Thursday, September 29, 2011

Are most internet ads scam?

This is an example why I will never try to make money off my website and blog by running ads. I saw this on Freethought Blogs website.

'Invention to heal water' ad on Freethought Blogs

Yes, the notion of "healing the water" meshes so well with a scientific approach to the world. And yet the ad selection software (probably run by a third party) keeps putting ads on Freethought Blogs that directly undermine their message. (Even if Freethought Blogs aren't specifically oriented against pseudoscience, it is a big area of scrutiny in the freethought community.) At the very least the ad rotation software needs to be more semantic-aware, to gauge the attitude of the target audience towards the ad. There was a time when New York Times could also benefit from a similar intelligent filter, at least in their Science section; ads for a "quantum healing" change-reality-with-your-thoughts self-help course might not sit well with the audience who wants to read about physics. (I haven't seen those ads on in a while; maybe they got wise to it.)

But if better semantic analysis eliminated every ad promising $$$$/week working from home, or one "weird" tip for a flat belly, would there be any ads left to run?

I'm exaggerating, because I do see ads for useful products, like shoes, handbags and cell phones, or Dell servers and programmer outsourcing firms (I guess data mining algorithms must have concluded I'm a female CTO of some company. I should feel flattered. :-)), but those are no more than 1/3 of all the internet ads I see. It is just me, or is it really true that overwhelming majority of internet ads are snake oil products and scams?

If so, what does it say about the whole business model of advertising-supported websites? Companies that have something valuable to sell don't seem too interested in advertising on the web. And yet many startups count on being able to survive off ad revenue. I wonder if they are being naive about this whole concept (and given the rate at which they go under, they may be) -- unless they count on there always being plenty of idiots to fall for scams. (That may be not a bad assumption, sadly.)

I've seen some too-good-to-be-true ads, e.g. hot stocks and ridiculously cheap car insurance, even on websites of major U.S. newspapers like Washington Post. Is that an indication of just how desperate for cash newspapers are?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Human rights -- one of the societal evils?

I got an interesting discussion going on a couple of my private social media channels about this church sign in Austin, Texas. So I thought it warrants a public blog post, summarizing various people's opinions. Apologies to those who have seen this discussion before. This is the last time I'm posting about it.

Human rights, narcissism, infidelity, materialism, prejudice, hypocricy

When I first saw this sign, my first thought was: are they kidding? Human rights, narcissism, infidelity, materialism, prejudice, hypocricy all grouped together? am I to understand that human rights are a vice on par with with narcissism, infidelity, etc.? What kind of church would be against human rights? Perhaps in their doctrine, humans have no rights except those given by God. So an attempt of humans to establish their own rights is one of the evils of secularism. (I'm really stretching my imagination here.) The church website ( does not make it clearer.

The speculation in my social media streams converged around three possibilities:

(1) it's an unintentionally awkward phrasing, possibly because of a formatting limitation. They couldn't fit "human rights violations" on the sign (without messing up visually), so they put "human rights", because the phrase "human rights" is usually followed by "violations"; thus "violations" can be dropped.

(2) it's a form of trolling... erm, ingenious marketing. Whetting people's appetite by an intentionally cryptic or contradictory statement. Maybe they'll be curious enough to come to the church to find out what it's all about.

(3) this church really counts human rights among the evils of secularism. About half of the people who commented on this photo thought so.

"I couldn't tell if they're for Human Rights or against them, but since they're against the other topics I'm assuming they're against Human Rights too."
"'Human rights' originated after WWII and were defined by a multi-national commission. So Human Rights are an innovation and not given by God in the Bible, therefore they're evil. It doesn't matter that by and large they're corollaries of the "Love your neighbors as yourselves" commandment."

"This page on the church website, You have a part to play, seems to make the point even more strongly. On its web page (which, unlike a sign, does not have formatting limitations), they list all six "issues", including human rights, and says 'In addition, we we will be sponsoring a unique "small group challenge": our small groups will have the opportunity to craft a personal and creative response to these issues, competing for a $250 prize per issue [...]'."

It's probably not (1), because awkward phrasing in a sign could easily be clarified on the website. It may also be (2) and (3) combined. One friend said, "this is a deliberate attempt to confuse people and attract attention, and not a simple failure of parallel rhetorical construction."

Monday, September 12, 2011

ArmadilloCon 2011: What You Should Have Read

A bunch of authors, editors, critics and booksellers discuss their science fiction, fantasy and horror picks of the year. Willie Siros usually presents his list of notable genre books that came out in the last year or two, but he forgot the list at home. So he recalled from memory five recent books that left the biggest impression to him. Here they are.

Willie's five most recommended genre books of the year

China Mieville "Embassy Town"

Greg Egan "Clockwork Rocket"

Robert Charles Wilson "Vortex"

Charles Stross "Rule 34"

Gene Wolf "Home Fires"

Willie's less memorable, but still good novels of the year

James Corey (Daniel Abraham's pen name) "Leviathan Wakes"

Greg Bear "Hull Zero Three"

Charles Stross "Scratch Monkey", his very first novel that has been unpublished until now. Willie Siros thinks it was good for Stross' career that his debut novel was "Singularity Sky", and not "Scratch Monkey". But now it has been published by NESFA. (I wonder, then, if this novel is only good in the "look how far this author has come!" sense.)

John Scalzi "Fuzzy Nation"

Rudy Rucker "Jim and the Flims"

Novels that inspired a discussion

Nnedi Okorafor "Who Fears Death"

Elizabeth Bear, Michelle Muenzler, and Willie Siros

Elizabeth Bear, Michelle Muenzler, and Willie Siros. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

This book was highly praised by Michelle Muenzler and Martin Wagner. Martin recalled that one of its critics didn't think the future world in this novel was very well explained, at least not in a typical hard SF fan manner. Martin said that was because the world in which the narrator is living is not very clear to the people living in them. In the post-apocalyptic future Sudan, its inhabitants know only a little bit about our present day from some book, but most of the human history is lost to them. What is interesting is the narrator's personal journey. She is a product of weaponized rape, and an outcast in her society. This enables her to go on a journey she goes on. Martin characterized this book as an interesting hybrid that couples African mysticism with some very contemporary politics.

Willie Siros said that even though Nnedi Okorafor grew up America (she is of Nigerian origin), she has an interesting post-colonial view. He compared her to Ian McDonald, who is having "a lot of fun postulating future Brazil and India"

Hannu Rajaniemi "Quantum Thief"

Thomas M. (Martin) Wagner and Elizabeth Bear

Thomas M. (Martin) Wagner and Elizabeth Bear. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Martin Wagner wasn't quite disappointed by this book, but despite being a wonderful exercise in imagination, it didn't live up to the hype. Elizabeth Bear agreed: among other things, it is an uploaded brain book, a book on skinning reality, on being able to tune your reality in the "I don't like you, so you won't exist for me anymore" sense. But the author doesn't warm the water up for you, he throws you right in. Martin said he was processing the information so much that the story didn't hold any suspense for him. The premise of the book is like nothing he has ever seen: there's a city that walks around the surface of Mars. Time is currency there. After living for a while, its citizens become impersonal drones who work to support the walking city. Despite the imaginative setting, only one scene in the whole story has any heart on it: the hero brings a girl, the secondary protagonist, to a bar where she sings, because it's her hobby. Martin thinks this book had potential, but it will take the author 2-3 books to fully establish emotional connection with the reader.

Elizabeth Bear too said she didn't connect with that book. She felt distanced from the characters. It also does not testify to the author's writerly skills that when we meet a lesbian character for a first time, she is having sex. There are other ways to tell us she's a lesbian, says Elizabeth Bear.

John Scalzi "Fuzzy Nation"

Willie Siros counts this book in his "memorable, but not Top 5" category, but Martin Wagner was extremely impressed by it. Scalzi's take on that world was very faithful to H. Beam Piper (the author who originally thought up the fuzzies), but also uniquely his own. Martin liked a contemporary take on that particular story.

Mary Robinette Kowal "Shades of Milk and Honey" was another debut novel Willie was impressed with, and Martin liked it too. It's a Jane Austen pastiche.

Michelle Muenzler recommends

Darren Bradley "Noise"

Connie Willis "Blackout" and "All Clear" (a two-part novel, 2011 Hugo Award winner)

Michelle's most interesting fantasy books were all by Nightshade this year. "God's War" by Kameron Hurley has an interesting heroine who craps on everything, including herself. "No Hero" by Jonathan Wood is Lovecraft with the sense of humor. Michelle is a really big fan of Jonathan Woods voice. It's classic funny British, and if you ever talk to this author, you'll find he has the same kind of voice. You can imagine him in this book, talking with that voice.

Martha Wells "Cloud Roads". Though Michelle Muenzler strongly dislikes fantasy that has 5 million characters, "Cloud Roads" pulls it off. Every town has a new species. It has an ant culture mixed in with flying creatures. What Martha Wells did with different cultures is really fascinating.

Martin Wagner recommends

A whiteboard with the list of the recommended science fiction, fantasy and horror books of 2010-2011

A whiteboard with the list of the recommended science fiction, fantasy and horror books of 2010-2011. Scott Lynch did the honors of writing it all down. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Joe Abercrombie "The Heroes". It's about how war teaches people who they are. Characters discover that what they wanted out of life wasn't necessarily what they thought. Heroism doesn't mean the same things to the same people. Abercrombie has an amazing way to convey battle scenes. Everything comes from the POV of the person in front of you. It's all filtered through the character you are relating to. It's like the Omaha battle scene in Saving Private Ryan. That's what makes it not just mindless violent fantasy writing.

Stina Leicht "Of Blood and Honey", a novel about a young man who finds out who he is in the times of the Troubles in Ireland. Fantasy elements are so subtly intervowen into this story that for hundreds of pages you don't realize you're reading fantasy. It's Martin's favorite fantasy debut this year.

Dan Abnett "Embedded", a military science fiction novel that appealed to Martin even though he's not a fan of that genre. The main character is a journalist, whose mind is going to piggyback on the mind of a grunt in a battlefield. The problem is, the soldier he's piggybacking on is immediately killed when he gets out in the field. So the journalist's awareness, his consciousness has to take over, and help to bring this soldier home, so he could tell the truth of what's going on out there. Martin described this book as trenchant satire about how politics and media come together to justify what we do at the time of war.

Under the radar book: "Enigmatic Pilot" by Kris Saknussem, whose style Martin compared to Mark Twain.

Elizabeth Bear recommends

Gemma Files "Book of Tongues", a very high grit fantasy western with hexslingers and ancient gods. The characters are terrible human beings who do terrible things for terrible reasons, but they really still care about each other. This keeps it from being a depressing book. And it has interesting worldbuilding.

Genevieve Valentine "Mechanique" is Elizabeth Bear's favorite debut is. It's a novel about a circus of people who had parts of themselves replaced by clocks and machines. Circus performers are competing for the role fo a ringmaster, who committed suicide. It's a wonderfully creepy, atmospheric, surreal little book. Willie Siros agrees that this one was on his list of favorite first novels, with not many lapses into first-time-writer'ness.

Disappointing Books

Martin said he has read two very, very, very long books by Patrick Rothfuss, and still waits for them to be about something. The last 1000-page book was about a kid "who goes here and does some stuff, and goes there and does some stuff, and gets into an argument with his girlfriend, does more stuff and goes home".

Brandon Sanderson "Way of Kings" was a bit disappointing too.

The book that takes a cake in this category (according to Martin) was "Hellhole" by Bryan Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. It has magic aliens.

Willie Siros' most dispaointing book of the year was "Magician King" by Lev Grossman. To tell the truth, Willie was also critical of its predecessor "The Magicians". "You have a magic school, and magicians who graduate, but they don't do anything. They sit around with their trust funds and piddle. Students go off, have adventures, and then give up on anything difficult. What's the point of learning something if you don't do anything that's hard? I didn't like any characters," says Willie. "So I said, OK, I'll see what happens in his Narnia (called Fillory in the book -- E.), where they become a king of an alternate world. And that didn't go anywhere. They haven't learned anything how to survive as an adult."

>Willie was not impressed by George R. R. Martin's long awaited "Dance With Dragons" was very impressive either.

Audience recommends

Several members of the audience recommended these books:

Iain Banks "Surface Detail" has fabulous ideas, fabulous writing, says a guy in the audience.

Alyx Dellamonica "Indigo Springs".

Ian Macdonald "Dervish House" should have won a Hugo, says an audience member.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2011 are in my photo gallery.