Charlie's Diary

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Sat, 24 Aug 2002

Worldcon Events

I'm off to San Jose for ConJose, the 60th world science fiction convention, at 6:30am on Wednesday. That means this blog will be updated erratically -- or not at all -- until after I get back on September 7th. I'll try to file a con report or two, but I make no promises.

These are the public events I'm scheduled to be at during ConJose. If you want a chat, you may be able to catch me after a panel, but don't bet on it -- I have a dismaying number of private engagements scheduled. Your best bet is the Kaffee Klatsch, which is specifically there to let you ask me questions, or to find me on Monday after the klatsch.

Date/Time Location Event
Thursday, August 29th 1600-1730CC A4 Panel, "Minor characters who stole the stage" - moderator. Discussion on what favorite minor characters authors and readers couldn't get out of their heads. With Laura Frankos and Mark W. Tiedmann (and possibly Kristine Smith).
Friday, 1130-1300Exhibit Hall 2 Autographing session
Friday, 1300-1430CC J2 Panel, "Distributed computing for fun and profit" - moderator. Microprocessors and their ilk are becoming more and more ubiquitous every day, your cellphone already has a processor in it that is more capable than it really needs -- how much longer until your phone company starts to sell cycles on your cell phone for computing profit, and where will that lead as wearables become available? With Corey Cole, Cory Doctorow, Brett Glass, and (I am not worthy!) Henry Spencer.
Friday, 1600-1730CC F Sidewise Awards - I'm there as proxy for Ken MacLeod, who's a nominee this year for "The Human Front" (but who'll be in Poland instead of San Jose), and for Steve Baxter and Simon Bradshaw (neither of whom can make it this year).
Friday, 1730-1900CC E Panel, "Searching for the future" t has been argued that the future is disappearing from sf and the past is taking its place -- that increasingly sf has come to be time travel, alternate history, faux futures full of nostalgic and retro elements, or outdated, shopworn futures with their roots in decades past. On this panel, writers and reviewers discuss where to find today's new, freshly imagined futures and who's writing them. What methods can writers use to escape the pull of the past and envision the future anew? What's the proper place of the past in a genre where the future has been its chief emblem and central concern? What's the future for? With Judith Berman, James Patrick Kelly, and David Marusek.
Saturday, 1130-1300CC A5 Panel, "Socialists in Kilts: Revolutionary Scottish SF, Stross, Banks and MacLeod" (this is going to be funny!). Iain Banks, a regular UK bestseller, writes space operas set in a post-scarcity, money-free Utopian society. Hugo-finalist Ken MacLeod, an ex-Trotskyite turned Libertarian, has written novels in which both communists and capitalists built their own semi-Utopian societies. In Charles Stross' Hugo-nominated "Lobsters," the Open-Source cultural politics collides head-on with Extropian exuberance to produce the first cyberpunk works that actually look like they were written in the 21st century. Calling all of them "Socialists" may be simplistic, but each has sketched out their own version of a post-Capitalist future.This panel examines their work in the context of the UK SF revival of the 1980s and 90s, what was so revolutionary about it, the changing politics and economics of Scotland, and which (if any) of their economic extrapolations might come to pass. With no Pat Cadigan (she can't make it), China Mieville, Lawrence Person, and Eric "libertarian? me?" Raymond.
Saturday, 1300-1400Exhibition hall Signing, Analog/Asimov's table
Saturday, 1600-1740CC K Panel, "Versimillitude -- how do you get computer culture right, where does it fall flat?" Many science fiction authors predicted computers you could talk to or robotic personal servants that could do everything from answering your phone to scheduling your appointments and ordering dinner. But few of them predicted the cellphone, the palmsized organizer or even the internet. And when it comes to describing real software and hardware development, they portray it as impossibly difficult or childishly easy. What are some things that writers need to know about computers to make their stories more believable? Are there any common mistakes that could be easily corrected? What authors get the feel of technology right and who need a few more lessons? With Cory Doctorow, Eileen Gunn, and James Patrick Kelly.
Saturday 1815-1900CC N Fiction reading. (I've got 40 minutes. If you've got any special requests, why not tell me? Use the "feedback" link above or the forum at the end of this table.)
Sunday, 1430-1600CC A1A8 Panel, "Visions of the singularity. Will technology escape human control, or will kludgy software save us from ourselves. With Greg Bear, James Patrick Kelly, Walter Jon Williams, and Vernor Vinge. (Hint: if you want to do this panel, immediately before it Dr Vinge will be delivering his Singularity presentation -- a must-see, in my opinion.)
Sunday, 2000-2100Civic Auditorium Hugo awards. In addition to being there for "Lobsters" I'm there as a proxy for Ken MacLeod ("Cosmonaut Keep").
Monday, 1300-1430H Almaden Ball 1 Kaffe Klatsch. Your chance to poke a stick at the hung-over, irritable, non-Hugo-winner. (Or ply him with coffee and ask him questions :)

[ Discuss conjose ]

Posted at 13:52 # G

Fri, 23 Aug 2002

News from the Trenches

If you're wondering why this blog has been short on meaty content and philosophical insights of late, it's because just making any updates to it is a bit of an effort: I'm currently 72,500 words into a (projected) 110,000 word first draft of a novel, with a final deadline of May 1st to get it nailed down, polished, and on the editor's desk.

Some thoughts on the process of writing sequels:

  • Writing a sequel to a novel you've already sold -- especially with a deadline and a contract hanging over you -- is very different from writing a sequel just-for-the-hell-of-it. Do Not Let It Psych You Out. (As my typical response to being presented with a deadline is to go into a mad drop-dead rush to get the work done immediately, I'm having to deliberately pace myself.)
  • Writing a sequel to a novel you wrote five years (and three books) ago isn't as easy as it sounds. I wrote "Festival of Fools/Singularity Sky" beginning in 1996 and ending in 1998. I began work on the sequel, "Iron Sunrise", back in '98 -- then shelved it at 65K words. This isn't so much a start-writing-again scenario as a pick-the-15K-words-that-still-work- and-rebuild-from-scratch one. I'm simply a better writer than I was back then, and the joins show, so I can't reuse as much as I'd hoped for.
    Worse, what I thought I wanted to say in a sequel then isn't what I want to say in a sequel now. It's coming out a different shape, and it's stylistically different too.
  • White room syndrome cuts in when you've described everything before and you don't want to get bogged down in spurious re-hashing of the world you've developed. Or the interstellar civilization. I keep having a nagging feeling that it's not textured enough. (On the other hand, I workshopped the first 30K with my local group and, after correcting for individual quirks, they didn't have a collective problem with it.)
  • Clever three-phase multithreaded narratives need to be steered together gracefully. What I've got so far looks clean for the first half of the book -- then slams into a messy collision when the protagonists of each plot thread arrive in the same place at the same time. Remember, less is more when it comes to baroque plotting. (Untangling the mess and rationalising it is looking to be the hardest part of the redrafting cycle, right now.)
  • The real sting in the tail is that there are two books I'd much rather be writing right now -- but they're just going to have to wait, and I'm going to have to damn well not let my preferences damage the effort that's going into the current novel.

It's true what they say, about there always being a higher mountain ahead of you.

[ Discuss writing ]

Posted at 15:24 # G

Buttering the guns

Chris Williams has (had -- published in 1998) some trenchant comments to make about the UK's Strategic Defence Review. The interesting point to note here is ...

If we examine the small print of the Strategic Defence Review (hence `SDR') we can get some idea of what the New Labour government thinks it's worth killing people for. In the context of a 2.5% overall cut in expenditure, the really interesting stuff is which systems and capabilities they have decided to expand. So the question is: what's gone up and what's gone down, and what sort of death-machine are they trying to create?

And the answer is simple. It's about fighting wars overseas, designed to protect UK capital overseas, and to defend client rulers in poorer countries.

Which sounds more and more accurate the closer we get to seeing what being dragged along in the undertow of the War on Terrorism really entails: especially as the War on Terrorism seems to be being transformed into the War on People Who Won't Sell the USA Oil Cheaply.

[ Link ] [ Discuss ww3 ]

Posted at 15:24 # G

Reinventing the Z-88

Back in 1988, Sir Clive Sinclair released what I think has been demonstrated to be his most influential, and best-designed, computer. This was, of course, the Cambridge Computers Z88.

The Z88 was a cheap (£250 -- US $400) tablet computer weighing under one kilogram (2 pounds) with a battery life of approximately 20 hours, using 4 'AA' cells. It wasn't a PC, it was a companion -- the idea was that you'd use it on the road, then synchronise it via serial cable with your desktop PC. (In those days, the cheapest real laptops cost about £2000 and had a battery life of about 40 minutes to an hour, so the Z88 was massively more practical for some purposes.)

What did the Z88 in? A combination of factors: lack of marketing clout, limited memory (even in 1988, the default 32Kb of on-board RAM was stingy -- in use, most were rapidly upgraded to 512Kb, but even this wasn't very generous), volatility of said memory (these were the days before FLASH, and if you pulled the batteries without plugging the beast into a mains charger you had about 30 seconds to replace them before you lost everything in memory), and a lack of mainstream acceptance. But what really killed it was premature publicity and early release dogged by bugs; by the time it was out and stable and initial orders had been fulfilled, it was too late -- the first laptops with a workable battery life and sane price tags were appearing, and it was just too old-fashioned and small to compete.

Nevertheless, the Z88 sold several hundred thousand units, carved out a niche for itself, and it's said that John Sculley of Apple first decided that Apple needed to sell a PDA -- which became the Newton, and indirectly spawned Palm and the whole cult of the PDA -- when half the executives at a board meeting turned up toting Z88's.

Fast-forward to 2002. Much of the time, people like you and I don't need a fully-functional laptop for the sort of work we do on a computer while away from home. Playing CDROMs, messing around on the net, running heavyweight desktop software -- this isn't the sort of stuff that needs to be portable, unless you're going away for a week or more and expect to get serious work done. For lightweight work -- jotting notes, reading urgent email -- a full-sized laptop is overkill (and likely to have its batteries die on you after only a few hours). But a PDA like the Palm Pilot -- or the Sharp Zaurus, for that matter -- isn't adequate either. Size brings compromised, and they either lack a full-sized keyboard (so you can't type on them) or they lack screen real-estate. (The Sharp lacks the keyboard, the Palm lacks the resolution to display a full screen of text.)

Enter the Alphasmart Dana; the reincarnation of the Z88.

The Dana is aimed primarily at the educational market. In size, it's similar to the Z88: a tablet with a full-sized keyboard and a grey-scale LCD screen flush-mounted above it, weighing a kilogram. Under the hood, it's a PalmOS machine, running PalmOS 4.1 on a 33MHz Dragonball processor with 8Mb of RAM, and two SD card slots for backup storage. It has a USB port for hot-syncing to the desktop, and ships with some Palm applications modified to make use of the screen, which is triple the normal width of a PalmOS device screen -- giving, in WordSmith, about as much textual real-estate as an old-fashioned VGA monitor running DOS (that is, enough to work with). Battery life on three AAA cells is upwards of 20 hours. It's also capable of printing via infrared or USB to most standard printers. And it costs US $400 (£250).

If this machine had come along just two years ago, I think it would have been an enormous hit. (Certainly I'd have bought one -- assuming the display is readable, it fits my "disposable portable word processing engine" requirement to a T.) But since 2000, laptop display prices have dropped like a stone -- as have laptop prices, bringing machines that used to cost £2000 down to the sub-£1000 price range, and bringing entry prices down to £600 -- including VAT (UK sales tax, at 17.5%). The only place the Dana can compete these days is in the incredibly price- sensitive junior education market, where its relative indestructibility (no disk drives! No moving parts! Built out of ABS plastic!) mean that it provides relatively little that can go wrong, and a low unit replacement cost if the class bully jumps up and down on little Jimmy's laptop.

[ Discuss toys ]

Posted at 12:12 # G

Wed, 21 Aug 2002

Refugees from the real 21st century

Random e-commerce site of the day: is what you get when goth/rave refugees from Edinburgh head south and colonise odd bits of Manchester, then mount an assault on the fashion industry. (Added bonus points for using real human beings as models, instead of the usual androids.) You won't find me wearing any of their clothing -- I'm way too old and fat for that -- but I could kinda go for a Bug DJ bag.

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]

Posted at 15:40 # G

Cranks discover Linux

I have been accused of being a Linux evangelist -- not surprising, seeing I write magazine columns about the free operating system -- but you wouldn't catch me putting my name to something like this screed from an Indian website, people might accuse me of going slightly over the top:

Linux is the "greatest SUPER POWER" in the world which "annexed" each and every country in the world!! Today Linux is the LARGEST EMPIRE in the world! Today Linux is the "ONLY SUPER POWER" in the whole World!! (Super powers of yesterday were USSR, France, USA and China) ...

... To father a baby Universe you must get married to "Knowledge" (a beautiful female) and then a beautiful baby Universe will be born! "Knowledge" is the mother of our Universe. ...

... It takes 9000000 (9 million) YEARS to understand Linux. It is "9 Million MAN-YEARS" to read and understand all the Linux code because Linux OS includes kernel and millions of applications on top of it! The total source code of Linux (+apps) runs in billions of lines. ...

... Linux prevents CHEATING, FRAUD, FOOLING, NEPOTISM, HEGEMONY, CORRUPTION, ILLITERACY, CONFUSION, IGNORANCE, MONOPOLY, COMPUTER INSOMNIA (computer sleepless nights) because it is open source and you can verify it's kernel code. Linux is all TRUE, HONEST, CLEAN, OPEN Straight-forward, Modern, Dazzling, Sparkling software!! Hence, the golden rule is - "You must read each and every line of OS Kernel and then compile the OS kernel code before using a computer system. No exceptions are allowed".

All that, and it's a floor-wax too. (Honest.)

[ Link ] [ Discuss cranks ]

Posted at 15:29 # G

Mon, 19 Aug 2002

Coming soon, to a bathroom near you ...

... The first cat's litter tray that needs to be plumbed in because it's self-cleaning. Woo-hoo! If these are available in the UK, I'm having one. (Apart from the little matter of filing the building warrants so that I can rip out the bidet and install one of these in its place ...)

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]

Posted at 21:47 # G

Sun, 18 Aug 2002

Interesting gadgets ...

About three years ago, a bunch of PDA manufacturers announced -- independently of one another -- that they were going to release gadgets based on Linux. Some of these have appeared as half-assed developer models, some turned out to be vapourware, and some have presumably been crushed by the post-dot-com boom crash. However, one or two have seen the light of day. Compaq's iPaq is notable for running Linux well, if you're willing to blow away the Flash ROM that comes pre-loaded with Windows CE and install your own image. And then there's the Sharp Zaurus SL5000 and the newer SL5500.

I saw a Zaurus a couple of months ago and wasn't terribly impressed. The screen in crisp and relatively good compared to a Palm machine, and it has CF and SD card slots for expansion. It runs a version of Troll Tech's QTopia graphical interface and has a chunk of memory (for a palmtop) and a nifty built-in keyboard. So why was I unenthusiastic? Well, it seemed somewhat unfinished. The keyboard is a joke, a toy for pen-haters; you can plug an external keyboard in via USB, but the USB port is built into the docking cradle. The synchronisation software only works with Windows, using some sort of half-assed proprietary protocol. And there wasn't even a terminal application on the advance model! All in all, a bit of a disappointment to a Linux gearhead like me, especially with them changing hands for £450 in the UK -- equivalent to US $700. But there's hope at hand.

Linux Journal lately devoted a piece to explaining just how to customize the Zaurus. Turns out there are a bunch of alternative FLASH images available, including a genuine free software only version from the Open Zaurus Project. There's some third-party software accessible via, and a potload at linuxlinks. Some of the stuff on looks pretty cool -- applications listed include a port of NetHack, a streaming internet radio client (if you've got a CF-sized 802.11 card -- a must-buy, but a wee bit pricy right now), a synchronization conduit for GNOME Evolution (so you're not just stuck with Micro$oft Outlook!), a PDF viewer, and the one thing I've missed on PalmOS all along -- a port of the vi text editor. Most interestingly, it's been reported that the Palm Pilot emulator for Linux can run on the Zaurus under X11 -- meaning that existing palm users have a migration path, however half-assed it may look.

And the final kicker; Sharp have apparently cut the wholesale price to around US $320, and they can be found in US retail outlets for $350-400, or about £250 -- a hell of a lot more attractive than £700. I'm going to be in Silly Valley in less than two weeks time. I can feel my wallet catching fire already ...

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]
Posted at 14:16 # G

Fri, 16 Aug 2002

Suggestive advertising awards

Here's a page full of rather suggestive advertisement art -- intrusive memes and visual puns that take a while to go bang inside your skull. I rather liked this one -- an ad for lube that usually takes a minute or two to sink in.

If only spam was this subtle ...

[ Link ] [ Discuss spam ]

Posted at 21:45 # G

Wed, 14 Aug 2002

Dawkins sums it up

I've been a great admirer of Richard Dawkins for a long time now, and not just for the evolutionary biology. Here he comes up with the best summary of the current political mess that I've heard:

Obnoxious as Saddam Hussein undoubtedly is, it is not obvious that he is more of a danger to the world than 'President' Bush and his reckless handlers.
It would be a tragedy if Tony Blair, a good man who has so much to offer this country, were to be brought down through playing poodle to this unelected and deeply stupid little oil spiv.

And he's not the most outspoken of the British intelligentsia quoted in the Guardian article linked to below.

[ Link ][ Discuss ]

Posted at 19:25 # G

Tue, 13 Aug 2002

More shameless self-promotion

Asimov's SF Magazine, in conjunction with, are hosting a couple of IRC chat sessions for their Hugo award nominees. I'm on tonight, at 9pm EST (which is the hideous hour of 2AM, here in Scotland), and you are welcome to join in and ask me questions here, if you feel so inclined. Also on the hot-spot are Michael A. Burstein, Brenda Clough, Mike Resnick, Allen M. Steele, and Shane Tourtellotte.

Alternatively, point your IRC client at, port 6667, and join #auditorium.

(In other news: a little bird tells me that Lobsters has also made the preliminary ballot for the Nebula award. Which doesn't mean it's shortlisted, but it's better than a kick in the teeth, and came as a mild surprise considering that I haven't received my SFWA membership badge and secret author's decoder ring yet.)

Posted at 23:05 # G

Mon, 12 Aug 2002

Teacher's Pets

Under a new government proposal, children as young as three will be expected to give quality feedback on the lessons they receive. The toddlers who haven't learned to write yet will be issued stickers with smiley-faces or frowny- faces to stick on report cards as they get through the hard day's work auditing lessons at nursery school

No, this isn't some crazed bureaucratic fantasy. It's a pilot scheme being started by the Department of Education in the UK. OFSTED is already tasked with grading and auditing everything imaginable in the education system, and currently sixth form students (US equivalent: first year at university) are expected to give feedback about their teachers. But that's different; sixth formers are there voluntarily, as a prelude to university studies. Expecting three year olds to give useful feedback on their teachers is ... well, the first word that springs to mind is not "sensible".

[ Link (Via Chris Bertram) ] [ Discuss dumb ]
Posted at 21:22 # G

From the overpackaging department ...

My D-Link bluetooth adapter came today. The following series of three shots show (a) the delivery box, (b) the box the adapter came in, and (c) the adapter itself (balanced weightily on top of the boxes).

I hereby nominate Apple and D-Link jointly for the "Treekiller 2002" award.

[ Discuss global warming ]

pic of ENORMOUS box
This is what came in the post ...

pic of merely large box balanced on top of ENORMOUS box
The big box contained a smaller box, about the size of a paperback ...

pic of toothpick-sized widget balanced on BIG box on top of ENORMOUS box
... All to protect the toothpick-sized widget (balanced on top of the smaller box); the packaging outweighs the adapter by more than a factor of ten to one.

Posted at 14:49 # G

Fri, 9 Aug 2002

News of the weird

Nothing earth-shaking to report today -- other than a summer cold that's eating into my work stamina -- so here's the Silly Season tabloid version of Charlie's diary:

Unclear on the concept: a woman whose debit card was stolen discovered afterwards that the thief used it for online gambling -- and won, putting £291 into her account ... not that it stopped the judge sentencing the thief to 10 months.

Hang on: a sunbather on a beach in Yugoslavia got more than he bargained for when he woke up to find a barnacle stuck to his penis.

Months without a 'y' in their name: President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, annoyed at not being granted the Golden Century decoration as well as the title of "Great Writer of Turkmenistan", awarded himself the month of January instead, renaming it Turkmenbashi, in honour of his office. He's also renamed the days of the weeks and all the other months except, for some reason, November and December.

Sticking up for Europe: European Commission bureaucrats now get a subsidized Viagra allowance as one of the perks of their job.

The fashion pages: Duct Tape is the new white. Er, black.

Posted at 21:55 # G

Thu, 8 Aug 2002

RIP: Edsger W. Dijkstra (1930-2002)

Edsger Dijkstra died earlier this week, of cancer. This probably won't mean much to you unless (a) you knew him (I didn't), or (b) you studied computer science (I did). In the latter case, he was a giant; winner of a Turing prize (the field's equivalent of a Nobel laureate), the obituary linked below sums up his better-known achievements:

Dijkstra is renowned for the insight that mathematical logic is and must be the basis for sensible computer program construction and for his contributions to mathematical methodology. He is responsible for the idea of building operating systems as explicitly synchronized sequential processes, for the formal development of computer programs, and for the intellectual foundations for the disciplined control of nondeterminacy. He is well known for his amazingly efficient shortest path algorithm and for having designed and coded the first Algol 60 compiler. He was famously the leader in the abolition of the GOTO statement from programming.

Not sure what that means? Well, every time you use a computer -- to read this blog, for example -- you're using software built using principles he discovered. You may not know him, but he has touched your life. And mine.

[ Link ] [ Discuss death ]

Posted at 11:25 # G

Live Nude Cats!

Roll up, roll up, get yer kitty-porn here ...

[ Link ] [ Discuss ]
Posted at 11:15 # G

Tue, 6 Aug 2002

$60 or $6?

With an invasion of Iraq imminent, not much has been said about the likely side-effects on the price of oil. The US government is stockpiling crude, but that's not the important issue; the real question is what happens to everyone else. It could go either way, as this comment in The Guardian points out -- and a $6 barrel of oil is potentially deadlier than a $60 barrel. In particular, it would be a major irony if the US topples Saddam, only to directly trigger a revolution led by radical Wahabbites in Saudi Arabia and a civil war in Venezuela.

[ Link ] [ Discuss ww3 ]
Posted at 19:39 # G

Sun, 4 Aug 2002

The joy of obsolescence

When attempting to deal with an expensive toy habit, geeks have one thing working in their favour: Moore's law. As the performance of integrated circuits increases over time, older ones become less attractive. Thus, by way of example, Feorag and I found ourselves in the pub yesterday discussing his latest acquisitions with our occasional drinking buddy Andrew. Andrew bought himself a Macintosh IICX last week, and is looking for a few bits to plug into it. He paid £5 for it. When it was new, in 1991-92 or thereabouts, for a fully specified machine you could multiply that figure by a thousand.

His Mac II still works (although he would like a new keyboard or mouse and a decent monitor); while it won't run applications that have come out since a 25MHz 68030 was considered hot stuff, it will still run the software that came with it creditably well. In the case of a Macintosh IICX that means word processing, DTP with early versions of Quark, basic photoshop work (albeit memory-constrained), and personal productivity applications. It will handle email quite happily, and even run an (old) web browser -- although much modern web content isn't created with the limitations of such equipment in mind. Most important of all, the highest running cost of the machine is the electricity it consumes -- and maybe the toner it uses if you add a printer.

Our expectactions of computers are coloured by the latest and greatest applications to come along; an old machine is presumed obsolete and undesirable because it won't, for example, for real-time video animation work, or play compressed audio streams over the network. This is, however, an illusion. These machines are still usable for their original tasks. And the rate at which new "killer applications" are coming along appears to be diminishing.

With broadband networking, and then wireless broadband, the logical next step is for applications that require huge amounts of bandwidth -- software radio and, later, software video fit the bill. But once we get beyond the sensory bandwidth of the human peripheral nervous system (about 100mbps, by my back-of-the-envelope calculation), there's not a lot more that we can do with this technology on a consumer level -- in the absence of teleportation over TCP/IP, that is. And looking beyond applications that are only made possible by massive networked bandwidth, it's hard to see where we're going with computer software. Nanotechnology requirements (even the control of a complex macroscopic system like a bush robot or a utility fog) can probably be accomodated using not much more bandwidth than live, photorealistic streaming 3D video. The only data structures we can currently envisage that need even higher bandwidth require breakthroughs in the biomedical sciences or physics before we can seriously consider needing to manipulate them in software (I'm referring to the complete map of synaptic connections in a human brain required for mind uploading, or the even more enormous volume of data required to implement teleportation).

So what's left?

Well, built-in obsolescence only drives the industry forward so far before people get sick and tired of it. Just as car drivers got sick and tired of buying a new improved restyled motor every two years in the 1960's, when there was no real change to the mechanical underpinnings, so it's possible that consumers will start demanding PCs that are maintainable.

For my part, I've taken a hard look at my palm pilot -- an m505 -- and concluded that far from it being time to upgrade to an m515, its' predecessor (which I still have), a IIIc, actually has a better display quality, and the m505 provides no killer applications that make it qualitatively better for my purposes than the older machine. Meanwhile, spares for maintaining an old Palm IIIc are available and cheap, and it still does the job today just as well as it did when I bought in three years ago. So I'm downgrading. And this trend is bad news for the computer industry, which bases its profit expectations on consumers being willing to run indefinitely on a persistent treadmill of upgrades.

(And it's going to be really bad news for the proponents of DRM if they discover that the average home PC, far from being changed every 15 months like a business workstation, ends up being stretched out for a decade or more's productivity. But that's another sermon ...)

[ Discuss toys ]

Posted at 15:50 # G

Fri, 2 Aug 2002

Here come the gene police ...

Okay, here's a scary piece of news -- possibly for all the wrong reasons. Research reported in Science suggests that there's a specific genetic trait that may be responsible for young men who've been abused in childhood growing up into violent hard cases:

... the life histories of 442 boys, with British or European grandparents, born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1972. Of these, 154 had been maltreated in the first 10 years, 33 of them severely. They had either experienced sexual abuse, beatings or rejection by mother or foster parents.
Of the 154 maltreated children, 55 had a less active variant of a gene called MAOA, which controlled the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, and 99 had the more active variant. The 55 young men were more than twice as likely to have been involved in antisocial behaviour than the other mistreated group. They made up 12% of the total, but were responsible for 44% of all crimes committed by the entire cohort of 442 young men.

Cat among pigeons time. The first thing to stress is that this is not a predictive test; there's no causal link that ensures that boys people with the less active monoamine oxidise-A gene will grow up antisocial and violent. Genetic behavioural determinism is, and remains, discredited. (But will that message make it through to the politicians?) Similar links were suggested as far back as the 1950's, when a higher than expected proportion of men with doubled Y chromosomes were found in prisons, and there was a similar initial response -- but no onerous legislative regime for genetic deviants.

But the real fun begins when we consider that an inactive MAOA gene can be therapeutically compensated for -- repaired or augmented using non-germ-line genetic engineering. A single shot of a carrier virus loaded with a suitable payload, and the problem fixes itself. If, indeed, it is a problem -- and governments decide they need to treat it as a medical condition. (Watch that one, it's slippery: when a condition is medicalized, on the one hand it doesn't automatically stop being subject to criminal sanctions, but on the other hand legal concepts such as due process, double jeopardy, and the burden of evidence tend to go out the window. The patient who is viewed as a carrier of a contagion has far fewer rights than an accused criminal.)

And then we get into truly murky waters. Let is suppose that a condition exists, such that 50% of the carriers will turn into serial killers -- and it's curable by gene therapy. Few people would argue that this is a social good. But what if we consider applying these techniques to less serious crimes? "We can cure you of your homosexuality" is a slogan numerous christian fundamentalist groups throw at gay men -- what if it was true? And then there's the research into a vaccine against nicotine addiction. What if we could vaccinate people against illegal drugs, so that cocaine or diamorphine had no effect? What if you could give teen-agers a shot that would render them uninterested in sex until after the age of majority?

We've been here before, with the eugenics movement, compulsory sterilization of "defectives", lobotomy and electroshock for people with psychiatric problems, and a host of other unsavoury schemes. The real problem with the genetic approach is that it promises to shore up the medicalisation of social conditions with a superficially attractive scientific argument that almost makes sense (until you look at the broader context in which it is applied). Let's hope we've learned enough from the past century to avoid tripping over the same potholes yet another time.

(One of these days I'm going to have to write a dystopian novel set in a world where this sort of medicalisation of social problems has become routine. But not while I'm depressed.)

[ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]

Posted at 18:45 # 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:

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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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