A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for December 2014

[LINK] “CMAP: Short stories, what are they good for?”

Charlie Stross writes at his blog about how why, in science fiction, novels make more financial sense for authors to write than short stories do.

Genre science fiction in the US literary tradition has its roots in the era of the pulp magazines, from roughly 1920 to roughly 1955. (The British SF/F field evolved similarly, so I’m going to use the US field as my reference point.) These were the main supply of mass-market fiction to the general public in the days before television, when reading a short story was a viable form of mass entertainment, and consequently there was a relatively fertile market for short fiction up to novella length. In addition, many of these magazines serialized novels: it was as serials that Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” and E. E. “Doc” Smith’s “The Skylark of Space” were originally published, among others.

For a while, during this period, it was possible to earn a living (not a very good living) churning out pulp fiction in short formats. It’s how Robert Heinlein supplemented his navy pension in the 1930s; it’s how many of the later-great authors first gained their audiences. But it was never a good living, and in the 1950s the bottom fell out of the pulp market—the distribution channel itself largely dried up and blew away, a victim of structural inefficiencies and competition from other entertainment media. The number of SF titles on sale crashed, and the number of copies each sold also crashed. Luckily for the writers a new medium was emerging: the mass market paperback, distributed via the same wholesale channel as the pulp magazines and sold through supermarkets and drugstore wire-racks. These paperbacks were typically short by modern standards: in some cases they provided a market for novellas (25,000 words and up—Ace Doubles consisted of two novellas, printed and bound back-to-back and upside-down relative to one another, making a single book).

The market for short fiction gradually recovered somewhat. In addition to the surviving SF magazines (now repackaged as digest-format paperback monthlies) anthologies emerged as a market. But after 1955 it was never again truly possible to earn a living writing short stories (although this may be changing thanks to the e-publishing format shift—it’s increasingly possible to publish stand-alone shorter works, or to start up a curatorial e-periodical or “web magazine” as the hip young folks call them). And the readership profile of the remaining magazines slowly began to creep upwards, as new readers discovered SF via the paperback book rather than the pulp magazine. With this upward trending demographic profile, the SF magazines entered a protracted, generational spiral of dwindling sales: today they still exist, but nobody would call a US newsstand magazine with monthly sales of 10,000-15,000 copies a success story.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2014 at 8:36 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Public Works: Bringing New Life to a City’s Lost Waterways”

Torontoist’s Peter Goffin reports on a San Francisco initiative that has relevance for Toronto, with its buried waterways like the Garrison Creek.

A pair of San Franciscans have concocted a plan to bring new life to the city’s long-dead waterways through a public art installation. Designer Emily Schlickman and radio producer Kristina Loring will paint the paths of dried-up creeks and streams (which, in that part of the world, are referred to as “arroyos”) onto the asphalt and concrete of the San Franciscan core that now covers them.

The project, called Ghost Arroyos, is one of 50 installations selected for inclusion in the Market Street Prototyping Festival—three days in April 2015 during which experimental “placemaking” projects for improving the major San Francisco street will be put on display.

The exhibit will include only a small section of Market Street, but there are enough ghostly waterways in San Francisco’s past to keep Schlickman and Loring painting streets for years.

The Oakland Museum of California has put together a bountiful online collection of interactive maps and historical paintings to show the city’s natural landscape as it once looked. It turns out the bustling Bay Area was once home to marshland, streams, creeks, and sand dunes, long since dried up or filled in and built over. Not unlike Toronto, except for the sand dunes.

Like San Francisco, we identify as a waterfront city but are also a city of inland tributaries—rivers, streams, creeks, ponds, marshes. Some, such as the Don and Humber, are unavoidable. Others have been long forgotten. But all of them have been manipulated, straightened, buried, narrowed, expanded, walled in, or controlled to make way for roads and ports and buildings.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2014 at 8:34 pm

[LINK] “Venezuela accuses US of starting oil war to ‘destroy’ Russia and Venezuela”

Al Jazeera reports.

Venezuela relies on oil revenue for 96 percent of its hard currency reserves, so the plunging price of oil — which has dropped by half in the past six months to $48 a barrel — threatens to destabilize its economy. President Nicolas Maduro has a theory about what’s behind the sudden drop.

“Did you know there’s an oil war?” Maduro asked the leaders of Venezuela’s state-run businesses in a speech Monday in which he accused the United States of trying to flood the market with shale oil. “And the war has an objective: to destroy Russia. It’s a strategically planned war … also aimed at Venezuela, to try and destroy our revolution and cause an economic collapse,” Maduro added.

The boom in U.S. shale oil production has pushed down oil prices worldwide, from $96 a barrel just six months ago, but Maduro’s comments say more about the pressure on his government domestically and Venezuela’s crucial relationship with Russia than about the global oil market.

Even before oil started slipping, Venezuela was suffering an economic slowdown. Venezuelans have been suffering from shortages of basic goods including cooking oil, detergent and diapers amid an economic slowdown, the highest inflation in the Americas and restrictions on foreign currency for businesses. Venezuela’s most famous ice-cream store, Coromoto, which holds a Guinness world record for its 863 different ice-cream flavors, reported over the holidays that it had closed due to lack of milk. The Tourism Ministry denied that shortages caused the closure.

Maduro’s opponents have turned Coromoto into a symbol of Venezuela’s larger economic failure. They blame 15 years of socialist policies and the trampling of rights, which they charge began under Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, for the country’s economic woes.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2014 at 8:32 pm

[LINK] “Ukraine May Leave Crimea’s Fate to Next Generation, Premier Says”

Bloomberg’s lodymyr Verbyany and Kateryna Choursina report that the Ukrainian prime minister has said that, given Ukraine’s position, it will have to wait to get Crimea back. I agree, this is sensible advice, but I also wonder if this will be settled. Shades of Alsace-Moselle?

Ukraine may have to leave the fate of Crimea to future generations, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said, a day after the president said the country can’t afford to take back its rebel-held areas by force.

The government in Kiev and its allies have condemned the March annexation of the Black Sea peninsula by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government. The U.S. and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Russian companies, individuals and industries that have compounded an almost 50 percent drop in oil prices to tip Russia’s economy toward recession.

“There’s no quick and simple answer to how to bring Crimea back to Ukraine,” Yatsenyuk said today at a year-end news conference in Kiev. “Crimea was, is, and always will be Ukrainian territory. If God helps us while we are alive, we will be able to reinstate control over Crimea. If not, our children or grandchildren will do this.”

Ukrainian officials are focusing on diplomacy to secure an enduring truce in what has grown into the worst dispute between Russia and its Cold War foes since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The government has paused a military offensive started in April aimed at driving the pro-Russian separatists from the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where fighting has killed more than 4,700 people, according to UN estimates.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2014 at 8:29 pm

[LINK] “Russians Are Organizing Against Putin Using FireChat Messaging App”

Back in October, I mentioned FireChat, a Bluetooth-based messaging system that was popular among Hong Kong protesters because it was unblockable. Bloomberg’s Mark Milian notes this software is now spreading to Russia.

Anti-government protesters in Russia followed along on Twitter as opposition leader Alexey Navalny live-tweeted his house-arrest violation today. But the real action was on FireChat, where Navalny and his supporters organized protests and exchanged unfiltered communication.

Open Garden, the San Francisco startup that makes FireChat, says activity from Russia has been spiking since yesterday, when Navalny urged his followers to download the free app. FireChat was the top-trending search on Apple’s App Store in Russia today. Downloads in the country began to increase on Dec. 20 after Facebook blocked a page promoting an opposition rally, under pressure from the government’s communications regulator, according to Open Garden.

FireChat, which lets users create chat rooms and communicate anonymously, has become popular among protesters around the world. Aside from anonymity, the app offers an advantage to those in politically unstable regions because it works even when Internet service is down. FireChat uses a technology available on newer smartphones, called mesh networking, that facilitates wireless communication directly between devices. It uses a combination of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals to connect with phones running the app. Iraqis flocked to FireChat in June after unrest prompted an Internet shutdown, and protesters in Taiwan and Hong Kong used the app when wireless networks failed.

As President Vladimir Putin faces increasing dissent during Russia’s worst economic crisis since 2009, he’s tightened his grip on the flow of information online. Navalny, an adept social networker, condemned his accelerated trial as a government attempt to silence him. He announced his arrest today to his 16,000 followers on FireChat, where his account has been verified by Open Garden. (Navalny has 868,000 followers on Twitter, where is profile is also verified.)

Since the jump in downloads on Dec. 20, FireChat was the 29th most popular social networking app for the iPhone and 79th for Android as of yesterday, according to the most recent data available from researcher App Annie. Christophe Daligault, the vice president of sales and marketing at Open Garden, says FireChat ranks 10th among social networking apps on the iPhone today—just above Twitter.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2014 at 8:26 pm

[LINK] On the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, trans teen on Ohio

This morning, I linked to Towleroad’s report about the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a trans teen in Ohio who killed herself in despair over her life. Before she did so, she prepared a suicide note which she posted on her Tumblr.

When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.

My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.

When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.

[. . .]

After a summer of having almost no friends plus the weight of having to think about college, save money for moving out, keep my grades up, go to church each week and feel like shit because everyone there is against everything I live for, I have decided I’ve had enough. I’m never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.

That’s the gist of it, that’s why I feel like killing myself. Sorry if that’s not a good enough reason for you, it’s good enough for me. As for my will, I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money (plus my money in the bank) to be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups, I don’t give a shit which one. The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.

This note has since been shared nearly two hundred thousand times as of now. (When I first saw it a few hours ago, it had well under a hundred thousand.) In addition, Leelah’s suicide note has managed to make national, even international news.

This is so terribly sad. All I can do at this stage is express my hope that this note, by putting a face to the struggles of trans teenagers, will help humanize them.

It’s better to notice a problem late than not to notice it at all, and Leelah’s death may mean quite a lot. Even so, her death can’t help but mean much less than her life, if only she had been able to continue.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2014 at 4:29 pm

[BLOG] Some Wednesday links

  • Centauri Dreams considers long-distance repair of space probes.
  • D-Brief notes the relationship between conservatism and high rates of pornography usage.
  • The Dragon’s Tales links to an analysis of Enceladus’ internal structure suggesting that moon could have kept its polar subsurface oceans continuously.
  • Far Outliers notes the not-quite-ethnic nature of the warfare in Bosnia.
  • Joe. My. God. observes same-sex marriages in Scotland.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money is anti-austerity in Greece.
  • Personal Reflections’ Jim Belshaw notes how sexuality can displace coverage of other important issues.
  • Torontoist looks at a racist attack on a Toronto subway on New Year’s Eve in 1976.
  • Towleroad covers the suicide of a transgender teen in Ohio.
  • Transit Toronto notes all-night service tonight on the TTC.
  • Understanding Society considers the task of building a more inclusive university.
  • Window on Eurasia notes a Russian claim of terrorism sponsored by the Ukrainian government.
  • Writing Through the Fog’s Cheri Lucas Rowlands shares photos of Hong Kong.

[PHOTO] Bikes in front of former World’s Biggest Bookstore

Bikes in front of former World's Biggest Bookstore

As Ryerson’s nearly-completed student centre rises in the background, the half-demolished World’s Biggest Bookstore sits exposed to the warm Christmas air.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2014 at 12:51 pm

[LINK] “Possible Psychology of a Matrioshka Brain”

Eric Schwitzgebel’s New APPS Blog post from October speculating about the possible drives of a Matrioshka brain–briefly, a planet-sized supercomputer powered by the energy of a sun–is wonderful. What would it do, and why?

Enclose the sun inside a layered nest of thin spherical computers. Have the inmost sphere harvest the sun’s radiation to drive computational processes, emitting waste heat out its backside. Use this waste heat as the energy input for the computational processes of a second, larger and cooler sphere that encloses the first. Use the waste heat of the second sphere to drive the computational processes of a third. Keep adding spheres until you have an outmost sphere that operates near the background temperature of interstellar space.

Congratulations, you’ve built a Matrioshka Brain! It consumes the entire power output of its star and produces many orders of magnitude more computation per microsecond than all of the current computers on Earth do per year.

[. . .]

A common theme in discussions of super-duper-superintelligence is that we can have no idea what such a being would think about — that a being so super-duper would be at least as cognitively different from us as we are from earthworms, and thus entirely beyond our ken. But I’d suggest (with Nick Bostrom, Eric Steinhart, and Susan Schneider) that we can think about the psychology of vast supercomputers. Unlike earthworms, we know some general principles of mentality; and, unlike earthworms, we can speculate, at least tentatively, about how these principles might apply to entities with computational power that far exceeds our own.


Let’s begin by considering a Matrioshka Brain planfully constructed by intelligent designers. The designers might have aimed at creating only a temporary entity — a brief art installation, maybe, like a Buddhist sand mandala. These are, perhaps, almost entirely beyond psychological prediction. But if the designers wanted to make a durable Matrioshka Brain, then broad design principles begin to suggest themselves.

Read the rest of the post for insight.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2014 at 4:59 am

[LINK] “Trudeau’s Liberals led in 2014, but what does 2015 hold?”

CBC’s Éric Grenier makes predictions, with charts, of Canadian political dynamics in the coming year. It may be the Liberals’ year.

It was a good year for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, as the party maintained its lead in national voting intentions. But there were moments when it looked like the Conservatives were on track to dislodge the Liberals from top spot.

That was certainly the case when the House of Commons began its summer break. The Liberals had begun the year with a comfortable six- to eight-point lead, but by June the margin between the two parties had decreased to just two points. The Trudeau honeymoon was at risk of coming to an end.

But the Liberals’ polling numbers ballooned over the summer, as the party surged to the highest level of support it would enjoy all year, at 38 to 39 per cent. The Conservatives, however, were keeping their heads above water at 30 per cent, and as parliamentarians returned to work in the fall, the margin closed once again.

As it stands at year end, the Liberals still lead in the polls, but their advantage over the Conservatives is modest at about 35 to 32 per cent.

The New Democrats have trended downwards throughout the year, having started 2014 in a strong third position with 24 to 25 per cent support. But as Liberal support jumped in the summer, the NDP dropped to the low-20s and, this past month, has been even flirting with the high-teens. While the party is still polling quite well by historical standards, it is a far cry from the 31 per cent the NDP captured in 2011.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2014 at 1:03 am

Posted in Canada, Politics

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