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Monthly archive March, 2009

"The Computer is now following you on Twitter!"

What a world.

Phantom cotton swab killer evaporates

German tabloid Bild reports an international police investigation with an outcome worthy of Internal Security’s Department of Unspecified Threat Assessment:

Police in Germany hunted a sinister phantom killer for two years after finding the same DNA at 39 different crime scenes – only to discover that the source was a woman who made the cotton buds used to collect the sample! [...]

Police linked the ‘killer’ to seven murders. [...] As part of the investigation, 800 previously convicted women were questioned – but there was no match to the sample. Her DNA was found over and over again: in bottles, tank lids, on bullets – and once even on a biscuit! Traces were found in southern Germany, Austria and France. Thousands of saliva tests were taken but there was still no answer.

In April 2008, detectives ran out of ideas, so an internal inquiry was launched. And yesterday Bernd Meiners, a spokesman for the public prosecutor’s office in Saarbrucken, revealed: “There are considerable doubts about the existence of the ‘phantom killer’. The DNA has instead been linked to investigation materials.” An employee at the cotton bud manufacturer has apparently been pretty careless!

According to reports, the maker of the buds is a company in Hamburg, with branches in Baden-Wurttemberg and the Saarland as well as Austria and France. The company has been supplying the police investigators with cotton buds since 2001.

UK’s Department of Sensitive Words

Loyal citizen Thomas Hancock alerts us to Financial Times writer Gideon Rachman’s discovery that the United Kingdom has a real, actual Department of Sensitive Words:

The problem is that Companies House [a UK government agency] deems certain words as “sensitive” because they are thought to convey an impression of authority or trustworthiness. Institute is one such word; British is another. If you want to use a word like this you have to get special permission from a sub-unit of Companies House – the Department of Sensitive Words, which is based in Swansea.

In true Dickensian style, this is not an easy process. Companies House does provide a few guidelines on sensitivity on its web-site (its chapter three). But there is no form you can fill in and no obvious criteria to fulfill. But this is probably for the best. You don’t want any old person calling themselves “British” or “Institute.”

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber calls this an excellent idea, though his “Modest Proposal” title indicates he may not be 100% serious:

[T]here is a real problem in a political system where an organization with a grand title such as Americans for Fairness, Liberty and Free Choice in the Workplace (this is an invented organization using some of the usual buzzwords -– I imagine that lobbyists automate the process of name creation with a sekrit Perl script) typically consists of nothing more than a few reams of letterhead and a time-share arrangement over some law office’s fax machine. Not only will consumers will end up confused by the profusion of astroturf groups, but the generation of such confusion is precisely the purpose. It is just this kind of market failure that governments are supposed to address.

Hence my modest proposal –- that the Obama administration set up a similar office, with sweeping authority and immediate effect.

Franz Kafka International Airport

Video from The Onion News Network: Prague’s Franz Kafka International Airport ranks last for pleasant flight experiences.

Mister Bubbles mission briefing now on YouTube

In December 2005 I linked to Andrew Babb’s superior Flash-animated version of the briefing given to the Troubleshooters in the PARANOIA rulebook’s introductory mission, “Mister Bubbles” by Dan Curtis Johnson. At the time, Andrew’s animation was hosted on (I believe) a “Knights of the Dinner Table” fansite. But that site vanished, the domain got poached, and, for The Computer knows how long, I never noticed.

But in February 2009 Andrew reposted his excellent Mister Bubbles animated briefing on YouTube, where I hope it can stay for many years.

(Thanks to sharp-eyed citizen Marv-R-RQS-2 on Paranoia-Live.net for spotting this.)

PARANOIA in the real world: ACMA’s secret blacklist

In Australia, since January 2000, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has maintained a blacklist of internet content the agency considers offensive or illegal. To date, ACMA has provided the list to makers of net-filtering programs.

But under a forthcoming mandatory net filtering scheme, ACMA plans to fine any site that links to a blacklisted site up to A$11,000 per day. The catch is — doubtless you saw this coming, citizen — the blacklist’s contents are secret. If you link to its prohibited sites, you won’t know until ACMA fines you. If you yourself are on the list, there’s no way to find out and no way to get off it.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports the public-minded site Wikileaks.org has leaked the ACMA blacklist. Wikileaks previously posted similar blacklists maintained by the Danish, Norwegian, and Thai governments. Why don’t we link to Wikileaks? Because Wikileaks is on ACMA’s banned list.

[A]bout half of the sites on the list are not related to child porn and include a slew of online poker sites, YouTube links, regular gay and straight porn sites, Wikipedia entries, euthanasia sites, websites of fringe religions such as satanic sites, fetish sites, Christian sites, the website of a tour operator, and even a Queensland dentist.

Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, dug up the blacklist after ACMA added several Wikileaks pages to the list following the site’s publication of the Danish blacklist.

He said secret censorship systems were “invariably corrupted”, pointing to the Thailand censorship list, which was originally billed as a mechanism to prevent child pornography but contained more than 1200 sites classified as criticising the royal family.

“In January the Thai system was used to censor Australia reportage about the imprisoned Australian writer Harry Nicolaides,” he said. “The Australian democracy must not be permitted to sleep with this loaded gun. This week saw Australia joining China and the United Arab Emirates as the only countries censoring Wikileaks.”

The leaked list, understood to have been obtained from an internet filtering software maker, contains 2395 sites. ACMA said its blacklist, as at November last year, contained 1370 sites.

Slashdot has more (though some might consider the discussion not work-safe): “Wikileaks Pages Added to Australian Internet Blacklist” (March 17) and “Activists Use Wikipedia to Test Aussie Net Censors” (March 18). The former post prompted a comment by Leafheart, “Happiness is Mandatory!“:

So you receive a letter in your mailbox saying that you were fined A$11,000 for linking to a site that you didn’t know you couldn’t link, and if you knew that you couldn’t link to it, you would be even more penalized because that information is not for your security level?

Has someone in the Aussie Government been playing PARANOIA recently?

This spawned a long thread with references to Orwell and Kafka, as well as more Alpha Complex info-denialspeak.

Jeff Kotinoff of The Internet Filter blog has a useful discussion, “Lack of Transparency in Filter Lists Equals Failure” — but be careful. He posts a long list of banned links, which may well trigger whatever might be filtering you.

(Thanks to loyal citizen Jaagup Irve.)

"Internet Killed the Tabletop Star"

The online gaming/pop culture magazine The Escapist has just published my article “Internet Killed the Tabletop Star,” about what the roleplaying hobby would look like had the internet never existed. To hint at the initial summary of the net’s effects on RPGs, my original title was “Roleplaying Cataclysm.”

PARANOIA in the real world: Bring your own paper to court

Via loyal citizen Citron-R on Paranoia-Live.net, “Ohio court will take your case if you supply paper“:

MOUNT GILEAD, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio city court says it will only accept new case filings from people who bring their own paper.

Judge Lee McClelland of Morrow County Municipal Court in north-central Ohio says the court has just enough paper to handle hearing notices and other documents for pending cases. McClelland says the court will stop accepting case filings Monday because it cannot afford to reorder more paper. He told The Columbus Dispatch that the county still hasn’t paid the bill for basic supplies the court ordered in November.

Keith Herber (1949-2009)

Keith Herber, longtime designer and line editor for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, passed away suddenly Friday morning. Keith was 60. (More at Yog-Sothoth.com.)

Keith gained early prominence among Cthulhu designers with his great globe-spanning campaigns Trail of Tsathoggua and Spawn of Azathoth, among others. As CoC line editor (1989-94), he initiated (with the excellent Arkham Unveiled) the “Lovecraft Country” series of location sourcebooks that remains a staple of the line. Parting from Chaosium on bad terms, he wrote a couple of Vampire novels for White Wolf. After some years away from the field as editor of Cinescape magazine, he had returned to roleplaying in May 2008 with his own Chaosium-licensed CoC imprint, Miskatonic River Press.

In what is, hands down, the most stupendous scenario line in roleplaying, Keith stood out among CoC‘s best writers. Though the Lovecraft Country books are his great legacy, my own favorite Herber work is the spectacular CoC Dreamlands scenario “Pickman’s Student,” a bravura interweaving of real and dream worlds. Escape From Innsmouth, were it for any game line less brilliant than Call of Cthulhu, would certainly be regarded as one of the most ambitious feats in roleplaying history. Set immediately at the end of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the scenario weaves the Investigators everywhere throughout a simultaneous five-pronged amphibious combat operation against the story’s infestation of Deep Ones. The ambition and execution were both breathtaking.

I met Keith only once, almost in passing, but from that brief encounter I’m willing to confirm the universal perception of his keen intelligence and love of the Cthulhu Mythos. My condolences to his friends and family. This is an unexpected and terrible loss.

Actual Play: Delivering a cup of water

Experienced PARANOIA Gamemasters frequently observe the best mission to assign to a pack of nervous Troubleshooters is to deliver a memo to an unguarded office a hundred yards down an empty, unobstructed hallway. Nothing demonstrates this idea more dramatically than this jaw-dropping, heartwarming Paranoia-Live.net forum summary, “Pointlessly above and beyond the call of duty.”

Mongoose hints about the next PARANOIA

On the Planet Mongoose company blog, Mongoose Publishing CEO summarizes some results from a discussion yesterday about the forthcoming 25th-Anniversary release of three revised PARANOIA rulebooks:

As Lawrence came down to our offices a short while ago to discuss RuneQuest, this week it was the turn of Gareth [Hanrahan], to cover the new PARANOIA this year. We managed to decide on:
  1. The format of the new front covers, and how we would differentiate between Troubleshooters, Int Sec and High Programmer lines.
  2. How to handle the interior artwork to put more ‘funny’ in.
  3. What the Limited Edition 25th Anniversary book would look like, and what Bonus Fun material would be included.
  4. How to actually produce that free material — there are a lot of A/V elements planned.
  5. What rules needed changing. After that two-minute discussion, we moved on to what would be added.
  6. And what would be taken out — Zap and Straight go to appendices…
  7. Not to change the basic layout of the interior, but to accentuate certain aspects.

PARANOIA on Twitter

I’ve spent a few months on Twitter as Ninjalistics Exec, promoting the new humor site Ninjalistics some of the PARANOIA writers have started together. But with that account I feel a need to stay more or less “in character.” So I have started a companion Twitter account in my own name, AllenVarney, to tweet random stuff to anyone interested. This may well include short PARANOIA-related stuff too light and airy for a substantive blog post. If you’re interested, feel free to follow me, and don’t overlook the other PARANOIA writers there, including Gareth Hanrahan, Dan Curtis Johnson, WJ MacGuffin, Paul Baldowski, Allandaros, and probably others I haven’t found yet.

If you’re on Twitter and would like to announce this to the PARANOIA audience, feel free to post your account name in the comments.

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