New entry May 06
Critters is 25!
This November, Critters is 25 years old! Wow! Thanks so much to all of you, who've made it such a resounding success!
Books from Critters!
Check out Books by Critters for books by your fellow Critterfolk, as well as my list of recommended books for writers.
Space Travel for SF Writers
Hot off the presses from ReAnimus Press! Space Travel - A Science Fiction Writer's Guide— An indispensible tool for all SF writers that explains the science you need to help you make your fiction plausible. (Also via Amazon)
How to Write SF
The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells by Ben Bova, best-selling author and six-time Hugo Award winner for Best Editor. (This is one of the books your ol' Critter Captain learned from himself, and I highly recommend it.) (Also via Amazon)
I was interviewed live on public radio for Critters' birthday, for those who want to listen.
Free Web Sites
Free web sites for authors (and others) are available at www.nyx.net.
ReAnimus Acquires Advent!
ReAnimus Press is pleased to announce the acquisition of the legendary Advent Publishers! Advent is now a subsidiary of ReAnimus Press, and we will continue to publish Advent's titles under the Advent name. Advent was founded in 1956 by Earl Kemp and others, and has published the likes of James Blish, Hal Clement, Robert Heinlein, Damon Knight, E.E. "Doc" Smith, and many others. Advent's high quality titles have won and been finalists for several Hugo Awards, such as The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy and Heinlein's Children. Watch this space for ebook and print editions of all of Advent's current titles!
THE SIGIL TRILOGY: The universe is dying from within... "Great stuff... Really enjoyed it." — SFWA Grandmaster Michael Moorcock
Announcing ReAnimus Press
If you're looking for great stuff to read from bestselling and award-winning authors—look no further! ReAnimus Press was founded by your very own Critter Captain. (And with a 12% Affiliate program.) [More]
Necessity is the Assassin of Invention
How Moderation in the Name of "Spam" is Stifling Innovation
Andrew Burt |
First the background. I like to create things. Back in the day, I founded the world's first free Internet service (Nyx.net; apparently it was the first public Internet service of any kind). I started one of the largest Internet writers workshops (Critters.org). I've written a ton of tools of various kinds. This story concerns one of those. I created a tool (called ".HT files") for web designers, to make their life easier. It's licensed under the Creative Commons (meaning it's essentially free; you can read the exact terms but the terms aren't -- and shouldn't be -- relevant to this tale).
I announced this tool on sites for web developers, just as in the past I'd announced Nyx, Critters, and other creations. I've found this specific tool immensely time-saving, and so might the readers on these sites.
On most of the sites my posting was deleted as "spam" and in many cases I was banned as a user.
I was at first inclined to blow this off, until I realized what a negative impact this behavior was having on innovation in general. My reply below is to an admin at Ars Technica, who, ironically for this story, it turned out knew me, had my novel on his shelf, and participated in some of the sites I'd created.
Here's my reply, which is really an essay on why sites should allow and, indeed, ENCOURAGE creators to post notes about their creations.
Hi, [name], thanks for the note. I'm sure you get a ton of spam, and I sympathize. I get about 5k email spams a day so I understand how volume is an enemy. (It does present "opportunities" to innovate, though, such as they are. :) I had to write myself a custom spam filter to cope.)
I am saddened to see that announcing one's new innovations has become equated to spam.
I leave it for others to judge the benefit to society, but I founded the world's first free ISP (Nyx.net), and I remember when I spread the word around BBSs about "Hey, here's free Internet service I set up." I founded what is (to my knowledge) the largest writers workshop for science fiction, fantasy and horror writers (Critters.org), and I remember when I posted to Usenet about the formation of Critters. Neither would have survived their embryonic state without being announced.
I'm saddened to think that people's initial postings of "Hey, here's this thing I created" back in the day would have been promptly killed as horrific evil spam and them banned as users from posting ever again. If nobody was allowed to hear birth notices from creators of their work, so many critical technologies wouldn't be known. Larry, Phil, Phil, Bjarne, and Linus didn't have to find someone else posting a problem to which PERL, PKZIP, PGP, "C with Classes", Linux, or Mosaic were the "possible solutions." I looked at the initial Usenet post I made about Critters in 1995, and it isn't that different conceptually to the post I made about .HT files. Nor is it that different from what Linus posted in 1991. I'm saddened to think a Critters or Linux announcement would today be obliterated as spam.
No, my .HT files won't revolutionize the world; that's not my point. My points are
[As a side note, it's sad how much history is getting lost. I went to look for similar birth notices from the other examples I cited and it's harder than heck to find them. I know the history of Nyx is nearly lost, not even a Wikipedia article on it, and so much else from back then is fading. Ah, well. But that's a topic for another day.]
PERL, PHP, Linux, and others started similarly to .HT files, as a quick&dirty hack for personal uses that might be of no use to anyone else. I have no illusions about .HT files becoming wildly popular -- indeed, I think it quite likely nobody else will ever use them. But that would be assured if nobody heard of them... or PERL... or PHP... or Linux... Death-by-obscurity doesn't serve society well; death-by-deliberate-disinterest serves it far better. (That is, people seeing announcements and choosing to ignore them as not useful to themselves.) It's disheartening to see large forums acting as agents of "death by obscurity" rather than combatting it.
A place like Ars Technica is precisely the kind of vat where ideas need to ferment and mix, without limitations.
Spam shouldn't be allowed to stifle that for the sake of convenience. It's a sad day when we throttle progress in the name of spam. It's really a weird day when "necessity" is blamed as the reason for getting in the way of invention. (Used to be its mother and generator, not it's roadblock.) (Hmm... I'm thinking maybe I need to write an article here, with a title something like "Necessity is the assassin of invention"... :)
There's also a pretty obvious difference between announcing a tech project (even if for money) and real spam (offers from folks in Africa to help shrink your bank account or enlarge your -- ahem, don't want to get caught in a spam filter here :). Even a blatant moneygrubbing self-serving press release from Google/Microsoft/etc. could have value to Ars Technica readers where Nigerian 419 scams would not.
As for doing it backhandedly, as the reply to someone looking for a solution, as you mentioned, I'm afraid that's feels like a terribly poor substitute. Larry Wall didn't post his announcement of PERL as a reply to someone who asked, "Hmm, I'm looking for a practical extraction and report language, does anyone have one?" Indeed, few people really used PERL as a report language (which is what it was released as), even from the get-go. Instead they noticed it was the seed of a useful general purpose language. I used it for my AI research and owe my PhD to it. Indeed, I begged Larry to add local variables so I could do recursion. (He was resistant; I was persistent.) If I and others hadn't badgered him into improving it, PERL wouldn't be a real language today and probably a forgotten bag of bits on the side of the old information superhighway. CGIs in web browers would have suffered and thus slowed e-commerce, wikis, web forums, and all that, if people still had to write them in C instead of PERL, as was an early improvement. I know for SURE nobody was asking "Hey, is there a workshop for science fiction writers on this Internet thing?" I just hauled off and announced Critters. I didn't know if there was a demand for it or not. Bits were cheap, so I tossed it out there. I did the same with Nyx. Nobody was asking "Hey, is there free Internet access out there somewhere?" Likewise C++, Linux, etc. etc. etc. etc.
Could I be so bold as to suggest you consider revising those policies of yours, to allow and indeed ENCOURAGE people to post about the projects they're working on? I could see phrasing being nudged to suggest people minimize marketing hype and emphasize the facts of what does it do (but not as a requirement). At the very very least, could you offer a forum dedicated to announcements and discussion of new projects people are working on? I think it needs to be allowed in every forum, since you never know where someone is reading who'll run with something and create something even better. But if that's pushing the envelope, at least one forum would be better than none.
I went to post on Ars Technica precisely because it has a large audience of tech-minded readers who could benefit from a time-saving technology, and thus free them up to create something even better. I had in my mind a thought that Ars Technica readers and admins would be forward thinking, innovation-loving folks. .HT files are hardly "the shoulders of giants" for others to stand on, but it's that spirit of building on what's come before in science and innovation (and, for that matter, progress in civilization itself, starting with fire, wheels, money...) that has brought us where we humans are today.
MOOG: Ugg, I see body of Oog. Why he dead?
UGG: He make announcement some dumb thing he make called "wheel." Spam. I kill him.
I can't imagine if Edison had tried to announce electric lighting (and thus electricity run to the household eventually leading to PCs and WiFi and microwave popcorn and...)... and been banned.
I know I did predict that the web would have a fracturing effect on communications compared to Usenet. Usenet was a "single place" (as it were), where everyone interested in a topic saw essentially all the posts about that topic. The web, as I predicted, caused a gazillion forums to spring up, none of them sharing posts. Cross-fertilization of ideas thus diminishes, because one person simply can't read all the different forums. There's thus an increase of redundant postings, more unanswered questions (because the guy with the answer is reading there and not here), and fewer happy collisions of ideas.
The large forums, like Ars Technica, are as close to the "single place" as we now have. Thus they/you almost have (in my mind, anyway) a sort of moral duty to help ideas collide. Moderation is needed to reduce the noise from Nigerian bank spam, I agree with that thoroughly. But I think it's harmful to society when moderation limits the exchange of meaningful ideas. (Even if there's an eeeevil profit motive behind it. Edison wasn't inventing light bulbs for fun, nor Bell the telephone, etc. I have no illusions of earning any money from .HT files, but innovations for profit has been good for society, at least if one likes electric sockets in the house, running water, flush toilets, big macs, ordering Harry Potter off Amazon...... :)
Readers seeing then choosing to ignore too-expensive or otherwise poor ideas is better than not seeing them. (Perhaps they may even create a better/cheaper version. But not if they don't get exposed to it.)
I was startled to get banned for posting about an effectively free tool. Ouch. I almost blew it off, but then I thought, y'know, this isn't good for the world. Maybe they'll rethink the policy. (I harbor no illusions that my commentary will do any good, but it can't hurt to try. Feel free to share this message if it helps.)
So, I apologize for the rant -- I hope you see it for the urging-to-improve-policy that it is, to spur innovation and help Ars Technica be an Agora for ideas, a midwife to future progress.
Thanks for listening.
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