FCC to Marriott: Shut up and sit down, you craven weasels

Marriott has been insisting that it was free to disable guest Wifi hotspots “for quality reasons,” which is transparently false: their reason is to force guests and conference-goers to use their overpriced facility wifi services. Charges for these can run to hundreds of dollars a day for some conferences, so there’s no doubt that they’re feeling a bite here — at the rates I sometimes see, it would be cheaper to go to a mall, buy a hotspot device from whatever provider you want, and then never use it again than it would be to pay for conference wifi.

Marriott paid a $600,000 fine about this earlier in the year, but was still agitating for a rule change to allow their tomfoolery. Last month, they backed down, but still insisted it was their right.

The FCC has issued a very clear opinion on the matter:

The Enforcement Bureau has seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using their own personal Wi-Fi hot spots on the commercial establishment’s premises. As a result, the Bureau is protecting consumers by aggressively investigating and acting against such unlawful intentional interference.


No hotel, convention center, or other commercial establishment or the network operator providing services at such establishments may intentionally block or disrupt personal Wi-Fi hot spots on such premises, including as part of an effort to force consumers to purchase access to the property owner’s Wi-Fi network. Such action is illegal and violations could lead to the assessment of substantial monetary penalties.

Boom. Headshot, assholes.

Books of 2015, #4: Cibola Burn, by James S. A. Corey (Expanse #4)

What started as a “ripping good yarn” a few years ago is getting a bit ploddy. It’s hard to say much about this without disclosing spoilers for the first three books, so I’ll be vague, but if you like hard SF and you enjoyed the first couple, this one’s mostly more of the same, though we get WAY less “crazy alien stuff” and way more “pioneer politics.” I’m not sure this is really an improvement.

Anyway, the “good yarn” aspects have been enough to get The Expanse a shot at TV over on SyFy, but I really have no idea how it’ll translate, or how true to books they’ll be. It’s clear now that Corey (a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is pursuing this as an open-ended series and not a single long story, and that makes me less interested in hanging on forever. Stories need ends.

Books of 2015, #3: The Martian, by Andy Weir

I guess that, if we’re going to have categories, I have to tag this as SF, but it’s the closest-to-now and absolutely most-plausible SF I think I’ve ever seen, and not in the “20 minutes into the future” sense that you sometimes got with cyberpunk. The Martian is basically set in the present day, with only our space program’s abilities slightly ramped up.

Astronaut Mark Watney is part of a Mars expedition that works more or less like you’d expect: a long trip there followed by a fairly short sojourn on the surface doing experiments and gathering samples. When a sandstorm kicks up and threatens the stability of their lander — i.e., their only way back to orbit and their ride home — they must abort, but poor Mark is injured on the run to the craft. Worse, the flying debris that knocks him out also destroyed his suit’s telemetry equipment, so all his colleagues think he’s dead. Safe on the lander, and thinking him lost, they leave.

And then Mark wakes up, alone and marooned, and with no way to communicate with Earth or his colleagues.

What follows is a terrific yarn equal parts accessible, scientifically valid problem solving and “Robinson Crusoe”, minus the charming natives. Essentially everything Mark does is plausible, which makes the story all the more thrilling and fun. It should therefore come as no surprise that it’s already been optioned; it’ll be adapted by Drew Goddard (who directed The Cabin in the Woods from a Whedon script) and helmed by Ridley Scott, with Matt Damon attached as Watney.

Scott’s output lately has been weak, but the source material here is so strong my hope is he’s able to find his feet again. The emphasis here on real approaches to problem solving prompted me to describe The Martian to a friend as “like Gravity, but good;” on film, that could become literally true.

Highly recommended.

Josh Marshall Explains the House of Saud

You probably heard that Saudi Arabia’s monarch, King Abdullah, died yesterday at 90.

What you may not have picked up is how deeply strange the Kingdom’s succession system is, Josh Marshall at TPM breaks it down for you. Abdullah took over from his half brother Fahd, who took over from his half brother Khalid, who took over from his half brother Faisal, who took over from his half brother Saud, who took over when the original King Ibn Saud died in 1953 at the age of 76. Yes, this means the Saudi king’s dad was born a decade after the American Civil War.

“Good god, how many sons did this dude have?” you may ask. I know I did. Turns out? Answer is 45 via 20+ wives, of which 36 lived to adulthood. Interestingly, only one wife (Hassa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi) mothered two kings: Khalid (b. 1913, reigned ’75 to ’82) and the new king Salman (b. 1935). She had five other sons besides, plus four daughters. The Wikipedia article is worth a click.

Salman is no spring chicken at 79. After him comes the last surviving son of Ibn Saud, Muqrin, who’s a decade younger. The apparent plan at that point — which could come sooner rather than later, as Abdullah’s 90 years is as much an outlier there as anywhere — they’ll move on to grandsons.

Say what you will about pure father-to-son succession planning, but at least the path is clear, which presumably preserves some perceived legitimacy in the ruled population. The ever-increasing tribe of Saud doesn’t enjoy that clear-cut path, and the worry is that once they’re out of sons of Saud, they — and the region — may be in for a bumpy ride. Recall it’s been Fahd and Abdullah that have kept Saudi Arabia together and pushed, however incrementally, for greater western engagement and tiny bits of progress for women. The royal family is the enemy of the rabid fundamentalist brands of Islam apparently on sale throughout the region, but they rule a population shot through with those same strains. It’s a delicate balance. The possible absence of even a flawed but legitimate monarch there is probably bad news for moderates in the region and globally, and good news for fundies.

Bug Bounties and Law Enforcement

In the 90s, Dilbert was still relatively novel, and was pretty often VERY on-point, as in this strip from almost 20 years ago:


As with most of Adams’ work, this one is predicated on the self-evidently ridiculous behavior of management, and the ability of the technical employees to see the failure immediately. Closely tied to this is the feeling we nearly always get from this kind of comedy: that’s pretty funny, but nobody would actually DO that. I mean, it’s stupid.

Well, yeah. About that. Bug bounties absolutely WERE a thing, but they’re positively benign compared to what the FBI has been doing for nearly 15 years. In the era of the War on Terror, it became necessary for Federal law enforcement to show success against terror plots. That terrorism in the US is fantastically rare isn’t an excuse, apparently, for not stopping terror plots.

So what does the FBI do? They go out and write themselves a minivan. A huge percentage of the “plots” they’ve crowed about stopping since 9/11 are plots that were set up by the Feds themselves as pseudo-sting operations. They’d target ineffectual loners and radicals, and then create a situation for them to get carried away and join other “radicals” — typically undercover officers — in an ambitious plot, only to find at the last minute that the plot never existed, but that they were nevertheless guilty of numerous felonies.

But the real winner is the FBI, who gets to trumpet their “success” here and use it to justify more power grabs and more funding. The 20-year-old would-be terrorist may be going to prison behind this, but the REAL losers are all of us, because eventually we’ll have to deal with the metastasizing cancer of overreaching, roll-your-own-crime law enforcement coupled with pols like Boehner using synthetic plots to justify additional government power.

But, hey, my guess is that entrapping basement-dwelling 20-year-olds is a lot easier than catching actual bad guys.

Because Football > Children

In a new settlement with Penn State, the NCAA announced that they have restored the bulk of Joe Paterno’s wins formerly vacated as part of punishment for covering up Sandusky’s child rape hobby. He regains his position, officially, as the winningest coach ever in college football, and I think we can all agree that’s justice exactly what we should expect from an organization as venal and corrupt as the NCAA.

That’s it. Fuck football. it’s a goddamn cancer.

Books of 2015, #2: Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

John Hodgman told me to read this.

Well, not directly. But he trumpeted its appeal from his blog, which I read, and so it made it onto my list. Shopping for Christmas presents last month, I slipped a copy into my pile as I’ve recently acquired rather more free time. (Ha, ha.) I read it over the last few days.

It’s solid work. It’s technically Darnielle‘s first novel — he’s mostly famous for being the principal behind the band Mountain Goats — but it turns out his 33 ⅓ book about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality is rather more than a critical appraisal of the record:

Mr. Darnielle’s publisher is pitching “Wolf in White Van” (the title is a reference to some spooky song lyrics) as a debut novel. But there’s a case to made — I’m willing to make it — that his Black Sabbath book is Mr. Darnielle’s real first novel.

“Master of Reality” is no straightforward critical assessment of Black Sabbath’s album, a sludgy doom-rock classic. It’s fiction that peels thrillingly off into music writing.

The book is written from the point of view of a teenage boy in a mental hospital who explains why Black Sabbath and its lead singer, Ozzy Osbourne, meant so much to isolated kids like himself. It’s about how rock music can express not only liberating joy but, conversely and perhaps more importantly, also speak to bottomless misery and pain.

And then, here we are with Wolf, which is also centered on an obsessed, nerdy, isolated teenage protagonist of a certain type. Heavy metal, fantasy literature and games, and social isolation define Sean, at least until they’re joined by the disfiguring accident that cements his isolation and forms the rest of the skeleton on which the book rests.

Wolf in White Van was nominated for the National Book Award, and it should have been. It’s an intense and powerful book, and (I suspect) a personal one for Darnielle. He clearly didn’t suffer the accident that makes Sean a shut-in, but no amount of research could connect a writer so deeply a life like Sean’s — distant or abusive parents, social isolation, and exacerbating the isolation with unconventional interests like fantasy books, heavy metal, and gaming. The Times notes that Darnielle has written before about his abusive stepfather, and no one writes a 33 ⅓ book about a record they don’t love. Darnielle is clearly of a certain tribe (as am I), and his book is an honest story even if it isn’t wholly his. But that’s what fiction is, right?


Books of 2015, #1: A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge

Every now and then, I get drawn into a “classic” of the SF genre, and get roundly disappointed. This is one of those times.

In SF, there are TONS of people who read nothing else, it seems, and a goodly chunk of the SF world seems to value very different things than I do when it comes to literature.

I want decently drawn characters, prose that doesn’t clang, an author who understands that telling is not showing, and a story that moves along without getting bogged down in side issues.

In SF, it seems like all these things are subordinate to the cleverness of the idea or ideas the author includes in the yarn. Now, SF is very different from conventional stories because of this fantastic element, but I’ll go ahead and say out loud that the fantastic element isn’t enough to stand on its own, and authors depend on them at their peril.

Of course, as established above, I appear to be alone in this, because A Fire Upon The Deep is widely heralded as a brilliant book. It won the Hugo in 1993, even. So there’s that.

The story here is really pretty thin, and depends entirely on you being sufficiently entertained by a few plot coupons:

  • The far, far, far future setting, wherein humans are just one race of thousands, including machine intelligences and “post-singularity” races.
  • The whole idea of the “Zones of Thought” in the galaxy, which underpins a series of books starting here. Vinge’s notion is that the galaxy is comprised of concentric zones, and these zones control physical laws at a very basic level. Very close to the galactic core, intelligence is impossible, and travel doubly so. Outside that is the Slow Zone, which is where Earth is, and where the physical laws we know prevail. The next layer is the “Beyond,” where standard SF tropes like faster-than-light travel and communication are possible. And, of course, there’s zones beyond that.
  • That the galaxy can contain many types of intelligences, and that they may be very different from us. This in and of itself isn’t new, but two of Vinge’s examples are genuinely novel: the Skroderiders, and in particular the Tines.

The Tines are neat, I must admit: the race is made up of smallish fairly intelligent doglike quadrupeds, but there within the race individual animals are not considered entities. Instead, small packs — 3 to 8 — combine to become intelligent, named individuals. There are strengths and weaknesses to this approach, and to the various sizes of packs. Vinge has given lots of thought to this, which is to his credit, but he did so at the expense of telling an interesting story.

I’ve seen this happen in workshop stories. People fall in love with a plot idea or trope or sequence, and can’t let it go so they beat the horse to death. Vinge does this constantly. The book drags and drags as he explains in painful detail about how a pack race would work, or how a synthetic human feels, or how the Zones affect commerce and history. The issue here isn’t JUST too much backstory (though that’s part of it); the bigger sin is that he just TELLS us these things instead of working their implications into the story organically.

Compare Iain Banks’ Culture stories, for example. Banks has created world no less foreign and amazing than the Zones galaxy, but he’s a deft enough writer that you never feel like you’re getting a braindump from Basil Exposition. I’ve left Banks behind for other reasons, but whatever else turned me off about his books at least the man understood how to construct a good story that also included amazing and fantastic elements.

Fifth Circuit Appears Poised To Rule In Favor Of Marriage Equality

This is pretty amazing, but there’s an absolute OH SNAP moment here that makes it even more delicious:

More than halfway through the morning’s arguments, an exasperated Justin Matheny, the assistant attorney general in Mississippi charged with defending the state’s ban, tried to change his tune during his rebuttal arguments.

When it became clear that the three-judge panel was leaning against upholding the bans, Matheny acknowledged that the “trajectory” for marriage rights for same-sex couples is “undeniable” — but added his new argument: “it’s not there yet.”

Judge Patrick Higginbotham, born in Alabama almost eight decades ago and appointed to the appeals court by President Reagan more than three decades ago, spoke up. And though the older judge was hard to hear at times, he spoke loudly and clearly when he responded to Matheny: “Those words, ‘Will Mississippi change its mind?’ have resonated in these halls before.”

Behind the scenes on the greatest TV show EVER

A sound editor who worked on the Wire did an AMA over at Reddit; Kottke has highlights but this is my favorite:

McNulty (Dom West) came in often and was awesome, as well. His accent showed most often when the character was drunk or angry. Oddly, the name “Stringer Bell” tripped him up a lot. “Stringa” and then a very over-enunciated end to “Bell-eh.” Also, the words “fuck” and “cunt” came out “feck” and “cahnt” and the only way to break him of it was to stand right in front of him (so he could watch the mouth shape) and say the word over and over again. So a Dom West ADR session often went like this:

Me (with Dom staring at my mouth): Cunt. Cunt. Cunt.
Dom: Cahnt. Shit, do it again, please.
Me: Cunt. Cunt. Cunt.
Dom: Cunt. Cunt. OK, let’s record…
(three beeps, the line starts and):
Dom: …cahnt. Feck! Say it again.
Me: Cunt….

Use an iPhone? You should set this up.

The new Health app (iOS 8 only) contains a feature that will allow your phone to share medical data with first responders in the event of an accident. It’s not some high-tech Bluetooth thingy; it’s just as simple as filling in a few fields (emergency contacts, allergies, medical conditions, etc.) and flipping the bit to turn it on.

Once it’s set, the data can be accessed from your phone’s lock screen by pressing Emergency and then Medical ID.

Check it out.

I dunno if I’ll bother with any of the rest of the Health features, but this is a nice addition.

Dept. of Good Things On TV

As a consequence of my injury back before Thanksgiving, Mrs Heathen and I spent a little time between then and Chrismas trying to keep me on the first floor of Heathen World HQ (and plan we’ve subsequently abandoned, because NO). During our evenings there, we were limited in televised entertainment, as we remain (apparently) the last remaining single television home in Christendom.

This limited us to things would could watch for free on NetFlix or Hulu, or on a pay-per-episode basis via iTunes. I don’t remember where I got the tip, but somehow I became aware of a show from the BBC, currently available on NetFlix, called The Fall. It stars Gillian Anderson (who apparently keeps a portrait in her attic) as an investigator in Belfast who in relatively short order finds herself pursuing a serial killer.

(Unlike lots of transatlantic casting, this works, largely because Anderson’s accent is spot on. The reason, apparently, is that she lived in the UK until she was 11, and can code-switch from American to British on the fly. Neat trick.)

Anyway, the first season is there, and you should watch it — and soon, so that you’ll be ready to enjoy season 2 when it arrives on Netflix on January 16.

Wired has a nice piece up about the show which you may enjoy; it’s spoiler-free, mostly (a last-episode plot detail drops late in the piece, but it’s not a major thing).

Books of 2014, #21-26: The Rest

Yeah, well, I’m behind:

  • #21: The Getaway God, by Richard Kadrey: Big fun, and closes out the first major arc for Kadrey’s Sandman Slim character.
  • #22: The Ways of the Dead, by Neely Tucker: Solid thriller debut from a friend of a friend.
  • #23: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: End-of-the-world tale (plague subtype), sorta, but as much about life years after as it is about life during, which makes it more interesting than most such tales. It’s solid work, but I absolutely will ding her for a few clangy bits, most notably her apparent need to remind us, over and over, that gasoline has a short, finite shelf life. It felt like she’d learned this, had it surprise her, and then felt the need to work it into the text as many times as possible. Which is weird, right?
  • #24: Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon. Basically, I took another run at it because the movie is almost here. I think my takeaway is that Pynchon is for other people. Each sentence has a high chance of being an intricate and clever thing of beauty, but it seems he gets distracted building those things and forgets to complete the story.
  • #25: Personal, by Lee Child. Sue me; I’ve been laid up. At this point, I must confess that I’m completely caught up on Reacher.
  • #26: The Peripheral, by William Gibson. Probably the best and most interesting book I read last year. But it’s Gibson, so this isn’t a surprise. I might get around to writing more about this later, but who can tell?

I finished the Gibson on the 11th, and just finished another book yesterday — but the timing suggests a 27th book for 2014, since I didn’t buy yesterday’s book until the 21st. However, I’ll be damned if I can tell you what it was. Clearly, it was memorable.

At least I’m in good company

Bono is apparently more crap at riding a bike than I am:

On the day of my 50th birthday I received an injury because I was over indulging in exercise boxing and cycling, which was itself an overcompensation for overindulging on alcohol coming up to the big birthday. I promised myself I would be more mindful of my limits, but just four years on, it happened again – a massive injury I can’t blame on anyone but myself, mainly because I blanked out on impact and have no memory of how I ended up in New York Presbyterian with my humerus bone sticking through my leather jacket. Very punk rock as injuries go.


Recovery has been more difficult than I thought… As I write this, it is not clear that I will ever play guitar again. The band have reminded me that neither they nor Western civilization are depending on this.

The whole thing is on an alphabet riff; scroll down for X for the inevitable X-ray of his repaired elbow, which looks even scarier than my repaired femur.