Charlie's Diary

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Tue, 30 Apr 2002

Jenin: No massacre?
Here's an interesting report from the BBC:

"I think Israel has a very valid point. The UN team was going to be made up of UN civil servants, and I think you would then get a very one-sided view of what happened in Jenin.
"I think it is important that you do have military men and anti-terrorist experts on that UN commission.
"I think it is unfair for a lawyer to go to Jenin to then build up a military picture of what happened."

(Quoth Major David Holley, a British Territorial Army officer and military adviser to Amnesty International, who visited Jenin at the weekend.)

I'm inclined to think that many of the Americans posting in the Blogosphere about relentless European hostility towards Israel are as much victims of selective reporting as European public opinion about Israel is -- which is to say, Bad News makes Good Headlines, and the less dramatic truth tends to get under-reported. When you start reading the European media on the subject of Israel, you'll find a mixture of opinions: this provides ready ammunition for accusations of anti-semitism, because a chunk of those opinions are unfriendly, but by selective quoting you could equally well build exactly the opposite case.

(If you want some genuine evil to rail against, go here -- but only if you have a strong stomach. The devil is in the statistics buried in the penultimate paragraph, which probably dwarfs anything currently happening in the West Bank as a source of human misery and pain.)

Link Discuss
Posted at 21:08 # G

WIPOut essay winners announced
Wipout have been running a contest for the best essay on the subject "what does intellectual property mean to you in your daily life?"

WIPO, the World Intellectualy Property Organisation, is the catspaw for the big entertainment conglomerates and corporate interests who have been trying to break my stereo, prevent me from running the software I work with, and killing thousands of people -- who die of preventable diseases for which the treatments are patented, profitable, and too expensive for the poor to afford. WIPO got the idea of running a student essay competition; WIPOut exists to show that the emperor is definitively naked.

Here are some of the winners -- all well worth reading, and enough to make me wonder why I didn't enter the contest myself:

Link Discuss
Posted at 14:53 # G

Mon, 29 Apr 2002

Hello, I wish to complain: this theology is broken
Are your beliefs about religion internally consistent? Take this test and find out.

(Note: this is a tricky one! I took the test and got machine-gunned because the terms it employs aren't necessarily the same as the ones I'd use. So think things through in terms of your previous answers before you check each question.)

Link Discuss
Posted at 21:12 # G

At last
All too often, mainstream media coverage of internet civil liberties issues like free speech or spam is several years behind the cutting edge of progress. Luckily, spam seems to be finally getting some attention. Here, The Guardian comes out with a leader commenting that advertising isn't free speech, and calling for a ban on spam. Are they right or not? I have mixed feelings about the whole affair -- I have a gut feeling that they're wrong, that advertising is free speech, but that doesn't stop me detesting spam.

It would be nice to have a microbilling system for email. Just charge 0.1p per email message and the spam problem would go away -- those of us who are prolific emailers would still only be paying pennies a day, but spammers regularly blast millions or hundreds of millions of addresses simultaneously, and the way SMTP works means that in effect the recipient pays. Unfortunately, that's not how TCP/IP and the IETF work ...

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:58 # G

Sun, 28 Apr 2002

Just give 'em whisky
Mo Mowlem, former Cabinet office minister and Northern Ireland secretary, has come out in favour of legalising all currently-illegal drugs, and taxing heroin and cocaine.

"I think that is the most effective way because in the end I don't think you could ever stop it. Why not regulate it, take the tax from it and seriously deal with addiction which has been around since the 1900s?"

Nice to see common sense breaking out all round, once the ideological iceberg of institutional politics begins to break up. If only this hadn't come too late for the tens of thousands of victims of the war on drugs serving prison sentences or paying fines in the UK for victimless crimes.

Link Discuss drugs
Posted at 01:12 # G

Sat, 27 Apr 2002

On the roots of anti-semitism in contemporary Islamic thinking
This paper, by Abdul Hadi Palazzi, makes for interesting reading. Especially as he fingers the link between the different branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, their Wahabite sponsors in Saudi Arabia, and the infiltration and radicalization of mosques in the west.

Link (via Muslimpundit)
Posted at 15:31 # G

Justice, Saudi-style
British and Canadian nationals arrested in Saudi Arabia a year ago -- apparently members of an illicit drinking club -- are framed for a terrorist bombing campaign and pull sentences of 18 years and beheadading, respectively. After it turns out that the Saudi's have violated their own penal code, tortured prisoners to extract confessions, lied to diplomats from the British Foreign Office, and so on.

If you thought Greek justice was lousy, the Saudi alternative is enlightening. And these people are supposed to be our allies?


And see also this fun little news snippet:

The Saudi Information Agency has obtained a tape by prominent government official cleric Shaikh Saad Al-Buraik calling for enslaving Jewish women. The tape is called "a Monkey Desecrates Mosque," and was delivered in a Riyadh government mosque. The monkey refers to Jews.
Muslim Brothers in Palestine, do not have any mercy neither compassion on the Jews, their blood, their money, their flesh. Their women are yours to take, legitimately. God made them yours. Why don't you enslave their women? Why don't you wage jihad? Why don't you pillage them?

(Somebody tell this guy that the middle ages ended four hundred years ... naah, never mind. Let's just bear in mind that he's a Wahhabi cleric and a protege of the youngest son of the king. I'd like you to imagine what people would say if the Pope started advocating that kind of policy in theological terms? Wahhabism: just say "fuck off".)

Link (via Electrolite) Discuss
Posted at 13:52 # G

Fri, 26 Apr 2002

A Blast from the Past
Thomas Macaulay had some trenchant things to say about posthumous copyright extension in 1841. They're just as true today as they were then:

The advantages arising from a system of copyright are obvious. It is desirable that we should have a supply of good books; we cannot have such a supply unless men of letters are liberally remunerated; and the least objectionable way of remunerating them is by means of copyright.
We have, then, only one resource left. We must betake ourselves to copyright, be the inconveniences of copyright what they may. Those inconveniences, in truth, are neither few nor small. Copyright is monopoly, and produces all the effects which the general voice of mankind attributes to monopoly.
Monopoly is an evil. For the sake of the good we must submit to the evil; but the evil ought not to last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good. ... it is by no means the fact that a posthumous monopoly of sixty years gives to an author thrice as much pleasure and thrice as strong a motive as a posthumous monopoly of twenty years. On the contrary, the difference is so small as to be hardly perceptible.
The principle of copyright is this. It is a tax on readers for the purpose of giving a bounty to writers. The tax is an exceedingly bad one; it is a tax on one of the most innocent and most salutary of human pleasures; and never let us forget, that a tax on innocent pleasures is a premium on vicious pleasures. I admit, however, the necessity of giving a bounty to genius and learning. ... My complaint is, that my honourable and learned friend doubles, triples, quadruples, the tax, and makes scarcely any perceptible addition to the bounty.

Link (via Kuro5hin)
Posted at 13:03 # G

Ten H-bombs
That's all it would have taken to kill a third of the UK's population, and leave the remainder battling against starvation and disease in third- world conditions, under military rule, in the 1950's.

Is that CND speaking? No, it's a just-declassified government report on nuclear war planning during the mid-1950's.

(By 1989, the USSR had on the order of two hundred H-bombs pointed at the UK. Consider that a 95%-effective ABM defense would still allow ten bombs to get through, and you might begin to think that it's very odd that Tony Blair is saying anything supportive about the Bush administration's BMD plans.)

Posted at 10:33 # G

Thu, 25 Apr 2002

Language is a Virus [Substrate]
Here's a fun essay (written in 1991) by Richard Dawkins, discussing computer viruses, DNA viruses, and memetic viruses:

It is intriguing to wonder what it might feel like, from the inside, if one's mind were the victim of a ``virus.'' This might be a deliberately designed parasite, like a present-day computer virus. Or it might be an inadvertently mutated and unconsciously evolved parasite ... Like computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are the victim of one, the chances are that you won't know it, and may even vigorously deny it.

Link Discuss
Posted at 12:34 # G

Wed, 24 Apr 2002

Is bread carcinogenic?
Researchers at Stockholm University (and experts at the Swedish National Food Administration) discovered that heating carbohydrate-rich foods such as potatoes, rice or cereals formed acrylamide, a probable human carcinogen.

Yeah, that's right! Bread today, dihydrogen monoxide tomorrow!

Posted at 20:59 # G

Mars pioneer dies
Dunno if this made the news wherever you are, but James Martin -- project leader on the Viking Mars missions, the first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars and return useful data to Earth, has died. He was aged 81.

Posted at 15:11 # G

Tue, 23 Apr 2002

The Red Baron flies again! (Sort-of)
XCOR Aerospace are into building reusable manned rockets. They've just acquired the assets of Rotary Rocket (whose Roton promised to revolutionise the whole space biz, until NASA stomped on it). Now they're getting ready to build and sell a Messerschmitt 163B Komet rocket-plane replica!

The original Me-163 was fairly notorious for killing more of its own pilots and ground crew than the Allied bombers it was supposed to shoot down, but XCOR claim to have sorted out the teething troubles and come up with a new, improved, slightly safer version. Let's hope they're right.

Posted at 18:34 # G

Mon, 22 Apr 2002

The Number of the Beast
Ha'aretz has a lengthy and illuminating interview with Jean Marie le Pen, the skeleton in the closet of French politics (whose jangling entrance onto the world stage by making it through to the final run-off of the presidential election is generating headlines right now).

Writing this guy off as a simple neo-nazi doesn't work: he's a whole lot more complex than that, and even if he loses he's just caused an earthquake in French (and broader EU) politics.

Not that you'd catch me voting for him if I lived in France ...

Link (via Junius)
Posted at 21:26 # G

The Golden Age of Wireless
GNU Radio is "a collection of software that when combined with minimal hardware, allows the construction of radios where the actual waveforms transmitted and received are defined by software. What this means is that it turns the digital modulation schemes used in today's high performance wireless devices into software problems."


Let's run that again: digital signal processors (DSPs) in computers are now powerful enough that they can do real-time fourier analysis of the signal from a DAC, decoding radio broadcasts. They can also do the same job in reverse. GNU Radio is about taking a computer and turning it into the ultimate Ham radio rig -- one that can monitor every short wave band simultaneously, receive and decode GPS signals, double as a digital cellphone, maybe receive colour TV broadcasts -- and all in software.

Early days, but a revolutionary future.

Posted at 14:37 # G

Sun, 21 Apr 2002

Religious Meme du Jour ...
The Church of Virus wishes to infect you with their atheist meme-complex.

BAIT: The part of a meme-complex that promises to benefit the host (usually in return for replicating the complex). The bait usually justifies, but does not explicitly urge, the replication of a meme-complex. (Donald Going, quoted by Hofstadter.) Also called the reward co-meme. (In many religions, "Salvation" is the bait, or promised reward; "Spread the Word" is the hook. Other common bait co-memes are "Eternal Bliss", "Security", "Prosperity", "Freedom".) (See hook; threat; infection strategy.)

I wonder if these guys have cross-infected with the Reformed Church of Tipler, Astrophysicist?

Link Discuss singularity
Posted at 22:44 # G

Sat, 20 Apr 2002

Interview with the shameless self-publicist
Revolution SF interviewed me recently; their write-up is now on the web (see link).

Link (Achtung: flash!) Discuss shameless self-promotion
Posted at 15:52 # G

Greens discover Vinge
Earth Island Journal has woken up to the ideas the Extropians have been kicking around for the past decade, and they're not sure they like them. It's going to be very interesting to see what happens when the environmentalist movement finally absorbs the true implications of molecular nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. (Charlie's prediction: they'll split, into a generally technophobic body and a smaller "green extropian" group, both of whom will denounce the other side as traitors.)

It's a damned shame Bell's analysis in this article is so superficial: what with the most brain-dead critique of transhumanism and progress emanating from the likes of conservative Francis Fukuyama, and the left mostly unable to make sense of any issue to have arisen since the end of the age of mass production, we badly need an informed, intelligent critique of the transhuman agenda. Because without antithesis you don't get synthesis -- and the thesis itself is breathing down our neck already.

Link (via Damien Broderick) Discuss singularity
Posted at 11:51 # G

Fri, 19 Apr 2002

Hugo shortlist
This is probably only going to interest you if you read SF -- but the 2002 Hugo shortlist is up on the web, and I can now tell you that the news I've been sitting on for the past week is that I'm on it! Whee!

Link Discuss shameless self-promotion
Posted at 08:25 # G

Thu, 18 Apr 2002

Archos jukebox tips
The Archos Jukebox and Jukebox Recorder can play m3u playlists.

If you're running Linux or MacOS you can build playlists trivially easily. Believe it or not, a playlist is simply a text file containing a list of UNIX-style pathnames of mp3 files. Give it the suffix .m3u and the Jukebox recorder will recognize it.

When you plug a Jukebox into a Mac running OS X, it will show up in your filesystem somewhere like /Volume/JUKEBOX20. Where it shows up under Linux depends on where you choose to mount it, but usually somewhere like /mnt/jb.

To make a playlist of all the mp3's in a directory called something like /Volume/JUKEBOX20/foo, open a terminal window and type the following:

cd /Volume/JUKEBOX20/foo
find . -type f -name '*.mp3' -print > playlist.m3u

I have a two-level directory hierarchy on my recorder, with bandname/albumname as the tree. To make a playlist for all the tunes by each band in my Jukebox, I run the following shell script under bash (warning: bash doesn't come with MacOS X but you can install it using fink):

cd /Volumes/JUKEBOX20
for foo in *
   cd $foo
   find . -type f -name '*.mp3' > $foo.m3u
   cd ..

So for a directory called banshees, this will create a playlist called banshees.m3u in that directory, containing every track found below that directory.

Discuss mp3
Posted at 18:00 # G

Banging heads on the Israeli/Palestinian question
Most other blogs I'm reading currently seem to be obsessed with the Israel/Palestine problem. I've been trying to avoid it, for a variety of mostly personal reasons -- especially because there's a rather nasty note of Europhobia emanating from many American blogs, and it seems to find its focus on this particular issue. However, Timothy Garton Ash, writing in The Guardian, has come up with an eminently sensible summary of the situation, and if you're remotely interested in the meta-argument -- the argument between parties trying to influence the situation from outside, rather than the Israeli/Palestinian conflict itself -- this should be compulsory reading.

Link Discuss 9/11
Posted at 12:42 # G

Making money by giving things away for free
Eric Flint has a really interesting article up on Baen's website explaining how giving away free e-copies of his books has actually increased sales of the paper version.

This won't come as any surprise to those of you who know about the Napster effect: readers or listeners like to sample the product before they buy. As Courtney Love put it, "stealing our copyright provisions in the dead of night when no-one is looking is piracy. It's not piracy when kids swap music over the Internet using Napster. There were one billion downloads last year but music sales are way up, so how is Napster hurting the music industry? It's not. The only people who are scared of Napster are the people who have filler on their albums and are scared that if people hear more than one single they're not going to buy the album."

The book biz doesn't have quite the same issue of huge rapacious monopolies that the music industry has -- unless you class the big distributors, Ingram and Amazon and (in the UK) Menzies and Smiths in that category. These companies can make or break a book by simply not stocking it, so that bookstores never receive copies and readers browsing the shelves can't find them. E-books go some way to redress the problem, by letting readers take a gamble on a work by some author they haven't heard of -- but only if those e-books are cheap or free and not copy-disabled.

What's most interesting about this is that Flint is able to give precise sales figures, before-and-after a free e-book release. And they look pretty convincing, from where I'm sitting.

Link Discuss copyright-censorsh ip
Posted at 11:27 # G

Wed, 17 Apr 2002

More on the EU/GATT business ...
Neel Krishnaswami sent me an interesting perspective on the whole deal; here it is (reprinted in full with his permission).

You wrote:

> It looks like the European Commission has decided to start throwing
> its weight around, in a far less camera-worthy but fundamentally
> much more effective manner than the US war on terrorism.

This, I doubt. For example, in the US we theoretically abolished farm subsidies in 1994, with the Freedom to Farm act. However, every year since then, the Congress has voted in "emergency" subsidies to US farmers, with periodic attempts to reinstate them on a permanent basis. It's amazingly hard to get rid of farm subsidies -- Sisyphus had an easier task than farm reformers.

It's a classic problem from social choice theory: the benefits to the special interest are large, but the costs of the subsidy are diffused across the whole population. So the special interest is motivated to fight for the subsidy, and the general public isn't motivated to fight against it. I see no reason to doubt that the same mechanisms are at work in both the EU as in the US.

> And the question needs to be asked, where the hell did this
> stealthed policy initiative come from?

That one is obvious -- it's an essential prerequisite for EU expansion.

When countries like Poland and the Czech Republic join the EU, the CAP in its present form becomes so expensive as to be unsustainable. But leaving it as it is for the existing members and excluding new members from it also won't fly, because the Poles and the Czechs and the Turks are not going to be happy joining an EU that taxes the poor East to subsidize rich French farmers. However, the easterners could live with a no-subsidy regime, because their labor is relatively cheaper than in the industrial west.

Even in the US, I've been reading news reports about Polish calls for eliminating the CAP for months now. It looks like Brussels has decided to see how many reforms and improvements it can extract from the rest of the world in exchange for bowing to the inevitable requirements of expansion.

> I dunno about you, but as an EU voter I find these documents
> somewhat alarming. They sure as hell don't reflect the position of
> the MEPs that I voted into Parliament, or that of the European
> Parliamentary majority. [...] I think the scheduled overhaul of the
> EU's constitutional system has just edged up a notch in priority.

I bet you that you voted for candidates in favor of EU expansion, too. Which do you think is more important -- EU expansion or maintaining the current levels of state regulation? Which do you think your representatives think is more important?

My gut feeling is that there's a pretty good chance that the best of the current round of applicants will get in, with crufty hacks to the CAP to keep it from becoming too expensive. (It won't go away altogether, mind, because it's a farm subsidy and hence immortal.) Then that's the end of EU expansion as the amount of reform needed to make expansion work will become too high to be politically feasible.

So there it is, folks. Clearing the deck for EU expansion? You be the judge.

Discuss EU
Posted at 19:43 # G

Today's Excuse ...
Dammit, I give up.

After two or three years of working in my study at home, a pair of Altec Lansing computer speakers are simply not good enough, especially now the Archos mp3 jukebox has arrived. In between writing this week's feature I spent a few hours in MacOS X, doing the rip/mix/burn thing with iTunes -- onto the jukebox rather than a CD. (It works fine as a USB 1.1 device under OS X -- still trying to figure out the Vulcan nerve-pinch to get Linux/PPC to recognize it's there, but I haven't spent much time trying so far.)

So I headed out to Richer Sounds, vendors of discontinued and extremely cheap component stereos, and came home with a Cambridge A1 Mk3 amplifier and a pair of Mission 702e speakers. We're talking baby HiFi gear here, not a patch on the big system in the living room, but a good fifteen years newer and quite sufficient to fill my study with noise to the point where Feorag (at the other end of the flat) couldn't hear the computer while playing Alpha Centauri. Talking Heads at more decibels than you're supposed to use with a pair of headphones: mmm, yeah, same as it ever was.

I still have to fight the urge to goose the volume control from time to time. 300 CD's on random play! It's not audiophile grade, but it's good enough for easy listening and then some.

Hmm. Wonder if I should write it up for Shopper? I mean, why do we put up with tinny bookshelf speakers on our computers when, for the same price as one of those Harmon Kardon jellyfish-shaped things Apple are pushing you can buy a genuine entry-level HiFi amp and speakers?

Link Discuss hifi
Posted at 17:45 # G

Sleeping economic superpower emits malodorous bed-fart
Lots of countries -- including the US -- have had a go at the EU over the years, in an attempt to get the EU to drop tarrif barriers and end the Common Agricultural Policy, thus allowing imports of cheap food products from outside the EU.

But I bet they weren't expecting the EU to roll over and say "sure we'll do that, just as long as you put your house in order at the same time", and present them with a list like the one The Guardian has just come up with.

It looks like a bunch of neo-conservative policy wonks have taken over Brussels -- they're offering to dismantle the CAP and open the EU up wide to foreign competition, just as long as other countries do the same thing. Like, er, the State of New York -- did you know that you can't be a real estate broker in NY unless you're a US citizen? Or that common carrier radio licenses in the US can only be granted to US citizens or US corporations that have less than 20% common stock owned by foreigners? Oh, and they want the US to privatize its Postal Service; after all, if the EU is going to go in for doctrinaire free-market competition in parcel and courier services, they don't see why the USA should be allowed to carry on running it as a state monopoly.

It gets weirder, and a little bit nastier. The EU's born-again Thatcherites aren't just gunning for the bad old protectionist crypto-socialist USA; they want Paraguay to privatise its postal system too, and to open up their drinking water, sewerage, environmental protection, and energy markets to foreign competition. Japan is required to open up intra-corporate work permits for employees of foreign companies, remove equity ceilings for foreign investors in telcos, open up their banking system, and so on.

What's going on?

It looks like the European Commission has decided to start throwing its weight around, in a far less camera-worthy but fundamentally much more effective manner than the US war on terrorism. The cause it has thrown its weight behind is the economic level playing field -- to open up world-wide markets to competition, something that all the governments concerned pay lip-service to but are less than enthusiastic about when it comes to actually letting pesky foreigners into their featherbedded monopolies.

I dunno about you, but as an EU voter I find these documents somewhat alarming. They sure as hell don't reflect the position of the MEPs that I voted into Parliament, or that of the European Parliamentary majority. Picking on the US or Japan over legislation that excludes foreigners who live there from working in local industries is one thing; demanding that third world countries privatise their sanitation, power, telecoms, and other core infrastructure sectors is another, and has a nasty reek of neo-colonialism to it.

And the question needs to be asked, where the hell did this stealthed policy initiative come from?

I think the scheduled overhaul of the EU's constitutional system has just edged up a notch in priority.

Posted at 11:20 # G

Tue, 16 Apr 2002

It's a slow day, or slow week ...
Sorry if I'm not updating this often enough for you; in the aftermath of Helicon and a trip down to see my parents, I'm feeling a bit burned out and meanwhile grappling with not being ahead of schedule on a bunch of feature articles. (Not being Ahead of Schedule is bad, because if you are hit by a bus or come down with a dose of summer 'flu you very rapidly fall Behind Schedule, and then you don't get paid. And I like being paid.)

In the meantime, you might (or might not) want to catch up with Goats: the comic strip (see link). Goats is, well ... it appeals to my sense of the bizarre, and it's got good taste in beer.

Posted at 17:43 # G

Mon, 15 Apr 2002

Russia is not a NATO member ...
So what's going on?

In a bizarre diplomatic reverse takeover gambit, Russia refrained from joining NATO today. Instead, Russia is to join a joint NATO-Russia concil that will, er, oversee most of NATO's defensive and anti-terrorist activities and formulate common defense policy. So you see, Russia isn't a member of NATO, honest.

If you'd predicted this in 1982, people would have accused you of perpetrating science fiction. Feh: truth really is stranger than ....

Posted at 21:30 # G

Damon Knight, RIP
Damon Knight, gone -- yet another of the Old Ones.

I didn't know him, but Cory Doctorow did.

Link (via boingBoing)
Posted at 17:37 # G

The one true editor, now with added KDE
The One True Text Editor (which I've written more than one novel with) has now acquired a really cool, comprehensive KDE interface!

I'm so excited -- being a sad geek, this has really made my day. (Or it would have if not for the arrival of my Archos MP3 jukebox recorder and a much more important piece of news that I'm not allowed to talk about for a week.)

Posted at 17:36 # G

Fri, 12 Apr 2002

Away wi' ye

I'm buggering off to Leeds for the weekend, to upgrade my sister's Mac and see my parents. I probably won't be updating my blog until I get home.

Posted at 16:45 # G

Let's hear it for the Senator from Disney
The US Senate has a feedback form for posting public opinions about the CDBTPA. Here's what I just sent them:

I'd like to note my complete support for the CBDTPA.

I understand that virtually nobody else has said anything positive about this Act. That's because virtually everybody who has contacted you to discuss the Act so far is American. I'm not American, and I'd like to congratulate you on this most excellent piece of legislation, which will do more for the European computer, software, and music industries than any amount of pork our own legislators could have given us.

This Act is wonderful. At a stroke, you're crippling your software industry, destroying your nascent open source infrastructure, putting all your unsigned bands and hopeful novelists back behind the counter at McDonald's, and giving your computer and electronics vendors a huge ball and chain to lug around.

You'll also have given a big hand to Hollywood and the music industry -- a $35Bn turnover sector -- and successfully trashed the electronics, software and hardware industries -- upstarts whose $600Bn turnover is of no account. In so doing, you will have helped advance the USA to the status Imperial Britain aspired to in 1902 -- that of has-been former superpower.

If you pass this act, I will be sure to express my gratitude for the resulting pay rises and improved employment opportunities -- in Scotland and the rest of the EU, and indeed the developed world -- in writing.

Thank you, and good luck.

Link Discuss copyright-censorship
Posted at 16:45 # G

Thu, 11 Apr 2002

Political drift
I'm aghast: I just read an opinion piece in The Guardian, written by the Home Secretary, and found myself nodding.

Either I've turned into a conservative overnight, or for the first time since the late 1980's we've got a Home Secretary (read: Minister For Locking People Up and Saying 'No' no Immigrants) who's actually talking sense -- and, more importantly, resisting the urge to pander to the pull-up-the-drawbridge instincts of the Little Englander crowd.

Examining myself in the mirror I see no signs of creeping Torydom. So ...

This country needs immigration. More importantly, it needs to learn from the United States how to build a melting-pot culture that takes the best that everyone can offer. There are some signs of this, but historically we haven't been very good at it -- and things took a catastrophic turn for the worse in 1970, after Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech. Since then, no Home Secretary has dared to talk in terms of encouraging immigration -- at least, not until now.

Link Discuss immigration
Posted at 16:34 # G

Wed, 10 Apr 2002

Letter to Congress
Here's an open letter by Wendy Grossman to Howard Coble of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property.

All I can say is, everything she says goes for me, too. (Only as I'm not a US citizen I won't be writing to my congressman -- I'll be nobbling my MP as and when any equivalent enquiry comes up.)

Link Discuss copyright-censorsh ip
Posted at 22:30 # G

That Archos mp3 recorder ...
I just cancelled my order via Dabs Direct, after waiting for two whole weeks with the "expected in ..." counter inching up the days instead of down. No reflection on Dabs, whose customer service is fine, but it seems like you can't get the Jukebox Recorder 20 for love nor money anywhere in the UK. I found a Jukebox 20 (without the recording bits) at Dixons, and the Jukebox Recorder 6000 (read: 6Gb disk, not 20Gb) at PC World, but neither stock the Jukebox Recorder 20 -- and all the online vendors are awaiting stock. Hmm.

So I went and ordered one from the factory, instead. I've held off doing so until now because their ecommerce system won't do business with anything except Microsoft Internet Exploiter, and forcing myself to touch icky Redmondware qualifies as an extreme measure. But desperation won out, and if they are out of stock, I think it's game over time.

Some desultory digging in the meantime gave me some useful clues. Fact: apparently the Archos mp3 jukeboxes work fine with Linux, as long as you use the USB UHCI driver and treat it as a USB mass storage device. The disk has a FAT32 format; great for backing up those essential files as well as playing music.

Like almost all digital music recording gear, the Archos recorders are hampered by the thrice-cursed RIAA's idiotic SCMS (serial copying management scheme) firmware, which is intended to prevent you making multiple digital copies -- you can record MP3s from audio sources or rip your own disks on your computer, but as soon as you use the digital audio line in your bitstream is being scummed by the RIAA. However you don't need a fifty-pound breadboard to filter out the SCMS codes; see for details (no, I'm not making that a proper clickable link -- word is that the RIAA have web trawler bots looking for URLs).

Finally, it's possible to upgrade the hard disk in Archos jukeboxes; the guys linked to below provide full instructions and will sell you a ready-upgraded Jukebox 6000 if you ask them nicely.

Link Discuss mp3
Posted at 15:57 # G

Tue, 9 Apr 2002

More on religion
I just finished copy-typing (from memory) 2500 words of deathless prose about configuring a Linux box as a Macintosh file server, then added another thousand words for good measure. (Ouch, say my fingers.) Then I checked my mailbox.

I'm going to assume that this message isn't a troll, and respond to it in all earnestness. I'm not going to identify the author other than to say that he wasn't my evangelical stalker of the other week:


I'd like to buy Toast: And Other Rusted Futures.

Can you please tell me whether it contains anything Christians may find blasphemous?

Let's start by getting a few things -- namely, my position on religion -- down straight:

  • I am not a Christian
  • None of my ancestors were Christian
  • I did not have a Christian upbringing
  • I am, by choice, an agnostic with atheist leanings; my partner is a pagan with agnostic leanings
  • I have a knee-jerk distrust of all organized religious bodies (read: I have anti-clericalist sympathies)
  • I instinctively take a maximally skeptical view of all religious assertions that cannot be subjected to disproof via testing

What does this mean?

What it means is, as I wrote to my questioner, I'm not a Christian so I can't really say what might or might not give offense. It really depends on how flexible-minded the Christian in question is -- some of the stories contain viewpoints or attitudes which might cause intense irritation due to their irreverence. But there's nothing in this collection that's of the same order as, say, a short story about a day in the life of Jesus Christ, Rent Boy, or even the average novel by that well-known Bible-basher Greg Egan. Christianity is irrelevant to my fiction for the simple reason that I am not a Christian.

Looking deeper, I'm not happy with the attitude behind the question. "Please can you warn me off if you think your book might cause offense" -- translation: "my belief system is too fragile to survive criticism". There's also an implicit call for censorship -- "if you write stories criticial of Christianity I will not buy them". Although the reader has every right not to buy something he doesn't agree with, the mere idea of ideological filtration is one that I'm unhappy about. (This is because I'm a hairy bearded Liberal who believes in core Liberal values like freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and 'most anything you can put "freedom" in front of that doesn't tread on somebody else's toes. Clue: I am not using the word "Liberal" in the American political sense.) Finally, there's the implicit idea that Christian values are the central reference point for culture. Would any reader ask an author if, say, their short story collection contained anything that might cause offense to Odinists? To devout Orthodox Leninists? To Goths? There's a stench of Ptolemaic cultural absolutism here that hints that anything that deviates from Christianity is, well, deviant -- relegated to the outer epicycles of a Christian-centric solar system.


I don't write fiction about Christianity because for me it's a boring subject. I couldn't write anything positive about it, and writing negatives would both annoy the Christian readers and bore the atheist ones. Besides, the thing I dislike about evangelical Christians isn't their Christianity -- it's their evangelizing at me. (And the thing I most hate about, say, Pat Robertson, isn't his belief structure, but the fact that he wants to make it the law even for people who don't share it. Your rights stop at the tip of my nose, etc.)

How do you think I should have replied to this one?

Discuss fundies
Posted at 21:05 # G

Wrote 2500 words this morning, part of an ongoing feature I'm writing. Backed it up in a fit of absent-mindedness, then went for a walk. Got home to discover that in my absent-minded fit I had scribbled the previous (1500 word) version of the article across all my careful (4000 word) final copy. Guess what? rsync, the wonderful file synchronization tool, doesn't delete files that it's decided to shorten -- it cunningly and efficiently truncates them in such a way that not even attacking the filesystem with a debugger can get your data back. And as I burned everything onto a CD-RW last night, but had this fit of work this morning, I've lost the lot. So I'm busy copy-typing from memory, and I hope you'll understand if there are no updates to this blog for the rest of the day.
Posted at 17:50 # G

Mon, 8 Apr 2002

Senseless acts of hackery

I am not going to switch to running my blog on my laser printer. But don't let that stop you ....

Posted at 19:26 # G

Where do you live?
I dunno about you, but I live around here. Sort of puts all the heat and noise over the Middle East in a different perspective, doesn't it?

Posted at 16:42 # G

Replies about Brooks
Phew, I got a full mailbox over my rant about David Brooks' article.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden took me to task: "exactly where do you actually substantiate your remarks about what Gary Farber wrote? To read your intro, you'd think Gary had praised Brooks to the skies, which is a long way from what he actually wrote."

Sorry Patrick (and sorry, Gary): I was unclear. When I wrote that sometimes his blog makes me groan, I should have phrased it as "sometimes the topics he chooses make me groan" instead. Gary is sensible; it's the attention that the obviously partisan and highly dubious Brooks article is getting in the blogging world that makes me want to tear my hair out. It seems from where I'm standing that most bloggers love nothing better than to stumble across a biased op-ed piece disguised as reportage that appeals to their less-considered prejudices, then parade around with the bloody trophy on a stick.

Someone (who said they were from New Zealand) said -- '"we decadent Europeans have a better quality of life than you over-worked and hassled Americans" -- So what's the rate of immigration from the United States to the EU, and vice versa?'

I'd respond to that question with the answer that, quite simply, it's a category error. People don't usually up stakes and move halfway around the world because of a 10% income differential; the disparity between EU and US incomes is sufficiently narrow that you don't need to do that. In contrast, both the US and EU have major immigration issues with people trying to enter from third-world countries. (I gather the EU immigration problem hasn't made much news in the US, but it's big news over here; I don't have figures to hand, but net immigration into the EU on the order of several hundred thousand people per year seems about right.)

Bill Lazar offers his take on the Brooks article: "But Stross does err in asserting that America is a global empire on autopilot. Unquestionably America and Americans are the dominant global forces these days but we are hardly an empire and hardly monolithic, even in the moneyed classes who control what force the country does have. And I don't believe we're on autopilot either."

Which, in my opinion, is missing the point: you don't have to have some guy with a crown sitting on a throne in order to have an imperial system, and the 'autopilot' doesn't mean there's nobody home -- it means that the imperial system runs on a set of well-oiled rules rather than the say-so of imperial governors, so that there's no man on a white horse to complain to when times are hard. But maybe I should be taking this up on the Clueless comments

Discuss 9/11
Posted at 14:00 # G

Sun, 7 Apr 2002

Social structures and fundamentalism

Here's a fascinating review of "What went wrong" by Bernard Lewis. Unlike the David Brooks article, this one actually sounds as if both the author of the book and the reveiwer know what they're talking about -- and they're not using a hammer to drive in a cross-head screw.

Link Discuss 9/11
Posted at 15:41 # G

Blogging and Bollocks
Blogging irritates me. (Other people's blogging, that is.)

Take Gary Farber's Amygdala. Gary is a perceptive, intelligent, nice guy. Some of the stuff he comes up with is insightful, witty, and stimulating. And sometimes he manages to make me groan.

By way of an example, here's his take on an article by David Brooks in "The Weekly Standard". And here's my take ...

In this piece, Brooks defines a trend, which he labels as bourgeoisophobia: fear of merchants, artisans, and people who actually add value. To the extent that the people he points the finger at in this article said what he says they said, he's spot-on; there's been a nasty streak of contempt for the productive in western culture since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, this attitude appears to be common to the Islamic world as well, and these days the two groups that the bourgeoisophobes blame for all the ills of the world are Americans and Jews.

Except that Brooks is talking bollocks. Not 100% pure bullshit, just roughly 30% nonsense leavened with 40% irrelevance and 30% uncontroversial platitudes.

If I wrote a length essay about the history of American race relations, pointing out that many white Americans currently harbour prejudices against non-white Americans, I might be talking about a real phenomenon -- but I sure as hell wouldn't be aiding my case if the most recent racist I quoted was writing in the 1880's. Yet (with the exception of Arnold Toynbee) he manages to construct a damning case for European Americanophobia based on a hatred of the bourgeoisie ... based on 19th century sources.

When he gets onto the subject of Europe he goes off the rails in a most peculiar direction: "Europeans, of course, are bourgeois themselves, even more so in some ways than Americans and Israelis. What they distrust about America and Israel is that these countries represent a particularly aggressive and, to them, unbalanced strain of bourgeois ambition. No European would ever acknowledge the category, but America and Israel are heroic bourgeois nations."

Huh? What's this? He's just treated us to a review of the brutalist school of anti-bourgeois philosophy, which is nothing if not obsessed with the heroic ubermensch, he's just been beating the drum for the culture of capitalism ... then he declares that Europeans hate America and Israel because they're simultaneously bourgeois and anti-bourgeois?

It goes from surreal to arcane. "But Europeans do seek to deny them--because they simply can't remember what it's like to be imperially confident, to feel the forces of history blowing at one's back, to have heroic and even eschatological aspirations." Er, no. The last Europeans to feel the forces of history blowing at their backs were the jackbooted minions of Hitler's brutalist crusade. That's within living memory, and the scars haven't healed. In fact, those scars cover a deeper injury. In 1914, the cream of the young men of Europe marched off to a war that was guaranteed to be over by Christmas -- instead, they were massacred in windrows, a generation of the lost who died as a testament to the hideous dangerous of combining nationalism with imperialism and mass-produced weapons.

If Europeans are not passionate about stamping their mark on the world, it's not because "their intellectual guides have taught them that business is ignoble and striving is vulgar" but because we know at a gut level that this way lies madness, horror, and death.

What Brooks' article boils down to is a paen to romantic might-makes-right brutalism. He ascribes this very attitude to the enemies of bourgeois revolution as one of their defining attributes, then gleefully adopts it. In the process, he signally failed to convince me that he had made a case. Yes, the concept of bourgeoisiephobia is a useful one. Yes, the European chattering classes have overdone it, and the Islamic mediaevalists have lapped it up. But he's hopelessly confused about the relationship between rationalisations and goals in the minds of his opponents. Nor does he understand the real roots of Americanophobia in Europe and elsewhere.

His core error is that he fails to substantiate his main claim. Just pointing to European art-cafe intellectual opinion in the 19th century isn't going to win you points in this argument. Neither is arguing that welfare states are effete socialist institutions. (Does he even know that the first social security system in Europe was established by that well-known bleeding-heart liberal Otto von Bismarck? Or that for the past few years there's been a convincing body of evidence that employee productivity diminishes and then becomes negative if you overwork them, and presenteeism in the workplace is a net drain on corporate efficiency? Adequate vacations, good healthcare, working pensions ... condemning these in the name of some macho virile red-blooded industrial efficiency would seem to be ignoring the point that we decadent Europeans have a better quality of life than you over-worked and hassled Americans. So there.)

Now, let's back up to the real roots of Americanophobia. Here's a big clue, David: the USA runs an empire.

The US empire is unlike any other empire in history for three reasons: firstly, it's global in scope. Secondly, it operates with unparalleled efficiency. And thirdly, it operates on autopilot. (And that last point is where, I think, the problem arises.)

Empires rise when they make money and sink when they make a loss. The British empire used to be unique in that it was based on an explicit free trade zone, and made minimum use of soldiers and colonists from the home land; the US empire goes one step further, and doesn't even call itself an empire -- it's simply a trade zone within which you mess with the rules on pain of being crapped on by the 600lb gorilla sitting in the corner (who sets the prices and buys all your bananas).

Does this mean Americans are bad people? No. Does this mean the USA is a bad country? No. What would happen if the USA went away? Someone else would fill the power vacuum -- and maybe Beijing or Brussels would do a worse job of it. Certainly, if you gave me a choice between living under any imperial system in history (with no "none of the above" options on offer) I'd pick the current American trade hegemony as being the least unpleasant. But.

But -- as long as you're perceived to be profiting from someone else's labour, they'll resent you. And earlier empires, although less efficient, had this very important characteristic: there were imperial governors to go yell at (or petition) when times were hard and taxes were high. The free trade system based on GATT and the G10, itself a descendant of the Bretton-Woods agreement and the post-WW2 system, in contrast, is an empire on autopilot -- the throne is empty, if you don't like it there's nobody to complain to, and the rules have the force of nature. (After all, warm bodies in seats cost money, and this empire is in the business of cutting overheads, right?)

The result is that there's no mechanism for defusing resentment -- nobody who can nod wisely and relax the purse-strings so that the unruly natives can go back home thinking they've won concessions, however small they might be.

The EU occupies a special niche in this system: a collective of coat-tail hangers-on, a mob of chimps who collectively outweigh the gorilla, but individually are afraid to say "boo" to it. For the 90% of the time when the gorilla's interests align with the chimps, there are no problems; but occasionally a wasp stings the gorilla and the ensuing noise upsets the other apes. Coalition building comes naturally to a tribe of chimps -- why be surprised when they do what comes naturally?

Brooks' other accusations against the islamic reactionaries hold water. So does the essay he cites at the New York Review of Books here. What he misses is that there is an islamic country that modernized more or less successfully -- Turkey, the rump of the former Ottoman empire. The plaints and terrorists come from those states that have retained their colonial role, migrating from Ottoman satrapies through British and French rule to tenuous integration in the American-mediated trade system. With no direct colonial oppressors to rail against -- no foreign troops occupying their territory -- they go for the only target they can see: the imperial hub at the centre of the free trade zone.

If it wasn't America that was at the centre and hated for it, it'd be someone else -- Beijing or Brussels, probably. Which leaves us with the question -- how to get rid of the hatred? Currently there seem to be two schools of thought: build an equitable system with no engineered- in-injustice, or don't worry, just bomb anyone who goes beyond words to deeds.

I think both these answers are wrong. But I'm not going to say what I think is right until I've thought about it some more. Unlike Brook, I don't want to go off half-cocked.

Discuss 9/11
Posted at 14:34 # G

Sat, 6 Apr 2002

Chlorophyll on Mars?

Looks like Mars Pathfinder has found more than just water on Mars:

The Nasa team has looked at the so-called Superpan, a high-resolution, highly processed series of superimposed images produced by Pathfinder's camera, which was able to examine a range of spectral wavelengths.

The researchers wrote a computer program that looked for the spectral signature associated with red light absorption by chlorophyll.

Six regions of the Superpan matched positive for the chlorophyll signature. For each of the regions, a full spectrum was plotted out and the exact position in the Superpan was carefully examined.

All the detections occurred close to the camera - as would be expected because these were the areas where the camera had the highest sensitivity and resolution.

Close examination revealed that four of the cases occurred on the Pathfinder spacecraft itself, but two regions showed a chlorophyll signature in the soil around Pathfinder.

Posted at 08:56 # G

Fri, 5 Apr 2002

It doesn't smell of roses

According to New Scientist, Sanyo Electric has filed for a patent (WO0216915) for, well, an air inlet, light source, and fluourescent chemical signal that lights up when a particular gas is present.

"Look closely at the abstract, Steele suggests ... we did. The patent is for a "chemical sensor [which] contains a bovine origin odor-binding protein".

In other words, a bullshit detector.

(Yes, it checks out.)

Posted at 17:01 # G

All they need now is Bluetooth ...

Link Discuss
Posted at 09:32 # G

Wed, 3 Apr 2002



Link Discuss
Posted at 18:53 # G

I really love the first day back after a con, with looming work deadlines, two suitcases full of stinky clothing to wash, and a pile of unwanted letters -- like the one from Edinburgh council saying, in effect, "while we were fixing the roof on your block we discovered a new problem, so unless you protest in writing within seven days we're going to go ahead and fix it and bill you for it". Posted the day of my departure, right before a bank holiday, second-class ...

Posted at 16:51 # G

Monday was a little frenetic, and very hot -- nobody in Jersey seems to have discovered air conditioning. Staggering somewhat from Feorag's revelation that Guernsey over Easter is even duller than the Isle of Lewis (she only went there so she could try out a Trislander STOL, and was so bored she ended up walking back to the airport from town, just for something to do) I managed to verify that the only life in Jersey was in the con bar.

The Clarke Award panel was moderately entertaining. Of the six books on the short-list, we concluded that the only one everybody agreed shouldn't get the award was the Peter Hamilton one ("Fallen Dragon") -- which means it's almost certain to win, the Eastercon panel having been tragically wrong four years in a row. On the other hand, if you haven't read it already I'd strongly recommend you grab a copy of "Pashazade" by Jon Courtney Grimwood. It's one of my two odds-on favourites for the Clarke award, and the newly- published sequel "Effendi" is even better. Basically, he's re-examining the territory George Alec Effinger staked out in the eighties, but he's a better writer (and he's discovering it for himself -- I surprised him by mentioning Effinger, an author he's only heard of by name. Ah, well.)

I'm going to cut the conreport wibble short -- if you're interested you'll be getting it from elsewhere, and most likely you're not -- but before I cut back to the real world I think I ought to mention the pecularities of British European Airways. They're a nice airline -- especially if you like the throb of turboprops -- but why on earth did they need to offload us at Birmingham, run us through customs, trail us around the terminal, then lead us back in through security ... and back onto the same aircraft? It's not as if Edinburgh doesn't have a Customs checkpoint.
Posted at 16:47 # G

Mon, 1 Apr 2002


Dragged myself up the hill on legs that felt like dry sticks, head pounding and mouth feeling like a catacomb --

No, wrong universe.

Instead, I ended up in the main auditorium, listening to con bids for the 2004 Eastercon. One of which turned out to be an alternate universe bid, offering a choice of an infinite number of possible versions of the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool.

(Then the real bids came on-stage and offered us a choice between the Raddison Edwardian Hotel out in the wilderness around Heathrow -- blech! -- and the Winter Gardens in Blackpool.)

The Winter Gardens won, luckily. But I didn't find this out for a while; I was busy exploiting the opportunity to grill Harry Turtledove about his writing techniques ("so, how many drafts do you go through?")

The rest of the day went in a blur, intermittently punctuated by panels ("So, tell me, professor Stross, what is the Singularity, and how do we get one?" "Nuke Redmond") and then the catastrophe of the real ale bar running out of XXXXXX. Horrors: we were assured that there was a perfect replacement for the aqua vitae -- in the form of Boddington's. Gack.
Posted at 11:33 # G

Eldred v. Ashcroft: Free the Mouse!


"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

Who I am:

obligatory short bio

Buy my book (Toast):


Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Boing!Boing! ][ Electrolite (PNH) ][ Junius (Chris Bertram) ][ Amygdala (Gary Farber) ][ The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ][ This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ][ Tangent Online ][ Grouse Today ][ Hacktivismo ][ Pagan Prattle ][ Anton Sherwood ][ Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ][ Muslimpundit ][ Martin Wisse ][ The Stationmaster ][ Take it as Red ][ Anna Feruglio Dal Dan ][ Kuro5hin ][ Advogato ][ Linux Weekly News ][ The Register ][ Cryptome ][ New World Disorder ][ Technoptimist (Duncan Frissell) ][ Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ][ Simon Bisson's Journal ][ Max Sawicky's weblog ][ Gabe Choinard ][ Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ][ NTKnow ][ Encyclopaedia Astronautica ][ BBC News (Scotland) ][ Pravda ][ Meerkat open wire service ][ Die, Puny Humans! (Warren Ellis) ][ D-Squared Digest ]

Older stuff:

October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

What I'm listening to:

(Back soon)

Dead trees:

Just read: (review-o-matic)

"The Sacred Art of Stealing" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 4.8/5 Brookmyre does it again, in this sequel to "A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away". Dadaist bank robbers and cops with personal problems combine in a comedy of criminal manners. Colour me green with envy. (I'm now up-to-date on Brookmyre, and I don't know whether to be happy or sad that there's no more to read until next year.)

"Ghost of the White Nights" (L. E. Modesitt) - 3.7/5 Spy thriller and third in series set in alternate world where ghosts are real, observable phenomena -- and history has turned out rather different. Cloak and dagger intrigue between a Dutch-dominated North America and the Tsar's military in an alternate 21st century Moscow, slightly spoiled by the plot McGuffin being nearly identical to the previous two books.

"Whole Wide World" (Paul MacAuley) - 4.9/5 Writing like Christopher Brookmyre on downers, MacAuley -- one of the UK's best practitioners of the art of hard-SF -- paints an incredibly bleak near-future internet-saturated picture of crime and punishment in the 21st century. Unmissable, and believable.

"The Praxis" (Walter Jon Williams) - 4.2/5 The kind of good old-fashioned space opera that keeps you up 'til three in the morning to see what happens next; first volume of a trilogy, the fall of the Alexandrian Empire with added aliens and intrigue.

"Dead Air" (Iain Banks) - 3.5/5 Unflinching and sharp character profile of a self-destructive wanker immolating himself wilfully. It's beautifully written, but by the time I got three-quarters of the way through it I found myself giving up due to lack of empathy with the protagonist. Who needs a serious kicking.

"Quite Ugly One Morning" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 4.0/5 Brookmyre's first novel, a bit less developed and slick than subsequent products but still amusing and with a rather brutal portrait of the mind of a classic Tory wide-boy villain.

"The Merchant of Souls" (John Barnes) - 4.1/5 Third volume in sequence beginning with "A Million Open Doors" and "Earth Made of Glass" -- innovative space-operatic stuff with a heavy emphasis on experiences of acculturation and loss. Paints a bleak picture of an Earth so engrossed in hedonistic solipsism that ... well, read it if you liked the first two. (I did, and I'll read the next.)

"The Duke of Uranium" (John Barnes) - 3.2/5 Lightweight fluffy kids adventure: Barnes in make-money-fast mode.

"The Collapsium" (Wil McCarthy) - 4.6/5 Picaresque hard-SF comedic throwback to the heroically cardboard days of Hugo Gernsback style ripping space opera yarns, while nevertheless being a throw-forward to a new awareness of character detail in that sub-field -- not to mention being the first to get into print with a whole new family of technologies based on structured matter of a rather exotic variety! McCarthy makes it onto my automatic-buy-in-hardcover list with this one.

"Limit of Vision" (Linda Nagata) - 4.0/5 Competent biotech/hard-SF yarn from Linda Nagata; experiment involving self-replicating neural life forms goes awry, ends up scattered across chunks of Vietnamese jungle leaving protagonists infected with neural symbiotes in stand-off with scheming corporate bureaucrats. Still scratching head over what it all means. A 21st century "The Midwich Cuckoos", only with nanotech instead of aliens?

"Chindi" (Jack McDevitt) - 2.5/5 McDevitt perpetrates space opera again. He's good at characterisation, but his characters and their culture paint a picture of a star-faring 23rd century which is whitebread middle-America writ large. And I really wish he'd come up with a different plot skeleton -- this is the third or fourth novel in a row he's used the same structure for. (He's good at suspense and occasionally dreams up a new McGuffin, but it's getting tiresome.) Verdict: not quite bad enough to put down unfinished. Which is a shame, because he's capable of much better work.

"Declare" (Tim Powers) - 5.0/5 Oh wow. I am very glad I didn't read this before I wrote "A Colder War" or "The Atrocity Archive". Like the latter, it's an explicit cross-over between the occult and the traditional British spy thriller. However, Powers is treating his material with more respect, and his portrayal of Kim Philby as the nexus of a mind-bogglingly weird extension of The Great Game should by rights be one of the classics of the sub-genre. Can be read as an exegesis on faith, a straight thriller, a horror novel, or anything in between. Truly brilliant.

"The Eyre Affair" (Jasper Fforde) - 3.7/5 You may enjoy "The Eyre Affair" if you think self-referential literary conceits are fun, but I don't, and consequently I found it somewhat lightweight, even annoying. Inspector Thursday Next works for LiteraTec as a literary detective. The novel revolves around her pursuit of the dastardly villain Acheron Hades, who has been kidnapping characters from works of fiction and holding them to ransom. Some cute ideas, other aspects spoiled by the lack of polish: this really needed to be written by Eugene Byrne.

"Ares Express" (Ian Mcdonald) - 5.0/5 Why in hell wasn't this on the Clarke award shortlist, or better still, the winner? Ian Mcdonald does magical realism does terraformed Mars -- touching, surreal, funny, sad, knowingly self-aware and astoundingly sensual, this novel was clearly better than almost all other SF novels published in the UK last year, and its absence from the shortlist is little short of scandalous.

"Redemption Ark" (Alastair Reynolds) - 4.2/5 Al Reynolds, master of the dark space opera: his previous two novels ("Revelation Space" and "Chasm City") were both 600 page monoliths with a good 400 page novel struggling to get out, but he's got it right at the third attempt. Compelling, plot-driven, dark far-future SF with odd echos of Bruce Sterling's seminal "Schismatrix".

"The Sway of the Grand Saloon: A social history of the North Atlantic" (John Malcolm Brinnin) - 4.5/5 Magisterial and heavily researched history of trans-Atlantic steamers, with specific reference to the society and culture of the passengers they carried. Covers the period from roughly 1800 (with the early scheduled regular sailing packets) through to 1970.

"Permanence" (Karl Schroeder) - 4.0/5 Amazingly weird space opera that takes brown dwarf star systems, ubiquitous computing, digital rights management and the Fermi paradox seriously. Let down by characterisation quality, this nevertheless fizzes with ideas.

"Bouncing off the Moon" (David Gerrold) - 3.7/5 Middle volume of a trilogy: Gerrold is re-inventing the 1950's Heinlein juvenile. Competent technique, but he tends to preach and drags the plot mechanism along on a wire. (Did I really just confess to reading this?)

"A Big Boy Did it and Ran Away" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 4.8/5 Two students at a Scottish university try to form a rock band, with mixed results. Years later, one of them -- now an English teacher with a three-month-old kid -- sees the other across a crowded airport concourse. Which is odd, because he's supposed to be dead. Only he isn't: he's become the world's most wanted terrorist, and the shit is about to hit the fan in a way that only Brookmyre can deliver.

"Boiling a Frog" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 4.2/5 Another Parlabane novel -- this time less in love with the hero, and more thoughtful. Works well, but looks like it ought to end the series.

"One Fine Day in the middle of the Night" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 5.0/5 A Scottish high-school reunion crossed with Die Hard -- only it's much better than that. This time Brookmyre gets it right on all counts: it's the sort of novel Iain Banks would be writing if he was ten years younger and much, much angrier. Not to say funnier. (And he's pretty funny to begin with.) Wow!

"Country of the Blind" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 3.9/5 Not exactly bad, but clearly one in a series of novels about Jack Parlabane, enterprising investigative journalist (of the black-bag-job variety). Jack gets to stick it to a rather revolting politician, hard. Not the first in the series, and suffers a bit from the author clearly being a bit too in love with his hero -- but enjoyable for all that.

"Empire of Bones" (Liz Williams) - 4.1/5 Near-future SF. The aliens turn up, in the form of ambassadors from a huge, ancient empire ... and it turns out they're not interested in talking to western governments, scientists, or politicians. Instead, Jaya Nihalani, a fugitive Untouchable guerilla dying of a hideous disease, is singled out for their attention. There are wheels within wheels, and machinations between castes in the empire are going to cause earthquakes on Earth before long. Yes, it's an "aliens colonize Earth" novel. It's also an original and intelligent one that doesn't fall for the usual sad stereotypes.

"Not the end of the world" (Christopher Brookmyre) - 4.6/5 Whacky, extremely tight crime/conspiracy thriller centering around oceanographers, porn stars and barking mad fundamentalist preachers in LA. Well-rounded characterisation and a slick plot drag you into a Banksian exploration of the evils of religious fanaticism. Strongly recommended, and Brookmyre goes right onto my "buy on sight" list.

"Orbis" (Scott MacKay) - 0.0/5 Gave up halfway through. Characterisation shallow, basic conceit fun but implausible, background iffy, plot made of paper. (I'll give 0.0/5 for a book I gave up on after getting significantly into. I think if I'd finished it it would be on course for a 2/5, but life's too short.)

"The book of Jhereg" and "The book of Taltos" (Steven Brust) - 4.2/5 (Reprint collections of Brust's earlier Vlad Taltos novels -- heroic fantasy, but a breath of fresh air compared to most of that genre. Light reading, but fun: Brust has more talent in his little finger than Robert Jordan has in his -- no, let's not go there.)

"Bones of the Earth" (Michael Swanwick) - 4.4/5 Really truly excellent dinosaurs/time travel book, with a sting in the tale (spoiled slightly by the way the plot deconstructs to something isomorphic with Asimov's "The End of Eternity", but Swanwick is a much better writer than Asimov and it's still well worth reading)

"redRobe" (John Courtney Grimwood) - 4.0/5 (Enjoyably grim, violent, post-cyberpunkoid chase after the dead Pope's bank account details -- not in the same league as "Pashazade", but still worth reading)

"Schild's Ladder" (Greg Egan) - 3.9/5 (has structural and narrative problems)
"Effendi" (Jon Courtney Grimwood) - 4.9/5 (brilliant middle of a trilogy recapitulating George Alec Effinger's themes)
"Bold as Love" (Gwynneth Jones) - 4.5/5
"Mappa Mundi" (Justina Robson) - 4.1/5
"The British Spy Novel" (John Atkins) - 4.2/5
"Chronospace" (Allen Steele) - 2.9/5
"Vitals" (Greg Bear) - 3.8/5

Now reading:

"Citizens" (Simon Schama)
"The Scar" (China Mieville) (stalled)

To read:

(Way out of date -- I'll update this later)


Now let us peel back the foreskin of misconception and apply the wire brush of enlightenment (Geoff Miller, alt.peeves, 1992)

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