The time I interviewed Harlan Ellison about his lawsuit against a fan who posted his stories to Usenet

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In 2001 I wrote an article for The Industry Standard about the Harlan Ellison’s one man war against people uploading his short stories to Usenet. I interviewed him on the phone for the piece and the first thing he told me was, “I can’t talk to you. I’m very busy. I’ve got a deadline.” He then launched into a 30-minute rant about everything wrong with the world (example: “You just look around and say, ‘Mother of God, the gene pool is just polluted and we really ought to turn it over to the cockroaches if we can’t do any better than this!'”).Here’s the article.

Clowns. Morons. Thieves. Thugs. Little pirates. Self-indulgent adolescents. That’s what Harlan Ellison calls people who post his fiction on the Net without his permission.

Such talk has made Ellison as legendary for his acts of vengeance as for his literary work. Sure, he’s written 74 books and classic episodes of Star Trek and Outer Limits. But an angry Ellison also once mailed a dead gopher to a book editor. On another occasion, he flew from Los Angeles to New York to tear apart an editor’s office. Then there’s the time he brought a gun to a meeting. (He swears it wasn’t loaded.)

But Stephen Robertson probably didn’t know any of that, or surely he would’ve been more careful. Last April, Robertson, a 40-year-old motel manager in Red Bluff, Calif., was caught uploading several of Ellison’s short stories to a newsgroup where hundreds of free – and unauthorized – digitized books and stories are posted for the taking. Ellison promptly nailed him with a lawsuit, which Robertson ended up settling for some $3,600.

Despite the alleged illegality of his acts, Robertson is an archetypal member of science fiction fandom, an intensely loyal and active community of readers. For decades, sci-fi fans communicated through mimeographed zines and at annual conventions. When the Net came along, with its chat rooms, fan sites and file swapping, it was as if they’d finally made contact with the mothership. But Ellison is underwhelmed by such devotion, especially when it involves trading his stories. “At some point,” says Ellison, “you just look around and say, ‘Mother of God, the gene pool is just polluted and we really ought to turn it over to the cockroaches if we can’t do any better than this!'”

The suit against Robertson was the first salvo in Ellison’s war against e-book pirates. Ellison also targeted AOL and RemarQ, a Usenet subscription service, for providing access to the pirated work. And just last month, Ellison founded Kick Internet Piracy, a fund he hopes will help defray the $40,000 he’s spent on legal fees so far.

Many in the publishing community say Ellison’s frothy-mouthed assault is a one-man example of how not to fight the online copyright battle. In his relentless campaign, Ellison risks losing free publicity, alienating fans and shutting down Usenet, the distributed-discussion system whose newsgroups are among the last, vast, unregulated portions of the Net.

So far, Ellison is largely waging this fight alone. He lacks the support of big publishers, who just aren’t that worried. Real piracy, as industry representatives see it, isn’t practiced at newsgroups like alt.binaries.e-book, where Robertson posted his stories. Genuine piracy is making facsimiles of books and charging money for them, says Allan Adler, VP of legal and government affairs for the American Association of Publishers. A zero-tolerance-style clampdown, Adler adds, could end up “alienating the people who are your most important market.”

But Ellison is not only going after the swappers. In a suit filed in federal court, he accuses AOL and RemarQ of failing to stop the alleged copyright infringers in accordance with the “Notice and Takedown Procedure” outlined in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Neither AOL nor RemarQ responded to requests for comment.

The hair-raising part of Ellison’s lawsuit, according to some, is its potential to squelch free speech on the Net. Two days after AOL was served with Ellison’s lawsuit, it blocked access to alt.binaries.e-book. RemarQ blocked posts containing Ellison’s work. The moves have sparked concern among Ellison’s fellow science fiction authors about what he’s wrought. Charles Platt, a science fiction writer and journalist, believes that “if service providers are made to fear litigation, censorship will be the inevitable result.”

Ellison, who doesn’t use the Internet and writes everything on a manual typewriter, does have some supporters. One fan conducts online stings to identify infringers. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has allocated $5,000 to stop Net-based copyright infringement. (Ellison’s attorney, Christine Valada, is also the SFWA’s legal counsel.) Ellison says his Kick Internet Piracy fund has received $1,300 in contributions from donors, including popular science fiction writers Ben Bova and Frank M. Robinson. Not quite the cost of his legal fees, but it’s a start.

Ellison may be wasting his energy. Many science fiction writers are online fanatics and think the Internet is a great way to market their products and increase their readership. Cory Doctorow – winner of the Year 2000 John W. Campbell Award for best new science fiction writer and co-author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction” – views unauthorized postings as “a chance to align the interests of writers and publishers and audiences, to make us all into partners who co-evangelize the stuff we love.”

Doctorow points out that several science fiction authors, including Jim Munroe and David Pesci, were given print publishing deals for books after offering them free online. And well-known, Net-savvy writers Bruce Sterling and Kevin Kelly gave away electronic versions of their books at the same time the print versions were available, with no visible detriment to offline sales.

Indeed, some publishers have had great luck giving away their titles online. Science fiction publisher Baen Books (whose books are distributed by Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster) has found that giving away books online boosts sales of the paperback versions.

“The real enemy of authors – especially midlist writers – is not piracy,” says Baen’s online librarian Eric Flint. “It’s obscurity.”

Two-thirds of the e-mail Flint has received since the Baen Free Library began posting books is from readers who purchased books they initially downloaded from the site.

But Ellison is having none of that. Those who aren’t on his side “have all the business capacity of an emu with its head in the sand.”

And if he must stand alone in his battle to defend his works from craven offenders, so be it. “I’m tired of the bullies and the thieves, and if other writers won’t do it,” he says, “well, this is not the first time I’ve found myself standing on the edge of the abyss.”

Image: Harlan Ellison at a Star Trek Convention, by Pip R. Lagenta/Flickr. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

No, Facebook did not patent secretly turning your phone mics on when it hears your TV

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Hi, everyone. Let’s talk about how to read patents again.

There’s a raft of headlines today claiming that Facebook has a patent on secretly turning your phone mic on when it hears a signal from a TV. The story appears to have picked up in Metro UK, which ran the headline “Facebook wants to hide secret inaudible messages in TV ads that can force your phone to record audio.”

Here’s Gizmodo, in classic Giz style: “Facebook patent imagines triggering your phone’s mic when a hidden signal plays on TV.”

Here’s Engadget, which personally breaks my heart since I used to do all the patent stories there: “Facebook patent turns phone mics on to record reactions to ads.”

Here’s Esquire, for some reason: “Facebook’s new patent can turn on your…

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A Lightgun For LCDs – Thanks To Maths!

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Light guns were a fun way to learn to shoot things on consoles, enjoying their heyday in the 80s and 90s. The original designs largely relied on the unique characteristics of CRT televisions and the timing involved in the drawing of their frames. Unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons (dependent on the exact techniques used), they typically do not work at all with modern LCD & plasma screens.

Recently, there has emerged a new project called the Sinden Lightgun. In the How It Works video, it seems to use a fairly standard 30fps camera inside the gun to image …read more

Instagram stories are getting soundtracks as the feature hits 400 million daily users

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Instagram Stories are about to get even busier, with the addition of licensed music. Starting today, users will be able to add background music to their posts on their Stories, with a thousands of songs offered directly in the app (including actually popular music by artists like Bruno Mars, Demi Lovato, and Maroon 5). Instagram says new songs will be added daily.

Adding songs to Stories works through Instagram’s sticker feature, just like polls and sliders — you’ll drag and drop in the new “Music” sticker to your post, and select the perfect background music for whatever cool thing you’re doing. Users will be able to then scrub through the song to get to the exact chunk of music they want playing for the particular video or image, too….

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SD cards could soon hold 128TB of storage

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The SD Association has announced a new card specification that should increase maximum storage on SD cards to 128 terabytes and provide much faster data transfer speeds of 985 megabytes per second.

Right now the maximum storage space on an SD card is 2TB, and that limit was promised as far back as 2009, but still hasn’t been reached. In 2016, SanDisk unveiled a prototype 1 terabyte SD card that would make it the biggest in the world, but it’s still not available to purchase. At the time, SanDisk said that the advancement was necessary to match ever-increasing data-heavy formats like 4K video and VR. However, creating SD cards with massive amounts of storage is cost-prohibitive. SanDisk’s 512GB SD card used to cost $800, and though it’s…

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Motorola will reveal its next phone on August 2nd

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Motorola is teasing a press event in August that contains a “big announcement,” likely for a new flagship smartphone. In a statement to The Verge, Motorola says the news will “change the way people use and interact with their phones.”

The event takes place in its Chicago headquarters on August 2nd at 2PM local time, and the company says it’s going to present “a whole new way to connect,” which is Motorola’s very exaggerated way of hinting that there might be new additions to its smartphone lines.

We do know that we’re anticipating more official details about the Moto Z3 and the Motorola One Power soon, so it could be either of them. The timing lines up for a Moto Z3 release, as last year’s Z2 Force was announced at a similarly…

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This app will send you tiny short stories via push notification

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A couple years ago, startup publisher Serial Box launched with an aim to publish stories in a slightly different way: tell a longer story by breaking it up into manageable, shorter stories, written by a team of writers. Now, the publisher is experimenting with a new way to deliver even shorter stories: via push notifications.

Since its launch, the publisher has released a number of serials in recent years, including The Witch Who Came in From the Cold, a fantasy spy thriller set during the height of the Cold War. These stories are structured a bit like a TV season, playing out through 10–13 shorter episodes, which cumulatively make up a longer, season-length story.

In a blog post, Serial Box says that it’ll launch a feature on July 9th…

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Hugh Howey’s Machine Learning: New and Collected Stories – $2 ebook

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Author Hugh Howey is a favorite with many of the Boing Boing staff. We first fell in love with his Wool series of stories, which won Kindle Book Review’s 2012 Indie Book of the Year Award and is being developed as a movie by Ridley Scott. Today, Amazon is selling Howey’s collection of stories in a volume called Machine Learning for just $2 in the Kindle edition. Even better, if you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read it for free.

Self-hacking Internet of Shit camera automatically sends randos the feed from inside your house

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Last week, I wrote about Shenzhen Gwelltimes Technology Co’s ubiquitous “home security” cameras that can be hacked with ease by voyeurs and criminals, seemingly the last word in dangerously lax security — but here comes scrappy underdog Swann Security, with a hold-my-beer turning point in shitty technology designs: a self-hacking camera that nonconsensually sends the video feed from inside your home to strangers who didn’t even try to hack you.
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Simple Quadcopter Testbed Clears The Air For Easy Algorithm Development

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We don’t have to tell you that drones are all the rage. But while new commercial models are being released all the time, and new parts get released for the makers, the basic technology used in the hardware hasn’t changed in the last few years. Sure, we’ve added more sensors, increased computing power, and improved the efficiency, but the key developments come in the software: you only have to look at the latest models on the market, or the frequency of Git commits to Betaflight, Butterflight, Cleanflight, etc.

With this in mind, for a Hackaday prize entry [int-smart] is working …read more

Showtime is making a Halo TV series

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The last time somebody tried to adapt the game franchise Halo into a TV show, the result was the mediocre digital series Halo: Nightfall. But now Showtime is giving the franchise the prestige pay-cable treatment, greenlighting a new TV series based on the game. Network president and CEO David Nevins is calling it “our most ambitious series ever.”

The network has ordered a 10-episode first season for Halo, with Awake creator Kyle Killen serving as showrunner. Filmmaker Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the recent Exorcist TV series) is scheduled to direct several episodes of the series, which is expected to begin production in early 2019. Plot details are thin, with the press release simply stating that the show will be…

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Instagram may soon let college students list their schools

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Instagram may be coming up with a new feature that lets college students list their school and find their classmates on the platform. Jane Manchun Wong looked through Instagram’s Android app code and saw the feature under development.

The still-unreleased feature lets you link to your school in your Instagram bio so that other students can find you. When you add a school, Instagram will also prompt you to list your graduation year and your major.

You could already easily find classmates through LinkedIn or Facebook, which often recommend people from a school you’ve listed. But Instagram hasn’t had a function like this before, and it feels a lot like the app is returning to Facebook’s early beginnings as a social media platform that…

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1978 NBC news segment on the horrors of The Sex Pistols coming to America

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Everyone on the staff of NBC seems to be on quaaludes in this mind-numbing but historically interesting 1978 segment about the Sex Pistols US tour. The one exception is co-anchor Jane Pauley, who I suspect was a secret fan, judging from her overly bright eyes and restrained giggling as she feigns disgust about Johnny Rotten repeatedly blowing his nose while on stage, and proving to her co-anchor that she knows “God Save the Queen” by humming the melody. Everyone else is freaked out in a weirdly restrained way (one reporter says Johnny Rotten looks like a “reincarnated Gary Gilmore,” even though Rotten bears zero resemblance to the infamous murderer).

From Open Culture:

In the vintage Today Show clip above, see how US viewers were introduced to British punk. “Whether naturally or calculatedly so,” says NBC’s Jack Perkins after reporting on Vicious and drummer Paul Cook’s refusal to grant an interview unless they were each paid $10, “the four young men are outrageous. They’re also vile and profane.”

Perkins then walks viewers through the hardly shocking details of rudeness to hotel staff and bit of a mess left in their room, shaking his head sadly. No band could hope to top Led Zeppelin when it came to this most cliched of rock and roll stunts. But Perkins pretends it’s the first time anything like it had ever happened. McLaren could not have scripted better finger-wagging outrage to inspire American gawkers (some of whom give brief post-concert interviews) to come out and see the Pistols flame out on their final tour.

Then there are the record execs Perkins gets on camera, including A&M’s Kip Cohen, who sized up the situation astutely: “There’s a case of an act and management and intelligence behind an act, brilliantly utilizing the media, cashing in and creating a whole hype for itself.” Cohen, a seasoned industry man who had previously managed the Fillmore East, predicts great things for the Sex Pistols. But he expresses some skepticism about whether their savvy media manipulation was a new phenomenon, citing the Beatles and the Stones as having already broken such ground.

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