Socialist Snowplows and the Minimum Standards of Capitalism

There have been a few amusing images circling on the internet, with captions along the lines of "A socialist snowplow just went past my house. When will this tyranny end?" Or "Evil socialism at work".

Evil Socialism at Work

The idea is cute, and the phrase "socialist snowplows" is certainly memorable. But while this cheekily aimed at "small government" supporters, most snow removal services are very much an example of contract services with more of a focus on the bottom line, rather than the public good.

In Ontario, different levels of government are responsible for different levels of roads, and different minimum standards apply. Provincial highways are handled by the provincial government, while municipal roads are handled by the municipalities. While some cities and municipalities may own and run their own fleet, other areas, including many provincial areas are contracted out to third party contractors.

A socialist snowplow just went past my house. When will this tyranny end?

There are primarily two ways in which snow removal contracts can be negotiated.

  1. Variable cost, where the contractor would issue an invoice for every time the roads receive maintenance.
  2. Fixed cost contract, where the contractor performs all maintenance necessary.

In reality, there may be some mixture of the two. It's a means of assigning the risk associated with winter weather. On a snowy year, the fixed cost contracts protect the governing body from excess costs, at the expense of the contractor. In a relatively snow-free year, a fixed cost contract provides a bonus to the contractor, while the budget of the governing body remains fixed in advance.

While this can control costs, it does affect service. Only when road conditions are to a certain point, usually defined by snow depth, will the snow plows need to be sent out. The ministry of Transportation has posted their MTO Winter Maintenance plans, which shows that there are different time standards to each bare pavement.

MTO sets performance targets for snow and ice control to achieve the bare pavement standard after the end of the storm. The bare pavement standard for each class of highway is:

  1. Eight hours for freeways and multi-lane highways, e.g. Highway 401, Queen Elizabeth Way, Highway 11 and four-lane sections (Class 1).
  2. Sixteen hours for high traffic volume, two-lane highways, e.g. Highway 17 Trans-Canada (Class 2).
  3. Twenty-four hours for medium traffic volume, two-lane highways, eg. Highway 35 (Class 3).
  4. Twenty-four hours to centre bare for low volume, two-lane highways, e.g. Highway 516 (Class 4).
  5. Some highways with low traffic remain snow packed for most of the winter (Class 5). On Class 5 highways, excess snow is plowed off and sand is applied to improve friction.

The North Bay Nippissing News talks about these bare minimum standards as well. talking specifically about the frequency that the roads are plowed during a snow event. They quote a Ministry of Transportation source as follows:

The circuit time for a Class 3 highway is 3.3 hours; therefore, once the contractor commences plowing upon the accumulation of two centimetres of snow, the plow continuously services its defined plow route every 3.3 hours until the winter event ends and roads conditions have been restored.

Note that it doesn't matter at what rate the snow is falling. While the snow event continues, those plows are on a 3.3 hour rotation. If the snow event continues for many hours, there can be significant snow accumulation on the roads until the next plow goes through. But if that's what the regulations state is required, that's what those roads will get. As the North Bay Nippissing News says:

A 60 km stretch of provincial highway gets plowed once every three-and-a-half hours – that’s the standard. Not the patrol yard will decide how to respond to weather conditions or the ministry expects every effort will be made to make sure there doesn’t become more than two inches of snow on the road or that actual road conditions have any connection to response. In other words, it’s not about safety. It’s about minimum standards – bare minimum standards.

When the road contracts are awarded to companies based outside of the community, on a for-profit basis, why should we assume that these companies would go beyond the minimum standards set out in the contracts? With no ties to the community, but with a real impact on their bottom line, there is no real incentive to maintain the roads to a higher standard.

So while you may joke about the socialist snowplows from the comfort of your home or office, for those who need to travel during adverse conditions, public safety plays second fiddle to economics. So while those snow plows are provided for the benefit of the public, paid for by public tax dollars, even here, capitalist economics is very much at play.

Book review: The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess

I've just finished reading The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess, published by Chizine Publications. It's a deeply disturbing story, and I hope that Burgess is seeking professional help.

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This book was very unsettling. It dives deep into a sea of depravity. Burgess enumerates, with disquieting precision, a whole host of vile and disgusting acts. This is a book for a rather particular audience, and I found some parts of it to be rather difficult to get through. At several places in the story, I paused to think that this story is exactly the kind of thing that people envision when they talk about censorship as a means of protecting culture. This story would get book censors excited in all the wrong ways.

Burgess paints the reader a post-apocalyptic world where hypochondria becomes reality, where the whole world is dying, one by one, or in vast groups awaiting a new rapture. The narrative is compelling, tightening in on the protagonist, drawing his world tighter as his personal agency is reduced, until he becomes as powerless as the reader.

Let it be made clear The n-Body Problem is not for most people. If you are easily offended, it is most definitely not for you. On the other hand, if you appreciate dark fiction, can handle obscene content, and are looking for something new, give it a try. The ebook is available through ChiZine, as well as through Amazon.ca, Amazon.com or Kobo.

In the end, the zombie apocalypse was nothing more than a waste disposal problem. Burn them in giant ovens? Bad optics. Bury them in landfill sites? The first attempt created acres of twitching, roiling mud. The acceptable answer is to jettison the millions of immortal automatons into orbit. Soon Earth’s near space is a mesh of bodies interfering with the sunlight and having an effect on our minds that we never saw coming. aggressive hypochondria, rampant depressive disorders, irresistible suicidal thought—resulting in teenage suicide cults, who want nothing more than to orbit the Earth as living dead. Life on Earth has slowly become not worth living. and death is no longer an escape.

I received an ebook version of this book from ChiZine's marketing department.

Lest We Forget: Internment Camps in North America

Every year in November, I make an effort to watch at least some of the Band of Brothers series. It's not a perfect series, but it stands as a reminder of the human cost paid by those serving in the war.

This year, I watched episode 9, "Why We Fight". In this episode, Easy Company liberates one of the satellite work camps around the Dachau concentration camp. There is some artistic license in place: Easy Company did not liberate any of the camps, although they did see Dachau after it was liberated. It's a very emotional episode.

Jews at the gates

That this is offered as the reason as to why the US entered the war, however, is a fiction. The subtext offered is that America went to war to fight tyranny, to stop evil like Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. In reality, America declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbour. Germany declared war on America four days after Pearl Harbour. There's a good article by On Violence which discusses this issue, including the broad feelings of antisemitism in America throughout the 1930s. It's easy to understand why Spielberg wants to promote this as one of the reasons for the war, but sadly, the "Final Solution" was not a primary concern of other nations, until after the concentration camps were liberated.

At the gates of the concentration camp

But despite this, the episode is a powerful reminder of these concentration camps, and the horrors that were inflicted on the Jews, and other undesirables.

Earlier this year, I also re-watched some war films, including a BBC mini-series on the concentration camps. "Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution'" was also called "Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State" when aired by PBS in the United States. With documentary precision, this documentary builds up our understanding of how organized and widespread the whole extermination program was, and the mentality of the people keeping it going.

In "Why We Fight", we don't get any real sense of scale. It's a smaller camp, but the focus remains on the reactions from the soldiers. It's a TV series about these soldiers, and it is through their eyes that we learn about the camps. Through their eyes, we get a glimpse inside one of the buildings in which men were piled like lumber.

Prisoners stacked in the hovels

The Jews weren't the only ones persecuted in the war. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, internment camps in the United States and Canada were opened, with a number of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians were segregated. In Canada, the [Japanese Canadian Interment] detained over 27,000 people of Japanese descent. In the United States, the number of Japanese American Internment detainees was in excess of 110,000. While these camps were not labour camps as in Russia, or extermination camps as in Germany, nonetheless, some of the same principles guided their creation: racial discrimination. In addition to removing all people of Japanese heritage to internment camps, their properties were also seized and sold below market prices. Similar camps held recent German immigrants. Jews who managed to escape Europe and fled to North America were likewise kept in prison camps, often alongside German prisoners. In World War I, Canada held 8,579 prisoners, mostly of Ukranian heritage, in a series of concentration camps from 1915-1920.

Castle Mountain Internment Camp

Families uprooted, brought from their homes by armed soldiers, because their parents came from a particular country. While North American internment camps didn't result in mass executions, they uprooted thousands upon thousands of families. Is "at least we didn't kill them all" a good enough excuse? The basic liberties we take for granted, the ones which we say that our soldiers fought and died for, were being broken at home while they fought and bled.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UxOqJ2QwtA

In America, the family of George Takei was relocated to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, before being transferred to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California. In Canada, David Suzuki's family was relocated to a facility in Slocan in British Colombia.

George Takei at Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas

While it's popular to imagine that only the "bad guys" would strip away the rights of their citizens, it's clear that this is not something that only Nazi Germany is guilty of. While they carried out mass executions, with little to no outcry, Americans and Canadians evicted and sold the properties of their own citizens, again with little to no outcry. As Takei notes in his post on Why we must remember Rohwer, almost nothing remains of these internment camps. While the existence of the extermination camps in Germany are well documented, there is an active attempt to disremember the failure of our own democratic principles in North America.

Burying the dead

This is why it matters. I haven't seen Allegiance, the musical inspired by George Takei's time at Rohwer, but shows like this are important, to tell the other stories from the war. Because the phrase "Lest we forget" shouldn't be one sided.

Star Trek DS9 Reviews: The Storyteller

The Storyteller isn't nearly as compelling of an episode as it could be. Of the two main plots, I found that of Jake and Nog to be amusing, while that of Bashir and O'Brien fell a bit short. I can understand and appreciate the message the writers were working on, but it was really poorly executed, and just didn’t work for me.

O'Brien the Uninspiring

O'Brien wearing a funny robe

The main plot brings Doctor Bashir and Chief O'Brien down to Bajor for a medical emergency which threatens a village. It turns out that every year, for five days, the village is attacked by a Dal'roc, a supernatural cloud of energy. The Sirah, a spiritual leader, rallies the town against this common foe. The problem is that the Sirah is dying, and his chosen successor has lost the goodwill of the people.

An energy cloud

So he picks Everyman O'Brien as his successor. Just as it was rather ludicrous to see O'Brien try to instruct children in a schoolroom setting, it's difficult to see him attempt to orate. This is of course why the Sirah chose him, rather than the much more charismatic Bashir, an officer. O'Brien is meant to fail, so the Sirah's apprentice can regain the confidence of the village.

Nog can't talk to girls

Ok, maybe Nog can talk to girls, but he's not very good at it. When a teenaged Bajoran girl is aboard the station to negotiate a land dispute with a competing Bajoran clan, Nog and Jake clearly need to spend time with her.

While Nog is tongue tied, Jake seems confident. While he also wants to impress her, he also wants to help her solve her problems, one of which is how to live up to her parents' legacies. Jake ties this back to his own admiration of his father. It's an effective way of developing not only Jake's character, but that of Benjamin as well, even when his father isn't on screen.

Jake, Nog and Varis Sul

Without the interactions between Jake and Nog, this episode would be completely unbearable.

Themes: Discord and Unity

Both plots speak to a common theme, the dangers that division brings to a community. In a way, this is what we saw in Battle Lines, but unlike their never-ending battle, we see the Bajorans working to find a common ground, a reason to rally together. This sense of division, particularly from the Bajorans, is going to be increasingly clear in upcoming episodes, especially since Kai Opaka was lost on the other side of the wormhole in the last episode.

There are some other good things about this episode. O'Brien's appointment as a spiritual leader mirrors Sisko becoming the Bajoran's Emissary. It really seems strange for two Federation officers to be honored as spiritual figures by the Bajorans. Is it because they're convenient outsiders? In this case, the honor is only temporary, and is intended as a transitional figurehead.

The theme of internal discord among the Bajorans is something that is further developed in later episodes, but we don’t really get more than a feeling of it here.

The problem with rejected plots

When I watched this episode, the main plot really failed to hold my interest. While I can see the kind of narrative the writers were aiming for, I didn't see the urgency. The episode plays too heavily on the humour of O'Brien as a unwilling, skeptical spiritual leader, without qualifications, and less about how things got to that point.

The village is ready to accept an outsider--not only of the village, but to the planet itself--as their spiritual leader, because he was publicly chosen by their former leader. This does mirror Sisko's position as Emissary to the Prophets, which is what they were likely going for, but instead of a leader, we get O'Brien. Let me be clear: O'Brien is one of my favourite characters, but he's not a charismatic leader. While it's fun to see him play different roles in the series, this is really one he just doesn't fit. And that's the point. If he was charismatic, he would have rallied the villagers against the Dal'roc, and the rightful Sirah would have been unable to regain support.

It's just all kinds of awkward to have your plot rely on your main characters failing in order to succeed. The other major problem with the episode is that the whole Dal'roc business seems completely unnecessary given the Cardassian occupation of Bajor. Why would they have needed to create a monster, when the Cardassians were present? It's an interesting premise, but feels very rushed in execution.

O'Brien is the target of an attempted assassination

Furthermore, why is O'Brien even on this mission? If it's a medical emergency, you send a doctor, not an engineer. He certainly isn't needed as a physical escort. Oh, the script calls for it? Alright then. Why does it call for O'Brien? Oh right, because this was a rejected TNG script. That's right. This episode wasn't good enough for the first season of TNG. So let's shoehorn it into DS9. In fact, the episode makes far more sense as a TNG episode. Picard was always the diplomat, it would have made sense for him to negotiate a treaty between two warring tribes. It doesn't fit as well with Sisko. Especially when an episode like Q-Less did so much to show how Sisko was inherently different from Picard, the writers have to go use a script written for Picard.

Overall, this episode was a real letdown, one of the weakest in the season.

The Storyteller first aired 2 May, 1993. Teleplay by Kurt Michael Bensmiller & Ira Steven Behr. Story by Kurt Michael Bensmiller. Directed by David Livingston.

Star Trek DS9 Reviews: Battle Lines

I think that Battle Lines is the third episode to give us a peek behind the curtains of the wormhole. Along with Captive Pursuit, and Vortex, we start to see glimpses of galactic civilization on the other side.

Myths and Legends

From Captive Pursuit, we get a genetically engineered version of The Most Dangerous Game: hunting sentient creatures for sport.

In Vortex, aside from exploring some of Odo's origins, we see a planetary government which punishes dissent with the death of the entire family.

In Battle Lines, two warring factions, the Ennis and the Nol-Ennis, are raised from the dead to continue their fight, without any hope for eventual victory. They claim this is done as a form of punishment. This bears echoes of Tartarus, the Greek abyss used to imprison and torment the worst of the villains and gods.

Sisko stands against warriors with edged weapons

Just like with Sisyphus' boulder, the war is not something that can ever be resolved. Its an eternal torment. There is a similar battle in Norse myth where the warriors are continually resurrected to fight the next day.

The Kai and Prophecy

Kai Opaka views the wormhole

From this basis in myth, we get to the story. Kai Opaka, the religious leader from Bajor who named Sisko the Emissary to the Prophets, has arrived on the station. She's obviously preoccupied with the wormhole, and shows every sign that she won't return, even giving jewelry to O'Brien's daughter.

Kai Opaka gives a gift to O'Brien

When the runabout crashes, the Kai dies in the impact. It seems a pointless death, bringing to mind Tasha Yar's passing. Just like Tasha in Yesterday's Enterprise, the Kai is resurrected, although without the whole temporal displacement thing happening. Like the Ennis and Nol-Ennis, she becomes trapped in the world, but with a different purpose.

The runabout goes through the wormhole

Kira

We see the most change in this episode from Kira. The opening has a great scene where she reads the Cardassian report on her, where she is described as a minor operator who runs errands for the resistance. We haven't yet seen direct evidence of the Bajoran resistance, but Kira clearly sees herself defined by her actions and her perseverance during those times.

Busted while viewing Kira's file

With her insecurity brought to the surface with the Cardassian report, Kira fan girls over the Kai. She's desperately seeking her approval, perhaps to reaffirm that she's followed the correct path.

Kira idolizes Kai OPaka

Kira sees the struggle of her own people, mirrored in the fight between the Ennis and Nol-Ennis. It's not a perfect mirror, as Kira is quick to point out. The Bajorans fought for life, for a future. The warring factions in this episode are locked in a battle to the death, without even the hope of death.

On Technobabble

There's a great line in this episode referring to technobabble. O'Brien starts spouting off that he can send a probe to find the runabout's magnetic fields using a differential magnetometer. Without missing a beat, Dax says that she's never heard of it before, and asks how it works. Star Trek has always made terminology up to "sound like science". It's the Maltese Falcon of science fiction: the terminology is very rarely important, in storytelling terms. What it enables is the ability to move the plot forward. In this case, the technobabble serves a few useful purposes:

  • Shows how O'Brien can innovate as an engineer, instead of just fixing things on the station. Engineering is important on Star Trek. While he may have started as the Transporter chief on TNG, O'Brien is well within the engineering tradition.
  • gives Dax and O'Brien a reason for taking so long to find the Runabout.
  • allows a meta-reference to the pointlessness of technobabble.
  • a way to solve the problem of getting a transporter lock through the dampening field to make a rescue

Bashir's Dilemma

While researching the technology responsible for resurrecting the dead on the planet, Bashir wonders if it would be best to alter the programming to once again permit the release of final death. When the Ennis hear of this possibility, they instead see an actual victory, where they can finally wipe out the enemy for good. Rather than be party to this, Sisko, Kira and Bashir are transported back to the roundabout, leaving those imprisoned behind.

This is new territory for Star Trek. The suggestion of death as the answer, brought forth by a Starfleet medical officer doesn't exactly jive with Roddenberry's vision. Its interesting to see how while the characters explore ways to effect meaningful change on the planet, yet instead hightail it out of there. It seems unusual, but perhaps it's an acknowledgement that sometimes, people just aren't ready for change. As a piece of social commentary, this can bring some heavy implications to the state of international relations. This is the kind of thing people mean when they say that DS9 is a darker show than TOS or TNG.

Changes

The changes from this episode are deeper than what they first appear. While Kai Opaka was a minor character on the show, she was influential, as well as peaceful and supportive of Sisko in particular. The honeymoon's over, sweetheart. Opaka's replacement isn't going to be all sugar and spice. Also of note is that Kira's sense of awe for the Kai is not alone. Many other Bajorans would feel similarly. Now not only is the Kai gone, but she was left on the other side of the wormhole by the Federation, in the eyes of some.

Battle Lines first aired 25 April 1993. Teleplay by Richard Danus and Evan Carlos Somers. Story by Hilary J. Bader. Directed by Paul Lynch.

On Passion in Sales and Customer Disservice

The other day, I willingly walked into a Future Shop. I had a particular need, a new BluRay player that was smaller than my 10 year old DVD player that had been in the basement. It needed to fit on a much smaller shelf, and the old unit was a behemoth. Upgrading to a device that used HDMI would also free up the only component input, so I could connect the Gamecube for the kids.

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Another family was looking at the BluRay players, being "helped" by their sales vulture. Apparently, they had just bought a $3000 television, and needed a player as well. I don't know why, but he directed them to the cheaper Sony model on the shelf. Maybe because he could offer it on a greater discount for them. The confusing thing for me was that he wasn't talking about any of the features any of these players had. The model he was recommending did not have built in WIFI, requiring an ethernet cable to the television location. When he explained why the Sony was so great, he essentially said

When we have televisions out on the floor, we always choose Sony models, because they're super reliable. Unless it's for a Samsung television, when we use the Samsung player.

Excuse me? They're "super-reliable"? At this price point, it's commodity hardware. You're not going to get a more "reliable" model by brand. I was of course standing there, holding a non-Sony device.

Was he trying to shame me into changing brands? Unlikely, as his name wasn't going to find itself attached to my receipt.

Why didn't he ask more questions about what they wanted? Maybe he asked the questions while in the television section of the store, but I doubt it. Why didn't he try to upsell to a model with better features. In his own words

"You already spent $3000 on the television"

So what's the difference between a $69 and $89 model? $20. If you have a $3000 television, are you really going to quibble on 0.67% of your cost, if it gets you useful features? Maybe some might. But this sales guy didn't even try to match features (benefit to the customer). The only reason I can come up with is that there's a higher store margin (or personal bonus) for this particular model.

Retail is a very strange business. It's been we'll over a decade since I did my time, and I'm reasonably certain that I had slightly more integrity at the time.

I used to try and see if I could get to the far side of the home theatre section without being accosted by a "sales associate". In the high end area of the store, they usually want to see if you want to buy something. I asked on where the BluRay players were (the other side of the store? Really?) Once he realized that I wasn't going to be buying a TV, he lost interest fast.

This isn't the case for all stores, but I've found that employees at Best Buy, Future Shop, and other big box stores are in general, don't really provide that great of service. They can direct you to where things are in the store, and can answer questions about what's on sale, but often aren't very good at answering even basic product knowledge questions. Ask them to compare two products? Good luck getting a useful answer! There are obviously exceptions to this rule, and I've likely avoided any chance of discovering those valuable salespeople, mainly due to my disgust with those who don't try. Show some passion about the products!

The Ethics of Prison Architect: A Case Study

Simulation games have a long history in computing. From SimCity to the Sims, gamers have dragged and dropped trees, houses, streets and street lamps rebuilding their own utopia.

But what about simulations of dystopias? Enter Prison Architect, where you build and manage a prison facility. It's for profit, of course, because that's how you get money to expand your prison. Prison Architect

Simulation Games

In SimCity, the most difficult ethical decisions tend to be things like where to place polluting industries, whether you should use nuclear power, or if you should build a casino. No one loses sleep on these issues. You might lose sleep because you can't stop playing, but that's a different issue.

You can do a little more evil in the Sims. Locking sims in enclosed spaces to their deaths, or denying access to bathrooms. For the most part, these are conscious choices.

Prison Architect is far more insidious. Do you really need to splurge on cell windows? How much do you really need to spend on higher quality food? After all, it's not like these prisoners are real people, is it? It's particularly easy to disassociate yourself from this reality, looking just at the statistics: X prisoners, Y staff, net daily balance: $$$. This seems to be precisely the kind of mindset that appeals to hands-off administrators and legislators involved in the decision making processes around real prisons.

Prison Design

I recently read an article about real prison architects, Prison Design and its Consequences: the Architects Dilemma. This article argues that architects should consider the ethical implications of the prisons they design, because they can directly affect the lives of real people.

There's always political rhetoric around prisons. Whether social conservatives want a hard line stance on punishment, or the more liberal minded are speaking about rehabilitation, these are at best, abstract qualities in the minds of the public at large. The average citizen wants criminals removed from society, although whether this is for punishment, rehabilitation, or just to remove a risk to the public differs on the individual citizen.

Grand Valley Institution and Ashley Smith

The Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener is a Canadian federal prison for women, located in Kitchener, Ontario. This is the prison where 19 year old Ashley Smith died by strangulation while guards were instructed not to interfere. I drive past this prison often, but very rarely have I given it much thought.

Ashley Smith died at Grand River Institution

I think most people in Waterloo Region know this much, and it may have coloured their perception of the whole institution. It's not all segregation cells like the one in which Smith died. Regional Council member Jane Mitchell wrote about her visit to GVI in 2010. At the time, the prison only held 127 inmates, 8 of which were high security. There were only 4 segregation cells. Currently, the facility is rated for 177 inmates, with construction ongoing to accommodate 44 more by next year, bringing the institution's capacity to 221 inmates, according to the Correctional Service of Canada page on GVI.

Grand River Institution for Women

The Canadian Prison System

I didn't know that in Canada, criminal sentences of less than 2 years are served in Provincial jails, while those of more than 2 are served in Federal institutes. For women, Grand Valley is the only federal facility in Ontario since Kingston's Prison for Women shut down in 2000. With an increasing prison population, this facility is seeing some of the same pressures explored in Prison Architect: they have limited space to expand, but must accommodate more inmates. They have no direct control over how many inmates are transferring in, as that depends on sentences handed down by the courts. As this article in the Waterloo Region Record notes, these changes have impacted access to services, as well as space for recreation and visitation.

Are the impact of these changes what we want for our society? Are they directed changes, to align with society's goals, or are they accidents of happenstance? These changes seem to align with the Conservative government's "tough on crime" image, which apparently focuses more on punishment than on rehabilitation.

These changes are concerning, in part because they are out of the public's eye, until tragedy occurs. The inquest into Ashley Smith's death seeks to shed light on some of the dehumanizing aspects of long term solitary confinement, and frequent transfers between provinces.

What about Prison Architect? Does it desensitize gamers to the prison system, or does it raise critical issues in the public's eye? As I play the game, the issue drifts in and out of consciousness. It's an uncomfortable feeling.

Two hard things

Two Hard Things

There are only two hard things in computer science. Cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors.

I was reminded of this quote recently, as I had a wrapper object which exposed a property with the same name as a property in the contained object, but which is slightly different. It's actually the value contained in a different property.

Foo.Bar.Magic -> 'abcd12' Foo.Bar.Xyzzy -> 'abcd123' Foo.Xyzzy -> 'abcd12'

I'm sure that whoever wrote this had a very good reason for doing so, but I spent far too much time debugging a subtle error.

Star Trek DS9 Reviews: Vortex

Where The Nagus was an episode of the week, Vortex is an episode which advances a number of plots and themes, most importantly, Odo's origins.

The key with changeling properties

We start the episode with a standard gimmick: Odo is concealed as an inanimate object to eavesdrop while Quark is some stolen goods. It's a quick scene, easy to figure out. That's web things go south, and one of the twinned Miridorn is killed. It seems that Quark had arranged for a robbery of the sale, as there's greater profit from hiring a thief than in buying the goods direct. Odo and Quark

Family values

This sets up one of the themes for the episode, and of the series: family values, and Odo's search for others of his kind. When Odo brings Croden into custody, the prisoner reveals a key with shape-shifting properties, and promises to bring Odo to a planet with others of his kind.

At this time, the surviving Miradorn, Ah-Kel declares vengeance against Croden. Ah-Kel demands vengeance

Quark

There some interesting moments with Quark. When Ah-Kel confronts him to find out where Odo and Croden are, Quark once again uses his manual control rods to bypass the station's security systems. After Ah-Kel leaves, Quark notes that if he finds Croden, the vengeful Miradorn will learn that it was a planned robbery, and would then come after the Ferengi for their part in his brother's death. When Rom begins to despair, Quark then states that Odo would never give up his prisoner, and would die first, both preventing Quark's deception from being revealed, as well as removing Odo from the picture. Quark does not share Rom's enthusiasm at this possible outcome. This doesn't imply any shifting of position for Quark, but it does recognize his belief in Odo's character, as well as appreciating his role in the current situation. It seems that Quark likes the cat and mouse game he plays with Odo.

Quark and his security override

Beyond the Wormhole

We get another glimpse of the other side of the wormhole again, when the Federation attempts to contact Croden's home planet, to let them know that their former citizen was arrested for murder. The reasoning behind this move is questionable. In the episode Dax, they fight to keep Jadzia on the station, even holding a tribunal hearing to weigh the evidence. Of course, Jadzia is one of the main cast, while Croden is only in this episode. While Starfleet's starships get to cruise the galaxy in the Alpha Quadrant, Sisko gets to cruise through the wormhole on joyrides. It's exploration! On a more serious note, it's a way to see what's on the other side of the wormhole.

Again, it's hard to see what kind of reception Sisko expected, telling a planetary government that he's captured someone from the planet. Did he expect their undying thanks? Instead, it's a brusque demand that the prisoner be returned, to face their own justice. Reading between the lines of the dialogue, it's heavily implied to be the death penalty.

So, do you extradite prisoners to other nations when you know they're going to be executed? How much does the Federation value life, against potential trade with a newly discovered planetary system? Croden gets shipped off, under Odo's guard to Croden's home world.

Odo and Croden

Some clear parallels are drawn between Odo and Croden in this episode. Both are solitary, both are from the other side of the wormhole. Even their names are similar sounding. As often as Odo protests that he's nothing like Croden, it's clear that there are similarities.

It's interesting to watch Odo's attitude to Croden change from "criminal scum" to "I don't believe anything you say, but I'll go along anyway" to finally "you're a victim of unjust laws and circumstances and I'll let you go free into exile".

Croden and his daughter.

Again, this is mirrored by Croden's own change of heart after Odo is knocked unconscious on the asteroid. At first, he is ready to leave Odo to die, but then decides to haul him back to the runabout.

The Miradorn demands that Odo deliver Croden

In the end, Croden's knowledge of the Vortex allows Odo to lure the Miradorn ship through the 'Vortex', a nebula much like that in The Wrath of Khan. The sequence, just as in the feature film, brings to mind submarine films more than space battles. The Miradorn vessel is destroyed, and Odo sends Croden and his daughter as refugees to Vulcan. Because in the Prime universe, Vulcan still exists.

The runabout in the Vortex

Vortex first aired 18 April, 1993. Written by Sam Rolfe. Directed by Winrich Kolbe.

Why CAPTCHAs are evil

Have you ever signed up for an internet forum or web app? Chances are, you've seen a CAPTCHA: a little image with distorted letters demanding that you prove that you are human. Or is that what it is really asking? Perhaps instead, it's asking that you prove that you're sighted.

Phoney Security

CAPTCHAs (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart), are supposed to prevent automated computer programs from posting spam messages on public forums. It's a kind of Turing test that assumes that computers cannot pass.

Advantage: OCR

This is far from the truth. Optical character recognition (OCR) is getting pretty good at this, and the various attempts at making this more difficult usually cause more problems for humans than computers. Adding noise to the image can be filtered out, and colours can be scanned.

Let's assume that the standard "what letters do you see?" CAPTCHAS can be broken by computers, with a little work. As can be seen from an article in WIRED discussing Ticketmaster's CAPTCHAs, large scale, automated circumvention has been lucrative for years now.

How easy is it for humans?

There are a number of cases where CAPTCHAs actively discriminate. Are you blind? Tough luck. We can forward you to an audio version, which is even worse. Are you dyslexic? If you have trouble reading words in a consistent font face, how easy is it to read deformed letters? Not so easy. What about people with poor motor control? They may need to use a toggle switch to manually type in your letters. This is a major inconvenience to sign up for an account.

The Arms Race

The next step in the arms race is to present the user with some images, and ask them to categorize them. This steps out of the realm of OCR, a mapping of image to characters, and into knowledge systems. This requires some domain specific knowledge, and potentially culture specific knowledge.

This adds additional problems, like when users are asked to select all the phone images. Telephones from the 1980s and earlier, especially early cordless and mobiles, look nothing like telephones today. Iconography relies heavily on cultural knowledge, and can easily lead to problems.

The Mechanical Turk

The other problem of course, is that there may be little distinction between malicious computer programs, and systems that employ a human factor. An automated system could serve up these CAPTCHA images in real time to human agents, who can solve them and pass them back to the system. Perhaps this doesn't scale as fast as a purely automated solution, but the fundamental issue is still there.

The Recommended Solutions

The W3 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines recommend, very broadly, a text-based cognitive test, to be offered as an alternative to either a visual or audio test. I've tried using an audio captcha once, but it was interfering with the JAWS screen reader I was testing at the time.

Oh, the irony!

The irony is that many users who rely on assistive technologies also use browser plugins to help bypass captchas. They take advantage of the fact that captchas don't work in order to gain access.

I would argue that the concept of captchas is fundamentally flawed. As the captcha technology becomes more sophisticated, so do the attacks. The problem is that with each stage of the arms race, successfully completing these tasks becomes more difficult for humans. CAPTCHAs don't address the real problem. The problem isn't determining whether a human is physically present on the end of a web browser. The problem is behavior based. What particular behaviour is a captcha intended to prevent? Spam messages on a forum? Unsolicited bulk email? Why not address these issues directly, rather than with a CAPTCHA?

Solving the Real Problem

There is existing technology to grade messages with heuristics. Spam filters have gotten quite good. If messages from a new member of your site are also held in a moderation queue, there can be an additional check for appropriate content.

You can also analyze the browsing behaviour. What patterns emerge? For a social site, how much time is spent on existing content? For an auction site, how much time has been spent looking at different items? For certain types of sites, such as local auction sites, there may not be enough behaviour to adequately analyze, especially if a user does not need to create an account in order to participate.

Why are CAPTCHAs so prevalent? They're available as third-party developer libraries, and don't require any changes to system architecture. It's a band aid solution to the wrong problem.

Star Trek DS9 Reviews: The Nagus

The Nagus was a much harder episode to watch than I remember. Wallace Shawn is as amusing as ever, but the multiple levels of racism in the episode is disturbing. There are obviously redeeming values in the episode, but they have to do mostly with the subplot. Grand Nagus Quark

You don't have to look back far in human history to see other cultures similarly vilified, with statements like "they just don't share our values". What a farce. In some ways, the regular Ferengi characters are more human than the other crew members, even if Rom is still woefully underdeveloped.

Quark and Rom

Maybe this was intended to be about the values present in the Star Trek world, which has long been sanitized of the more negative aspects of the human condition. The idealized Roddenberry vision did away with money and greed, something integral to the Ferengi. Just because they weren't in Roddenberry's dream of the future doesn't immediately divorce them from human values though, especially when presented to a modern audience. This is what bothers me.

Grand Nagus Zek

The other Ferengi are cardboard cut outs, and their council meeting to discuss the Gamma quadrant is cartoonish. This is the danger of relying on comedy at the expense of character development. Sadly, we don't really see much character development in Quark, despite many opportunities to do so. He gains great power (among Ferengi) but abuses his friends. He suffers treachery, including from family. He remains unwilling to ask for help. He fails to show gratitude. His pride and stubbornness match the Ferengi greed.

While I suppose there is value in showing how a character remains steadfast in refusing to change, it's far more interesting to show how events can cause changes. In this episode, we end where we began (the sign of an episode of the week) rather than drive forward on an important story arc.

Where we do see character development this episode is in the arguably more important subplot, with Jake and Nog. While the primary "Quark as Nagus" plot is a plot-of-the-week, interactions with Nog are of far greater value. We see the lengths that Jake Sisko goes through in order to remain friends with Nog, even after Rom pulls him from "that hew-mon school". Their friendship, the act of bridging their differences is an important story arc in its own right, and is further developed as the series progresses.

Jake and Nog

I can't understand why Chief O'Brien is allowed to teach the kids while Keiko is away from the station. It's not that he's incompetent, although he has little experience interacting with teenagers. The thing is, the station seems to always be on the brink of breaking down. How can he dedicate time to instruction when the station may finally fall apart? What this does bring us, is a reason for O'Brien to interact with Nog, and form some strong opinions. O'Brien dislikes Nog, and disapproves of his influence on Jake. In time, we will see his opinion change drastically. It's a good way to start things off.

The way that O'Brien states his opinions to Commander Sisko, that he dislikes Nog's influence on Jake, is also important, as it frames the episode's conclusion, where Sisko learns of Jake's influence on Nog. Jake's relationship with Nog is what redeems this episode for me.  There are some good moments from Commander Sisko, when he says that he trusts Jake's judgement (although later he checks up on him, you know, just in case), and the final scene, where he accepts that his son is friends with a Ferengi, but the momentum in this episode is all about Jake and Nog.

The Nagus first aired March 21, 1993. Teleplay by Ira Steven Behr, story by David Livingston. Directed by David Livingston.

Book review: Stealing Home by Hayden Trenholm

It took me a long time to get around to reading this book. It's been on my to read pile for about a year. As I've mentioned recently, I've started doing most of my reading electronically. In fact, I actually read an ebook version of this, even though I have a paper copy on my desk. Stealing Home book coverStealing Home (Kindle, Kobo) is the third book in the Steele Chronicles, published by Bundoran Press. The series started with Defining Diana, and following Steel Whispers, both of which I've previously reviewed. Through each of these books, I've found that the story becomes tighter, and more focused. While the stories can be read independently, the emotional punch of the third book is diminished if you haven't read the earlier books.

I read this book immediately after reading Robert J Sawyer's novel Red Planet Blues, another science fiction novel with a detective story. It's hard not to draw some comparisons. Stealing Home is much darker and grittier than Red Planet Blues. It draws on somewhat of a post-cyberpunk vibe. It feels much more like Blade Runner. The noir point of view wasn't as obvious reading Stealing Home as it was when I first read Defining Diana, and has been scaled back.

It was easier getting into Red Planet Blues. It has a much wider appeal. Once Trenholm gets your attention though, you get sucked into the story. Stealing Home seems to have higher, more personal stakes. Frank Steele seems more human, more relatable. Steele is far from a perfect person. His scars, both emotional and physical, are front and centre. This is part of what makes the story so very interesting.

Stealing Home is a complex story. There are several subplots that weave together, wrapping up several threads from the earlier novels. Like some of Sawyer's novels, one of the themes Trenholm explores is that of uploaded consciousness, something sought after as the ultimate goal of many of the Borg: the Hard Upload into the cloud. It's a kind of cultural myth, a promised homeland for those seeking to cut all ties to the biological body.

The world is a dark place, with large corporations fighting proxy wars across the planet, controlling governments, playing their pawns to gain advantage over others. It's a world full of prejudice, not altogether unlike our own.

Trenholm uses several other themes as well, namely politics and ecological scarcity. Hayden has edited an anthology of short fiction exploring conflict based in ecology, Blood and Water, and is working on editing Strange Bedfellows, a science fiction anthology of future politics, which was a successful Indiegogo crowd funded project.

 

Book review: Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that I've read the latest novel by Robert J. Sawyer. Since Sawyer's novel Hominids was the One Book, One Community reading selection in Waterloo Region several years ago, I've read all his books. Sawyer's most recent novel, Red Planet Blues, is the first of his books that I won't be getting signed. Since I've started reading extensively on my eReader (a Kobo Glo), I've rarely felt the desire to read one of my paper books.

The book cover for Red Planet Blues

What can I say about Red Planet Blues? If you've read any of Sawyer's work in the past, you know what you're getting: a science fiction story with strong philosophical content. Moral questions are raised on the essence of consciousness and identity. What you don't get in this book are dinosaurs, although fossils of another sort play an important role in the story.

Sawyer has adjusted his style for this novel, aiming to target a detective/noir/mystery audience in addition to his existing science fiction audience. I can't judge the effectiveness of his appeal to the new audience, but I can say that he hasn't compromised the expectations of his existing audience. The pace and feel of this story feels consistent with many of his earlier works.

While this is a mystery, it's not a dark and gritty noir. It's more like the Dixon Hill Private Investigator holodeck episode of Star Trek TNG ("The Big Goodbye") than Frank Miller's Sin City, or Blade Runner. While I would have welcomed something a little darker, I don't think that would fit as well with Sawyer's style.

The story pacing is good, which is expected. This is hardly Sawyer's first novel. However, there did seen to be a bit more exposition earlier on, as some fundamental concepts to do with consciousness transference were explained. It's important information, and critical to both the setting and plot, and I reasonably executed. It one of those writing problems: how do you get information to the reader that the protagonist should be reasonably familiar with?

Perhaps the other reason I was sensitive to this is that it's a topic Sawyer has dealt with in the past, so I was already familiar with it. It didn't detract from the novel at all, it was merely something that I was conscious of. For readers outside of the science-fiction genre, or even those unfamiliar with this idea, this exposition is essential.

The primary conceit of the story is that people who have transferred to an artificial body don't leave genetic material around, rendering DNA forensics useless, and the investigative role more important. A reasonable way to bring back mystery to the detective genre. It's an interesting conceit, bringing to mind the film GATTACA, which depends in part upon this DNA evidence, and the ability to misdirect.

It's interesting to see the new world Sawyer has created. There is very little in the way of government or democracy in play. The Mars habitat is instead a corporate domain, with minimal services. The local police force does little beyond protect the corporate interests, and Lomax, the private investigator, does work for clients hoping to get paid. In a way, it's one of the more pessimistic of Sawyer's novels, while still leaning towards a believable realism. With any science fiction novel set on Mars, comparisons to Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) are inevitable. Where Robinson's work suffers a little from extreme optimism, and a long-term view of progress, Sawyer's novel focuses on the immediate, with an eye to long-term effects.

I liked Red Planet Blues more than Triggers, Sawyer's previous novel. The ending of Triggers didn't sit well with me philosophically. Red Planet Blues better suits Sawyer's style, even if it does seem to accept a more pragmatic view towards capitalism.

The Pathos of Superheroes

I've always been more of a fan of the Batman, than of Superman. Even the angst teenaged Spider-man seems more engaging than Supes. I'm by no means a comic geek. Most of my exposure to these franchises has been through film and television. Admittedly, it's been many years since I actually watched one of the Superman films, and I don't think that I've made much effort to watch Superman Returns.

As a kid, I think the only Superman comics I read were the Death of Superman series, back in 1993. The fall of Superman made him more than just vulnerable. At the time, this seemed shocking, that the impervious hero could be brought down.

The Death of Superman. Superman Vol 2 Issue 75 cover

Setting aside for the moment, whether the back story of Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents' murder, or Peter Parker feeling responsible for the murder of his uncle, is felt deeper than the destruction of some distant homeland, lets consider some of the attributes of these heroes.

Superman is an alien being. Outwardly human, and with an all-American heartland upbringing, there is little about his appearance to set him aside as someone different. Yet he is stronger and faster than mere mortals. Generally invulnerable to anything, except Kryptonite. Superman's defence of Truth, Justice, and the American Way has a saccharine quality, too good to be true.

There's no fundamental conflict in his character. There are no moral choices that define his character. In the first Superman movie, when Lois Lane dies because Superman fails to stop a missile from setting off an earthquake, he goes back in time to save her. Talk about a missed opportunity for character development. Why should I feel for any of his choices when he can apparently just call for a do-over?

This is in fact the exact choice they made in The Dark Knight film. Batman is offered a choice: save District Attorney Harvey Dent, or save his love interest Rachel Dawes. Batman makes the opposite choice that Superman made: save the girl. The twist is that the Joker switched the locations: in choosing to save Rachel, he instead saves Dent. This is what character development is made of. Even though he made the arguably selfish choice, he still loses. More to the point, he also loses the moral high ground.

Batman The Dark Knight Returns cover

I'm reading The Dark Knight Returns, written and drawn by Frank Miller. This series is highly influential, and when published in 1986, reshaped the perception of Batman, probably in ways which colour my view of superheroes today. But the seeds of Batman's character were planted long before.

Batman is driven by his obsession: avenging his parent's death. He's a crime fighter, but it's driven by vengeance. Superman is a crime fighter too, I suppose, but he stands for virtue and cultural values. Superman fights for what is right. Batman fights because it feels right.

The origin stories of our heroes are all different, and this is where the current controversy comes from. The earlier versions of Superman's origins are that his home world of Krypton was destroyed, and he was the last survivor, sent as an infant to Earth.

There are rumoured changes to Superman's origin story in the new film, where Krypton still exists, and that Superman's exile to Earth is for some other reason. Some folks at io9 suggest that this will alter Superman's character in a rather fundamental way. I would tend to agree with the pageofreviews which instead suggests that this actually makes his character more interesting.

Finally, we get a choice. Why does Superman stay on Earth, when he could return to Krypton? Why should Krypton matter? Is Superman in exile any more interesting than Superman the infant refugee? Can we sow some seeds of discord into Superman's origin? Can Superman still inspire us if he has internal conflict? I think so, and it might just restore some humanity to the Man of Steel.

Book Review: The Parasol Protectorate series: Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, Heartless, Timeless

Back at the 2009 Worldcon in Montreal, I was scheduled to be on a Steampunk panel with Gail Carriger, who was unfortunately unable to attend the convention. It was still a blast, as I met Ann VanderMeer and Christopher J. Garcia (who is quite possibly insane, but in a very good way). Recently, I read Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate novels, starting with Soulless. The novels are a mix of Victorian paranormal mystery fashion and romance. There are bustles and décolletage, vampires and werewolves, zeppelins and robotic octopi.

The general setting is Victorian England, in a time where paranormals, such as vampires and werewolves, play an important role in society, even serving as advisors to the Crown. It's an interesting premise, but really starts to wear thin before the end of the series.

The series follows Alexia Tarabotti, a preternatural whose soulless nature renders supernatural creatures temporarily mortal, merely through touch. She of course has close friendships with both sets of immortals, the rogue vampire Akeldama, as well as the werewolf Lord Maccon. Alexia herself is, perhaps due to her lack of a soul, overly fashion conscious. A lack of natural creativity leads her to a series of social rules. It's hard to explain, but works out well in the novels. Just think about how often George RR Martin goes into excessive detail about battles, lineages, or day-long feasts, and apply that to Victorian fashion accessories, pastries, and fancy hats.

As the series progresses, Carriger builds upon the back story, gently teasing out some longer term plot elements. While the last novel finally manages to bring things to a close, on an upbeat note, some of the middle novels really start to drag on. In particular, Heartless lived up to its name, being considerably less enjoyable than the other novels.

Thankfully, Timeless was worth trudging through the earlier novels. Once again the wit was clever, and the plot twists interesting, once again on par with the amusements of Soulless.

Carriger creates some very amusing characters, and often their interactions are much more entertaining than the plot they're supposedly supporting. Her characterization is a strength, although all the talk about fashionable frippery can get a little old.

  • Soulless: 4/5 stars
  • Changeless: 3/5 stars
  • Blameless: 3/5 stars
  • Heartless: 2/5 stars
  • Timeless: 4/5 stars

Soulless was a fun read. It felt witty, and had a unique tone. The remaining books are worthwhile, especially the concluding book, Timeless. If you've made it to Heartless, push on. You're almost there.

Ad Astra 2013

Ad Astra is a speculative fiction convention in the outskirts of Toronto (specifically Markham) that I've attended now for several years. (2012 and 2009 recaps). Last year they moved to a new hotel for the convention, and it looks like they've started to fix some of the problems with last year's event. There were fewer tracks of programming this year, which was helpful. This reduced the heavy load on the elevators from last year, and made panel decisions easier.

Panels scheduled in the smaller rooms on the lower level were a real problem for me, as the rooms seem designed to devour sound. There are no microphones or speakers, and the panelists tend to be soft spoken. I had to bail on one panel because the sounds of people in the hall were far louder than the people at the front of the room.

Book launches and readings

Book launches are always fun to attend. This year, I attended a reading by Kitchener author Suzanne Church. Suzanne read a piece from her upcoming anthology Elements, as well as a few chicken stories that the anthology editor decided didn't fit with the anthology. They were amusing, but don't match the tone of the rest of her work. They would probably fit in with an anthology of Derek Künsken's stories though... He's written about monkey assassins and clown farts lately. Which, now that I've mentioned it, is going to draw some strange searches to my site.

Speaking of Derek, there was also a Bundoran Press launch party for the digital editions of the Blood and Water anthology (review forthcoming), as well as one of Matthew Johnson's stories. A number of authors read selections from their stories in Blood and Water, including Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, Ryan McFadden, Kate Heartfield, Douglas Smith, Derek Kunsken and Julie E. Czerneda.

Julie E. Czerneda also had a reading from her new novel A Turn of Light. Something which I will have to pick up the ebook for shortly.

I didn't attend the reading from Robert J Sawyer's Red Planet Blues. He will be in Kitchener later this month, when he's not competing against other panels.

Doctor Who

A Dalek in the halls of Ad Astra

Wandering the floors of the convention, I turned a corner and almost ran into a life-size Dalek. Thankfully, it did not try and exterminate me. Later in the night, there was a group showing of the night's episode of Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten. A number of Whovians were in costume (mainly the fourth and seventh Doctors), and sonic screwdrivers were waved at the projector to resolve technical issues.

The Dealer's Room

I spent more time in the dealer's room this year, as I was helping out at the Bundoran Press table. Sitting next to the ChiZine table was fun. Brett Savory has a sharp wit, as does the rest of the CZP posse.

This was also the first year where I didn't walk out of the dealer's room with a backpack full of books. Since I started using my Kobo Glo at Christmas, I have read mostly ebooks. This decision was difficult at the con. Some new releases from authors for whom I have their entire backlist signed. This was a struggle between the collector, and the reader. For now, the reader has won.

Panels

I did manage to attend a number of panels, although not as many as previous years. Ad Astra has become more of a social event for me, catching up with friends from the Internet.

Alternate realities

This was a fun panel, and I wish that I had taken more comprehensive notes. There was some good advice, including suggestions to look outside the traditional Western European history. Post colonialism at work.

Building an audience

This was a solo lecture featuring Rob Sawyer. A few people bailed when they realized it wasn't a discussion between multiple panelists. There is of course a difference between a discussion and a lecture.

For the most part, Rob's advice makes sense. You're not trying to sell a particular book or story to everyone. Just like a particular story won't be right for a given editor, a story can also not be right for a particular reader.

Rob instead advised the audience to sell a brand: yourself. It's more of a soft-sale technique, where through exposure to your brand, and a continues, personal interaction, fans will buy your books. Some of the folks in the dealer's room should have been here. Some vendors were trying the hard-sale.

How to write high fantasy

While I'm not trying to write high fantasy, I found the panel on this topic entertaining. Some good perspectives by K.W. Ramsey, Catherine Fitzsimmons, Gregory A. Wilson, and Marie Bilodeau. It did end up going a little off topic, when the panelists started discussing ways to create believable female characters with real motivations.

How do you know it's done

This panel included Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, Gabrielle Harbowy, Marie Bilodeau, and Douglas Smith. It was a really good discussion of the merits an limitations of Heinlein's third rule of writing, limiting the endless editing of finished work. It was really quite fun to see Gabrielle and Marie joking with each other. This is what a really good editor/author relationship is like.

I'm going to come back to this topic in a later post, after I've had time to organize my notes.

Space propulsion

As interesting as this topic is, without a story driving particular research on my part, I really didn't get much from this panel. Escape velocity requires expensive thrust, and can't be nuclear. When in orbit, interplanetary transfers can be fast and expensive (major talk about nuclear options) or slow and efficient for non-human transport. Some interesting facts about solar sails. The guys on this panel would be great people to query with particular story questions. It's all really great information, it's just not very useful to me now.

The parties

a shot of our Aliens game in action

While waiting for the parties to start up, I met up with Adam Shaftoe, James Bambury (who does not yet have telekinetic powers while drinking), Beverly Bambury and David Lamb for an Aliens board game. It was pretty epic. Shaftoe in particular had some awesome moments, even if the acid splash from the Alien caused someone else to fall down the elevator shaft.

The ChiZine party has an epic event. Just like the TARDIS, it must be bigger on the inside, judging by the number of people there. I bet the Doctor has stronger air conditioning though, although perhaps not as free-flowing of a bar.

Book Review: The Inner City by Karen Heuler

Karen Heuler's collection of short stories, "The Inner City", published by ChiZine, is a wonderfully bizarre set of stories. Reading the author's biography, I learned that her dog is named Philip K. Dick, and I can see a Dickian obsession with a world out of joint, a phantom reality that hides something sinister in these stories. Inner City Cover

The lead story, "FishWish", is a great opening piece. Originally published in Weird Tales in 2011, it takes the standard three wishes tale in an unexpected direction, plumbing the depths of unfulfilled desires.

Also rather Dickian is "The Inner City", from which the collection derives its name. A hidden power of distrust and chaos lies just beneath the surface of reality, directing the lives of others. Kind of reminiscent of The Adjustment Bureau, only with a much darker spin.

"Down on the Farm" touches on genetic manipulation, with a dark undercurrent. It's a rather uncomfortable story, dipping into several unsavoury topics.

"The Escape Artist" explores the relationship with fear. Does one run from fear, or confront it? And if we face our fear, is it to overcome, or to welcome the cold embrace?

Perhaps less disturbing than some of the other stories, "The Large People" is a story with ecological concerns. Ecology tends to take a longer view on things.

"Creating Cow" has clear parallels with Frankenstein, but in this case, the creature has far fewer redeeming characteristics. I wouldn't recommend reading this one right before lunch.

"The Difficulties of Evolution" is another little gem, which looks to our sense of humanity. The ending was quite appropriate.

There aren't any duds in this collection, although some didn't challenge my sense of reality as much as others. It's a well constructed collection which follows a common theme. If you're familiar with ChiZine, this should match your expectations.

Disclaimer: I received an advance eBook copy for review from ChiZine Publications. 

Book Review: Clementine by Cherie Priest

Clementine isn't the first Clockwork Century novel I've reviewed. I've been a fan of Cherie Priest since Boneshaker in 2009, and Dreadnought from 2010. I was browsing Amazon's recommendations recently, and discovered that the Kindle edition of Clementine was under $3. It's also available for Kobo. The dust jacket for the novel Clementine, written by Cherie Priest. Dust jacket by Jon Foster

Clementine is a novella. It's shorter than your average novel, and has a relatively straightforward plot. There are two main characters, Croggon Hainey, an airship pirate, and Maria "Belle" Boyd, a former Confederate spy turned Pinkerton agent.

Both plots converge rapidly, as they focus on the safety and recovery of a stolen airship, the Free Crow from Boneshaker, renamed Clementine, and its cargo. While Clementine, unlike Boneshaker and Dreadnought, doesn't have any zombies, there are other fantastical elements at play, including a super weapon with the power to destroy a city and end the decades long civil war. While the technology at play is different from the nuclear bombs which devastated Japan to end World War II, the intent is clearly the same.

The novella is fast paced, with large portions of the book occurring in airships. We get a strong sense of style in Clementine. It's a fast paced world, with America in a long Civil War. In term of the Clockwork Century books, Clementine is not as isolated as Boneshaker, nor is it as integrated as Dreadnought. Clementine attempts to navigate in a mostly apolitical sphere. While Belle is a former Confederate spy, she works for the Pinkertons, under contract to the Union. It's a grey area, just as her sympathies remain Confederate grey. We don't really get to see much of the world in this book; we instead see snapshots of cities as the characters pass through. The world building depth is strongly hinted at, but not extensively explored in this novella.

As for Hainey? His motivation in the story is to reclaim the Free Crow, a symbol of his escape from slavery in the South. While his narrative isn't quite as intriguing as is Belle's, it complements her plot quite nicely. The two plots and viewpoint characters are well balanced. It's dynamic, and enhances the fast plot progression. This addresses the problems with Boneshaker's unbalanced viewpoint characters, while adding more complexity than the single protagonist in Dreadnought.

Perhaps the greatest weakness in the story is the shorter length. Clementine is half as long as either Boneshaker or Dreadnought. Cherie Priest's writing is fast paced, leading me to read her books quickly. Sadly, this means that the book is over far too soon. This is balanced by the price of the ebook. Clementine is good value. There are also other novels released in the Clockwork Century series, which means that the story isn't necessarily over yet.

 

Star Trek DS9 Reviews: The Passenger

I found the implications of this episode deeply disturbing, and not just because it's another Bashir episode. Don't get me wrong, Bashir eventually becomes a likeable character, but he's still very much the condescending jerk in The Passenger. The episode starts on one of the runabouts, on a return trip from some conference. Kira suffers from Bashir's tremendous ego about his medical expertise. Soon, they encounter a ship in distress, to which they beam aboard to give assistance. Here, we get the best scene in the episode, as a dying prisoner grips Bashir by the throat, demanding that he be saved.

Bashir Choked

 

There are some decent plot misdirections in the episode. Once we discover that Vantika transferred his consciousness to a new host, we are left guessing as to who. Possible suspects include the new Starfleet security officer, Primmin, the Kobliad security officer Kajada, and finally, our man Bashir. While the clue was of course in the opening scene, it's interesting to look at some of the reasons the other characters were likely candidates.

First, Kajada could have been Vantika all along, before Bashir and Kira rescued her. With the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde split personality in place, the idea of a security officer fighting to find a hidden personality would be interesting. She would have become the thing she hates the most. This could have turned out to be a more interesting twist, but it doesn't offer as much character development for Bashir.

The other main candidate would be Primmin. As a new crew member, and a Starfleet security officer to boot. Just give him a red shirt and he's toast. Wisely, the writers avoid this route, and instead use Primmin as a foil for Odo.

Primmin

This episode introduced a new Starfleet security officer, Lieutenant Primmin, supposedly to oversee the security details of some important cargo shipments. This of course adds tension in Odo's role as the chief of security on the station. Primmin comes across as a close minded, by the books security officer. He's not well adapted to running security on a space station, where the free flow of trade is essential. He's openly dismissive of Odo, as a non-Starfleet local. While his opinion changes over the episode, Primmin doesn't really endear himself to the viewers.

Primmin

Handling interpersonal conflicts is an important part of team building, which is based on good, open communication. There is little evidence that Primmin is ready for any kind of command role, as he lacks understanding and empathy with "outsiders".

Senior Staff

How do you best inject a new character into a television show? I'm not sure, but I wouldn't use this as an example.

The question of motive

One major issue I have with the plot is that of motive. Kajada explains that Vantika was attempting to steal a shipment of some special ore used to prolong life among the Kobliad. This motivation seems to fall apart once Vantika's consciousness has been transferred. If it can't directly prolong his life, why is he still trying to hijack the shipment? It doesn't really speak very well of someone who has cheated death so many times.

Bashir onscreen

Although I must say, Bashir's ego does seem to suit Vantika. It's probably best not to read too much into this though. While he looks much more dangerous like this, his speech patterns are.. how shall we say? Reminiscent of Shatner.

A most disturbing act

However, the biggest shock of this episode is in the final scene. When Kajada receives custody of the prisoner--now a collection of information on a Petri dish--she draws a weapon and disintegrates it in front of Sisko, Dax, and Bashir. While Sisko appears somewhat disturbed by this, Dax and Bashir remain expressionless.

The murder of Vantika

While Vantika's biological body died at the beginning of the episode, there has been substantial evidence throughout the episode that his consciousness remains alive in this status chamber. Should we not then consider this the cold-blooded murder of a prisoner in custody? That the only reaction is a relatively minor reaction from Sisko is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the episode, especially when we consider Dax's situation.

As a joined Trill, Dax has relevant experience: after the biological death of the host, the memories and experiences are transferred at the next Trill joining. While in the case of Trills, this is a symbiotic joining, while with Bashir and Vantika, we see a very forceful control being exerted.

In the end, I'm not sure what is more concerning: that the main cast doesn't see this action as an issue, or that the writers themselves didn't consider this worth discussing further, especially as so much time in TNG was spent determining whether Data was an autonomous being worthy of rights and freedoms, or whether he was merely "property".

The Passenger first aired February 21, 1993. Teleplay by Morgan Gendel, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, and Michael Piller. Story by Morgan Gendel. Directed by Paul Lynch.

7 Steps to Solving Technical Problems

When I started a new job a few months ago, I entered an unfamiliar technology stack. Being the new guy on a project isn't always easy. While a great team will make it easy to ask questions and learn, there seems to always be another problem to solve, or figure out how something works. This isn't always solving a software bug, but instead often deals with coming to a greater understanding of how something works, to change the behaviour, or to duplicate it. Puzzle

I have a great mentor, who knows many aspects of the code base. While he's always willing to help, I like to reserve my questions for the tough questions. I've often found that when asking a colleague about a problem directly, I often wait until they're at my desk before I rephrase the problem, and make that elusive link between what I think I know, and what the code is hiding. In other words, I can usually figure it out on my own, but I end up explaining it to someone else first.

While this is good, as I've solved the problem, and I've shown how my thinking works, this isn't an interview situation where explaining how I think is important. Sometimes, the person I want to ask is away from their desk. They could be in a meeting, or out for lunch. These questions never seem to come at convenient times.

Here are a few techniques you can use to solve these kinds of problems before you pull a colleague over for a talk.

  1. Summarize the problem in writing. Be specific. This should be a careful analysis of the problem, clearly showing the state of the system, what you're expecting to see, and what you are seeing. Extrapolate if needed.
  2. Search the code history. Have any recent changes in the system affected this? Use the blame annotations provided by your version control tool. Perhaps you're hitting an edge case that wasn't properly accounted for in recent changes. Watch and see how the function has changed over time. Are all the assumptions still valid?
  3. From this summary, search the web with any key terms. With some luck, someone else has experienced this problem before, and you can learn what they tried.
  4. Search Stack Overflow. Many companies now host an internal version, which has information on internal software. These obviously won't be indexed by Google, and they're often rebranded. Hopefully there's something relevant.
  5. Post your problem to your Stack Overflow site if appropriate. Ensure that you include the written summary from step 1, as well as the results from steps 2-4.
  6. Send your mentor an email with the link to the Stack Overflow post.
  7. Finally, it's best to follow-up with your question, marking the best answer as accepted. Follow up with a comment for anyone who was particularly helpful. Ensure that others who find your question at a later date can also solve the problem.

There's a set of clear benefits to following a path such as this to solving your problem.

  • Help others solve the same problem at a later date.
  • Showcase your thinking process for your peers.
  • Highlight inefficiencies in the code base. Pain points like this can help target debt reduction strategies.

There are other ways to solve problems like these, but this is an effective strategy in helping not only yourself, but also your organization.