And I missed the Fries Sale for This???
Actually, it was not all THAT bad. I got to watch some cool Japanese anime, eat a lot of munchies, get into a few minor discussions that almost managed to go somewhere, and one of the Panel discussions did actually turn me on to some information that may easily be worth the whole weekend's investment. So? Why am I bitching?
I expected MORE! I've been going to LOSCON from the early '80s', missing very few of them. Usually - for the past 15 years, anyway - I came away really wishing that it was going on for days more, or, in my fantasies, forever - a con I could just plan on being there 24/7, a place to meet really interesting people and constantly expand my mental horizons - almost like the web. Unfortunately, this year I did not leave with that feeling. It wasn't a total loss, nor particularly unpleasant. Just not up to par.
OK, OK, so WHAT is LOSCON? Yes, I realize that people are trying to read this. Patience... On the net.... right...
LOSCON is the yearly science fiction conference put on by the oldest science fiction club in the world, the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society (LASFS). Unfortunately, if you try to go there and find very much useful information, good luck, as both sites are currently mostly down, which is unfortunately more the rule than the exception.
One might think that a club with more computer whizes than most computer clubs would be able to maintain a site, at least the minimum functionality. However, the site is a symptom of the deficiencies I observed at LOSCON itself. One person is apparently responsible for the LOSCON site, and she is a volunteer, like everyone else. She announced on the site that she had had a medical problem that took her out for about a month. As a consequence, the program listings for the conference didn't show up on the website until two days before the actual conference. This is not good.
My experience with LASFS: In 1976, new to California itself, I attended my first LASFS meeting, at their very own clubhouse, actually owned by LASFS. At that meeting, the most notable thing was the seemingly endless, loud, shouted monologue by Jerry Pournelle with beer in hand. Jerry is a BIG guy and he could outshout anyone. This meant that, fueled by endless beer, plus the prestige of being an actual published author of note, Jerry got his way, or so I gathered. The other thing I recall, is that this sweet young thing plopped herself down next to me on the wreck of an ancient couch and announced with a huge smile, "Hy... I'm from the planet Venus.! "
Being young and stupid and not up with the '70's sexual revolution, I mumbled something and the moment was lost forever. The subsequent couple of meetings I managed to get to were pretty much the same, minus, sad to say, any further encounters with sexually aggressive sweet young (or even sour old) things. And I'm not trying to single out Jerry Pournelle, as he was acting like a typical FAN. The predominant fan ethos is similar to that portrayed in the Monte Python script about the "argument room."
FANs typically jump headlong into any and every conversation without so much as a "bye-your-leave," completely ignoring the people who were in the middle of stating a thought. Your FANish social status and boldness determine whether this works or not. It is no accident that a few years back, at a Westercon, the Fan guest of honor was perhaps the MOST notoriously rude person in SF, second perhaps only to the old Jerry with his wind up and a few sails under the weather, or maybe Neil Schulmann, who considers a state of moral outrage - a condition which afflicts him rather frequently (as in whenever he needs an excuse to butt in) - to be carte blanche to violate the rights of all and sundry.
Having the advantages of intelligence, height, weight, and loudness of voice, however, meant that LASFS became pretty much Jerry's show for many years, by most accounts. Since then, especially since he went on the wagon quite publicly a decade or more ago, of course, he has become actually civil, and appears to notice the existence of other human beings and even to assume that they have independent thoughts and minds of their own. Alcoholism has a nasty tendency to blur that recognition into a cozy warm solipsist cocoon, with any doubts resolved by another drink.
And, of course, to his credit, he has done all kinds of good things in his life, as well, writing a host of delightful novels, for example, and perhaps even saving us from a nuclear war. But he still had a baleful influence on the underlying ethos of LASFS, which I think echoes yet.
I also attended the millennium party at LASFS, which was about the saddest and most depressing party I have ever been to in my life. The food was sparse, cold, clammy and unappetizing, only a few people showed up and they were all in bad moods and argumentative, even for fans, and when I attempted a conversation with the only female present, who was apparently not a member, but the guest of someone who was also not a member, but himself the guest of a actual member, I was called aside by a man who informed me in an apprehensive tone that "she is with someone else." That party looking like a likely Crip or Blood, I didn't press the matter.
And I made it to a couple of the "LaLaCon" LASFS mini-cons, held at the clubhouse, but did not find anything particularly inspiring happening. If I had been in the hood, then it would've been worth it, but driving 50 miles in L.A. traffic? No way, dude.
One odd note on the last LaLaCon I recall attending: The guest of honor was some character who was an animator for the TV cartoon version of the Movie (taken from the Robert A. Heinlein novel of the same title) "Starship Troopers." I think it was one and the same person who started out with some kind of tirade against illegal drugs. When I challenged him on this, he took a position of moral outrage, allowing as to how he had been given a special tour of some federally financed hospital just packed with the wretched remains of would be humans, the children of addicts.
The only thing wrong with his picture is that it is totally bullshit. There are quite a few kids who have genetic or developmental damage due to fetal alcohol syndrome, for sure. And there were apparently a minor flood of kids who had been damaged by PCP, when it was all the rage, mostly among lower income blacks. However, the only reason that people switched from the relatively safe psychedelic '60's drugs, such as LSD, mescaline, etc., to truly dangerous, often one-way trips like PCP, was economics. The War on Drugs put away the chemists or priced out of the market the difficult -to-manufacture drugs in favor of the garbage that anyone could cook up in a hotel room, such as PCP, and today, of course, meth.
It goes without saying, of course, that a woman who knowingly takes powerful drugs during pregnancy is behaving irresponsibly, stupidly, ignorantly, or out of pure evil. However, millions of women smoked cigarettes for many decades while pregnant, and the human race survived. If a few women have deformed babies because they weren't convinced that the drugs could hurt the fetus, then maybe that's the only effective way to get the message through to other women with similar attitudes. Perfect safety is not achievable in this or any other universe. Decision theory says that for an optimum total yield, you try to equalize the expected marginal returns from everything that you do. Draconian measures to prevent the consequences of stupidity and irresponsibility constitute a subsidy? And what happens when we subsidize something?
Right! You get more of it! Economics uber alles. Amen.
On those or any other rational grounds, the War on Drugs is clearly the cause, not the solution to our drug problems. In the '60's, it is widely estimated that at the height of drug use on campus, about 40% of students regularly used illegal drugs, mostly pot, but also a lot of LSD. I was there. I did a LOT of pot and LSD. If I and David Carradine (who boasts of taking over 400 LSD trips, including especially while he was filming episodes of Kung Fu) and the man who invented LSD, who is very old now, but still quite on-the-ball, who possibly used even more than Carradine, and Tim Leary, who was one of the smartest, most lucid and rational people I've ever met, after ingesting very large quantities of these "mind-destroying" drugs, are even able to brush our teeth, much less design web sites for a living, then there is clearly something wrong with the demonization of drugs in general.
And, we now know - and there are even books devoted to just this one subject - that most of the really creative minds that gave us the computer and internet and media revolutions were also bigtime "heads." (And probably still are, altho nowadays it is truly not safe to say so.)
Turns out that even meth may be good for you, in small, regular doses, anyway. Recent research showed that use of a wide range of amphetamines over time drastically reduced the incidence of Alzheimers and general onset of senility. Note that I'm saying this as a total drug teetotaler for a couple of decades, as well as the son of a meth-monster mother, who made life hell for everyone around her while getting prescriptions for amphetamine from every doctor in town, simultaneously. I have plenty of anecdotal grounds for not liking drugs.
However, the same people who think that executing drug dealers (Newt Gingritch - remember him? And that Jerry Pournelle was his personal science advisor?) should be prime-time family entertainment, would like to put me and millions of other Americans away for use of vitamins. For decades, the same FDA (Food and Drug Administration) which was responsible for millions of deaths of children in Biafra in the '60's has been struggling mightily to rid us of the scourge of over-the-counter nutritional supplements. Wonder how many deformed Amerikan kids I could show that animator at LaLaCon who got that way because the FDA wouldn't allow anyone to talk about the need for extra B-vitamins during pregnancy to prevent spinal bifida? My guess is that there are a lot more of them than all the "crack babies" and "PCP kids" put together.
Some people are bound to kill themselves, and very likely take some other people down with them. Consider it a case of evolution in action (thanks, Larry). Most people, like myself when I was doing drugs in the '60's, use drugs to achieve a purpose - relaxation, inebriation for a party, enlightenment, sleep, long-haul driving, whatever. We don't take dangerous or health-imparing drugs when an equivalent safe alternative is available. However, because many people don't see morality as a matter of practicality, but rather as a puritan GOD SAID, it doesn't matter that some people are in pain and need heavy-duty pain medicine, such as heroine, or that other people have to drive on a deadline, and are a LOT safer driving on meth than falling asleep behind the wheel, or that the Air Force knows damned well from decades of research - starting with widespread distribution of "bennies" (benzedrine) to combat troops in WWII - that their pilots have a better chance of survival if given speed when they're already dead-tired.
No, we are going to GET those BAD people. Thus, the State of Massachusetts recently passed legislation completely outlawing AWOL (alcohol without liquid), without any evidence that it is in any way worse than drinking alcohol, and a lot of evidence that it was many times less damaging to the body. But, NOOOO. We can't reduce the destruction, because then people would feel ok about using the alcohol to feel good...
And the cigarette companies admit knowing that it was strictly the nicotine that people craved. Thus, boosting the nicotine per cigarette, without boosting the tars and other carcinogens, would have been the logical, healthy thing to do. Fewer or smaller cigarettes would have been necessary to get the same fix, reducing the overall health damage. Instead, they put out "healthy" cigarettes, with less nicotine, which required the user to smoke more. But they couldn't legally admit that it was the nicotine delivery that they were actually selling... Why? Because then the FDA could have come after them for dispensing a drug without their approval. So, once again, our "solution" creates the problem.
But this is old news. Very few people of intelligence and integrity support the idiotic War on Drugs. However, at that LaLaCon, the hostility and angry muttering in response to my objections to this jerk's remarks seemed virtually unanimous.
Why is this remarkable? Because, for decades science fiction has been seen as a sort of intellectual bastion of libertarianism. The late Sam Konkin raved in print about "libertarian" heroes such as the late Robert A. Heinlein or Poul Anderson. Yet, the reality behind the hype is that neither of the above was particularly libertarian. Certainly there were threads of that running through much of their work, but in the main, they were simply adventure writers whose own heroes and lead characters had to seem heroic and worth watching. Socialism and fascism do not seem to easily lend themselves to fictional characters that most people - at least most of those who read science fiction - are able to identify with.
Yet this myth persisted even while Sam's "New Libertarian Alliance" was busy convincing everyone in sci fi fandom that libertarians were obnoxious, pushy, loud fools, to the point that I found myself ostracized at parties if I even mentioned that I was a libertarian. I well recall the day I awoke to reality. It was at the large 1978 Future of Freedom Conference, held at USC.
I had sponsored a couple of workshops at the conference on the subject of children's rights. Sam asked me to write a conference report for his "New Libertarian Weekly." One unfortunate incident on which I reported was the attempted talk by Poul Anderson on the subject of support for the state space program, which Poul was strongly in favor of. However, Poul was so unbelievably drunk on his ass that he literally fell off the podium at one point, and kept forgetting that he had yet another can of beer in his hand, waving his arms about to emphasize some slurred, indecipherable remark, and spraying all nearby with the liquid. His whole point was that we had to forget our libertarian utopian ideals and get behind NASA. And that's how I reported it.
Sam also covered the same speech, to an audience of around 1,000, I believe, and somehow Poul became a lucid, insightful champion of free enterprise, anarchist space exploration. Holy Cow! Man, what drugs was I taking? I don't even remember taking them... (To Sam's credit, he published both our reports, which were point-by-point in near perfect opposition.)
Now just imagine for a moment if we had access to those drugs today... President Bush would appear to be a malign, dictatorial pawn of international corporate interests. The Iraqi war - excuse me, I mean great experiment in democracy would be seen as a near failure moving rapidly towards utter catastrophe. The world ecology would be seen as much too close to major tipping points for comfort. Religious fanaticism would be seen as on the rise worldwide... Dude! Maybe I should be in favor of the War on Drugs, huh?
Getting back to the mundane...
LASFS, like most organizations or movements in decline, reacts to the decline by attracting warm bodies, which makes it look like everything is OK. Also, as the decline continues, the attrition of people - especially key movers and doers - dying or moving or otherwise losing capacity or interest is not counterbalanced by any new influx. LASFS/LOSCON is getting old. You can see it in any casual examination of the demographics. There are a whole LOT of old, tired, harried, and/or infirm people.
NOT EVERYONE! Certainly not. LOSCON/LASFS is also a fairly good sized organization, with a lot of non-local members, I gather, and the commitment to keeping it going is in part related to the number of professional writers, actors, artist, etc., who spend their lives in the sf venue. Many of them certainly see LOSCON as a yearly ritual and retreat, a place to meet up with old friends and party and learn new things. It still serves that purpose, altho not quite on a par with its heyday. Even this year there were teenagers all over - most of whom I can recall as toddlers or kids, and I suspect that a lot of them will keep sustaining LOSCON as a family Thanksgiving ritual. Whether their children in turn will keep it up is an open question. There were a few babies, but not many.
And, it should be noted before I leave the reader with such a negative impression of LASFS, that, despite all the above, LASFS has repeatedly, with remarkable consistency, done at least one thing right. They have managed what is almost always a perfectly marvelous tour-de-force in terms of both LOSCON and Westercon, when it has been local (and I'm not certain what direct role LASFS has in Westercon, but it's clearly a lot of the same people doing the work).
Putting together something of the size and complexity of LOSCON is a LOT of work, all done by volunteers, and usually quite well. For an organization the size of LASFS to bring together all the performers, authors, actors, entertainment, and other delightful aspects of a typical LOSCON is amazing itself. Which is why I'm a bit concerned now.
At some point you start hitting critical numbers. You have to convince the hotel that you are a viable entity, and pay them for the halls, etc. used by the con. If you can't make that nut, then you have to downsize, which is not easy and will likely lose you more attendees and the celebrity guest authors, screenwriters, actors, ect., who are a prime attractant. A slow decline can easily turn into a catastrophic spiral very quickly, altho, given that several smaller cons than LOSCON have survived for years or even decades, it is not likely that this will produce a complete failure next year or the next. Perhaps during the next decade, we could even see a reversal of fortunes, with a new demographic as the information revolution continues.
Perhaps there will be another Babylon V. B5 was the science fiction show that fans had dreamed of for decades, and it set the standard for anything that followed. You can no longer get away with a single clever plot and a few stock characters, as in the original Star Trek. Fans now expect dynamite graphics, a good soundtrack, and, more importantly, a meaningful, powerful plotline with lots of real, complex characters to drive it. It's assumed that there will character development, private insights into people's heart of hearts, philosophical problems, political innuendos, and all the rich depth of a syncopated, counterpoint of conflicting themes, people, and ideas that B5 pioneered.
Unfortunately that's a hard standard to meet. The few shows that have done it - including B5 itself - basically committed suicide in the name of their art. Of the one's I would have put in a class with B5 - Firefly, Dark Angel, Farscape, and (in its first few seasons) marginally Sliders, all ended up drawing a fanatical audience just a little too small to impress the ad financiers. Perhaps that explains why there isn't anything out there now worth watching.
I have long advocated that the watchers, the audience, BUY THE SHOW! After all, you're expected to pay for it via the ad revenue and the products you will consequently purchase. Simple economic logic tells us that if you paid for the show directly, then all those extra costs and middlemen second-guessing directors and writers to please advertisers, etc., etc., etc., would go away, and you might get a LOT more for your money. Perhaps "Serenity" will prove my point - or not. If it makes significant bucks in the DVD, then why not DO ANOTHER ONE? Sell shares to the enthusiasts if need be, and keep the energy flowing. (GAWD, how I want to see the full arc of Dark Angel completed! Please... And, while we're at it, what about "Nowhere Man," the ultimate paranoid conspiracy show of which we never got to see the explanation?)
Or - and this is a strange note, indeed - consider this movie, recently reviewed at bakerstreet at Joeuser.com. If the reviews and comments are accurate, it is plain that in Turkey, at least, they have figured out how to profitably turn TV series into movies quite regularly.
Anyway, for a long time B5 was a BIG draw for LOSCON. Joe Strazinsky and the various actors and other personalities from the show would schmooze at the parties in addition to giving us a couple new - unviewed - episodes, and Harlan Ellison would leave us raptly hanging on every drop of vitriol descending from his forked tongue, as he bantered with Joe on stage, discussing the future plans of the series and chortling over the inanities of the rest of the human species, whose only purpose in so-called life was clearly to become objects for his dissection. And then, Warner cancelled B5, giving them just time enough to complete the main story arc. And they went to Sci Fi channel, and died the usual death there.
This year LOSCON featured a LUXMAN Theatre performance apparently based around the FireFly/Serenity series/movie, and it appeared to be as professional as their usual performances to date, but I loath Cowboy/Western music almost as much as the Laurence Welk ChamPAIN music makers, whose entrée' to the show in the '60's used to make me physically nauseous, so, perhaps fortunately, I missed all but a couple minutes of it, although the Con Suite discussion that I had resigned from in despair, was even worse. Lucky me - there was still the Japanese Anime room.
So, after losing B5, failing some kind of breakthrough - maybe fantasy role playing in Sci Fi MUDDs? - LOSCON no longer has any magic draw to bring in the people who would never have thought of attending otherwise. Not saying that a crash - or a slow decline - will inevitably be the case, but it is something worth considering. The current trend is not encouraging.
(Oops. Out of time. More later, as I compare and contrast LOSCON and the sf fan scene with the computer club scene, in the hopes that some of the lessons may be taken to heart...
OK, back for a few minutes at best. Had hernia surgery Friday, Dec. 2,'05. Bussing it. (I actually rescheduled the surgery so that I could attend LOSCON.) Little groggy Sat. & Sun. due to Codeine. Missed two busses; walked about 5 miles each day with this huge SLASH - like FOUR INCHES - literally stapled together with something that looks like it came from Office Depot... NOT FUN!
So, what about the comparison I promised?
If you're of the ilk to actually be reading this, then you're probably one of those people who remember the Amiga computer, a machine that offered for a few hundred dollars a very sizeable portion of what you can get anywhere today on a Pentium PC for a couple hundred bucks. However, the Amiga had it in 1985, at a fraction of the cost of the PCs and Macs of that day, and a 1990 Amiga 3000 STILL looks pretty good in many respects up against a state-of-the-art PC today, 15 years later.
Certainly when it comes to raw crunching power for graphics or video, the Pentium/Windose system is orders of magnitude more powerful, but try putting together a multimedia interactive experience. Or try doing anything while formatting a floppy, or spooling to the printer. Or a lot of other daily user experiences which depend upon a tightly integrated efficient system, which is NOT a Pentium/Windose system.
On a 25Mhz Amiga, running on the old Motorola 68030 chip, you could format TWO floppies, spool to the printer, run five or ten applications, and surf the web, all without drastic slowdowns. Try that on your Pentium.
Apple, who also offered a quality product in their Mac, was running scared, according to Gasse, their head of R & D from back then, as the Amiga totally outclassed them, not to mention the infinitely kludgy PCs of the time. Yet the Amiga failed, after a ten year run, and the backing of millions of fanatical users.
And, so did the Atari ST series, which were also superior in many respects to either Mac or PC, although not in a class with the Amiga. The Amiga really did give the user major control of the system, and without sacrificing ease of use. There are still many things that are darn near impossible for the typical non-programmer to do on a PC that were trivial on the Amiga, even for a beginner.
And, lest someone take umbrage, there was of course the rather nice OS/2 system, with dedicated Power PC boxes to run it at one point, and the truly fast BeOS with its own multi-processor Be Box, and Job's NEXT machine, and, of course, LINUX. ALL of these systems were better than the Mac at some point and FAR better than the Windose/PC at virtually any point, and they didn't generally even cost more. Of course, LINUX is more difficult to learn, BeOS had no software, ditto NEXT (and it WAS pricey), and OS/2 simply lost out to superior MicroSoft marketing, despite being a far superior product.
(LINUX has survived because there are still a small but very significant bunch of power users who have actual control or influence where they work, such as the people running "service bureaus" (where people get negatives made from desktop publishing files for mass printings) or video effects production facilities or web servers. It was the marketing and managerial types who didn't know LOTUS from COREL who gave us Windoze, much for the same reasons that the buyers for schools forced the unbelievably kludgy, way over-priced Apple II into classrooms, even when you could buy an easy-to-use Amiga with 100 times the power for the same price.)
But, for five years or so, the Amiga had it ALL. It was cheaper, faster, less buggy, easier to use, MUCH more powerful, MUCH more versatile ... and it lost to the PC.
Therein lies a long but important tale entitled "ignorant markets," a subject that earned a couple of Nobel prizes some years back - although I figured it out first! Ignorant markets are where "marketing" works. As in, Apple putting one Apple II in every school, knowing full well that either the C64 or the Atari 800 were FAR superior and cost 1/3 the price. But, the money that Apple made on its incredibly overpriced Apple II's, easily the hardest PC to use every made - of any significant machine, paid its 3-piece suit salesmen with his BMW to go in and woo the purchaser for a school or a school district. Apple was sexy, no matter that it didn't work, and most of the kids hated it, while they loved the Commodore and Atari machines.
However, at one point, the Amiga Friends user group of Orange County, CA (the "OC"), had 900 members, and 400 regularly attended meetings, where they bought tens of thousands of dollars of public domain software. And we really thought that we were going to take over. We had it all. It was working. It was BETTER! Gone, gone, gone... like they never were there at all.
So what does this have to do with LOSCON? It has to do with movements and volunteer organizations and what drives them and where they end up being driven. I was a member of three Amiga clubs, and occasionally attended other groups. I belonged to the Los Angeles Amiga User Group (LAAUG), the OC's Amiga Friends (AF), and the Long Beach Amiga User Group (LBAUG). In addition, I was the reporter/secretary for the North Orange County Computer Club's (NOCCC) Amiga SIG (Special Interest Group) for some years. I attended every major local Amiga conference, of which there were quite a few, and I knew many of the major developers both of the original Amiga, and of the major software and hardware products that followed.
At one time I ran my own program to get Amigas into the hands of low-income home-schoolers in the L.A. area, and I spent a lot of time and energy fruitlessly trying to get the Montessori people interested in the Amiga.
Note that the Amiga was not just another computer. Its creation was an act of love. It was one of the few, perhaps the only, machine built and designed by the designers, not MBA suits in Management or (shudder) Marketing. And, yes, Job's NEXT comes close to that vision, and I would be willing to included Gasse's BeOS and Be box, but only a few tens of thousands of either of those systems were ever actually built and sold, while the Amiga outsold the Mac for several years. (And by the time Apple stepped in and bought NEXT for their OS/X, it was itself an old, dated system, far outclassed by Gasse's Be OS. But Jobs was a known quantity, a team player, and he didn't want $2-billion up front and he had some kind of connection with Bill Gates that got Apple a token, pocket change (for Bill) investment (not to say "bribe").
You know all those wonderful 3D computer generated graphics that we take for granted on our TV screens or at the movies? It was the Amiga that forced that industry move, with its famous Video Toaster. It was the SF series, Babylon V, that first opened industry eyes, with the then stunning, perfectly realistic renderings of spaceships, aliens, etc., done on Amigas that cost a couple thousand bucks, instead of the $50,000 to $500,000 that studios were used to paying. Go to EBay and search on Video Toaster. The original Amiga Toasters are still selling! How many 15-year-old PC or Mac boards are still selling?
So what happened?
But, before I go on, perhaps I ought to present my credentials and disclose my personal interests as they bear upon the topics, as I will have a number of axes to grind here.
I was one of the early boomers, born to a family that was not rich, by a long shot, but never dirt poor, and always, for several generations back on both sides, extremely well educated. My mother graduated top of her class, I believe, summa cum laude or some such, and the average IQ on my father's side was probably well over 130, with at least one known mental prodigy in recent history. They were both also highly neurotic and severely repressed and repressive.
Naturally, I grew up reading, and intellectually omnivorous, and of course settled on the fiction most oriented toward ideas and most prone to present worlds completely different from the rather nasty childhood which I otherwise suffered through somehow, i.e., science fiction. By the time I was 12, I had probably read over 1,000 science fiction novels.
I graduated Star Student/National Merit Scholar from the intellectual public H.S. in my town and also got the National Mathematics Award for the county that year. I had plans to become a science fiction writer myself, and in fact, in high school, wrote a sizeable fraction of what was intended to be an "after the nuclear war" novel, with the nationally networked computers that ran, among other things, the airport controller systems, conspiring to first start the war, via faked radar reports, and then, conjointly with their buddies on the other side (the USSR, for those of you who don't remember that far back), to survive and take over from us pesky human vermin.
I got my degree in physics, as I intended to write "hard sf," meaning stories that could really happen in the real world, but got sidetracked by philosophy and the hothouse political climate of the Vietnam war college years. I ended up an anarchist revolutionary, and have actually accomplished quite a few things as such. You can check out my blog list for more details.
I was an early adopter of personal computers, having enough experience with IBM 360's, FORTRAN, and punch cards in 1970 to feel perfectly comfortable with the little 8-bit machines eight years later, and I foresaw most of what has happened with them since then (and several things that will happen and haven't yet, as well). In fact, I more or less replicated, in thought, at least, Ted Nelson's Xanadu project, in the late '70's, long before I ever heard the term hypermedia.
When I moved to California in 1976, it was to start the revolution. Unfortunately, I depended upon the wrong people as comrades. The anarcho-village/"New Libertarian" clique, lead by the late, lamented Sam Konkin and featuring Neil Schulmann, as an actual soon-to-be published science fiction novelist, seemed to never have a spare moment for any kind of serious discussion of how we were going to get from here to there, and instead maintained a manic devotion to being purer than thou - revolutionary chique.
I spent several months crashing on Sam's couch, in increasing frustration at the inability to have an intelligent conversation. Occasionally I did have interesting discussions with Sam, himself, who was nothing if not the soul of erudition, but Sam was always incredibly busy with all his schemes and plots to destroy the Libertarian Party or take over the local science fiction fan scene, all of which eventually failed disastrously, and the moment Neil entered the picture, which was often, any hopes of anything but a one-up-man-ship contest were doomed. If I dared mention the buzz word "epistemology," Sam and Neil would grin at each other and burst into a scatological anti-objectivist song. Every time.
Live and learn. One thing that I had never had much chance to do in my previous life, however, was to meet and mingle with fellow science fiction fans, and that much, at least, the "Anarcho-Village" agorist crowd provided abundantly, as a large part of their focus was put there. Taking over fandom and making it into an agorist revolutionary cadre was second in priority only to sabotaging the LP. And so, naturally, I went to a couple of LASFS meetings, which put a major damper on my budding fannish enthusiasm, sad to say, as I related above. It wasn't until 1980, in fact, that I finally attended a science fiction con - Westercon. Then I was hooked!
Now for a word about cons, for those who have never been to one...
You know how some movies seem to cram 20 minutes of content into 2 hours, bulging at the seams, while the rare jewel of a movie - eg., "Serenity" puts a week's worth of content into those same 2 hours without breaking a sweat? A good sf con is like the latter.
Somehow any decent science fiction con always seems a lot bigger than it really is. However, they were, by and large, bigger back then - the '80's, and Westercon was quite large. And it was filled with all the stuff that has become tradition in science fiction cons.
To wit: (And if you don't believe me, go to the LOSCON site and look at the program for 2005's con, assuming that they have the site up and running for a change.)
Dealers' rooms with all manner of books, videos, music, costumes, jewelry, games, knick-nacks, real swords and armor, techno-toys, and much more.
An art room, with all kinds of both amateur and professional art related to science fiction of fantasy themes.
A con suite, with tons of free munchies, constantly renewed, and all kinds of interesting people to meet - and put in their place(!) (couldn't resist...).
Parties, parties, and more parties every night, with more food, drinks, fascinating people, including major authors, producers, musicians, artists, actors, and prominent scientists and real rocket engineers from places like JPL. Assume that anyone you meet has a Mensa++ IQ and probably belongs to Mensa (and perhaps lives in his van - or perhaps designs real rockets at his or her day job) and you'll likely be on target.
Original music - google on "filk."
A huge costume contest, with little skits to go with, as well as people in all manner of outrageous, often gorgeous costumes throughout the day, everywhere you look.
Movies (nowadays, hi-def videos)
Ice cream socials.
What have I missed?
Well, let's see. At a con entitled "Phil and Ed's XLNT Convention" (and so it was, too, bigtime), in the early '90's, I hosted a virtual reality room, in which you could enter all kinds of virtual worlds and interact with them. If you guessed that it was running off an Amiga computer, BTW, you get ten bonus points!
Dozens of panel discussions, with famous authors, etc.
Workshops on all kinds of esoteric arts.
Starting in the late '80's, as best I recall, I have chaired or served on many science fiction conference panels on subjects such as nanotechnology or virtual reality. I have attended most of the LOSCONs for the past 25 years, and several Westercons, as well as a number of other sf cons, such as NASFC. And I've got a fair number of major articles in print in various magazines, covering cutting-edge digital arts conferences, new pc products and discussions of computers in education.
I provided computers to low-income home-schoolers in the early '90's. In fact, I was a major organizer of the first non-sectarian Home Schooling conference on the West Coast, circa 1978, featuring John Holt and a room full of networked PET computers running the original "adventure" game. I also instigated the successful "Computer Gang Project," run out of Sheenway School in Watts, ~1978, and financed by Richard Prior.
So, I am not a novice Fan, or a novice computer user, by a long shot. Now you know some of my credentials.
One thing that has impressed me about virtually all the organizations to which I have belonged is the degree of ubiquitous conflict. People will fight over anything, it appears. Soccer fans in Europe kill other soccer fans, on occasion, and neither computer nor science fiction organizations are exempt.
Far from it. I had been a member of a couple of VIC 20 clubs and then a couple of C64 User Groups, but my longest experience was with the Amiga Friends group, a large computer club with an affluent OC member base. The very founding of the club reflected a background of conflict. The original founders had in fact been Atari fans, and members of the Board of Directors of the large local Atari user group. They HATED! Commodore. One of them, in fact, informed me that he had bought a Commodore 64 and joined the large local C64 club just in order to promote software piracy, as part of his goal of destroying Commodore... A professional programmer on mainframes, he was willing to invest many hours of his own time just in order to hurt Commodore!
The problem with the Amiga was, of course, that horses had changed sides in both directions (just to thoroughly confuse metaphors). The banks had forced out Bushnell, the genius who started Atari, not because Atari wasn't enormously successful, but because he got sucked into bad financial planning (reportedly by the very banks), apparently, and he was considered a loose cannon, being an innovator, much like Wozniak and Jobs at Apple, both forced out by the financiers for the same reasons. So it ended up in Warner's hands, where according to Steven Levy, in "Hackers" (still very much worth reading, BTW, if you want to actually understand the past four decades), the director brought in from the movie division, who knew nothing about computers, of course, proceeded to gratuitously insult the entire Atari development crew that written most of the killer games and other software, and had designed the machines from the custom graphics chips on up.
So, they quit en masse and ended up at a little games company called "Amiga," which they basically took over and turned into a shoe-string development company intent on proving just who the "Fucking Towel Designers" actually were - by building the killer machine that totally outclassed everything on the market. So the Amiga was born at the hands of the heroes of the Atari users - just not at Atari.
From bad to worse, at the same time, Jack Tramiel attempted a takeover at Commodore, where he had been notorious for ruthless, cut-throat business tactics, which were successful enough that he had destroyed the TI99 market with the VIC20, a far inferior machine, and was in the process of doing the same to the Atari 800, with his C64, which was why the Atari community hated him.
(To be fair, Texas Instruments itself was as much responsible for the failure of the advanced 16-bit TI99, which, in the late '70's, had 256 colors and modules for things like speech input. With transcendent stupidity, they forbade third party development, which instantly created ten thousand enemies among the developer community - much the way Sony has apparently done with the their PlayStation gaming system, especially the EyeToy. However, the VIC 20 was a vastly inferior platform in every respect. It was only TI's marketing blunders that doomed their machine.)
As for the Atari 800 vs. the C64, Tramiel borrowed a page from Apple, which had figured out the killer strategy for marketing to an ignorant market - in their case, lower education. Apple defined its image as "the Educational Computer." Tramiel defined the C64 as "the Home Computer." All of which left the Atari 800 as "the Games Machine." None of this and all of this was true. The machines all had similar features and a similar software base.
In fact, the reality was precisely the inverse of the marketing hype. The Atari 800, with a much more powerful hardware base and the best east of use, as well as large scale penetration into the home market, was the perfect choice for the elementary or high-school. The Apple II, both inferior in hardware capability and vastly more difficult to use, and owned by a relatively tiny number of home users (partially because it was three times as expensive as the other two major 8-bit platforms) was the absolute worst choice for school use.
However, ignorant markets buy on marketing, not reality. Some of us figured this out early. I recommended the Vic20 to home-schoolers, even though I knew that the TI99 was a much better machine. However, I also was convinced that the TI99 would die, based on the analysis above, which I originally did in the late '70's.
For the same reason, I later went with the C64. For a little while, however, before I had any real hard info, I was enamored with the Apple II, based on their ads. I.e., I was part of the ignorant market, having had little contact at that point with an actual personal computer, altho I did have the advantage that I understood the technology and where it would ultimately go. I recall, when I was setting up the project that became the Computer Gang Project, meeting with Larry Bauder at Data Equipment Supply in Downey, CA, to see just what Commodore had to offer. I had already tried to get Apple involved and run head-on into their bureaucracy. A libertarian friend, Brock D'Avenon, had pointed me to Bauder.
At DES, while Bauder was raving about the virtues of the Commodore PET, which output only monochrome video, I noticed another machine which had color! It was, or course, the VIC20. (VIC stood for "Video Interface Chip" - i.e., color.) Bauder did not even consider the VIC, with only 2K of on-board RAM available for programming, to even be a real computer, and became quite annoyed with my continued interest in it. Color, however, I knew, would make or break a machine in the ignorant market. Memory could be easilly added - and was. And, yes, I understood, and later, when I consulted with private schools on computer purchases, verified first hand on several occasions, the PET was actually much more popular with the kids themselves than the Apple II ever was. It didn't matter. It wasn't the kids who were making the purchasing decisions.)
Now, with several years of success, mostly based on the very home computer market that he thought, based on his great marketing genius, would never go anywhere,* Tramiel wanted to install his sons as the next management tier at Commodore. When the Board of Directors rejected his nepotistic plan, he resigned, assuming that he was SO indispensable that they would cave and beg him to return. But they didn't.
*(Commodore was originally a general home appliance manufacturer. They had gotten into selling pocket calculators early on, and bought their chips from TI, until, reportedly, Tramiel managed to so totally piss off a manager at TI, that they refused to sell them any more chips. Desperate, Tramiel bought MOS Technology, the very company that had invented the 6502 processor that was at the heart of the Apple, Atari, and later Commodore computers. The MOS engineers were totally convinced of the future of personal computing and had designed their own computer in-house.
Tramiel tried to kill the project, convinced that personal computers were a techno fashion flash and would never go anywhere, but, not wanting to totally alienate the engineers, he grudgingly allowed them to demonstrate the original PET, in a separate, curtained-off area, at Commodore's booth at COMDEX, where it drew more attention than all the other Commodore products combined. Later, Tramiel also tried to kill the VIC20, which was developed by the MOS engineers on their own time.)
So Jack, who was the icon of Atari-user hatred of all things Commodore, took over Atari. And how he wanted the Amiga... However, he just couldn't resist using really horrible high-pressure dealings to try to grab the Amiga from the developers who had hawked their very homes to build it, and who wanted to come back home to Atari. They would've accepted any reasonable offer. They were tired and broke. But Jack so totally alienated them that they turned down his deal, and then Commodore stepped in and made a generous offer and got the machine.
In revenge, Jack decided that he would just repeat his former successes by creating the "Amiga Killer," the Atari ST. The Atari ST had the one advantage that it had no past. IBM and Apple were both stuck in the compatibility trap. New Macs and PCs had to run their old software, as well, which kept them mired in all kinds of torturous compromises, unable to take advantage of really new hardware or software designs.
IBM, in particular, had done very little in the way of long-term planning, as their whole PC venture was born out of panic, when they saw the pc market that they had assumed would remain a niche, taking off bigtime, and starting to eat their business, as well. The IBM PC was a horrible kludge and now they had to retain compatibility to it (and still do, which is why your 3Ghz 64-bit Pentium runs only a couple hundred times as fast as a 1982 C64, instead of 12,000 times as fast, which it should, based on the hardware).
Apple, on the other hand, had to do everything in software, having no in-house chip design. Thus, it took a page of code to instruct the Mac to respond to a mouse move, while the same response took one or two lines on the Amiga, which had multiple co-processors in addition to the main CPU.
Jack, however, could simply grab the best current off-the-shelf software, OS, and hardware components and plug them together and have a new machine that blew away the PC, and was in many ways superior to the Mac, as well. Just like his second-guessing of the engineers of the Commodore 8-bit machines - in which he was ALWAYS wrong, from everything I've seen or heard - he even bought the rights to use the ancient C64 SID chip in the ST. It was a known quantity with a large software support base from the MIDI people who used it on the C64 (the Commodore 64 absolutely ruled low-end, garage-band MIDI for many years after it had lost every other market), it worked, and neither Mac nor PC had anything special in the sound department, so why do it right, when you could do it cheap?
So it was a kludge. So what. It was fast, sexy, a lot of colors. Tramiel had banged together a 16-bit upgrade of C/PM (TOS - Tramiel Operating System) with the GEM desktop, using a Motorola 68000 to power the mess. There was not a single element of anything original in the Atari ST, so far as I could tell, but simply the factor of starting with a clean slate made the machine an instant success. It was a lot of power for a few bucks, competing with even worse kludges from IBM and Apple. I bought an ST, later on, just to see for myself whether it was any good. It was. If the Amiga hadn't been there, I definitely would have been a happy Atari STer.
It wasn't an Amiga. It was, in fact, far from an Amiga. While the ST kludged together off-the-shelf components, the Amiga had moved to the next generation. Jay Minor had been the hardware/chip guru of Atari. He was responsible for most of the major innovations in their graphics and sound chips. Now he was free to go hog wild and build state-of-the-art custom hardware for the Amiga.
The ST and PC and Mac could barely multi-task, and it made everything slow and risky to even attempt it. The Amiga, on the other hand, supported full multi-tasking of the kind that we have only seen on the PC/Windoze platform with Windows 2000 - and still not as transparently as on the 1985 Amiga, as well as something entirely new, interprocess real-time communications, so that programs could be linked into macro environments transparently feeding outputs to inputs. And this was just the beginning of the underlying differences.
So, we had a show-offy cheap-but-functional box from Atari vs. a miracle of engineering at Commodore. However, the Amiga OS was not complete. The original designers had envisioned a dream of an OS, with a built-in language similar to LOGO that would allow users to easily, transparently link program modules into huge macro-applications. EVERYTHING could be automated. They came close to finishing it when Commodore, which had gone into Chapter 11 at some point itself right about then, felt forced to pull the plug.
The underlying reason was that Jack had already released the Atari ST, not having to invent anything new for it, and the developers of the killer 3rd party software for the Amiga, especially Electronic Arts, whose Deluxe Paint was the killer app for the Amiga out the door, were threatening to jump ship. So Commodore's hand was forced, and they substituted a similar RealTime 32-bit minicomputer OS from Europe called Tripos. Tripos was very, VERY, VERY fast, lean, mean and could dance, chew gun, spit, and recite poetry all at the same time. It had the hooks for interprocess communication as well, but there was no time to reimplement those kind of radically new features the way they had been originally planned, due to the pressure from the ST.
So the Amiga was shoved out the door with a barely complete, and still very buggy OS, in order to retain the developers - especially Electronic Arts with Deluxe Paint, the killer ap that sold the machine. The machine was out there, but the OS crashed at the drop of a hat for the first couple weeks until the major bugs got fixed. After that, it was reasonably stable. However, Jack, of course, took full advantage of the problem he had caused, demonstrating to all and sundry, using the original buggy OS, how unstable the Amiga was, for years after the problems had been totally fixed.
One could understand the animosity of a lot of the Atari-Amiga community toward the former C64 owners. The Amiga was nothing at all like a C64. The ancestry was clearly traceable to the Atari 800, and Atari owners were caught in a dilemma of choosing between the Atari ST kludge designed by a man they hated, or the Amiga, designed by their heroes, but marketed by a company they had learned to loath. The C64 users attempting to move to the Amiga caught a lot of flack from these people, who assumed that they must be agents of EVIL, and would proceed to destroy the Amiga software market just as their rampant piracy had crippled the C64 software market - with perhaps a little help from Atari agents provocateurs, to be sure.
The Amiga Friends Board was determined to hold the line. Members were not even allowed to bring their own machines to meetings, in order to prevent piracy. The membership, in fact, had no voice in any decision by the Board. All they could do was elect Board members, who could then do entirely as they pleased, without telling anyone. In their official capacity as a board, there was a thinly concealed hostility and suspicion directed at any outsiders, much less former Commodore owners, such as moi...
An illustration of this siege mentality came when we had a visitation from a New Ager who was into computers, straight from Taos. He had one of the new notebook computers and planned to use it to record everything that happened in the Amiga community. I think he was also into Ted Nelson and Xanadu and computer lib. So, he came to an AF Board meeting (I had pushed and shoved until allowed to be the recording secretary for the club meetings, so I had my own reason for being there).
At the meeting, held at the club president's home, the New Ager spilled some soda on the keyboard of his laptop, and went into a panic, asking everyone where he could find paper towels or anything to sop up the cola before it destroyed his expensive laptop. I tried to help. Everyone else simply ignored his pleas and stolidly looked the other way. He was not a former Atari person, and from outside the OC, to boot. NOT WELCOME HERE. He disappeared from the AF scene shortly thereafter.
I noted about that time that the AF Board (Amiga Friends) never ever asked the members their opinion of club policy or what the club should do for the members. Little did I know... In fact, the Board could care less about doing anything for the member. As far as they were concerned - and on occasion they voiced this vociferously - the members existed to serve the club - a not uncommon attitude, it turns out, in all kinds of volunteer organizations. The people who fight their way to the top have a grand vision for which the organization is the vehicle, and the members provide the fuel. They are invariably amazed that anyone would object, and will typically immediately brand these people as evil parasites, likely agents of some other club.
When the other local Amiga clubs attempted to put together a joint newsletter, the Amiga Friends, the largest and richest of the group, refused to join in (without, of course, asking the membership), effectively torpedoing the plan. Meanwhile, I was reporting meetings for both AF and for the Amiga SIG (Special Interest Group) of the North Orange County User Group. NOCCC was the 2nd oldest computer club in the world, and had over 20 such SIGs.
Our NOCCC Amiga SIG managed to get a LOT of major personages in the Amiga development community to speak, and the membership was generally more technically advanced than those at AF. (Actually, most of our members belonged to AF as well) Thus, I assumed that AF would enjoy getting a little report on what news came out of the NOCCC SIG concerning new products, etc. Surprise, surprise... I was castigated for betraying the club! Why would ANYONE want to know what the COMPETITION was offering?
Meanwhile, at NOCCC, more of the same mentality was emerging from under various rocks. The Amiga SIG was from the first meeting by far the most popular new SIG that NOCCC had ever had. We were assigned a standard 30-person classroom for our meeting, and we got at least 80 or 90 inside and another 20 or more standing in the hallway attempting to hear. Meanwhile, the Apple II SIG was in decline and no longer needed the space of the main lecture hall at Chapman University, where NOCCC met on Ist Sundays (still does, in fact). We requested a bigger room, and were told that the NOCCC Board had considered the matter and decided to wait and see if the interest level was sustained over time...
Meanwhile, we elected our SIG leader, a local Amiga product manufacturer businessman enthusiast, and the NOCCC Board pulled an unprecedented move of deposing him on the basis of potential conflicts of interest, and then installed their own SIG leader, a guy who didn't even own an Amiga. (the NOCCC Board had several people who made their living off MicroSoft. No conflict of interest there, of course.)
Thus, about two-thirds of the NOCCC Amiga SIG split and joined AF.
I don't think the fact that the businessman was black had anything to do with it, but I've been surprised before. One of the stars of the Southern California Amiga scene was a professional programmer by the name of Joanne Dow, also a frequent guest panelist at LOSCON and other science fiction conferences. Joanne was personable, incredibly knowledgeable, helpful, a great speaker - who did many presentations at the NOCCC Amiga SIG as well as other clubs - and transgender. This latter fact, which one might hope would only be of interest to that limited subset of the population who had close relationships of the kind where it would be significant, was well known, and it ensured that she (or, "that freak," as one AF Board member put it) would not be invited to do any presentations there. (I think that she may have done one presentation at AF, before they realized, but I'm no longer sure of my memory of that.)
Meanwhile, at AF, I did one of my typically clueless revolutionary acts, and conducted a poll of the members as to various possible things the club could be doing, such as purchasing relatively expensive equipment and making it available for loan to members. (The club was rolling in money.) There were several issues on the poll that got a 90% positive endorsement from the membership. The Board ignored the poll, of course. On the issue of loaning equipment, which had almost unanimous support from the membership, they pretended to be aghast about safety issues. What if the equipment should short out and cause a fire and then the club would be liable?
Another issue I thought important was the price the club was charging for Public Domain software disks. Double-sided 3.5" floppies had dropped by then to a buck each in bulk purchases, and the club sold thousands of them, loaded with public domain software, at $5 each, for a four-dollar profit. I was still naively operating on the theory that the club existed for the benefit of the members, and protested the unnecessarily high cost. In fact, AF charged more than virtually any other club in the U.S. The Board member who copied off the disks just happened to also run a land-office bootleg gray-market computer accessory store out of his garage, which smelled a little like conflict of interest to me. In fact, the then club president asked me at the first Board meeting if I had any problem with this arrangement, and, clueless, I didn't, at the time...
However, the club constantly printed up promotional flyers by the thousands, and I soon discovered that the club telephone number turned out to be the very number of that same bootleg computer store, answered, not with "Amiga Friends," but with "Software Celler." These flyers were being handed out by salesmen in computer stores all over the area, unknowingly promoting their competition, which probably had something to do with the quick demise of most of the Amiga stores.
When I argued for lowering the price of the floppies to $2 or even $3 each, noting that I and many other club members simply held copy sessions after the meetings in order to avoid the excessive costs, Mr. Software Celler angrily objected that he was doing the copying himself, for FREE! And he simply didn't have time to make any more copies. I suggested hiring one of the club's kids to do it for $.25 each, at which point I was told that the club had a rule in its charter against paying club members for services.
Right. Soon after that, I got into a flame war with Mr. Software Celler via the club BBS, and the medical doctor who ran the BBS, not experienced with these kinds of things, concluded that I had suffered a "psychotic break," which he announced authoritatively to all and sundry online, and an emergency meeting of the Board was then called to deal with my "psychotic break." I didn't bother attending.
While AF had a long list of talented presidents and Boards over the next 15 years, it was not until the club was reduced to a handful of aging diehards, many of them from the original fanatical membership, that any cracks began to appear in the dominant philosophy.
One president made every meeting his personal show for a couple of years straight. He was a professional photographer by trade, and bought every new toy and then showed them off at the next meeting. His presentations were quite professional. Unfortunately, the toys he bought for his business and art, such as the $1,000 Video Toaster and thousands more for accessories, were way beyond what most club members were able or willing to purchase, but, hey, they were members, and the interest of the members was the last thing to consider. On that note, instead of fielding questions from the audience about what kinds of difficulties they might be having with their systems, he started and continued the practice of saving any Q and A until the very last of the meeting, and if we went overtime, then that part got cut.
The animosity toward me from that first year never went away. I was the club pariah, even though I'm sure that maybe 1% of the membership had any inkling, even incorrect, about what had gone down between me and the Board. People generally would only speak to me privately, and when I raised my hand for a question, it was always treated as an occasion for mirth by whatever Board member was at the podium. When I was hired by one of the major Amiga magazines to put on a workshop at a huge local Amiga show, held at Disneyland, one of the AF members heckled me from the audience and nearly brought the seminar to a halt. Another member sabotaged my attempt to meet with developers about developing software for Montessori schools.
I, meanwhile, had been sitting on complete plans for a hypermedia system for the Amiga - or any computer, but the Amiga had the power to really put such a system to maximum use - since the early '80's, but I could never find any programmer willing to even hear me out.
The typical response was, "Why would anyone even want such a thing?" Note that most programmers are the worst possible people to pick to design a program. The aptitudes for programming tend to be on the other end of the spectrum from those of design, and it's not a 2-dimensional spectrum. Marketing and management are as bad as the programmers when it comes to killer ap design. The designer of the largest volunteer programming effort in history, Ted Nelson and his Xanadu project (of which today's World Wide Web is just a tiny, primitive implementation), was not a programmer at all, and certainly not a marketer or manager. Yet his design - similar in many ways to mine - is echoed today in how the Web works.
And it could have been done quite easily about eight years before, on the Amiga, and even on the Atari ST. In fact, in recent years, the die-hard Commodore 64 nostalgia users demonstrated that you could run a browser on the C64. So, the problem was not the hardware, or the software talent. It was the inherent arrogance that seems to go along with programming. The typical programmer considers everyone else much the way the dedicated Science Fiction fan does - as dull, stupid, soul-dead mundanes!
Note that there is a very high crossover between programmers and sci-fi fans. And with Asperger's syndrome sufferers. For a true nerd, especially those of us with something like Asperger's - of which I have been tentatively and belatedly diagnosed, BTW - immersing him- or herself in something esoteric and learning all kinds of odd facts to prove that one is more dedicated than whomever one is trying to impress at a computer or sf conference, is close to the meaning and fulfillment of life! Imagine that you are always the odd man out, always shunned, never get dates, always pull stupid social blunders, and are ordered around at your underpaid job by people who make 10 times as much as you do, but don't know how to rename a file. but you can PROGRAM!
Then, some idiot mundane who only plays at programming tries to tell you what you should be doing, implying that he or she can trump you!!! Are you going to seriously listen?
Consequently, when the Mac came out with its killer ap, "hypercard," the Amiga was left standing at the gate. Too bad, guys and gals, you could've had it all, if you had just listened. Unfortunately, by the time one of us nerds finally gets the message, that life is not about being superior and demonstrating it by putting everyone else down, we are typically in our 40's, and well past our productive prime.
Meanwhile, at NOCCC, our Amiga SIG chugged along nicely, with 20 or 30 people attending, many of them also AF members. We focused on user problems and got quite a string of major developers to speak to our little group, at least as many as AF did with 30 times the numbers. The Atari SIG used the room before we did, and we had no problem getting along with them, snide remarks being taken in humorous vein by both sides.
The Atari community, meanwhile, was pretty much going down the route of the C64 user community. Piracy was rampant, and developers were consequently dropping out in droves. To be fair, some SIGs were worse. The Mac SIG was effectively just a copy session, for example, and their SIG leader told me as much. The Amiga SIG stayed pretty clean, however, without the necessity of a Big Brother Board looking over our shoulders, astonishingly enough.
However, all computers other than the PC were in the process of being marginalized, both at the club and worldwide. Internationally, when Commodore introduced the Amiga 2000 around 1987, the first Amiga with multiple expansion slots, a U.S. customs agent declared it to be a cheap knock-off PC clone, and froze all shipments at the docks for about six months, as I best recall.
The agent based his decision on the fact that there was a separate, optional plug-in board available for the A-2000 that had a complete PC on it that ran DOS side by side with the Amiga OS, allowing transparent file-sharing between standard MS/DOS and the Amiga. This was intended as a utility for business owners of the Amiga, and it would've been cheaper to buy a PC clone than to go that route, if you wanted a cheap PC, but it didn't matter. One man held everything up and cost Commodore many millions of precious dollars, as well as hurting the Amiga community. (Wonder where in Switzerland that agent has his villa?)
When the Amiga came out, in fact, RAM was relatively cheap, especially from Japan. So, to protect Amerikan industry, Reagan declared that the Japanese were dumping! and banned or instituted a prohibitive tariff (I forget which) on Japanese RAM chips, which had the effect of more than doubling the price of RAM overnight in the U.S. Note that this had little relative impact on the PC, which couldn't easily address more than 640K of RAM anyway.
However, by purest chance, of course, the Mac, the Atari ST and the Amiga, all far more advanced machines than the PC unbelievable kludge, were both able to use much more RAM and also needed much more RAM to do all the graphical things that the PC couldn't do at all, or without throwing Big Bucks at it. All of us were hurt severely by Reagan's move, while the PC and MicroSoft received a major breather in a trend that clearly pointed the way to their mutual demise.
So, by pure luck, of course, just like holding the A2000's out of the market for half a year, during the critical period when any or all of the new machines could have overwhelmed the PC, they were strangled by government regs. Cause and effect? Conspiracy? This is how fascism works, folks. And, thus, we are stuck with lousy, buggy, virus-vulnerable, slow PCs. So that somebody got their campaign funding - or such is my educated guess.
Of course, this is hardly the only example of fascism in Amerika. Under that same great "free-marketeer," Ronald Reagan, the U.S. government was spending untold millions of tax bucks subsidizing tobacco farmers - at the same time that it was putting ads out on prime time telling people that smoking would kill them. A miracle of democracy, to satisfy both the tobacco and health lobbies simultaneously. (The reality is that if a large nuke had wiped out the entire population of Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky, and no one else had stepped in to fill the tobacco supply gap, the net lifespan in the U.S. would have likely increased.)
And if "free-marketeer" Reagan had not imposed killer tariffs on cheap RAM or cheap PC clones, we would be at least ten years ahead of where we are today in computer technology. What's that worth? Suppose we could have done the protein-folding simulations that much earlier, leading to cures of cancer and a hundred gene-related diseases? What else are we missing today because of a few cozy corporate/state relationships? Good simulations of global climate? The cost of a few million bucks of lobbying? Perhaps twenty trillion bucks of long-term loss to the world economy? A few tens of millions of extra or seriously early preventable deaths. What a bargain - for someone.
(Which is why I find it so laughable to see Bill and Melinda Gates donating billions to fight various ills in the world, after MicroSoft has retarded the market by from ten to fifteen years, with the above mentioned costs. Economically, in fact, they are effectively, for the most part, simply shifting resources from producers to consumers in their misguided philanthropic efforts. While it is possible, on occasion, for a philanthropic effort to actually do some real, long-term good, the reality is that normally a market is the best way to meet needs. There is only so much of real value in the world at any given moment. Adding more money to the pot does not change that; it simply devalues that currency by that amount - i.e., inflation. If the Gates want to help everyone, then they should just burn their money, which would have the effect of putting a few extra bucks of spending power into everyone's pocket.
Or, why not use the money instead to make a real OS that really worked. Or, assuming that very likely MicroSoft couldn't do that no matter how much money it had, why not hire Gasse to finish BeOS and run Windoze as an application under it? I note that the Omidyar's - founders of EBay - appear to have a much better grasp of the economic realities of trying to do good in the world. Maybe the Gates ought to just turn the money over to them. Whatever. No amount of money can undo the harm done by MicroSoft.)
And there was actually one MicroSoft product on the Amiga - MicroSoft BASIC. MS-BASIC on the Amiga had more bells and whistles than any prior version of BASIC, by far. It was also quite buggy, and, in the five or so years that it was included with every Amiga, Commodore reportedly paid MicroSoft $5 per copy royalties. However, MicroSoft, which had to have received around $50 million for their original effort, never bothered to fix the bugs.
On a similar note, there was supposed to be a Super version of LOGO for the Amiga, with ads all over the place for months and months, done so convincingly that nobody could even begin to imagine competing with it. Then it simply disappeared. So, no version at all of the language most desired for schools got done until years later. Not having LOGO meant, in a great many cases, not getting into the school, and leaving it to Apple. Wonder what really happened there?
And, while the Amiga continued to forge ahead, with more advanced multimedia hardware and software than all the other computers combined, decent PC and Mac emulations for compatibility, tens of thousands of pieces of public domain free software, and the easiest, fastest, most stable OS, Jerry Pournelle, in his monthly column in "Byte Magazine," "Chaos Manor," simply couldn't get it. Somehow, he couldn't ever get his Amiga to work, at the same time that Laurence Livermore labs was putting Amigas into the hands of its remote user researchers by the hundreds, because the transparent multitasking and stability allowed them to move a huge computing load off their mainframes, which they had to deal with with the PC.
When I mentioned this anomaly to another sf fan/geek professional systems analyst recently, he commented that he had always found Jerry's columns amusing, as it was clear that he had not a clue as to how things actually worked.
However, another little historical fact may serve to throw some light on this. At a time when the Commodore 64 was the number one computer in sales in the U.S., primarily to the home market, Jerry wrote a book on home computing. My recollection is that in the entire book he mentioned Commodore once, perhaps twice.
Jerry parlayed his "expertise" into becoming Newt Gingrich's science advisor and then head of the science advisory committee for congress. And, at some point, according to Jerry himself, he and Larry Niven (another of my favorite authors, BTW) convinced Reagan of the value of Star Wars - aka SDI, the anti-missile Strategic Defense Initiative. They and everyone involved at the decision-making level under Reagan knew very well that SDI could not possibly work, but they figured that they could use it to bluff the Soviet empire into simply giving up and folding.
So, from his own presentation at a prior LOSCON, to a large audience, Jerry admits that his mind works in a truly Machiavellian style. I have heard him referred to as a "fascist with a friendly face." At a later conference, when the DotCom boom had almost peaked and everyone was holding their breath for the expected crash, Jerry called for possible government intervention to save the economy, along the lines of the Chrysler bailout. In fact, it seems characteristic of Jerry to throw out freedom, the free market and human rights whenever there is some overriding concern, such as defeating the soviets, saving the economy (which survived the DotCom Crash, BTW, without a bailout, somehow), or whatever.
At another meeting in the '80's at which I was present, this one libertarian-related, Jerry expressed the idea that we needed religion in order to convince the grunts on the front line to sacrifice their lives when needed. So, no matter that religion is false - which I take him to imply. State Survival trumps truth. Jerry reiterated this belief at one or more LOSCONs which I attended, and on at least one panel on which we both sat. Has anyone else read the NeoCon agenda, BTW? (And there will be a LOT more on this topic shortly, folks. See my brief article on how I predicted the Iraq war for starters, based largely on watching Jerry at Westercon and the subsequent 2002 LOSCON..)
To begin with, among the bottom-line principles of the NeoCon philosophy is that you need a mythos to maintain cultural, moral order and decency. The particular mythos, which Deity(s) it asserts, are not so important as the fact that some noble lie be held by the masses, in order to keep them from degenerating into range of the moment hedonists.
Interestingly - in a point brought out by the excellent 3-hour BBC series on the origins of terrorism - Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian philosopher behind Osama and Al Quida was in virtually perfect agreement with the U.S. philosopher behind the NeoCons, Leo Strauss. Both of them saw the liberalization of the West as leading inevitably to a total breakdown of moral order. The answer to this problem lay in creating a mythos and then making the mythos into reality by committing people and military forces to correspond to its dictates, very similar, in fact, to the NAZI ethos. The NAZIs believed that reality was malleable, that history itself could be changed to match their ideals, brought out in detail in Orwell's 1984 (which was originally titled "1948").
One thing I recall being told when I came to California in '76, was that there had been a vocal anarchist at LASFS, who had reportedly vigorously debated Jerry and Larry's fascist-leaning positions. Then he was murdered - I was told - near the LASFS clubhouse. Larry's short story "Anarchy Park" is based on their debates, or so is my understanding. And, from that point forward, over and over, Niven includes in his novels some kind of pointer to the absolute need for a monopoly state.
More coming! .... In the late '80's, I decided that we at the NOCCC Amiga SIG ought to try to show the other club members the reality of what they were missing. Somehow I managed to get approval from the NOCCC Board, and so, a bunch of us spent several months putting together a show. We had animation, hi-res graphics, music, 3D rendering - all the stuff that PC owners dreamed of doing. We were told that we had an hour at the main meeting. However, the NOCCC President, Tracy Lenocker, who made his living off microsoft, kept extending the Q & A period well beyond normal, virtually begging people to delay us. Finally, we were allowed to start.
Our show, involving half a dozen mini-presentations by users on their own machines, went flawlessly, despite the Amiga's reputation for instability, and the audience was cheering us. It was a total sweep, demonstrating the decade or more advance that the Amiga still had over the PC.
Tracy cut us off at 45 minutes. The room we had been guaranteed for people to meet us and ask questions somehow got forgotten, and all we could do was leave, after months of preparation. The flyers and brochures we had paid for went in the trash.
Carol Slasher, an NOCCC activist who promoted the club at the huge OC Fair and other venues (while also passing out her own PC computer consulting cards, to be sure) had been chosen by someone to write up the meeting report. She called me and spent 45 minutes on the phone getting the technical details, which I knew by heart.
The NOCCC newsletter editor, Bill Mead, was a friend and told me afterwards that he had real reservations about running her report, but since she had assured him that she had had it okayed by me, he went ahead with the print. There was scarcely a single accurate or true statement in the entire report. For just one typical example, the she gave the default screen resolution as 40 x 400, instead of 640 x 400. (Actually the Amiga could go considerably higher than that.) Our NOCCC SIG became the Amiga Friends SIG. Various individuals who participated were cast in completely bizarre roles having nothing whatever to do with them.
Occasional typos were one thing, but this was clearly a hatchet job. She got everyone's name wrong, in addition to every piece of technical data. When I complained, she insisted that she had spent four hours interviewing me! (As I was using the phone of a friend at his business, I knew exactly how much time I had spent, as my friend kept reminding me of it.) The NOCCC Board was not interested. So, I decided to run for the Board.
It was a shoe-in. We had shown the club what we had, and the SIG members as well as many of the general membership, I'm sure, were ready to put me on the Board in a heartbeat.
Typical of what both we and other non-PC sigs had had to deal with at NOCCC, Bert Langer, the man who had run the NOCCC BBS, (what we used before the Web to communicate, bitch and moan, flame each other, and download files) for years, was opposed to allowing anything but MS-DOS or PC-related material on the BBS, even though NOCCC had SIGs for just about every machine out there, and was, in fact, virtually the only general purpose computer club of any size in the world.
I struggled for months to get an Amiga section on his (nominally the club's) BBS, and ran into roadblock after roadblock, in addition to constant gratuitous insults, and a flat refusal of any help. Finally, after various other SIG leaders told me that they had given up due to his obdurance, I also gave up. There were plenty of Amiga BBS's.
He was unfortunately typical of the "leadership" at both NOCCC and most clubs with which I have had significant dealings. There are and were a lot of holier-than-thou power freaks out there, even in the Amiga community.
At our SIG, itself, we had had a crisis of leadership. Nobody wanted to be SIG leader. I already did the newsletter reports, and now the SIG membership wanted me to be the SIG leader as well, which I felt would be a conflict of interest. So, at one meeting, we had a totally new member, a mere teenager, vouched for by one of our SIG stalwarts who was his neighbor, who volunteered at his first meeting to be our leader. He seemed like a nice enough guy, and he certainly had the confidence factor down, and he appeared to be knowledgeable.
Within a minute or less of being declared SIG leader, he began lecturing the SIG on the most basic procedures on the Amiga, things that we had all learned years before. It took a major effort to get him to allow anyone else to speak. From there, it went downhill. What we didn't realize was that we had just elected the archetypical spoiled rich brat, who knew exactly how to appear to be anything he wanted and had the morals of a tapeworm.
At the end of the first meeting at which he was die fuhror, the brat called me aside. I mentioned that I wanted some bio information to put in my SIG report, I think, plus I wanted to run the idea of putting on the show for the SIG at the main meeting. He informed me that he wanted to discuss the newsletter with me, as he had heard some complaints about my coverage (actually, I had gotten all kinds of praise for my detailed reports, which the other SIGs were then trying to emulate.).
He informed me that from then on, I would be submitting my reports to him for editing. (In a PIG's Eye!) It turned out that his concept of SIG leader was literally to be dictator of anything and everything related to the SIG or its membership. (The NOCCC itself did not even have any official position of SIG leader. De facto SIG leaders were simply the coordinators and contact people and meeting chairmen, at the pleasure of the SIG membership.) And, as far as any show was concerned, he was sure that the members of the SIG had no interest. Note that he had never met or spoken to the members - with one exception, the member who had invited him - prior to that day.
He also offered to give me a lift to the next meeting, so that we could talk further. I gave in, at his insistence, never thinking about the fact that I was telling him where I lived - an apartment built into the rear of a friend's business. When he arrived to pick me up for the next meeting, I made some comments about the difficulty of living with arbitrary constraints of the kind that my friend occasionally threw at me as landlord.
So, our SIG leader took that as somehow permission to start opening drawers and going through the files of my friend, right then and there in front of me. That lasted all of a few seconds, before I got over being stunned and escorted him out. I suspect, in retrospect, that that was intended as some kind of little warning of what he was capable of.
Thus, we - myself and a crew of about a dozen volunteers from our SIG, as well as a couple guys from AF, had had to put together our show somewhere else, independent of the SIG. Fortunately, a local video business offered us meeting space and use of their equipment.
And so it happened that on the day of the NOCCC Board election, someone put a staple in my motorcycle's rear tire hours before. Arriving late at the meeting as a consequence, and - as I later discovered - having fatally damaged the motor of the bike in my hurry, I discovered that at the last moment our great SIG leader had been nominated to run against me by one of the NOCCC Board members, and now he was presenting himself as the champion of the Amiga, even implying that the very show which he had opposed and tried to have cancelled when I went ahead anyway, had somehow actually been his responsibility.
I can't blame the club members, as they didn't know. The surprise last-minute nomination had the desired effect, however. Our vote was split between us, and neither of us was elected as a consequence, although there were certainly enough votes to have elected one of us.
So, the PC was saved again from comparison with any competition.
Somewhat later, after he left the SIG, I ran into our former great SIG leader again, in the form of a review he did for a major computer publication. He was reviewing a C++ programming manual, and declared the manual to be virtually a tour de force. However, I happened to know that he barely knew anything about C, much less C++. When I checked out the matter on some of the developer BBS's, the professional developers all assured me that the manual in question was perhaps the worst they had ever seen, and was full of major errors.
So it goes. There appears to be a fatal flaw in our ability to separate complete mountebanks and sociopathic jerks from real leaders. Again and again, the very last people who one might want running things end up in the positions of power. Some, of course, are worse than others.
At one LOSCON, I had suggested and then volunteered to chair panels on both Nanotechnology and Virtual Reality. At the Virtual Reality panel, I noticed something odd right from the start. Francis Hamit was in the audience. Francis, a journalist of many years experience, was one of the reigning experts on VR, and, in fact, had just written an authoritative book on the subject. At every single conference I had ever attended on cutting edge digital products - which was quite a few - Francis was there ahead of me. He declined my invitation to join our panel with a knowing smile.
Later on, I cornered Francis and asked why he wasn't on the panel to begin with. He informed me that it was a political issue within LASFS, and that he happened to be with the Out faction. I have no idea what the details of this were, nor do I particularly want to know. But it illustrates, once again, just how hard it can be to get anything done.
No matter how innocent your purpose, as soon as more than one person is involved, there is a difference of interest, and people line up to take sides and cheer their hero. When there is actual money involved, as with Software Cellar or the NOCCC Board, people will likely say and do anything to get into a position to further their cause and sabotage the competition.
At that same Virtual Reality panel, I noticed that a group of stolidly middle-aged, heavyset women, all dressed in dark clothing, were sitting together near the front of the seating, ominously scowling at me. I had put some work into actually preparing for the panel (perhaps a first at a SF con!). I had a set of outlines and little demos and storyboard outlines stored on floppies to run off my little Amiga 500.
To set the stage and mood for the presentation and discussion, I had the killer demo of the day, which consisted of 4 minutes of animation and rock music, mostly of a man and a woman dancing while a fractal background swirled behind their figures. This was an international contest winner from a yearly worldwide competition for the best demo that could be put on a floppy disk. The figures of both characters were solid black, so that you had to hypothesize whether they were clothed or not. So, while we were waiting for the stragglers to wander in, I played the demo, hoping to set a happy tone. At the end, instead of applause, I heard a strident, nasal, rather high-pitched, matronly woman's voice saying, "Does this video tape (it was a single 880K floppy, which I had taken pains to point out) have ANYTHING to do with virtual reality?!
I was so taken aback by the hostility in the tone that I quite forgot just how it fitted in. I stuttered something or other, and then she and the entire block of elderly obese women, all clad in what looked remarkably like black tents, got up in one synchronous move and stalked out of the room. It completely broke my concentration and peace of mind, and I'm afraid that I forgot a lot of what I had planned and spent many hours preparing.
Oh, I remember how the tape fitted in; it was all part of my patriarchal sexist plot! Yes!
That's what I should have said, darn it. But lack of sleep, etc., takes its toll on our realtime response capabilities...
After the presentation, in the hallway, I found myself facing a short, fat woman wearing a tag that read "Marion Zimmer Bradley." This woman - and I literally had no idea who "Marion Zimmer Bradley" was, male-bashing sexist fantasy having never been a prime interest of mine - asked me politely if she could have a word, and then suggested that next time I did such a presentation, that if I were to have a nude woman dancing, then I should also have a man. Amazed that she had somehow detected that the woman was nude, yet failed to discover anything about the man or even notice the existence of the man dancing, I asked her how she was able to tell the woman was nude.
She paused and then literally hissed at me: "I saw a nipple!" Immediately after the con, I checked the show frame by frame after putting it on video tape. I couldn't find that elusive nipple, despite my prurient male enthusiasm for the quest.
One of the contributors from afar to my VR presentation had been Carel Struycken, whose buddy "Video Mike" had delivered a tape to the conference of Carel's work in developing VRs for use in physical rehabilitation. When I called Mike about returning the tape, I told him about my strange encounter, over which I was still mystified. He explained it to me, having been there and done that. ~"Phil, you were supposed to abjectly apologize (instead of making it into a humorous anecdote about idiots and repeating it fifty times all over the con, I suppose), and then the group would approach you and suggest that next time you should run your presentation by them first, so that they could advise you on what might be objectionable."
I later found that the group of women had a name, perhaps not of their choosing.... the "MZB Mafia." It seems that they were notorious for disrupting meetings on any pretext, just to throw their not inconsiderable weight around.
Note that in business and government we have mechanisms to deal with this kind of idiocy. There are hierarchies, bosses, rules, and all the myriad social infrastructure to keep us in line. Property rights, for example, enable us to sleep in peace, secure in the knowledge that nobody is going to set up camp ten feet away and serenade us with punk rock all night, among other nasty possibilities that happen in places without clear property lines, such as public campsites.
Something similar applies in other social settings, such as movie theatres. We generally feel that anyone who decides to discuss the movie and critique it out loud while it is showing is a completely unredeemable jerk. However, I've been on more than one panel at LOSCON or WesterCon, in which the only rule was clearly that if you could shout the loudest and act the nastiest, then you ruled the panel.
After 9/11, for example, there were chances for a serious discussion of how to deal with the myriad security, geopolitical and legal concerns we have since had tossed in our laps. SF fans are certainly among the most generally knowledgeable people on the planet, used to thinking outside the box. I.e., we had a shot at coming up with some truly useful ideas. However, at several or the panels of 2002 on which I sat as panelist or observed from the audience, nobody was allowed to speak except the one idiot who was certain that she already knew what everyone else had to say and it was all WRONG and BY GOD, she was not going to let them finish a sentence! I.e., when there are no rules, oafs rule.
For example, at one panel dealing with security issues, on which I was a panelist, with over a decade experience working in the security industry. I suggested that perhaps an A list be created of people who volunteered to have a thorough background check, including perhaps the willingness, if circumstances justified - and with major oversight and safeguards, of course - interrogation with drugs. Not that I expected that this extreme measure would happen unless the FBI or whomever actually had real reason and a real immediate threat, but by agreeing to this or similar waivers in advance, the people with a biometric "A" card could bypass the security lines, etc., at airports.
If people of middle Eastern background, etc., volunteered in numbers for this, then that would also serve to further isolate the actual bad guys. But, before I was able to even finish stating my proposal, of course I was shouted down by this obnoxious character. Note that this procedure is now essentially in place. To bad we didn't get to discuss it and explore some of the possible problems in advance, instead of using it as a platform for ego boosting.
What I'm getting to:
In those venues, such as a well-run business, where rules about how conflict is to be contained do apply, even if much of what we are doing is inefficient or useless, the fact that we're not fighting at least allows for the possibility of getting useful work - or play - done.
I, for example, have worked a day gig for fifteen years at a Taiwanese company, where I started by taking over all the desktop publishing - manuals, brochures, catalogs, etc. - and now manage a 1000+ page corporate website as well. Note that China - and Taiwan, by cultural derivation, is a LOW trust society. It is assumed - of me even, after fifteen years - that every non-family employee must be secretly plotting to steal their secrets and sell them to the competition. Thus, controls of the most ridiculous, counter-productive and bizarre nature are SOP.
I am not allowed access to the server - at all - even though I do the website. Until fairly recently, I, the web designer, was not even allowed access to the Web, except by special appointment. Even now, I have to borrow time on someone else's computer to get on the web to see if the site is working. At the same time, anyone right off the street is given complete, usually unsupervised access to the web. Why? Because giving me access would be to give me too much power. Power is seen as a limited, fixed pie. If I have more, management has less. Employee empowerment would be seen as a joke, if they ever considered it.
This philosophy of micro-managed total control obviously has enormous costs in terms of daily productivity,* as well as employee turnover. Most employees last a couple of months and then quit in disgust. But the management stays and have learned to work around these problems, and, not only has the company prospered, but they have grown steadily in their field, and now offer several times as many products, as well as much more high priced products in a very competitive industry.
*I estimate that over-all, I could have been ten to twenty times as valuable to the company if I had been allowed to do my job efficiently, instead of being constantly hamstrung or overridden by people who were clueless as to my actual work requirements.
Bottom line... Simply the fact that people are not dissipating energy in conflict works.
So. How can we change our institutions - such as LASFS - to deal with this problem?
And, note that things have improved in recent years at LOSCON. For the first ten or so LOSCONs I attended, it was usually a matter of the panel on a subject telling the audience what they wanted to tell, and then perhaps allowing a few short questions from audience members. Any audience member who attempted to ask a serious, complicated question was frowned on or passed over. I started the practice, however - altho it probably happened before me as well, on special occasions - of inviting members of the audience who I realized should have been on the panel, to join us. This always worked in terms of improving the quality of what we were presenting.
Typically, whether at a science fiction or computer conference, it is no longer even remotely the case that there are a few "experts" explaining everything to the ignorant masses. The "masses" have had a decade on the internet. If they are interested enough to attend a panel on a subject, then they probably have researched it - perhaps extensively over considerable time - on the net.
(Admittedly there are exceptions, as when you have the writer of a great novel, or screenplay or otherwise a uniquely gifted person with a singular perspective. Such people should have all the time they need to thoroughly present their original perspective. Most panels, however, are nowhere close to that kind of singularity.)
At this most recent LOSCON, this openness that has been evolving with fits and starts - probably related to the dominant philosophy of whatever group has gained power over the con - was reflected in panels in which the panel chair recognized audience experts and asked them to give an actual presentation on the spot on their expertise. This worked really well on the occasions I witnessed.
Which brings up another problem... The internet. Why even have a conference? Why, in particular, have panels discussing topics that anyone can research from now to doomsday on the internet without running out of sources? Maybe we need a new model...
Perhaps the moderated discussion group is better suited to today's information world. I'm expecting that fairly soon now, the ubiquitous annoying cell interruptions will be replaced by the ubiquitous cell/laptop of some kind, and that every hotel worth the name will have wireless access throughout. Why NOT have a screen or two or three up by the podium that the audience can control - adding their own input, linked pages etc. to the presentation?
I'm not sure that that would be enough - or even necessarily an improvement - but it sure looks like we need something!
And then there is the meta-worry in the back of my mind. The signal that a computer user group was dying was invariably when the major topic of every meeting started being how to get more members, how to revitalize the club. I don't think that the worry itself caused the decline, but it is troubling nonetheless.