Charlie's Diary

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Fri, 28 Jun 2002

Exhaustion is ...

... writing 14,000 of magazine copy in five days.

(A quick BOTE calculation suggests that if I were to sustain this rate of output I could produce the entire editorial content of "Linux Format" magazine on my own. Assuming I didn't burn out in a month. Eeep.)

Anyway, it's done and I'm about to take off for a five-day weekend patching up my parents' and sister's computers, which succumb to terminal bit rot of the "why doesn't it do <X> when I click the mousy thingy on the funny ickle picture?" variety ("because you dragged the system folder into the trash while tidying up!").

Meanwhile, by way of Avram Grunner and Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, here's how I don't intend to work out the plot of my next novel (which is why I've been clearing the deck by trying to do a month's work in a week).

[Link] [Discuss pomo]

Posted at 19:51 # G

Wed, 26 Jun 2002

Arbeit Macht Frei

Dammit, I knew trying this was silly.

Expect to see sod-all blogging from me this week, because I'm trying to slaughter next month's workload in five days, and then I'm going to take three days out to go visit my sister and parents in Leeds. (Where none of 'em yet have broadband.)

Monday and Tuesday's toll was the interview with Al Reynolds and a feature for Computer Shopper about the RIP Act Amendment, it's meaning, and a backgrounder on Polite Civil Disobedience 101 for nerds. Today's was a quickie review of SuSE Linux 8.0 (summary: it doesn't want to talk to my US Robotics 802.11 card, even though everything else works fine -- bummmer), and the first half of a Perl tutorial on GUI programming. Tomorrow I get to finish the Perl tutorial and start writing a feature on spambusting, and Friday I get to finish that. The grand total of dead trees should weigh in at 14,000 words in five days. If I survive. (There is a huge difference between writing 14,000 words in a novel you're engaged with and enjoy writing, and 14,000 words of assorted plodding technojournalese.)

Oh yeah: I can't really post the raw Al Reynolds interview transcript because it's pants. The minidisk player decided to go on strike without telling me, so half the 40-minute interview didn't get picked up, and the rest was rendered incoherent by background chatter.

I believe I will be more coherent -- or even eloquent -- next week, when I've killed the feature commissions, had a rest, and got my teeth back into the novelette I'm writing. Then it'll back to the novel mines, comrade Stakhanov.

Posted at 20:59 # G

Cold War Chill

You tell kids these days that you grew up expecting to be incinerated in a nuclear fireball before you hit thirty, and they don't believe you.

Yesterday, we took a day trip out to the Secret Government Bunker in Fife. The bunker is now a museum/tourist attraction, but back when it was built in 1953 as part of the RAF's fighter defense radar chain, it was deadly serious. During the 1960's it was refurbished and turned into the command bunker for the whole of Scotland in event of nuclear war; decomissioned in 1993, it was sold off and is now run as a nostalgia trip for those of us who remember the cold war.

Nostalgia? Am I going mad?

The cold war was terrifying. In fact, if you lived in the UK -- target of more megatons of firepower than just about anywhere except West Germany, where as the grim joke put it the villages were five kilotons apart -- you probably had about the same reaction to it that New York natives today have to people with sharp things on airliners. I know I had nightmares; most of the members of my generation I've talked to about it did, too.

Walking through the drab institutional corridors and seeing the museum displays of life in the bunker, the re-runs of "Protect and Survive" (the government's laughable what-to-do-when-the-bomb-drops public information film, declassified in 1982), the apparatus from which the country was to be governed under conditions of martial law after two thirds of the populace were dead or injured, brought it all back. Yes, folks, there's something much worse than Osama bin Laden out there. We've been there, we had almost ten years' out in the sunshine, and now the stormclouds have gathered in again but they're still not as bad as they were back in the 1950's to 1980's.

Misplaced marketing. I'm not nostalgic for the cold war -- but I'm glad for the reminder that times could be worse than they are now. It's a salutory sensation, recalibrating one's sense of perspective ...

[ Link ] [ Discuss Cold War ]

Posted at 20:59 # G

Sat, 22 Jun 2002

Weird URL du jour (Sound required.) Wheeeee!!

[ Link ] [ Discuss ]
Posted at 22:05 # G

Video killed the Radio Star -- in the rain, with a cosh, down Tin Pan Alley

Well, I hope their lawyers are proud of themselves.

This week, the US Library of Congress caved to demands by RIAA front- organisation CARP that internet streaming audio stations should pay the RIAA a royalty, on a per-song/per-listener basis. They awarded CARP half the royalty they wanted -- but it's still an order of magnitude more than the utterly unprofitable streaming medium can afford. SomaFM and BlueMars are already off the net; most of the rest will follow shortly. If you want to know why, here's SomaFM's CARP explanation.

It's worth noting that these stations already pay performance rights to ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC; the money here notionally goes to performers, but in practice it's divvied up in a carefully weighted manner that basically all goes to the rights owners of the top 20 best-selling CD's. (For ambient and alternative stations, this means they have to shell out potloads of money to subsidize the exact same mass-market extruded rubbish that their listeners turned to them for relief from.) To say it's legalised extortion would be a polite way of putting it, but RIAA have gone one better; they've strangled internet radio in its cradle.

Doc Searls more or less speaks for me, too when he describes this as "an absolute fuck-you to internet radio, to listeners, to everybody but the record industry". He's right. I only really discovered internet radio about three months ago, and now I'm going to lose it again.

But if it's any consolation, they're shooting themselves in the foot.

I'm a 37 year old with a disposable income and a CD collection containing over 500 disks. I should, by rights, be the RIAA's poster child, exactly the type of person they want to reach because I'm a customer who thinks nothing of going into a shop and buying five to ten CD's at a time.

However, the only new CD's I've bought this year have been bought via mail order on the basis of stuff I heard on internet radio channels. You see, I mostly buy second-hand CD's these days. This policy on my part is recent, and it's a direct reaction to the fuckwitted idea of applying copy prevention techniques to CD's. I buy CD's to rip so I can load them onto my Archos jukebox, for convenience. If a CD is "copy protected", I can't do that. So I've almost entirely stopped buying new CD's, as a precaution against the RIAA (and friends') attempts to stop me playing them. Second-hand CD's are still mostly safe.

The few new CD's I buy are the result of hearing something new. Commercial radio stations, with their inane advertising drivel and fuckwitted disk jockeys, drive me mad; but continuous streaming internet radio with no voice-overs lets me listen to more stuff -- and in some cases I end up, against my better judgement, buying new CD's (after a quick online check to see they weren't issued in 2001 or later -- the cut-off for the copy prevention lunacy).

Anyway, here's the rub: I've got a big enough music collection that I don't need to ever buy a CD again; I can listen to music 80 hours a week for six weeks before hearing a track twice. Thus, anything that makes it hard for me to hear new artists or to obtain their music in my accustomed way reduces the RIAA's revenue. They're cutting their own throat. Which is fine by me, but in the process it is making it hard for me to hear work by new artists, and this really pisses me off.

[ Discuss ]
Posted at 11:37 # G

Thu, 20 Jun 2002

Short, sharp, interlude

Been out and about today, doing domestic stuff.

Dreamwatch magazine dropped a commission on me at short notice -- take an interview I did with Alastair Reynolds last year and update it, adding supplementary stuff about his latest novel Redemption Ark -- by next week. Early next week, with house-guests staying over the weekend.

I'm going to see if they mind me putting the original, raw interview transcript on this website (as opposed to the new, improved, much shorter, through-written magazine version). Yell at me if you want to see interviews'n'stuff here, or links to features I've written -- I generate quite a lot of copy every month, to most of which I retain non- exclusive rights.

[ Discuss discuss ]
Posted at 17:58 # G

Wed, 19 Jun 2002

An unholy alliance

American Christian conservative groups are teaming up with reactionary Islamic fundamentalist nations at the UN to nobble anything they deem to be progressive initiatives -- equality of rights and opportunities for women and children, contraception, family planning, abortion, education. In fact, reading between the lines one wonders if they're trying to get the UN to declare abortion to be illegal world-wide. A block of fifty Islamic countries are now working with the US administration, which has lurched sharply to the right on these issues.

The alliance of conservative Islamic states and Christian organizations has placed the Bush administration in the awkward position of siding with some of its most reviled adversaries -- including Iraq and Iran -- in a cultural skirmish against its closest European allies, which broadly support expanding sexual and political rights.

You probably don't need me to tell you what I think of this, other than "how predictable". But it's interesting to note that the majority of the countries involved in this alliance are dictatorships or theocracies. What was that saying, "by their friends ye shall know them"?

[ Link (Via Junius) ] [ Discuss ]
Posted at 18:22 # G

Tue, 18 Jun 2002

Sanity: 1, Home Office: 0

The RIP Act amendment has just been canned.

David Blunkett has admitted he blundered with the controversial 'snoop' plans to give a raft of public bodies access to e-mail and mobile phone records.

The proposals are to be put on hold indefinitely in the face of huge opposition, which the home secretary conceded his department totally failed to predict.

It's not entirely dead yet -- the issue is due to be debated properly, by the Commons, in the next session (starting November), and there's separate discussion of the regulations governing the interception of live telephone and internet communications. RIPA is a draconian law in any event, and really needs to be repealed or neutered. But at least the worst proposed excesses seem to have been rejected for now, and the Home Secretary put on notice that this is a hot potato.

[ Link ] [ Discuss RIP Act ]
Posted at 13:43 # G

Hugo Young on machine politics and the RIP Act amendment

Guardian columnist found clueful: shock horror!

Government is never to be trusted. Not that government is always bad or wrong. It is essential to the good of mankind. But in the matter of power, government absolutely never deserves our unquestioning reliance. Its use of power demands eternal vigilance.
Trust is the right neuralgic word to raise here. There are several breaches of it. One was the calculated failure to list all these public authorities when Ripa was struggling through the Lords. Controversial already, the bill might have been judged insupportable if ministers revealed that the health and safety executive were to get the same powers as MI6. Plainly the machine's full intentions were held back as a piece of crude political calculation which parliament could do nothing about.

[ Link ] [ Discuss RIP Act ]
Posted at 08:38 # G

RIP Act news

Looks like the stushie over the RIP act amendment has finally woken up the mainstream press. It's made the BBC , The Telegraph (login required: use username '', password 'spamtrap'), and The Guardian. (The Guardian also printed my letter on the subject, and exposed another fun little planned government wheeze ("Police in new email spying row"), which was to use Public Interest Immunity certificates to prevent the disclosure of details of surveillance techniques in criminal cases -- preventing defendants from having access to prosecution documents). Oh, and Computer Shopper want a feature from me about the whole business by the end of the week, so blog updates may run a bit slow until next Tuesday.

It's beginning to look as if the plan to run the RIP act extension through on the nod has backfired spectacularly. The opposition has (shockingly) remembered to behave like an opposition and, even more startlingly, remembered that once upon a time they had a committment to individual freedom. The press have scented blood in the water, and the government seems to be embarrassed. One may even hope that this incident is going to revitalize STAND and sensitize the press in general to attempts to spy on the public ...

[ Discuss RIP Act ]
Posted at 08:21 # G

Mon, 17 Jun 2002

OpenOffice for MacOS X -- the first pre-Alpha release

Subject says it all; the first pre-alpha release of OpenOffice for MacOS X is finally out and available for download. This version only has the X11 user interface, so you'll need XDarwin and some support tools in order to use it, but a fully native Aqua interface is promised in time for the official 1.0 version. You won't want to try using this one for work -- it's strictly for developers -- but it's a vital first step in getting OpenOffice to work on MacOS X.

Why is this important? Well, it might not be to you, but I'd rate an office suite as third in importance to building a work environment on any computer, after a web browser and a text editor. Free versions of the above are important because they ensure that you can't be held to ransom by a software vendor either intentionally hiking prices on you, or unintentionally going out of business. With OpenOffice on the way, I now have no reason to even think about running MS Office on my iBook.

[ Link ] [ Discuss Free Software ]
Posted at 16:18 # G

Sun, 16 Jun 2002

Mornington Crescent

There appears to be an online variant infecting the web at Eek!

[ Link ] [ Discuss ]
Posted at 23:04 # G

Sat, 15 Jun 2002

Two nasty RIP Act thoughts ...

What's the purpose of the RIP Act amendment? I see two nasty possible candidates.

Firstly, the RIP act doesn't just cover email, phone taps, server logs, and so on -- it also covers data obtained from CCTV surveillance cameras. This amendment will allow bodies other than the police (such as the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency) to demand a live surveillance feed from any private CCTV camera that's convenient to them.

Secondly, and more worryingly: the current Blair administration is rather paranoid about leaks that might undermine political spin. This amendment seems tailored to make the job of an investigative journalist almost impossible. For example, how can you investigate possible malfeasance by an NHS trust's management, if they can order a telephone and email tap on you without judicial scrutiny or respect for journalistic confidentiality? The RIPA amendment potentially immunizes all public bodies against public scrutiny by making it impossible for journalists to ensure the confidentiality of their sources.

I wonder if this is a pre-emptive attempt to ensure that New Labour's third term in office doesn't become notorious for corruption in the same way as the Conservative's fourth term during the mid-nineties did? "Shoot the messenger, that'll do the trick."

[ Discuss RIP Act ]
Posted at 19:48 # G

Eric Raymond's at it again

Just what is it with Eric? Not content to be a big wheel in the Linux world, he keeps coming up with blog essays that seem calculated to annoy, irritate, or otherwise twist the tail of everyone who reads them.

In his latest, he lists "10 Reason I'm Not A (Left-)Liberal/10 Reasons I'm Not A Conservative." Go on, read 'em. Almost everyone finds at least one reason they agree with in each category. The problem is the overall picture they paint, and his final conclusion: "Liberals, by and large, are fools/Conservatives, by and large, are villains".

I disagree. But hopefully not for the obvious reasons.

My first starting point is that virtually nobody -- not even the worst serial killer -- is a villain in their own mind. We humans don't like seeing ourselves in bleakly negative terms and we don't get out of bed in the morning thinking "how can I make the world a worse, nastier, more unpleasant place?"

My second starting point is that everybody, at root, wants the same thing -- to maximize wealth and happiness for some defined group of people, if necessary at the expense of those outside the magic circle. Of course, who the defined group are varies. Pathologically self-obsessed cases define it as "me, myself, and I" and are willing to bankrupt nations and starve babies in order to give themselves an extra desert topping. Most people tend to define it in terms of self, family, friends, and maybe town or county or nation. At the far end of the spectrum lies an ideological stance frequently labelled as communism, which holds that greed leads to injustice, and therefore we can deal with injustice by abolishing greed. (No, I'm not going to point to the flaw in this argument.) Somewhere along this axis lies a vague area where most of us live; an area where we agree to give up some proportion of our wealth to ensure that there's a safety net for the unfortunate, because "there but for the grace of god go I". (This was first implemented as state policy by that well-known Marxist, Prince Otto von Bismarck.)

Finally, all of us harbour an uneasy balance between a sense of individual entitlement to our natural freedoms, and a sense of duty to higher causes. Some of us reject all higher causes, while others place higher causes over personal interest. Doubtless the civil servants who drafted the RIPA(2001) extension I yammered about yesterday are personally uneasy about the idea of their phones being tapped -- but they went through the motions anyway, because to do otherwise would be dereliction of duty. The anti-abortionist with the sniper's rifle taking pot-shots at obstetricians likewise believes himself to be justified because he's doing so in service to a higher power. (Let's not get side-tracked into the original biblical definition of the starting point of life; it's irrelevant to this particular point, which is that people do things because they feel it's important to do so, regardless of whether their actions are in their own self-interest.

Now, I want to take issue with the political spectres Eric is battling. I'm a member of the Liberal Party, and I don't recognize his phantom liberal as being a liberal; they're more accurately described as a superstitious, technophobic, patronizing control freak. I also grew up with Conservative parents (as in, members of the political party of that name), and I don't recognize much of them in his portrait of a conservative, either. His portrait of a conservative is of a censorious, puritanical but hypocritical, technophobic, racist and sexist control freak.

Seems to me that Eric has got issues with control freaks, whatever their motivation (be it religious duty, social duty, or whatever). He especially doesn't like people who see it as their duty to impose the "right" way of doing things on others. To that extent, you can sign me up. I don't like being pushed around by control freaks either.

But Eric gets a number of things wrong. Let's glance at the minor stuff first; he hates Bill Clinton (Why? I'll trade you Bill Clinton for Margaret Thatcher any day of the week), Communists (this conditioned three-minute-hate reflex is disturbingly common in Americans), Ronald Reagan (no comment), and Socialism (which, again, he doesn't understand because it's been thoroughly suppressed and misrepresented in the USA).

But the major blooper in his analysis is this: he's buying into definitions of conservativism and liberalism that look suspiciously like they were designed specifically as placeholders for real ideologies. The US Democratic party is often referred to by American bloggers as being "Liberal", but it's about as liberal as Tony "privatise the air traffic control system!" Blair is Socialist. Apart from the fringe, it's an echo of the Republican party, minus the theocratic loons who keep trying to hijack it. Basically, Eric's aim is being led astray by an unwillingness to look behind the labels at the actual substance on offer. Which is a choice between one flavour of control freakery ("put your guns in the box and submit to the body cavity search") and another different flavour ("abortion-free! Now with added chastity and family values!").

Forget the sock puppet labels. The real issues are:

  • Are you in favour of, or opposed to, legislating to control human behaviour on the basis of some theory (be it religious, economic, scientific, or ideological)
  • On a scale with your self at one end and the entire universe at the other, where do you want to position the slider that defines the border of your altruistic intent?

My personal answers are: on question #1 I am more or less on Eric's side, but on question #2 I want to live in a less uneven, more secure society than Eric does. How about you?

[Link] [Discuss politics]
Posted at 12:39 # G

Fri, 14 Jun 2002

An open letter to Mark Lazarowicz MP

(Yeah, I'm still going to visit him when he's in town)

MP for Edinburgh North & Leith
House Of Commons

Dear Rt Hon Mark Lazarowicz,

I'm writing in response to the recent publicity about the forthcoming commons vote (scheduled for the 24th) on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Communications Data: Additional Public Authorities) Order 2002.

On the subject of the proposed additions to the list of public authorities in section 25(1) of the act, I really and truly want my local postmaster to have the right to read my email without a court warrant. I'd be delighted to let the Food Standards Agency monitor my web purchases from Tesco, and I have no problem whatsoever with my local authority tapping my phone. Of course, I might be being sarcastic, but that's an occupational hazard of watching the Home Office shove through what looks like a Gestapo officer's wet-dream.


Please read this order carefully and ask yourself if you *really* think that it's in the public interest to allow the post office a level of bugging powers that the Russian FSB (formerly the KGB) don't have. Clue: measures like this do not gain the government a reputation as defenders of liberty.

[ Link ] [ Discuss RIP Act ]
Posted at 20:11 # G

RIP the act

The RIP (Regulation of Investigatory Powers) Act 2001, a law in force in the UK, basically provides a charter for UK government agencies to bug phones, read mail, tap servers, and demand encryption keys. It's pretty draconian, but was in the first instance saved from complete totalitarianism by the restriction of powers to grant wiretap warrants without going to a judge; only senior police officers were to have the right to order a tap.

Now the Control Freak party (prop. Tony "Eric must be rolling in his grave" Blair) have introduced a set of amended regulations that would allow even NHS hospital administrators and sub-postmasters, not to mention the local city council works department, to monitor your email, demand your encryption keys, and bug your phone.

Strike one for the good guys: STAND, the pressure group, and other people have been yelling like crazy and it's made the headlines. The vote has been postponed until the 24th, and a major "Fax your MP" campaign is under way. Me, I'm not going to fax my MP -- his constituency surgery is right opposite my front door and I'm going to visit him.

Meanwhile, if you're in the UK and you're reading this, go check out the STAND website below and Fax your MP about this odious amendment. We've already got the most draconian security and surveillance society in the EU -- do you really want to live in a goldfish bowl that makes the Iraqi secret police look like a model of privacy-respecting probity?

Posted at 19:51 # G

Thu, 13 Jun 2002

A Killer App ...

Dunno if anyone who works for Apple is reading this, but it just occured to me that there is a single extra feature that nobody seems to be selling in an MP3 portable and which would make such a beast a must-have item:

Just add an 802.11b port and the ability to pull in streaming audio from an Icecast or similar server.

I'm sitting here typing this with my iBook tethered to the desk by a single wire -- the cable leading to my amp and speakers. The reason I'm not using my MP3 jukebox is simple; I'm listening to streaming audio, not canned albums. Just how much work would it take to build an 802.11b interface, DHCP client, and some of the functionality of iTunes into the iPod? You could ditch the Firewire cable completely -- just have it synchronise with the base computer via wireless ethernet. More importantly, in the coming age of pervasive broadband the ability to receive music via wireless might well turn out to be the killer application. How else can you sell something functionally equivalent to a pocket FM radio and hope to get £500 for it?

Posted at 16:11 # G

It really works!

I didn't really believe my ears the first time I heard this ... basically, some guys with Macs and too much time on their hands have hooked a spamtrap up to Macintalk and a streaming internet radio website to produce Spam Radio. Add a random ambient music soundtrack and it really rocks. Something to do with the robot voices monotonously reciting inane marketing gibberish in the background is paradoxically soothing. Just like being back in a broiler hen^W^Wcubicle farm at the dot com.

(Next: the collected speeches of the Reverend Dr Ian Paisley, and a drum machine ...)

[Link] [Discuss]
Posted at 15:09 # G

Wed, 12 Jun 2002

Boring interlude warning

I'm in the process of reinstalling MacOS X on my iBook (this time on a UFS filesystem so that Linux can see it directly, even though this means that Classic mode won't work -- boo bloody hoo). Unfortunately this involves shuffling gigabytes of data around the laptop, so I may be quiet for a while.

Posted at 16:07 # G

Tue, 11 Jun 2002

Us and Them

Muslim youth culture locked in love-hate relationship with the west: film at eleven. The British council organised a poll conducted by local market research organisations in nine countries with substantial Muslim communities, and added a bunch of focus group sessions. The results? Except among Palestinians, most young Muslims don't see the UK or the USA as "the house of Satan" -- they put them among the most admired countries in the world.

So much for pundits talking about anti-western hatred throughout the Islamic sphere.

Well, it's damn hard to say for sure, but public opinion is a much more ellusive and complex beast than platitudes about "the arab street" would lead one to expect. More to the point, it adds support for the idea that the extremists of Al Qaida and their friends represent an unpopular minority viewpoint. (One that fits quite nicely with Umberto Eco's discussion of Ur-Fascism, but that's a whole 'nother rant.)

[Link] [Discuss ]
Posted at 15:12 # G

Sun, 9 Jun 2002

Freeman Dyson

Original ARPA contract to build 4000-ton nuclear powered interplanetary spacecraft in 1958: 27 pages.

Original NASA contract to supply 1800-odd photocopied pages of old NASA files for NASA archives (at six cents per page): 32 pages.

Posted at 14:27 # G


Si9imon le Strange is, well, strange (but I'd buy the album).

At the swap meet someone is selling a 1982-vintage NEC laptop ... running CP/M, with 4 'C' cells giving it an eight hour battery life. He wants a tenner for it. How far have we come?

Spectrum games legends on-stage, MAME-boxes, and a small Yoz-shaped thing wibbling around; it's the gathering of the tribes, and I feel horribly as if I've fallen into one of my own stories ("Toast").

Flee, flee to the pub hosting the fringe events -- starting with a discussion of online communities and automoderation. Libretto battery running low, transformer back at hostel, and failed attempts to get my crap Netgear 802.11 card to talk to the ad-hoc network suggest maybe I should habe brought the iBook and netstumbler. Oh well, next time.

Beer and online heckling call.
Posted at 14:27 # G

Extremely inappropriate computing: #1

Arrived London at -- ulp -- 08:30am. Headed into town and weebled about for a bit before hooking up with BoingBoing's own Cory Doctorow. Cory wanted to wander around Camden Market, which was fine with Feorag and myself because we, too, wanted to wander around etc. Far too much money got spent in Cyberdog, which can't make up its mind whether it's an art gallery, a rave venue, or a shop. Charlie sez: I am a sad nerd, as symptomized by my space invaders t-shirt. Still, in view of the weekend's planned events, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Cory is, it turns out, crashing upstairs from Richard Stallman, who is in town on a mission to bend ears. Hmm. Diplomacy urges me to change course at this point; let's just say, automatically assuming the EFF's outreach guy doesn't understand the difference between Open Source and Software Libre is a bad way to get your working relationship off to a flying start.

Ended up at a vegan Chinese eaterie with Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe, where Simon proceeded to get drool -- mine -- all over his shiny new Sharp Zaurus (of the linux-running variety).

Next morning: Xpcom2002 is located in the Camden Centre, opposite King's Cross -- a well-dodgy part of town, with crack dealers lurking around the street corners and furtive looking geeks ferrying their original prototype Sinclair Spectrums into the centre via the back door. So, we approach the door. And what do we get? "Sorry guys, can you wait 'til eleven? It's real chaos in there ..."

To be continued ...
Posted at 14:27 # G

Fri, 7 Jun 2002

Away wi' ye

I'm going to be away from oh-dark o'clock tomorrow (Saturday) through last thing at night on Monday, attending the Extreme Computing 2002 something-or- other (Festival of Inappropriate Technology?) being thrown by NTK and Mute Magazine.

Yes, I'll have a computer (the Libretto) and bandwidth (at worst, dialup over serial cable and mobile phone), so I might be blogging -- but I won't be surfing much. Whee!

Posted at 17:27 # G

A Modest Proposal

As you've probably guessed, I'm a pan-European Federalist and anti-monarchist. Frankly, I don't see why the fact that Lizzie Saxe-Coburg Gotha's n'th generation ancestor was good with a sword and cut a deal with the pope, which her n-x'th generation ancestor defaulted on (in order to get a quickie divorce on the cheap), somehow makes her intrinsically more suitable to rule a nation than anyone else.

However, there is one entertaining aspect to the House of Windsor; I refer, of course, to the Duke of Edinburgh (aka "Phil the Greek").

I would like to propose the following deal to our trans-Atlantic cousins, as a way out of the current political impasse: that we should swap Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, for George W. Bush, President of the United States.

First, considering their similarities they're both quite capable of doing each other's current job:

  • Inbred sons of blue-blooded clans
  • Look good in a suit
  • Used to working with spin doctors and PR people to paper over the cracks
  • Used to being put in the shade by more competent family members
  • Suffer from foot-in-mouth disease (GWB: "do you have blacks, too?" (to President of Brazil) DofE: "are you tigers?" (to delegation of Sri Lankan priests)

Now. Consider the benefits each could bring to the other's office!

The Duke of Edinburgh in the White House:

  • Americans have a soft spot for royalty. Why settle for the second best when you can have the real thing?
  • Knows all the Commonwealth heads of state personally, speaks several languages -- insults them in their own tongue whenever possible.
  • Looks better than GWB on a white horse -- he gets to practice regularly at equestrian events.
  • Gets his lines right ....
  • ... Even when he's drunk as a skunk.
  • His ancestors invaded Afghanistan. Twice. (Third time lucky?)
  • Over fifty years' experience as an unelected constitutional appendage.

Dubya in Buckingham Palace:

  • Can efficiently distract media attention from younger royal's high-jinks whenever necessary (just open mouth).
  • Can shake hands, smile.
  • Would probably look more regal if given make-over, crown.
  • Doesn't get his lines right ...
  • ... But that's no problem: nobody except the comics pay any attention to anything the royal consort says.
  • Won't be allowed to invade anywhere without written permission from Tony Blair.
  • Six months vacation out of the public eye each year will help keep the Royals' profile safely low.

Most importantly, any such exchange of top tits would reset the gaffe counter attached to the highest office in each land and give the carping pundits (that's you, me, and anyone else who wasn't born with a trust fund in his mouth -- basically anyone who isn't a member of the Pale Patriarchal Plutocratic Protestant Penis People) something new to whine about.

And as we have learned all too well, in today's world politics is defined by negative knocking copy in column-inches. And what could be more important than fixing that?

[Discuss phil the greek/GWB swap-meet]
Posted at 15:31 # G

Thu, 6 Jun 2002

Aaaargh ...

Noments after posting about the cute Nokia next-gen 802.11b/GPRS card, I discovered that the Nokia Card Phone 2.0 -- which does HSCSD at up to 28.8kbps via Orange and Demon Internet (with whom I have an account) is being remaindered at half price (about GBP £150) by Widget.

But moments after that I discovered something amazing -- after being vapourware for so long I thought the company had gone bust, the Swivel Systems SG20 is shipping.

The SG20 is not a necessity; it's a toy. And I knew there was a reason for not selling my old Palm IIIC. Where else can you get the world's smallest General MIDI synth, with sequencing and notation software? I'm not a musician; I just like dinking with weird noises. But this has got to be about the ultimate toy for whiling away a long flight. Aaargh! It's almost making that boring old serial cable look attractive ...

[Link] [Discuss]
Posted at 19:22 # G

I want ...

A Nokia D211.

I only realised I wanted one today, of course, and they aren't on sale yet. It's a PC card -- fits any laptop except an iBook -- like the old dual function modem/ethernet cards. The difference? It's a GSM phone and 802.11b card -- you can get internet via GSM (using HSCSD or GPRS to shift up to 43kbps) from your celco, or plug into the nearest 802.11b LAN at 11mbps. Best of all, it's vanilla compatible-with-everything; Nokia actually admit that it works with Linux and Macs as well as Windows.

(I need this because I'm about to take a long weekend away from home, and later this year I'm going to be spending a week at ConJose and another week at Milford. It's beginning to look like a month on the road per year, at which point mobile bandwidth stops being an optional extra.)

One day soon, this will be a standard component of every laptop. In the meantime, I'm stuck having to pay £40 for a serial cable for my Ericsson T39m (because my Libretto doesn't do Bluetooth, the T39m's IRdA implementation is broken, and a bog-standard Nokia Data Card 2.0 retails for £350 -- ouch).

[Link] [Discuss]
Posted at 17:55 # G

Wed, 5 Jun 2002

Squirrel Fishing

An oldie but a goodie -- in which the Rodent Performance Evaluation group from the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard attempt to objectively evaluate squirrel performance.

May contain traces of nuts.

(This link posted in lieu of real content, on account of Charlie writing 10,000 words in three days and not having a heck of a lot of time left over for surfing.)

[Link] [Discuss]
Posted at 20:14 # G

Tue, 4 Jun 2002

Why am I doing this?

Following Martin Wisse's example, a message from yr hmbl crspndnt:

  • I'm not writing this stuff for money. I write other stuff for money. If you want to subsidize me, go buy a copy of Computer Shopper or Linux Format (if you're in the UK) or, preferably, one of my books. But don't look for a PayPal button here.
  • I'm writing this stuff because I enjoy it. I will write about things that I enjoy writing about, and ignore things I don't give a shit about. If I took money for writing this blog, that would imply some kind of contract to write about stuff that interests you, not stuff that interests me.
  • With the exception of the Amazon links to my own books (of which there will be more, in the fullness of time), the reviews do not have links. That's because I'm not writing them to make money, I'm writing them to focus my own ideas about what I just read. Take 'em with a pinch of salt -- you may find that I like stuff you hate, and vice versa.
  • The discussion forums are free. I don't own it. If QuickTopic starts charging, I'll just have to roll out the MySQL-based guestbook script I wrote for an LXF column a couple of years ago (modulo some tweaking). I haven't done that so far because I'm lazy. (Laziness is an underrated virtue.)
  • I'm not really sure why I'm doing this, except I've got a gut- deep feeling that much of the blogosphere sucks. If you think I'm wrong, and this sucks, well, nobody's forcing you to read it. I reserve the right to be an annoyingly opinionated liberal European Federalist and unintentionally get right up your nose. If there's one thing this isn't, it's a PR exercise.

[ Discuss ]
Posted at 21:51 # G

Hello, Cthulhu!

You've bought the plush toys, you've got the drinking mug, now play the animation. What next: the opera? CthulhuLand(TM)?

[Link] [Discuss]
Posted at 21:29 # G

A day for new toys?

This guy builds pulse jet powered go-karts and has instructions for a DIY cruise missile on his website, while this guy made his iBook glow deep radioactive blue, and Taiwanese motherboard manufacturer AOPen demo'd a PC motherboard with en suite vacuum tube analog audio amplifier (photos here -- also web server timeouts).

Can you build a pulse-jet powered cruise missile with a guidance computer full of radio valves and a case that glows blue? Enquiring minds want to know.

[Links via Boing Boing, Slashdot, and some random UK mac fetishist newsgroup] [Discuss]
Posted at 21:22 # G

Mon, 3 Jun 2002

3000 words

Into the next novel.

(Sorry, but some things take priority over blogging.)

Posted at 21:04 # G

Sun, 2 Jun 2002

Nominative Determinism ...

... Is the term invented by New Scientist to describe the phenomenon whereby someone's choice of a professional career appears to be eerily influenced by their name: for example, Mr Pipe the plumber or Professor Sparks from the faculty of electronic engineering.

Which is why I was gobsmacked to read a recent bulletin from Declan McCullagh's excellent Politech mailing list, in which it transpires that the US Department of Justice official in charge of trying to figure out how to make the Childrens' Internet Protection Act (read: Adult's First-Amendment Rights Removal Act) stick is called ... Barbara Comstock.

Apparently she was appointed by Ashcroft. (Who says the guy's got no sense of humour?)

Link Discuss
Posted at 12:07 # G

More apocalyptic news

Just when I thought the Pakistan/India situation was as bad as things were likely to get, I had to stumble across this news report on AIDS in Russia.

Urban Weber, a technical adviser on HIV for UNAids, said: 'HIV will become a very severe problem for Russian society as a whole in a very short time if nothing happens.

'Ninety per cent of Russian HIV cases caught the disease since 1999. This means that the first wave of people will start arriving in hospital in three years. Now there is no visible problem, and this might be the reason why it is getting little attention.'

Weber added that Russians were not being informed of the risks. 'Russian condom use is considerably lower than in other Western countries. But Russians are as rational as everyone else. They just need to be told how to protect themselves.'

Oh yeah -- how big is it? It's huge: 5% of the Russian population will be infected by 2007 it is continues to spread at the current rate, and if it continued for just a couple of years longer than that about 20% of the population would be ill. The initial vector was intravenous drug use, but it's now crossed over into the heterosexual population -- just like Africa. Meanwhile, Russia spends just $20M a year on AIDS, and the mayor of Moscow is encouraging adults to abstain from sex rather than use condoms because condom use is frowned on by the Orthodox Church.

Link Discuss
Posted at 11:19 # 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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