Worlds & Time

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

I'm back home for the holidays, since this is the first Christmas where my Grandmother will be living with my Mother. She's sad about leaving her friends behind but I think that she's also happy to be living with family.

Later we'll visit Dad, and eat to bursting.

I hope that everyone's various holidays are going very well.

Via FiveThirtyEight and NPR, Happy Chinese Food as well.


Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Bar of Entry

So, the holy grail of the internet seems to be online communities. If you've got it, you get page views by the thousands and people will follow your every move and buy products that you recommend and basically make your life a joy worth living. Or at least that's how it seems to me from the outside.

I think that a person that doesn't live their life on the internet can maybe belong to five online communities without running into trouble. Big ones, that is, and they can replace a big one with two or three small ones without issue.

Take me. I used to be a IIDBer, a CFer, a nominal Farker, a Myspacer and I read a few webcomics (Ooh, I forgot those. They don't require much time. You can probably read ten to twenty comics regularly before it sucks up as much time as a big online community).

Now I'm a TFarker, a Facebooker, a slactivist witness, a Qweerty/TowleRoader, and I read a few webcomics and I'm on the periphery of being a TalkRatter.

Your affiliations change from time to time. IIDB rejected me. MySpace suddenly wasn't cool any more. And some of the webcomics that I used to read don't update any more.

When that happens, you're lost to the winds for a while. You can't spend more time at the places that you frequent than you already do without suffering from boredom or overload, so you drift about and check profiles and eventually find another community to join.

But even though I've got logins at dozens of places, I don't really pay much regular attention to them.

So what prevents me from becomming invested in a new online community? The Bar of Entry. Dun-dun-dun.

This imaginary object, the Bar of Entry, is set higher or lower by the conditions of the community and makes it either easier or harder for people to join and form a community at. This is probably written in some guide to forming stable online communities so that business people can make money off of them, but let me see if I can recreate it from deduction.
  1. Design
  2. Broad Appeal
  3. Stimulation
  4. Ease of Application
  5. Consistency
  6. Prior Community
  7. Popularity
First, Design. Some sites are badly designed and some sites are well designed. And this isn't necesarily just measure of how visually pretty a site is but also how easy it is to use.

One of my favorites pieces of widely used community software is vBulletin. vBulletin is a great piece of software. It usually looks good, it's nearly infinitely customizable and it presents a profession and polished user interface that is easy enough to understand and take from vBulletin site to vBulletin site.

On the other hand, the typepad comment system that slacktivist currently uses blows chunks. It only shows 50 comments per page, and the typical slactivist post gets around 300 or so. Navigating between pages is a pain in the ass. It won't tell you how many pages the thread has, and it only provides forward and back buttons. If you read 100 comments the first day and then come back to read the next few hundred posts the next day, you still have to scroll through the first and second pages to get to the links to the next page. Nor does it allow you to put all of the comments on one page so you can scroll up and down to see which comments link with comments that are more than 50 responses removed.

Facebook also has some issues with the way that it operates, especially around photos. This entire post exists because BoingBoing just ate one of my posts, and I started to wonder if it was worth the trouble to try to get myself invested there.

Despite my love of vBulletin, only the community that I'm peripherally involved with uses it. In fact, I would hazzard to say that slactivist is one of my favorite communities, despite all the usage issues. So even though in this catecory it has a high bar, that didn't prevent me from joining the community.

Broad Appeal is the next notch on the Bar of Entry that I came up with. The more broadly the site appeals to people, the more people will want to join it. The number of Christians is greater than the number of atheists, so CF > IIDB. This will always be the case.

However, there are limits to Broad Appeal. Yeah, if you run a site that talks about fast cars you have broader appeal than a site that caters to Mustang owners only. (# of Fast Car owners > # of Mustang owners). Unfortunately, you'll also have a really difficult time creating an interesting community for the owners of all fast cars because people want to engage with what you're talking about.

Thus, the counter to Broad Appeal is Stimulation, by which I mean having interesting things for people to come look at and interact with.

If you try to create a site for all fast cars, it's pretty much impossible for one (or two or three) people to really do the sort of research and writing that will people coming back and getting engaged.

Stimulation also covers a few other things: How often are things posted, how well are they written, and what can I do to respond/interact with the community?

Whatever, John Scalzi's blog is usually posted multiple times a day, creating a high level of interest because every day I can visit and find something new.

Slactivist only posts one to three times a week but the quality of the articles is incredibly high.

Fark scores incredibly well in this category though, the highest of all my communities. It gets posted multiple times an hour (once a minute or so for TFark), the article headlines are diverse and funny, and not only does it provide a way for me to submit my own headlines, it has huge comment threads (and TFark has even more). Digg is another community that just hits this out of the park.

MySpace and Facebook also have lots of stuff for a person to do. MySpace has infinitely customizable pages and Facebook has the wall and games.

Ease of Application is how easy things are to join. I just need to leave a user name and email address on Making Light and Slactivist, and they don't even bother to verify them. Registration is the next step up (which will keep a surprising number of people from joining, See After user name registration, the next step is actually forcing people to gain human verified approval (IIDB required all new users to go though Admin approval) and the final step is requiring money. TFark costs five dollars a month. Something Awful requires a one time $9.95 fee.

Consistency is easy enough to understand. Qweerty has a semi-daily post with hot guys in it. I've already mentioned that slactivist is consistently high quality. On the other hand, some days Fark will be bouncing off the walls and some days nothing that gets posted catches my eye.

This blog happens to be terrible at consistency. I mean, you never know when one of these things is going to go up. There was a six month period where nothing got posted (visibly, anyway). The only three posts that people care about are: The Hot Gymansts post, the 10 Intellectual Sci-fi Movies post, and the review of Little Brother so I'm not even consistently boring.

Prior Community is a little more difficult for an aspiring blogger to control. Some places are generally genial and nice to new people. Making Light is good at this. Slacktivist is okay at it, although people there tend to use big words like "consistency" and "dominionist" and other four syllablers.

Fark treats newcommers like tumors on toliet scum. TFarkers look down on Farkers, and join date and user number is sometimes used like a badge. Most swearing isn't censored and implied and outright insults go unedited.

Part of prior community is definitely the people that run it. The way that Fark is run shapes that community. The way that slactivist writes shapes the community there.

Finally, the last on the list is Popularity. When someone is searching for a new community to join they can only join the communities that they can find. An intensive search for their perfect community might reveal a small place with six other members but they're more likely to find a place where those six members exist among a thousand other members. If everyone lists "BoingBoing" on their list of blogs that they follow a new person is more likely to wonder what all of the fuss is about.

The weird thing about Popularity is that it's inextricably linked with the popularity of the person running it. Rosie O'Donnell blogs and probably gets hundreds of thousands of people that read her blogs even though they don't appear to be particularly engrossing or well written. But she's popular, so her blog is too.

Sometimes this creates a recursive loop. Wil Wheaton was just an actor. Then he started blogging. Now he's more famous as a blogger and writer than I think he was as just an actor. Scalzi was a blogger first, and blogging led to writing, and now people that read his books can become invested in his blogs. Now they've got slowly expanding audiences that will someday take over the earth.

So now that I've explained all of the parts of the Bar of Entry, there's still the bar itself.

If you start a blog or website looking to build a community of users, all of the notches get added together. Even if you have the best designed blog on the planet, if it's about Ukrainian Easter Eggs, gets posted twice a year, requires a registration, and the only other member is your foul mouthed Aunt Ester you probably don't have a winning combination.

On the other hand, if you're a internationally famous actor, blog every day in perfect English about your life and the behind the scenes exploits of your costars (immensely broad appeal), and have a site that is designed that makes your users want to pull their own teeth out in frustration, you'll still have thousands flock to you.

It's all a balancing act. Control the variables that you can and see where it takes you.

One final caveat that I want to repeat about all of this though: not all users are looking for a new home. No matter how interesting, easy to use, and how broad your appeal is, not everyone is going to be interested. Perez Hilton doesn't have a 100% of the market share, although I'm sure he's working on it.

He does have millions of people that check his blog daily though and I'll bet that he's mostly happy with the community of people that check him everyday.

If I had millions of people reading my blog, I think I would be.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Lex and Lia: Real Lessons

Lia headed for The Strip flying low over the building toward the Stratosphere Hotel’s tower. She’d been there only once or twice since she’d run off in the night looking for Lex.

She knew that he’d probably had to move on. He’d been running. Both of them had been running. And to a certain extent she wanted to go back to running again, leave Mohan’s pack and go back to the “good old days” when it was just her and Lex.

In the books that she’d read with Annabelle, when someone did what Lex did, you swore vengeance against them. It was one of the reasons that she thought Lex was so sad.

But he’d never hurt her. In fact, he’d done everything that he could to make sure that she was okay and if she found him she’d do everything in her power to make sure that she was okay. He’d been working so hard to support them before she’d run away.

If she had too she could challenge Mohan and force him to let her bring Lex back to the pack compound. She could buy him some real clothes instead of the ratty jeans and jacket he always wore and he wouldn’t have to worry about food or money ever again.

And if anyone so much as hinted at trying to bite him she would rip out their throats with her bare human hands. It wasn’t like he wasn’t unusual for a human. Lia was sure that Lex could have contributed significantly to the pack if they would let him.

She just wanted to see him happy and not worried anymore. There had to be something that she could do to make that happen, something that she could say that would make him understand that she didn’t hate him for what he’d done but that she loved him for caring about what it meant to her.

She flew into the MGM amusement park and settled behind a trellis and next to one of the outer walls and resumed human form. No fuss, no feathers. No nudity. She was often thankful that was one of her gifts.

She didn’t have any money. Annabelle or Miss Chi-Wong always paid for everything and since she wasn’t supposed to be out by herself anyway they wouldn’t bother giving her an allowance. She probably could have tried to picked pockets or something but she really didn’t want to get caught. She’d have to call Miss Chi-Wong to come get her out of trouble and even the thought of that made her wince.

So she wandered to the exit and found a daily ride pass armband from a family that was about to leave which was good enough. She just wanted to ride the rides and remember the day that Lex had brought her here.

She went on a few roller coasters and even though she could fly now it was still surprisingly fun. Lex had always smiled on the steepest hills and now she threw up her hands and screamed with the rest of the passengers when they took a quick turn.

It was another evening so she didn’t have to wait long between rides. Even though the sun set it didn’t deter her from the roller coasters. She could see almost as well in the dark as most people could in the day.

It started to cool down but she didn’t want to leave yet. She was just hungry. She could shift into her raven form and then come back but decided to see if she could figure out some way to get food from one of the food courts.

She took a seat at one of the tables with a bored expression on her face and looked around. There a few groups of boys a few tables over and they weren’t bad looking. She pointedly made a point of not looking or talking to them.

Despite eying her for a few minutes, it wasn’t any of the groups of boys that approached her but a guy.

He was tall pale and blond and gorgeous. He was wearing a tight black shirt and jeans and looked like he was about twenty four. He was also incredibly familiar looking.

“Can I join you?”

Over the smell of grease and broiling cheese came another set of smells. The strongest one was . . . aftershave? An expensive one she would have guessed, because the guy smelled something like Mr. Mohan. It was covering something else.

The smell of carrion and rot.

The blond guy was a vampire.

She stiffened for a moment. “Aren’t you a little old to be hitting on teenagers?” she said.

He politely laughed and then sat down anyway. “Oh, I doubt you have any idea. I’m just a little curious what a werewolf is doing alone in the middle of this tent after dark.”

Well, crap. “I’m not—,” she started, but he interrupted.

“Let’s not pretend. You can probably smell me just as easily as I tell what you are. What exactly are you doing here? This area is most definitely off limits to Mohan’s activities. Whatever business you’re conducting here, you didn’t check with your pack leader or he would have told you that.” His incredibly pretty blue eyes were trying to bore into her and he was doing something to try to make her speak.

“I’m not here on business,” she said, genuinely surprised now, and looked directly into his eyes. “It’s . . . my day off. I came here to relax,” she lied.

There was a sea of old power behind those blue eyes but Mr. Mohan could pull the same trick. Lia had long ago learned to resist him and suspected that the vampire didn’t realize that could push him off so easily.

At her answer it was vampire’s turn to look surprised. “Relax?” he asked and she watched his face for some sign that he didn’t believe her.

“It’s an amusement park,” she said. “I’ve been riding the roller coasters.”

He blinked, as though he hadn’t realized that and glanced around. “Uh, well, what are you doing just sitting here then? It looked like you were waiting for someone.”

She sighed. “Actually, I don’t have any money and I was going to try to get one of those guys over there to buy me dinner.” She looked at the vampire and realized that he seemed familiar. “Which they won’t do now that they’ve seen me talking with you,” she added.

The vampire looked at the group of guys that was now studiously avoiding her.

“Oh. Look, I’m sorry for that. If you want, I can buy you something to eat.”

She hesitated wondering if he was lying to her the same way that she’d lied to him. “I’m not going to let you bite me,” she said and wondered if vampires could fly.

“Uhg. Bite you? No thanks. No offense, but you all taste like wet fur to me.”

He thought she was a wolf then. He could tell that she was a werecreature, but he couldn’t tell what kind. She wondered if feathers tasted better to him than wet fur.

A guy was approaching their table. He was wearing a security guard uniform. “Everything all right?” he asked Lia.

“Sure,” she said. “He’s my uncle.”

“I just saw her as I was passing through and thought I’d say hi,” the vampire added easily.

The security guard looked at her and then at the vampire. She was small and had dark skin and hair. He was tall, pale and blond. The security guard and the vampire’s eyes met for a moment and the security guard smiled. “Of course. Sorry to bother you.”

From the outside it was a little more impressive than it had been when he’d been focusing the same powers on her. She could do that to other lycanthropes but didn’t know if she could do it to a human. The vampire had stopped trying to coerce her after she’d told him she’d been riding the roller coasters and she supposed it would be rude now that he was trying to be nice.

He stuck out his hand. “I’m Edward.”

She reached out. “I’m Lia.”

As they shook his eyes widened. “I didn’t recognize you,” he said, “without the made up hair and the dress.”

“You were at the meeting,” Lia realized. “With Lo. You had a computer.”

Edward nodded.

“You look a lot different without a suit on,” Lia said. He looked like a clothing store model actually. Not her type at all but still very handsome.

“Thanks,” he laughed.

“No, er, that was supposed to be a compliment,” she said, and then looked back at the stalls that lined the food court. “Er, about dinner . . . ?” she prompted him.

“Yeah, sure, what do you want?”

She ordered a burger with everything on it, a giant soda and reveled in the first real fast food that she’d had in ages. Mohan’s chefs were more likely to serve her veal than a simple burger. The food was good but sometimes she missed the junk food.

She offered some of the curly fries to Edward, but he thanked her politely and sat without eating.

“You guys don’t eat a lot, do you?”

Edward shook his head. “We don’t need to eat. Well, burgers and that sort of stuff.”

“But you drink blood.”

“I’m sort surprised that you’re not grossed out by that.”

She rolled her eyes. “You should see some of the things that I’ve eaten when I’m . . . not human. It’s hard to be grossed out after your first few mice.”

He nodded understandingly. “I can understand that. You just don’t look like the kind of girl that doesn’t get grossed out by drinking blood or eating small animals.”

She looked down at her flowery jeans and shrugged. “I guess so.”

Lia ate for a while in silence until Edward asked, “You don’t get out much, do you?”

She examined him again, and then shook her head.

“The reason that you didn’t know that this was technically our territory was because you didn’t tell anyone where you were going?”

Lia nodded, and sighed as she swallowed. “I think the correct term is “run away,” she said, miming one of Annabelle’s most common phrases.

“I’d heard one or two things about that, now that I think back,” Edward told her. “Why do you run away?”

Lia looked at him and shrugged.

“Do they not feed you or something? From the way that you’re eating it looks like they haven’t given you food in years.”

“No . . . they treat me fine. I mean, I have private chefs and they have tutors and stuff. I just don’t necessarily feel comfortable there.”

“What about Mohan?”

She looked at Edward, confused.

“How do you feel about him?”

“He’s just . . . Mohan. He’s okay I guess.”

“You aren’t part of his pack, are you?”

She shrugged, not sure what he meant by that. She was part of the pack. She lived with them, after all, but she suspected that Edward meant something else.

“See, that’s an answer by itself. You don’t feel much loyalty to him. If you’d been a member of Mohan’s pack you would. You wouldn’t run away. You resisted me earlier, when you lied about coming here to relax.”

Lia thought about shifting and flying away but Edward had been friendly to her so far but she couldn’t stop herself from reflexively tensing a bit.

Edward caught her wrist but made it look like he was just laying his hand on hers. Even with time slowed for her she hadn’t seen him move. His skin was cold and she tried to lift her hand but without even appearing to tense a muscle Edward kept her wrist glued to the table.

“I don’t know why he’s allowing it, but Mohan isn’t the kind of guy to be tested forever. You may have been his pet for two years but sooner or later he’s going to get annoyed and he’s going to add you to his pack by force. You’re strong, you resisted me, but Mohan is an Alpha wereborn. He was born to lead a pack and if you throw your will up against his, you won’t be able to resist him. It doesn’t seem like you want him to do that.”

She slowly shook her head. He looked around and when she looked back she winced.

“Do you know why he’s keeping you?”

She shook her head.

“The witches, they don’t like wereravens. I thought you were just a wolf until you introduced yourself but if I was a witch I would have attacked you outright. The raven is sacred to them and they say that wereravens are a defilement.”

He gave her a look. “That’s what they say, but the real reason is that you terrify them. You have a lot to fear from Mohan, but at least he’ll keep you safe. If the witches find you they’ll kill you without hesitation and if you’ve been going around Las Vegas like this then you’ve been extremely lucky so far.”

He let go of her hand and she immediately stood. He hadn’t hurt her and he’d just told her stuff that she hadn’t known.

Carefully, she picked up the last few bites of the burger and bit into it. The entire time she kept her eyes glued to Edwards.

“For a teenager,” he said after a moment, “you do have a few surprises.”

She finished the burger.

“What do you suggest then?” she asked after a sip of her soda.

“Don’t piss off Mohan. If you keep on ticking him off, he’ll eventually crush you like a bug.”

“I don’t like being kept locked up.”

“Nobody does,” Edward said vaguely and Lia could see that there was something in his eyes when he said that. “But sometimes you have to do things that you don’t want to do to get what you want.”

“What do you think I want?”

Edward focused back on her. “I’m sure I have no idea, just as you have no idea what I want. But if you want to avoid waking up one day and wanting to do everything in your power to serve Mohan, I would learn from him. He’s a powerful guy and no matter how much you dislike him you could learn a lot from him.”

Lia sat in silence for a moment considering his words.

“Thanks for dinner,” she finally said.

“No problem,” Edward said.

He walked her to the gate. She walked a few more blocks alone before she shifted and made her way back to the compound.

Slipping back into the compound was surprisingly difficult. She’d never done it before on her own.

The clock read midnight before Annabelle entered the room and found her reading her math textbook.

“I thought I’d get a jump on tomorrow’s lessons,” Lia said.

Annabelle said nothing but before she turned and stalked out of the room her face had turned the color of a fresh salmon sushi.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Why Work for a Hotel?

The last few months of not having a job has been really . . . damaging, catastrophic, miserable? One of those. Perhaps all of them.

It's given me an awful lot of time to just sit around and think though, and I've come to the problematic conclusion that I really don't seem to want to do any of the things that I'm applying for.

There really isn't an alternative here. I haven't had a divine flash of inspiration about what I do want to do but I've come to realize that I'd probably be miserable in the things that I am applying for.

This is creepy because I've been working for hotels for years, ever since summer jobs in high schools and I've usually had a fairly good time with them. I work with people well, I'm usually very organized and I tend to contribute a lot.

I know, that sounds like a line off my resume. I'll have to attribute it to the dozens and dozens of applications that I've filled out in the past few months.

I have to try to remember why I went to work for hotels in the first place and right now I'm drawing a blank. Maybe because I always sort of glamorized hotels as an industry. You cater to the rich and the famous after all, you get to meet a lot of interesting people, you get to travel.

Well, I was dead wrong about that last one. The only people that travel are the sales staff: the people that understand running a hotel least. In fact, that seems to be where all of the things that could make our profession interesting go to die a miserable and painful death. Bonuses, incentives, vacation time and the ability to speak authoritatively about the hotel's occupancy.

The only people that I hate more than sales are those sad members of the HR department: may they burn in hell. This is partially an affect of my arrival and departure experience at all of the hotels that I've worked for, so I'm sure in this dry spell this is accentuated. However, where I can at least see the services provided to a hotel by a Sales staff (however small those services might be compared to their soul deadening costs to the hotel) I can't quite see the net positive benefit to the HR departments that I've seen run.

For people that are supposed to be finding the best and the brightest workers for the hotel they do their job amazingly poorly.

Right now I'm taking a fair slew of personality inventories (I've also just been informed that I've been showing too much empathy on them; apparently the hospitality industry is looking for people that won't care if you come to them with a problem) and they've been a complete waste of time.

I'm sure half the people that fill them out do what I used to do: put in the answers that they expect that you want instead of what they really feel and now you've already set the precedent of them lying to you during the interview process and you haven't even met them yet.

I suppose it does stand to reason that most people in HR departments do so poorly because don't really understand the jobs that they're filling. Managerial or front line, they have a very limited idea of what the job entails and what the qualifications should be.

I suppose that this leads me to suspect what my main problems will be if I ever am in charge of a hotel: I'm barely going to respect my Sales staff and any HR department working under me is going to find itself doing real work.

But I'm not there yet. I'm still looking for jobs at the bottom of the barrel. The sort where I smile politely and never say anything bad about a boss that I never see or can barely stand and try to convince people that the reason that I zone out is that I find most front desk work about as challenging as watching paint dry.

So I'm still looking for a job. Still looking and trying to convince myself that it's worth it.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Totally Weird Dream

I don't have a job yet and it's starting to affect me in strange ways. For example, I had this truly bizarre dream last night about looking for work.

I responded to a Craigslist ad and got an immediate response asking me if i could come to an interview right now. So I rushed out and down one of the avenues to meet the woman at her house.

She's explaining the job and it has two parts. The first part is walking her daughter to school in the morning, getting to her house at seven and then walking her four or five blocks to her school. And then the rest of it was walking down to where the mother worked, some sort of book museum with about four shelves of books (mostly children's books from what I remember of the covers).

The mother and her boss showed me around and it was a nice place. There were some tables where people could sit. It was airy and expansive, which I thought was very nice for NYC.

Then they sort of just gave me a piece of cloth, as though they wanted to see what I would do with it, and I started to dust the shelves and the desks. I remember the mother nodded as though I'd just passed a huge test. She looked relieved.

I asked when she wanted me to start and she said "Right now!" explaining that tomorrow I would need to start.

Then she asked me if I had any other questions. I pulled her to the side, not wanting to advertise my greed, and asked her about compensation. Yes, I used that word in the dream for some specific reason.

But her response was priceless. She scrunched up her face a bit and said, "Well, the Museum has an admission price of $15, and I figured that we could waive it for you."

So, walking your daughter to school and cleaning the museum and all she was prepared to give me was free admission?

In the dream, at this point, I thought to myself that I'd take the job if she would give me five bucks a day for it and immediately chastised myself for being so stupid. That was her answer though. "I'll give you $5 a day."

I didn't take the job. I just stood there, sort of expecting another offer, but maybe some realistic figure, but it never came. Instead, her boss wandered over and suggested to her that maybe she'd better make it clear that there was no pay in the next craigslist ad, and he suggested text: "Hard working Asian willing to work for nothing needed to work for . . ."

Right, that was the other thing. She'd made passing references to being Asian throughout the course of the dream, including in the original job description, except that neither she nor her daughter was Asian. And I wasn't Asian in the dream either, so I was assuming that she was just trying to fill in for someone else and until I heard the manager put that in as a condition for the next ad I hadn't realized that they were really looking only for Asians but were willing to settle for me.

So finally I said something like "I'm sorry we can't come to some arrangement," and then I woke up.

And you know what, even though in real life I'm desperate, I'm still glad that I didn't take that job in the dream.

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