds the Android botnet explanation more plausible.

Investigation continues.

But before those of us with iOS devices get too smug, let’s remember that a walled garden doesn’t so much prevent problems as monopolize the industry of problem provision. Because the other mobile-app story from the last few days is on Apple devices, and comes via Instapaper’s Marco Arment. He released a new version of his app on July 4, and it didn’t go so well.

Last night, within minutes of Apple approving the Instapaper 4.2.3 update, I was deluged by support email and Twitter messages from customers saying that it crashed immediately on launch, even with a clean install.

Arment’s team had tested the app. Apple had tested the app. But the app that people were downloading was crashing on launch. It took a couple of hours (during which time Arment garnered a lot of one-star reviews from his keenest users) for a working binary to be available on Apple’s servers.

And Instapaper wasn’t unique. Arment named 114 apps with the same problem before he quit keeping the list up to date, having proven that it was a pattern. Goodreader was also affected, and also blogged about the issue. Yet another prominent victim was the Angry Birds franchise, so this is visible to the casual app-user community as well as the iOS power users.

According to the Guardian, Apple have acknowledged and fixed the problem today (July 6). They’ve also deleted the one-star reviews.

In a statement, Apple said: “We had a temporary issue that began yesterday with a server that generated DRM code for some apps being downloaded, it affected a small number of users. The issue has been rectified and we don’t expect it to occur again. Users who experienced an issue launching an app caused by this server bug can delete the affected app and re-download it.”

Arment disputes the characterization of “a small number of users”, and that the problem arose on July 5. So there’s still some truth yet to come out. And users with in-app data will be reluctant to delete and reinstall, since they’ll lose their data if they do so. (Apple have apparently reset the update flag on the damaged apps now, so that users can dowload working versions and not lose their data.) (Goodreader’s blog entry explains how to get around the issue with their app.)

Without wanting to be seen to be obsessed about that Economist article, I’d just point out that the much-lauded “pay with your mobile phone” revolution will work a lot better after we get serious and clear-minded about the risks of these computers we’re carrying around and depending on. That includes finding ways to ensure that the software on them is genuinely reliable.

July 04, 2012
Hey, hey, it’s the Fourth of July
Posted by Patrick at 01:24 AM * 25 comments

Dave Alvin, “Jubilee Train/Do Re Mi

Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, “Deportees

Ella Fitzgerald, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Up Above My Head

Thelonious Monk, “Epistrophy

Leonard Cohen, “Democracy

Happy Independence Day!
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 01:02 AM * 7 comments

Q. What has feathers, webbed feet, and certain inalienable rights?
A. The Ducklaration of Independence.

Q. What has four legs, a shiny nose, and fought for England?
A. Rudolph the Redcoat Reindeer.

Q. What did the American flag say to the British flag?
A. Nothing. It just waved.

Q. Why did Paul Revere ride his horse from Boston to Lexington?
A. Because his horse was too heavy to carry.

Q. Why did King George think the Declaration of Independence was a joke?
A. It was written in Punsylvania.

Q. Why did George Washington chop down a cherry tree with his hatchet?
A. The chainsaw hadn’t been invented.

Q. Do they have a Fourth of July in England?
A. Yes, between the third and the fifth.

July 03, 2012
Not bored, but Libored
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:45 PM * 69 comments

British banking continues to be insufficiently dull.

First of all, the Royal Bank of Scotland’s IT troubles continue to engage the attention. The Register (and some private sources) indicate that the payments file probably wasn’t corrupted. What seems to have happened was that an update to the either batch schedule or the batch scheduling software (CA 7) went wrong in some horrific way. I’ve read speculation that the batch schedule had to be partly or completely rebuilt, but I haven’t heard any reliable sources say it.

Control of the batch appears to be split in some organizationally logical but externally arcane way between Scotland and India. I don’t know if this caused the problem, exacerbated its effects, extended its duration, hindered the investigation, or damaged the solution. I’d be willing to lay money on the fact that it didn’t improve things, but I think we’ve seen enough gambling for the moment.

Sadly, it’s not yet all over bar the shouting. Up to 100,000 Ulster Bank customers are still without access to their accounts. A statement from RBS includes this rather alarming bit:

Unfortunately for our customers in Ireland, Ulster Bank payments follow in sequence after those of NatWest and RBS. This is because of the way the technology was set-up at the time the three banks were integrated. It in no way reflects the priority we attach to our Ulster Bank customers and we regret any confusion this might have caused.

If the processing sequence matters, then the batch isn’t right yet. More evidence of this is the fact that some RBS customers seem to be making personal loan payments twice.

Still, this is fishwrap, because British banks are not just failing to be boring this week—they’re being actively interesting. Entertaining, even.

It seems that Barclays Bank (and, possibly, others) has been attempting to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor) over the past few years. Manipulation has at least been even-handed: they’ve tried to both push it upward (to increase profits) and downward (to decrease perceived risks), depending on economic circumstances

What, you may ask, is Libor? From the Beeb’s useful Q&A page:

Every day 16 banks submit the interest rate that they are charged to borrow money. The four highest rates and the four lowest rates are ignored. The average of the eight remaining rates makes up the Libor rate.

So banks are self-reporting a rate that is then used to measure the economic health of the City, determine interest rates on other loans, and thus value their assets and liabilities. The fact that the banks are in competition, and the process of discarding the high and low rates, should produce honest figures.

Well, relatively honest figures. The (British) Financial Services Agency says that the Barclays’ manipulation ‘could have caused harm’ and dinged the company for £59.5m (No one knows how they arrived at that sum.) The US Department of Justice says Barclays actually did affect rates, and levied another $160m. (I believe the DoJ. It has less reason to hide the truth.)

In a rare show of public dysfunction, senior members of the Barclays board have done various forms of resigning, unresigning, and generally playing around in the revolving doors while the security guards watch:

The chairman resigns to save the CEO. The CEO makes a public threat to drag the central bank into the mire. And the previous government. And the Treasury.

Next morning, the CEO resigns and the chairman re-installs himself to “oversee transition”. The police, who said they could not prosecute, now say they might.

This is all very entertaining, the way a good British scandal generally is. But as the last article I linked to above explains, it’s also damaging the British economy. Barclays is the largest lender to small and medium-sized businesses in the country.

The results have been felt in every community in Britain. Four years ago, Barclays was lending £52bn to non-finance, non-property businesses in the UK, 27% of all loans.

Now the figure is £38bn, and just 16% of business loans. In the process the bank - single handedly - has taken £3bn of capital out of manufacturing, more than £3bn out of retail/wholesale, while ploughing an extra £10bn into home loans and £6bn into property.

Those businesses without credit aren’t expanding, ordering new equipment, or hiring staff. Those equipment orders and salaries aren’t, in their turn, helping the economy bounce back either. Once again, banks’ decisions to be clever, profitable, and interesting have left ordinary customers in the soup.

July 01, 2012
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 09:30 PM * 71 comments

It’s more than a month to Moose Festival. So what do you want to do?

“Hey, Ma, let’s go to the Moxie Festival!”

Yes, friends, in just two weeks it’ll be the Thirtieth Annual Moxie Festival in Lisbon Falls, Maine. They’ve got Moxie Ice Cream!

Lisbon Falls isn’t too far from me. Twenty thousand people blow into town to watch the Moxie Parade, join the Moxie Chugging Contest, run the Moxie Race, and visit the Moxie Museum.

Lisbon Falls is on Rt. 196, midway between Brunswick and Lewiston, just north of Portland. It’s a quick trip up I-95 from Boston. The Moxie Festival is July 13-15 this year.

Moxie. It’s good for you.

On your way through Portland be sure to stop off at Duckfat for some french fries. Those are Maine potatoes, fried in duck fat, and served with truffle ketchup.

Moxie. A restaurant that specializes in duck fat. Possibly a moose. (Can’t rule out a moose.) You’ll have a story to tell when you get home.

Spicy Fried Chicken
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 03:17 AM * 26 comments

We had fried chicken tonight.

It was good.

Marinate chicken pieces in a zip-lock freezer bag with enough buttermilk to cover.

Some hours later:

Mix three eggs, a third of a cup of water, and a cup of hot sauce (e.g. Texas Pete or equivalent) in a large bowl.

In another freezer bag put four cups of flour, two teaspoons of ground black pepper, two teaspoons of cayenne pepper, and two teaspoons of paprika.

Lay out the buttermilk-soaked chicken pieces onto something non-porous. Dust ‘em with salt, black pepper, and garlic powder.

Drop the chicken into the bag of flour. Bounce up and down until fully covered.

Take the flour-covered chicken pieces and put ‘em in the bowl with egg-and-hot-sauce. When they’re all covered with eggy-hot goodness, put ‘em back into the bag of flour and bounce ‘em up and down until really covered.

Put into a nice deep fryer full of 350-degree oil for 18 minutes (golden brown).

Serve with potato salad and iced tea.

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