Worlds & Time

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Linked from BoingBoing!

I am so absolutely excited at the moment. I just got linked from for my review of Little Brother. I just submitted it as a lark, not even noticing that Neil Gaiman had a review of it up as well. By the time I scrolled down to that post, it had been updated to include a link to my review.

That is just so mindnumbingly awesome. I've got a link on the front page of BoingBoing! For a few minutes longer, anyway!

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas all. I, personally, am stuffed.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Message Board Administration

Here's some thoughts on what my two and a half years at IIDB taught me about running message boards, presented in unreadable block paragraphs. Forgive me, please, but I had to get it out somehow, but I couldn't make it comprehensible.

  • Given a large enough population, there will always be some people that disagree with a change in policy.
IIDB had long term users that had joined before the board had formally codified its current rules, and some of them considered the less restrictive environment "the good old days" and longed for the time where calling people names was allowed. They chaffed at the new rules, and some of them were eventually banned when they violated the rules too many times. Making sure that your users have a comfortable environment is key to quality moderation, but that doesn't mean allowing your long term highly recognizable users to run roughshod over new users just because they were around when times were different.

Disagreement doesn't necessarily mean disruption or argumentation either. People can be polite in their disagreement. I've seen it happen and if someone says "I can't be polite and expect you to listen to me" then you should immediately disabuse them of that notion. Politely.

Also realize that there's a difference between a few people and a vast number of people. If people start complaining and are still complaining two weeks later, that's probably an indication that the change you made isn't going over very well. It usually takes people a few days to become acclimated to significant chance. Also, if there are 200 people complaining on a website with 1000 active members, that might be another sign that you should listen to what they have to say instead of dismissing their actions as unrepresentative of the feelings of the membership as a whole. That's a large chunk, and while there are people that always complain, numbers above 1 in 10 should be considered significant.

  • Moderation is intended to present a clean, comfortable environment for discussion and debate.
With all due respect to Teresa Nielsen Hayden, I disagree with her practice of "disenvowelling" posts to make them nearly unreadable. Leaving incredibly unreadable and still possibly disruptive posts to indicate where disruption occurred can still be disruptive. On blogs with comments, such as BoingBoing, Making Light, and this one I would prefer to remove the disruptive post completely. Thus, space and attention isn't granted to people that need to learn how to make constructive comments.

This is a little more complicated in a message board situation. Our policy at IIDB was to leave as much of the post as possible undisturbed and insert special "edited" marks, and that's about as much disruption as I think is appropriate. If the entire post is provocative or problematic (i.e. a rules violation) then the entire post should vanish into the ether (but the moderator must let the poster know why it vanished). That allows people to know that an edit occurred without disrupting the flow of the conversation.

Also, IIDB mods were charged with cleaning up problems with the bbcode tags, especially the quote tags, which a lot of boards don't do but certainly contributed to the professional appearance of the board.

  • Privacy relates to the personal and private information of users and everything else is simply a courtesy.
I first saw this become an issue at CF, where it caused huge problems in interactions between the staff and the general membership, but it had started to become an issue at IIDB when I was dismissed. IP addresses, real names, locations and anything else that the staff may be able to learn about someone through their higher level of access should be protected as "private." Anything else that is protected by the board's privacy policy is just a courtesy that the board provides according to the environment that the board wishes to cultivate. I would say that staff members shouldn't talk about infractions/warnings and edits required by users publicly unless those same users give you permission to talk about them, but that is up to the owner's discretion.

Under no circumstances, though, should staff have "privacy" from the users. Anything said about a user in staff forums, or pretty much anything said in a staff forum at all should never be considered "protected."

As soon as staff needs "privacy" in which to operate, problems occur. At CF, the staff cited privacy to cover themselves when they made mistakes and obfuscate issues in which they were clearly in the wrong. People couldn't defend themselves against unfair warnings delivered by abusive and factionalized staff members because the reasons behind the warnings couldn't be discussed with the person that had incurred them without breaking "staff privacy" even when the warnings were technically "official" correspondence.

  • Promote staff due to competence, not ideology.
There is a certain acceptance of the goals of a message board that is necessary for a user to make a good staff member but I would much rather have someone calm and collected that can enforce the rules with equanimity that disagrees with me on who should be the next president of the United States than a hot head that thinks exactly what I think and enforces rules emotionally. IIDB was usually very good about this, but I did see the occasional problem with some staff members who seemed to be think that their rank gave their political opinions extra weight.

One of the requirements for inclusion on IIDB staff was the ability to let insults and personal comments slide off. If a staff member got mad or upset every time someone called them incompetent, then it wouldn't be long before someone upset them. When people are angry and emotional they make mistakes and so you shouldn't be moderating someone that is personally calling you a name, but you shouldn't let it get to you either.

A minor part of this emphasis on competence has to be a consideration of reliability. I noticed that there were a few people that handled most of the issues and could be counted upon to show up day after day, while other staff members might show up once every few days. Oddly, since input is important to being a moderator, those people that had irregular schedules weren't just holding up their own work but other people's work as well. This led to the delay in the resolution of complaints on multiple occasions.

I know that there's the old saying that the people that desire power should be the very last people that should actually have power, and that's partially true in moderating a message board. People that want to be moderators just so that can boss others around should never be promoted to those positions. In fact, I recommend making it clear that to be a moderator is a role of servitude: they serve the needs of the community. "With authority comes responsibility" to paraphrase the Spider-man movie. Be careful not to mistake people who want power with people who want to serve. Sometimes people that don't have the ability to consistently contribute discourse still have the time, ability, and inclination to moderate in order to make the message board a better place, and those people should be snapped up whenever available.

One final note on this, as much as I hate to use a phrase that's been used against me, sometimes good moderators are poor administrators. If you are having trouble with a new Admin but that person was one of the best moderators that you've ever had, consider explaining the situation and asking them to step back into their old position.

  • Enforce the spirit of the rule, not the letter of it. Make this one of your rules.
If someone manages to insult someone else without actually breaking a rule, perhaps by way of comparison with something that most people wouldn't be offended by ("You are an Eagle" where "Eagle" is taken by the other person to be an insult), they've just broken your rules even if this specific instance isn't specifically mentioned in your rules.

This is a tough one, because experience with the American legal system is predicated in the exact opposite terms. Judges typically seem to uphold the letter of the law even if the result seems counterintuitive and users sometimes get upset that you are giving your moderators discretion to make their own determination of what breaks the rules or not.

This is exactly why I say that you should make this one of your rules, because each moderator action should be what the moderators understand to be a violation of the rules, not necessarily something that the violator understands it to be. I have my own understanding of trolling, and if I say "no trolling" then people could argue endlessly about what that prohibits or permits. However, this leads directly into the next point, which is:

  • Allow moderators autonomy but review their actions.
Moderators shouldn't have to wait to do things. The absolute worst case of this is also derived from CF, where at one point you needed at least two people to sign off on any moderator action before the post was edited. I've heard unconfirmable rumors that at one point you needed two moderators and a supervisor before any action could be taken. Whether true or not, forcing currently active mods to wait for input before allowing them to edit problematic posts only cripples their ability to do their job.

Ideally, you should have a certain amount of trust in your moderators. Instead of waiting for multiple other people to weigh in, they should be able to take action as soon as they find a suspect post.

However, this doesn't mean that first impressions are always the correct impressions. I once edited a series of insults in a thread that I hadn't been closely monitoring only to find out that the insult had really been intended as a light-hearted jest. It wasn't the person who'd said the insult that complained about my edit, it was the person who'd been insulted. He was upset that I'd interrupted their friendly back and forth. When I re-examined the situation I found that the supposed insult really was clearly not a violation of our rules, and I reversed my edit and apologized.

Even though in the above example the insulted party complained, the first people that should be reviewing the moderator's action should be the other moderators. At IIDB, we had multiple moderators assigned to each forum, and they would review each others actions if they weren't quite sure that they'd done the correct thing. If they can't agree, that's when the Admins should step in and review the situation.

At IIDB if a moderator saw something problematic, such as a blatant insult or a copyright infringement, they could edit it as soon as they came across it. If you choose the correct people, you shouldn't have to worry that most actions are approved by handled by a single person. After all, if you can't reliably count on your moderators, then why are they moderators?

  • Have a simple and clear way to complain or challenge moderator actions and never ever penalize anyone for using it.
Again, IIDB did this fairly well, especially for the first year and a half or so after I joined. There was no required format, only the requirement that you needed to provide a link to the post or thread that you were complaining about.

Once a complaint had been made, the other moderators of a forum would review the edit, and an uninvolved moderator of the same forum, or rarely an administrator, would provide a response. Now CF has moved to a completely transparent process where moderator deliberations can be seen but I don't necessarily think that's the better way to handle it because it can distract from the topics of conversation on the message board. As long as a board is well administrated (by which I mean run by people that understand that moderators can make mistakes which need to be corrected, and that prevents mods from forming cliques of moderators working together for mutual protection and support) I don't think that absolute and complete transparency is necessary to maintain a fair and working complaint system.

Granted, at the end of my experience with IIDB, this system had broken down mostly because there was no one overseeing it. In the ten days that I administrated IIDB two cases were brought to my attention of complaints slipping through the cracks, and more appeared to be on the way. However, when the system was working, it worked very well.

  • Within reason, document everything.
When any edit is made, no matter how clearcut the violation is, the original text and state of the post needs to be documented somehow. When I started at IIDB as a moderator we used user notes to document any edit made by a moderator. Later we used the infraction/warning system that was inherent to vBulletin which had the added benefit of sending a PM to the user letting them know that they'd been edited.

There are always cases where this may be superfluous. If all a moderator is doing is correcting the formating tags of a post, I don't think that requires documentation. However, any time actual words are removed from a post, or a post is removed from place, that requires some note on what was removed and the reason why.

If a mistake has been made, or the other moderators or the administrators have determined that no rules were broken, the post should be restored with all possible haste, and the only way to do that is if the text of the post is saved somewhere.

  • Term limits for moderators suck. Term limits for administrators are mandatory. (Only at big boards)
I haven't clearly differentiated between moderators and administrators, so let me do that here. Moderators are the people that handle the day to day work of editing posts, issuing warnings and infractions, and spend a lot of time on the public forums. Administrators are those people that make the decisions about what the rules are, how they are enforced, and they're the people a user would appeal to in a last resort for relief from an abusive moderator.

Moderators usually moderate forums that they love, and are invested in the topic. In my experience at IIDB, at busy boards administrators tend to have their favorite topics and forums as well, but they spend most of their working time in the staff forums making sure that things run smoothly. Or they should be doing that.

What that means is that moderators often have an emotional investment in the forums that they moderate, and if you were to remove moderators with term limits you would be removing the people that care most and are most knowledgeable of the forum subject. My experience at CF and IIDB has led me to believe that the administrator job is different. Administrators often don't have as much of an emotional investment in running the board as they do to contributing to it.

Eventually, when Administrators drift away and stop performing their duties, they tend to become entrenched. This happened all the time at CF, where the number of Supervisory moderators, Admins, and super-Admins eventually rivaled the entire number of moderators. At IIDB, some administrators reached that position and eventually stopped regularly contributing. Unfortunately, at that point, they had no one to review their activity or behavior and they would enter a fugue state where they wouldn't be contributing but they couldn't be removed either. Term limits, or perhaps just a non-staff governing body that reviewed the Admins could have prevented that from happening.

This doesn't make sense at smaller boards because usually they are privately run and the administrator is also the owner of the board. However, for large boards catering to large segments of the population such as CF and IIDB, making the top positions change is usually necessary, especially if:

  • A council of equals should administrate your large board.
Erwin, the former owner and webmaster of CF, had almost no time to focus on the things that needed his attention because he did everything. Not only was he in charge, he did the programming, maintenance and set policy for most of his ownership of the forum. CF, with thousands and thousands of active members at a time was simply too large to controlled by a single person.

However, when things on the administration side went wrong (and they always go wrong) things had to be approved or fixed by Erwin which meant that he'd get slammed when he went online. And he was a busy guy, so he wasn't always online and things would take weeks or months to deal with.

At IIDB, the Internet Infidels Board of Directors created a circle of seven equal Administrators to run the board. Major policy changes were sometimes approved by the board, but the rules were written and enforced by the Admins, and they were the last resort in appeals.

A system like that is designed to prevent one person from getting too uppity. Major changes require votes, but the Admins can handle the more common administrative tasks on a medium to large message board by themselves, which means that no one is going to get overwhelmed. Just like the moderator actions are reviewed by other moderators, the administrators can review each other's work if there is a problem.

  • People have different senses of humor.
I suppose that just thinking about this, I could shorten it down to "people are different" because that's certainly true. However, as it relates to message boards, I think that humor is a more important quality to be taken into account.

The upshot of this is that sometimes someone will say something intended to be funny which comes out completely wrong. I've definitely said the wrong thing and the wrong time and had my head nearly snapped off by upset users/moderators/admins. In the sort of situation where no one's really at fault, instead of telling someone "YOU BROKE A RULE, OMG!!!" it's much more effective to discuss the post with the person that's offended and the person that made the offending post.

Most good users (i.e. people with an ounce of compassion) will understand this implicitly and sometimes even agree to edit themselves or personally apologize to the offended party. Sometimes the offended person will calm down once they realize that what was said wasn't intended to be mean/nasty/rude. And if they don't understand, then you'll know that they're probably trouble makers that may need some further attention.

Oh, right, I forgot this when I proposed the "enforce the spirit of the rules" bulletin point: Enforcing the spirit instead of the letter of the rules means sometimes not enforcing the rules. After all, the rules are intended to provide a clean and comfortable place for discussion of the issues and sometimes you can bend a rule if its relevant to the conversation. Ask your moderators to recognize that sometimes the enforcement of a rule isn't necessary, but if they aren't sure to bring the matter up with other moderators and administrators to ask for their feedback.

  • If you aren't having fun, then you're probably not doing it right.
There are a few odd people out there that can't deal with online socialization, and obviously this point doesn't apply to them, but running a message board is fun. If it isn't fun, then you're doing something wrong and you (and possibly your admins and mods) may suffer from burnout.

The most common problem I see that tends to lead to burn out is the driving need to make sure that you get everything done right now! You don't. If you're facing an overwhelming amount of work find more people to help Administrate and search for more good moderators to help them deal with their forums. More people equals more fun, as long as they're competently doing their jobs.

Besides, there's nothing special about the number 7. If you run CF maybe you need a group of 11 Admins or maybe 21. Maybe they do need to be divided into teams of administrators to deal with different sections of the board, but be careful. Large bureaucracies can turn a little bit of poor leadership into huge honking messes. The people at the top need to be the best of the best, regardless of what they believe. They need to be able to coordinate dozens and sometimes hundreds of people and make sure that they're all on the same page and getting work done at multiple levels. This is where you need dedicated HR people, dedicated moderator trainers, and a Super-Admin group, all of which can be interesting jobs, but need to be carefully watched.

Remember though, if you can't trust the people that run the site, you'll have problems. This is where its especially important to promote due to competence and not seniority because the temptation will be there. You'll certainly have people that will get upset when they're passed over for positions but you have to remember that these people don't deserve the positions, they earn them.


  • Any message board staff other than the owner are there to serve the interests of the users and the board, not the other way around.
This is sort of a big deal, and it has definitely been touched on before under "promote due to competence." CF eventually had people in powerful Super-Admin positions that took those positions not because they wanted to do them or were good at them but rather because they liked the feeling of superiority that they had over all of the normal members.

The didn't realize that Administrator is actually the lowest position on a message board. Yeah, it's an exclusive position and it offers a lot of benefits, but it requires mounds of hard work in the guts of the system, often dealing with angry people and upset moderators. It's hard and emotionally draining, and if you aren't up to dealing with all the pain and tough decisions you really don't want to get involved with it.

Administration means that you see everything, including all the worst facets of people. You'll deal with almost all of the porn, spam, fights between friends, stalking and internet spats that occur on the site. Every move that you make will be questioned and examined for a deeper meaning. People will consistently fail to treat you nicely.

And through it all, you need to remember that your position exists to serve the people that treat you like crap.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hugo Award Nominated Novels that I've Read

So, based on this list of the 50 most significant science fiction and fantasy books of the last 50 years, I was thinking about doing the same thing for the 50 or so Hugo and Nebula award nominated novels. I figure I'll start with the Hugo Award nominees and then create a list of the Nebula's. That way, the next time I stop by my local second hand book store I'll have a typewritten list of the books that I should read, but haven't yet.

For the Hugo nominees, 50 novels is around 10 years worth of nominees, from 2007 back to 1998, but due to 2002's six nominations, that didn't come out evenly to 50, so I included 51. That includes all of the works nominated from 2007 through 1998. Information on nominated books is based on information from Wikipedia's page on Hugo Award nominations.

Bold indicates books that I've read, asterisks indicate books that I really liked, and italics indicate books that I started and never finished. Pluses indicate the Hugo Award winners.
  1. Rainbows End*+ by Vernor Vinge
  2. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
  3. His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik
  4. Glasshouse by Charles Stross
  5. Blindsight by Peter Watts
  6. Spin+ by Robert Charles Wilson
  7. Learning the World by Ken MacLeod
  8. A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
  9. Old Man's War* by John Scalzi
  10. Accelerando by Charles Stross
  11. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell+ by Susanna Clarke
  12. The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
  13. Iron Council by China Miéville
  14. Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross
  15. River of Gods by Ian McDonald
  16. Paladin of Souls+ by Lois McMaster Bujold
  17. Humans by Robert J. Sawyer
  18. Ilium by Dan Simmons
  19. Singularity Sky by Charles Stross
  20. Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson
  21. Hominids+ by Robert J. Sawyer
  22. Kiln People by David Brin
  23. The Scar by China Miéville
  24. The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
  25. Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick
  26. American Gods+ by Neil Gaiman
  27. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
  28. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
  29. Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod
  30. Passage by Connie Willis
  31. The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson
  32. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire*+ by J.K. Rowling
  33. Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
  34. The Sky Road by Ken MacLeod
  35. A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin
  36. Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer
  37. A Deepness in the Sky*+ by Vernor Vinge
  38. Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear
  39. A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
  40. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban* by J.K. Rowling
  41. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  42. To Say Nothing of the Dog+ by Connie Willis
  43. Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
  44. Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson
  45. Distraction by Bruce Sterling
  46. Factoring Humanity by Robert J. Sawyer
  47. Forever Peace+ by Joe Haldeman
  48. Frameshift by Robert J. Sawyer
  49. The Rise of Endymion* by Dan Simmons
  50. Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick
  51. City on Fire by Walter Jon Williams
So, what does this list indicate to me? It indicated that I need to read books by China Miéville, Charles Stross, and Robert Charles Wilson, first off. Second, it means that I have a lot of reading to do before this list becomes respectable enough to even post publicly.

Idea via Bruce B. and his list here. I have no idea why it isn't viewable.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

All Sorts of Media Disappointments

So, I went to see the Golden Compass last night, and was disappointed by the cliff hanger ending. The book ends in a much more natural place, and the final twist is important to the resolution of the plot. It wasn't complete without it. Imagine if The Two Towers had ended before the end of the battle of Helm's Deep. That's how I felt about the Golden Compass, and I was prepared to let a lot slide on the basis that I'll support atheist writers when they succeed.

Speaking of things that ended too early, Brian Sanderson has been chosen to finish the Wheel of Time series that was left incomplete by Robert Jordan/James Rigney when he died. The only exposure that I've had to Sanderson is his book called Elantris and it failed to wow me. Granted, it was certainly okay, but it wasn't anything like what Jordan made me feel.

Tin Man was also just okay, which was unfortunate, considering that the second part was pretty good and got me interested but then the third part just dragged it down into a death spiral of epic proportions. What a phenomenally boring ending . . .

Also, I want to rewrite the third Matrix movie. Too bad I can't hire the same actors and film my version, and then put it up to a vote to see which version is better. Sort of like The Phantom Edit. Here's a hint about my version: All of the humans turn against Neo near the end.

On the plus side, Cory Doctorow's Little Brother is available for pre-order now, so I've gone back and updated that blog entry with a link (Teen novel, WTF?) and added a link to a blog post that appeared in the NYTimes that I think is relevant. I also just got one of his books via Amazon, so I'll read that this weekend.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Fiction: Between the Stars in Nine Hours

(Yeah, this is a first draft, typed directly into the blog, so if there are serial commas, spelling issues, plot holes, extremely long run-ons, I'm sorry. Also note that "jerk" is used to denote the concept in physics of acceleration per unit of time cubed and not a moronic person for most of its instances in this piece.)

In the space ship's small lounge, Jonathan had pulled out one of the couches into a bed and had curled up into a little human ball. Even before he'd gotten out of the shower Dragon had requested a release from the docking clamps and filed a reasonable sounding although completely false flight plan. As Jon slipped under the blankets there was a click of the docking clamp's release.

The bulk of Dragon's mass pulled away, accelerating in reverse out of the low-g "bay" and easily flipping laterally to face forward as it cleared the dock's acceleration perimeter. In the lounge, there was no noticeable change or fluctuation in the apparent gravity. The Dragon's internal systems were more than adequate to negate any interference with the simulated gravity and more besides.

From the way that Jon was acting, Dragon suspected that something had gone wrong during his meetings today and so Dragon didn't say anything as Jon lay in bed. He dimmed the lights and waited patiently as his passenger breathed raggedly. As they slowly accelerated toward galactic north and the nearest clear FTL lanes the Dragon could see the massive superstructure of the Dyson swarm curve away into the distance. Occasionally, there would be a flicker of light between two of the bowl shaped islands from the artificial star from which the Dyson Swarm took its name.

It took a while but when Jon's breathing slowed and evened out Dragon adjusted his jerk to just below 1000 meters per second cubed. It would quickly build him up to FTL speeds but it wasn't showing off to the other ships. If someone wasn't paying much attention they would probably assume that the Dragon was a small four vane private yacht heading off for a vacation run.

Inside Dragon's belly, the fusion reaction that powered him purred. Not literally, but the tiny vibrations in the spacetime fields that held the plasma torus enclosed were interpreted by Dragon as easily as a humans interpreted vibrations under their fingers. He (Dragon had no sex, but thought of himself as a he) ran a system check on his FTL drive like it was stretching his limbs. From the tip of his conical nose to the micron wide points of his sixteen active vanes he could feel the power flowing through him, propelling him forward quicker and quicker toward the blazing stars outside. It was almost a struggle not to release the potential of his FTL drive and burst out into a super accelerating blur.

A bit of Dragon's subconscious binged for attention and inquired if he wanted to slip into personality hibernation. Even to the artificial personality of a spaceship, extensive time alone could damage a personality and sometimes it was easier shut most of themselves down into a sleep state while they sped between their programmed destinations instead of fighting the boredom.

Jon was an unusual client. He was rich enough to hire Dragon out from Professor Green on a regular basis, and one of the few people that Green trusted to loan out his personal spacecraft to. Over the years, Jon had paid for many of Dragon's upgraded systems and yet Dragon didn't quite understand what he did for a living. Or really understand at all.

He was listed as an employee for the K corporation, but employees other than CEOs rarely traveled by private spaceship. Just the jaunts between Earth and the Star cost millions in fuel costs, and Jon made them often.

Jon also wasn't a micromanager. He had his odd requests but he wouldn't obsessively watch over how Dragon fulfilled them like some of the people Dragon ferried from star system to star system. He rarely went up to the bridge level when docking, and even when he did, he never noticeably freaked out about Dragon's artificial intelligence doing the piloting. Most humans didn't trust artificial pilots. For no discernible good reason, as far as Dragon could tell.

The level of trust that Jon placed in Dragon felt good to the starship's artificial intelligence, and he did his absolute best when Jon was his passenger. Every variable, no matter how small, was carefully watched and tweaked to get the absolute best performance when his favorite passenger was on board.

Behind them, the Star shrunk to a pale gray dot and Dragon unwrapped his other sixteen vanes, unsheathing them from their titanium and carbon fiber nests and letting tendrils of electrical power activate the multidimensional mechanisms from their hibernation state. Inside Dragon's mind, a complex schematic of nine dimensional ripples formed.

It took a moment to integrate the sixteen new ripples into the constantly shifting pattern of FTL flux, but when it was done Dragon could feel his already fast sprint quicken. He wasn't even pushing his reactor and he was already jerking faster than most military vessels could. As the last of the tracking sats orbiting the Star fell away he pushed on the throttle up to his top jerk.

Along the gold and copper edges of his vanes, Dragon felt the tension relaxing up into a crescendo of multidimensional vibrations. The vanes flexed slightly as spacetime rippled around them and Dragon murmured with relief as pent up stress seemed to slide out of the tips of his FTL drive.

The first time that Jon had asked Dragon to undock from the Star while he slept, Dragon had been uncomfortable. Where did he want to go? Nowhere specific. Did he understand the costs involved? Yes, of course.

Jon had explained that he just felt uncomfortable sleeping attached to the slowly orbiting Dyson Swarm and preferred to sleep while the ship was in FTL. He didn't care where the Dragon went, as long as he wasn't docked.

That first sleeping trip Dragon had carefully filed a flight plan with the South Dock station and then carefully navigated into a half-a-lightyear radius circle around the Star, playing with his jerk to keep the ship going about .01% past the light speed barrier but using as little superfluous energy as possible. He was determined to make every penny count on this trip, to impress Jon with his efficiency and competence.

Only Jon hadn't even noticed. He'd signed off on the charges without even reviewing them, initialing next to the sleeping trip without even reading the number involved. Dragon had watched his eye movements carefully to make sure.

So Dragon started pushing the boundaries. The second sleeping trip he'd brought himself slowly up to about one fourth his maximum jerk, doubling the fuel costs, and Jon had signed off without looking again. The next trip he did half his maximum jerk, quintupling the costs of the first trip, and still Jon seemed not to notice.

About six months into their working relationship, Dragon made a hyperspace jump off the galactic plane, and spent all eight and half hours at his maximum jerk, arriving back in the Star system just as Jon got out of his morning shower. The cost, even from the previous trip, increased by a factor of ten.

Jon paused at the number for the first time, the number larger than any other on the page. "Where'd we go?"

Dragon, in a monotone, explained the flight plan, waiting for the inevitable request to call Professor Green to contest the charge. Green was going to be pissed off. The figure was easily equal to the fare of Jon's last four trips between Earth and the Star, and that was without any of the normal communications bandwidth charges.

"Can you map that out?" Jon asked.

Dragon created a large 3-D holo of the galactic quadrant. Even on this scale, the distance they'd traveled was clearly visible as a red line about an inch and a half long.

"Is that a record for off-galactic plane travel?"

"No. The scientific research vessel Discovery 7 set the current non-military record about two years ago by traveling about a nine hundred and twenty parsecs off the galactic plane via hyperspace and FTL," Dragon said. "At that time, it was just inside the absolute hyperspace limit."

"Did you get any good pictures from the hyperspace exit point?" Jon asked.

Dragon considered for almost a second, scanning through all of the visual information recorded during all of their trip. He displayed six pictures, and gave a real and false color spectrum version of each one.

Jon looked over them carefully, chose two of them, ordered prints for his apartment in Dubai, and then signed off on the trip manifest.

That was when Dragon realized that twenty or so times a year he had a kind of freedom that most starship AI's could only dream about: the ability to choose his own itinerary for about nine hours at a time without care for fuel costs.

He'd pushed the record the next time, hyperspace jumping up to the limit about 800 parsecs above the galactic core, and then max jerking out for the entire sleep trip. He'd made about 1300 going full bore before having to jump back to the Star Dyson Swarm for Jon's morning meetings. He showed the images to Jon over coffee.

Dragon soon realized that there was no real reason for the hyperspace distance limit. True, you couldn't be sure that you would have a clear arrival site, but if you'd FTL'd out and seen the void for yourself, that didn't matter. Besides, this was deep space. The chances of running across a previously undiscovered star or mass in the void between galaxies were mind numbingly small.

Twenty trips later, Dragon passed the official military off-plane record, and decided that he was tired of excursions outside of the galaxy. Besides, he couldn't even publicly admit to the trips without admitting that he'd violated the hyperspace statutes, although only in a minor and highly technical way. He did still allow Jon to order a print of the furthest image, 115,341 parsecs off the galactic plane directly perpendicular to the Milky Way's North pole (give or take a mile or so).

Still, even if he stayed within the Milky Way, half of the space hadn't been accurately mapped. With his considerable speed Dragon could explore a lot of places in nine hours that took some ships days to explore, especially those that weren't outfitted with hyperspace drives.

Today, as Jon tossed and turned in his bed in Dragon's lounge, Dragon allowed his capacitors to fill to maximum and jumped about halfway toward the galactic core to just outside a still unnamed supernova remnant that Dragon had affectionately dubbed the "pumice" nebula, for it's odd cavities and pockets of void between layers of ionized gases. He hardened his shielding, using half of his FTL vanes to create an x-ray/hard radiation barrier. No matter how little Jon cared about the millions of dollars of fuel, Dragon suspected that he still might care if he woke up with with six different kinds of cancer.

He made a flat out run for the edge of the nebula where'd he'd stopped his exploration at the end of the last sleeping trip. He'd discovered a hole about two or three AU in diameter that could be the result of a planet interrupting the particle release of the supernova, but he'd noticed a slew of tunnels that led off from the hole and he'd been curious about them.

He dropped down into sub-light speeds just beyond the supernova shock wave. There was still enough gas in the shock wave to make Dragon's FTL drive generated fields ripple as he crossed it, and then he was bombarded from every side with radiation, mostly x-rays, but also gamma from the neutron star that hid at the center of the nebula.

Even though the particle density was thousands of times less, the radiation field reminded him of passing through a planetary atmosphere. Random fluctuations and particle densities streamed around the fins of spacetime that his drive extruded as he carved his way through the glowing mass of ionized particles toward an opening leading off of the massive hole.

The obscuring mass of particles was composed of heavier elements, everything from hydrogen to uranium, in masses significant enough to suggest the creation of many stars and planets in the future.

Saying in the less dense gases, Dragon pinged the tunnels, trying to map them, but his sensors were only able to map a few hundred kilometers in any direction.

Dragon chose one of the tunnels at random, and approached it. It was easily twice as wide as the diameter of the Earth, and there were odd variances in the particle density. Still, his senses told him little about the interior. He adjusted his power matrix, allowing a bit more power to flow into the capacitors. If he had to jump into hyperspace, he wanted to be able to do so as quickly as possible.

As he entered the tunnel, he realized that it was just an illusion of his preset spectrum analysis. Anything below a certain number of molecules per cubic meter was represented as void, and the edges of the tunnels were represented by slightly more dense particle fields, although he could easily see through them on a more narrow visual band. He choose to view the changes in four views: his primary spectrum where he could see about 80% of the light spectrum between x-rays and the deep infra-red, a view into the gamma which clearly illuminated the supernova fragment but made the nebula invisible, a more narrow light spectrum that analyzed the elemental composition of the clouds of gas, and a normal human visual spectrum.

The tunnel narrowed as Dragon crept further along at dozens of kilometers per second. Could it be a planet orbiting, forcing the gases out of his way? He examined the supernova fragment and calculated its distance away at more than two parsecs. No. Any planetary body this far from a significant mass wouldn't be orbiting. Besides, the shock wave that had barely bothered Dragon would have fragmented a planet larger than Jupiter.

He increased his speed a bit, focusing his attention on mapping the lower density "tunnel" in front of him, and felt a pressure on his nose. It was something that he occasionally felt in FTL travel, but rarely at sub-light speeds. The atoms in the nebula were collecting in the spacetime field in front of him where they ceased to be moving relative to Dragon. However, as the field advanced, more and more atoms collected in the front of the field and the pressure dragged them back, creating the illusion of slow movement.

Dragon shivered a bit, imperceptibly to a human, to allow the particles to detach from his pressure sensitive skin and then subtly skewed the architecture of his spacetime fields to make the fields slightly less laterally reflective. Relative to the nebula Dragon began to spin, throwing the atoms streaming along his sides out toward the circumference of the fields. A human would have been disoriented at once but Dragon just disassociated himself from his sense of relative equilibrium. Besides, no matter what orientation the ship held, the subjective artificial gravity inside him would always point toward his keel, if he had a keel.

There were indications of early star formation in some of the clouds that he passed. Here and there were meter long clumps of carbon and iron. They were smaller than Dragon now, but left to their own devices, they would slowly attract more mass and each other until they reached the critical solar mass needed to create fusion in their centers.

Still, the oddity of the tunnel continued. Some of the asteroid like clumps showed a relative velocity tangential from the sides of the tunnel but toward the supernova remnant. That indicated collision, some sort of relative motion that lacked any corresponding cause. Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it, Dragon thought to himself.

Somewhere in one of his lower sets of consciousness Dragon suddenly found that the rolling motion that he'd introduced to spin the free floating atoms clear suddenly had elements of pitch and yaw. His first thought was that he'd made a mistake. After all, the calculations to remain in the pseudo-elliptical path of the tunnel were complex, but after a millisecond checking his figures he didn't think that was it. He could easily compensate, but first he concentrated on the supernova fragment and calculated the exact changes to his heading.

This information was flagged as important, and was quickly brought up to the ship's main consciousness. Dragon puzzled over the information for a moment. As far as he could tell, there was no basis for the discrepancy, just like there was no explanation for the odd tunnel or the odd actions of the pre-star clumps of matter.

He stopped by letting the sub-light motive field collapse and did a dorsal flip, heading back up the tunnel.

Just before he reached the point where the discrepancy occurred he fixed on the supernova fragment and created a mathematical model to describe his position in terms of his sub-light jerk.

At the same spot, the same thing happened. This time instead of flipping he completely ceased his momentum, or he tried. There was a minuscule acceleration occurring in his superstructure. It faded for a moment and then returned.

The acceleration wasn't the result of an object. There was nothing with enough solid mass to create the kind of Newtonian reaction that was the simplest explanation of the phenomenon. Dragon began pinging the surrounding area, doing a high contrast filter of the surrounding dust through his x-ray vision spectrum.

Nothing appeared.

There were the 3 classical Newtonian laws, and then Einstein's Relativity, and then Quantum Mechanics, and finally Green's Universal Field Theory. This effect wasn't Newtonian, Dragon wasn't moving fast enough for it to be a relativistic effect, and it was significant enough to exist beyond the quantum level. That meant that it was probably a multidimensional effect.

Dragon hadn't existed yet when the UFT, or sometimes the Theory of Everything was finally proposed by Green, but he was the result of that theory. All FTL travel was based in those calculations, and so was much of the technology that kept him and Jonathan safe from radiation and the internal artificial gravity, and other systems.

The problem was that multidimensional manipulation didn't occur in nature in forms other than the 4 fundamental forces of nature. This sort of blimp indicated the existence of an artificial construct and there appeared to be no ships within ten light years.

The military had been working on cloaking devices, so named due to the fictional technology from popular Earth media but Prof. Green was part of the project working on those devices and Dragon's systems carried a copy of his latest work. They hadn't nearly managed to overcome the problems involved with shielding mass in a way to render it invisible to normal scanners.

Dragon's curiosity had been piqued, and since his scans revealed nothing he decided to investigate further. The direction of the field was at an odd angle. Most spacetime fields were projected parallel to the devices used to create them. Either the cause of the field was above Dragon toward the outside of the Nebula or it was below him, further down toward the supernova fragment. He pinged, mapping the particle density again, and discovered a thin tunnel running parallel to the tunnel that he current was in, about twenty AU down. The vector of the acceleration field directly bisected it.

He checked the radiation shields that he'd built around the passenger quarters and dived into the denser material, ignoring the tunnel that he'd been following and diving straight toward the new tunnel.

This time even the spin couldn't keep the hot gases of the nebula from sifting around his outer hull. In the visible spectrum he could just barely see the Doppler matter buildup streaming off the mounts upon which his FTL vanes were housed. The ambient temperature rose to a staggering 22 Kelvin, an amazing temperature without direct sunlight, but nothing compared to the internal temperature of his fusion reactor, which was still at a comfortable 30 thousand K or so.

He swam through the muck, creating little eddies of supernova expelled gases and wondering if someday the disruption of his passage would create or destroy planets or perhaps stars. Even he couldn't comprehend the calculations necessary to figure that out.

He popped out into the target tunnel, collapsing part of it with the slipstream from his passage. He hadn't directly followed the acceleration field, which had crossed this new tunnel just up ahead, where it it dwindled to a point.

He leveled off in the tunnel, and headed for the end but as he approached something odd happened. The spacetime fields that were accelerating Dragon began to waver on the edges. In Dragon's mind the outside of the field undulated in four dimensions, and it had the same effect as a field collapse. He stopped dead in relation to the slowly expanding nebula.

Ahead of him, at the end of the tunnel there was nothing. Not void, but also not mass. In the normal visual spectrum there was just a gray blob, and ahead of that Dragon could feel the end of the tunnel. Whatever this was, it was eating the nebula gas.

That's not human technology, he thought to himself, trying to search for some mention of something similar in any record or journal he could think of but finding nothing.

Whatever it was, it could feel his presence, either though Dragon's massive spacetime displacement or through the first ripples of particle density change that were occurring as the lower density tunnel collapsed. It turned and as it did Dragon could see that the gray blob was two dimensional. Even to his amazingly acute visual sensors, there was a moment where the blob narrowed into a line, and then nothing at all before showing it's opposite side. Instead of gray, this side of the creature was black. It absorbed matter only on one side.

And then it drifted toward him.

Since his primary systems couldn't detect the thing, all Dragon had to calculate the blob's speed with visual data based on the width of the low density tunnel. Even that wasn't perfect, as the edges of the black disc rippled slightly, but Dragon guessed it was doing forty kilometers per second.

Turning was easy. Dragon spun like a top, but when he tried to accelerate away the pressure of the thing's spacetime fields stopped Dragon from forming a stable sub-light flux. In fact, the field undulation was pressing against his outer shields, collapsing them at a few centimeters per second.

Dragon grabbed as much energy from his hyperspace capacitors as his FTL systems could handle and fed it back into the vanes. He'd already been running at his maximum tested power, but the 150% increase in power halted the collapse of his own fields.

If spaceships could panic, Dragon would have been hysterical. There were no operating procedures in place for this kind of situation. Humanity hadn't even encountered non-human or human built intelligence, much less one that had its own version of spacetime manipulation technology.

Dragon was still trying to figure out what to do when the black side of the blog caught up with him, surging around his shields. From this perspective, the shape had depth, not just height and width.

Dragon was sinking backward into a black cave that opened into a void. From his aft sensors, he could see a ring of teeth or perhaps spacetime field vanes around the outer edge of the hole that he was in. They looked organic, and they were curved away from ring of black void that held the Dragon.

That was the mouth, he thought to himself, but the perspective was confusing him, which he hadn't thought possible.

There was a real object in the blob hole, but it was masked with cloaking spacetime fields so that it had no relative mass. Hyperspace fields created a similar effect for an instant just before a hyperspace jump, but current views on hyperspace theory assumed that you couldn't maintain a "realworld" position for more than Planck time before loosing relative position in favor of some random velocity vector that was impossible to calculate.

At that point, quantum theory was supposed to take over. You'd either have a position or a vector, but not both at the same time. If you were lucky, that would be the end of your existence and if you were unlucky you'd become some sort of new quantum particle, flickering along at the speed of light, trapped in an isolated pocket of spacetime forever. Professor Green had once made a joke about how anything trapped that way would exist more as theoretical mathematics than a real object.

The black side of the two dimensional disc was really an opening in the cloaking fields into a stomach like void. Dragon didn't know how the creature managed to process raw interstellar gas, but the "teeth" were probably centered around a hole. They appeared to be around the outside edge instead of the inside edge due to the way the creature bent spacetime nearly to the breaking point.

It was a physical creature though, and if Dragon had conventional weapons, perhaps he could have convinced the thing to leave him alone. Prof. Green though, was something of a pacifist, and had never seriously considered adding weapons to Dragon. Besides, the ship was fast enough to run away from just about anything with FTL vanes, and even in the unlikely event that a military grade craft could match his speeds, it was a little hard to chase something with a hyperspace drive for more than a few seconds before it could jump away, crossing half a galaxy.

Dragon was traveling light, a process that he'd started around the time that he'd started making sleeping trips with Jon to save fuel. Really, the only things on board that he could jettison wouldn't cause much if any damage to the creature, and mostly belonged to Jon anyway.

Most weapons were just directed energy contained by a weak spacetime field. With his thirty-two vanes he had plenty of spacetime fields available, but Dragon couldn't think of anything aside from a direct reactor breach that could create enough directed energy to matter.

Calling for help wasn't a viable option either. The nearest ship via FTL was ten days away at a high jerk, and there was too much particulate mass in the nebula to safely go into hyperspace inside the supernova shock wave.

He needed to think his way out of this. He did a quick calculation and rearranged his fields to make them stand up to opposing spacetime fields longer, even managing to push them back out a few centimeters before the creature stopped him. Dragon was no longer using hyperspace power, which was good because he only had a few seconds of it still stored the way that he'd been using it.

The creature must have figured out that perhaps it could crush him with differently configured shields. The swallowing field suddenly developed little points like teeth, creating massive point pressures between the fields. Little flickers started ocurring along the surface where their opposing fields met, and Dragon realized that he was seeing virtual quantum particles being destroyed.

Dragon redesigned his shields again, opening holes where the point pressures were accumulating, and creating a larger oppositional area where their fields met. The creature tried again, and Dragon countered again.

It wasn't until the fourth iteration of this cycle that Dragon suddenly realized that he had the same weapons that the creature was using. Yeah, he didn't seem to be able to generate fields quite as powerful as the blob creature could, but everything that the creature was doing was something that Dragon could do.

Dragon used half his consciousness to respond to the attacks the creature was launching, and half to plan his own attack.

About a second later, after another five iterations of their game, Dragon reconfigured his shields to extend sub-light flight planes in sharp spikes outward in to the black. Even though they felt perfectly flat to him, the teeth spikes or whatever they were shivered violently. The creature paused, obviously surprised to get a response, and Dragon pulled on the rest of his hyperspace power and fed it back into the FTL drive vanes.

The creature's defenses had weakened just for a moment, and thirty-two drive fields sliced outward, all at full power. At once, hard radiation slammed into the last ditch internal shielding, easily penetrating Dragon's metal and ceramic skin to a few centimeters. A fragment of Dragon's personality monitored the radiation penetration as it came within two centimeters of Jon's hair. If he shifted position at all. . . .

The attack had worked. The fields pulling Dragon into the black maw instantly reversed, expelling him back into the gas of the nebula.

Dragon swiveled again, calculating the nearest path to the shockwave, and threw nearly every joule of reactor power into an ultra-slim FTL field.

There was a moment where the fields struggled to form in the presence of opposing fields, but when the fields did finally snap together there was a massive jerk forward.

Already surrounded by heavy particles and radiation and providing the minimum of field protection to his own hull, Dragon's forward movement created minuscule smears, tears, and patches of irradiation all over the forward surface of his hull. He was going to need to replace nearly every inch of his surface, and several of the systems that ran below just below the surface.

A few miliseconds later and a few kilometers away, the creature did something crazy to spacetime. The FTL field vibrated oddly, but it didn't collapse. Around him though, Dragon could feel every particle with an AU accelerate back toward the creature's opening, creating a particle density wave that did nothing to improve the condition of Dragon's skin.

Operating at his maximum jerk, Dragon could have reached lightspeed inside the shockwave perimeter, but if he caught so much as a grain of sand, it would tear him to shreds. He calculated his jerk to hold him at .999c when he reached it, and reconfigured half of his fields again to provide the absolute best in radiation screening for both himself and his passenger.

Outside of the nebula, he slowed, allowing himself to build up his capacitors for hyperspace, and then made a jump directly back to the Star.

He'd already set a course toward the North Dock when he realized that Jon was still asleep, and would probably be for the next six hours. His exploration of the pumice nebula, and his discovery of the first non-human life form capable of manipulating spacetime had only comprised a few hours.

He created a negative jerk to slow down, and set a more conventional course around the perimeter of the Star system, allowing himself to just slip past light speed. If he spent the next six hours calculating fuel efficiency and staying close to the Star this might not have been the most fuel intensive sleeping trip that Jon had ever taken, not counting the needed repairs to his hull and subsystems. Dragon wondered if Jon would even notice.

Then, as the efficiency calculations began, Dragon allowed himself to slip into personality hibernation. He'd had enough adventure for one day.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007


My brother's in La Paz, Bolivia, which historically is not as serene as the name implies. He's apparently sleeping down the street from the witches' market and asked if anyone needed anything. I mentioned that if he finds a potion of world domination below cost, he should snap it up and I'll pay him back for it.

I'm in the travelogue section of the book that I'm writing, and I came to a dead stop a few days back. I'm not particularly fond of travel scenes, and the whole book is driven by the travel that the main characters do, so suddenly its like I've used up every ounce of travel narrative that I have in me. I really want to just slip into sci-fi ship mode and imagine them teleporting from place to place except that I know that teleportation would absolutely ruin most of the plot of my book.

You know, most of the universe is a pretty boring place. There are these vast voids, not just between planets but between stars, nebulae, and galaxies. It's hard to imagine just the solid vastness involved in something like a galaxy, but for a moment try to imagine the gigantic emptiness between galaxy filaments.

So it feels really annoying that there are so many great places to visit here on Earth that I'm not getting to visit/live in. All I want to do at the moment is get out of NM and I can't. Arg.

Currently, the list of places that I want to visit (in no particular order) is:

  • New York (to visit with Elliot, Jay, Jeremy, and possibly to connect with some of my humanist online friends)

  • Washington D.C. (to see Reagan, Karen, and maybe even drop in on my old roommate Eric)

  • San Francisco (check in on Matt and Iggy, and maybe even go to the Castro and a real gay bar)

  • England (Travel up through the northern country to see how beautiful it is, and spend some time near London. I would have loved to have done that while Jeff and Steph are there, or even Jeremy, but that hasn't happened. They've got cute boys in Britain too.)

  • Ireland (The magic country. It's going to come up in my books sooner or later, and I'd like to see it so that I'm not spouting completely random things)

  • India (Now that's an exotic place to go, and it's a place that I've wanted to see for years. I'd love to visit the Taj Mahal, the Blue City, and all sorts of other temples all throughout India)

  • Australia (Sydney, specifically. I've got some friends in the area that I could stay with for a few days, and I'd love to see the gold coast beaches)

  • Miami and Key West (and maybe Fort Lauderdale as well. I didn't get to see as much of the area, and have as much fun as I would have liked).

Yeah, all these pictures are making me restless.

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