Charlie's Diary

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Wed, 31 Jul 2002

Why is it quiet here this week?

Two reasons. Firstly, the blogosphere in general is positively dead -- nobody's writing much, so the stream of brain-straining links is way down.

Secondly, I'm getting stuck into writing the first draft of the new novel ("The Iron Sunrise"). Which cuts down on the cat-hoovering time. That's all, folks. Nothing to see here. Move along now ...

[ Discuss ]

Posted at 15:31 # G

Dead operating systems

Can anyone point me at a set of disk images for a copy of Mark Williams Company's Coherent 3.2 operating system?

Way back in the stone age (1992-1995) I ran Coherent on my PC. (Yes, I paid for it -- both the 286-mode Coherent 3.2 and, later, Coherent 4.0, with support for, gasp, 386 protected mode!) MWC shut down in 1995, the first commercial casualty of the growth in popularity of Linux. Now a friend (hi, Claudio!) has resurrected my old HP Omnibook 300 (a 20MHz 386 with 4Mb of RAM) and I'm looking for something to run on it instead of Windows 3.0 and DOS 4, but I can't find my Coherent disks.

(Why run the Omnibook 300? Well, it has a full-sized keyboard, weighs three pounds, and will run for up to 10 hours on a set of four fully-charged NiMH 'AA' cells if you yank its hard disk and replace it with a CF card. For typing on the move it's hard to beat. As for Coherent -- I don't like DOS, and Coherent was lighter on the hardware than Xenix. Running Linux on a 386 with 4Mb of RAM is challenging, but Coherent worked fine on an old 286 with 2Mb of memory. So I'm hoping someone out there has a set of the four floppy disk images they don't mind sending me.)

[ Discuss toys ]

Posted at 15:27 # G

From the too-awful-to-listen-to department ...

ZDNet (whose UK arm are rumoured to be going bankrupt this week -- this link may rot rapidly if the rumour's true) have been compiling a top twenty list of corporate anthems, inspirational songs, and marketing schlock of the kind so profoundly ridiculed by Scott Adams. Some of this stuff is so dreadful it's kind of fascinating, in much the same way as "Plan Nine from Outer Space"; imagine the top twenty chart hits if Ed Wood clones were in charge of the big studios.

"Let's buy it" by has that authentic sit-around-the-campfire happy-clappy kumbayah feel that the disciples of mammon have been missing:

Round up the neighbours,
And bring along your friends
There's a place I've got to show you
Where the good times never end
All the products we selected
A TV set, a water bed
All the offers we rejected
We can get it there instead

And then there's the Shirley Bassey-esque strains of SGI's "I have a dream":

I have a dream, and it's two CPUs
What this will mean, is no more desktop blues
Modelling and rendering, designing analysing
I have one dream and it's called two CPUs.

(This one's really got the render nrrrds salivating).

Seriously: this is anti-marketing at its finest. I can't believe how anybody can possibly have thought putting these lyrics in front of the public was a good idea.

[ Link ] [ Discuss ]

Posted at 15:13 # G

Tue, 30 Jul 2002

Bit rot quantified (at last!)

This fun little article from Doctor Dobbs' Journal (by way of Slashdot) provides a tongue in cheek look at what happens to computers over time. (I reckon my iBook is around Cruft Force 2.5, while Feorag's G3 is definitely in the 6-7 range. I mean, you know there's something flaky about a Mac when you discover a conflict between Mozilla and Conflict Catcher ...)

[ Link ] [ Discuss ]
Posted at 11:02 # G

Sat, 27 Jul 2002

Experiences I can live without

I'm feeling a little incoherent right now ...

Feorag's away today; she was on the receiving end of the offer of a free ticket to the Farnborough Air Show yesterday (with complementary travel to and from it in a bizjet). Being a bit of an aviation buff, she was highly excited about the whole thing, and up bright and early to head for the airport. For my part, not expecting her back until evening, I decided to take the day off to potter around, buy some books and CD's, and have a think about the next bit of writing.

Around 11am, she phoned me in a state of some excitement. "The Eurofighter's just done it's display routine," she said, "and there's a Sukhoi on later!" "That's nice," I said, and carried on slacking. She'd taken the digital camera and doubtless her own blog would have some fairly amazing shots later on.

The afternoon continued much like any other summer weekend afternoon, until I turned on the TV at about 5pm to check the news headlines. I was half hoping to see some footage of the air show. What I saw instead was horrific: a Sukhoi-27 fighter ploughing into a mass of spectators and exploding in a fireball! The news presenter intoned portentiously: "seventy-eight die and over a hundred are injured in one of the worst ever disasters at an air show, when a Sukhoi fighter jet crashes into the crowd." (At this point I was hyperventillating and feeling faint.) She continued: "the air show, in the Ukraine --"

There's nothing to bring home the horror of an event like that than the conviction -- even if it's only sustained for five seconds before the addition of new information dispels the illusion -- that your partner was there on the ground, and may be one of the dead and injured littering the runway as the camera pans across it.

The worst air show disaster since Rammstein: possibly the worst ever. And for a horrible few seconds I was certain she was in it. I'm still shaking.

[ Link ] [ Discuss death ]

Posted at 18:00 # G

Fri, 26 Jul 2002

New Arts Forms #1: Dictionaraoke

Our first new art form of the week is Dictionaraoke. You're probably familiar with karaoke -- in which tired and emotional, if not inebriated, members of the puplic sing along with backing tapes of famous songs. Dictionaraoke firmly reinforces the artist's control overthe medium, while replacing the personal touch with something else -- the synthetic singer.

According to the press release:

The project was conceived of by a diverse group of experimental musicians communicating through the Internet. Inspired by the recent addition of spoken word audio clips to the Merriam-Webster and Microsoft Encarta online dictionaries demonstrating the correct pronunciation of each word, these artists have used the samples to create artificial vocals that "sing" karaoke. James Brown's "I Feel Good" (reworked by Jim Allenspach) was the first song to be rendered in the dictionaraoke style, and many more tracks were soon to follow.

Strong recommendation: start with Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles if you want to get a feel for the surreal meaning of this new medium. The self-referential weirdness of the lyrics to the first pop video ever played by MTV work well with any new medium ... and a new medium is exactly what it is. This isn't simply a way to do cut-price performances of classic songs without paying RIAA or ASCAP their pound of flesh; after a bit you get an eerie, creepy sense that you've tuned in on the future, in which some crazy AI disk jockey has erased the cult of human personality and remixed our musical history.

[ Link ] [ Discuss new art forms ]

Posted at 16:55 # G

New art forms #2: Machinima

Our second new art form of the week is machinima. Please bear with me for a couple of paragraphs of background; if you don't grok computer graphics technology, the significance of machinima might be a little hard to grasp at first.

Moore's law dictates that as you shrink a circuit etched onto a semiconductor wafer, the power lost in sending current through the circuit drops. This has several consequences: it's possible to switch faster, dissipate less heat, cram more components in, and generally make a better chip. Every time you halve the length of the components, you square the number that you can cram into a given area. As progress in shrinking circuits is roughly constant, the power of the state of the art in microprocessor technology doubles roughly every 15-18 months -- an exponential curve.

In 1990, at a small supercomputer outfit called Real World Graphics, I was privileged to work with some state of the art hardware: video cards that sold for £16,000 a shot, with multiple RISC processors and video RAM chips stacked edge-on to cram as many as possible onto the circuit board. In those days, a Reality engine running a 3D model could paint roughly 30-40,000 Gouraud-shaded polygons per second on a 1024x768 display, with 24-bit colour depth.

In 2000, I got to see a consumer video card, a Matrox G400, which sold for roughly £160 a shot, which could do much the same.

This is an object lesson from the real world about what Moore's law really means: today's million-buck supercomputer will be a desktop workstation in ten years time, a PC component in twelve years, and free with the cereal packet in twenty years.

Around the early 1990's, animators working for Disney began collaborating with Pixar and other computer visualisation outfits on making the first full-length all-digital animated feature films. You've probably seen "Toy Story" or "Shrek"; each of these took a team of hundreds of animators years to produce, using techniques not too dissimilar to those of traditional cell-based animation artists, except for the use of 3D modelling tools and render farms to draw the more lifelike 3D textured surfaces of the characters and scenes.

In 1995, the computer games field was rocked by the arrival of Doom, the first real full-3D first-person shooter. This shouldn't require any introduction, either, because Doom was one of those major cultural artefacts -- like Space Invaders -- that invented a whole new field. Since Doom, the virtual reality based first-person game has caught on, becoming more and more realistic -- and now it's begun to collide with cartoon animation, producing a whole new field called machinima.

Machinima is the art of filming movies in virtual reality. Instead of the laborious construction of CAD models, the texture mapping of surfaces and repeated rendering of individual frames that comprises the traditional computer-generated animation biz, machinima is cheap, nasty, and out of control. It relies on the absolutely insanely powerful but incredibly cheap video hardware that has been developed for the games industry, coupled with game engines such as John Carmack's Quake system. Instead of focussing on film from the storyboarding-then-fill-in-the-cells end, the machinima guru designs the VR model and scenery, animates the avatars of actors and marches them through a script, while flying a camera viewpoint through the world.

Machinima is new, and very rough: the oldest companies in the field are less than two years old, the first ever machinima film festival is being held next month in Dallas, and the quality of the productions is distinctly low budget; comparing machinima to Pixar is like comparing enthusiastic Super-8 amateur filmwork to Industrial Light and Magic's 70mm technicolor special effects. Nevertheless, machinima is critically important.

Firstly, Moore's law dictates that within the next decade, the currently slightly rough graphics will be replaced by real-time animation engines able to produce films as smoothly detailed as the current big studio state of the art. Secondly, machinima is a garage start-up art form: you can do it on your PC at home, if you're crazy enough. And thirdly, great works of imagination don't come out of a studio script committee meeting -- they come out of a talented filmmaker with a budget just big enough to give them what they need. Sooner rather than later it's going to be possible to map real actors' faces onto avatars with acceptable realism, and at that point even the traditional live-action movie is going to be in danger.

I can't exagerate how big this is going to be. It's going to be huge. I mean, you don't often stumble across a new media form that amounts to the next generation of computer animation before it hits its second birthday, but the signs are clear: this is something new, and freakish, and out of control because suddenly instead of needing thirty painstakingly rendered frames per second, 90,000 frames per hour, drawn using Renderman or SoftImage using CAD systems to model the components, now you've got VR systems to do the donkey-work. I think it's going to have the same impact on CGI that the cassette tape had on popular music. The MPAA aren't going to die of Napster and P2P networks; they're going to be nibbled to death by a horde of bedroom machinima runaway hits. Punk meets CGI. And, weirdly enough, one of the leading companies in the field, Strange Company, are based in my home town. (I wonder if they'll let me interview them?)

[ Link ] [ Discuss new art forms ]

Posted at 15:13 # G

Thu, 25 Jul 2002

15 minutes of fame

I've been slashdotted. (Or rather, the interview I did for Revolution SF has been slashdotted.) It's not much of a slashdot thread, but it's mine. Hah.

(Parenthetically speaking, I notice some of the usual suspects surfacing in the discussion threads -- including a certain loser who thought he could breeze into a long-established social group on usenet with a high signal to noise ratio, spew agrammatical, off-topic gibberish, and not get called on it. You Know Who You Are. Remember, when encountering something new on the net for the first time, the first law is: lurk!)

[ link ] [ link (interview, via Infinity Plus) ] [ Discuss shameless self-promotion ]

Posted at 11:06 # G

Wed, 24 Jul 2002

The trans-Atlantic gap examined

Robert Kagan writes an interesting piece in Policy Review, in which he attempts to pin down the roots of the evident split between the European and American world-views and foreign policy tactics at this time. Strongly recommended as reading matter, if you have strong opinions on the issue; he does his best to adopt a detached, scholarly viewpoint, and scores some telling strikes against (and in favour of) both sides. But there's something about his argument that I'm trying to put my finger on ...

Kagan's argument, to paraphrase and oversimplify it, is this: the world of foreign relations os essentially Hobbesian, where life is nasty brutish and short and victory goes to the strong and bloodthirsty. Europe was the classic example of this, until 1945. Since 1945, the USA acted as the guarantor of European safety, and European politicians -- dedicated to preventing forever a return to the situation that spawned two world wars and numerous smaller conflicts -- used this temporary shield to erect a new regional order: one in which Machiavellian politics of raison d'etat were replaced by democracy and the rule of law on an international scale. This project has been stunningly successful, turning the EU into a near utopia when compared with its historical state from around 1600 to 1945, but it's left the EU pathologically introverted, uninterested in engaging with the "old" external world (which remains locked in a Hobbesian mire), and unwilling to build and use force to deploy abroad in pursuit of the EU's interests. Meanwhile, the USA -- which originated as a similar exercise in unity among the diverse colonial states that rebelled against King George the third in 1776 -- is forced to act on the world stage as a traditional great power. (The irony being that the USA now behaves much as the UK did in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while the EU behaves much as the early USA did -- appealing to detente, diplomacy, and consensus built on shared idealism, rather than brute force.)

Sorry, I don't buy it. At least, I don't buy Kagan's argument in its entirety, because although I think he's got a big point, and he goes a long way towards explaining the current situation, he missed the steaming great turd that's floating in the punch bowl of theory.

The turd is this: for fifty-plus years, the western European military forces were targeted on a single goal -- resisting an invasion from the east for long enough to permit US reinforcements to arrive. (Kagan makes this point explicitly.) A side-effect of this is the specialisation of forces. The Royal Navy, for example, sacrificed their big carriers in the late sixties and early seventies, replacing them with the current three "through deck cruisers" -- helicopter/Harrier carriers optimized for anti-submarine duties in the North Atlantic (and, implicitly, convoy escort). The German and Italian and Greek air forces didn't buy any long-haul strategic airlift capability; they were spending their entire budget on interceptors and strike fighters to knock down incoming Soviet bombers and attack the rear echelons of the invading armies. And so on.

A large part of the explanation for European military ineffectuality in the world sphere is that the European military infrastructure was finely tuned for defending the home turf, over a period of fifty years. Procurement programs take decades to come to fruition; consequently, the EU is stuck with the force projection capability of a pygmy. The RN, for example, is planning to replace the small escort carriers with much bigger fleet carriers -- but they won't be laying the keels of these ships until at least 2008. The air forces of the EU will be procuring hundreds of Airbus A400M long range military transports -- but again, these won't be rolling off the production lines before 2005. Even the Gallileo GPS system won't be going up for a couple of years.


The 64,000 euro question is, "what will the EU do once it has the capability to project force beyond its borders without having to rely on the US for a global logistical infrastructure". And we're at least five, if not ten, years away from seeing an answer to that.

Meanwhile, it's hardly surprising that EU politicians are obsessing about internal issues. After all, it took the USA about forty years to get its shit together as a nation -- the EU is only ten years old (if you date its formation to the Maastricht treaty) and still has a way to go.

[ link ] [ Discuss politics ]

Posted at 12:47 # G

Sun, 21 Jul 2002

Political metaphor for the day

Here's a thumbnail picture of a country, as it appears from outside:

In the middle of the previous century, this country was an economic superpower, with domestic industries responsibilty for nearly 50% of planetary GDP. Since then, its lead has been eroded by rival second-rank great powers and developing nations, but it still stands at 25-30%. It sits at the heart of a vast free-trade system, although its domestic industries are subtly butressed by regulatory barriers and foreign relations musclethat give them added clout in overseas markets and partial exemption from competition at hime.

As of now it is the pre-eminent military superpower on the planet. It has just abandoned a two-power standard, whereby it must be able to fight two major conflicts simultaneously, but it is capable of projecting force anywhere on the planet almost at will.

The citizens of this country view themselves as naturally superior to those of any other nation on the planet, by virtue of their superior legal and political system and status at the pinnacle of technological and scientific development. The vast majority have never travelled abroad, but they're still pretty sure that they're not missing anything -- and any foreigners who claim otherwise are fools.

There's a messy guerilla war going on in a distant country, where the turbulent natives have been driven out of the cities by retalliatory military action but are sniping at occupation forces from hide-outs in the hills. Opinion at home is outraged at the actions of these turbulent foreigners and demands punishment for their supporters.

The population of this superpower is growing, largely through immigration and demographic change; people from a variety of poor and backward nations are trying hard to get in and partake of the superpower's prosperity, albeit with varying degrees of success. Over the next half century, the population of the nation is expected to grow by 50% or more. At the same time, some minority groups in outlying areas are making waves; it almost seems like they don't want to be part of the same great nation.

On the horizon, relations with the leading European powers are looking turbulent. Peviously friendly to the point of fawning, these second-raters have been feeling their oats of late and peevishly disagreeing with the superpower's foreign affairs people over the appropriate way to conduct relations with the rest of the world. While remaining important, the superpower's leaders are determined to steer their own course -- and to hell with these coat-tail riders.

At home, domestic politics is a little messy; the established two-party system has become acrimonious and disruptive, with one party threatening to veto the other's reform acts. Everyone knows something has to change, and the public are increasingly apathetic or voting for radical third party candidates, but for the time being the tango continues. For now, the chief executive sees eye-to-eye with the conservatives in the upper house, but those damn liberals are threatening to rock the boat -- if they don't fall right out of it first.

What country am I describing?

If you guessed "the United States in 2002" you guessed wrong; this is a portrain of the United Kingdom in 1902. The third Boer war was gathering pace, with elements of civil emergency methods surfacing for the first time -- it was during that war that the British military introduced the use of concentration camps for presumed-hostile civilians for the first time -- while being forced to radically change their tactics in the face of a terrorist/insurgency threat they were ill-equipped to confront with their old tactics.

The economy was enjoying a long Indian summer, partially buffered from the pressure of competition with other developed nations by the huge bulk of the less-industrialised Empire, which acted as a captive market for British goods and as a cheap source of raw materials: one may argue that the anti-globalisation movement is protesting a similar relationship between the United States (and us, here in the EU) and the developing world, today.

The political situation, both in terms of jingoistic patriotism, snide foreign-relations fallout, and tension in the legislature, should require no introduction. One point is worth noting; in 1905 Great Britain startled the world by entering into an alliance with the French Republic and the Russian Empire, overturning the game-tables of centuries during which France and Britain had seen each other as their main imperial rivals, and latterly the Great Game of the 19th century, during which British and Russian agents jostled for territory and the security of British India in the distant statelets of central Asia. (The analogy between Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush's recent rapprochement and the Triple Alliance is too juicy to ignore.)

Incidentally: this is the superpower my grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated to in the early years of the 20th century, to seek their fortune in the wool and cotton trade in Yorkshire and Lancashire. The image of Great Britain as a homogeneous nation is false; Britain was built by successive waves of immigration, over a three thousand year period, and during the 20th century took in roughly 2.5-3 million immigrants. For a country with a population of just 20 million or so in 1902, that figure speaks for itself.

So, what am I trying to say?

Simply this: great powers rise and fall (and indeed there's a good introduction to this topic in Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers"). Britain in 1902 occupied a niche that is eerily similar to that of the United States of America in 2002 -- but, despite the semblance of invulnerable supremacy, just 45 years later Britain stood on the edge of bankruptcy, bombed and exhausted by a war that had cost half a million lives, forced to sell the family silver and relinquish the empire simply to hold things together at home. I hesitate to suggest that by 2047 the USA will be teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and foreign policy collapse, but it would be deeply foolish to expect the status quo to persist in the face of so many precedents; hitherto, every single great power that achieved pre-eminence has collapsed, and there's no evidence that the USA will be any different.

There are, however, two things that worry me. Firstly, there's the possibility that western liberal values might be extinguished in such a collapse. I don't think this is likely -- these values seem to have become intimately entwined in the cultures of numerous other countries, especially in western Europe -- but it's worrisome, especially as the current US government rushes to embrace security at the expense of liberty. A successor superpower that is the 21st century equivalent of the third reich doesn't bear thinking about.

Secondly, and more importantly, there is a big difference between the British in 1902 and the USA in 2002 that may influence the course of international relations after the end of the American century. It's quite simply this: the British civil service was not politicised. Thus, changes of administration and a new Foreign Office minister would not necessarily result in any changes of long-term diplomatic policy. Nor could politicians easily jeopardize relations with other countries by ordering actions which would provide short-term political capital at the expense of the nation's long-term interests. In contrast, American diplomacy always seems curiously short-sighted, directed towards the goal of producing results to brandish at the next election, regardless of the long-term consequences in relations with other countries.

The British foreign office managed a soft landing during their descent from superpower status. Long-term conflicts remained -- the German and Russian rivalries most notably -- but the FO were adept at avoiding short-term measures that alienated their allies. In contrast, the tendency of successive US governments to meddle crudely in the internal affairs of other countries (from the Mossadegh coup in Iran in the early 50's to last week's anti-Cuba declaration by President Bush) seems likely to store up trouble for an uncertain future.

I hope I'm wrong about this, because I'd like to live to see the second half of the next century and more importantly, to enjoy the experience -- but I suspect the history books will mark 2001/2002 as the zenith of American power, before the long slide downhill. Interesting times are coming ...

[ Discuss politics ]
Posted at 19:43 # G

Sat, 20 Jul 2002

Perl 5.8 is out!

Well, there goes my weekend.

[ Discuss ]
Posted at 19:52 # G

Thu, 18 Jul 2002

Web services?

Amazon just released a web services API last week, and there's already a couple of cool applications, like this -- Amazon Lite, a google- style rapid search tool that lets you strip-mine Amazon for books or authors without having to put up with the slow-loading spurious nonsense they load their pages with.

[ Link (Thanks, Simon!)] [ Discuss ]

Posted at 14:51 # G

Sometimes I hate computers ...

Especially when their operating system is a pile of piss that eats its configuration database, necessitating a complete re-install. MacOS X just bit me, hard -- luckily not too hard, as I was able to do an emergency backup in time -- and necessitated a complete reformat and reinstall on the iBook.

Where did I leave my typewriter ...?

Posted at 14:39 # G

Mon, 15 Jul 2002

Uncontrolable geeking interlude

My household network is a mess. It grew like weeds, over a period of years. I think the final coaxial segment has finally died of hardware rot, but the wires are probably still there behind the third bookcase in my study; meanwhile, the addition of a cheap wireless access point last year didn't do much for it. And truly, using an ancient laptop as a firewall may be workable, but it's also a bit of a waste.

Here's how it works. A cable comes into my study and is terminated by the cable modem itself. A 10baseT cable connects the CM to the firewall laptop's #1 ethernet port, and another 10baseT link connects the laptop's #2 port to the study hub. One spur runs off to the hub in Feorag's study, while another feeds signal to the crappy D-Link ME102 access point. It's a mess, with cables everywhere and strange humming boxes lurking in dark corners ...

Which is why I was delighted to find a local shop selling Belkin wireless cable/DSL gateway routers for a bit less than the manufacturer's direct sale price in the US. Basically, this does the job of the firewall laptop (Network Address Translation, diversion of incoming connections to a secured server in a DMZ, and so on), the hub in my study (it comes with three switched 100baseT sockets), and the shitty wireless access point (except that it's better, with working 128-bit WEP encryption, the ability to cope with AppleTalk packets, and a facility to deny access to machines with unknown MAC addresses). It's also a DHCP server, and because it's configured by a web interface, it's platform agnostic -- no shitty Windows-only drivers required. And did I drool about the lifetime warranty?

Basically, sticking this box on my LAN will let me throw away or redeploy three other boxes, while tidying everything up and making it more controllable (I've been running on static IP for years; a central DHCP server makes lots of sense when you've got >10 computers). The only problem I can see is that I have to reconfigure every networked machine in the household before I can apply it. And this week is unseasonably hot and sunny -- so I think it's going to stay in the box for a few more days.

[ Discuss ]

Posted at 22:05 # G

Sun, 14 Jul 2002

Small beer
I spent most of today lurking around Fisherrow brewery, watching Iain put on a new batch of ale. Seems to me that the subject of what goes into your pint glass is suitable fodder for blogging, so in accordance with the current plumbing fetish I'm going to write it up later -- probably next time I go in (armed with a camera).
Posted at 21:53 # G

Sat, 13 Jul 2002

Cultural Whiplash

I'm still trying to wrap my head around yesterday -- any day that involves going to a funeral and then a birthday party in quick succession is liable to make your head spin.

David Murray, brewer and Hearts supporter, died last Sunday in the early hours. David was both an asshole and a friend. He was loud, he was annoying, he could be mendacious and vindictive towards his enemies -- but he had a big heart and a good sense of humour. His death is -- was -- a loss to me. He was cremated yesterday at Seafield crematorium, where the chapel was packed out by his friends (and a handful of distant family members -- David's parents both predeceased him and he had no siblings).

The best thing about the event was that a lot of people liked David enough to want to see him off. The worst thing about it was the event itself. David was nominally Church of Scotland, to the extent that you can say that of someone whose last intersection with religious ceremony was on the occasion of his father's funeral six years ago. His relatives (notably a cousin who he never visited or even exchanged cards with, despite living in the same city, and her elderly parents) were stuck with the funeral arrangements: someone picked the default option and trucked in the minister who had dealt with his dad. This was hardly blameworthy, but what followed was a travesty for those of us who knew David well.

We were treated to the bizarre spectacle of a minister who barely knew him conducting a profoundly Christian religious ceremony in which a bunch of hymns were sung, either side of a five-minute eulogy that didn't describe anyone I recognized. For some reason, the minister believed David's relationship with his cousin and surviving aunt and uncle had been important to him; Iain, his business partner, who he'd worked with for most of a decade and shared a house with for years, barely rated a mention. Then we were assured that David was at peace: "the earthly half of his life" was now over, so he was with his father in heaven, and we didn't need to be sad on his behalf. La-de-da. Did I mention that David never mentioned his invisible friend in heaven even once in the years I knew him?

Received religious belief it may be, and a standard set service for a Church of Scotland funeral, but the minister managed to turn a half-hour memorial ceremony into a propaganda broadcast for his beliefs: the funeral wasn't about David, it was about Jesus. We needn't be sad because Jesus would take care of David for us. Did I mention Jesus? Once more, just for emphasis: Jesus.

I really don't know how to express my disgust. In this country, Scotland, only about half the population are theists of any kind whatsoever. The proportion who are observant church-goers is down around 12%. It should have been clear that the majority present were there at that funeral to remember David, not to hear about the wonders of salvation through Jesus Christ. The mourners included sikhs, hindus, pagans, atheists, catholics, protestants and jews: those who turned up were there to see David off and pay their final respects to him, not to give a churchman an opportunity to evangelize at a captive audience of apostates for half an hour.

The ceremony at the crematorium was mercifully brief: just half an hour of wincing, then it was over. We went outside and went on to the post- funeral reception, organised at the bowling club of which David had been treasurer. Everyone turned up, except the next of kin, and this time the subject of conversation was right -- including David's vaguely- expressed wish to have his ashes scattered at Tynecastle Park football ground.

After the reception we headed home. Later that evening our friend Andy was celebrating his 30th birthday, but we ended up unable to stay for long -- the earlier events had cast a pall over the occasion, and left us unable to get into the spirit of things.

[ Discuss death ]

Posted at 11:30 # G

Thu, 11 Jul 2002

"Nothing like this will be built again"

I've just had a really amazing experience: a guided tour of the nuclear reactor complex at Torness on the Scottish coast. What made this tour unusual is that the tour guide in question, Les, happens to be one of the reactor engineers (as well as a friend) -- and he showed me (and a couple of other friends) right around the plant over a period of several hours. This wasn't the usual cheery public relations junket: it was the real thing. I got to crawl on top of, over, under, and around, one of the wonders of the modern engineering world: an operational AGR reactor. I got to look around the control room, be deafened in the turbine hall and steam-baked in the secondary shutdown test facility, gawp at the shiny bright zirconium tubes full of enriched uranium in the fuel rod assembly room, be subjected to the whole-body contamination detectors at the checkpoints, and boggle at the baroque masses of sensors and control racks that trigger a reactor trip if any of its operational parameters go out of bounds.

(Note: there are no photographs; nor did I take a notepad, so I'm writing this from memory. Cameras were verboten -- not because of security, but as an operational precaution. For starters, some embedded controllers in racks in the auxilliary deisel generator control rooms have EPROMs which have been known to be erased by camera flashes in the past, triggering a generator trip; for seconds, we had to wear protective clothing -- try explaining to a visitor that their expensive Nikon has been contaminated and needs to be left behind!)

Torness is located on the coast, about thirty miles south-east of Edinburgh. It's a huge white slab of a building, not unlike NASA's vertical assembly building in appearance, visible as a landmark from miles away. We reported to the gate where Les was waiting for us: we were signed in, issued with visitor ID tags, and ushered into the front of the building. Once you get past the double barbed wire fences, cameras, concrete anti-vehicle obstacles, and security post, it's surprisingly like any other big corporate office (with a reception desk downstairs, open-plan staircase, executive offices and boardrooms, and the usual racks of glossy documentation). In the boardroom we were given coats, boots, gloves, goggles, helmets and dosimeters -- and then it was on with the guided tour.

Les started by taking us through the machine shop, then via an elevator up to the 37.5 metre level in the main reactor hall. Here we were led out onto a huge circular ampitheatre, paved with steel hatches -- the lid of one of the two Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors.

AGRs are an unusual, British reactor design; only half a dozen have been built. Like the more familiar light water reactors, there's a pressure vessel with fuel rods containing enriched uranium at their core. Unlike a BWR or PWR, the core of an AGR is filled with carbon dioxide, circulating at a temperature of 700-800 degrees celsius. This heats the secondary steam circuit to about 580 degrees and 70 bar pressure -- this steam in turn drives the huge turbines in the adjacent turbine house. The two reactors at Torness have a combined electricity output of 1200 MW, and a thermal output of close to 3000MW, but at the time of our visit one was shut down for maintenance.

I can report that, standing on top of an operational 600 MW nuclear reactor weighing several thousand tons, all you can feel is a slight rumbling vibration like distant traffic felt through a road surface -- there's no indication that metres below your feet, hundreds of tons of gas compressed to conditions more normally associated with the surface of Venus are being blasted through the guts of a radioactive inferno.

The reactor vessel itself is immensely thick, held under constant tension by masses of steel cables: the only thing remotely similar to it that I can point to is a suspension bridge's supports. It's literally woven into a cocoon of steel wire strands, bundled into thousands of inch-thick cables. Crash a fully laden 747 into it, and the plane would simply smear itself across its surface. I've been around a heavy cruiser, and that's about the only thing I've ever seen that came close to giving the same impression of engineering solidity. Whoever designed these things didn't believing in using half-inch steel plate where two-inch plate would do.

I can also report that there's an almost eerie workplace cultural emphasis on safety. Posters plastered on almost every available surface exhort you to know what you're doing ahead of time, understand and avoid the risks, don't be careless, wear your helmet, check -- are your shoelaces tied? -- there was even (near the exit) a poster urging everybody to "take safety mindedness away -- most accidents happen at home!" Everything, and I mean everything, was tagged, bagged, festooned with padlocks, controlled with keys, labelled, numbered, and itemised. It was like being in the middle of a wartime scare orchestrated by a committee who were terrified of forgetting where they'd left their screwdriver.

So, after we'd stood on top of nearly a million horsepower and gone "wow" a lot, Les led us down towards the basement, by way of numerous nooks and crannies ...

And plumbing.

There is nothing on earth like the plumbing in a big nuclear reactor complex. Around the two reactor cores, the building is divided into quadrants. Each of them has its own steam circulation system for feeding live steam at 580 degrees from the reactor and out to the big GEC turbines in the adjacent hall. Below the 37.5 metre deck, extending down for roughly forty metres -- 125 feet -- there's a maze of pipes, ranging from thin quarter- inch ducts leading to valves and dials for manual control, to enormous three foot armoured pipes that rumble with the flow of gas. Live steam at this kind of pressure is explosive, corrosive stuff -- each quadrant is sealed off from the others, with blast ducts and other safety mechanisms to vent steam in event of an explosion. (Not that there's ever been a spontaneous failure of that kind at an AGR, but current disaster planning tends to emphasize scenarios such as a fully-fuelled 747 flying straight into the plant at full speed -- can't think why.) Virtually every control board, valve wheel, and instrument is padlocked shut or accessible only using a special key; and every automatic, motorized valve has a manual backup, right down to the huge cast-iron handwheel for closing off the main steam circulation pipes in event of a power failure. (Which isn't likely; in addition to the grid connection, there are four twelve megawatt diesel generator stations spaced around each corner of the plant -- each with two generators, any one of which is able to provide operating power to keep the reactor's safety systems working.)

Down below the reactor vessel, nine metres underground, there's a big cork gasket. I mean big. I'm running out of adjectives for scale here, but it's not every day you see a cork heatproof mat sized to sit underneath a forty-five metre tall nuclear reactor. Below that, there's a concrete plinth and the other end of the cable bundles; the entire mess of reactors and turbines and steam pipes are suspended in a cats' cradle of cables that are designed to damp out or absorb the forces of an earthquake or a major impact.

There's a lot of other stuff spaced around the reactors. On one side, there's the fuel rod assembly room. Graphite tubes about 30 centimetres in diameter and a metre high are filled with spacer grids and gleaming screw-corrugated tubes of fuel a centimetre in diameter and a metre long; the fuel is uranium enriched to 2.8% U235. A stack of these tubes, bolted together and held under tension by internet rods, can be assembled into a fuel rod and lowered into the reactor to join the hundreds already inside. Controling the reaction kinetics are a total of 89 control rods, neutron absorbers that can be raised or lowered into the reactor to damp down the fission rate. In event of a failure there are other control mechanisms, housed deep in the plant under the big kettle; the reactor can be flooded with nitrogen gas under pressure -- a strong neutron absorber -- and if that fails, as a last-ditch measure the operators can blow clouds of tiny perspex glass beads into the reactor.

Before you can get in or out of the reactor building itself, there are turnstile barriers to go through: access using card badges and past a security checkpoint, egress using the same card badges and through a full-body sized cubicle full of scintillation detectors. Outside the controlled area it might as well be any other big power station, but inside it, the level of attention to detail is mind-numbing.

The reactor control room itself was obviously designed with guided tours in mind: a carpeted corridor in the non-controlled zone leads past windows giving a full view of the room from above -- but to get access you need to go through a separate set of card-controlled (and guarded) security turnstiles. Inside the control room, the most interesting feature not visible from the windows is the wall of lever-arch binders that contain the manuals; the reactors are usually controlled by a gang of elderly Ferranti mainframes (due for replacement next year), but everything can be operated by remote control from the control room, or by hand (with the right keys and a lot of patience!) from the access levels surrounding the reactor itself. Other than that, it was familiar from a thousand press photographs: subdued lighting, big boards with illuminated lights showing the status of the transformers and switches, horseshoe shaped consoles full of buttons to control each reactor (with a prominent red LED display showing output in megawatts), and so on. The white heat of technology at work.

What you don't see in the control room is the huge air-conditioned equipment room below it and to one side, full of cabinets where the cables from the thermocouples, neutron sensors, and other monitoring gear terminates. There are four sets of control cabinets, each of which contains triply-redundant sensors configured to trigger a reactor trip if any operational parameter goes out of bounds. Everything's locked down, with no changes permitted until they've been passed by a full review process and signed off. The big business of running an AGR seems to consist of shuffling paper and handing out keys to padlocks.

The turbine hall is enormous, as you'd expect for a plant designed to hold two 660 MW turbines: they're loud, but there's nothing here that's radically different from what you'd expect at any other power station. Two gigantic GEC turbines and their associated generators sit at either side of the hall, sucking the huge steam pipes from each reactor; a maze of plumbing surrounds them, extending down to sub-basement level, to provide the cooling side of the thermal cycle. On the far side of a wall from the generators are the equally brobdingnagian circuit breakers and then the cinderblock bunker containing the grid transformer that boosts the output up to 440 kV. Big stacks on insulators, poles for switching the output on and off, a pervasive droning 50 cycle hum, and the smell of hot oil from the eight pumps that feed oil through the transformer core and then past a cooling system.

(The turbine hall and transformers, and the buildings containing the diesel standby generators, are where the main hazard for the AGR complex lies: the turbines are spinning at more than 3000 rpm and are just barely cooler than red hot, while only metres away the generators spin in a sealed atmosphere of hydrogen gas. Everything's lubricated with oil, and there're big tanks of diesel fuel not far away. The combination of lubricating oil, hydrogen, fuel oil, and hot metal -- not to mention high-tension power supplies -- is much more dangerous than a reactor, which is designed to be shut down nearly instantly if anything goes wrong. So, if the reactor building is peculiar for its emphasis on radiological safety, the turbine hall has fire-fighting systems just about everywhere.)

I'm not going to bother describing some of the other aspects of our visit -- the standby diesel generators, the additional ranks of control cabinets that keep the generators running, or the methane, liquid nitrogen, hydrogen electrolysis, or other gas plants dotted around the complex. (This is already way over-long for a blog report!) I'm not even going to dwell on the more bizarre aspects of the site: the anti-rabbit defenses, the anti-truck-bomb obstacles (on the entrance only -- no self-respecting truck bomber would ever think of driving in through the exit, would they?), or the weirdly victorian-looking plumbing around the 12 metre level (where the manual last-ditch controls are available, all brass dials and hand-wheels). What I think I should end with is an explanation of the title of this piece ...

As Les explained, "nothing like this will be built again". The AGRs at Torness are not ordinary civil power reactors. Designed in the 1970's, they were the UK's bid to build an export-earning civil nuclear power system. They're sensitive thoroughbreds, able to reach a peak conversion efficiency of 43% -- that is, able to turn up to 43% of their energy output into electricity. By comparison, a PWR peaks at 31-32%. However, the PWRs have won the race for commercial success: they're much, much, simpler. AGRs are like Concorde -- technological marvels, extremely sophisticated and efficient, and just too damned expensive and complex for their own good. (You want complexity? Torness was opened in 1989. For many years thereafter, its roughly fifty thousand kilometres of aluminium plumbing made it the most complex and demanding piece of pipework in Europe. You want size? The multi-thousand ton reactor core of an AGR is bigger than the entire plant at some PWR installations.)

It's a weird experience, crawling over the guts of one of the marvels of the atomic age, smelling the thing (mostly machine oil and steam, and a hint of ozone near the transformers), all the while knowing that although it's one of the safest and most energy-efficient civilian power reactors ever built it's a a technological dead-end, that there won't be any more of them, and that when it shuts down in thirty or forty years' time this colossal collision between space age physics and victorian plumbing will be relegated to a footnote in the history books. "Energy too cheap to meter" it ain't, but as a symbol of what we can achieve through engineering it's hard to beat.

[ Discuss ]

Posted at 10:31 # G

Wed, 10 Jul 2002

Your government on drugs

It's an interesting day, today! Home Secretary David Blunkett is due to announce the downgrading of cannabis from a class 2 controlled substance to class 3 -- the difference being that simple possession of a class 3 substance isn't an arrestable offense (unless there are aggravating factors such as there being a large quantity, the owner being a public nuisance, or being suspected of dealing).

There've been several minor explosions already. Former drugs tsar Keith Hellawell (now downgraded to the status of part-time adviser on drugs strategy) has resigned in protest -- and good riddance to bad rubbish. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are yammering away about the evils of this hideous addictive substance, to such effect that Blunkett felt it necessary to cover his ass by annnouncing that he was going to double the maximum sentence for dealing in cannabis. (What he didn't feel it necessary to explain was that the maximum prison term for selling a class 2 drug is 14 years, while that for a class 3 drug is 5 years; so he's "doubling" the maximum prison term from 14 years to 10 years. Eric Blair would have been envious ...)

It remains to be seen how the would-be neo-conservative government in The Hague cope with the spectre of England being invaded by hordes of dope-crazed Dutch drug tourists if they succeed in carrying out their proposed crack-down on cafes in Amsterdam (a proposal which won't go down well with their minority coalition partners, I suspect), but it's certainly Interesting Times for the war on drugs.

[ Link ] [ Discuss drugs ]

Posted at 12:03 # G

Mon, 8 Jul 2002

Blame the tax man

Yup, I'm sober now. And so's Feorag. And we haven't done the "ohmygod-did-I-really-say-that" thing, so it must be real.

The sensation of deciding to get married after nine years of living together is distinctly odd. Feorag got married when she was 22, for all the wrong reasons (she says), and was divorced a year later. For my part, I've never married. Marriage looks, to us, like something most people do with far too little fore-thought and for the wrong reasons; either to get a priestly blessing for god-sanctioned sex, or to get daddy to throw an enormous party, or simply because everyone else is doing it and social conformity is Important (the "fly's diet" argument). We, in contrast, are older, wiser, and know exactly why we're getting married ...

... We're doing it for tax reasons.

We're also doing it because we're in love, and have been for most of a decade, and we're going to throw a huge party in Amsterdam and invite all our friends, and there's nothing to prove any more by not doing it, and a whole load of other fluffy frou-frou like that ... but a cold fact is that under the current tax regime in the UK, if I was run over by a bus tomorrow Feorag would get hammered for inheritance tax on our home -- whereas if it happened a minute after we were married she wouldn't have to pay them a bent penny. "Better to marry than to pay tax" doesn't sound very romantic, but it's clear enough that the blame lies with successive governments who've tried to impose social engineering via the tax code: something to complain to our MPs about.

Anyway, we're going to throw a big party in order to deprive the Inland Revenue of their ill-gotten gains. Death may still be unavoidable, but in some cases you can work a fancy number on the taxes ...

[ Discuss ]

Posted at 11:06 # G

Big mistake time ...?

David Murray died last night, aged 40, from a stroke.

Subsequently Iain Turbull -- the other brewer -- invited us to the wake tonight (last night -- i.e. the 7th).

Either it's insanity catalysed a portent of mortality, or it's something that's been brewing for the past couple of years, or it was four pints of real ale too many, or it's the best thing that's happened to us for a while ... but at the stroke of midnight I proposed to Feorag, in front of witnesses.

And she said "yes".

Unless we wake up later today with pounding heads and panic attacks -- which admittedly seems unlikely right now -- we're getting married in Amsterdam late in June 2003. Ten years, we decided, was long enough for sitting on the fence. Serious wild partying is called for. One in the eye for intimations of mortality.

(I am now going to hide under the bed gibbering "what have I done?" Feorag, for her part, seems radiantly happy.)

[ Discuss (Complete insanity!) ]

Posted at 01:31 # G

Sun, 7 Jul 2002

Two men and their dog ...

Went to build a brewery.

That was about five years ago. In the fullness of time, they parted company with their backers and set up another brewery. And I got to see a hell of a lot of what goes on when a microbrewery is built because Feorag (my partner) is one of the directors, does all their graphic design work, and sometimes goes in and brews beer. But it was still -- and this part is critical -- two men and their dog.

Well, it was two men and a dog. Because yesterday David, the salesman and driver and co-brewer, went to his bowling club in the evening, hoisted a pint or two with friends, bought a Chinese takeaway on his way home, ate half of it, then went to bed and died quietly in his sleep. He was forty years old.

David had high blood pressure, and had a minor cerebral infarction three years ago, from which he'd partially recovered. He also had a lifestyle that involved driving 120,000 miles a year, working 80 hours a week, and getting stressed. Not a good combination to have when you've got a history of cerebrovascular accidents.

The fallout is still settling. I've spent a chunk of today discussing the brewery's future with Iain (the head brewer) and John (the company secretary) trying to help out, and generally worrying. As far as we know David didn't leave a will and had no close relatives. Hopefully the brewery will continue -- Iain is up for it -- but this is going to be a very interesting week (in the sense of the Chinese proverb).

If this sounds rather cold, I should probably stress that David wasn't a close friend. He was a co-worker and colleague and somebody I knew reasonably well: someone whose death shocked and disturbed me, that came prematurely and intrusively -- but not one that left me feeling personally diminished or grief-stricken. Maybe I'd been subconsciously expecting it ever since the first stroke; there's been a sense that he's been living on borrowed time for three years. Then again, maybe it just hasn't sunk in yet. The big, noisy Hearts fan with the mad laugh and the battered black van full of beer casks is dead, and the world is not necessarily a smaller place -- but a quieter one. Shit.

[ Link ] [ Discuss death ]

Posted at 19:22 # G

Sat, 6 Jul 2002

Nature Documentary

You know about the goody-bags that always get handed out at tech conferences? This year, Microsoft excelled themselves at TechEd 2002 in Barcelona. In fact, highly- trained correspondents have speculated that the brightly-coloured insectile wheelie-bags are in fact alive. As this nature documentary footage of bags mating in the wild shows ...

[ Link (Thanks, Simon!) ] [ Discuss ]
Posted at 12:31 # G

Flash and crap

Short webby rant:

I just deleted the Flash plugin from my iBook. Bliss!

For those of you who're unfamiliar with Flash, it's a Macromedia product. Macromedia is a multimedia company. You've probably met Flash websites before; they're the ones that take forever to load and then show you an animated presentation like a badly-edited mid-90's CDROM. Flash pages have no text user interface to speak of -- making them hostile to the visually handicapped -- they're big (making them a bandwidth hog), and they're usually ugly. Even Jakob Nielsen thinks they're the work of the devil. What's worse is that Flash is a proprietary standard -- there isn't now, and there probably never will be, a free software solution to viewing flash documents. But what's so bad about it that I'd rip the ability to view the things right out of my laptop?

In the early days of the graphical web, we used to build animations using GIF images which could cycle jerkily through a series of frames, one by one, as they loaded. Advertisers like animations on pages, because animations grab the eye -- readers don't like them because they're a distraction, constantly sucking attention away from the text. Well, browsers now have pretty good control over image loading. My copy of Mozilla lets me choose whether or not to accept images on a per-host basis, and edit my existing image permissions. Let an adserver sneak into my list of permitted servers? No trouble: snip it out then reload the page and tell the browser to ignore that host. It makes for a peaceful, junk-free browsing experience and, as I noted a while ago, spam has given me a mild allergy to all forms of advertising.

Recently I began noticing big, flashy animated ads in some pages. Ads that Mozilla never asked me before loading. A quick prod determined that they're Flash animations -- and Mozilla's image loading mechanism doesn't class .SWF files as something to keep track of. This, in my opinion, is a deficiency in Mozilla that the advertisers are making an end-run around. Any media type that can be embedded in a page needs to be allowed in on suffrance, only with the permission of the browser user.

In the meantime, the solution was to throw the Flash plugin in the trash and restart Mozilla. Blessed peace, fast-loading web pages free of animated stupidity, is the result. I heartily encourage you all to follow suit! There will be one or two web sites for companies you want to deal with that you can no longer see: but of late, 70-80% of Flash usage has been by spammers making an end-run around image filters. If someone renders their web site unreadable by using a spammer's technology to create it, that's their problem, not yours.

[ Link (Check your plugins)] [ Discuss spam ]

Posted at 11:44 # G

Thu, 4 Jul 2002

Godzilla vs King Kong -- Linux for Playstation II

Here's a very interesting review of Sony's recently-released Linux kit for the Playstation II, by someone who seems to know what he's talking about. I'm not sure I buy his speculation completely -- the idea that Linux for PS2 is simply a tool to flood the market with new PS2 programmers is sound, but I think there's a bit more to it than that. Still, if you want to know how Sony's responding to Microsoft's move to enter the console market, this is interesting reading.

[ Link ] [ Discuss Free Software ]

Posted at 14:22 # G

Wed, 3 Jul 2002

Immigration? What Immigration?

Something weird seems to be happening in the UK. And what's weird is the way nobody is talking about it openly.

During the 1950's and 1960's, the UK underwent a wave of immigration from Pakistan, India, and sundry parts of the former empire. One explanation is that in the 1950's, the UK had very low unemployment; immigration from the Carribean was encouraged in order to fill low-status occupations. Another explanation is the now-familiar economic migrant story. Was it push or pull? Who cares: between 1968 and 1972 the pipe was abruptly shut down, leaving the UK with a roughly 5% black and asian population and a legacy of endogenous racism, exploited by opportunist politicians, that still hasn't died down.

There's currently a lot of yammering in the press about "asylum seekers". Since the early 1990's, when there was a peak in asylum applications from refugees from the former Yugoslavia, "asylum seeker" has become a euphemism for immigrant. But, beyond the familiar TV footage of detainees at Sangatte trying to climb the fence and make a mad dash for the EuroTunnel trains, what's really going on?

I hadn't been paying much attention until I ran across this article in the Guardian (see link), suggesting that immigration into the UK is running at a high enough level to impact housing policy. The UK has, it seems, taken 183,000 incomers for two years running. Extrapolate for a decade: that's just short of two million. Extrapolate as an ongoing policy for three decades and you get a figure of six million, or 10% of the total population. We are, it seems, in the middle of a wave of immigration bigger than that of the 1950's and 1960's, one that's probably going to impact everybody in the UK personally, sooner rather than later.

Now, I am in principle in favour of immigration, of the free movement of people to go where they need to go in pursuit of freedom, happiness, and the creation of wealth. I'm the third-generation descendant of immigrants and it'd be deeply hypocritical of me to hold any other opinion. Also, the UK badly needs immigrants: like most of western Europe we're teetering on the edge of a demographic mess, very close to having the same shrinking, ageing population as Japan -- a problem that causes massive economic dislocation. A pool of immigrant labour can, to put it bluntly, prop up our social services and industry and provide for economic stability, in return offering new citizens a good life in a developed nation. But -- and it's a big "but" -- as long as our politicians are tip-toeing around the "immigration" word, playing it down and pretending it's a small issue of a few thousand refugees from civil wars on the edge of Europe, we run the risk of handing a huge propaganda windfall to the extreme right.

During the 1960's and 1970's, a rallying cry for the far right was "those wogs are coming over 'ere and taking our jobs". And we're going to be in serious shit unless a political visionary stands up in the next few years and says, publicly, "they're coming over here to prop up your gran's state pension". Because only that message, or something like it, is going to address the uncertainties and fears that the hard right preys on. The Netherlands and Germany have already discovered this -- they've got immigrant communities much larger than the UK's -- and we need to learn from their mistakes before it's too late.

[Link] [Discuss immigration]

Posted at 11:55 # G

Tue, 2 Jul 2002

Saudi Arabia on the brink?

A not-so-fun report from The Guardian's David Pilkington, in Saudi Arabia, suggests that the government there is far more unstable than most westerners think. Lots of in-their-own-words quotes to chill the blood of anyone who thinks islamic anti-semitism is over-exagggerated, too.

[ Link ] [ Discuss 9/11 ]

Posted at 12:46 # G

Today in Pravda ...

A "Shark" class SSBN ("Typhoon" to all you NATO-codename-understanding Tom Clancy fans) has just returned to service after 12 years in dry dock awaiting repairs -- according to Pravda's report it's the world's largest submarine -- it was part of a ceremony involving the visit of a senior government minister to the Russian Center for Nuclear Shipbuilding to discuss how the government's going to pay off its debts.

Also, in a Pravda exclusive interview (which, um, they failed to spot as being remotely important), it transpires that various American legislators are trying to get the Pentagon to spill the beans about the UFOs they've apparently been operating since 1950. (At least, I think that's what they're saying: translations like "to lift a real flying device, the pusher corpse must vibrate with ultrasonic frequency" really give me that good old-time babelfish feeling ...)

Finally, for all you warbloggers out there, Pravda opines that George W. Bush's recent demand for Arafat's resignation can only strengthen his hand among the Palestinians. But we knew that already, didn't we?

[ Link to quaint Russian Orthodox Church propaganda newspaper ] [ Discuss politics]

Posted at 10:34 # 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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