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Articles

Stargate Atlantis and Universe, in retrospect

I rewatched Stargate: Atlantis for the first time since its 2004-2009 airing. I remember the furor over its cancellation in favor of Stargate: Universe.

I originally defended Universe. It rode Battlestar Galactica’s coattails, but I thought it had potential. Now, rewatching Atlantis, I get the anger. Universe is fine as a typical network TV science fiction show. It rides the line between reality TV and space opera.

Universe is fine as a generic space opera. Not good, not bad. The final scene of the final season was great TV and made me hopeful it would get another season. As the show that murdered Atlantis, it’s the worst thing ever. Atlantis is so good! I thought expedition leader Dr. Weir was an annoying, overbearing character when I first watched. Now I have a broader view of the space opera genre.

Watching Star Trek: Voyager’s Captain Janeway, another leader in a similar situation who made similar hard choices while far away from familiar social and legal structures, gave me a fresh perspective on what it takes to keep a crew together far away from home with hostile aliens at every turn. Voyager ended three years before Atlantis started, but I didn’t watch it until recently.

Universe had no intentional leaders. It had a temperamental lead scientist who felt like a defective clone of Battlestar Galactica’s Baltar. The military lead was a sanded down version of the cliche military tough guy of the Stargate movie with none of charm or tact of Colonel O’Neill. Neither of them led half as well as some of the side characters did. Atlantis had John Sheppard and Dr. Weir, each one a perfect evolution of their SG-1 counterparts, Jack O’Neill and Dr. Carter. Universe improved with time, but it was doomed long before.

Universe ended with a cliffhanger that gave hope for a renewed show with a real leader. Eli was one of the most developed characters and could easily have taken over, and he was poised to as he stared out the window at the expanse between galaxies.

And he was never heard from again. Boring. Back to Atlantis and dreaming of what could have been.

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Articles

Distrokid Review: It’s about what I expected

Note: DistroKid replied to a few points! See below.

Note 2: This review is from 2018, but should still be accurate.

I was skeptical about DistroKid, the music distribution service that’s quickly making a name for itself. The guy behind it likes to tout the fact that the founders of his main competitors have endorsed his service. Any kind of high profile recommendation makes me immediately suspicious. The fact that the website is nearly devoid of details did not help.

But…

It’s okay. I signed up. Paid my $19.99. Found out the basic plan didn’t include some things I wanted, like setting prices and release dates. You get a grace period where you can get a refund and upgrade, so it’s not too bad, but I do wish they’d mention that up front.

Uploading your music for distribution to stores is pretty straightforward. You select how many tracks you want, upload to each slot and fill out details, add your cover, choose your stores, and send it on. This is where we hit the first problem.

Their uploader is…bad. It works, as long as your connection is reliable. Mine wasn’t at the time. If your connection goes out during upload, it just stops and never retries. It doesn’t save any of your information, so you have to put it all in again. Blech. What is this, 2004?

Aside from that, it’s about what I expected. They have a referral program. I sold one subscription within 20 clicks, so either I got lucky or they’ve done a lot of work refining their sales copy. It’s one of the few affiliate programs that won’t make you feel like slime. Payments take too long. Months is just not reasonable in 2018.

Spotify and Google Play were the first to get my music up. iTunes came next. Tidal was extremely late: emails telling me they got my music up came in six months after I submitted it. All the publicly shared music sales reports I’ve found show a steep dropoff after iTunes, Google Play, and Spotify, so it barely matters.

DistroKid does what it says it’ll do on the sales page: sends your music to the stores, gets you paid. Simple. However, I cancelled my account once I got my last payout. Patreon is working better for me: make music, post it to people paying monthly, repeat. I make almost as much in a month here as I did in almost a year on DistroKid.

While my DistroKid account is inactive, you can still get a 7% discount with my referral link.

Update: DistroKid responded when I posted the review on Twitter.

  • Tidal wasn’t late getting music in the store. The email I got was from when DistroKid turned on a new thing to get updates from Tidal, so I just never got a notification before.
  • The uploader is a direct connection to AWS. I understand they want to limit how much they hold on to before sending it off to the stores, but at least saving all the metadata would be handy. Upload problems probably aren’t all that common, so it may just not be worth the engineering effort.
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Short Stories

Mirror

Diana stopped at the edge of the soft shadow of the tree. Its trunk rose into the clouds, near black in the noon sun. The branches seemed to go on forever, one half of the tree green leaves, one half every color of the rainbow, and brighter than the low light should permit. Around her, the flat, grassy plain stretched to the horizon in every direction. The only sound that met her fox ears was the creaking of the branches and the rustling of leaves.

She continued down the crumbled stone path, looking at the ancient paw prints all along it. The path took her to the hollow in the center of the tree. Inside, she stood in the shining, shallow pool of water that came up to her knees.

“Anyone there?”

Insects swarmed into the hollow and coalesced into the shape of a fox, a mirror image of Diana. The bug-fox, a Keeper, grinned. “It’s been a long time since I had company. The Tree still won’t talk to me after what I did. What can I do for you?”

“I need guidance. My life’s gone to crap.”

“Colorful. You must be a vulnog.”

“Yeah. So can you help me, or should I go hang myself on one of these branches? There’s no way in hell I’m walking back to that life without some direction.”

“I can show you some images, but I can’t help you interpret them. The Tree is…weird. Speaks in riddles. Eccentric old fool.” The fox-swarm cupped its swarm-paws over its swarm-muzzle. “Hear that, asshole? Idiot.”

“Yeah…that’s. Interesting.”

“What? Next you’re going to say it’s all my fault the Tree won’t talk to me. Maybe if I just had a better attitude, right?”

“I’m sure the Tree contributes. Takes two to argue.”

“Yeah, and the Tree is trillions. I’m one. That’s hardly a fair fight.” The Keeper melted into the pool, and Diana found herself in the middle of her home city, Luma.

“Didn’t think my answer would be here.”

“Like I said. Weird Tree. You think it’s going to take you to the village you grew up in, show you some event from your childhood, and everything will make sense. What happened here?” The Keeper followed Diana as she walked through the empty streets, looking up at the ruined buildings.

“I don’t know. It’s Luma, but…broken. Do you know anything about it?”

“Luma? Never heard of it. I got exiled to where you found me before people started building cities again. We call the planet Lumari, formerly Earth. Who names a world dirt? Seriously.”

Diana stopped in the middle of the street, then walked toward a storefront where a red fox was busy laying down a new tile floor. “That’s my stepmother. Crap. I know what this is. An earthquake turned most of the city to rubble when I was little. Civil society broke down. The family had a shop here. Why would she be remodeling in the middle of society collapsing?”

“Good place to hide something. Did your family have money before it all fell down?”

“We had…yes! Stocks. Lots and lots of money in the stock market. She died a few years ago, and told me our family had a good foundation. She always loved riddles. I hate riddles.”

“Huh. The Tree usually jerks people around more. Lemme guess. You need money.”

“Yeah.”

“And those stock certificates are probably still good.”

“Yes.”

“Who owns the building now?”

“I own it. I need to buy a hammer.”

“Lovely.” The illusion blinked away, and they were back in the hollow. “So, I was lying about being lonely. I’m actually quite introverted. Are you done here?” Diana nodded, and the Keeper flew away in a swarm.

Diana returned to Luma, recovered the stock certificates, and paid off her student loans.

Categories
Short Stories

Skyscraper

Foxes, like the fennec Karpat here, were born of the World Tree, and rarely left the comfort of the vast forests and plains of the dara (”gift of life,” called wilderness in more vulgar places).

Karpat pulled at one of the vines running up the ancient, long-abandoned skyscraper. Lines of green and red wound their way in and out of broken windows, up the statues of foxes, otters, and other species that adorned the old, crumbling metropolis. He looked down the cracked asphalt road, considering his decision, then back up.

Decision made, affirmed by a few deep breaths, he pulled again, then hefted his weight up, planting his feet on a horizontal section of vine. The plants crunched under his weight, squeaked against steel as they shifted, and smelled of mint when they broke.

Covered in and sated by the minty, nutritious life blood of the Tree, he pulled himself into a room halfway up after sunset. He spent the night there, then set out in the morning.

Karpat held on to the wall and planted one foot on a vine outside the window, then the other foot. He grabbed a higher portion of the vine with one paw, then moved the other to it, but it broke as he put his full weight on it. He plunged to his death clutching a falling column of vine, then awoke in a white room.

The Daramour, the consciousness of the Tree everyone meets after death, appeared before him, a mirror image of himself. “Hello.”

Karpat screamed and writhed from the pain on the floor for a while, until he smelled the mint again and stood up. “Can’t you make it not hurt?”

“Yes, but then what incentive would you have to avoid death? I need my foxes outside as long as possible to bring new experiences and knowledge to me. Each of you has a unique perspective, and it’s what keeps me from losing my mind in here. I depend on you.”

“Sorry. I forgot you’re stuck here. So what happens now?”

“I’ll send you back out, when you’re ready. Take some time to relax, think, and study. You have access to the wealth of my knowledge while you’re here, but I limit how much you can take with you.”

Categories
Short Stories

Life Magic

Sami walked through the dark valley formed by two of the World Tree’s roots. Grass crunched under his paws, and he could smell mint from the illuminated green veins that ran through the roots. As he walked, he ran his paws along the coarse, warm walls and felt the pulse of the Tree.

He came to a clearing where the roots lifted into the air, forming a ceiling of dark red wood, smooth, almost polished. Leaves of all colors covered the gaps, painting dots of light over the concrete floor of the Keeper’s chamber.

“Hello, Sami.” The Keeper approached as a swarm of rainbow insects. Sami took a step back as the buzzing swarm approached, but the mint smell got stronger as it did, and it calmed him. The swarm swirled, taking the shape of a fox. The swarm walked to Sami, around, then back to his front. It turned into a fennec fox, identical to him.

“Hi. How do you know my name?”

“The Tree experiences everything. But your name is all it would tell me. I’m not familiar with your species.”

“Fennec fox. We come from the desert.”

“Ah. Cute species. Why do you seek me?”

“Knowledge.”

“Why?”

“To learn more about the world.”

“Why do you want to learn more about the world?”

“I’ve heard of magic.”

“Are you not happy with your abilities?”

“It’s not that. The Tree keeps me happy and healthy. But I desire more.”

“Sami…Sami, Sami, Sami.” It walked closer, until its muzzle almost touched Sami’s. “What you are is ambitious. Be honest.”

Sami looked away, then back. “Yes. I want power.”

“For what purpose? Do you know why the Tree takes such care in deciding who to trust?”

“Someone with your power could destroy the world.”

“What? Oh my, yes. But under no circumstance will your capabilities ever approach mine. I earned the Tree’s trust with a hundred years under its tutelage. Then I worked my way up through the different manifestations of the Tree’s power, enhancing and proving my capabilities and wisdom. I only became Keeper a hundred years ago. What will you do with the power the Tree grants?”

“I want to explore the Tree’s Gift. To see all there is to see.”

“Exploration!” The Keeper glowed and pulsed, then returned to the fennec form. “This ambition is healthy and reasonable. Life is best when it moves and changes. Why do you need power for this? The Tree rarely involves itself in the motion of life, and it has all the power in the world. Yet life still finds its way around.”

“Safety. Like you said, the Tree rarely involves itself. I want to protect myself from dangers as I explore.”

“Dangers. What dangers? If you die, your consciousness merges with the Tree. The value of your life experience and unique perspective adds to the whole of life.”

“By that reasoning, the value of my death rises the longer I live, and the more I experience.”

The Keeper turned back into a rainbow bug swarm and flew out of sight, but Sami still heard its voice. “Good answer. You now have the ability to summon these creatures and create a specter of any kind of life you can imagine. Use it wisely.”

Categories
Short Stories

Origin Story

“Ladies, gentlemen, valued et cetera. You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you here. I-“

“Get to the point.”

“Well I hoped to be a little more dramatic about such an important revelation.”

“Let the revelation speak for itself.”

“Fine. Adam, come on out and skip to the question and answer portion.”

Adam walked out on to the stage and froze once he got a look at the university auditorium filled to its 1,000 person capacity.

“It’s ok, they don’t bite.”

One of the doctor’s students stood up. “What is it? It looks like a man in a fox suit. I didn’t know you were a furry.”

“What? No, I’m not a…well, I am a furry, but this is no man in a fox suit. This is the best of a human combined with one of nature’s sharpest creatures. I named him Adam, after my late pet fox. Now, before we get to your questions, I have a little speech.”

“Will this be on the final?”

“No. Yes. Maybe. Look, just listen.”

“I think we’d all rather hear what he has to say.”

“Fine. Adam, you’re up.”

Adam took the podium. “Questions?”

“Did the doctor create you as a sex slave?”

“No.”

“Then why did he create you?”

Adam thumbed through his notes to the prepared answer. “Humans have all but eliminated physical labor through automation. Now the main limitation on progress is the human mind. Not anymore.” He turned the page on his notes, and tried to speak, but…

“Any thoughts about enslaving the human race?”

“The doctor made me promise not to enslave or kill anyone before he let me out of the cage.”

The audience gasped. “He keeps you in a cage? I’m reporting this to the ethics committee.”

“Don’t you people have a sense of humor?”

“You’re being kind of an asshole.”

“Blame the doctor. He made me.”

The audience broke out in laughter.

Categories
Short Stories

Wonder

I used to look up into the night sky and wonder. Then I went there. Among the trillions upon trillions of stars, none had that kindred spirit I longed for.

I found a machine civilization, a sentient black hole (I called him Phil, which he enjoyed very much), and others that, despite all my progressive leanings and wish to understand, were completely alien to me.

The machines had advanced statistical models based on extensive exploration, and as far as they could determine, Earth was home to the only life that resembled Earth life in the slightest. They were delighted when the strange animal landed on their homeworld, and quickly assembled an ambassador whose form was based on the average of all the people they found in my ship’s database.

Determined to find someone like myself, I set off for the void past known space, to see if there was anything beyond. The machines, the black hole, and all the good friends I made there admitted (with some approximation of embarrassment) that they’d never considered such a journey, and helped me build an appropriate craft.

I zipped across the expanse for weeks, increasingly convinced the next ten billion light years would be much like the last.

Then someone said hello.

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Articles

What ActivityPub means for musicians

The gist for people not extremely online: ActivityPub is the latest in a series of protocols aimed at letting different technologies speak with each other. It’s like HTTPS, which brought this post from my web server to the program you’re reading this in. Below that is TCP/IP, and different protocols at the ISP level like DNS and BGP.

Yeah, it’s a lot of acronyms. It’s enough to know that ActivityPub is a protocol that typically runs on HTTP, and it’s gaining steam where previous protocols in the same category like XMPP and OStatus got little traction outside tech circles.

For musicians, this means you will soon have options beyond Facebook and Twitter. Independent developers are hard at work on tools that handle events like Facebook, music like Soundcloud, short posts like Twitter, and things you probably never thought of. They all speak the same protocol.

Right now, it looks like what you do now but…distributed. It’s nice because there are enough people on the ActivityPub network to be seen, but not so many that you fall below the noise floor if you aren’t relentless.

There’s a typical pattern in technology.

  • Someone makes a technology that does the thing people already do, but different.
  • Early adopters rush in because hey, new thing!
  • Everyone else struggles to understand it. They usually compare it to earlier, failed efforts to replace the current thing. They’re right 99% of the time.
  • The tools people use for the old thing turn user-hostile and try to keep people from leaving as the new thing takes over. Twitter got an early start by killing off its developer ecosystem. They know how this goes.
  • Thousands of posts appear on the new thing in the theme of “I’m glad I made an account and kept a presence here early!”

Most people who already find adequate success on Twitter and Facebook will struggle to justify the time and effort, but it’s coming. ActivityPub is happening.

Right now there are a few main platforms that run on it. For example: Mastodon, Pleroma, PixelFed, Nextcloud. It’s tempting to assert that these will be the thing but, historically speaking, they probably won’t be. There are too many issues and splits for them to last.

The platforms that carve out new frontiers like this always end up a footnote. Ask the average internet user about Usenet, or AOL, or any of the vanguard of Web 2.0.

That sounds like I’m saying “don’t bother.” What I’m actually saying is “don’t repeat the last mistake.” Yes, go make a Mastodon account. Make one on Pixelfed. Find a Funkwhale or PeerTube instance. Write your novel on write.as. Organize an event on Get Together. You can benefit from it now, but make sure you have a way to tell people where you are once better tools sprout up in the ruins of the ActivityPub vanguard.

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Articles

Patreon’s Future

It’s easy to say Patreon’s fate was sealed the moment it took venture capital (VC). It’s widely understood that VC locks a company on a trajectory with three possible outcomes: acquisition, IPO, or yet another “our incredible journey” shutdown. The received wisdom is that all of Jack Conte’s sincere pleas for patience and trust are meaningless because he no longer ran the company once the VCs got in. As someone currently relying on Patreon for more than bare sustenance, this was…deeply troubling.

Patreon lets you export your patrons, email included, but not connect directly to Stripe. They aim to be a full-service creative destination, and giving you a way out doesn’t serve VCs who see a half billion dollar valuation. I’ve been around the e-block a bit and know exactly how it goes when companies get destination ambitions. See: AOL, Twitter, Facebook. All three followed the same path of closing off ways for third-party tools to access the services while they ate a growing market. Patreon hasn’t done that yet. Watch for it.

Companies with dreams of dominating (or saving) the world have four stages:

  1. They start out as a way to get somewhere and connect with people. Patreon connects creators with supporters’ bank accounts in a secure way.
  2. Then they become a destination, one of many points of interest along the way. Patreon has enough accounts that it’s easiest for a supporter to go there when they want to support someone even if the creator has a presence on sites like Ko-fi or Gumroad.
  3. Then they become prisons as a source of relief and prosperity turns into an obligation. Patreon is on the road to this stage. It isn’t yet so bad that people hate it, but most creators on there see that something is wrong.
  4. Something else comes along to remind people of what they lost, and the company rarely survives without losing most of its market. See: Ko-fi, Gumroad’s under development membership platform, or Substack.

Every company had an AOL keyword in their ads. Then it was a Twitter handle or a Facebook page. You already see Patreon pages mentioned in YouTube videos and podcasts.

Patreon is at stage 3. No one ever knows what #4 looks like even if they can make educated guesses.

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Articles

More Satellites Than Planes

It’s about 9PM on the first of April, 2020.

Georgia’s governor just issued a shelter-in-place order after a March that saw new global covid-19 cases rise from a couple thousand a day to over 70 thousand daily.

The order ends on April 13th. It may be too late to stop a major outbreak, but it seems like the the people at the top are catching up. Cities, counties, events, and many states paid attention sooner. Maybe he’ll extend it when he realizes things aren’t getting better on the 13th.

Between the weeks of thick clouds and my anxiety about going out for a walk amid an outbreak, I haven’t seen the night sky in a while. The steady stream of planes to and from Atlanta is missing. I saw a lone, dim speck of light float by, but no telltale blinking lights. A satellite. A digital check of overhead planes confirms it’s not just the clouds getting in the way. Whether it’s the order or a weeks-long normal, I do not know.

Almost as quiet is the nearby highway. I blamed my stopped up ears at first, but I heard one car go by every few minutes.

I’m concerned, but optimistic. Good luck, everyone. Wash your hands, dab when you cough, and keep six feet away. I see one plane overhead as I finish this draft. There’s hope.