Archive for June, 2003

Export, Import

Tuesday, June 17th, 2003

I’m trying to move the blog over to the new host without doing anything fancy involving moving the databases around. Just doing an export and an import in MovableType is likely to break your permalinks, especially if you’ve deleted entries, imported in non-chronological order, or run more than one blog out of the same MT database. This misnumbering problem has been amply moaned over in the MT forums. However, one post suggested a way to keep your entry ID’s the same by hacking both the old and new MT implementations.

That wouldn’t work for me because only this MT on Freeshell is hackable. So what I did was hack as directed, but instead of making a new field called POSTID, I added anchor links to each entry for the old ID. You can export exactly as directed and then query-replace to insert the anchor links, which is more or less what I did.

That still leaves one problem - old entry id’s could conflict with new ones, so that on the same page one anchor linked to the old #209 and one to the new #209. You’d probably get the first one on the page no matter which one you were after.

The solution is simple. I was padding my permalinks (so that #209 came up as #000209), so all my hacked-in anchors are of the #000209 format. By removing the pad=”1″ from my templates, I’ll make my new permalinks look like #209. The link for 000209 will never conflict with 209, since I haven’t yet made it to 100,000 entries.

I do realize that this entry won’t make much sense unless you’ve had the same problem. If you have the problem and still don’t understand, feel free to email me. My address is around here somewhere.

Analog, A Million Open Doors

Monday, June 16th, 2003

The July/August Analog was a double issue, and therefore doubly disappointing. “A Professor at Harvard” by David Brin was cute and would be worth reading at the bookstore. My favorite story was “Still Coming Ashore” by Michael F. Flynn, a lovely piece of scientific speculation with an adventure story and a weird moral twist at the end. “Agent” by Shirley Kennet was also notable.

Several unnoteworthy stories were of the “I can describe Antarctica/the prairie/the desert/light gliders/etc.” type with a less-than-successful plot tacked on. Writing what you know is highly overrated, if you ask me. A couple of stories were part of series (as opposed to serials), and I never care for those.

Only one story was an actual disappointment, in that the idea had more potential than the author brought out: “Not a Drop to Drink” by Grey Rollins was supposed to be about the survival of the fittest on a dry colony world, but it was marred by the unbelievably backwards, fanatical religious settlers. I don’t mean backwards as a synonym for fanatical; rather, the colonists had just enough technology to do the genetic engineering to which the religious fanatics objected, but not enough to desalinate seawater, find a better planet, engineer the plants instead, tow some comet ice in from space, or a thousand other solutions that space travellers ought to be capable of.

I don’t object to making thinly-disguised Evangelicals the antagonists of your story, but I do object to doing it badly. You can’t hang your entire story on a prejudice you’re just assuming the audience shares with you - you need to motivate your villains as well as your heroes. This is where A Million Open Doors by John Barnes lost me as well.

The best part of the novel was the very beginning, where the society of Nou Occitan was depicted. Frustrated in love, Our Hero leaves that lovely and warm medieval planet for the icy land of Caledony. The title promised a million open doors and the blurbs promised me an extensive tour of at least two cultures, but the winter planet was a disappointment. While the society of Nou Occitan gelled (at least until the author started picking it apart in later chapters), Caledony never came together as a coherent way of life.

Needless to say, Caledony’s is a religious society. Their faith is supposed to be some hash of economics, logic, and Puritanism, but it never once comes together as a religion. The religion is a black box like Asaro’s quis but it’s made worse by the fact that all orthodox believers in the novel are unmotivated bad guys. All the Caledons we get to know personally are rebels, revolutionaries, liberal economic preachers, and others who have seen the error of their religious ways.

The moral of the story is that all million human cultures are going to have to give up what makes them unique (that is, bad) and join back into the growing hegemony on the other side of all those doors. Minor virtues such as the Nou Occitan “style and grace” may happen to be preserved, or not. There was a coming-of-age story in here somewhere for Our Hero, but in the end coming of age for scattered mankind means becoming cosmopolitan. This might pass in mainstream literature, where cosmopolitan has an identifiable meaning (say, liberal New Yorker, Eurotrash, conservative Washington D.C. politico, anyone who lives in Brussels, etc.), but in science fiction this theme is problematic. There is no default culture of the future. Putting yours in there, largely by omission (the hegemony and its political troubles are described in the vaguest of terms), is a cop-out.

That’s not to say that A Million Open Doors wasn’t a good story - it was. It just wasn’t the story advertised on the cover.

Let’s Play “Name That Theme”

Sunday, June 15th, 2003

For the purposes of this meme, a story’s theme is an abstract idea about which any story might have been written and which happens to come through in this particular story’s plot. A theme doesn’t have to be emotional (”the sorrows of star-crossed love”); it could be concrete (”life among the Borg”). You should be able to say how the plot reflects the theme, but the plot itself should not show up in the theme.

I’m assuming most fanfic writers are like me - that they don’t start writing with a theme in mind, and perhaps never stop to think about what the theme of their story was. I usually start with some kind of interesting sci-fi situation, not even a full plot, and write the beginning before I know how things will turn out. This approach has generated several incomplete Voyager stories, and far more corpses of original stories. It had to go.

Now I’ve repented of my unstructured ways and in the future I plan to think about both a detailed plot and a theme before plunging head-first into a story. The first two tales to which I’m applying this new method are The Wrong Novel and (my rewrite of) Colony. I haven’t quite figured out what the theme is of Colony, though I have decided that the necessary subplot will involve Starfleet. Previously I had vague ideas about using the Borg, who we all know are the last refuge of hack Trek writers everywhere (but especially at Paramount).

Being stumped for the theme of Colony, I started thinking about some of my other stories and assigning them themes. This sport (which I originally thought to name “Let’s Play English Class”) can be applied to other people’s stories, too, but I’ll stick to a few of my more popular stories for the moment. I list the theme first, with a bit of how the plot brings it out. It’s all made up off the top of my head, just like I used to do in English class.

The Dance (Tunkai): “the quest for an ideal”

At first the crew believe they’re taking up a hobby for Seven’s sake, but Seven is incapable of treating anything that lightly (the ideal). Likewise, Chakotay’s anthropological interest in Tunkai becomes more than just a hobby (the quest), and turns him into the local authority on the matter. Tom gets involved because he does not want to lose B’Elanna to the ideal; he has no personal stake in the quest until he stumbles (pardon the pun) across another ideal which he finds equally threatening. At that point he resolves to undermine Tunkai, with mixed success.

At a couple of other turning points in the story, one early on and one at the climax, someone says “This is not our version of Tunkai.” These statements concern allegiance to the ideal, something which Seven and Chakotay are concerned to maintain, Tom to undermine, and the Captain to conceal because she has an overriding ideal in Starfleet protocol. The ideal is achieved for one hour at the climax, but because of its new nature (and Starfleet protocol) it cannot be reproduced. The conflict between Tom and the ideal is thus resolved.

The Museum: “the conflict between duty and mercy”

I was surprised when the idea of mercy came out in resolution, because there are very few cases in the series where mercy wins. In “Choose Life,” Chakotay talks Janeway out of her clear duty not to reproduce (making this the only light story in the series, and the least popular), but in “Mirror, Mirror,” Chakotay is as frustratingly duty-bound not to get involved with Janeway as she has been with him in the real timeline. “Home Front” and “Logic Dictates” are narrow escapes from the implacable human machinery (duty) of Section 31; in “Once More Unto the Breach,” Tuvok doesn’t escape it. “To Perish in that Howling Infinite,” “Ambassador,” “Mushroom Soup,” and “Your Wish is My Command” show Seven and various Maquis acting as they might have had they been more dutiful drones or terrorists, respectively.

“The Museum” is a series with a unifying subplot. The wild, dark, or in some cases (say, “Endgame”) ludicrous events of the timelines affect the “real” crew, so that Janeway feels them drifting apart from her. In most cases they feel simple survivor’s guilt because real life is already better (more merciful) than the alternatives seen, but Janeway and especially Tuvok, the only two serious advocates of duty, are influenced by their milder selves in the direction of mercy.

The Lamne’rau: “the offspring of scientific hubris”

I mean hubris in the sense of reckless passion rather than excessive pride (though Magnus has some of the latter, too). The Hansens are too curious for their own good, and their unhealthy interests are reflected in their daughter. They are carelessly ignorant of the true danger posed by the Collective, but the reader is not; this contrast, rather than the actual events of the story, makes for most of the chilling effect (or so people tell me). This story began as a simple fanfix of some bad stardates in Seven’s childhood, but the final result can be summed up by a line of hers from one of my filks: “He who seeks out the Borg the Borg find.”

The Age of Envy

Friday, June 13th, 2003

The following is an excerpt from “The Age of Envy” by Ayn Rand, an
essay she published in both “The Objectivist” and The
Anti-Industrial Revolution
. I stumbled across it when surfing
for information about her posthumous how-to-write book, The Age of
. I include it here because the topic occasionally comes
up, and people toss around the allegation of envy without, I suspect,
considering just how nasty a vice it is. (Rand had a real talent for
exposing evil, as seen, for instance, in her href="">HUAC
testimony.) Note that envy is often mistermed jealousy, though the
latter word is more properly associated with love (no matter how
warped a love) rather than malice.

Superficially, the motive of those who hate the good is taken to
be envy. A dictionary definition of envy is: “1. a sense of
discontent or jealousy with regard to another’s advantages, success,
possessions, etc. 2. desire for an advantaged position possessed by
another.” (The Random House Dictionary, 1968.) The same
dictionary adds the following elucidation: “To envy is to
feel resentful because someone else possesses or has achieved what one
wishes oneself to possess or to have achieved.”

This covers a great many emotional responses, which come from
different motives. In a certain sense, the second definition is the
opposite of the first, and the more innocent of the two.

For example, if a poor man experiences a moment’s envy of another
man’s wealth, the feeling may mean nothing more than a momentary
concretization of his desire for wealth; the feeling is not directed
against that particular rich person and is concerned with the wealth,
not the person. The feeling, in effect, may amount to: “I wish I had
an income or a house, or a car, or an overcoat) like his.” The result
of this feeling may be an added incentive for the man to improve his
financial condition.

The feeling is less innocent, if it amounts to: “I want this
car (or overcoat, or diamond shirt studs, or industrial
establishment).” The result is a criminal.

But these are still human beings, in various stages of immorality,
compared to the inhuman object whose feeling is: “I hate this
man because he is wealthy and I am not.”

Envy is part of this creature’s feeling, but only the superficial,
semirespectable part; it is the tip of an iceberg showing nothing
worse than ice, but with the submerged part consisting of a compost of
rotting living matter. The envy, in this case, is semirespectable
because it seems to imply a desire for material possessions, which is
a human being’s desire. But, deep down, the creature has no such
desire: it does not want to be rich, it wants the human being to be

This is particularly clear in the much more virulent cases of
hatred, masked as envy, for those who possess personal values or
virtues: hatred of a man (or a woman) because he (or she) is beautiful
or intelligent or successful or honest or happy. In these cases, the
creature has no desire and makes no effort to improve its appearance,
to develop or to use its intelligence, to struggle for success, to
practice honesty, to be happy (nothing can make it happy). It knows
that the disfigurement or the mental collapse or the failure or the
immorality or the misery of its victim would not endow it with his or
her value. It does not desire the value: it desires the value’s

“They do not want to own your fortune, they want you to lose
it; they do not want to succeed, they want you to fail; they do not
want to live, they want you to die; they desire nothing, they hate
(Atlas Shrugged)

Seema in Boston

Thursday, June 12th, 2003

Seema has been spotted in Boston, mainly shopping at CVS and Buck-a-Book, and travelling by antique el and elevator. Speaking of which, I was sad to hear that the last stretch of el (that is, the elevated Green Line tracks between North Station and Lechmere) is coming down and being replaced by a tunnel sometime this year or next. I suppose if they’re burying the rat’s nest of highways out there in the Big Dig, the el would stick out like a sore thumb afterwards.

I’ve always found the North Station/Science Park area an asphalt wasteland so I can’t really complain, but then again the el is cute and harmless and it seems a shame to tear it down. Maybe it’s blocking some bigwig’s view of the Zakim Bridge.

The Hero as the Problem

Wednesday, June 11th, 2003

Another truism from Worlds of Wonder is that the hero is also the problem. The conflict in a story is generated by the hero’s refusal to adapt; once the hero transmutes himself (in sci-fi often literally), the story is over except for the last bit of kick-boxing. Gerrold gives Luke Skywalker as an example of the transmuted hero (farmer boy to Jedi knight). Neo in the original Matrix would be a more up-to-date version.

I almost bought that chapter of the book, I admit, until I asked myself whether all stories were really that way. I’d say not. Some heroes never change - the stock characters of the pulps come immediately to mind. Some heroes change in a way that does not affect the plot; for example, Frodo finds he can’t go home again, though there had been no moment of decision at which he broke with his hobbit past. In some stories the point is that the hero remained faithful to what he was before, rather than breaking under external pressure - for example, Faramir or Howard Roark.

Overall, I’d say Worlds of Wonder is a good source of writing exercises and truisms, but next time, I’m reading The Art of Fiction.

Breda, The Type 8 Train Personality

Tuesday, June 10th, 2003

Transit joke of the day: Fly the Honest Skies from the rec.humor.funny newsgroup

Regarding yesterday’s Breda follies, Liz says, You know, I cannot make heads or tails of that post. Liz lives in Australia, where (one assumes) it is the natural behavior of trains to travel on the left-hand side of the tracks. Not so here! (Somebody please tell the MBTA.)

I’ve decided to devote a new entry to Liz’s pointed questions. Real Bostonians may wish to move on now to, say, Bad Transit or the Green Line forum at, in order to see the T discussed with the proper level of obscurity, sarcasm, jargon and expletives. (Real Bostonians are the ones who give directions according to places that no longer exist, such as the Star Market on Comm Ave in Allston, the Arborway stop on the E line, or the entire A line.)

Liz asks, Is there a Boston Public Transport for Dummies book out there?
While there is a Boston for Dummies which can help you locate the tourist hotspots, a full understanding of the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, abbreviated T) can be achieved only through immersion and the purchase of the indispensible Arrow Metro Boston Transit Map.

Liz also asks, What is a Breda train, and how is it different from your average electric train?
More than five long, tragic years ago, the MBTA decided to buy 100 new trolleys from Breda of Italy to run on the Green Line. These trains are variously known as Breda trains, type 8 trains, or just the new Green Line trains. They have low floors to meet the insane requirements of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). You can see a nice photo of one here.

A caterpillar roll, by the way, is a sushi roll in the shape of a caterpillar, with avocado slices for fuzz, octopus suckers for eyes, and little orange antennae.

And what the heck is wrong with Boston trains, anyway?

For the past five long, tragic years, the MBTA has been trying to put the Breda trains into service on the Green Line. The early history of Breda follies has been recorded by Jonathan Belcher and Scott Moore. Over the years, both snow (didn’t anyone think to tell the Italians that it snows here?) and derailments have kept the Breda trains out of service. Every spring they show their shiny faces, derail themselves spectacularly, and go back to the garage. Extensive work was done on the tracks to make the city fit the train, instead of sending out to that nice Japanese company Kinki Sharyo (I’m not making it up) for trains that work, and still the Breda trains won’t run on the tracks.

Yes, the Bredas still derail, but the MBTA is running them this summer anyway. It’s relatively difficult to get news about Breda problems unless you’re on the train when an incident happens. The Metro did report the Hynes derailment; I was surprised to read about it because usually only those T incidents ending in death or dismemberment make the news. (A hint to the population of the South Shore: the wooden ties with long steel rods laid across them are train tracks, not pedestrian walkways or parking lots.)

If you think all this sound ludicrous, like a story of patronage and graft out of old Sicily or some third-world country instead of the day-to-day business of the oldest and fourth-largest public transit system in the US, then let me tell you about the Big Dig…

Nightmare on the Green Line

Monday, June 9th, 2003

Memory has scarcely dimmed of the Breda train derailment at the Hynes stop on the Green Line a week ago, during which busses ran between Kenmore and Copley all evening, and especially unlucky riders like yours truly got to ride into Kenmore the British way - that is, running inbound on the outbound track. After an experience like that, you assume you’re safe from the new trains for a while.

A while is approximately one week. This morning I waited, and waited, and waited some more for a train. When one finally came, it was a whopper. It was four cars long and looked like a huge caterpillar roll coming up over the hill, with shiny Breda-train headlights for eyes. The first two cars were a Breda train, and the second two were a real train, the kind that stays on the tracks and goes faster than five miles an hour.

Four cars is two times too long for a train, and the illusion that the Breda train (which under normal circumstances can barely pull its own weight without derailing) was actually towing the real train was quite odd. It pulled up to my stop and the next one simultaneously and then disconnected itself in the middle. The rear end rolled back to my stop and let us all on.

Then the truth came out - as she was grumbling about the useless Breda trains that ought to be taken out of service and sent back to Europe, the driver admitted to having pushed the Breda train over the hill to my stop and was not sanguine about our chances of getting past it, now that it was occupying the stop in front of us.

In the end, the Breda train did manage to turn around and switch to the outbound track. Whether it made any farther progress there, either outbound or Brit-style, is beyond me.

That ought to be the end of the story, but, ironically, farther along the line there was a woman on one of those little personal power-scooters which seem to have replaced wheelchairs among the handicapped jet-set. (The irony, for those of you playing the home ADA game, is that the dysfunctional Breda trains were meant to be handicapped-accessible.) So, after a year of walking around the clunky metal wheelchair lifts on extremely narrow T street platforms, I got to see one in action. I would have been more excited about it if I hadn’t already been nearly half an hour late due to the aforementioned Breda follies.

Those lifts aren’t powered, so a T guy had to crank the woman and scooter up to floor level with a push-pedal. She would have been better off riding her scooter downtown, especially since the train onto which she was so laboriously loaded was rerouted at Park Street station and everyone had to get off. Park Street, by the way, is still a disaster area with large chunks of the inbound platform boarded up. The ground level is being raised to almost, but not quite, meet the floors of the Breda trains.

Of course, a Breda train would have to make it all the way to Park Street for the floors to not-quite-meet and for this perpetual construction to qualify as anything more than just another Boston boondoggle. I’m not holding my breath (except when passing through Hynes or going inbound on the outbound track at Kenmore).

A New Toy

Sunday, June 8th, 2003

I made a style picker for the new site. The idea is to allow the user to choose the font face, font size, text alignment, paragraph indents, page width, and background and text colors for story pages. It’s also useful for previewing fonts and font sizes - I found only one other DHTML viewer with more choices, and it crashed my browser.

Once the preferences are chosen they could be saved in cookies, but that could get to be a lot of cookies. Even more preferences will need to be handled eventually, so I’m leaning towards a database of user preferences. Only the username would need to be saved in a cookie, and that would also spare users the need to configure each new browser and to have javascript enabled.

The style picker is self-contained, so you can see all the css and javascript just by viewing the source. I didn’t type all that - it’s produced by PHP, and you can view the PHP source as well. It’s much easier to add new fonts and colors to the PHP version.

Note that the fonts lean heavily towards OS X system fonts, since those are the ones I had at hand. If a font isn’t available on your system, the associated link will display in your default font. The font classification is not official; particularly, Comic Sans MS isn’t necessarily a fantasy font, but I didn’t want in under sans-serif with the serious, readable fonts.

I put in a selection of color choices, but what the page really needs is a nice tool like the Tigra color picker or Matt Kruse’s color picker. That will require a form on a freestanding preferences page, without the demo text and with a bit more explanation.

For now, it’s just a toy.

The Idea is the Thing

Saturday, June 7th, 2003

A while back I blogged about the annoying saying that ideas are a dime a dozen. I had an attack of ideas today and remembered that entry. If I sat down for a month and meditated, I could have a career’s worth of ideas, but ideas are infinitely compressible - I could fit that month-long collection into one book if I disguised them properly.

If you set it up properly, you don’t even have to disguise the surplus ideas. I’ve been reading volume two of the Otherland books (they’re not a series, the author claims, but a 3,000 page novel published piecewise), which have one of those structures that allow infinite variation. Multiple universe stories (with a real multiplicity of universes, rather than one universe) also allow idea-packing. You can never have too many ideas at hand.