Wetmachine Blog: Software

Stories about software, AI, and other intangible digital stuff

Out of the mouths of babes— my prescient conversation with former FCC Chair Kevin Martin about NSA/Telecom surveillance

So a few years ago the FCC held a hearing (at Harvard University) on Net Neutrality & yours truly attended same (and the reception with FCC members following thereafter) & wrote a post about it on this very site Wetmachine. In light of all the Snowden/NSA/telecom stuff in the news, I thought to bring attention to this little reportage, of a conversation between me and then-FCC Chair Kevin Martin about collusion between the US government & telecom providers, warrantless surveillance, and all that:

So we talked about net neutrality and participatory democracy for a while. And then another fine fellow came along and joined the conversation (he was wearing a funny T-shirt that had a picture the old OSI stack model, with two additional stacks, “Financial” and “Political” with a little notation pointing to the “Political” layer saying “you are here”.) The conversation got onto the subject of GPS information in cell phones, which the FCC mandated.

Martin said, “I told those guys for two solid years to come up with a plan, but they never did. So I acted.” He talked about testimony from 911 call centers that 40% of their calls could not be responded to because they didn’t know where the caller was. But OSI-guy and I wanted to know about privacy considerations. Why, my neighbor with the cool T-shirt wanted to know, couldn’t the phones be programmed to only send geographic information when a 911 call was made?

Martin said that phone companies were legally enjoined from sharing private information, including GPS. I said, “why should we believe them? Why should we believe a word the telecom companies say? They lie and lie and lie, and expect immunity for it.”

Martin repeated with the regulatory and judicial history of how private information had been let out, had been used by stalkers, private investigators, etc, but now all that was now illegal.

I said, “That’s not my point. I’m concerned about them sharing the information with the government. They’ve been spying on all of us without warrants for years!”

Martin said something like “national security, law enforcement, those are different areas altogether.”

And I said, “What, and the law doesn’t apply?” but he didn’t hear me, as several people were speaking at once.

I don’t have anything else to add, other than a tip o’ the cap to my esteemed Wetmachine co-blogger Harold Feld for his coinage of the term “Cassandrafreude”, that feeling you get when you get to say “See, didn’t I tell you?” when something bad, which you have long been warning against, actually happens.  I expect that many of you won’t be able to read the original citation, above, on Harold’s Livejournal blog, so for added Cassandrafreude pleasure, see his recent Wetmachine entry
Associated Press is shocked –SHOCKED — To Discover Government Cannot Be Trusted With Power to Spy
where he pretty much predicted everything that Mr. Snowden has since brought to an even wider audience than Wetmachine enjoys.

Also posted in "A Republic, if you can keep it", I Fear These Things | Comments closed

The “Meme Hustler” hustler: Evgeny Morozov’s Stupid Talk about Tim O’Reilly

[note: I wrote the following post one Sunday afternoon nearly two months ago. It was no great shakes, but I was happy to have finally written something to break out of my Wetmachine doldrums. I set it aside to jell overnight, intending to re-read, put in links, give it a once-over the next day before posting it. However on that next day,  Monday , the bombing attack at the Boston Marathon occurred, and publishing this  little essay was clearly inappropriate. Time has passed & I’ve finally gotten around to re-reading and putting in the links. It’s no longer as timely as it was, but in any event, here it is. . .]

Evgeny Morozov is a guy with a soapbox and a schtick.

His soapbox is his position as a “go to” authority on technoskepticism — that is, he makes his living pointing out, to any who care to listen, The Folly of Technological Solutionism (which phrase I italicize because it’s also the subtitle of his latest book, whose primary title is To Save Everything, Click Here).

His schtick is finding influential people who embrace (or appear to embrace) this philosophy of technological solutionism and taking them down a peg or two.  And he’s really good at peg-decrementing — which probably accounts for the prominence of his soapbox, which includes positions at prestigious academic institutions (Stanford, Georgetown) and think tanks, and regular appearances in prominent publications (New York Times, Foreign Affairs) and a TED fellowship.

Consider, for example, Morozov’s hilarious (and quite well-deserved, in my opinion) evisceration of former San Francisco mayor, and current Lieutenant Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, in a Bookforum review of Newsom’s book Citizenville:

 

In a flourish [in the publisher’s catalog] as logical as it is grammatical, we learn that “Newsom’s quest to modernize one of America’s most modern cities—and the amazing results he achieves—form the backbone of this far-reaching book.”

Alas, this dubiously signifying nonsense does not let up between the covers of Citizenville. To say that Newsom’s ruminations on technology and politics come in fifty shades of bullshit is to give this all-too-representative study in online civic boosterism too much credit. Newsom’s bullshit is solidly and tediously monochrome.

 

The essay gets only more brutal from there. I loved it when I read it; I actually exclaimed “YES!” out loud a few times, which seemed to startle my fellow passengers on the New Jersey Transit train from Penn Station to Chatham, New Jersey. When he’s on target, Morozov can be brilliant, funny, and merciless.

Recently Morozov turned his attention on Tim O’Reilly, the founder of  O’Reilly Media (formerly O’Reilly & Associates), the so-called visionary whose careers first as a publisher of books on computer technology and then as impresario of various conferences that bear his name catapulted him to international prominence as a commentator on where technology is, or might be, taking us as a nation and even as a species.

To put it mildly, Morozov doesn’t care much for O’Reilly. In fact he seems to reserve for O’Reilly a disdain much more intense than that which he evinced for the poseur airhead Gavin Newsom. In a recent piece in the smugly iconoclastic magazine The Baffler, (“The Meme Hustler — Tim O’Reilly’s Crazy Talk”) Morozov goes after O’Reilly like an angry Rottweiler.  Or more accurately, he goes after a caricature of O’Reilly like a caricature of an angry Rottweiler. I really enjoyed Morozov’s take-down of Newsom, and O’Reilly (“Saint Tim”) is, frankly, an object of veneration in some circles who could stand a little ribbing. I’m a Walt Whitman kind of guy in that I don’t have much tolerance for the veneration of  popes, Dalai Lamas or Steve Jobses; Whitman enjoined us to “tip your cap to no man”, and I’m down with that.  So I wouldn’t mind seeing St. Tim taken down a notch or two, just on general principles. I had done a 30-second skim read of Morozov’s essay when it first appeared in The Baffler and it looked promising, so I was looking forward to actually reading The Meme Hustler when I found the time to do so. I found the time yesterday.

Man, what a disappointment. What a pompous, shallow, unfair, error-filled and hysterical piece of dreck. Essentially, I found The Meme Hustler stupid and baffling. It made me angry. I explain why below the fold.

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Also posted in "A Republic, if you can keep it", Memology, My Thoughts Exactly, Writing | 3 Comments (Comments closed)

Farewell Aaron, and thank you

On behalf of the Wetmechanics of Wetmachine, I express our condolences to the family and friends of Aaron Swartz. I did not know the man, but I know of his work, for which I am deeply grateful. Aaron’s contributions benefited me personally, because I cherish and depend upon a free and open Internet, and he championed the same causes that we tend to champion here on Wetmachine. But in a much larger sense his work benefited everyone who believes in democracy, fairness, and civilized society. He was evidently not a perfect man, which should come as no surprise, since as far as I know there is no such thing. But he fought the good fight in search of a more just world. His heart was good, and he was effective. By that I mean he was a doer, not a pundit. We need more people like him.

Cory Doctorow has written a very beautiful and nuanced remembrance of Mr. Swartz. I recommend you take a few moments to read it if you haven’t done so already.

We wish for the family and friends of Aaron Swartz whatever solace they may find in the knowledge that he was loved and appreciated by people of goodwill all over the earth.

Also posted in "A Republic, if you can keep it", I Fear These Things, My Thoughts Exactly, Wetware | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

Laying Claim to Sundman’s Law

It was a longstanding premise, or assumption, or rule of thumb that I had carried around with me for a decade or two before I formulated it concisely while employed at the late, great, Laszlo Systems, progenitor of the ahead-of-its-time-and-now-sadly-forgotten OpenLaszlo platform.

If I’m not mistaken, my friend Benji Shine was with me when I boiled it down to its essence, viz:

Never upgrade any tool in the build chain, ever.

This rule can be extended to email clients.

You can put this on my tombstone if you like, if I have one, and if Dear Wife says it’s OK to do so. But in any event I want credit for it. Whenever you’re in a situation when some wet-behind-the-ears kid is insisting that you upgrade to Python 19.34.2.1 or PHP 212.3.2 or COBOL 23004040.293949.22, just say “no” and cite Sundman’s Law. Somewhere, Sundman will be smiling.

Also posted in Memology, My Thoughts Exactly | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

Further Thoughts on Being the Future of Printed Fiction, with a Side Disquisition–Traveling Geek Self-Publishing Novelist Blues: the Strange Loop Variations

Some whiles ago I published a long accounting of my decision to head on out to the uber hacker conference Defcon in 2010 to sell my geekoid novels, and what happened when I did. I entitled that post “Traveling Geek Self-Publishing Novelist Blues: the Defcon Variations”, and it has become one of Wetmachine’s most popular stories ever.

Some little while after I wrote that piece, the pioneering cyberpunk author and celebrity curmudgeon Bruce Sterling referenced my blog in his vastly more influential blog on the Wired site, Beyond the Beyond, in a post he called The Future of Printed Fiction. In an oblique way, Sterling more or less said that sellers of printed novels would become kind of throwbacks to itinerant tinkers and rag-and-bone men of a hundred and more years ago. His tone was pretty snarky, as it always is (a friend wrote to me “if you catch a whiff of smug condescension, you can probably trust your nose”). My pride might have been a little hurt that Bruce Sterling was responding to me as a curio, a rag-and-bone man, not as a fellow writer in his genre, but in general I was happy for the attention. His article helped me sell some books and may even have given me the last little nudge I needed to get my panel on the future of the novel accepted at SXSW last year. I responded to Sterling’s post here, and he and I then had a friendly but brief email exchange in which I offered to send him copies of my books (print or ebook), and he declined.

I introduced myself to Sterling in person at SXSW when I saw him sitting in the front row of the grand ballroom where Tim O’Reilly was being interviewed on stage. After Tim’s convo I approached Sterling: “Hi,” I said. “I’m John, the future of printed fiction!” He shook my hand with a limp handshake and asked me how I did. (I hope I didn’t scare him!) A few days later I went to hear his closing SXSW keynote talk — an astonishing, almost Timothy Leary-hallucinatory thing, about which more at some other time, perhaps.

Since returning from SXSW (and as a direct consequence thereof) I’ve become added to a private listserv that discusses the future of the book & publishing & libraries & reading in general. The list is populated by several dozen publishing luminaries like Tim O’Reilly, at least one nobody (me), and several dozen other people whose literary luminescence is hard for me to gauge.

Every day on this list there are discussions of things like the Google Books case, the closing of the Borders bookstore chain, the idea of agency pricing, copyright law, libraries as digital distributors and community centers, Amazon’s strategy as a publisher and retailer, and similar topics. The demise of the bookstore is a perennial theme. (I used to sell lots of copies of my books through technical bookstores, many of them in Silicon Valley and near Boston. They’ve all gone out of business. I seldom sell a book through a bookstore these days.)

Lately I’ve been thinking about the phenomenon of the vanishing bookstore, the ubiquity of the ebook, and how right Sterling probably was when he said of future of printed fiction, “It’s all about being a make-do gypsy at the fringes of the web conference scene. Gothic High-Tech, Favela Chic.”

Below the fold: I take my act to Strange Loop.

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Also posted in My Thoughts Exactly, Writing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments (Comments closed)

Attention DEFCON planners! I’m your huckleberry!

Sometime last week the @_defcon_ twitter account of the Defcon annual hacker’s convention put out this tweet:

“who should we invite to DC 20 as a special guest? Which actor, Sci-fi writer, famous scientist, or uber hacker, who would you like to see?”

So I immediately responded that they should invite me. (Or, failing that Donald Knuth or George Church.) As far as I can tell, only a few other people responded to the tweet.  Suggestions included David Hasselhoff & Douglas Hofstadter. (There’s probably more discussion going on over on the Defcon Forums. . . remind me to check that out.)

But as much as I would love to hear Knuth or Church speak (among others) I really do think they should make me John Sundman the Defcon 20 special guest. Why? See below the fold. Read More »

Also posted in My Thoughts Exactly, Wetware, Writing | Comments closed

Strange Looping

I write & publish fiction for hackers and geeks. I’ve written a novel and two novellas and I have another novel in the works. The baseline genre is cyberpunk/biopunk thriller, although I approach the subject matter in a kind of David Foster Wallace/Pynchonian way. So I’m actually kind of a postmodern metafictiony cyberpunky technothriller novelist. All my books concern hacking of both silicon-based and carbon-based systems.

As I discussed in Adventures in Self-Publishing, there’s no reasonable way for me to get my books into bookstores (all the tech bookstores that used to carry me have gone under). Therefor I use other ways to get my books in front of readers. Sometimes I go to places where hackers and geeks and congregate & there set up a table whereupon I put out copies of my books & glowing reviews from geekoid websites & start carnival barking like Billy Mays, selling my books for cash.

I’ve done this for more than ten years. (Here’s an account (from which the two preceding paragraphs were lifted), of my adventure selling books at the giant hacker convention Defcon.)

Next month I’ll be at the StrangeLoop convention in St. Louis, pimping my warez and also taking in as many sessions as I can. This prospect has me psyched. I don’t know if I’ll sell enough books to cover my expenses, but if you were to ask me “who’s the ideal audience for your books?” I would say something like “people who care about literature, are fans of Douglas Hofstadter, and are comfortable with high-geek computer & science stuff”. I expect that everybody at Strangeloop will meet at least a few of those criteria; some may meet them all.
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Also posted in My Thoughts Exactly, Wetware, Writing | Comments closed

Remembering Tom West, the Original Geek Rock Star

I was saddened to learn of the passing last week of Tom West, the engineer/hacker who was the main focus of Tracy Kidder’s 1981 book The Soul of a New Machine. Tom was 71. Boston.com published a nice obituary; there were also notices in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other places.

From the Boston.com article:

 

Thirty years ago, Tom West was thrust into a category of one, a famous computer engineer, with the publication of “The Soul of a New Machine.’’

Tracy Kidder’s book, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and is taught in business classes and journalism schools, chronicled Mr. West’s role leading a team that built a refined version of a 32-bit minicomputer at a key juncture for the computer industry and his employer, Data General of Westborough.

The book’s success turned a quirky, brilliant, private, and largely self-taught man into a somewhat reluctant guru.

 

I call Tom by his first name because I knew him, and that’s what I called him. In fact for a short while early in my career I worked quite closely with him — at the tail end of my four year stint at Data General.

As Soul of a New Machine amply demonstrates, West was a compelling figure. Everybody agrees he was quirky and brilliant; some people have mentioned his  being difficult or “prickly”. I have to say that I don’t remember a prickly side to the man. He could be abrupt, sure. Direct. Economical of speech. But if he had a temper or was harsh or unfair, I either never saw it or have since forgotten about it. I just remember that I really liked him.

Although I can’t claim to have been great friends with the man — I don’t know if he would even have remembered my name — he made a deep impression on me. When I wrote the novella Cheap Complex Devices in 2003 — about twenty years since I had worked with Tom West at Data General — a quirky, brilliant and (I think) extremely funny character named Tom Best showed up all through it. I can’t take much credit for Tom Best’s funny lines, however, since I stole most of them from Tom W. Read More »

Also posted in Hardware, Memology, My Thoughts Exactly, Wetware, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments (Comments closed)

Pioneering Fantasy Author Brian Rathbone talks with Wetmachine about the Future of Publishing

I met Brian Rathbone, author of the World of Godsland fantasy series,  on Twitter. I posted something relating to self-publishing, he answered, and pretty soon we were exchanging emails. I found that although I had learned a lot in more than ten years of self-publishing, there were lots of new trends that I had kind of missed. One of them being Twitter itself, which I was not making very good use of, and another being ebook publishing & distributing (when I met Brian, I had about 250 followers on twitter and he had 15,000. I had given away tens of thousands of free ebooks but sold only a few dozens of them). It was Brian who turned me onto Smashwords, which I now use to distribute my Acts of the Apostles to half a dozen ebook retailers, including Apple and Barnes & Noble. (See my interview with Smashwords founder Mark Coker here).

Brian is a very creative user of social media, and also of “podiobooks” — self-recorded audiobooks (which he explains below). He’s not only a good writer and creative self-publisher, he’s also an extremely nice fellow. I encourage you to check out his interview below the fold, and by all means, buy one of his books!

Brian joins the roster of luminaries interviewed here on Wetmachine about the future of publishing that includes Smashwords’ Mark Coker, Writer’s Digest honcho emeritus Jane Friedman, book designer extraordinaire Joel Friedlander, and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks.

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Also posted in Memology, My Thoughts Exactly, Writing | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

You’re Right, Bruce Sterling: I *am* the future of printed fiction. Let’s discuss at SXSW!

A few months ago I blogged about my ten-or-so year long [career|hobby| pipe-dream|unhealthy obsession] as an itinerant peddler of my self-published nanopunky cyberpunky biopunky novel and novellas. That post was called Traveling Self-Publishing Geek Novelist Blues: the Defcon Variations.

A few weeks after I had posted this bit, the cyberpunk celebrity/novelist Bruce Sterling picked up on it, writing in an entry about me in his beyond the beyond blog entitled “The Future of Printed Fiction“. (Actually he didn’t write a blog entry about me — he copy/pasted my Wetmachine post and inserted into it a few oracular comments of his own.)

It’s all about being a make-do gypsy at the fringes of the web conference scene,” Sterling said in his prefatory remarks. “Gothic High-Tech, Favela Chic”.

I’ve been pondering that pronouncement (and others like it that he sprinkled through post by way of annotation) for a few months now (his post is dated October 14, 2010). Below the fold, I make an attempt at parsing them. I do detect a general tone of condescension in Sterling’s comments. Which, y’know, who cares. And furthermore I’m not even sure about that, that his comments are condescending. It seems like he’s making fun of me, but maybe he’s doing straight reporting or maybe he’s free-associating/scat-singing, like a jazz musician or person with Tourettes; I can’t really tell and anyway I’m not well-placed to judge, inasmuch as the subject is my life’s work. Mostly I’m grateful that Sterling blogged about me at all, because he has legions of fans & I got a nice jolt of web traffic and a mini-spike in book sales after he anointed me The Future of Printed Fiction. So thanks, Bruce.

In related news, both Sterling and I are slated to be in Austin, Texas next March for SXSW, the mega indie artist hipster conclave, at which event he will be giving a keynote talk to the multitudes and I’ll be on a panel (presumably before a much smaller and less adoring audience than Sterling’s) entitled “The Self-Publishing Novelist: Report from the Trenches

Since Bruce & I will both be at SXSW, maybe I’ll get a chance to chat with him & ask him what his comments meant. Or, maybe, just maybe, when I get to SXSW & plop myself down in a chair to listen to his opening address I’ll discover that I’m the subject of his keynote talk, which will be about nothing other than, yes THE FUTURE OF PRINTED FICTION & how I, Sundman is it! And I will find myself thereby catapulted into cyberbionanonovelist superstardom, right alongside Bruce Himself and William Gibson and what’s his face, who wrote Cryptonomicon and is now working some newfangled space-age post-fiction with my friend Nicki Galland and that other guy who wrote the book about little nanomachines taking over your mind — no, not Acts of the Apostles , the other one. Probably not, I realize that. But if you’re reading this, Bruce, and would like to join me for a cuppa whatever, please do  have your people call my people.

While I do confess to a bit of bewilderment about what Sterling is actually saying about me in his post, I think the gist is that printed (fiction) books are rapidly becoming “collector” artifacts for niche and rapidly shrinking communities of readers, like classic 35MM film cameras (Pentax, Minolta, Leica, Hasselblad. . .) that once commanded premiums in specialty stores and now go for a few bucks at flea markets.

Who knows, he may be right about that.

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Also posted in Memology, My Thoughts Exactly, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments (Comments closed)
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