Worlds & Time

Monday, October 29, 2007

Bad TV

I get a guilty pleasure in watching bad television sometimes. Normally I'm a Law & Order, Heroes, House kind of guy, but sometimes, when I don't think that anyone is around, I'll turn on something really bad from MTV or VH1.

I've been tuning into America's Most Smartest Model on VH1 because it fulfills both of the two basic requirements for what I consider excellent bad television: It features extremely attractive men that parade around in little clothing and it doesn't take itself too seriously. Janice Dickinson's Modeling Agency, Kathy Griffin's My Life on the D-List, and some seasons of the Real World all fit these requirements as well.

Watching the episode tonight entertained me in another cool way. During the "edge" challenge that happens in the beginning of the episode and is the basis for the "Most Smartest" part of the show's title, they had to do science projects. Two of the groups did fairly well (and the two incredibly hot guys came up with a creative presentation), but some of the other models had trouble with exceedingly simple science projects.

I'm not brilliant. My time at the University of Rochester proved that, but at least I have a basic understanding of simple concepts in science. The people on this show don't even have that.

I know that it's stereotypical to consider models stupid, but Janice Dickinson has a model that's got her doctorate. I'm sure it wouldn't have been that hard to find a slew of want-to-be models that don't have trouble with large words.

Or more men with six-pack abs.

Still, some of the people on the show have personality, especially the Russian guy, which makes it relatively worth watching.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Uhg, IIDB Drama Llama

So, what went on today during my last eventful day as Admin at IIDB?

Today, one of our long time users and a Board Member was removed from her post and banned, and I was relieved of my duties as Administrator. I believe that both of these actions were problematic considering the IIDB charter. Below you will find my version of what happened from my perspective.

To begin, Janice (EverLastingGodStopper), who has a heart in the right place, told me that she was going to be voted off the Internet Infidels Board of Directors (sometimes referred to hereafter as "the Board").

This wasn't completely unexpected, because she'd been having problems, primarily with Michael (The Other Michael) and Scott (Maverick, also the II President). She'd already told me about how they didn't like it when she decided to go ask former IIDB users for their opinions on Board of Director matters.

I partially understand that. After all, most of these former users are banned at IIDB. However, this also includes a lot of long term users who put a lot of work into IIDB and were banned because they eventually racked up slews of warnings or user notes, and might have some good suggestions. Some of these people now run their own message boards, and might have insights from that as well.

Janice though, has more than twice the posts that I do and has been a user since 2002, and has invested a lot of time and energy into both Internet Infidels and IIDB. She's previously told me how upset she would be if she was kicked off the board because she cares so much about her secular activism.

Maybe twenty minutes, she was removed from the Board, and it was clear because they removed her "Board of Director" Access and custom user title. She posted twice that she had been removed from the Board, once in the fund raising thread that she'd been tending and once in the lounge.

These weren't big huge "I'M LEAVING AND U SUCK" posts that some times happen when a long time user leaves a message board. The first just noted that she was no longer a Board Member, so someone else would have to take care of tending the fund raising drive. The second one just noted that a line had dropped from her secular community "signature" because she'd been dropped from the Board. She didn't even start a new thread.

This is where bad things started to happen. Janice was very much well like, and even though I haven't always gotten along with her, there are a lot of users that care about her. One of the moderators got, well, very upset about her departure. It was pretty obvious that she'd been talking to Janice through IIDB's Private Message system because she seemed to have a pretty good idea of what Janice was saying.

Now, Mike and Scott are respectively the IIDB liaison to the Board of Directors and the President of the Board. Even in the ACR, neither Mike nor Scott originally commented on why she had been removed from her post. When it became clear that this was going to become a big deal, Scott eventually offered a vague post about previous mistakes Janice had made. Considering the furor that the recent banning on one of our long time contributors, Red Dave, made, it was obvious that without a more substantiative response, the issue was going to become problematic.

Michael's response to this upset Mod was very cold and dismissive, and it was immediately obvious to me that he was quite angry. So I quoted both the upset Mod and Michael and told them to calm down and be civil to each other. This all took place in the Moderator Conference Room (MCR), which is outside of the view of most of the users.

Now, Scott removed the first post Janice made after she was removed from the board right away. While the Board owns us, it has always been my understanding that the Administrators run the day to day operations of IIDB, and while they have Admin powers, they don't typically interfere with moderation. I didn't reverse his deletion, but I did point out that there are Admins on, and that we have a chain of command for a reason. At some point, I even pointed out that if he wanted us to take action, he could tell me what he wanted, and I would do it for him.

Then I got a PM from Michael absolutely fuming about me asking him to calm down in the MCR, entitled "Back Off." He told me that my action was out of line (although all I'd done was ask that everyone calm down) and at the end he said "Please indicate that you understand this." I interpreted this as a threat to my position. I wrote a response, again asking him to calm down, and pointing out that his response to the upset moderator was not going to improve the situation.

Soon after this, Michael removed Janice's second post out of sight. Around this time, I also noticed that Janice has been banned completely from the site.

In the ACR, I pointed out that, as per my understanding of what it means to be an Administrator, I should have been asked to vote on the banning of one of our users. I quoted a section of the IIDB charter that pointed out that all users are entitled to fair treatment, and that I don't believe that this has been the case in Janice's banning. Given her emotional state, she did not overreact, and there was no reason that I believe that she should have been banned. At no point today did she break any site rules, which is our condition for membership.

Michael then sent me a PM response to his "Back off" private message about how he was in charge of the Board, and that what he says goes. I tried to respond to this PM, but found that I had been removed from my position as an Admin. This means that due to my smaller PM box, I am no longer able to send further PMs.

This is, and has never been my understanding of the function of the "Board liaison" or IIDB Administrators. In the ACR's thread, "Administrator duties" thread, it specifically says that actions taken by the Administrators are done by consensus. Never before had I seen mention that the Board liaison had complete and utter control over the board, and control and administration over the other Administrators.

It has always been my understanding that Administrators should work together as a group, and calmly reach decisions together, to prevent single Administrators from doing exactly what Michael has; taken absolute control of the entire board in the heat of emotion. We have always struggled to remain impartial and fair. I believe that Janice's ban and my removal as Administrator are in direct violation of these principals.

I am a long time user of IIDB. Prior to being made Administrator, I was a Moderator-at-Large for several months, and prior to that, I was a moderator of various forums for more than two years. As an Administrator I have taken the initiative to clean up the Administrator Conference Room (ACR), reorganize and solicit real world contact information for our Moderators, keep both the MCR and ACR up to date. Additionally, I think that you will find that I am well respected among the IIDB moderation staff.

I am greatly upset by today's actions. It is my hope that I will be able to rejoin the IIDB Administration staff, but if Michael's assertions that he has absolute control over IIDB are correct, I am afraid that IIDB is not the organization that I thought it was.

Otherwise, it would have been my honor to continue to serve the II Board of Directors as an Administrator of IIDB.

My best wishes to all.

Spherical Time
former Administrator and Moderator of IIDB

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The VPXI Blog

Jeff Soesbe wrote a really exhaustive set of entries covering Viable Paradise XI, which can be found here.

I just discovered another massively comprehensive set of entries from Julia Dvorin at her blog here and Jean Huets blog is here.

I've put together a flickr set of my pictures here.

If I ever manage to get my videos uploaded to YouTube, I'll put a link to those as well.

Update: I don't know why I didn't think of this earlier, but Pam set up a fantastic website on Viable Paradise here. It should answer lots of questions about VP and VPXI.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I think I just read one of the most important books that I've ever read. It was good, too, but that is far outweighed by what I suspect will be the importance of the book to history. Uh, yeah, that sounds a bit dramatic, but bear with me for a little while.

I can't tell you about any of this, because I got an advance copy from Cory himself (yes, that Cory) when I met him at Viable Paradise, and I told him that I wouldn't distribute his book before it's published.

On the positive side, you probably won't see this for months anyway, so I'm going to go for it. When you do see this, buy this book (Update: I put a link to the Amazon pre-order page at the bottom). After it's out, Cory will probably distribute it for free, so check out his site in April 2008.

The title of Little Brother is representative of the theme of government surveillance and supposed security that drive the plot of the novel, and a play on Orwell's Big Brother.

Cory told me (and everyone at VP) that this book came easily to him because his experience with the EFF and his life commenting and being active in various forms of online activism provided the research for this book, and it shows through the detailed and realistic writing. The technology in the novel is not science fiction, and the themes are extremely relevant to today's society. It seems so relevant and recent that I was shocked to learn that it wasn't written over the course of this last weekend but rather last year.

In the book, Marcus, a high school student in San Francisco, is in the vicinity when terrorists bomb the Bay Bridge. While trying to get medical help for a friend caught in the crowds he and his friends are detained by the Department of Homeland Security. He is thrown into a secret prison where he is tortured and questioned by American security agents. After four days he is released but his best friend Darryl isn't so lucky; he is "disappeared" by the DHS.

The rest of the book follows Marcus as he rebels against the constraints of the new "post-bombing" world and uses commonly available technology to subvert the government's observation of both him and others. When they tap the local computer networks, he builds a new network. When they trace everyone with rdf chips, he figures out how to destroy their usefulness.

I just want to pause here for a moment and say that if you don't know what rdf chips are or how to build computer networks Cory's book does a phenomenal job of simplifying the technology and explaining how it works and what the main character is doing with it. When he uses netspeak like hawt and 1337, he explains what those words mean. As such, I think this book is going to appeal to a much wider audience than the typical geeky crowd that reads science fiction. This is "speculative fiction" in the broadest possible meaning of the term and I hope it will appeal to the general audience of fiction readers. I'll certainly try it out on my mother when I get a physical copy.

Three years ago I read 1984 for a college class and I suspect that in ten or twenty years you might be reading Little Brother there as well. This book is a call to arms over the current mindset of security and privacy invasion, and frames it in terms of this generation's struggle against conformity.

It also explicitly points out why restricting technology or Big Brother like surveillance won't make American's safer:

First, technology advances. What is good technology today is going to be out of date tomorrow, and if you try to restrict tomorrow's technology with today's standards, you are going to find that it is impossible. Instead, you'll have to try to stop the advancement of technology, which is a stupid thing to do in America, considering that our economy is based on that advancement.

Second, people (especially young people) explore. Putting up boundaries is stupid because people are always going to try to push at them. For every secure system created, people are going to test it, and eventually someone will crack it. They cracked DeCss, they cracked the Xbox, and they cracked the iPhone. If your protection depends on other people not attempting to break into your system, you aren't going to be successful for very long.

There is one thing that I think that his book missed, related to this article on inattentional blindness:
(You can see one of the videos here)

The authorities are so focused on monitoring specific things that they've been told to look for that they're going to miss the man in the gorilla suit. Inattentional blindness is a significant problem in security because the point of terrorism is that it be an unpredicted event or stimulus.

Thus, massive computer dragnets that search for unusual or "weird" behavior aren't going to find the terrorists, they're going to find odd people that like taking random trains for fun or people working to remodel their garages. Snooping for words like "assassinate" and "kill" on the internet aren't going to find murders or assassins because anyone can use a clever euphemism or just replace an s with a 5 or an a with a @.

When you can't carry nail clippers or water onto planes (when you really need the water to stay healthy when traveling, incidentally) that means that the security guards are less likely to notice that the cover of your hardcover book is made out of plastique. (Update and note: See here for a freakonomics blog entry about this subject published on December 4, 2007)

A much more successful way to police terrorists is to follow leads and specific profiles that you already have. Watching for unusual travel patterns wouldn't have stopped 9/11. Banning more than 6 oz. of water wouldn't have stopped Richard Reed. Looking only at men from the middle east wouldn't have stopped the Oklahoma City bombing.

Aside from the amazingly interesting themes of the book, you're probably wondering about how good the actual writing is. Cory's characterization is solid and his personal first person perspective really makes the narrative personal. In some ways Marcus brought to mind a modern version of Holden Caulfield, although I trusted Marcus as a much more reliable narrator and I didn't want to beat his head in with a bat.

The plot was completely engaging, and indeed I found myself staying late at work so that I could finish the last few pages. It's a real page turner. I found myself angry at people interrupting my enjoyment of this piece because of my actual job.

As I mentioned before, the voice in which this book is told is something special. The narrator is Marcus' (and I've met Cory and I was shocked at how different Marcus' speaks from the way that Cory speaks) and he manages to be both informational and easily understandable. Similar to the way that Holden's tone carries Catcher in the Rye, Marcus carries Little Brother.

The only other criticism that I can think of is that the setting isn't nearly as fully realized as the bleak world of 1984, although Little Brother's setting is easily as good or better than my best day writing so far.

Summed up, I think this is a brilliant book. I recommend it to everyone, even people that normally would turn up their noses at anything published by a science fiction/fantasy press. When it is published, you can be sure that I'll be passing this around my family as well as my friends.

(Update: Pre-order your copy here.)

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Monday, October 08, 2007


I'm home from Viable Paradise. It was a lovely time, although I wish I'd stayed a little longer on the island. I woke up late my last day because I thought I was staying an extra night, and so I never did get around to swimming in the ocean.

I think I got a lot of good advice. Not only on Colony, the short story that I submitted, but on my book as well.

One of the best parts of the conference though was meeting the staff and listening to their stories. I "studied up" by reading a few volumes of "The Year's Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy" edited by a few different editors. I'm not exceedingly well read in Spec Fiction, but I definitely try, and I recognized more names than I thought I would.

It helps that a lot of the craziest stories were about Steve Brust, who I've found out is not only one of today's legendary genre writers, but a really awesome and crazy guy.

A few of my reactions to the instructors:

TNH: Hilarious. And super nice. And I'm her slave. She knows why. I worship at your awesome feet.

PNH: Someone told me not to be taken aback by Patrick, and not to think that he didn't like me if he was quiet. I didn't find him off-putting at all, he was always very nice to me. He's got this really interesting accent, a drawl of some kind. I've been thinking about it, but I haven't yet figured out where it comes from.

Laura Mixon: I need to read your book, but I also think that your storytron project looks very interesting, and I can't wait to see what comes out of it.

Steve Gould: Only a few days after the conference, and I have now read everything that he's written. Reflex is so good that I want more. The movie based on Jumper also looks good (although he says that they've changed the premise of the movie so completely that it's a completely different work).

Cory Doctrow: Okay, okay, I'd never heard of him before VP. Here's a funny story though. Traveling back through New York City, I went out to a party at a bar in downtown Manhattan with some friends. I just so happened to run into a gay geek at this party, and his name helped me get his phone number. Awesomeness. And he had a British accent. More awesomeness. I am in debt to him for the geek cred that your presence at VP has gifted me with.

James McDonald & Debra Doyle: The two of them have some of the most interesting writing anecdotes that I've ever heard. I could listen to them talk for hours.

Elizabeth Bear: What to say about Bear? She's got so much energy that it's hard to understand how it's contained in just one human figure. I have the feeling that if I poked her with a pin she would explode with creativity, leaving little bits of characterization and plot all over the walls. That description doesn't even do her justice because despite her geekiness I think she was one of the coolest people at the conference.

The only problem that I had with the conference is that I was sick for most of it. When you're only getting five hours of sleep every night, it's nearly impossible to get over a cold.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was the reading of Shakespeare's Richard III (I was Edward IV and the Duchess of York, incidentally). I'm trying to post some YouTube videos of the end (I'm not in it, unfortunately), but I'm having some trouble. If I get them up, I'll add a link here. (Note: February 08 and the video's still aren't up. I tried, and tried, and failed.)

I return home, and what's waiting for me in my inbox? An invitation to join the IIDB Administrative staff. I accepted, of course, and spent two days trying to get caught up on the new workload, and it's immense. The changes between being a moderator and being an administrator are significant. I still think they should divide up some of the responsibilities so that no one person has to cover quite so much terrain.

Still, this is a position that I've been working toward for a long time, and I'm very much excited by it. Hopefully I can make a positive difference to the site.

Incidentally, in his "How to blog" lecture, Cory mentioned that you should give blog posts more descriptive names, so I'm considering being more expressive about my post titles. No more one word titles . . . er, after this post, that is.

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