New Year, New Look

No, not me, the blog.

As you have presumably noticed, there’s a new theme in place here. This wasn’t planned. Some very old themes don’t support mutliple screen sizes very well. In particular they tend to be designed for PCs rather than tablets or phones. Modern themes are designed with portability in mind. Now you can get clever stuff that will adjust your theme for mobile devices (in the Jetpack plugin, WordPress veterans), but that is being retired this year.

There are a lot of sites that I manage, and many of them use a themes that are up to 10 years old and which need an update. Also many of them are text-heavy, and most modern blog themese assume that every post will have an associated image. So finding a replacement theme that a) works on a text-heavy site; b) is free; and c) isn’t likely to become unsupported in a year or two; will not be easy.

This theme is Penscratch which looks specifically designed for a text-heavy site. It is also created by Automattic who own WordPress so it is likely to stick around for a while.

The header image is from Pixabay. It has cats and books, which seems kind of appropriate.

I will probably fiddle with the look of the thing for a while yet. In the meantime if you spot anything that is not working in the theme (not broken links, there are bound to be lots of those) then please let me know.

Tomorrow on Ujima

In the midst of all this I still have to do my radio show. Naturally tomorrow I am devoting most of the show to LGBT History Month. I will be joined by Daryll Bullock, a local writer whose book, David Bowie Made Me Gay, has been receiving international acclaim. Darryl will be talking to me about the queer black roots of modern popular music. He’ll be followed by Ujima’s own Angel Mel who will bring us right up to date with news of the queer music scene in Bristol.

In the second hour Karen Garvey from M Shed will pop in and we’ll preview the rest of the entertainment we have planned for Saturday. If you are in Bristol there will be loads of great talks so do pop in.

I also have a short interview with Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, that I bagged when she was in Bristol on Sunday. Naturally we talked about the 100th anniversary of (some) women getting the vote, the gender pay gap and so on.

Finally I’ll be talking about plans to hold an anti-trans event in Bristol on Thursday and how the increasingly hostile media coverage of trans issues is leading to an increase in the number of hate crimes against trans people in the region.

Stuff & Nonsense

Every so often I think I should do a blog post rebutting some of the latest nonsense that the TERFs* have come up with. Then things get even more weird. I’m not going anywhere near the nonsense in the Labour Party because it is not my fight, but he’s a few examples of the bizarre things that have been going on.

As you may recall, the current TERF-fueled media assault on trans people is mostly about the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act and is a complete fabrication because a) the legislative changes would not give trans women the rights people are complaining about, and b) we have actually enjoyed those rights under the Equality Act for 8 years. I explained it all here.

Ireland has had a system of self-declaration of legal gender, similar to what has been proposed for the UK, since 2015, and recently there was an article in The Guardian about how Irish trans people had worked together with feminist groups in Ireland to make this happen, and that nothing awful had resulted from it.

Predictably the TERFs started harassing Irish feminists on social media. They also decided to have a public meeting in Dublin to school Irish women on how to be proper feminists. It was billed as being in support of Ireland’s fight for legal abortion, but as it was also part of a UK tour focusing solely on spreading alarm about trans rights the Irish were under no illusions as to what was intended. They issued a scathing open letter.

Since then I have seen TERF accounts on Twitter claiming that the Irish must be anti-abortion for opposing the proposed meeting, and that being pro-abortion is anti-feminist because the only purpose of abortion is to allow men to be less responsible about having sex.

Oh, and Germaine Greer has come out against the #MeToo movement.

Meanwhile it has been a common plank of TERF ideology, despite masses of evidence to the contrary, that trans women are all obsessed with gender stereotypes and act to reinforce the gender binary. Today I learned that, because they insist that being trans is only about gender presentation, they are taking to calling themselves trans because they don’t present in an extremely feminine manner, even though they were assigned female at birth and fully and proudly identify as women.

This is, I presume, another of their silly little psychological games in which they try to mess with trans women’s heads in an attempt to drive us all to suicide. I guess they are hoping that we’ll see anti-trans posts being made by people who claim to be trans in their profiles and be distressed by this. Thankfully you can normally tell because they will write “transwoman” rather than “trans woman” (using transwoman as a noun to indicate that a transwoman is an entirely separate class of being from a woman) and they’ll probably have “XX” in their profile as well).

About the only interesting thing about this is that their tactics are remarkably similar to those used by the miserable remnants of the Sad Puppy movement to harass writers that they don’t like on Twitter. Right down to the fact that their preferred targets are almost always young women.

One day we, as a society, will learn to recognize all of this nonsense and ignore it. Sadly that day is not yet upon us.

* TERF = Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, a term invented by Radical Feminists decades ago to distance themselves from the anti-trans fanatics. TERFs are notable for being neither Radical nor very good at feminism.

History Goes Viral

No, I’m not referring to the ongoing-nonsense about whether people of color existed before they were “discovered” by European colonialists. While I was down in Hove I spotted this tweet from one of the best satirical accounts on Twitter:

Naturally I couldn’t resist offering a few comments. Somewhat to my surprise, some of those tweets I made have over 900 likes. One has over 1000. And it is still going, well over a week later.

Interestingly, despite all of the attention, I haven’t got much in the way of new followers. I’m not overly upset over that. After all, hordes of followers generally means endless harassment. As it is I check new followers for TERFs and block them on sight. But this has been something of a window on what social media popularity is like. I’m rather glad it doesn’t happen often.

Oh, and that tweet has lots of very funny replies. The whole thread is worth reading.

New LiveJournal Terms of Service

I see that LiveJournal has released new terms of service which all users are obliged to sign up to. (I discovered this when my last blog did not cross-post.) These terms include being subject to applicable Russian laws regarding content. I suspect that I am massively in breach of those laws, simply by being me. Has anyone else got any more information on this?

Hello LiveJournal Users

As many of you will know, LiveJournal recently moved their servers to Moscow. As a result there has apparently been a fresh exodus from the platform. I maintain a LiveJournal account solely because people have told me that’s the way they prefer to read my blog posts — what I post here is (normally) cross-posted to LiveJournal. However, if you are all moving to Dreamwidth then presumably I should set up an account there instead.

I’m agnostic about the whole thing. I’m sure that Russian, US and British intelligence services have me noted down as trans. There’s nothing I can do about that. And as far as I know no one had yet tried to block my site because of that. So I’m happy to do what works best for you folks. Let me know.

Stolen – Monetizing Online Harassment

People are always looking for the next big way to make money out of the Internet. It doesn’t surprise me that someone is trying to make money out of online harassment.

Stolen is a new online game that allows players to “steal” the Twitter accounts of others, to buy and sell the people that they now “own” and to make comments on the game pages of the people they “own”. Of course they can’t give you access to someone’s actual Twitter account. They describe the game as more like collecting trading cards. Except they don’t just have trading cards of famous people, they have cards for everyone on Twitter. The potential for abuse is phenomenal.

In this interview with Holly Brockwell at The Gadgette the CEO of the company behind Stolen makes pretty-sounding noises about how they won’t be bad guys like Twitter and will ban people who use the site for abuse. I don’t believe a word of it.

Firstly I can’t believe that anyone could have been so stupid as to design a game like this and not realize that it would be a magnet for trolls. Heck, their own Twitter profile currently describes their product as, “literally the worst app”. They know what they are doing.

And second, even if they do start off trying to rein in the worse excesses, as soon as they find out just how much money people are prepared to throw at online harassment they are not going to be able to resist taking that money.

So, if you are not a straight cis able-bodied white male, and possibly even if you are, send them a DM and ask to opt out of their game. I did, and I have got a DM back assuring me that my account won’t be included. I’ll now be doing the same for every other Twitter account that I own.

My Sasquan Panel

I managed to wake up in the middle of the night to do the “Exploring Orientation and Gender in Fiction” panel at Sasquan. It was a lot of fun. Many thanks again to Cat Valente for inviting me and providing the Sasquan end of the tech, and also to Heather Rose Jones who is a fellow historian of things LGBT. She has a wonderful online resource here that I shall be spending a long time reading through.

The experience did remind me that 90 minutes is the ideal time for convention panels. Any longer and you’ll probably run out of steam, but any shorter and you’ll barely scratch the surface of the topic. I know an extra half hour doesn’t seem a lot, but when you take out 15 minutes for room change (i.e., a 60 minute slot means a 45 minute panel) and 15 minutes for audience questions you only have a half hour panel. A 90 minute slot doesn’t need to extend either of those, so you get an hour for the panel, meaning you have doubled the time available.

This morning Tero asked me about my experience of participating in a panel by Skype. It was mixed, but I’d still do it again.

The connection to Spokane was a bit spotty. A couple of times I got the dreaded “connection lost, trying to get it back” message. Thankfully the second time worked, but I lost quite a bit of the first half of the panel. Obviously if you are going to do this you have to have a good connection.

Microphone technique becomes much more important if you are using Skype. The mics that are provided in convention centers tend to be sensitive and highly directional. People who keep moving their head while speaking, or who wave the mic around as if they are on Top of the Pops (where, as you should know, everyone is miming) are a menace, because you only get to hear half of what they say.

That goes double for audience questions. Even if you provide people with a mic, the chances are they will mis-use it. Kudos to Cat for realizing this and repeating the questions for me.

Moderators who have one or more Skype panelists should probably keep an eye on the text window. This wasn’t really an issue for us, but if I’d had a problem then texting via Skype might be the only way I had to let the moderator know.

The thing I wasn’t expecting was how much I missed visual clues. I know Cat and Ctein so I could recognize their voices, but I had difficultly telling whether Julia or Heather was speaking, and it was clear that the panel was never quite sure if I’d finished, and was politely not jumping in too soon. Having video as well would probably have helped, except that no one would have wanted to see me at 4:00am.

If there’s anyone who was at the panel who would like to see my lecture at Liverpool University earlier this year, you can find it here.

Today On Ujima – Books, Social Media & Auschwitz

My first guest on today’s show was Amy Morse. Like me Amy is part of the organizing committee for this year’s Bristol Festival of Literature. She was on the show to talk about the crowdfunding effort that we have launched to help raise the money necessary for venue hire, printing publicity materials and other incidental costs of putting on the Festival. You can find that campaign (and a video of Amy) at the Fundsurfer website.

Along the way I talked about the SF&F events that we’ll be having. The BristolCon Fringe event will feature new novels from Jo Hall and Jonathan L Howard. And I’ll be chairing a comics event featuring Mike Carey, Paul Cornell and Cavan Scott.

Amy stayed with me for the second half hour to talk about social media and blogging. Amy is running some courses in Bristol next month, and I figured this was a good opportunity to talk about life online. A great deals of nonsense gets talked in the mainstream media about what goes on online, and while what happens to people like Briannu Wu is indeed terrible, the wailing and gnashing of teeth that follows any (usually thoroughly justified) denunciation of white feminism’s media darlings is quite ridiculous. People need to know how to stay safe online, and much of it revolved around “don’t be an idiot”.

Anyway, you can listen to the first hour of the show here.

Interesting though my conversation with Amy was, I hope she will forgive me for saying that the second hour was spectacular. My guest on the studio was Christina Zaba, a local journalist of Polish extraction. Christina has been heavily involved in Bristol’s Holocaust Memorial Day. As a result of this she has visited Auschwitz. This has led her to discover some family history, and also the stories of two remarkable men. Kazimierz Piechowski was a young man during the war. He escaped from Auschwitz disguised as an SS officer and is still alive (he’s 95). Witold Pilecki was an officer in the Polish resistance who volunteered to get himself arrested so that he could help organize the prisoners and perhaps stage a revolt. He too later escaped from the camp, but was executed by the Russians after the war.

Both Piechowski and Pilecki were also members of the Polish Boy Scouts. The Nazis regarded the Scouts as a paramilitary organization and singled them out for special persecution, which of course led them to becoming a key part of the Resistance. Christina also talked about the Girl Guides who helped smuggle messages, food and tools into the camps.

Christina is writing a book about the Polish Resistance and the part they played in the history of Auschwitz. I’ve already told her that I want her back on the show when it comes out. Gut-wrenching though it can be at times, we do need to keep talking about this history. Auschwitz was both a slave camp run by Nazi businessmen and a giant factory dedicated to murder on an industrial scale. This sort of thing should not be allowed to happen again.

You can listen to the second half of the show here.

Being on air also allowed me to give a mention to various Jamaica-related stories. Tomorrow (August 6th) is Jamaican Independence Day. The past week has seen Jamaica’s first ever Pride. And of course Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, a novel based on an attempted assassination of Bob Marley, has found its way onto this year’s Booker Prize long list.

Today’s playlist was as follows:

  • I Want Your Love – Chic
  • Thriller – Michael Jackson
  • Computer Blue – Prince
  • Are Friends Electric – Tubeway Army
  • The War Song – Culture Club
  • Redemption Song – Bob Marley
  • No Borders – Jama

A Lesson in Crowdfunding

A couple of days ago I saw a tweet from Neil Gaiman promoting a crowdfunding campaign for a play about trans people. I went and had a look at the campaign page and sent back a concerned tweet to Neil. As it turned out, the project is indeed a good one, but the causes of my concern make for an interesting lesson, so I thought I’d blog about them.

The first thing is nothing to do with the campaign itself, but rather the Indiegogo website. These days I get most of my news from Twitter, and I normally access it via my phone and tablets, not via a PC. With the phone I am often doing that when I’m on a train, in a cafe, or otherwise away from my home network. Bandwidth is an issue. But when you click an Indiegogo link from Twitter on a phone you don’t get the website. You get an ad for their bloody app. When you have just spent several minutes waiting for the page to load (on a train, remember), this is enormously irritating. Companies should not do this.

However, eventually I got through to the campaign page, and I read the blurb. With crowdfunding all of the advice pages talk endlessly about the importance of the video, but if you are on a train with limited bandwidth you are not going to watch a video. You just read the text, and in this case it was problematic in two ways.

Firstly there was this:

People like actress Laverne Cox, model Andreja Pejic, celebrity Chaz Bono, director Lana Wachowski have led the charge, but it was Olympic legend Bruce Jenner whose declaration sparked a media frenzy and forever thrust transgender identity into the light of day.

That immediately sounds alarm bells for me. Laverne Cox has done a huge amount of work for the trans community (as has Janet Mock). It was Laverne appearing on the cover of Time that started everyone talking about a transgender tipping point. Jenner, in contrast, has spent most of the last few months in “no comment” land. A focus on Jenner suggests to me that this is a campaign aimed mainly at well-to-do cis white people, not something that will help the trans community.

Anyway, I read through the text, and what I saw was a lot of talk about using the stories of real trans people, but nothing about their involvement beyond that. What I was looking for was how trans people would be involved in the production and staging of this play. I saw nothing.

When I tweeted Neil he asked me about the video. Of course I hadn’t watched it. (On a train, remember.) When I got home I fired up a laptop and checked it out. Immediately I saw trans people, including some who were fairly obviously in the cast (Calpernia Addams, for example). There was much relief in my corner of the world.

So the lesson here is that if you are doing a crowdfunding campaign, don’t put important information in the video, and leave it off the text (or vice versa). You need people to get the whole message, no matter how they end up consuming it.

And now, if you’d like to back the Trans Scripts campaign, that would be a fine thing. If you happen to be very rich and a big Neil Gaiman fan you can get a personal Skype call from him. If you live in Edinburgh, or are going to this year’s Fringe, I’d love to hear a report of the play.

In Which I Learn A New Word

Social media is a rapidly evolving space, and not just because of changes in hardware and software. We monkeys are learning new ways to interact, and devising new rules for it. Part of this involves coining new words. We are probably all familiar with “trolling” and “derailing”. We may be less familiar with the term “gaslighting”, though use of both the technique and term are quite common in posts I see. Yesterday I learned a new word: “sealioning”. There’s an explanation here. Again the technique is very common, so I’m not surprised that it has acquired a name.

What interests me about this is that these are all forms of rhetorical device. It is almost as if we were back in Athens learning the rules of public discourse once again. I suspect this is a very fertile area for research.

New Writing

Last night (UK time) a new ebook appeared on the Twelfth Planet Press website. It is the Galactic Suburbia Scrapbook, which advertises itself as containing, “some of the highlights of 4 years and 100 episodes of Alex, Alisa and Tansy speaking to you from the Galactic Suburbs!” This is entirely true, however, it also contains various guest articles and pieces of feedback received by the show, and one of the guest articles is by me. The title of the article is, “Curse You, Tansy, I Bought Another One”, which probably gives you a good idea of what it is all about.

Naturally the book contains lots of other content, all of which is fabulous, so you can safely ignore the two pages of mine in it. All proceeds from the book go towards keeping Galactic Suburbia on air, which is a very fine cause. You can buy it here.

Also, my latest column for Bristol 24/7 has just gone live. It is about trolls. The boring kind, not the nice Nordic creatures.

What Was She Smoking?

Today, for reasons nothing to do with this post, I spent a few hours on Skype chatting with an academic about social media (as you do). A chance exchange at the end, after we had finished our business, set off a light bulb in one of the less sane regions of my brain. Here is a mad idea.

I want to run a modern day superhero role-playing campaign in which the heroes, their secret identities, the villains, and various key NPCs such as the mayor of the city, the police chief, the newspaper editor and so on all have public Twitter accounts that people can follow.

Luckily for you lot, I don’t have the time to do this. Then again, with the right group of players, it could be awesome.

Here Comes The Geek Agenda

Geek AgendaOne of the more hopeful things happening around fandom at the moment is the number of young people doing their own thing. It’s sad that they don’t feel part of Worldcon and the like, but then I’ve had enough run-ins with UK fandom myself so I’m not entirely surprised. Anyway, here, thanks to Laura Kate Dale and her new podcast, The Geek Night In, is news of a new website launched today. It is called The Geek Agenda, and judging from the mission statement they are aiming for a very inclusive view of geekdom.

Of course the first thing I noticed was that, while they have lots of posts up, there are none under the Books category. Something will need to be done about that. But whoever is in charge of their Twitter feed is clearly a comics nut. So here, just for them, is a Young Avengers Valentine’s poem.

The Vision’s red-faced,
The Scarlet Mom’s pissed,
But Billy is pink
From the Skrull boy’s kiss.

Parents, eh?

On Internet Outrage

This morning I noticed a really good post by Cora Buhlert on the subject of internet outrage and responses thereto. This is a matter of some interest to me because, as a trans woman, I am apparently one of the most vicious online bullies in the world. Well, at least according to cis, white feminists anyway. And Piers Morgan, of course, poor little downtrodden fellow that he is.

The sort of incident that Cora talks about should be well understood by now. It has a very familiar pattern, as follows:

1. Someone with a fair degree of privilege writes something that is calm and superficially well-reasoned if you don’t question its assumptions, but is at best naive, and at worst condescending and insulting to significant numbers of people.

2. People with far less privilege respond with frustration and anger.

3. Friends and fans of the original poster clutch at their pearls and complain about how the Internet has been poisoned by the presence of violent bullies.

There is also the flip side, which goes like this:

1. A member of a “minority” group writes a post asking for more representation (and I used scare quotes there because women and people of color are not “minorities” in the human population as a whole, they are just seen as such by people used to a predominantly white male commentariat).

2. People react to this with furious blog posts, threats of violence, rape threats, death threats and so on.

3. Pearl clutching is conspicuous by its absence.

Of course not every Internet flame war falls neatly into these two categories. And in all such cases trolls on both sides revel in stirring things up. But it isn’t hard to diagnose where on the spectrum a particular flare-up falls. Just ask yourself why the people who are angry are angry. Is it because they are being talked about in unflattering terms and silenced yet again, or is it because they feel that their position of privilege is threatened.

The Great Firewall of Britain: Assistance Requested

Every since the Internet started, I have been worried that big business and government would try to take control of it away from ordinary individuals, to the detriment of small businesses and minorities. It has taken a while, but that now appears to be happening in the UK. I make a point of getting my Internet service from a small, business-focused ISP, but most people in the UK will get their home and mobile service from large utility companies, and they are starting to find that sites are being blocked.

It is all done with the best of intentions, of course. For a long time now, tabloid newspapers and other purveyors of Moral Panic have been complaining that the Internet allows children access to pornography. As public displays of pornography are generally only available in tabloid newspapers, and apparently the ladies toilets of hip London restaurants, Something Must Be Done.

So, the Government passed the usual sort of Something Must Be Done Act, and accordingly something largely useless was done. ISPs agreed to filter out “porn”. Lots of people who know stuff about computers said that this would end in tears. No one took any notice because Something Must be Done and we had to Think Of The Children. Now we are suffering the consequences.

A lot of the problem is that people don’t know what is being blocked, or why. I suspect that the support staff at the ISPs don’t understand the system very well, and don’t have much ability to fix issues. It may well be that companies have been buying third party software that they don’t fully understand, and which may contain proprietary features that they are not even allowed to query.

The results, however, are pretty clear. Chaos is being caused. Lots of people are upset. It is not hard to see why. O2, possibly uniquely, have provided a website through which you can check whether your site is blocked or not. I tested some of my sites, most importantly the bookstore, which is rather important to me from a business point of view. This is what I got back.

WTB blocking

That didn’t worry me too much. The site does, after all, encourage people to spend money. I can see parents wanting to restrict access to such things. But just to be sure I checked the competition. Here’s what I got for Amazon.

Amazon blocking

As you can see, there is a difference. It is not clear what that means, and O2 does not provide any explanation. But the only explanation I can come up with is that kids can be blocked from buying anything on both sites, but they are blocked from browsing mine, whereas they are not blocked from browsing Amazon. Given that they are likely to sell all of the books that I sell, I don’t see why that should be the case. Indeed, O2 appears to be giving preferential treatment to a big, powerful company.

Just to be sure, I checked a few other bookstore sites. They all came up similar to mine. Even Waterstones.

Waterstones blocking

So clearly the list of companies with powerful lawyers that O2 is afraid of and prepared to make exceptions for is quite short.

When queried on this, O2 tend to hide behind bureaucracy. Their Twitter account points people at this document which talks about how mobile Internet providers have got together to agree on a censorship scheme. However, that doesn’t explain in any way how these censorship decisions are made. Instead it talks about sites being, “classified suitable for those aged 18 and over”. Any site which is not so-classified may be subject to parental blocking.

As traffic on Twitter today has shown, many, many sites are being classified as subject to parental blocking. Those include the Wizards’ Tower Press site, Salon Futura and Emerald City. I checked with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to see what they think ought to disqualify something from being views by people under 18. The list is here. What of this am I actually guilty of? Strong violence or horror? No. Actual sex? No. Discriminatory language and behavior? I hope not. About the only think I could think of that might warrant such a classification is the occasional use of “fuck” or “cunt”.

Whoops, now this site is going to go on the block list.

Part of the problem is that the classification scheme for Internet censorship has only one cut-off point, at 18 years of age. Film censorship has several: 12, 15 and 18. It turns out that you can do almost anything you would do in an adult film for 15-rated films, except show actual sex and use “cunt”. 15+ teenagers using the Internet don’t get that option.

By the way, I did a quick check on Salon Futura. It ought to classify for a 15 rating. It fails the Internet censorship rules because it has a couple of uses of “fuck”. Karen Burnham and Sam Jordison, you are very bad people.

Another problem is that, as I understand it, parental controls are turned on by default. Lots of people either won’t know that they are on, or won’t be able to turn them off. It is opt-out censorship, not opt-in.

Finally, we don’t actually know how most of the ISPs interpret the need for parental controls. Where we do, what we see is horrific. The guidelines that O2 pointed to are for mobile providers. Home Internet providers do not use the same rules. BT has published a list of the categories under which parents will be able to block access, and it goes well beyond what the BBFC would do. For example, parents are able to block off access to the official websites of pop groups (but not to websites of sports clubs), to sites giving fashion and beauty tips, and even to search engines. Perhaps most controversially they can block sites on the grounds that they provide “sex education”. This can mean something as seemingly obvious as teaching “respect for a partner” and, inevitably, “gay and lesbian lifestyle”. It doesn’t mention trans lifestyles, but I’m betting they are covered too.

What exactly does “gay and lesbian lifestyle” mean? Well, it is standard homophobe code for anything that presents being gay or lesbian and in any way normal or acceptable. It is Section 28, or the new laws in Russia, being given to parents to implement in their homes. Does anyone ever ask to censor sites that portray “heterosexual lifestyle”? Of course not. And by the way my “trans lifestyle” includes eating, sleeping, reading, doing housework, running my businesses, and indeed everything else that I do because I am guilty of Living While Trans.

Here too we have come full circle. Teenagers desperately need advice on sex. They need support if they think they may be one of QUILTBAG. They need to know the risks of sexual contact. Parents are often the last people they will go to for such advice. The Internet has been a valuable resource for very many of my young trans friends. So we start by saying, “Will No One Think Of The Children”, and end by putting kids in danger. Well done, government.

Anyway, I did say at the top that I would appreciate some assistance. Most companies have not been as helpful as O2 and BT. With many of them there is no way to check whether your site has been blocked except by trying to access it over a connection supplied by a specific provider. Nor, indeed, is there any central point where you can complain if you think that your site has been unfairly blocked. So I’m hoping that UK readers will be able to test my various sites for me using their own connections and report back. I am particularly interested in cases in which sites are blocked outside of the parental control system, and where my bookstore is blocked but Amazon and other larger competitors are not. Please report in comments if you notice anything. And thank you for any help you can give.

Hugo’s Midnight Party

I spent three hours in the middle of the night helping Kevin and Mur Lafferty host the text-based Hugo Award ceremony coverage. I got no sleep beforehand, and only about three hours afterwards, so I am barely functional today. I am running my end of month backups, as that’s about the only work I am good for.

The live video feed was very temperamental, going down frequently through the webcast. LoneStarCon 3 is insisting that this was the fault of their tech team, and nothing to do with UStream who provided the web services. As a result, we once again had a huge audience, peaking at 822. That’s a far cry from the 100 or so I used to get when I first started doing this.

The video appears to be available for replay in bits. UStream appears to be counting each time it went down and back up again as starting a separate broadcast. Hopefully LSC3 will be able to get a copy of the whole thing to them at some point. I’ll try to watch the whole thing before announcing the Best Dressed Award, but on the basis of what I’ve seen thus far I think Deborah Stanish is a very hot tip. Elizabeth Bear also looked very classy. Sadly John Scalzi’s attempt at a ballgown wasn’t up to much. It looked just like a suit to me.

With far more people I have had to be far more ruthless about comment moderation. That’s partly because having to watch loads of people congratulate each winner does not make for a good show, because everything scrolls through too fast. I just had to delete those comments and post a general “lots of people very happy” comment. Equally there’s no point in posting endless versions of “the video is down again” and “the video is back up”.

With regard to the tech failures, there was an interesting balancing act to be made between providing answers to genuine tech questions and letting through a flood of snark and uninformed opinion. I don’t think I always got that right.

What was noticeable is that as viewer numbers have gone up the level of spite and mean-spiritedness in the comments has gone up too. I screened out all of the vitriol about who had won, what the winners were wearing, Paul Cornell’s jokes and so on. I also ended up screening out almost all of the positive comments because that lead to complaints about my allowing them through.

Overall, however, I think the evening went well. I hope that Loncon 3 allows us to do it again next year (and I’m really looking forward to doing color commentary again rather than just comment moderation, as I’ll be able to be in the audience). If possible I recommend that they set up an audio-only feed as well as a video one, because video appears to still be very hard to get right.

The good news is that, as Kevin survived a sneak attack on his chairmanship of the Mark Protection Committee yesterday, we are still able to do these things officially on the Hugo Awards website.

I’ll do a separate post on the Hugo results later, but here I want to give huge hugs to my co-commentator, Mur Lafferty for her Campbell win, and for managing to get up the steps without tripping like certain other members of the team I could mention.

Twitter Phishing

Those of you who have spent some time on Twitter are doubtless familiar with DM-based (DM = Direct Message) phishing attacks. When people fall victim to these they generally report that they have been “hacked”, but that normally isn’t the case. Saying that you have been hacked implies that someone worked out what your password was, or found a way around it. Doing that is hard. Phishing is much easier, and more common. As the name suggests, it relies on bait. The phisher tries to get you to click on a link that takes you to a malware site. Because you have actively clicked on the link, it is able to harvest your password.

Most people quickly get the hang of this and learn not to click on mysterious links sent to them via DM. I certainly thought I was too smart to do that. But today I got told that my account was sending out phishing DMs. Eek.

First up, apologies if you got one. I’ve taken the recommended precautions, which should have put a stop to the problem. But I want to know how it happened, because I don’t click on links. What I did do this morning was open a conversation. That is, I had a phishing DM from someone, and I went to the page of such messages to read it. I do that because if you don’t then the Twitter client will keep reminding you that you have unread messages. I know I didn’t click on the link. So did just reading the message reveal my password?

There are other ways for people to get your password, but they involve signing up for services, and Twitter has no record of my having done so, so I am bemused. Is there anyone out there who knows more about the security issues who would care to comment? FYI, I’m pretty sure that I was using my iPad when I read the DM, so that would have been through Tweetbot, not the standard Twitter client.

OMG! The Internet!! Moral Panic!!!

It being silly season here in the UK, the thoughts of politicians and journalists have inevitably turned to dreaming up threats to the nation’s children, and launching moral panic campaigns based on these. The favorite target, probably because neither politicans nor journalists have much of a clue how it works, is the Internet.

First up, our glorious leader, Dave, has decided that British children need to be prevented from seeing anything on the Internet without their parents permission. The spin is protecting them from porn, such as is freely available in every newsagent, but inevitably the net will be cast much wider to take in things that kids really need to know, but which parents may wish to keep them in ignorance of. Thus we discover that sites that give support to kids suffering from eating disorders, or who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, are likely to be blocked. Bizarrely, sites offering “esoteric knowledge” are also to be targeted.

The main problem with such schemes is that the software implementing the filters is likely to be very dumb, and difficult to challenge (remember all the trouble we had with the Hugos webcast on UStream last year?). It is likely, for example, that many LGBT support groups will end up being blocked as “pornographic”. That’s especially the case for trans sites, give that the government made it clear during debate on the same-sex marriage bill that they regard trans people as dangerous perverts that “normal” people need protecting from. Equally sites that give support to people suffering from domestic violence will be deemed “violent” and blocked. Large and powerful organizations such a S’onewall are likely to be able to get around this, and I don’t expect the Guardian website to be blocked because of Liz Williams’ articles on paganism. But for the smaller charities and support groups, and for private individuals, the bureaucratic hoops that you’ll be required to jump through to get unblocked are likely to be a major challenge.

Currently this isn’t full censorship. It will be possible to opt out, and if your ISP is not one of the major suppliers signed up to the scheme then you’ll be OK anyway. But the filter will be there by default, and most people won’t bother to turn it off (or indeed be able to work out how to do so). And that means that I expect that a lot of UK residents will no longer be able to see this blog (because it discusses trans issues), or my bookstore (because it sells novels with LGBT themes).

Meanwhile the commentariat is getting exercised over the subject of trolling. This did at least start with a genuine problem: the appalling level of abuse that gets directed at women who dare to express feminist opinions online. A lot of men have had their eyes opened by articles showing examples of the sort of crap that high profile women like Laurie Penny have to put up with on a day-to-day basis.

The trouble is that people now think that “something must be done”, and because actually stopping the people who send this abuse from hating women seems an insoluble problem, something quick and potentially disastrous gets proposed instead.

The problems with an “abuse” button on Twitter are manyfold. To start with, Twitter hasn’t caused this problem, and is by no means the only place that trolls operate, so a Twitter-based solution only targets one symptom amongst many. The attraction, for celebrity journalists, is that it reduces the whole issue to a popularity contest. So if someone has a go at them then they’ll be able to get all of their followers to report that person as abusive, whereas ordinary people are unlikley to be able to complain effectively if they get abused.

Even then, however, the celebrities won’t be safe. After all, an abuse button is just another tweak in the rules of the game. The trolls will be eagerly working out how they can use it to their advantage. They are in the game to make life difficult and unpleasant for others, and they are prepared to spend huge amounts of time and effort on it. People just trying to get on with their lives will inevitably lose out, and commercial operations like Twitter and Facebook won’t be willing to spend a fortune to help us.

There are, I am sure, things that can be done. One good suggestion I saw was that Twitter should provide a higher level filter that someone under attack can use to limit the messages that they see to ones from people that they know and trust. Also Twitter does monitor frequency of posting (because you get locked out if you tweet too frequently). It should be possible to spot someone who is targeting an individual with lots of tweets. One author I follow mentioned getting 2000 tweets from one troll. That sort of thing is obvious.

Finally, of course, much of what is said by trolls is already covered by existing legislation. Threatening to rape or kill someone can result in you ending up in court. The big problem there is getting the authorities to take the problem seriously. It is hard enough to get a conviction if you have actually been raped, let alone get the police to do something about rape threats. Facebook is very enthusiastic about banning pictures of women breastfeeding on the grounds they they are offensive. It doesn’t show anywhere near the same level of concern over pictures of women being beaten or raped. Indeed, when a successful campaign was waged by feminists asking leading brands to protest to Facebook about their ads appearing to endorse violence against women, Facebook’s reaction was to promise to keep advertising off such pages.

It all comes back to social attitudes again. If men don’t take abuse of women seriously, then no amount of technological fixes will solve the problem. Sadly that means that more brave people will have to poke their heads above the parapet and make themselves targets, then talk about what happened. It is horrible, but I don’t see any other way we’ll get change.