Sunday, August 30, 2009

Nothing New in the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest

If I just ignore how a craven contest excludes some fractal artists like me while privileging others, I'm sure everything will work out for the benefit of my betters.

I don't want to hear about why art competitions should be run professionally using fair play to promote excellence and diversity rather than favoring a select group. I'd much rather be openly exploited and cynically scammed.

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We'd all love to see the plan...
--The Beatles, "Revolution"

Guess what's new on the 2009 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest front?


Is that what you expected? It's what I expected.

If you thought Garth Thornton's resignation from the 2009 BMFAC selection panel, or, better yet, his ethical example and thoughtful public account of what prompted his action would make any difference, well, then you just haven't been paying attention for years.

If you haven't done so yet, I urge you to read Thornton's public post announcing his resignation. You can clearly see who he is and what he believes. His post also provides a contrasting window into some of the BMFAC judges revealing who they are not and what they do not believe.

If the director and his friends who serve as BMFAC judges could be shamed, they would have been from the start. The competition is, as Tim and I have long argued, all about them. It's always been a publicity stunt to garner personal gain and to further their professional careers. From the beginning, it should have been an invitational exhibition for the director and his circle, a showcase for the particular Ultra Fractal school of fractal art they've all been pushing for years, but that would have looked more insular than prestigious. So, a "contest" was concocted -- a contest that would allow them to place their work inside what would appear to outsiders to be a juried, international art competition. The catch, of course, is that they were the jury who ended up selecting themselves for nearly half of the previous two exhibitions.

And how could they insure that this international show "that represents our art form to a world that largely does not know it" would really be about the kind of art they actively promote? And, furthermore, how could they also advance the profile and sales of Ultra Fractal, the fractal software many of them either author, sell, teach, code, or otherwise push? One shrewd way would be to set the submission requirements for entries at a large scale that only Ultra Fractal could easily reach. After all, an art contest can only draw from the entries it receives, just as it can be consciously designed to choose judges and make rules to ensure that it gets only the kind of entries it wants.

But, of course, this is a new year, and the contest has made at least one ethics-friendly change. Probably. The rules make clear that the judges' work will not be included in the 2009 contest, although some readers have pointed out the rules explicitly say nothing about the judges' art ending up in the exhibition. Semantics -- or loophole? Time will tell. The "contest" is the web page, listing winners, alternates, and honorable mentions. The exhibition is another matter entirely, as demonstrated by the 2007 BMFAC where no information about the physical show was ever included on the "contest" web page.

And if the previous contests weren't slanted enough towards openly fostering UF, what with primarily UF judges picking primarily UF winners, this year's contest actually includes Ultra Fractal's author as a judge. Given BMFAC's history of overt UF bias, this is such an arrogant, in-your-face move that it surely cannot escape notice as a gross conflict of interest, especially after another author-judge of commercial software did the right thing and resigned.

But mum's the word, and the director isn't commenting -- on anything. Not on the many conflicts of interest tied to the judging panel. Not on the rules ambiguity that could once again slip the judges into the exhibition. Not on why smaller entry sizes would somehow mar the exhibition. Not even on a prominent judge's resignation and possible replacement. Apparently, the less all of us know, the better.

Not that anyone much cares, though. Obviously, the sponsors don't care that the contest isn't managed with the customary professional protocols, especially if they are as hands-on as past sponsors who insisted work by judges be included to insure against the exhibition's "insufficient quality." Obviously, some of the judges don't care that the whole thing is UF-friendly and that they face visible conflicts of interest leading to their own financial and/or personal gain. If the sponsors cared about how the contest was run, they'd intervene. But they haven't. If the judges in question worried about having conflicts of interest, they'd resign -- especially after reading Garth's recent post and witnessing his moral example. But they haven't.

And what about you? I have to assume you've noticed how BMFAC is run and realize its operation is suspicious. So, I have to assume that many of you probably don't care either. A crooked contest is better than none, you will tell me, and BMFAC is the only game in town. I'll put up with shady doings, you'll say, because participating is the only chance to promote myself in the hope of getting to join the privileged, piffling group literally running the whole show. You OT guys can keep your idealistic revolution for inclusion of all fractal artists and schools, you'll say, because I want BMFAC judge status and privilege for myself, so then I, too, can lord it over others-- just like they do. After all, you'll tell me, their immoral example is the surest path to success in fractal art marketing: tie everything to your own self-promotion -- even to the point of creating callous publicity stunts and calling yourself a "prestigious fractal artist".

When all is said and done, I predict the 2009 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest will be considered a success. It will have more participants than ever, perhaps even handing out up to 100 meaningless Honorable Mentions this year. Blogs will cite it as a representative sampling of the most important fractal artists in the world, instead of mostly and merely a narrow UF school that features masking and layering. The competition's judges will profit both personally and financially, as a certain software sells and online classes on how to use that software fill up. The director will be hailed as a noble philanthropist, instead of a career-boosting manipulator.

And, maybe -- maybe after a cycle about as long as the Fractal Universe Calendar's existence -- maybe as the same people and styles of fractal art benefit from a deliberately devised system of inbred favoritism year after year after year -- maybe after a fourth or fifth go-around of winding up as the 99th HM -- maybe then whispers of a revolution will start to be heard in every Fractalbook forum and journal and chat room.

And, maybe then, you will remember. You once saw the plan.


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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Do You Need Professional Help?

Sure you do. But, the kind of professional help I'm talking about is online software courses. I know that sounds like a common subject line for spam, but this is the real thing and it includes some of the most popular fractal art programs in use today --taught by experts and reasonably priced.

The place is Visual Arts Academy and according to Virginia and Sparrow, who run the place:
VAA started about five years ago, answering a specific need for a venue for two classes based on PhotoImpact. It was an offshoot of the PhotoImpact International bulletin board, with which we are still associated.

Since then, the virtual campus has exploded to include courses on Ultra Fractal, Apophysis, Xenodream, Bryce, Poser (the lingerie dolls on Renderosity) as well as many of the more mainstream digital art programs like Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, and PhotoImpact. There's also some courses on web design, MS Office and Photography.

Perhaps you know all that stuff and aren't interested in taking a course by "experts"? Well, you --yes you-- could be one of those experts! Let's call you, "Expert Without a Course".   Here's what Virginia and Sparrow say about that:

We are always interested in new classes for a variety of software. We do tend to lean to digital art but would be more than willing to talk with a potential instructor for any class he or she thinks could work in an online setting. We're also open to different class structures than our usual six-weeks-plus-one format. The instructor and the school split the tuition: VAA keeps an administrative fee and the rest goes to the instructor. Those interested should contact us at

I think this is exciting. There aren't too many places where you can find courses for something as exotic as fractal software and here is one which already covers three of the most popular programs and is open to providing more. Based on what I've seen in various online forums and mailing lists, there's a lot of people asking for help and much of it revolves around the same basic things. Yes, there's already quite a number of online tutorials available (I've written one for Sterlingware) and there's always the option of asking for help in a forum.  But I know from my own experience that a significant number of users really would prefer something more formal and structured -- and that's Professional Help. But first there have to be some Professional Helpers.

Although I've never taken any of these courses, I think the fees are reasonable, ranging from $25 for a one semester, several week course to $50 for double semester courses. The fees of course cover the basic cost of running the online school as well as providing some compensation to the instructors for their efforts and the careful attention they give students. If you think you have specialized expertise in the area of fractal art, or in some other area of digital art, then this could be a great way for you to share that expertise in a more organized and formal setting and be compensated for it.

The instructor won't be in the room with you.  But maybe that's better.

You probably won't make enough to quit your day job or anything like that, but I think the way the Visual Arts Academy has set things up is one which benefits both instructors and students. There are some real advantages to this over the more casual forms of online help.

Anyone could conceivably start up their own online school and start teaching students independently, but working through an established online entity like the Visual Arts Academy might make it easier for them as well as their students. Just as Ebay provides a secure and trustworthy environment that attracts individuals to do business with each other, an organization like VAA can bring instructors and students together and handle the basic administrative functions.  These administrative things in any business, online or offline, can become a real headache for people just getting started.

Current fractal art courses at VAA include: Apophysis Exploration, and Apophysis: Beyond the Basics, by Travis Williams; Working with Ultra Fractal, Ultra Fractal Masking Techniques and Ultra Fractal Artistry by Janet Parke; and XenoDream by Joseph Presley. Although not currently offered, Kerry Mitchell used to teach a course on working with Ultra Fractal formulas.

What's missing from that list? The course that only you, the expert without a course can teach. There's got to be a million things people can learn about Ultra Fractal, and let's not forget about that other thing --art-- how about something on Post-processing in Photoshop or something a little more general like Design Theory for Fractal Art. Or why not something like Programming With Fractal Math?  If you know how to do something, there's a good chance that other people will want to know how to do it too.

Don't think that because you're going to be charging students a fee to take your course that no one will want to spend the money. $25 to study an exciting area of fractal or digital art for several weeks with someone who has an established reputation in the field is a trifle, even for an online venue. Think of the possible mentoring relationships that could be formed and the influence on the art form it could have in the years to come.

Come to think of it; maybe the one thing that fractal art really needs right now is a school. A place where serious students and experienced instructors can engage in some disciplined training and development. You can tell your friends you're an online Professor and put Dr. in front of your screen name.

Seriously, this could be a really big thing.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Will the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest Do the Right Thing?

Maybe no one will notice if I say nothing...

Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.
--Mark Twain

Image seen on

I wanted to pop on briefly and second what Tim said in his last post. I've known Garth Thornton since I helped test early versions of Xenodream years ago. I always found him to be thoughtful and straightforward. I've long admired his art, and he continues to create stunning work -- like this piece seen recently on Fractal-World:

The Google Search Engine by Garth Thornton

The Google Search Engine by Garth Thornton

In short, I've long had respect for Garth -- but never more than I had this week. He is the only judge of the competition to ever address Orbit Trap's objections as to how the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest is run, and, certainly, the only one to act based on his scruples after reflecting on how his actions might appear to others. Moreover, he could have resigned silently -- out of the public eye. Instead, he made his conscience an open book -- even going so far as to post his reasoning for resigning on a public forum. By his actions, he has shown himself to be estimable.

Would that some of the other BMFAC judges faced with financial conflicts of interests do some similar soul-searching. If they don't want to listen to me, perhaps they should listen to Garth:

[T]he whole point of conflict of interest issues is not to rely on integrity. For a contest, anyone of questionable integrity or clearly lacking in credibility should not be a judge anyway. More generally, whether the context is awarding financial contracts or judging contests, a series of questions may be asked. First, people are expected to declare any personal conflicts of interest. Then there may be consideration given to whether the interests have a material or other effect on the outcome, and whether the person should participate or be party to any discussions, and whether or not they should have a vote. The exact approach depends on the kind of organization. In many contexts it is standard for the person to step aside from the entire process. Both objective and perceived conflicts of interest have to be considered.

Would that the competition be run without such a heavy blanket of secrecy. If Garth had not posted his rationale to the FractalForum but had simply sent a private email, would anyone have even noticed that he stepped down? As it was, how many of the other judges learned of Garth's resignation by reading it on Orbit Trap? A high profile art competition does not have to operate like the CIA, nor should fractal artists have to scour the Web for months probing for any word about BMFAC's exhibition -- which is exactly what happened in the last contest. Even today, there is not one photo -- not even one sentence -- about the details of that exhibition on its own web site.

Would that the director relax the massive size restrictions for entering the contest -- restrictions that privilege Ultra Fractal and its users while impeding or excluding other programs and artists. BMFAC should be a showcase for all schools of fractal art. If the majority of the judging panel is composed of UF artists, teachers, web hosts, code writers, advocates, and even the software's author, then please rename the competition and just call it what it is: The Benoit Mandelbrot Ultra Fractal Art Contest. Truth in advertising is preferable to a smoke screen most of us can easily see through anyway.

Would that BMFAC's sponsors rouse themselves from their slumbers and get the right thing done. Do the competition's sponsors -- Fundación Vodafone España, Universidad del País Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, ICM 2010 (International Congress of Mathematicians) -- approve of how the contest is being managed? Does their silence mean they have no moral qualms -- even in the face of a prominent judge's resignation? Past BMFAC sponsors have not always been so hesitant to assert their influence on the competition's day-to-day operations. Previously, according to the contest's director, BMFAC's sponsors insisted the judges be included in the exhibition, as this memorable passage from Orbit Trap's archives recounts:

I am well aware that people were not happy about judges' work appearing in the ICM exhibition alongside contest entries, but we made it clear from the outset that contest entries would not be the only art shown. This year is no different. The sponsors require this as a hedge against insufficient quality being submitted [my emphasis]; it is, after all, their money at risk.

Would that some of the other BMFAC judges facing conflict of interest issues of both financial and personal gain voluntarily review the facts and search their consciences as selflessly and honorably as Garth Thornton did. Or, if such acts of moral courage were forthcoming, would they have already taken place? Perhaps the sponsors need to take action again this year. But instead of ushering some judges into the exhibition through the back door, maybe the sponsors should do the right thing and usher some of judges off the selection panel and out the front door.

Maybe instead of a hedge against insufficient quality, the sponsors should consider another hedge -- a hedge against insufficient integrity.


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Friday, August 21, 2009

Man of the Year

I view Garth Thornton's recent resignation as a judge in the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest 2009 as a cause for celebration and renewed hope in one's fellow man.  I know that may sound rather lofty and glorious, but what Garth has done is definitely the most encouraging event that I've seen in the fractal art world this year.

As an editor of Orbit Trap for the last three years, and as a silent observer of the fractal art world for more years than that, I've seen a lot of self-interest, self-promotion, self-indulgence and just plain self-ism (it's becoming an art form).

Although I have no window by which to look into Garth's mind and know exactly what his reasoning was, or to speak on his behalf, the initial trigger appeared to be a debate on  The mere fact that Garth was willing to participate in such an open and extremely frank discussion immediately suggested to me that this guy was different from the rest.  I got the impression that it was his nature and everyday way of doing things to be open and responsive to the opinions of others and to be much more community minded than most are.

That alone was enough of an improvement in the area of leadership in fractal world in my opinion to be noteworthy.  But then, to see someone of Garth's status in the fractal art world actually change his mind about a controversial issue and express it publicly was simply awesome and honestly, left me stunned.

Most forum discussions don't accomplish much.  You get the usual posturing remarks and the "me versus you" mentality arising, again and again, as the prevailing pattern in online forums.  My opinion is that forums are where people go to commiserate and to build up a network of people who agree with them --they're looking for a place to relax, not wrestle with ideas.  Few people honestly debate the issues raised and truly give any serious consideration to  the ideas (if any) that are presented.  Garth, evidently, happens to be one of those few people who do.

I think it's important, for those of you who may not be aware, that Garth has paid a price for his decision.  It cost him something to do what he did.  He's given up a privileged position that would have given him extra status in the fractal world.  I don't think I've ever seen this happen before, but I hope others who are in positions of leadership in the fractal art world will take this example that Garth has made of acting according to principles of community building and not just short-term self-interest.

The year isn't anywhere near over, but I doubt I'm going see anyone better or more worthy than Garth Thornton to receive an award like this.

But who knows?  I've certainly found Garth's actions to be inspiring.  Maybe someone else might too.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Is It Official?

The rules page on the official website for the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest 2009 was changed overnight.  The list of the Selection Panel Members (judges) has been abbreviated and now no longer includes the name of  Garth Thornton who yesterday announced his intention to resign on

New Page (above)

Old Page (below)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Garth Thornton Resigns from Judging at the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest 2009

While it may not be official yet, a  response by Garth Thornton to a thread at early today gives a fairly clear impression that he intends to step down from his new judging role at the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest 2009.

I have come to the conclusion that there is likely to be sufficient perception of conflict of interest that I should resign as a judge. I have no regrets except for the resulting inconvenience, and apologize to anyone who may be disappointed with my decision.
(Garth Thornton on

Here's more of Garth's comment. He is responding to previous postings by Dave Makin and Terry Wright regarding conflicts of interest:


having trust in a panel is an easy answer. However, I have to disagree with this position, as the whole point of conflict of interest issues is not to rely on integrity. For a contest, anyone of questionable integrity or clearly lacking in credibility should not be a judge anyway. More generally, whether the context is awarding financial contracts or judging contests, a series of questions may be asked. First, people are expected to declare any personal conflicts of interest. Then there may be consideration given to whether the interests have a material or other effect on the outcome, and whether the person should participate or be party to any discussions, and whether or not they should have a vote. The exact approach depends on the kind of organization. In many contexts it is standard for the person to step aside from the entire process. Both objective and perceived conflicts of interest have to be considered.


While I'm not in a position to give an official statement, I was told that a maximum of 25 contest entries will be the only exhibits, so I would be surprised if that is not the case. I assume that Rick was speaking hypothetically or referring to past contests.

I'd like to clarify a few points on the way.

First, I think you've misstated the summary: my claim did not include that you should just trust me, it was that since I did not regard the financial outcome or the overall effect as significant, trust was not a factor. However, obviously if one does not accept my assertion, it would be a factor.

The second is where you say "could receive financial gain as a direct result of the competition." I think indirect is the correct term, as there is no sales presence or even advertising at the exhibition or contest website, and no deals being done. A closer analogy might be product placement, which is totally indirect. The implication of direct financial gain covers a range of possibilities, none of which apply here. Calling it indirect still makes your point, without misrepresentation.

The third is the subsequent statement "A reasonable person might further conclude that chances to procure personal gain for both of you are also substantial." This has some ambiguity, as syntactically it qualifies the chances as substantial, while conveying a suggestion that the gain is substantial. There is also the ambiguity between the two meanings of substantial, "having substance" and "huge". Thus, readers could take away an impression anywhere between "a tangible chance of making some gain" and "could make a fortune". I only mention this because on a first quick reading I got the latter sense and had to read it again for the presumably intended meaning. I just want to add that a reasonable person could only conclude that either of us could make a large amount of money from this contest if they are totally out of touch with market realities.

Although I've argued that the actual conflict of interest is not significant, I accept that perceived conflict is an issue. It is an honor to be selected as a judge, but that's not a big motivator for me so it mostly amounts to a service (ok, with some pleasure in assessing the merits and voting for the best.) However, if people perceive a conflict of interest, it devalues the service. There are always a few people who are "wrong, somewhere on the internet," so satisfying everyone can't be my goal. Nor can it be a popularity contest, or a vote of confidence in integrity, because that isn't the question.

I have come to the conclusion that there is likely to be sufficient perception of conflict of interest that I should resign as a judge. I have no regrets except for the resulting inconvenience, and apologize to anyone who may be disappointed with my decision.

It's possible that I may get around to producing a contest entry, but I had no prior plans to do so and this was not a factor.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Conflicts of Interest in the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest

So whatever gave you the idea I'd eat you and sell your eggs through my produce company?

Don't you trust us?

I am starting this post with a premise. Either the organizers and sponsors of the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest know absolutely nothing about how to run an art contest, or they have chosen to deliberately disregard established safeguards and universally accepted standards and practices.

I continue to be surprised by how many of Orbit Trap's antagonists seem to believe that Tim and I are just making up contest regulations out of whole cloth, or are trying to impose our own eccentric guidelines on the beleaguered BMFAC. Take, for example, this recent remark by Ken Childress on his blog (find link via Google):

I didn't really object to anyone on the panel having images included in the exhibition. Yes, this event is a contest. No, it's not the kind of contest OT wants to lead everyone to believe must be run.

But it's not just OT who believes that art competitions should be run using established and agreed upon protocols; it's nearly everyone else -- ranging from federal/state/college art associations to international symposiums on ethics in fine arts and cultural activities. I'm afraid it's BMFAC's director and sponsors who either don't know about instituting methods to shield art contests from abuses, or they have intentionally not implemented such safeguards in order to not be bound by them.

The BMFAC director, in an exchange last week on the Fractint Mailing List, said my previous OT post was "written by someone who knows next to nothing about the contest." Actually, I'm very familiar with contests in quite a few artistic genres. I served for six years as an Associate Dean in a College of Fine Arts in a moderately-sized (13,000 students) public university. Part of my job responsibilities included overseeing an artists in residence program and competitions in the disciplines of music, theater, film, creative writing, and visual art. One of the first things the college dean insisted I do was to draft conflict of interest policies for the competitions. So, I did some research -- research the BMFAC organizers and sponsors either never bothered to do, or, more likely, don't want any of you to do. Here's what I found.

From the College Art Association's "Statement of Conflict of Interest":

A conflict of interest arises when an individual’s personal interest or bias compromises his or her ability to act in accordance with professional or public obligations. In situations where no public scrutiny or oversight is possible, the risk of a conflict of interest increases.

One way to understand a conflict of interest is to describe the situation as a conflict of roles. A person having two roles -- like someone who sells commercial software and who is also judging an art contest that includes submissions made with that same software -- may experience situations where his two roles conflict. The conflict can be denied or possibly extenuated, but it nonetheless exists. Playing two roles is not necessarily wrong, but the contrasting roles definitely provide an increased incentive for inappropriate acts in some circumstances.

Furthermore, the idea that BMFAC has any public scrutiny or oversight is laughable. The organizers have been consistently secretive, even to the point that the 2007 BMFAC site contains no information at all about the 2007 exhibition -- no announcement, no location, no dates, no photographs, no reviews, no nothing. It took Orbit Trap seven months to discover whether the exhibition had even taken place.

One would have to be blindfolded on a deserted island not to see that BMFAC has a discernable and overriding bias. Over its three years, the majority of the judges have been UF users, teachers, web hosts, code writers, and advocates. The majority of the winning entries shown in the two previous exhibitions were made with UF. The judges' back-door submissions to the previous two exhibitions -- almost without exception -- were made with UF. The majority of alternates and honorable mentions were awarded to UF users. Several current or past students, enrolled in UF classes taught by two BMFAC judges, won or placed in previous competitions. The enormous file sizes required to enter the contest heavily favor UF, the most easily scalable software -- even to the point where some non-UF using fractal artists cannot render images large enough to participate in this contest designed to showcase, as the 2009 BMFAC rules page states, "art that represents our art form."

And, in case anyone still has the slightest doubt about what kind of fractal art this competition privileges, this year one of the judges is the author and owner of Ultra Fractal. So, if what I've outlined hasn't convinced you of BMFAC's overt UF bias yet, maybe you need to back up and re-read Tim's last post.

Barbara T. Hoffman, in a chapter entitled "Law, Ethics, and the Visual Arts," which appears in the seminal book Ethics in the Visual Arts, cites the definition of conflict of interest used by the International Council of Museums "Code of Ethics for Museums." It states a conflict of interest is:

The existence of a personal or private interest which gives rise to a clash of principle in a work situation, thus restricting, or having the appearance of restricting, the objectivity of decision making.

Responsible Conduct Research, based at Columbia University, provides the following account of what constitutes conflicts of interest:

A conflict of interest involves the abuse -- actual, apparent, or potential -- of the trust that people have in professionals. The simplest working definition states: A conflict of interest is a situation in which financial or other personal considerations have the potential to compromise or bias professional judgment and objectivity.

But the clearest and most detailed discussion about conflicts of interest in the arts comes from a comprehensive study done by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies. Their report is entitled “Conflict of Interest Policies in Arts and Culture Funding Agencies” (linked here in a .pdf file) and says:

Conflicts of interest arise when a person making a decision is faced with more than one interest against which to judge their best course of action. The conflict typically of most concern is that between a person’s personal interests and their professional interests.


Indeed, as many of the policies cited later in this report recognise, the mere perception that a conflict of interest might exist is enough to make such a conflict an issue for concern – whether or not it is ‘real’, or whether or not it tempts an individual to act inappropriately.

As you can see, there is an encompassing history of concern over the problem of conflict of interest in the area of the fine arts. This is not just a case of Tim and I wanting to impose "our way" of running contests or of Orbit Trap promoting "conspiracy theories," as one of this year's BMFAC judges said recently on the Ultra Fractal Mailing List.

In fact, it does not matter whether you and I think the BMFAC judges are honest and would never act inappropriately. What matters is the recognition that a conflict of interest exists. That perception alone is enough to contaminate BMFAC’s integrity and erode public trust.

The IFACCA survey goes on to say that conflicts of interest become especially troublesome when “people in the arts who are appointed to decision-making bodies” (like judges of an art contest) might gain financially or personally from rendering services and notes that

An obvious type of gain is financial, but other types of gain are equally relevant, such as the ability to gain prestige, wield power or advance a career.

Financial conflicts of interest permeate BMFAC's selection panel. Two of the judges are authors and owners of commercial software, Ultra Fractal and Xenodream. It is inevitable that the competition will have entries made with these software programs. If entries created with both programs do well, it is reasonable to assume that both authors stand to benefit financially. Whether the authors make a pittance or a fortune is irrelevant because what matters here is the principle. Even if the two author-judges were to miraculously make no money, conflicts of interest, as we've seen above, are often about the mere appearance of impropriety. Therefore, I repeat the charge I made in my last post: the two judges who are authors of commercial software should immediately resign.

Another financial conflict of interest is self-evident. Two of the BMFAC judges are or have been on the faculty of the Visual Arts Academy where they are paid (by charging fees) to teach courses in the use of Ultra Fractal. Again, if entries made with UF win, it stands to reason that one or both instructors stand to benefit financially. Even in the unlikely event that enrollment doesn't rise should UF submissions make another near-sweep of the exhibition, the improper demeanor is enough to be a conflict of interest. These instructor-judges should also resign, or, at the very least, should not be teaching classes in any year when the contest is being held.

I hope you can also see why Orbit Trap protested so vehemently over the inclusion of work by BMFAC's judges in the last two exhibitions. It was not because, as some of our adversaries claim, that we are bitter whiners who hold grudges and produce bad art -- or similar invective tossed at us as a smokescreen for failing to directly address our arguments.

No, we were upset because including the judges' work was a glaring conflict of interest resulting in personal gain for those individuals. Rather than simply paying the judges, either directly via the sponsors or by charging an entry fee, BMFAC's director and sponsors gave them a free pass to display in the "contest" exhibition. This action resulted in each of them (follow along with me from the quote above) gaining prestige, wielding power, and advancing their careers -- even to the degree where they could anoint their heads with crowns and write their own ad copy declaring themselves to be "the most important fractal artists in the world."


OT readers might find an ongoing dialogue I've been having about the contest with some locals over at the FractalForum of interest. Things really picked up when Garth Thornton, one of the two current judges who is an author of commercial software, showed up to address the conflict of interest issue. To date, Thornton is the only BMFAC judge to ever come forward and speak to OT's allegations. You probably owe it to yourself to read the whole exchange, although you will have to join the forum to make comments.

This excerpt serves as the basis for what I said to him:

Your main points seem to be that you and Frederik [Slijkerman] are qualified to be judges because “we know the software’s weaknesses inside out,” any money made from selling software will be insignificant, and that including vendors as judges “will have a minor influence.” In short, although you admit that you might benefit financially, even if minimally, your claim is that your presence as a judge will have little overall effect, and that I should just trust you.

The way any competition earns trust is by being proactive and showing that it is aware of potential abuses by putting visible policies in place to keep any potential improprieties from occurring. These steps have become standard practice in art competitions. Any competition that deliberately foregoes such policies immediately arouses suspicion and appears less trustworthy.

And, for our more anxiety-inclined readers, this excerpt might make you excitable. It begins when Thornton says

I can confirm there is no form of remuneration for judging.

to which I say

I personally believe contest judges should be paid for their time and effort. One reason BMFAC is fishy is that it has no entry fee. Many artists, including me, generally despise such fees, but they are a necessary evil. Such fees are used to pay judges and screeners and to cover the administrative costs of running a contest (like publicity and printing images, for example.) Most significantly, entry fees do not create conflicts of interest; in fact, their presence makes abuses and inappropriate behavior less likely.

I do have a question, though. Could you clarify what you mean by “remuneration?” Are you saying BMFAC’s judges will receive no money? Or are you saying all of the judges receive no compensation at all -- compensation like having their own art work included in the 2009 exhibition? I’ve already said on OT that I’m taking on good faith that no BMFAC judges will have work hanging in this year’s show. But some of OT’s more paranoid readers have written to me pointing out that the 2009 rules only say the judges are excluded from participating in “the contest.” Nothing whatsoever is said about the judges not being a part of this year’s exhibition.

Moreover, one of those nervous emailers wonders why Rick Spix is on the UF Mailing List saying things like

“As to having work in the shows, it seems like a good way to pay those folks for a good many hours spent doing the judging thing.”

when the issue is presumably dead and the general assumption from the posted rules is that the BMFAC judges will not be recompensed by displaying their own art in this year’s exhibition?

You could quell these rumors by stating categorically that no art by a BMFAC judge will be displayed this go around. Better yet, to be more convincing, the director should come forward and make a public statement clarifying this matter.

I am curious to see what Thornton will say in response. I do not expect the contest director will see fit to issue a proclamation.


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Monday, August 10, 2009

Is The Name Of Our Hero Benoit Mandelbrot Being Used To Market Ultra Fractal?

It's been more than three years now since the original Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest made it's debut.  For those of you who haven't been following these things, we've criticized the Contest over a number of things but primarily for the reason that the contest favors art work made with the program Ultra Fractal rather than presenting a wide range of Fractal Art.  This was a big deal to me because the Contest has a very high profile in online Fractal Art community as well as with the general public and therefore will go along way towards shaping people's impression of Fractal Art as well as the future direction of it.

The Contest websites for all three Contests (2006, 2007, 2009) say that "We are choosing art that represents our art form to a world that largely does not know it—or if they do know it, they know only garish, 70s-style imagery."  It's this official purpose as well as it's actual effect that initially caught my interest.  I'm interested in the ongoing evolution and popular impression of the Fractal Art genre.

The Mandel-buck Formula (requires layering)

Like I said, it's been three years, or at least three contests now since it all began. When it initially started many of our criticisms here at Orbit Trap were met with the response that the Contest was new and just starting out. For those reasons, valid or not, I restrained myself from making what is probably the most obvious observation about the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contests, that being that it's all about promoting Ultra Fractal as the apex of Fractal Art and subsequently, the only program of choice for serious, professional artists.

Since then, the only significant change to the contest has been the removal of the judges own, self-selected (and Ultra Fractal made) works from the exhibition, which totaled close to 40% of the actual exhibit. We were told in the past that it's inclusion was at the request of the previous sponsors, but all of the previous sponsors from both years are here this year and it seems that none of them have requested that. It mysteriously appeared and it mysteriously left.

It's all a different matter this year because the "bugs" in the Contest's design that we criticized when it was new have now become intentional features in this 2009 "final release" of what is now likely to be an established, annual institution in the Fractal Art world. In other words, the jury is no longer out and it's time to reach a verdict, which is: The Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest was intentionally designed to be a platform from which to promote Ultra Fractal.

What bothers me most however, is it's use of the name and reputation of Benoit Mandelbrot for such a publicity stunt.  The name Benoit Mandelbrot is one that all fractal artists will identify with and recognize.  His monumental discoveries in the realm of fractal mathematics are surely acknowledged as the very foundations of our bold new art form, Fractal Art.  It's precisely this universal and foundational aspect to Benoit Mandelbrot's reputation that the contest takes advantage of to present its art exhibiton to the public as the Olympics of Fractal Art.  The name and presence of Benoit Mandelbrot gets people's attention --and respect. It's no great stretch of the imagination to suggest that that's precisely why he was asked to give his name to the contest.  Who better to represent the face of fractals and Fractal Art than Benoit Mandelbrot himself?

In a fractal art contest, especially one which claims to be an exhibition that will introduce the public to the genre , one would expect a more universal theme that reflects many styles and methods in fractal art, just as Benoit Mandelbrot is an icon for all of the fractal world in general.  The organizers said, "We want to show diversity of fractal styles" but they have never done that.  I think it's fair to say that after three consecutive contests with the same rules, that they never will and also that they have never intended to exhibit any diversity in Fractal Art.  All they've presented is a diverse number of Ultra Fractal artists.

It stands to reason that the extremely high visibility that Ultra Fractal receives by being the program that produces the majority of the winning entries will attract interest in it and likely increase the sales of it.  Isn't this why companies sponsor contests and similar high profile public events, or why advertisers compete for exposure at these venues?  Anyone who knows anything about marketing a product can see what a plum position Ultra Fractal has been placed in.  And it's not even a paying sponsor!

The exhibition of art work by judges who where also fractal artists has had the effect of insuring that Ultra Fractal received the highest visibility and status in the contest.  What could be a better advertisement for any product or tool in an art contest than to show everyone that all the judges use it?

The organization and judging of the contest is so closely associated with people who stand to gain from an increase in Ultra Fractal's popularity that it begs the question of whether the contest was orchestrated entirely to promote Ultra Fractal by increasing its visibility and status in the eyes of new fractal artists and the public as a whole.  All of that has the potential to translate into more sales of the program ($79 - $139/license) as well as enrollment of students in their fee-based online courses ($25/student).  These are not merely academic matters of artistic style or differences of opinion as to "what is Fractal Art?", they are commercial interests, business interests, all of which in an online environment needs only advertising and exposure to grow.

Should I go on?  They have a new judge this year.  Guess who?  It's the author and owner of Ultra Fractal.  I guess the success of previous years shows that they don't have to be subtle anymore.  If you've already got the King, Queen, and Jack of Ultra Fractal in your line-up, what's the big deal with adding the Ace?

Sorry, but I wasn't born yesterday.

But some people say that the fractal world is too small to find qualified judges who aren't associated with Ultra Fractal in some way, either commercially or personally.  Well, I guess that is quite true, but only if  the fractal "world" you're talking about is made up only of your close friends and professional associates.  There really is more to Fractal Art than Ultra Fractal.  But you'll only see that by paying a visit to Google and searching on "Fractal Art".  By attending the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest you won't see much more than the heavily layered, "non-garish",  Ultra Fractal school of Fractal Art.

Benoit Mandelbrot has not endorsed Ultra Fractal or any other piece of fractal software, but the way the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contests are being run that's exactly what his name and the good reputation that goes with it suggests and is being used for.  Benoit Mandelbrot is what fractals are all about; the contest bearing his name naturally gives the impression that Ultra Fractal is what Fractal Art is all about.

It would all be different however, if the contest had selected a neutral panel of judges and had not placed any restrictions on what type of fractal imagery could be submitted.  This could have been done (in 2006, or done in 2007, or done in 2009...) by chosing someone with art credentials who's an outsider to the fractal art world, or at the very least, a wider range of judges who's demonstrated preferences represent an authentic sampling of fractal art styles and methods.  Had the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contests been run and judged by fanatical Fractinct people and selected largely Fractint art work, I would have the same objections, although the commercial aspect to those objections would likely not exist as they do with a proprietary, closed-source program like Ultra Fractal.  This has all been said before here on Orbit Trap, but since the organizers of the Contest are now sticking to the Contest's original design and make up of the judging panel, I can only assume --the organizers like it the way it is which is the way it always was.

This third iteration of the Contest is a confirmation of the previous two.

Part of the problem, I suspect (as I have suspected from the very beginning) is that the contest is really a one-man show.  One man set the rules; one man chose the judges; and one man did it all to promote Ultra Fractal as the tool of choice for professional artists.

That man is not Benoit Mandelbrot.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Has the 2009 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest Cleaned Up Its Act?

Will I judge my hands to be cleaner if i wash them with soap i programmed myself?

What! Will these hands never be clean?

It's baaaaack. The Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest returns for 2009 with freshly scrubbed rules.

Past co-director Damien M. Jones made the announcement last night on the Ultra Fractal Mailing List:

Good evening listfolk,

I would like to inform you that the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest 2009 is open and accepting submissions. This is a contest to select images for exhibition at ICM in 2010. The submissions period closes October 10, 2009.

For complete information, please visit the contest web site:

Thank you for your attention.

Damien Jones

So has the competition cleaned up its act, or is there still some dirt lingering under its fingernails? Well, no pun intended, you be the judge. Here are my initial impressions:

Have the Judges Been Taken Off the Wall?

It appears that the contest's directors and sponsors took some of Orbit Trap's past criticisms to heart. Previously, as we pointed out many times, the contest was tainted by including the judges' artwork -- even to the tune of 50% of the exhibition. To its credit, this year's competition appears to have remedied this arrangement. From the rules page:

Eligibility: Anyone may submit their own artwork to the contest, except selection panel members and their immediate families.

That's more like it. Giving credit where credit is due, I applaud this change which certainly makes considerable strides to promote fairness, reduce conflicts of interest, and remove the sense that the whole thing was deliberately undertaken to be little more than a self-serving publicity stunt for the judges.

But I know what the more paranoid among you might be thinking. The rules are clear about the judges being disallowed from the contest -- but what about the exhibition? Are they also excluded from that venue? After all, since some of the judges are (self-described) "prestigious fractal artists," should they not receive some compensation for donating their time so willingly? I agree that, compared to previous years, the formal details of the exhibition are more sketchy and could have been left vague to allow wiggle room for tweaking at a later date. However, on this front, I'm going to take the directors and sponsors at their word and assume they are operating on good faith. Unless I learn otherwise, I'll presume that no asterisk clauses or extenuating circumstances will arise to allow any of the judges to display their own work in the 2010 exhibition. And, if the judges deserve compensation, I would hope the competition's sponsors would pony up a fair monetary payment for services rendered rather than provide wall space beside the winning artists.

Follow the Money

But just as one conflict of interest disappears, another rises to take its place. Consider this year's panel selection members:

Benoit B. Mandelbrot, Honorary Chairman
Javier Barrallo (Spain), The University of the Basque Country
Damien Jones (UK), fractal artist and programmer
Kerry Mitchell (USA), fractal artist and programmer
Janet Parke (USA), fractal artist
Juan Bautista Peiró (Spain), Polytechnique University of Valencia
Frederik Slijkerman (Netherlands), author of Ultra Fractal
Rajat Tandon (India), University of Hyderabad
Garth Thornton (New Zealand), author of XenoDream
Mark Townsend (Australia), author of Apophysis

What would be one of the most serious conflicts of interest for a judge in an art contest? Could it be the opportunity to make a business profit by serving as a judge?

Imagine this scenario. Imagine an art contest where some of the judges are in the business of selling art supplies -- you know, like paints, brushes, canvases, frames, mattes, and so on. Imagine further that these judges would be certain to know that some artists entering the contest would be using their products. And not only would they be able to recognize their products in given artworks, but so would many of the other artists and viewers who would examine the prize-winning entries. It stands to reason that the more their products are associated with the winning entries, the more money they are likely to personally make.

Does the above situation sound like a conflict of interest to you?

I would guess that the authors of various fractal software were included as judges in this year's competition to give the appearance of greater balance. After all, there has been some previous criticism, from Orbit Trap and other parties, that past competitions seemed skewed to a particular software platform. Including the creators of Ultra Fractal, Xenodream, and Apophysis is probably designed to show that this year's BMFAC has no prevailing bias.

And maybe it succeeds to that end. But it leaves a worse problem in its wake.

Two of the programs, Ultra Fractal and Xenodream, are for sale. Their authors have a clear financial investment in their respective software's success or failure. The situation would be different if the software was freeware. But it's not. There's hard cash to potentially be made from product placement -- and this competition provides a world stage for advertising fractal generators. The software that winds up in the winner's circle will invariably be associated with artistic success -- especially from an exhibition built to acquaint newcomers to the field of fractal art. In short, if Ultra Fractal and Xenodream images do end up in the exhibition, two of the panel selection members will most likely make a profit as a direct result. And that, gentle readers, is a classic example of a colossal conflict of interest.

Please understand that I'm not accusing anyone of doing anything unethical here. After all, no judging has yet taken place. Conflicts of interest are not so much about individual personalities as they are about compromising situations. Conflicts of interest establish an atmosphere that opens loopholes, create opportunities for preference and for gain, and, worst of all, allow abuses to more easily occur.

And some conflicts of interest are so visibly inherent as to be unmistakable. Would you think it fair if Olympic athletes were judged by their own coaches -- or, more to the point, by the merchants who make sports equipment and apparel? Such coaches and merchants would surely stand to financially benefit if their protégées or products won a medal. But the Olympic community would deem such an arrangement to be outrageous and demand such shenanigans be rectified. So why should the fractal community sit still for a comparable state of affairs?

The bottom line? The two authors of for-sale software should resign from the judging panel immediately.

Additional Ca-Chinging

Another, perhaps lesser, conflict of interest, and one that Orbit Trap has noted in previous BMFACs, also involves making money and has not been washed clean. Two other judges could also make a profit -- depending on what software dominates the contest and exhibition. Why? Because both do or have taught courses in using Ultra Fractal at the Visual Arts Academy. Again, if UF racks up the kudos in this year's BMFAC, then Ultra Fractal will then be associated with internationally award-winning fractal art. UF, however, has one substantial drawback. I'll let the instructor of the course "Working with Ultra Fractal" explain:

Ultra Fractal is a powerful, feature-rich, and extremely versatile fractal generator that allows the user to explore many types of fractals and to create amazing images. But it has, by nature, a very steep learning curve.

There's the rub. You want to win those art prizes, but the prized program is designed for someone with an advanced engineering degree. Don't worry though. One of the BMFAC judges will come to your aid -- for a fee.

It stands to reason that the more exposure UF gets as a "winning" program, the more likely cyber-seats in UF classes will be filled.

These "faculty member" judges should also resign either their teaching job or their judging job, but I won't get my hopes up. Even a dump truck of Lava won't wash the pie off some hands.

Size Matters, or How Loaded Are Those Dice?

And is there much doubt what fractal software will once more prevail when the BMFAC smoke clears? Let's do the math with a short assembly of the judges:

Frederik Slijkerman -- author of Ultra Fractal.

Damien M. Jones -- formerly hosted the UF web site for many years and has been considered such "an evangelist" (his phrase) for Ultra Fractal that he even wrote a lengthy apology to explain his expressed devotion to the program.

Janet Parke -- teaches UF classes online.

Kerry Mitchell -- has taught UF classes online.

Mark Townsend -- created Apophysis, a program originally made for use with Ultra Fractal.

Given the above roster, I'd say things are looking good for UF users again this year. Hopefully, though, we won't go so deeply into UF cult worship as to have a repeat of the 2007 contest where several students enrolled in judges' UF classes picked up awards or honorable mentions. That coincidence left a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste.

And if the aesthetic proclivities don't lean in a UF direction, the submission sizes certainly do. OT complained about the required plasma TV size dimensions in past contests. You'll be glad to know they've gotten even more gigantic this go around:

Artwork that is selected must then be provided in high-resolution format, sized so that the largest dimension is 8000 pixels. If a high-resolution version of the artwork cannot be produced, it should not be entered. Some images may be selected for printing at even larger size (12000 pixels in the largest dimension) so entrants would do well to be aware of the size requirements. This is particularly important for certain types of fractals (e.g. flames) which are difficult to render at large sizes.

12000 pixels? What are you making? A mural?

Well, maybe yes, as it turns out. One of this year's BMFAC judges is an expert on murals.

Sorry, Apo users. You're screwed with those flames. Sorry, post-processors, you too -- unless you have a system with a quadrillion gigs of RAM. And for users of stuff like Ferguson or Gintz software -- you know, software authors who somehow didn't make this year's all-inclusive judging cut -- well, you can render large but your graphic processing functions are somewhat limited. So, by design, that pretty much leaves an entry pool of UF and (to a lesser extent) Xenodream images -- that is, the rare programs that can make works to massive scale but also heavily process them.

OT has argued before that there is absolutely no reason to insist that all fractal art must have gargantuan dimensions and be printed the size of a barn door to be artistically successful. No, this insistence that bigger is better is a precisely calculated, exclusionary provision contrived to limit the playing field rather than level it.

So, To Conclude

My initial impression of this year's BMFAC is that it has only partially cleaned up its act. The judges have been handcuffed outside the gallery door, but the helping hands of BMFAC still need some conflicts of interest and agenda items scrubbed off with industrial, anti-bacterial soap.

And other questions remain for later discussion. For example, how will the judges handle mixed media collages made in UF5 that are submitted to this "fractal art contest"?

And what kind of overriding aesthetic about fractal art is being perpetuated with this contest? That question has crucial implications for all of us who engage in some form of fractal art. Jones makes clear in the rules that he wants to avoid all stereotypical "garish, 70's style imagery." I guess I'd sleep better if I didn't wonder whether he's replacing that tired trope with another stereotype of his own -- a stereotype that, in its own way, is just as narrow and "garish" as those spirals that were once de rigueur for the now defunct Fractal Universe Calendar. Artwork that, in his words, is

uniquely fractal; artwork that uses fractal tools to produce less-fractal imagery is not as desirable (but is not disqualified). We want artwork that will look good when printed large (i.e. has lots of good, interesting fractal detail).

Admit it. You know what he wants. He wants it to be big. He wants it to have detail. He wants it to appeal to Janet Parke. And he wants it replicated over and over and over by her students until it becomes the only critically recognized expression of what fractal art can be.

He wants your multi-layered UF monstrosities.


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Monday, August 03, 2009


It's the job of the Coroner's office to make an official pronouncement of death

I'm filling in at the Coroner's office while he's away on vacation.  That is, the Internet Coroner's office.  That's where the virtual, online dead go.  I was told to just "tag 'em, bag 'em and put 'em the fridge till I get back", but I thought I'd leave a few notes about this one particular cadaver that came in recently since  I'm sure most pathologists aren't too well acquainted with the fractal art world and will appreciate some expert help regarding the cause of death.

He's going to need some help with this one.  I can see the Coroner staring at the body and wondering, "Why would such a young blog with such a bright future and so many friends end up DOA?"

Well Doc, basically, blogging is all about writing stuff that people want to read.  The internet puts thousands of high quality newspapers, magazines, even movies and not to mention specialty websites and also online encyclopedias like the Wikipedia in easy reach of everyone with internet access.  You have to write about things that no one else can (or will) write about.  It's that "niche" thing.  And for that you have to be a bit of a freak.  They didn't have a single freak.

Normal people write about normal things and freaky people write about freaky things.  On the internet, most visitors are by default disinterested.  Like I said, they've got plenty of great places to go (and online games too).  Good blogging attracts and holds the interest of complete strangers who don't know who you are (or don't care) but they're interested in what you have to say because it's rare and special.  In fact, a good blog will appeal just as much to its enemies as it will to its friends.  Maybe even more.  Wedream(ed)incolor had way too many friends, a sure sign of early onset terminal conditions in a blog (more commonly referred to as "hyper-irrelevancy").

Good blogging is fresh, insightful commentary on topics that are rarely discussed (or better yet --taboo).  It's not a group thing and most people aren't really interested in giving raw, honest commentary about things (and posting it on the internet for everyone to read and react to).  It's the same as art criticism or any sort of criticism; you have really get excited about it because the social fallout wouldn't be worth it otherwise.  How many people actually get excited about writing criticism and not just reading it?  Yeah.  They didn't even have one of those over there.  It's like kidneys; it's good to have two, but you've gotta at least have one.

A blog made up of self-conscious backslappers trying to produce something worth reading was just bound to fail.  Of course, some of them never even posted anything once.  That's a definite warning sign of blogging cardiac arrest.

I've been through all this before: blogging just isn't for everyone.  Commentary (public and published) might attract a lot of readers, but it doesn't attract a lot of writers.  Of course, I would have thought that Orbit Trap's own experience would made that fairly plain, but I guess everyone has to experience these things for themselves.  Morgue's are full of those.

"If you  build it... they will watch!"  Too much work by any single person on an internet site doesn't inspire others to join in and help out, it inspires them to stay out of the way and not touch.  If you want to be a real masochist then try asking for donations as well.  Better still, accept the fact that good blogging requires a strong vision and intense focus and that's not likely to be found in a group of people like it is in a single person.

What else should I mention to the Coroner?  Oh.  Some of the next of kin are likely to come around and insist on doing CPR  despite the obvious stiff and bluish condition of the cadaver.  "It's the summer!" "It's just getting started!"  "Everyone's just busy with other things at the moment!"  "Orbit Trap poisoned it!"  It's a traditional custom of mourning in the fractal art world: a last ditch attempt to resurrect a social project that lacked a society.  They like to think that they did everything they could, although they didn't actually do anything at all when it was alive.

Maybe a forum would have been a better idea?