Here are my notes from Cory Doctorow’s reading last night. I entered
the notes straight into my PowerBook in point form and fleshed them out
with a little sentence format and HTML last night.
I arrived about ten minutes into Cory’s session, during a reading of what I later found out was Human Readable. Every seat in the Merril room was full; many were occupied by what The Onion
might term “high-profile Area Nerds”. Sci-fi authors Mike Skeet and
Karl Schroeder took their places near the back of the audience, while
closer to the front were Ian Goldberg (who has forgotten more about
computer security than I will ever learn) and his wife Kat. As the
reading went on, a guy sitting down in front of me drew an
impressionistic sketch into a handmade blank book. Everyone’s attention
was focused on Cory, who sat at a desk beside a large bottle of water,
looking trim (Atkins and a busy schedule will do that) in a two-tone
Blogger T-shirt. You never forget your first blogging tool.
timing was perfect. As soon I’d settled in and opened my laptop on top
of a low filing cabinet just behind the audience, Cory was hitting a
part of the story where two characters were conversing. One of the
characters quipped “When life gives you SARS, make sarsaparilla,” which
he took from a title of my older blog entries. As he read that line,
Cory threw me a “how do you like them apples?” glance. I must have been
beaming with pride. Later, at dinner, he would say “I only steal from
the best.” I’m honoured.
(This is the second time that my
something in my blog has served as fodder for one of Cory’s stories.
The first was the entry in which I had answer twelve essay questions
about general computer science and culture before this local company
would even grant me an interview.)
The story Cory read was my
kind of science-fiction: a hip mix of cultural references (Ethiopian
restaurants in Adams-Morgan, Star Wars, personal shoppers), mixed with
extrapolations of today’s ideas (copyright reform, Eric Bonabeau’s
ant-trails) and spiked with those little moments of human drama that
give you sense of deja vu.
On Toronto, America and Europe
- Cory loves Accordion City! His upcoming novel, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is a love letter to Toronto.
also loves America. He says its simultabeous best and worst quality is
that the only industrialized country where ambition isn’t frowned upon.
When he and I had dinner last week, he told me he suspected that
subconsciously, the Americans realize that the Indians also have this
ambitiousness, and it worries them.
- In Eurpose, he says, it’s
different. In the “Ambition vs. Commonweal”, the Euros tend to favour
the latter. He then relates this idea in the form of a joke:
you were to end washed up Robinson Crusoe-style on the East River and
declare to the natives that you wanted to start a media empire that
would grow to crush Rupert Murdoch’s and in the end do the thinking for
most people in the developed world, the natives would gladly direct you
to nearest investment banker.
- If you were to make the same declaration after washing up on the Thames, you’d be laughed at
declaration that would get appreciated in Eurpoe would be that you
wanted to start a modest little publsihing house that published quaint
little stories that would garner a small but elite readership of the
type of people who hung out in the pub where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis
gave each other wedgies.
Cory was asked about what he though about wikis. He said he liked them, and then went into a story about wiki ecology:
openly editable, sometimes people with opposing opinions turn wikis
into little battlefields where each party redacts the other’s work.
Someone makes an entry, someone else wipes out that entry and replaces
it with their own, that redaction gets redacted, and so on…
- An example of the most vicious battles of this sort are the Israel/Palestine entries
- What edventually happens is that the hardliners start out fighting, each obliterating the others’ entries
- But eventually, each side softens a little. One side does first, and then the other.
- Eventually, what remains is a collection of facts that both side can agree upon, or at least can concede to the other side
- Then both sides end up in the same camp, joining to fight off the “tinfoil beanie contingent” from both sides of the argument.
Copyright and Freedom
those members of the audience who hadn’t been following the story, Cory
told the story of the problems with Diebold voting machines and thge
saga of their memos. He brought up the fact that Diebold makes all
kinds of machines that spit out a paper ticket as proof that a
transaction had taken palce (for example, Diebold makes ATMs). Diebold,
for some reason, won’t do this for their voting machines (“Tell us more
about this strange hu-mon ‘paper’ you use,” he said, in a mock alien
voice). He also mentioned that the EFF is suing Diebold for abusing
copyright laws: they were never meant to allow “fradulent felons to
disguise their wrongdoings”.
He also told the story of how
Diebold tried to affect the IEEE standard for voting machines by making
the specs for their machines the official spec for voting machines (and
worse still, these specs described how the machines were built, not
what they were supposed to do).
He pointed out that the general
standards bodies is the mistaken assumption that we’re all on the same
side. The IEEE is made up of a large number of engineers who by and
large want to draft standards so that they can make things that work
and interoperate well. As long as that’s the goal, standards bodies are
great things. The problem arises when a company like Diebold tries to
use the stadards body to further their own business goals at the
expense of the common good.
“It was a close one,” Cory said, but
thankfully, an EFF grassroots campaign, where the EFF managed to
convince enough IEEE members to petition to stop the Diebold-drafted
IEEE standard from being accepted, was successful. If passed, the
standard would’ve been a major coup for Diebold because standards
adopted by the IEEE tend to be adopted by the world’s engineers. Cory
said — exaggerating only mildly: “the EFF, along with the IEEE, saved global democracy!
On Ad Hocracy (or “Shut up hippie, this is our room!”)
guy who’d gone to high school with Cory (they both went to SEED, an
alternative school where students had a lot of input into their
curriculum) asked about Cory’s opinion of ad hocracies, especially in
light of the one he wrote about in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.
“At some point,” the friend said “you’re going to get some people who
aren’t ready for an ad hocracy. Maybe it’s my inner fascist…” and
went on to describe a situation in which his students, all around the
age of fifteen or sixteen cannot be trusted to govern themselves, and
sometimes a teacher needs to step in and bring order.
pointed out that the free school they went to was an ad hocracy of
sorts, and it produced a dispropotionately high number of people who
stand out and have excelled in their fields.
He then pointed out
that it’s not for everyone. Some people need more frameworks that
others. He also said “I don’t think ad hocracy is a universal panacea.
There’s a time and place for it.” However, there are times when you
need more formal structures, otherwise you get tyrannies of the
He summed up the problem with ad hocracies by telling a
story of the Anarchist’s Unconvention, which he attended fifteen years
ago. It took place at the 519 Community Centre on Chruch Street. He
remembers going to attend a meeting which had been scheduled in a
specific room, and when they entered the room, they found a guy sitting
on the table playing the flute. The flute player objected, asking the
meeting attendees “since when was ‘booking’ the room the accepted
procedure for claiming it?”. There comes a time, Cory said, when you
have to say “shut up hippie, this is our room!”
The State of the Union
admires the US for two of its finest documents: the Constitution and
the Bill of Rights (“with the notable exclusions of the Second
Amendment. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s the gun
What disillusioned him about America, which he likes at
least as much as I do, is the fact that in Ashcroft’s America, people
on work visas can be secretly arrested in detained without counsel. He
told stories about getting job offers from Saudi Arabia a long time
ago; friends would advise him: “Good God, don’t go there, people on
work visas can be secretly arrested and detained without counsel!”
talked for a little bit about Bruce Sterling’s address at the recent
South by Southwest Interactive Festival, summarizing it. “In an oil
state, there’s no reason to pay for a civil society. You dig a big hole
and you put a fence around it. Then you put bayonets in front of the
fence to protect that hole. Then, you wait for society to collapse
around it.” The only difference between an oil state and a failed state
is that an oil state has oil.
Cory’s plans are:
- To move to London and live and work there for at least a couple of years.
- Work will consist of writing (3 novels on the go) as well as being the EFF’s man in Europe.
mission: To “completely and utterly destroy the worst elements of the
broadcast treaty” that is under discussion there right now. They’re
trying to give creative control of works to people whose only
contribution to the works were providing the transmission medium!
knock out the bad parts of the Pan European Copyright act: without
evidence, you can claim infringement, which gives your the right to
confiscate the accused infriger’s computers for 31 days, which in turn
will probably be used as a legal-but-wrong means of destroying your
- The problem with copyright acts, says Cory, is
that when they’re often bad, and once one place adoptes them, other
places copy them. It is, he says, “a race to the bottom”.
- Also plans to do some work with the BBC archives, which are being opened up to the Web
- A goal: to get 10% of Slashdot readers to buy my books.
- A final goal: “to find what I did that made the reviewer at The Onion hate my last work”.