Charlie's Diary

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Sat, 30 Mar 2002

I must not overdose on Red Bull.

I must not overdose on Red Bull.

I must not overdose on Red Bull.


For some reason I seem to be having trouble with the panels I want to sit in on; there must be some unofficial law of scheduling that says interesting panels have to be run simultaneously. And the con committee also appear to have pencilled me in as a rent-a-panelist -- I've been drafted onto two more while I've been here.

It's astonishing how uptight people on the panel on Sex in SF got when it was suggested (by one panelist) that slash fiction isn't SF (with a lengthy critical justification) -- astonishing, but entertaining. (I am now thinking about doing something to remedy the drastic shortage of Cthulhu Slash fiction highlighted by Mary Branscomb -- but maybe that's the caffeine overdose speaking.) In the meantime, it seemed a little bit more appealing than sitting through a panel on alternate histories that focussed exclusively on the US Civil War. (Just check out soc.history.what-if if you want to know why I figure this subject is interminably boring. You'd be bored, too, if you'd hung out on that newsgroup for a couple of years.)

Next on the agenda: a panel on evaluating primary sources in research. Yeah, crucial.

(Anyone got any insights into how to get Cthulhu into a bodice? Or what the appropriate bodice-ripping instrument to use on an Elder One might be?)

Some statistics:

  • Helicon 2 had 512 members as of noon on Saturday.
  • There are eleven nine-gallon casks of real ale in the bar at any one time (and they appear to be getting through about four casks an evening).
  • Harry Turtledove writes approximately 850,000 words of fiction per year.
  • Number of robots for the "Beyond Cyberdome" event impounded by Airport Security under the Prevention of Terrorism Act: 1

The panel on primary research was pretty enlightening, with contributions by a doctor, a lawyer, an historian, and sundy unreliable witnesses. Moral of story: don't believe your own eyes, they've probably been paid to provide an alibi. It was promptly followed by a GoH slot, during which Brian Stableford distinguished himself by remaining gnomic and imperturbable even when Harry Turtledome admitted that to address the on-going Turtledove Title Famine he was nationalising one of Brian's titles -- eerily, also for the middle volume of a trilogy about warring empires.

Posted at 16:29 # G

Fri, 29 Mar 2002

Helicon, day #2

I am becoming midly peevish at the way people keep buttonholing me.

Not that I mind being famous -- I'm an egomanic and a half after all -- but so far I have racked up:

Fans ... Of What
2 Linux columns in Computer Shopper
1 Perl column in Linux Format
3 This blog
1 The deathless masterpieces of fiction

Dammit, this is an SF con! I'm not meant to be a famous computer journalist/blogger.

Oh, and I've just been nobbled for a fourth panel. Two of 'em are back to back. And I'm having trouble staying out of the dealer room.

As a minor point of personal obsession, I think I'm going to follow the program thread on alternate history fiction. As Harry Turtledove is here (doing the guest of honour thing) this might be quite interesting (as long as the brain eater hasn't gotten to him).

Random word-association of the day: an epidemic of autocrucifixion.

Turn up at the parallel world panel, only to discover the panelists want to conscript me to it -- Harry Turtledove being stuck in a parallel time zone (asleep), and Harry Harrison (who was due here) being stuck in a parallel country (i.e. somewhere else).

Offer declined (gracelessly).
Posted at 18:03 # G

Helicon, day #0
I'm not going to say much about day zero, except to say that it started at 4:30am and proceeded in a south-westerly direction by way of a BAe-146 and then a Dash Eight (two engines, big loud propellers about six inches from my ears) and finally a Ford Fiesta to the hotel. Which turns out to be exactly on the opposite side of the road from the Hotel de France, where Helicon is being held.

Prior to heading for Jersey, I cunningly asked Orange to upgrade my mobile phone to do HSD. Guess what: Jersey Telecom's GSM service evidently doesn't support HSD, as demonstrated by my repeatedly getting through to, only to get a big fat NO CARRIER.

(Wandered around Jersey, gawped at the Steam Clock (a paddle-wheel powered public clock -- go figure), then crashed out.)

Posted at 17:19 # G

Wed, 27 Mar 2002

Bandwidth Grumbles
Eight hours offline because Blueyonder, the cable modem operation of Telewest in the UK, couldn't find their arse with a routing table, a BGP dump, and a map. Or rather, semi-offline: packets to my co-lo box were being routed out across the Atlantic and then into a bit bucket by a confused router at LINX, but most of the rest of the net was accessible.

In the meantime, I bought myself an Ericsson T39s phone -- tri-band, HSD, GPRS, bluetooth-enabled, and very cute -- running on Orange. With a changeover due at 8am today to give me time to get my numbers off my old Motorola Timeport. Guess what? The changeover happened, my old Timeport is offline, and the new phone just beeps at me and says SIMM ERROR. Ain't technology wonderful?

As an aside, I bought the new phone because the Timeport gives me a data connection at all of 9600 baud, for 10 pence/minute. With HSD the T39s uses two mobile phone channels to provide 28.8kbits/sec of data -- for 25 pence a minute in the UK. That's 4Mb of data per hour, for £20 -- quite expensive, huh? But the phone also has GPRS. GPRS, or general packet radio service, is the great new hope for data over GSM; it gives you 40kbps (in the current version) of bandwidth, and it's always on -- you can receive voice calls while using GPRS, and you only pay for the data you send and receive.

But that should be "only" in inverted commas, with a grain of salt the size of my head. Orange's cheapest GPRS tarrif costs £4 a month, and includes 512Kb of free data -- thereafter you can add £8 -- that's US $12 -- per megabyte!

Who the hell do they think they're kidding? £8 per megabyte for GPRS, or £5 per meg via HSD is a great way to promote a new technology, guys -- it's almost as good as the way British Telescum promoted ISDN to death during the 1980's.

Sure, there are cheaper tarrifs if you pay a huge standing charge. They'll even give you GPRS data that works out cheaper than HSD -- if you pay them fifty quid a month, every month, for it.

In contrast, my cable modem costs me £1 a day, and delivers about 2.5Gb in that time. If you do the math, GPRS on Orange's basic tarrif works out at 200,000% of the cost of a cable modem.

So I guess I won't be doing much web surfing on my mobile phone.

(Off to the Orange shop to get the dodgy SIMM replaced.)

Discuss mobile bandwidth
Posted at 15:38 # G

Wot, no updates?
Feorag and I are off to Helicon soon, and won't be back until next week. As Jersey is outside the UK any blog updates would have to go out over a 9600 baud cellphone link at international roaming rates -- no thanks! So unless a handy ssh terminal or 802.11b network presents itself, I'll be offline for a while.

If I do find a source of copious bandwidth, I'll try to post some pics.
Posted at 15:38 # G

Repairman syndrome
Why is it that, whenever a piece of electronics refuses to operate correctly, if you take it back to the shop/call a repair hotline, it behaves itself perfectly from the moment it is produced in order to demonstrate the fault? Grr.
Posted at 15:38 # G

Pro-USA, anti-George W. Bush -- what's the problem?
Jonathan Freedland writes an interesting essay in the Guardian, that manages to sum up my position on US politics since 11/9 better than I expressed it myself. Most interestingly, his points about the inability of some folks to grasp the obvious distinction here meshes with John Lloyd's comments in the Observer -- on a more positive note.

Link Discuss 9/11
Posted at 15:38 # G

More Microsoft Shennanigans
Microsoft forced Dell to drop Linux from desktop PC's -- the Register has the scoop.

Link Discuss microsoft
Posted at 15:38 # G

Clue deficiency syndrome
So I got up this morning, yawned, made a mug of tea, fed the cat, and sat down in front of my laptop. And lo: the web was broken. Not the internet -- I could ssh into my CoLo box fine -- just web access. Huh?

I use BlueYonder's cable modem service. It turned out (after I did some digging) that there's a routing problem for all BlueYonder customers in Scotland. BlueYonder insist on transparently proxying all web connections, via some extremely expensive (and pointless) web caches. As my friend the bandwidth economist noted, the cost of bandwidth has fallen so rapidly that they'd have spent less money if they'd simply bought the extra OC-3 lines to carry the traffic ...

Anyway, points for effort: within fifteen minutes of the outage -- probably caused by BGP lossage somewhere in one of their switches -- they announced that Scottish customers should use a temporary proxy server. And lo, the proxy works: I now have web access again.

But how did they announce this? Via the web, of course. The mind, she boggles.

Posted at 15:38 # G

Larsen-B Ice Shelf disintegrates
Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey report that the Larsen-B ice shelf -- covering roughly 3000 square kilometers and weighing only a few hundred trillion tons -- disintegrated in just four weeks in the past month.

It's the largest retreat by an Antarctic or Arctic ice shelf in thirty years, and it happened catastrophically fast.

An iceberg nine times the size of Singapore has broken off the Amundsen Sea; it's even bigger than the Larsen-B sheet.

Meanwhile, in the far north, the Arctic ice is retreating so far that it looks as if the North West Passage is going to open up and remain open all year long in only another few years.

Looks like Antarctica is melting rather faster than anybody expected ...

Link Discuss warming
Posted at 15:38 # G

Mad Cow
Margaret Thatcher evidently thinks she still has a political career. And she wants to see the UK leave the EU and join NAFTA, according to a new book she's promoting.

I'm going to leave aside the mechanics of this proposal, other than to say in passing that I think it's ridiculous -- if she has a problem with a perceived Franco-German axis dominating the EU and distorting the British economy (and she's wrong: the real dominant EU power today is the UK), she obviously hasn't thought through the implications for the UK of climbing into bed with a 300Kg gorilla. Rather, I'd like to point out the mind-set underlying this proposal. Thatcher has always harboured a strain of xenophobic bigotry, full of hatred and bile for anyone who isn't like her, and now she's retired and irrelevant she's free to give full voice to it -- and to echo more clearly the spirit of Enoch Powell. The EU doesn't speak English, therefore the UK (or rather, her beloved South-East England -- the rest of the isles could go to hell and she'd be happy) should leave it and join the WASP hegemony of her dreams. (Hugo Young demolishes her argument better than I ever could.)

I will freely confess that I'm biased. I hate Thatcher; I hate her so much that I want her to live until all her plans and prejudices are laid out in ruins before her gaze, demolished and discredited to eternity. Whenever she shows up on the TV I have to flip channel; the hectoring drive of her voice makes me want to spit. This is a conditioned reflex -- conditioned from being on the receiving end of her party's elected dictatorship for the twelve years of her office -- and I can't help it. I feel about Maggie the way an American Republican feels about Bill Clinton, right down to the wounded angry bogglement at how in hell she managed to get away with it without doing time in prison for her crimes.

Crimes? Hell, yes. According to Private Eye her son Mark doesn't even dare set foot in the UK for fear of being arrested over the bribery kickbacks from al-Yamammah, the biggest overseas arms sale in British history. About 70% of the ministers in her government went on to lucrative non-executive directorships of FT100 companies after their retirement from active politics. She presided over the gutting of the Conservative Party -- once a relatively honourable institution -- and its debasement into the nest of trough-gobbling corruption that, under her successor, saw an average of one cabinet resignation due to bribery and scandal every two months throughout a five-year term.

And she fucked over the railways because in her view, anyone who couldn't afford to travel in a chauffeur-driven limousine wasn't worth dick. Trains were for the lower classes, which is why today I have to suffer the indignities of cattle-class air travel if I want to visit London. (No kidding. I would much prefer to use the train -- if they were up to their pre-privatisation levels of comfort and efficiency. Which, incidentally, were maintained on a much lower public subsidy than the current mess of incompetence.)

Thatcher is a proponent of privilege. This is redundant; privilege needs no champion, it's quite capable of defending itself. (But her stance should come as no surprise -- she married a multi-millionaire industrialist, after all, and if nothing else she believes in defending her own corner.) But she wasn't simply content with defending privilege; that's just about forgiveable. What she could never resist was the urge to raise a sharp knee in the bollocks of deprivation. During her term in government she didn't simply put three million wage-earners on the dole, then cut benefits and send the riot police in against strikers; she sliced away at civil liberties, and tried to ban free political speech. She presided over a gerrymandering exercise that was calculated to disenfranchise whole countries -- Scotland and Wales were written out of the parliamentary equation until a tax revolt unprecedented since 1700 and mushrooming support for full-blown independence threatened to trigger a constitutional crisis -- and a calculated and cynical scam that deprived millions of a working pension. She banned a whole strain of youth culture and music because she and her ministers disapproved of it. She spiked a major AIDS awareness initiative in the mid-eighties because she thought it might encourage promiscuity, and she urged MPs to push through the Section 28 anti-homosexuality clause in the Education Act passed by her government. (At a guess, that little lot -- and let's not get into her enthusiastic support for the war on drugs -- caused several thousand premature deaths.) And that ignores her thinly-concealed racism and blatant pandering to the nationalist-racialist vote.


The EU, despite the rantings of a press owned by foreign right-wing media moguls such as Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch, has done more good for the country I live in than Thatcher ever dreamed of. On a budget less than she spent on spurious nuclear weapons, with a bureaucracy, for the whole continent, smaller than the Scottish Office with which she tried to run Scotland as a foreign satrapy, the EU delivered real support for economic development and free trade.

Luckily, her day is over. So the hate has lost some of its edge, and if I heard tomorrow that she was dead I don't think I'd even bother to go find her grave so I could piss on it. But, by way of a message for any Americans reading this blog: despite lots of people holding her in as much contempt as me, she ran the country for 12 years despite never receiving more than 43% of the votes cast.

Be afraid. Be Very afraid.

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

Creationists targeting UK universities
"To enter into engagement with them gives them credibility they don't deserve. But to ignore them gives them a free rein in schools and universities. They won't go away. They have a lot of influence in Australia and the US, and Britain could be next on the line. I don't think we can afford to stand back and let these guys have a free run with our kids." -- One member of staff.

So what's the best way of dealing with infectious meme carriers when they try to subvert the higher education system for their own ends?

Link Discuss fundies
Posted at 15:38 # G

Set the orbital mind-control lasers to "high"
I don't think this is meant to be serious. But ...

Posted at 15:38 # G

New toys ...
I've been thinking about moving my MP3 collection off my lumbering old desktop tower PC for a while now -- if only to cut the white noise level in my study.

The new Apple iPod caught my attention this week, but not the way Steve Jobs intended. Sure it's pocket-sized. But it's also a complete pig. Only a ten gig hard drive (for GBP 400!), a case that scratches if you breathe on it, the abomination of SDMI copy prevention, firewire (yeah, right, make it unusable with any other machine, why don't you), and the final insult -- it uses the HFS+ filesystem, which simply doesn't work properly with Linux as yet.

In contrast, the Archos Recorder 20 has a 20Gb drive, USB 2.0 (so it's faster than firewire with a USB 2.0 card, and will work with just about any machine made in the past four years), comes with NiMH rechargable AA cells rather than weird proprietary batteries (so you can buy some Duracells if you run short on the road), and uses a vanilla USB mass storage interface and bog- standard filesystem that Linux, MacOS, and Windows can all cope with. Oh, and you can plug in a line or a microphone and record MP3's straight to disk. It's also only 60% of the price of the iPod.

I just ordered one. If experience matches theory, I will be one very happy bunny; it's big enough to store the 70% of my CD collection (500-odd disks) that I actually enjoy listening to, and my ageing ears are no longer acute enough to sense the high transients and fidelity you get from a CD or the warmth of an LP.

Link Discuss mp3
Posted at 15:38 # G

Senate set us up the bomb
So, the Minions of the Mouse have decided to get the legislation-formerly- known-as-the-SSSCA through the Senate.

I'm delighted. Absolutely charmed. Of course I'm going to enjoy life on the dole once they manage to legislate all my skills into illegality, but it'll take them some time to export this crazy idiocy into law throughout the rest of the world, so I've still got some breathing space, I guess.


Link Discuss copyright-censorship
Posted at 15:38 # G

Rudeness and mind viruses
It's funny what you find in your mailbox.

This morning, I found the following -- sent via my website comment form:

From: godbotherer@domain.deleted

When you go to hell, tel me how it is like because people like you who rely on science and not God, will take nothing that belongs to them from this life to the next except their souls.

Whoever you are, you got me before my morning coffee. I'm cranky when I haven't had my first hit of the day. Which is my excuse for why I replied like this:

There is no hell. There is no god. There is no such thing as a soul. And there is definitely no such thing as a 'next life'.

Welcome to the real world. It hurts. Now piss off.

(I said I hadn't had any coffee, didn't I?)

Somewhat to my surprise, they replied thusly:

I will really like to know what you will say to Jesus when you see him or come to think of it, you may not because you are a lost soul like a ball on satan's hand. satan's greatest trick was to make us think he does not exist "why" because he can work secretly and no one will suspect it is his evil work because when he was cast out of heaven he said to God I will make your children astray and lead them away from you, God replied and said "you will only deafeat the weak ones not the strong ones".


If you bother satan he will give you a bad time all the time. Try it maybe then you will believe there is a God.

This got right up my nose, prompting me to fly off the handle:

Who is this "satan" you speak of?

Frankly, you should be glad that I don't believe in that superstitious nonsense. If I believed in things like souls and gods and demons, I'd be looking for Satan, but not in order to sell my soul to him -- I'd make a gift of it.

Here's a free clue: a deity whose definition of 'free will' is a choice between voluntarily enslaving yourself to him and undergoing an eternity of torment has less claim on human respect than a monster like Adolf Hitler.

Luckily, I don't believe in god. What I believe is that your mind has been infected by a pernicious self-replicating memetic virus that consists of a complex of supernatural rationalisations for perfectly explicable physical phenomena. Which is sad, but like Herpes, ultimately curable. What's unforgivable is that you seem to be intent on spreading your virus around. Don't do that; it's rude. Here's another clue: go read Matthew Chapter 6, Verse 1.

Okay, so I was rude. Excessively rude, to be quite honest. But I maintain that this sort of religious invective is also rude. It's an intrusion, uninvited, into somebody else's life, uninformed by any actual knowledge of the person concerned (other than their published blog, which may be downright misleading as to their personal life), and without any trace of interest in them as a person -- it's just a salvo of abuse intended to intimidate a sinner into re-assessing their views.

My mystery correspondent replied:

You really think you have it all figured out, you realy on science. Who do you think created you? Who gave you a mind? Who gave you a heart? Who gave you life? and with this life you have one chance to make the best of it not the worest of it. This virus you speak of is created by the devil to lead you away from God, because if you are away from God, well we both know what happens to a child who is away from his father, he is kidnapped. This is your only chance to know why you were created and for what purpose.

The mind, boggles. Who would have thought it? Apparently I have a heart! So I decided to exercise it:

On Thu, Mar 21, 2002 at 03:29:02PM -0000, you wrote:

> You really think you have it all figured out, you realy on science. Who do
> you think created you? Who gave you a mind? Who gave you a heart? Who gave
> you life?

All your arguments presuppose that I was created. I see no evidence to support this hypothesis, and a lot of evidence to the contrary.

(You're also assuming I rely on science. That's an odd -- not to say faulty -- assumption. Whatever gave you that idea?)

> and with this life you have one chance to make the best of it not
> the worest of it. This virus you speak of is created by the devil to lead
> you away from God,

I think you misunderstand; I was talking about Christianity. It -- like all religions -- lives inside the human mind. It consists of a set of interlocking ideas, which include a compulsion to copy themselves from mind to mind. For example, you -- for some reason -- are trying to get me to agree with you and accept your beliefs. If you were to succeed, those ideas would have effectively replicated themselves into my mind. In biology, we have a term for such self-replicating information sets; we call them "viruses".

> because if you are away from God, well we both know what
> happens to a child who is away from his father, he is kidnapped.

(As it happens, 90% of cases of sexual child abuse are inflicted by the father or other male relative living in the same household.) Maybe I'm being facetious here, but you seem to belong to that particular subset of Christians who think that anyone who doesn't learn to love and obey Jesus is going to burn in hell for eternity. True?

I'd characterise that belief as abusive: on the one hand, extending the promise of free will, while on the other hand violently punishing any attempt to exercise it. But far more abusive is the idea that your religious doctrine holds all the answers, and there's nothing else to learn anywhere else.

> This is
> your only chance to know why you were created and for what purpose.

On the contrary. Firstly, I don't see any reason to invoke teleological arguments -- arguments from first creation -- to deal with human origins. It just complicates things needlessly. Secondly, I see no substantiating evidence for your deity's existence. If you _want_ to convert me, pray to your god to produce some evidence that matches my acceptance criteria. (These are: demonstrated ability to do things that flatly contradict the known laws of physics, ability to repeat such demonstrations if challenged, and ability to confer such abilities on others.) Those will do for starters, and while I can conceive of weakly godlike entities capabile of doing such things but not capable of claiming to be the real thing, they'd be a good opening demonstration. Get back to me with that, and I'll listen.

What's the appropriate etiquette for dealing with someone who seems to want to infect you with the ideological equivalent of herpes?

(Hint: this is the second such incident I've had this month. I must be turning into the protagonist of a Greg Egan novel or something.)

Discuss god-botherers
Posted at 15:38 # G

Something stinks
A stench worse than a week-dead fish is emanating from the Saudi news media. I've been grappling for a while with my feelings about it, in an attempt to figure out how to express myself ... but I just can't quite put into words what I feel. (At least not without turning the air blue.)

Maybe I should let it speak for itself. First, here's John V. Whitbeck, writing in Arab News, Saudi Arabia's English language daily, to explain why the word "terrorism" is far more dangerous than, er, crashing airliners into skyscrapers or, um, blowing up toddlers and their mothers at a kindergarten:

Most acts to which the word "terrorism" is applied (at least in the West) are tactics of the weak, usually (although not always) against the strong. Such acts are not a tactic of choice but of last resort. To cite one example, the Palestinians would certainly prefer to be able to fight for their freedom by "respectable" means, using F-16s, Apache attack helicopters and laser-guided missiles such as those the United States provides to Israel. If the United States provided such weapons to Palestine as well, the problem of suicide bombers would be solved. Until it does, and for so long as the Palestinians can see no hope for a decent future, no one should be surprised or shocked that Palestinians use the "delivery systems" available to them - their own bodies.

Oh, great. Nothing in there about targeting, you will note. So presumably we, the west, are expected to level the playing field and give the heroic palestinian suicide bombers F-16's and attack helicopters -- so they can use them against night clubs and nursery schools instead of having to go to the icky extreme of blowing themselves up in order to get at their victims?

And then ...

If the world is to avoid a descent into anarchy, in which the only rule is "might makes right", every "retaliation" provokes a "counter-retaliation" and a genuine "war of civilizations" is ignited, the world - and particularly the United States - must recognize that "terrorism" is simply a word, a subjective epithet, not an objective reality and certainly not an excuse to suspend all the rules of international law and domestic civil liberties which have, until now, made at least some parts of our planet decent places to live.

Well, no shit, Sherlock. I recognize the error of my ways; I understand that Al-Qaida's hijackers and the not-Fatah-oh-no-not-us suicide bombers in Israel aren't terrorists. No, they're just good old-fashioned mass-murderers. Which makes it perfectly all right, doesn't it?

Clue: the label doesn't matter -- it's their actions that condemn them.

And then there's this.

That's a translation of an Arabic newspaper article by MEMRI, an organisation with a fairly clear axe-grinding agenda. But MEMRI don't need to fabricate blood libel accusations when their targets hand them ammunition like this.

Words fail me when I try to explain how I feel about Dr Umayma Ahmad Al-Jalahma's column. This is the net; Godwin's law is supposedly universal, and it doesn't make allowances for running into real Nazis. Which is where this disgusting pile of gangrenous bollocks comes from: straight out of Josef Goebbel's little black book of pogrom firelighters. It's classic 1930's Nazi agitprop and lies, and we know precisely where the intended siding at the end of this railroad track lies, don't we?

Most damning of all is the confluence of these two articles. Two swallows don't make a spring, but they're far from isolated: the Saudi press seems to be banging both drums simultaneously -- the virulent antisemitism that led to Auschwitz-Birkenau, alternating with weasel-worded appeals to western values of tolerance and introspection. On the one hand, the west needs to back off, recognize that it's western values that have provoked a backlash by desperate, frightened islamic fundamentalists^W^Wfreedom fighters, and that all we need to do is be a bit more humble and everything will be okay. And on the other hand, by the way, did I have to remind you that the Jews drink human blood, have a secret conspiracy to rule the world, and need to be exterminated? Sieg Heil! (Oops.)

If the press is a diagnostic indicator for the health of a body politic, Saudi Arabia isn't merely sick: it's in the mortuary and overdue for burial. And maybe we ought to be thinking about organising a grave-diggers party.

Posted at 15:38 # G

More news of the weird ...
Judge adjourns trial for two days to try to figure out what kind of rehab program to order an HIV-positive man to undergo, for having sex with a goat in public.

(I'm not making this up. Given how depressing the real-world news is these days, I figured I'd continue exploring the theme of Weird Shit(TM) for a little bit longer. Not that this stuff isn't depressing, too, if you start taking it too seriously, but at least it beats brooding over the state of the world in general. Which is pretty shitty, these days.)

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

It continues ...
Posted at 15:38 # G

Never mind Saddam. What about nuking the Belgians?
The Guardian tells it like it really is. (Ann Coulter, eat your heart out.)

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

Peace in Northern Ireland!
It must be true; I read it in the Portadown News.

In other news:

Murder angers Adams

by our paramilitary correspondent, P. O'Neil

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has reacted angrily to the murder of Castlewellan father-of-one Matt Burns (26). Mr Burns suffered a Permanent Loss of Human Rights after being shot in the head by the IRA.

"I wish to say how very angry and upset I am," said Mr Adams, "that the SDLP were so quick to blame Republicans for this deeply regrettable internal matter. The SDLP is clearly in collusion with Special Branch -- how else would they know right away that we did it?"

"By the way," added Mr Adams, "that guy was a drug dealer you know."

Link (Thanks to Ken MacLeod) Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

Boring Tuesday
It's a really boring day today, and to make it worse I'm bedevilled by that annoying sense that there's something urgent that I'm supposed to be doing if only I could remember what it was. Ah well. Maybe I should simply stop trying to work and go finish off "Mappa Mundi" by Justina Robson -- one of the Clarke award shortlist books I'm ploughing through. (Obligatory cheap shot: for someone from Leeds, she sure writes about York like a visiting American.)

Meanwhile, here's one bill you wouldn't want to get.

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

Polemic of the Day
This ain't exactly news, but Michael Moorcock's essay "Starship Stormtroopers" bears re-reading every now and again, along with Ursula le Guin's essay "The Stalin in the Soul". Both of them have something important to say about the nature of Science Fiction, and both of them make uncomfortable reading. Maybe Moorcock is a bit more contentious, but the values he takes a pot-shot at are still out there, and so prevalent that they almost pass for normality in the genre.

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

John Lloyd on anti-Americanism and the European left
This Observer article carries some unpleasant home truths about the way much of the European (and specifically British) left has drifted from anti-imperialism to anti-Americanism:

There is now a narrative of the left - complete in itself in the way such narratives are - which sees in the US an imperial predator ... This narrative has ceased to be critical, but become predestinarian: rather as predestinarians divided humanity into those whose actions could never be wrong and those whose actions could never be right ...

Any military action against Iraq needs careful, and public discussion. But the view, which the far left in Europe powerfully expresses, that in a consideration of action against Iraq the folly, imperialism and crimes of America are the only matter which may enter the discussion is an abdication of the left's own attachment to enlightenment rationalism.

It also abandons, or at least suppresses, its own anti-fascist credentials. Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda are murderous on a grand scale, as is Saddam's government ...

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

iBook madness
I am a Linux geek. I run an iBook 2, under SuSE Linux 7.3. Problem: I have a MacOS X partition. I want to get at it from under Linux, and vice versa, but Linux can't mount HFS+ filesystems and MacOS X can't mount ext2 filesystems.

However, There Is A Way to get at the MacOS X filesystems from under Linux, and I have done it.

The machine triple-boots: MacOS X, MacOS 9.2, and Linux. Each lives in a different partition. Using MacOnLinux (see link) I've booked MacOS 9.2 under Linux -- in fact, in a window on my KDE desktop. I then went and installed Netatalk -- the appletalk file server suite for Linux. Get MacOS 9.2 to talk to the Linux partition over TCP/IP, using the sheep network driver, and run Netatalk, and your Mac-on-Linux session can mount your Linux partition via Appletalk. Finally, prod OS 9 into mounting the MacOS X partition (for some reason it doesn't recognize it at boot time, but running Disk First Aid causes the OS/X volume to show up) and I can, at last, move files from Linux onto the OS/X partition.

Now all I need is to get the semi-legendary Linux Appletalk client running and set up file sharing under MacOS 9, and Linux will be able to see the OS/X stuff.


Link Discuss (is Charlie sane?)
Posted at 15:38 # G

Tim O'Reilly on Hollywood and the SSSCA
You've probably already seen this, but if not, read it. Now. It's important. Link (Via Electrolite, and numerous other sources)
Posted at 15:38 # G

Posthumanism's enemies
Francis Fukuyama, author of "The End of History", has written a new book, in which he proposes that genetic engineering of human beings is a major threat, and an article in Foreign Policy Review (see link) in which he stakes out a convservative position on biotechnology:

... the real threat of biotechnology is far more subtle and harder to weigh in any utilitarian calculus. Biotechnology offers the potential to change human nature and therefore the way that we think of ourselves as a species.

... One of the greatest obstacles to thinking about a regulatory scheme for human biotechnology is the widespread belief that technological advance cannot be controlled, and that all such efforts are self-defeating and doomed to failure.

... But pessimism about the inevitability of technological advance is wrong (though it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if adopted by too many people). The speed and scope of technological development can indeed be controlled.

... At the simplest level, it can come about through the efforts of nation-states to harmonize their regulatory policies.

[ He goes on to compare scientific research on cloning and human gene therapy to various historical abuses, such as the Tuskegee syphilis scandal, before concluding: ]

It is too early to prescribe a particular sort of international regime for regulating human biotechnology because most countries do not yet have national institutions capable of making the decisions that technology advances will force upon them. While some smaller countries may be influenced by passage of a U.N.-sponsored global cloning ban, to take one example, the United States and other large countries with important interests in biotechnology likely will not. They will first have to make up their own minds on how to deal with these problems. The international community can talk about harmonization only after there is something to harmonize.

Gee, so the only applications of human biotechnology are dehumanization, reproductive cloning (your very own younger twin sibling! Remember, all identical twins are evil clones!), and changes in an undefined but vague 'human nature' (which can, in Fukuyama's world, only be for the worst). And we've got to deal with this by making scientific progress illegal on a world-wide basis.

I'd be worried about this guff, except given Fukuyama's track record ("American-style democracy has won and history is essentially over" -- 1991) I'm not too worried about people taking his head-in-the-sand advice.

What I'm more worried about is what you might call 'conservative determinism' -- a viewpoint that informs his article quite clearly. It's the opposite reflex to the Marxist view of the plasticity and perfectability of humanity; it's the idea that there is a concrete, well-defined human nature and that nothing we can do can alter it. As people who hold this viewpoint are forced to confront new technologies that might change the equation, their instinctive reflex seems to be to blindly oppose them on general principles. I've heard of conservative Christian medical ethicists denouncing research into the aging process as unethical, on the grounds that by extending our lifespan, we would be increasing our time on earth before joining our father in heaven. Which maybe makes sense if you believe in Jeeezus: but if you don't, it's an abomination, a moral position that argues for inflicting the chronic illness of old age followed by a premature death on everyone, all in the name of faith.

A different way of looking at the situation is that regulations on biotechnology are an amplifier for the tyranny of religious dogma, and that those of us who happen to think that not decaying and dying prematurely is a good goal ought to be speaking up.

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

Sputnik is coming
Looks extremely cool, especially if you cross it with Such a shame it's still illegal in the UK ... come on, somebody wake the Radiotelecommunications Agency up!

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

You wouldn't want this to happen on your doorstep
I work at home. I live in a tenement flat, on the ground floor. While I've got a front door opening onto the street, I also have a side-door opening onto the communal stairwell used by the upstairs apartments. This is by way of explaining the scene. The side door doesn't get used much; it's in a recess, and there's a cat's litter tray and a bunch of sacks of cat litter blocking it.

We have a neighbour called David who is a wino. Most of the flats on this close (stairwell) are occupied by young upwardly-mobile types, but there are a few of the old cases still hanging on. David is -- was -- one of them. I never knew his family name, but he lived alone, upstairs. He was in his sixties, and I'd often see him wandering up and down the Walk clutching a can of Special Brew and staggering. I never successfully exchanged words with him because he was incomprehensible -- a thick Glaswegian accent aggravated by chronic alcoholism and a slur. We are not talking about a Vinnie here.

David was a fairly innocuous neighbour; unsightly, but with only one bad habit. Every morning he would chuck his walking stick over the staircase handrail rather than carrying it as he made his wheezing way down the stairs to go and do whatever it is that pensioners intent on drinking themselves to death in a hurry do.

Anyway. My study is located almost exactly under the stairwell. At 2:30pm today I heard a loud clatter and an enormous thud. I was a bit alarmed -- it sounded as if he'd fallen -- but right then the phone rang. When I put it down I assumed that because I hadn't heard any cries whoever it was was alright; and I was in the middle of writing an article, I didn't bother to get up and go check.

As of half an hour ago, the cops are in the stairwell and an ambulance is waiting outside. It appears that David tripped over something and, falling down the stone stairwell, and fractured his skull on the very threshold of my side-door. Actually, it may be a bit worse than that: one of the cops was overhead saying to the clean-up guys, "don't go mad, chaps, I'm sure he won't break out".

The police are taking statements; it appears that in addition to being an alcoholic he had a stroke a couple of years ago, and they think he was dead drunk -- he probably tripped on his trousers and never felt a thing. Anyway, there's incident tape outside my front door, a stiff in a polythene bag in the passage not six feet away from me as I type, and cops making notes on a fatal accident.

In retrospect I'm not unhappy that I didn't go check up on him. From what we can tell, I wouldn't have been able to do anything for him -- and I suspect being first on the scene of a fatal accident would have really ruined my day. What I am unhappy about is that I didn't make any noises about the state of the communal stairwell, the steps on which are worn: and that I didn't make more of an effort to get to know him. But that's life in a city -- broken up into boxes.

Posted at 15:38 # G

Another AIDS casualty revealed
Janet Jeppson Asimov has published a biography of her late husband Isaac Asimov ("It's been a good life", ISBN 1573929689), which is reveiwed in the March 2nd issue of New Scientist (print edition only).

It turns out that Isaac Asimov died of AIDS -- contracted during bypass surgery in 1983. (The information was withheld from the public on his doctor's advice at the time, but is now presumably not considered likely to damage his reputation).

How many other cases like this are going to come out of the closet, proving that it's not just the gay community that's affected?
Posted at 15:38 # G

Safe in our hands -- not
Turns out that the British government has been storing 71 tons of weapons- grade plutonium in a tumbledown shack.

(This isn't going to do BNFL's proposal to build ten new reactors much good, is it? Even though BNFL isn't exactly responsible for this.)

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

Reading list
Went to KSR's reading; ended up buying a copy of "The Years of Rice and Salt" on the strength of it. (Looks good. Looks extremely good.) Unfortunately my to-read pile is now eight inches deep, and rapidly getting deeper; the rest of the Clarke shortlist should show up on Saturday.

On top of all that, my agent wants a bunch of boilerplate to send out with novel #2, we're kicking around some issues with novel #3, and I'm trying to finish the Linux security tools round-up feature I'm writing while also preparing a bunch of one-day training course outlines for Linux newbies. Aagh, I need to learn how to multiplex myself.
Posted at 15:38 # G

I hope the MPAA and RIAA aren't reading this ...
Here's an open letter to MPAA and RIAA about the SSSCA, Turing Machines, and reality. It makes, in layman's terms, the point made in this paper (full postscript version available here).

Unfortunately, there's a glaring fallacy in Epeus' epistle; he assumes that Valenti et al want the computer industry to change the laws of mathematics. He's wrong. The people behind SSSCA can get what they want -- and it's only a matter of time before they realise this -- via a simple legislative hack: licenses for computer programmers.

The idea of licenses for software engineers has been coming up on comp.risks as long as I've been reading it (since 1989); usually in the context of writing mission-critical code. It also makes sense for the music/film industry, if they can make it stick under the pretext of ensuring professional standards of behaviour. Once issued, licenses can be withdrawn: policing of professional licenses will obviously be a job that falls to a statutory body, and statutory bodies can be given a duty of upholding the law by banning illegal activities.

The logic of licensing is simple and deadly: write copyright infringing code, lose your licence to program: lose your licence, lose your job. What industry invented the phrase "you'll never work in this town again, boy"? Valenti and Eisner don't need to change the laws of algorithmics -- they just need to scare people.

Of course it would kill the free software movement; but hey, that's a small price to pay for Disney, isn't it? (What are you, some kind of communist?)

Link (Via BoingBoing). Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

Years of Rice and Salt
I've been kind of busy today. On a bloggish note, Kim Stanley Robinson is in town tonight to promote his new novel, "The Years of Rice and Salt" (see link for review in So of course I'm going to go along and listen.

(So far I've picked up half the books on my list of Clarke Award shortlist titles, and my local specialist bookshop should have the others waiting for me by Saturday. Looks like I've got a lot of reading ahead.)

Posted at 15:38 # G

A Brief Rant about Copyright
I write for a living. I read books. (I write books, too, and some of them even sell.) So as you might imagine, I have fairly strong views on copyright.

This week, I've been keeping track of two news items. One is the news you're familiar with -- the current Senate committee hearings on digital rights management, where the doughty Senator Fritz Hollings has graciously agreed to pick up the Mouse's baton and campaign to make it illegal to sell digital hardware or computer software that doesn't lock down copyrighted material. (Let us ignore the fact that the biggest contributors to Senator Hollings election funds were lawyers' organisations and movie and music industry umbrella groups.) The other news I've been keeping an eye on is alt.binaries.e-book.palm, which is where the spoddy little scanner dweebs post their warez -- Palm doc formatted copies of books that they've laboriously OCRd so they can read them on their sweaty little handhelds.

Frankly, I have strong opinions on both these news items. I think they're both symptomatic of an underlying malaise affecting our intellectual property rights framework -- but if the warez dudes are a pustulent zit upon the face of humanity, the MPAA and RIAA and their lap-dog polticians (both in the US Senate and in the European Commission) are a malignant melanoma on the body politic.

Let's get one thing straight: making electronic copies of books, music, or movies is almost always a violation of copyright law. This, I think, everybody agrees on. But whether it's bad or not then depends on what you do with the copies. For example: if I buy a compact disk and record it, then play the recording in my Walkman, this is still an unauthorised copy, but because I bought the recording in the first place, and because of the half-assed way the law has evolved, it is seen as 'fair use', and tolerated.

The reason nobody previously made a hell of a fuss about 'fair use' copying is because it doesn't actually deprive the artist of a possible sale. Having bought a CD, how many of you actually went and paid for a second copy of the same music to play in your Walkman? If you were required to by law to have one copy for each reproduction device you use it in, you'd simply carry your CD around a lot, from Walkman to car to home HiFi system. You wouldn't buy a second copy; the marginal value of the second copy is much lower than that of the first, because you already have access to the information encoded in it.

The variable subjective value of information is an important point to understand, because it explains why an illegally held copy is not automatically a lost sales opportunity. The software industry recognized many years ago that 90% of all copies of 'pirate software' are never used; indeed, the people who own such copies, if deprived of them, wouldn't miss them enough to pay the full sticker price. Therefore, any attempt to clamp down on copying is pointless, because it won't drive sales up -- and it may backfire. For example, SCO used to turn a blind eye to piracy of their UNIX operating product in China during the early 1990's. A legal copy of SCO UNIX was clearly beyond the means of the users to afford (it cost about a years income), and SCO's sales team worked on the pragmatic assumption that it was better for potential future customers to be familiar with their product (so that one day they might pay for it) than to alienate users with a profitless crackdown.

The same trade-off between perceived value and market penetration applies to most downloaded MP3's, movies, and e-books: the people who make the copies aren't depriving the authors of valuable sales opportunities, because the retail price of the goods being copied exceeds the price the 'potential purchasers' would be willing to pay. That's not to say that the idiots who make the unauthorised scans are the good guys -- they're not. But treating the file copying disease with a medicine like the SSSCA is like treating a headache with the Guillotine.

Posted at 15:38 # G

Moog Interview
Interview with Bob Moog, inventor of the polyphonic synthesizer and probably one of the most influential musical instrument designers of the 20th century.

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

Sue-It before you Sell It?
"It", aka the Segway, has barely gone on sale yet -- a couple of them have been auctioned and the US Post Office seems to want to buy some for automating delivery rounds -- and already the ambulance chasers are out in force.

A law firm called the USA Immigration Law Center is already preparing to file lawsuits against DEKA and Dean Kamen; their website (see link) says, "this contraption has been foolishly hyped as an all- purpose vehicle that will revolutionize global transportation .... Get ready to Sue-It!"


Just what is going on here? Do we have hospital waiting rooms jammed with the battered human debris of a thousand Segway pile-ups? Are our children being mown down in their hordes by crowds of crazed Segway speedsters? Is it simply that we've become such a risk-averse society that struggling law firms see a future revenue stream in queuing up to sue anyone who develops a new technology with any potential for risk? Or are these guys being paid to tool up and take down a rival by one of the established transportation lobbies?

Link Discuss (Via Mike Lorrey)
Posted at 15:38 # G

A message from our sponsors
(Yes, I'm back). Link
Posted at 15:38 # G

A weekend away
I'm going to be on the road Saturday-Sunday, without much connectivity. See you on Monday.
Posted at 15:38 # G

Elite meets PalmOS
Remember Elite, from back in the early eighties, on BBC computers and early PC's? Space Void is a shareware clone, running on any PalmOS machine (but better in colour). With Sim City Classic and Lemmings in my belt pouch I think I'm heading back to the eighties ...o

Posted at 15:38 # G

In the long run we are all dead, but ...
... maybe it's going to happen within our lifetime. Why? Because the doomsday theorem says so. The doomsday theorem is a weird example of anthropic reasoning; follow the link below for a primer on it.

(My head hurts. I think I will now go to the pub and try to kill some of the brain cells that are responsible for the pain.)

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

Nobel Peace Prize
So George W. Bush and Tony Blair have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. If they win, this will put them in the same select category as Yassir Arafat, Mother Theresa, Henry Kissinger, Menachem "cop killer" Begin, and Anwar Sadat. (Clue: follow the Mother Theresa link, read the Hitchens book; she's not so much a saint as a malignancy.) Oh, and they'll be on the same list as Nelson Mandela (supporters of whom, today, would find themselves prosecuted in the UK for supporting a terrorist organisation).

I'm, not going to spout off about Bush and Blair not deserving the Nobel Peace Prize; on the contrary, if they win it they will be in the right company, and if it serves to show up how bankrupt that award has become over the years, so be it.

There are deserving winners. I happen to think that Amnesty International (1977) and Medecins sans Frontieres (1999) both qualify, as did the International Committee of the Red Cross (1944). Nor is the rot (Kissinger, 1973; Eisako Sato, 1975) universal. But over the past 30 years the reward has seemed to be more and more a vehicle for providing a congratulatory pat on the back to a certain category of political animal, and these days there's something of a week-dead stink hanging over it. Not that Sato was bad for the rest of the world in the same way that some of the other winners were -- he was just prime minister of Japan for a very long time -- but his award was as clear a symptom of the disease as any.

If I had any say in it I'd make a single change in the award charter -- to eliminate currently active politicians from eligibility. (Let nominations commence only when the players have retired, and can be assessed on the basis of their complete record.) But I don't have a say, so instead I'm going to do the next best thing and ignore the hype.

Link (via BoingBoing) Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

Perverting Steve Jobs' dream

I spent much of last night blowing SuSE Linux 7.3, PPC edition, onto my iBook. Which is now running Linux, as expected. Everything I've checked so far seems to be working; USB, power management, X11, wireless networking, and so on. Haven't bothered with the modem (who uses modems these days?), but it's great to have a working Linux laptop again that actually has some horsepower. OpenOffice screams on this beast; it's rated at 600MHz but it feels like a 1GHz Intel machine -- evidently the PPC family really is more efficient, when you get down to it.

Hint: if installing SuSE for PPC, on a machine with a DVD/CD-RW, the installer reboots after planting a basic system on your hard drive and expects to continue installing packages. However, it forgets to load the ide-scsi kernel module -- as a result of which, it can't see the DVD/CD-RW and the installation falls over. You can manually tell the kernel to load the module when you reboot, though, which gets you over this hump. (I guess some Intel boxes may also be prone to this problem but I've never run into it before.)

Posted at 15:38 # G

Meaningless tip of the day
Say someone has sent you an Acrobat file or a postscript document and you want to edit an image in it. How do you edit postscript images? You don't.

But by using pstoedit you can dig the image out in a format that other graphics packages such as Kontour or AutoCAD can deal with. Who said postscript was an output-only format?

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

European space project revived by Osama bin Laden?
According to The Observer:

The Europeans have learned a salutary lesson; this technology is so important that they must have their own access and control of it - and the only way forward is to act together because no single European state can fund space technology itself. The Galileo programme is not yet certain - the key meeting of EU Transport Ministers is at the end of March and Britain is dragging its feet - but its prospects look immeasurably better. The law of unintended consequences has operated with devastating consequences. Osama bin Laden has revived Europe's interest in space.

The US State Department has been leaning havily on the EU to drop Galileo, a proposed European rival to the GPS satellite navigation system. Now it looks as if they've convinced the EU member states to go ahead with it precisely because of the strength of their opposition.

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:38 # G

MacOS X no more -- now back to work
For the past few weeks I've been messing around in MacOS X on my new iBook. Horrors! The Linux taliban takes to a Mac -- what is the world coming to? Well, what it's coming to is a pretty good BSD UNIX port, with a potload of cool toys. But all good things come to an end, and I get paid for working with Linux. I was hoping to be able to dual-boot the notebook, but it turns out that Linux's HFS+ support is incomplete as yet, and OS X's ext2 support -- provided by the free mountX driver -- has vanished from the net, and I gotta have a working machine. So it's bye-bye to OS X, except on an occasional basis ... but unlike Windows, on all my previous laptops, I'm not reclaiming the partition to make more room for Linux. OS X is decidedly cool, and I think I'll keep it around. Just in case.

Posted at 15:38 # G

Hello, and welcome to my new blog

For the past while I've been using Slashdot's user journal facility. But frankly, it sucks to have to go over to slashdot, hunt down my user page, log in, and use a little web form whenever I want to add an entry.

I've been looking for a decent blogging tool for a while, and the one I've settled on is Blosxom. It's free (as in speech), and it's so insanely simple I figure I should be able to write scripts to add archiving and searching in a matter of minutes, whenever I can be arsed. This is Good. Laziness is a very underrated virtue (as are Hubris and Impatience), but speaking as a sometime perl geek I've learned to appreciate them and having a 31-line blogging program with just one user-configurable variable that I can extend in my sleep is way better than having to mess around learning something the size of Windows XP.

Oh yeah. If you're looking for older stuff, you can find my old Slashdot Journal entries here.
Posted at 15:38 # G

Writing collaborations

A couple of weeks ago I finished writing a novella-length collaboration with Cory Doctorow. If you ain't interested in writing, skip this; if you are, I thought I'd pass on my experience.

I've worked on collaborations in two ways, and there's a third method that I haven't tried. Method (a) is for one writer to write a draft, then pass it to the other to re-write. This probably doesn't demand much explaining. Method (b) is less predictable. One writer starts by writing a scene, or a part of a scene, then throws it at the other writer to extend. The other writer adds a bit, throws it back, and they kick ideas around (in email, on the phone, by whatever means) for where the story is going. (I'm going to ignore method (c), which is for J. Random Famous Author to write an outline, and J. Random Grubbing Hack to fill in the dots in return for a cut in the proceeds.)

Obstacles to a collaboration by method (b) working include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Writing skill. Don't start this kind of collaboration with someone who isn't at roughly the same level as yourself in terms of ability, or the sutures on your Frankensteinian monster will tear.
  2. Marketing/ownership. You need to reach agreement on ownership before you get stuck in, or you'll be in trouble. This applies to writers at all levels. One equitable solution is joint ownership -- each of you agrees that the other owns 50% of the work, but retains the right to cede ownership to the other (i.e., to give up on it). Money from sales is split 50/50, unless it's in a personal anthology, in which case each author has nonexclusive rights to the story (i.e. you can both publish it in your own short story collection without paying the other).
    The reason this is important to nail down in advance is that if it goes well, you don't want to start arguing over who owes who what with your partner. It's better to waste a little time agreeing ground rules in advance for a story that fizzles out than to risk pissing off someone you respect enough to work with.
  3. Submission of the finished MS. This is part of the workload, too, and you really want to agree on where it's going. If the story is being written for a specific market this isn't a problem, but general collaborations deserve a bit more thought. Because magazines don't pay twice as much for stories with twice as many authors (I wish!), you probably want to agree in advance to try the most lucrative markets first. And if you and your collaborator have sold to different editors in the past, whoever's dealt with a specific editor before should probably be the one to send the story in.
  4. Momentum. If you write a thousand words, then pass it to your collaborator to write another thousand words, the process can lose momentum abruptly. In my case, I collaborated with someone who is based mostly in the Bay Area (who I've never met face to face). Because I'm eight hours ahead of him, I'd typically finish some work in the evening and email it to him. He'd receive it in the morning (his time zone) and if he was too busy to work on it the same day, he'd send it back to me the next day. But his next day meant an extra 8 hours delay due to time zones -- so instead of a 24-hour turnaround we averaged more like 48-72 hours.
    The time zone thing might not affect you, but issues like postal delays (if you do it via paper) are equally significant. When you're writing a story of your own it's easy to stick to a quota like 1000 words per day. But if you apply that quota rule to a collaboration, be prepared for the working average to drop to half or less of the target due to time in transfer. In practice, our rate dipped as low as a thousand words a week at times. And if your momentum dips too low, you risk stalling the whole project.
    (Luckily we picked up towards the end, and the result is 19,950 words completed in roughly 2-3 months.)
  5. Synergy. You and your co-author, however much you think you're on the same wavelength, will have different styles of idea, plot, and characterisation. It is highly likely that, if things are going well, something your partner does will trigger fresh creative juices on your part, and you'll feel the urge to slip something new in. It's equally likely that something they do will set your teeth on edge. Don't be afraid to edit their work, and don't be offended if they edit your passages -- both of you will need to sand the raw edges down in the interests of achieving consistency.

This isn't an exhaustive list, by any means, of what you've got to do to get a working collaboration. But it covers the high points of the non- writing-related stuf. Now to get it edited and into print ...
Posted at 15:38 # G

Linux and Perl courseware
I am talking to a local (read: Edinburgh) training company about the possibility of preparing and delivering some courses on Linux and Perl (two subjects close to my heart). These would range from one day non-technical introductions to five-day immersive hands- on teaching in a computer lab.

If you by any chance have ever thought about the subject, what kind of courses would you want to sign up for?

(As an aside: I'm only adding Link and Discuss URLs to those blog entries that seem to need one.)

Posted at 15:38 # G

I've just been checking my deadlines and it turns out that instead of having two weeks to turn in two Linux features I've got an extra week in hand. (Which means maybe I have time to read my way through the Clarke award shortlist, after all.)
Posted at 15:38 # G

Reading the riot act
Went to the pub last night, mostly because Ken MacLeod was in town with Farrah Mendlesohn of the SF Foundation. Farrah is an engaging personality (read: lively and assertive) and as a result I've found myself with a reading list and a deadline -- she's organising a panel at Helicon 2002, the UK Eastercon, and I've been provisionally drafted onto it. Which means I've got three weeks in which to buy the three novels on the Arthur C. Clarke award shortlist that I haven't already read: Paschezade (Jon Courtney Grimwood), Bold as Live (Gwynneth Jones) and Mappa Mundi (Justina Robson).

The other shortlisted novels are Passage (Connie Willis), The Secret of Life (Paul McAuley) and Fallen Dragon (Peter Hamilton).

If anyone's reading this, I might be tempted to post short reviews as I get through each book. (Or not.)

Posted at 15:38 # 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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