Charlie's Diary

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Fri, 31 May 2002

Down Time

Looks like my box may have been hit by the fallout from a DOS attack. Not sure whether it was directly aimed at me -- if it's in progress it's pretty damn subtle, probably relying on malformed TCP packets rather than simply flooding a couple of server ports -- but it's making my mail traffic a little jerky and might cause some screw-ups over the next day or so if it continues.


Discuss (spam and related stupidity)
Posted at 22:55 # G

Thu, 30 May 2002

Cold War Fatigue

Yeah, India and Pakistan lining up to nuke each other is unutterably, awesomely horrible.

But maybe their political leaders would have second thoughts if they realised that this is a not-too-untypical reaction in the rest of the world -- those bits of it outside the probable fallout zone, that is.

Sick, undeniably. But funny, just like the closing credits on Doctor Strangelove: "we'll meet again ..."

Link Discuss
Posted at 23:59 # G

If money is a symptom of poverty, what price Libertarianism?

I like Eric Raymond, but I think he has some blind spots. In particular, he's a libertarian. Now, I've got nothing against libertarians in general -- but some of them seem incapable of listening to other folks' viewpoints without filtering them through a kind of ideological anti- virus scanner so they can reject anything that doesn't fit inside their world view. Eric is normally an interesting and open-minded kind of guy, but he seems to have a hot-button reaction to one or two topics. Like communism.

Eric writes a blog, and he's lately posted a rather interestinng analysis of Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks' SF. I say "rather interesting", because Eric is a thoughtful guy and usually a deep thinker, which makes it all the more unusual to see him get it so screamingly wrong. (I put it down to the communism. Those pesky Scottish socialists! Why can't they just admit how wrong they are, take a deep breath, and shape up?)

"MacLeod and Banks between them inadvertently reveal some interesting things about socialism in the post-Soviet world," scribes Eric, and there is just one word I'll take issue with in that sentence -- "inadvertently". Y'see, the horrible truth is that neither Ken nor Iain think that Socialism had much to do with the Soviet system. Nor do I; nor, for that matter, do most European socialists. In fact, even the European communist parties didn't get on with the CPUSSR, back during the seventies and eighties. Stalinism hasn't been cool on this sub-continent since Beria's men went around shooting Orwell's friends in Spain, and conflating the two ideologies is about as accurate a starting point in a debate about socialism -- and as useful -- as accusing Margaret Thatcher of being a Nazi.

If you're unfamiliar with Iain's SF universe, a good starting point is the essay A few notes on the Culture. It should give you a handle on why Eric doesn't like Iain's take on space opera, but just in case it doesn't, there's a telling quote in more than one of the novels. One of the culture's slogans is "money is a symptom of poverty". Eric seems to have missed that, or he wouldn't have dragged up Hayek's calculation problem.

The Culture novels aren't about a Marxist utopia; they're about a post-scarcity society. In our earthly societies, we use money as an indirection layer between barter transactions, trades of labour or goods. But we do this trading because stuff -- goods and services -- has to come from somewhere. It doesn't come into existence independent of all human labour. We have, consequently, to work or starve. Money indicates scarcity economics, and we need markets because they let us match up supply and demand; the more money someone's willing to pay for something the higher the demand, so the more profit there is to be made in meeting the demand.

As Eric should know, markets are not perfect. They're an example of a particular class of algorithm, and they're prone to some interesting failure modes; local minima, for example, in which the market performs at a less-than-optimal level because a big input of money is needed to reach a more optimized level, and nobody's willing to pay the extra. (Like, say, the public's persistent love affair with Microsoft's bugware rather than the more powerful, freer, more stable, and, uh, harder to use Linux software that Eric is so much in favour of: the cost is in learning the new interface, and it's going to take a lot to push people into changing.) Markets are also wasteful; who needs one company to have a bright idea (inventing lightbulbs, say) and another ten "me-too" carpetbaggers to copy the idea? Competition on price should eventually make the extras provide some marginally useful input -- but a properly planned system won't wait for a price war to come to the aid of the besieged consumer; it'll just produce bulbs as cheaply as possible in the first place.

Back to Hayek's calculation problem: "In 1936, Hayek showed that a planned economy, deprived of the demand signals generated by markets, will inevitably malinvest its way to collapse." This is pants, and if Eric had bothered to think outside the box for a microsecond he'd realise why. It's not the market that's important, it's the demand signals. The Soviet Union's central planning apparat ran a huge open-loop system with no feedback, or with feedback on a five year cycle. Modern markets deliver near real-time, or at least quarterly, feedback signals, correcting malinvestment rather more rapidly. (Or so it will appear to anyone who didn't get stuck holding VA Linux stock when the bubble burst.) The USSR malinvested over a long period before the error came back to bite them; but this problem doesn't automatically condemn every kind of planned economy, it just condemns ones in which feedback is delayed. Worse, Hayeck's proof doesn't prove that markets must work -- it just proves that one type of planned economy doesn't. One could contemplate a real-time GOSPLAN armed with a large computer network in which feedback is available, and the resource assignment algorithm uses an agoric model -- that would be as efficient as a market. Or one could contemplate the next step up; a central planning system in which what-if modelling based on such algorithms could be used to avoid market-trapping local minima while delivering at least the level of efficiency of a free market.

This, incidentally, was part of the back plot of the Fall Revolution books. I think Eric rather missed the irony of most of Ken's protagonists in that series being libertarian capitalist entrepreneurs. Doctrinaire anti-communism seems to be de rigeur in the libertarian circles Eric inhabits, otherwise he might have actually read the same books I did: a rewarding and incisive warts-and-all exploration of all the various threads of modern anarchist thinking (including Eric's own), and sympathetic enough to his own viewpoint to have won Ken a couple of Prometheus awards (from the Libertarian Futurist Society).

Eric insists that "leftist theory has been in a state of accelerating disintegration ever since "real existing socialism" fulfilled the fate Marx predicted for capitalism by collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions." He seems to have been taken in by the Soviet claim that they were "real existing socialists" -- rather peculiar, but not his only peculiar idea. Cthulhu only knows where Eric got the bizarre theory that the Pim Fortuyn List and Front Nationale are old-left on economics. (The Fortuyn list is actually Thatcherite, while the FN is in good ole guns-before-butter territory, familiar to George W. Bush if you watch what he does, not what he says.) But I'll put that down to the libertopia-tinted lenses Eric uses to view the world. He's so damn sensitive to any mention of socialism in a framework that doesn't come with a mandatory Three Minute Hate that he can't see what's in front of his eyes -- the branch of socialism that said "hell, no!" to Lenin in 1912 is about the closest ally the Libertarians have left, these days.

Just about every Socialist I know thinks that, far from the Soviet Union's fall proving that Marxism is a total crock, the collapse of the USSR is the best thing that's happened to socialism for nearly a century. The entire ghastly Leninist experiment can now be laid at the crossroads with a stake through its heart and a garlic bulb in its mouth -- leaving the socialists free to get back to the main program, which is redressing the roots of human injustice and inequity. And I have a sneaking suspicion that even if he thinks they're wrong-headed about the means by which they propose to achieve it, or even if he doubts that an end to injustice and oppression is possible, it's not a goal that he'd would have too many problems drinking a toast to.

Discuss ESR on Scottish SF
Posted at 23:42 # G

Multiculturalism or Liberalism?

The New Statesman isn't (cough, cough) the world's most right-wing magazine, so when they run an article by John Lloyd about attacking multiculturalism it's an interesting sign that something's in the air. Or is it? Turns out the article in question isn't about a vicious evil Euro-nazi right-wing attack on multiculturalism so much as it's about a growing reassertion of western liberal values of tolerance over the values of cultures that aren't able to compromise.

Personally, I'm all in favour of this. The only thing I really can't tolerate is intolerance. I'm a fuzzy-headed warm-hearted liberal, and I think fuzzy-headed warm-hearted liberalism is an ideological stance that needs defending -- if necessary, with a hob-nailed boot-kick to the bollocks of budding totalitarianism.

<SERMON>Mutual respect and tolerance is great, but it doesn't work without the mutuality. The Home Secretary recently felt the need to remind British police forces that forced marriage (as opposed to arranged but voluntary marriage) is not acceptable or legal, regardless of the cultural background of the people concerned: it's kidnapping and rape. I'm appalled things got that far. Making an exception to the motorcycle helmet regulations for Sikhs is all very well -- if a biker smashes his head on the pavement it's his look-out -- but the equation changes when other people are involved, and a liberal society can only function as long as its citizens all obey certain common core values (like not robbing or assaulting other people). </SERMON>

Link(Via Junius) Discuss
Posted at 16:35 # G

Doin' the Lambeth Walk

Since July 2001, police in the London borough of Lambeth have been running a pilot scheme -- ignoring cannabis posession and concentrating on more serious crimes. The first hard figures for the results are in, and it turns out that they've managed to cut robbery and other serious street crime by 50% over the past six months, and by 18% year-on-year.

Film at eleven. (Let's hope the politicians are watching.)

Link Discuss
Posted at 16:01 # G

Wed, 29 May 2002

FBI lied to US DoJ: EU Council thinks they set a good example

I'm a big fan of the idea of a federal Europe, but sometimes the practice sticks in my throat. Today, The Register brings us two wonderful, heart-warming pieces of news. Firstly, the FBI's Carnivore (aka DCS1000) email snooping tool doesn't perform as advertised -- and knowing this, they lied to the Department of Justice, claiming that it only monitored the email of people subject to search warrants. Turns out that it doesn't -- it's an indiscriminate Hoover, slurping up and filing mail belonging to innocent third parties. (One FBI technician, posessing a laudible degree of ethical awareness, erased a whole database when he realised how badly it had gone awry. Unfortunately he also erased the correspondence of the bad guys for whom valid warrants were available -- notably Al Qaida members. Oops.)

Anyway, as if the Carnivore fiasco (buggy software trashing important investigations) isn't bad enough, the European Council has stuck its collective head up its arse so far it can see daylight, and come up with an astonishing and brilliant way to avoid the problem -- simply legislate to record all email correspondence indiscriminately.

Note that the body that hatched this stinker isn't the European Parliament; it consists of high level representatives from each government. Looks like they're about to cave in to insistent requests for total telecomms taps from their various law enforcement agencies -- requests that can be traced back about six to eight years to a series of requests made by, uh, Louis Freeh, the former FBI head who was responsible for Carnivore in the first place.

It hasn't gone through yet -- and may yet fail if Parliament chucks the proposal out -- but it's not looking good; the two largest groups in the European Parliament have rolled over obediently to the local government demands.

If there's an interesting moral to draw from this mess it's that the democratic deficit seems to arise where national governments request draconian interventions in everyone else's affairs -- stuff they couldn't possibly get away with in the face of an electorate at home -- and the (relatively weak) central authority fails to act in direct defense of the electorate's interests. An argument for more EU integration, not less.

Meanwhile, I'm generating a GPG key.

Link (FBI/Carnivore) Link (EU/Privacy) Discuss
Posted at 14:44 # G

International Terrorist #1

The US government's war on terrorism would hold a lot more credibility if it wasn't for stories like this one, by Christopher Hitchens. (And the correct response isn't "we need to shut up the journalists -- then it'll go away". Nor is it to withdraw from the international war crimes tribunal instead of trying to make the thing work. It's to get the beam out of your own eye before complaining about the mote in someone else's.)

Link(Via Martin Wisse) Discuss
Posted at 11:30 # G

Tue, 28 May 2002

Windows for ...

Fuckin' A!

Link Discuss
Posted at 15:28 # G

Mon, 27 May 2002

Alex Cox: the MPAA are the real pirates

Damn, nearly missed this -- caught it via Slashdot. (Oh, the humiliation!)

Sez Cox: "Corporate multinationals, wielding unchecked power, terrify me far more than kids with video cameras. In fact, the latter, such as the Norwegian schoolboy who cracked the DVD code, encourage me greatly: their resourcefulness and creativity - rather than the special pleading and restrictive practices of the MPAA - represent a possible bright future for our industry."

Oh yeah. Did I say I really really liked "Repo Man"?

Link Discuss
Posted at 22:15 # G

Tom Holt (allegedly) on Usenet Trolls

(Originally posted on usenet; quoted in full without apology)

I am the very model of a Newsgroup personality.
I intersperse obscenity with tedious banality.
Addresses I have plenty of, both genuine and ghosted too, On all the
countless newsgroups that my drivel is cross-posted to. Your bandwidth I
will fritter with my whining and my snivelling, And you're the one who
pays the bill, downloading all my drivelling. My enemies are numerous,
and no-one would be blaming you For cracking my head open after I've
been rudely flaming you.

I hate to lose an argument (by now I should be used to it). I wouldn't
know a valid point if I were introduced to it. My learning is extensive
but consists of mindless trivia, Designed to fan my ego, which is larger
than Bolivia. The comments that I vomit forth, disguised as jest and
drollery, Are really just an exercise in unremitting trollery. I say I'm
frank and forthright, but that's merely lies and vanity, The gibberings
of one who's at the limits of his sanity.

If only I could get a life, as many people tell me to; If only Mom could
find a circus freak-show she could sell me to; If I go off to Zanzibar
to paint the local scenery; If I lose all my fingers in a mishap with
machinery; If I survive to twenty, which is somewhat problematical; If
what I post was more mature, or slightly more grammatical; If I could
learn to spell a bit, and maybe even punctuate; Would I still be the
loathsome and objectionable punk you hate?

But while I have this tiresome urge to prance around and show my face,
It simply isn't safe for normal people here in cyberspace. To stick me
in Old Sparky and turn on the electricity Would be a fitting punishment
for tasteless crass duplicity. I always have the last word; so, with
uttermost finality, That's all from me, the model of a Newsgroup
personality. "

PS: Gilbert and Sullivan were right.

Posted at 21:16 # G

From the religion-is-good-for-you department
According to the Church of Scotland, only 12% of Scots attend Church regularly; over 60% do not attend any religious services at all and of even half of those who claim to be Church members only half go to Church more than once a year.

Despite which, the god-botherer planning to pollute the Edinburgh skyline seems to be getting some support from the council. While the Beltane Fire society -- not exactly the darling buds of the Christians on the city council -- are being given every opportunity to go broke in the face of unreasonable demands for policing and crowd control (of a variety that aren't required for other public events in Edinburgh).

It's not religion or other people's beliefs that bug me so much as the demands for first-class treatment on the part of religionists, and the unthinking assumption that "religious equals good" that seems to be an unthinking reflex in politics hereabouts. This is a country where an actual majority of the population are atheists, but the public educational system is still run along sectarian religious lines.

(Next on this Blog: Charlie to Queen -- "piss off, we want a republic". In case you were having trouble figuring out where I'm coming from ...)

Link Discuss
Posted at 18:36 # G

Sun, 26 May 2002

A short, sharp taste of culture shock

There's an old story about the danger of garbling information. During World War One an officer sent a message down the line: "send reinforcements, we're going to advance". The message was passed from word to ear many times, and ended up at batallion headquarters as "send reimbursements, we're going to a dance".

Somebody obviously told the Afghan farmers, or something, judging by this description of the hideous threats faced down by Our Boys in their ever- vigilant search for terrorists: it sounds just like an evening at Planet Out, right down to the lack of anything drinkable.

Link (Thanks, Feorag) Discuss
Posted at 20:28 # G

Weekend rambling ...
Whoops, no updates. I spent most of yesterday at PocketCon, an extremely small SF con run by Edinburgh University SF Society, where I was press- ganged into interviewing Ken MacLeod, and vice-versa. Next time I have to interview Ken I think I will take some pre-canned questions along. Anyway, after PocketCon Feorag and I drifted home by way of the local branch of Oddbins and a 24-pack of Hoegarden. After which, everything gets a little bit hazy ...

Most of the rest of the weekend seems to have been spent getting my Libretto CT70 working -- a very second-hand notebook PC (only a Pentium 120) that's nevertheless the size of a VHS cassette, and runs Linux. Hint: while running KDE on a machine with 32Mb of RAM would be downright stupid, XFCE provides a really nice desktop environment that's also small enough and fast enough to work well on a low-end machine with a 640x480 display.

(Why bother with an ancient machine like this? Well, I want something powerful enough to run my writing toolchain on, able to do usenet and email and some web browsing, but small enough to carry everywhere without putting my back out and cheap enough that I don't panic at the mere thought of losing it. I spent a year drooling after the CT70 when it was new in 1998, but at the then asking price -- £1000 plus tax -- it was silly. At what they go for second-hand on eBay, it's a whole 'nother matter.)

Now all I've got to do is figure out how to turn it into a Hello Kitty Libretto and I'll be happy ...

Link (Warning: Kawai!) Discuss
Posted at 19:10 # G

Fri, 24 May 2002

RIAA to lawmakers: ban microphones!
Yeah. They're after digital to analog converters. Basically any gadget that can take an input from the real world and turn it into data is to be banned, if the copyright fascists get their way. This includes components of your car engine management system, the airliners you fly on, your central heating system and burglar alarm ... and oops, your computer and your stereo.

Just what kind of drugs are these crazed megalomaniacs on? (I think thorazine and chlorpromazine would be more appropriate given their condition ...)

Link Discuss
Posted at 19:25 # G

Thu, 23 May 2002

London's going to burn
A side-effect of the forthcoming fireworks in Kashmir may be major civil disorder closer to home. As of the 1991 census, the UK had a population of 58 million. Of these, 1.2 million were Muslim, 0.5 million were Sikh, and 0.3 million were Hindu. (These figures may be under-estimates if people were reluctant to identify their ethnic origin to the census. I can't find results from the 2001 census on-line yet.)

By way of a comparison, Northern Ireland has a total population of 1.6 million. Today it's about 51% Protestant and 49% Catholic, but back in 1970 when the Troubles began it was closer to 60/40. When the Troubles began in NI, the government had its work cut out dealing with echoes in Glasgow and Liverpool, in the form of rioting. Both cities were homes to local protestant and catholic immigrant communities descended from Northern Ireland. (These communities were, however, rather smaller than the total NI population.)

If a major war breaks out over Kashmir, then what are the chances that some of the hot-heads on either side will try to settle scores on the streets of British cities? In the worst-case scenario, all the fuel is in place for a conflict on the same scale as the Troubles to break out on the mainland -- concentrated in England, specifically in the south-east and the midlands -- with 95% of the population cast as innocent by-standers.

I don't think this is inevitable by any means, but it's a disturbing possibility and avoiding it will require delicate diplomacy involving community leaders from all the involved groups, and focussing particularly on those cities with a depressed economy and a high unemployment rate among Muslim or Hindu youth. (I'm thinking specifically about Bradford, Liverpool, and parts of the midlands.)

(Thanks to Steve Glover for pointing this out.)

Posted at 10:59 # G

Wed, 22 May 2002

World War Three ...
... Looks as if it's going to break out in the next week. No, I'm not kidding. Two regional superpowers with a combined population of 1.2 billion people -- half the Earth's population at the time of WW2, double the combined population of the USA and USSR -- are eyeball to hairy eyeball over Kashmir. Both sides have got nukes and delivery systems capable of hitting each other's cities. They've fought three wars in the past half century, and they're both pissed.

The Indian government is pissed because Islamic militants operating in Kashmir are killing Indians and most recently attacked an Indian Army camp, killing 33 people (mostly civilian dependents). The Pakistani government is pissed because they believe Kashmir belongs to Pakistan -- Kashmir is a majority-Moslem state, but its' Hindu ruler in 1947 decided to throw in his lot with India. Behind the whole mess there are shadowy issues of water rights to the Indus valley, which aren't well-known in the west but which are mediated by the Indus Water Treaty. The treaty is on the edge of collapse, and if it goes, Pakistan can turn off the irrigation water for a land area bigger than the entire UK -- some of India's most fertile farmland.

Get this: it's a water war, among nuclear powers with up to 250 atomic weapons between them, and a festering grudge. US foreign policy has pretty much ignored the whole mess, but recently began leaning on Pakistan over Islamic terrorism and being nice to India (for lack of support of same). This hasn't exactly helped maintain the regional balance of power. Meanwhile, both countries have barking mad nationalists in the driving seat, and the most blood-curdling rhetoric is flying around. Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee, for example, told soldiers "to be ready for sacrifice. Your goal should be victory. It's time to fight a decisive battle. We'll write a new chapter of victory".

Imminent signs of the apocalypse abound: the British embassy is evacuating all non-essential staff from Islamabad. Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary, is flying in on an emergency visit to try and mediate; he's publicly declared that there's a serious risk of nuclear war. Sabres are being rattled enthusiastically on both sides and there's no hot-line to let the leaders cool things in private.

One aspect of the situation is quite possibly much worse than anybody in the know is letting on in public. India first detonated an A-bomb in 1972, and Pakistan did so in May 1998. Even if they don't have H-bomb technology, they can very probably make A-bombs similar to the 1951-vintage Mk 18 Super Oralloy device used by SAC, or the late-1950's Violet Club bomb deployed by RAF Bomber Command. Both of these were pure-fission bombs with a yield of half a megaton. As a point of reference, this compares to the 300Kt yield of the W-87 warhead deployed on Minuteman-III and MX ICBMs. The destructive power of a nuclear weapon does not increase linearly with yield; H-bombs are not necessarily any more destructive than large A-bombs, they're just easier to miniaturise and mount on ICBMs or SLBMs. Their nuclear arsenals are therefore probably about as destructive as those of the USA and USSR in 1955 -- but pointed at smaller, more populous targets with less effective civil defense.

My guess is that if this goes nuclear, it will kill more people than the first world war -- possibly more than were killed directly during the second world war. The likely after-effects (famine, drought, and civil unrest) will do for many more.

We're teetering on the edge of this catastrophe, one so huge it makes 9/11 look like a storm in a tea-cup, and the most frightening thing to behold is how little attention it's getting in the navel-gazing west. I never thought the day would come when I'd be glad to see Jack Straw on the TV news ...

Link Discuss
Posted at 17:03 # G

JWZ does the math
Jamie Zawinski gives a detailed backgrounder on the law -- at least in the USA -- as it covers mp3 webcasting over the internet. It ain't a pretty picture, folks, and essential background to understanding what the current dust-up in the Library of Congress over copyright fees is all about.

Someone said to me, ``how do they expect the little guys to survive?'' I replied, ``No Mister Bond, I expect you to die.'' They're trying to legislate webcasting out of existence, because it stands in the way of their progress toward a completely pay-per-view economy.


What happens to your fees? The media conglomerates take your money, keep most of it for themselves, and then divide the rest statistically based on the Billboard charts. That means that no matter what kind of obscure, underground music you played, 3/4ths of the extortion money you paid goes to whichever management company owns N'Sync; and the rest goes to Michael Jackson (since he owns The Beatles' catalog.) All other artists (including the ones whose music you actually played) get nothing.

Link Discuss
Posted at 11:09 # G

Tue, 21 May 2002

Yet more copyright perversions
I didn't see this one coming; a genome research company, pissed off at the twenty-year monopoly conferred by patent law, has hit on a way to apply the Music lobby's copyright regime to DNA sequences -- encode it as an audio bitstream and call it a musical composition.

What's more, they've patented the idea, despite there being oodles of prior art.

This isn't funny. The current morass of intellectual property laws appear to be out of control; the existence of one type of controlled idea is used to create and extend control to cover other types, meanwhile locking more and more information out of the public interest. Just as bad money drives out good, here bad applications of IP rights are driving out good. What comes next? Roving worms that tap into your mobile phone and sue you whenever you use a turn of phrase that's in their copyright portfolio? The RIAA breaking into bathrooms and arresting people for whistling in the shower without paying royalties?

Link (Via BoingBoing) Discuss
Posted at 16:15 # G

Mon, 20 May 2002

Is YOUR neighbour a TERRORIST?
If you're not sure, S.N.I.T.C.H. has the cure.

Go on, take the terror test ...

Link (Thanks, Feorag) Discuss
Posted at 20:33 # G

The ultimate fate of life?
There's a paper up at LANL on the ultimate fate of life in an expanding universe with accelerating expansion. I think I'm going to have to go bang my head on this for a while ... Link (via the Extropians mailing list) Discuss
Posted at 12:48 # G

Sun, 19 May 2002

Today's meme:

Security-Entertainment Complex
What you get when the permanent floating war on [placeholder], having given up on Drugs and gotten bored with Terrorism, picks on those pesky copyright violators.

Example usage: "I used to use free software, but then the Security/Entertainment Complex decided it was necessary to license compilers and I had to go back to Microsoft. Anyone want to help me finish this elisp interpreter I'm writing in VBA?"

Remember folks, resistance is futile because the Senate can ban Universal Turing Machines any time they feel like taking time off from decreeing that the value of pi is 3.0.

downloading communism pic

(Kudos to Neel Krishnaswami for the concept.)

Link (Those pesky modern humorist satire guys) Discuss
Posted at 18:11 # G

"The train now departing platform four ..."
I want one of these!

(But first I need a garden big enough to put it in. And the hot tub.)

Link (Via 24-hour drive-thru) Discuss
Posted at 12:55 # G

Robert MacNamara: we need an international criminal court
Robert MacNamara probably has more reason than most to be leery of the idea of an international court to try war crimes -- he's afraid the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam might qualify him for a starring role. Nevertheless, he's in favour of such a court. There's a rather interesting interview with him in The Observer (see link), discussing his new book and his conviction that the Cuban missile crisis came within a hair's breadth of descending into nuclear war.

Link Discuss
Posted at 12:20 # G

Sat, 18 May 2002

The fashion police have been called
James Lileks collects archaic kitsch, among other things. Archaic corporate kitsh, at that. This is either a masterful spoof, or the amazing tale of the triumph of an aesthetic retard. Or both.

Link Discuss
Posted at 20:55 # G

Goth Hardcore!
Warning: the following link contains an explicit erect penis and probably qualifies as kiddie porn (if the various statutes banning sexual depictions of pre-teens apply to pteropus giganteus) ...

Link Discuss (Thanks, Feorag)
Posted at 10:47 # G

Fri, 17 May 2002

All your conspiracy are belong to Us!!
This pretty much sums up everything.

Link (Thanks, Feorag) Discuss
Posted at 16:48 # G

Today's meme:

Copyright Fascists

  • The key feature of the political system known as Fascism is that the State is more important than the individual -- your body does not belong to you, it belongs to the State.
  • The key feature of the ideological system known as Copyright Fascism is that the Rights holder is more important than the consumer -- your experiences don't belong to you, they belong to the Distributor.

You can identify copyright fascists because they're the guys who say things like "skipping advertising breaks on TV is theft", and apply emotive words like "piracy" (armed robbery and murder on the high seas) to having an unauthorised copy of a piece of software (shoplifting).

There's an agenda at work here, folks. Learn to recognize it.

(NB:I'd use the term "creator" instead of Distributor, except that there are precious few musicians, programmers, authors or editors who'd take such an extremist position. As usual, the ones who are least creative are the ones who are most anxious to defend totalitarianism.)

Link Discuss
Posted at 14:49 # G

Thu, 16 May 2002

In the future ...
Lasers, jet-packs, food pills, robots, submissive housewives: the Brunching Shuttlecocks run the ratings!

Link Discuss
Posted at 06:56 # G

Wed, 15 May 2002

Advertising Doesn't Sell
Duncan Lawie mentioned this in the spam forum below, and I think it's worth headlining:

Eight households were recruited to take part in an ethnographic study in which their viewing behaviour was observed and recorded.


the glaring fact to emerge from all our households is that people spend most of their time actively avoiding ads.

Which is pretty much what I suspected all along ...

Link Discuss (Thanks, Duncan!)
Posted at 12:17 # G

Aaargh (#3 in an irregular series)
You might be wondering why I've been blogging so much in the past couple of days. The answer is: I'm cat hoovering. There's nothing as likely to turn you to the blog as your partner being away for a couple of days, leaving you to face the Sysiphean task of making a final pass through a 195,000 word manuscript that's due with your agent next week.

("Cat hoovering" is the technical term from rec.arts.sf.composition for blog updating, spring cleaning, and other make-work intended to distract from the chore at hand -- as in: "gee, how long is it since last time I hoovered the cat/waxed the budgerigar/cleaned the fish tank? Better do it right away!")

Anyway, today I've got another excuse for cat hoovering: I'm coming down with my usual semi-annual head-cold. (I get one when the seasons turn to summer, and again at the beginning of winter.) Ick.

Normal disservice will be resumed as soon as I've finished the novel and gotten better.

Posted at 12:09 # G

If you can't win, kick the table over, scream and shout
Gaah, so much for sanity. In Pakistan, the accused killers of WSJ journalist Daniel Pearl are on trial. The evidence against them seems to be strong enough to worry their defense lawyers (who are asserting that the video of his murder is a fake), so now they've decided to counter-attack.

By accusing the prosecutor of blasphemy under Pakistan's draconian fundamentalist-inspired blasphemy laws.

Blasphemy is a serious offense in Pakistan: you can be executed for it. Statements derogatory to Islam are all it takes -- in this case, the defense lawyer has accused the prosecutor in public.

Y'know, there's a crime in the UK -- and in most civilized countries -- called something like "conspiracy to pervert the course of justice". I'd say that trying to arrest the other side's lawyers on a trumped-up charge when you're losing the court case is about as open-and-shut an example of it as I can imagine. I wonder what they'll do?

Link Discuss
Posted at 11:57 # G

Cat's whisker
According to a researcher, domestic cats show clear signs of adaptation to a human-centric lifestyle: their vocalization (meow! meeeeOW!!!) has adapted. "I think cats have evolved to become better at managing and manipulating people," says Nicholas Nicastro, a graduate student at Cornell University's Psychology of Voice and Sound Laboratory.

Link (Via New World Disorder)
Posted at 06:51 # G

Tue, 14 May 2002

Lobsters Online!
My novelette Lobsters, which is on the shortlist for the 2002 Hugo awards, is on the web at Asimov's SF magazine.

(This is the first in a series of novelettes and novellas -- the next four have appeared in, or are due to appear in, Asimov's SF. If enough people yell at me, I'll consider putting up Troubadour the immediate successor to Lobsters.)

Oh yeah, there's a load of other good stuff here, too: I'm looking forward to playing catch-up on the ones I haven't read, but in the meantime, check out The dog said Bow-Wow.

Link Discuss shameless self-promotion
Posted at 22:53 # G

Canada considers decriminalizing cannabis?
Looks like the Canadian government is trying to decide whether to quit the war on sanity while the quitting's good. (2002 really seems to be the year for decriminalizing neurotransmitters, seeing how things are going down in the UK and most of mainland Europe.)

Link (Thanks, Steve) Discuss
Posted at 19:24 # G

What the Pim Fortuyn list stands for
Pim Fortuyn's party's manifesto is on the web (see link). Some quotes:

On immigration:

The annual stream of tens of thousands of newcomers, who largely end up as illegal aliens, must stop. Only then can the integration and emancipation of minorities succeed. The LPF wants to work hard to achieve this, but it demands the full efforts of the minorities, because it is worth the effort to be a Dutch citizen.
On education:
The central theme of the LPF is that youngsters should be educated to become modern, caring, assertive citizens. Deregulation will make the education system feasible again. The administrative burdens and bureaucracy must be reduced drastically. An end to red tape choking the system and educational experiments, and greater freedom of choice for teachers.
On policing:
We need more police on the street and fewer behind desks. Every policy of toleration regarding a lack of safety in the public space must be scrapped. This requires that priorities are set. Violent crime, in particular, must be tackled vigorously. It is incomprehensible that the Ministry of Justice prosecutes citizens who exercise their right to defend themselves, but sets the real criminals free due to a lack of time. It is incomprehensible that the Ministry of Justice arrests an honest Turkish tailor and hard-working Polish asparagus planters, but does not set foot in criminal neighbourhoods.
On (danger, Will Robinson!) multiculturalism and ethnic diversity:
Large groups in the community are lagging behind in social and cultural terms. These groups often originate from countries which did not participate in the Judeo-Christian-humanist developments which have been taking place in Europe for centuries. These shortfalls in development are highly regrettable, as they result in a divide in society and form a threat to the functioning of our large cities. This must be tackled vigorously, on the one hand by paying extra attention to housing, schools and cultural education for these groups, but on the other by requiring these groups to make a maximum effort themselves. Cultural developments which are diametrically opposed to the desired integration and emancipation, such as arranged marriages, honour revenge and female circumcision, must be fought by means of legislation and public information. Discrimination against women in fundamentalist Islamic circles is particularly unacceptable.

Shit. If I was Dutch I'd seriously consider voting for this party. Does that make me a fascist?

Link Discuss
Posted at 14:37 # G

Who was Pim Fortuyn?
Adam Curry -- who lives in the Netherlands and blogs in English -- writes an incisive rant in which he denounces the mainstream political opinion of Pim Fortuyn (murdered last week) as a fascist. According to Curry, the fascist label was pinned on Pim by a political mainstream rival who he threatened because, as a populist and an outsider, he was poised to replace him in government. The English language press (especially the New York Times) indiscriminately vacuumed up the agitprop at first, painting him as some kind of neo-Nazi.

What I've read about Fortuyn -- and I hasten to add that as I don't speak Dutch I'm going mostly from second hand accounts -- suggests that he was more interested in defending the values of a liberal tolerant democracy, that he saw being threatened from within by an unassimilated and increasingly fundamentalist islamic immigrant community. These are important questions for any European country, questions that need to be discussed in the light of day rather than being reduced to hollow sound-bites. But a single wicked man who harboured an obsession with commercial fur-farming has poisoned the debate for an entire country.

Link Discuss
Posted at 14:20 # G

Mon, 13 May 2002

Victimology redux
Feorag's currently blogging a rather interesting article from the fuckwitted legal abominations department: I really don't know what to say about this beyond quoting the first paragraph. I'm just speechless.

An Ontario priest convicted of sexually assaulting a teenager is suing the victim's parents, claiming they had a duty to protect and provide counselling for their son and were negligent in allowing him to spend time with the Roman Catholic priest.


Link (Thanks, Feorag) Discuss
Posted at 18:53 # G

Sun, 12 May 2002

Weird shit
Religious/historical fiction written from God's point of view:

It has walls over a thousand miles high being made of elements your most brilliant teams of scientists would be unable to recreating. I have given it substance, yet slowed down the atomic speeds, so all of the components can be seen through and passed through with the power of thought. The gates are fashioned of huge round pearls and are set in walls that contain every color of the prism. For mortal eyes it is quite overwhelming. Even Las Vegas with all its lights is but an ember when compared to the beauty of Heaven, even when glimpsed from afar. I set within its walls a crystal stream containing the most basic building blocks of My universe - hydrogen and oxygen, that is shaded by fully grown trees bearing every fruit you have enjoyed on earth plus species which only exist here. I planted them, not for their nourishment, but for their beautiful aromas. They are continually in bloom - one species after another - giving Heaven a fragrance that is intoxicatingly delightful.

NB: is a keeper. I think I'll be tracking it regularly from now on. (Kudos to Anton Sherwood for sharing it!)

Link Discuss
Posted at 11:12 # G

Barbie on Prozac
"Raging Hormones Menopausal Prozac Barbie." One to put on the shelf next to your Feral Cheryl doll:

Did you really think Barbie dolls were simply loved to the end of their days?

Did you think that the somewhat disheveled Barbies lining the shelves of the Goodwill found homes with sweet little girls who looked beyond the home-hair-cut-frizzy coif, fingers and toes lost to rambunctious kittens or puppies and their frayed clothing, all to find a doll to care for and spend countless hours playing with?

Think again, folks....

Link Discuss
Posted at 10:44 # G

Sat, 11 May 2002

Website updates
I've just been updating my main website for the first time in months.

In particular, there are about three months' worth of new features in the Linux section, and some updated notes in the Fiction area. (I'll try to be more regular about updates in future.)

Posted at 14:53 # G

Harlan Ellison: Tilting at Windmills
Harlan Ellison has got a bee in his bonnet about copyright violations. (It's a shame nobody's told him that writing press releases ENTIRELY IN UPPERCASE makes them kinda hard to read.) He's filed a lawsuit against a bunch of anonymous internet users in California's court system to stop them posting copes of his fiction on usenet or ftp servers.

Phil Shropshire has written a fairy level-headed assessment of what's wrong with this approach to dealing with copyright violation (see links below). To this, Ellison's lawyer sent a reply (which deserves credit for being relatively non-combative and addressing the points raised -- also see links).

Actually, Phil covered most of the bases from my point of view, but I'd just like to throw in a magazine column I wrote around July 1999 (published in Computer Shopper in October that year). To quote myself:

... we're in the early stages of what promises to be the most fundamental upheaval in the intelectual property regime since the French Revolution. There are quite a few signs of an undirected backlash against the culture of cheap copying; in the USA, for example, a wildly anti-consumer federal law on product liability and shrinkwrap licensing is in the works, while various music industry bodies work to build a wall to keep the threatening MP3s out and anti-software-piracy organisations send intimidatory mail to companies they suspect of not buying enough software licenses. These gestures will only become more frantic as the writing on the wall gets clearer.

But the ancien regime is doomed, in the long run. Bring forth the guillotine ...

To which I want to add two thoughts. Firstly: if Ellison was serious about defending his rights, he'd be thinking hard about how to decouple the question of author's moral rights from the ownership of software produced by large corporations, and from the rights of third-party distributors such as record companies. They're three very different issues which are currently all lumped into one basket labeled "copyright". This coupling does authors no favours, and by linking his campaign crudely to the big corporate juggernaut, Ellison is only going to harm his own long-term interests.

Secondly: if you treat your readers like potential criminals, the honourable ones will hold their nose as they walk past you -- while those who are left will wonder what you've got in your pockets that's worth their while to pick.

Link: Shropshire on Ellison Link: Ellison's lawyer responds Link: Ellison's bulletin board Discuss
Posted at 11:40 # G

Fri, 10 May 2002

Jukebox Hacking
Got an Archos Jukebox, a soldering iron, and chutzpah? You, too, can fit a bigger hard drive, a different coloured backlight, and improve the sound quality! Caution: warranty-voiding instructions inside ...

Link Discuss
Posted at 22:03 # G

The Demographic Time-Bomb, Part 2
Looks like we're almost all going to live quite a lot longer than we thought; according to an article in Science demographers have been persistently underestimating increases in life expectancy (not the same as absolute maximum lifespan). Revised estimates suggest a typical female baby born this year in France or Japan has a life expectancy of 101 years. Those of us who're already around can be assured that medical advances during the rest of our life will add a good few more years for us to enjoy -- as long as governments wake up and realise that the existing retirement/pension/geriatric care systems are going to be well and truly screwed if they proceed on the basis of out-of-date life expectancy figures.

Link Discuss
Posted at 11:00 # G

Thu, 9 May 2002

Eye Candy
If you use a Mac (or just know how to rip Mac icon resources into .XBM or .BMP files :) you may enjoy this website,

Posted at 19:43 # G

Wed, 8 May 2002

The death of engagement
I'd like to talk to you about immune systems and the death of public discourse.

I got my first spam back in, oh, about 1994. I was on usenet when Canter and Seigel sent their infamous "green card" spam, the first true example of bulk UCE distributed to unwitting and unwilling recpients. I probably don't need to preach the evil of spam to you all; the only thing I should like to draw attention to is the sense of shocked outrage that greeted this incident. The net in those days was a place of relatively civilized discourse; even when we were flaming each other, at least the person on the other side of the argument was listening. Spam, in contrast, was broadcasting. There was no sensible means of replying. It was as welcome as finding half a cockroach in your club sandwich. And, like cockroaches, it bred.

Cockroaches are covered in yummy proteins; some people's immune systems learn to recognize cockroach peptides and the result is a nasty allergic response to even being in the same room as a roach.

These days I get ten to fifteen spams a day, and my spam filtering system -- three levels deep and formidably intricate -- keeps 99% of them from bothering me directly. But I still get that half-a-cockroach sensation whenever one gets into my mailbox, because it's a write-only intrusion into a read/write dialogue with a bunch of other human beings. Spam is inhuman: it's a non sequiteur. Still, I get the inflammatory response whenever one sneaks through my shields and gets into my inbox. Spam brings me out in a rash. I am, in a word, sensitized.

Now, Jamie Kellner, CEO of Turner Media Systems, has been quoted on the record as saying, of people who use personal video recorders to skip TV adverts:

It's theft. Your contract with the network when you get the show is you're going to watch the spots. Otherwise you couldn't get the show on an ad-supported basis. Any time you skip a commercial or watch the button you're actually stealing the programming.
This statement -- the outrageous implications of which have been covered by other bloggers (thanks, Patrick) -- took some time to sink in. But when it did it forced me to confront something I'd been avoiding thinking about for a while: which is, the pervasive spread of advertising in media has been deterring me from engaging fully with mass culture.

You see, spam isn't just a non-sequiteur; it's also the lowest common denominator of advertising. And I am increasingly sensitised to all advertisements. Hoardings on the sides of buildings bring out a nasty reservoir of contempt that I don't like to admit to storing. As for TV, advertising intermissions are now the cue for me to start channel-hopping (for an advert-free viewing experience), or to mute the sound until the annoying gibberish goes away. Web browsing is insulated by Junkbuster, disabling pop-up windows, and other ad-killing measures. My entire media experience now seems like an exercise in consciously avoiding spam. It's exhausting, it's irritating, and it's counter-productive for the advertisers: some ads are so annoying and intrusive that I'm conducting my own anonymous one-man boycott of those companies.

Spam has, it seems, sensitized my memetic immune system to advertising in general -- to the point where Feorag and I have just been talking about getting rid of the TV completely.

I am, I admit, not typical. But if you take me as a representative sample of a subculture, you might suspect that a visible percentage of the population are consciously resisting the ever more intrusive marketing attitudes exemplified by Jamie Kellner's attitude. And part of the reason I'm so attached to written fiction is that, in book format, it's the only medium left that is 100% free of intrusive advertising shit.

Which is also maybe why I reacted so badly to the RFID tagging proposal. It's the camel's snout, poking intrusively into the last inviolate tent.

Link (Via Electrolite) Discuss
Posted at 14:24 # G

Tue, 7 May 2002

The spy in the book
The BBC has swallowed a copyright-fascist line from the Booksellers Association, who want to tag all books with RFID chips.

Shoplifters make off with about £750m worth of books a year, mostly children's and travel titles. Now booksellers want to fight back by printing electronic chips in the spines, writes Owen Booth.

Each year 100 million books walk off the shelves in the UK, taken by people the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle condemned as "unnatural" in his treatise, Concerning Books.

Yeah, right. Someone tell the BBC that the total number of books sold in the UK per year is about 100 million. Unless they're claiming that shoplifting is shifting as many books as retail sales, I think their figures are seriously out of whack. But there's more wrong with the article than that.

"It's like putting a licence plate on every book, and it means we'd be able to track the movements of each and every title published," said Carl Lawrence of the industry RFID working group.

I can't begin to explain how many things are just plain wrong with this whole idea.

First things first: as an author, I am naturally concerned with shoplifting and copyright violation. Anything that cuts down on them is a good thing.

But this ... stinks. For starters, there's currently a presumption that while the publisher and author have first sale rights to a slab of printed paper, thereafter resale is free. The second hand market is vital to the health of the book-buying market because it provides a cheap and easy way for poor people to become acquainted with authors they'd maybe not otherwise read. Poor people often acquire more money, and buy new books; on way of looking at it is to realise that second-hand sale is actually an advertising bonus. Next, there's the presumption that library loans aren't tracked to the individual by publishers in order to provide a revenue source; sure, libraries pay PLR royalties, but it is as a public service, not a direct sale to a customer.

If this proposal goes through, a couple of things happen. It'll become possible for publishers -- and some of them are greedy enough to do this -- to demand payments for every resale. And it'll strip anonymity from users of libraries -- possibly the last anonymous medium for the dissemination of ideas we'll be left with, once pay-per-view and pay-per- play become the norm for TV, radio, cinema, and computer-delivered entertainment. (Which is the writing currently on the wall.)

Putting RFID chips in books opens a door leading onto a slippery slope. At the bottom of the slope lies the concept of a pay-per-read library book, of royalties charged on second-hand book sales, of attempts to ban any transfer of words-on-paper between purchasers without the explicit authorisation of the publisher. It's as bad as anything the RIAA or MPAA want to inflict on us, and for all the same reasons.

Here's how I read this proposal: all reading material will be traced. It will no longer be possible to read an anonymous tract, or keep your reading habits secret from the state. Everything that goes into your mind will be grist for the marketing machine to focus on. It won't be easy for non-chipped books or magazines to be distributed, because the RFID system will be used to speed distribution, so anonymity in print will go out the window. By way of illustration, if this were to catch on in the USA, it will sound the death-knell of the written word culture that allowed the Federalist Papers to be published. It's perilously close to being the moral equivalent of the USSR's and Ba'athist Iraq's licensing of typewriters and photocopiers. Combined with the RIAA/MPAA's demands for copy-prevented computers, and all the rest of the panoply of copyright fascism, this sounds the death-knell of the intellectual commons. Every idea you acquire will be subject to audit, and you won't be able to participate in the market of literature without becoming part of the monitoring apparatus. The only truly free medium of correspondence that will be left will be samizdat printed by laser-printer -- and even they already have digital watermarking so that the individual machine can be identified (in the case of colour printers, but soon likely as not extending to all output devices).

Someone, please convince me I'm wrong about this?

Link (Via BoingBoing) Discuss
Posted at 17:15 # G

Mon, 6 May 2002

Microsoft said WHAT?
The Peruvian government -- or rather, Congressman Dr Edgar David Villanueva Nuñez -- is pushing a bill mandating open source software for all public and government bureaux. The purpose of the proposed law is to provide:

  • Free access to public information by the citizen.
  • Permanence of public data.
  • Security of the State and citizens.
Microsoft had the insane effrontery to send a FUD letter to the Congressman, asserting that any such law would cripple the Peruvian software industry, destroy freedom to innovate, and the rest of the tired litany of the monopolomaniac in defense of their 99% share of the pie -- which in this case consists of government IT spending by an impoverished Latin American country.

Congressman Nuñez' reply is priceless, if a little lengthy:

To guarantee the free access of citizens to public information, it is indespensable that the encoding of data is not tied to a single provider. The use of standard and open formats gives a guarantee of this free access, if necessary through the creation of compatible free software.

To guarantee the permanence of public data, it is necessary that the usability and maintenance of the software does not depend on the goodwill of the suppliers, or on the monopoly conditions imposed by them. For this reason the State needs systems the development of which can be guaranteed due to the availability of the source code.

To guarantee national security or the security of the State, it is indispensable to be able to rely on systems without elements which allow control from a distance or the undesired transmission of information to third parties ...

I wonder how Microsoft is going to deal with this? If the idea of democracy caught on in other governments, it could really put a dent in their money pipe. Meanwhile, this is the company that's sitting on a cash pile worth $40Bn. Maybe if they're so concerned for the wellbeing of the Peruvian people they could buy the country?

Link Discuss
Posted at 18:24 # G

Madrassah Militaria
Looks like the Pakistani government is trying to crack down on Madrassahs run by Taliban-inclined clergy in the north-west province -- and the Jamiat Ulema-i Islami party are getting pissed.

One wonders if this might be the opening round of Afghanistan 2: The Jihad Strikes Back. Certainly, those Madrassahs (funded in no small part by our old friends, the Saudis) seem to be a breeding ground for the extremists who took over Afghanistan seven years ago.

Posted at 18:15 # G

Sat, 4 May 2002

Surreal Computing, Part One
It's a rather surreal feeling to glance down from the keyboard of your laptop and see the output from Gcc scrolling past as you compile up a newsreader from source code -- on a Psion 5MX palmtop. Strange but true: this handheld is as powerful as the departmental minicomputer I got to work on (with the rest of a department) when I joined SCO, back in 1991.

It even runs X11 and the Blackbox window manager.

More surrealism is to come. My friend Claudio insists that he wants to compile up a tool called Hercules on my palmtop. Hercules is an emulator for IBM mainframes. He wants to boot OS/360 on a handheld, just for the hell of it. Whatever next?

Link (Hercules) Link (Linux for Psion) Link (Screenshots, Cthulhu help us)
Posted at 20:24 # G

Yet another message from our goddamn sponsor

My novel "Festival of Fools" has got a US publication deal. Expect to see it on bookshelves around fall 2003, initially in hardback.

Now I guess I've got to go and dust off that half-written sequel ...

Discuss shameless self-promotion
Posted at 20:22 # G

Fri, 3 May 2002

War on Drugs Over -- UK Home Office
Interesting report in The Guardian today:

Home Office ministers last night welcomed the call by chief constables for some heroin and cocaine users to be given treatment instead of being punished with a formal caution or a conviction.


Scotland Yard's deputy assistant commissioner, Andy Hayman, chairman of the Acpo drugs sub-committee, said the law enforcement policies of the past 20 years had failed and it was time to treat a hard drug habit as primarily a health issue. He said the numbers of people using or trying drugs, or being engaged with the illegal drugs market, had not fallen. Neither had there had been a reduction in the amount of illegal drugs entering the UK.

So, a return to sanity after 35 years of insane prohibitionism. It's amazing how long politicians will continue to bang their head on a concrete wall through sheer force of habit, isn't it?

Back when I was a pharmacist -- going back to 1988 or '89 or thereabouts -- I used to buy heroin and cocaine wholesale in five gram jars (about equivalent to half an ounce to an ounce of street grade stuff). The cost was typically around £3-4 per jar. One jar would keep a serious heroin addict happy for a month. Instead of which, the inflated black-market prices they pay are, we're told, such that they have to pay £70 a day to support their habit, and mostly get the money through stealing. Which does more harm to society?

Link Discuss
Posted at 16:06 # G

The Six Million Dollar ... Rat?
This has probably been blogged to death already, but DARPA have come up with a way of using a cyborg rat as a surveillance tool.

The interesting aspect of this is that rather than conventional Skinner box conditioning it uses a direct brain interface to reward the rat for cooperation. How long until they get this down to the level of working with flies? Add wireless networking and tiny cameras and truly, the ubiquitous surveillance society will be upon us. Never mind the fact that wireheading has just had its first big public outing (thank you, Larry Niven) and sooner or later some enterprising do-gooder will suggest doing this to criminals only via a pain pathway, to coerce cooperation.

Ick. This is not the singularity I signed up for. Give me another?

Link Discuss
Posted at 14:33 # G

Dumb all Over
Seventy percent of Scottish urban schoolchildren think that cotton grows on sheep, oranges and bananas grow in Scotland, and a further thirty percent didn't know that eggs come from hens.

So it's not just the American public who were exposed in the recent National Science Foundation biennial report who have a bit of remedial learning to do.

What really frightened me was the survey on the CNN website. Apparently 45% of the readers thought that their knowledge of science was "excellent". I've got two science degrees, and I wouldn't feel safe asserting that claim.

Link (Scottish ignorance) Link (American ignorance) Discuss
Posted at 14:28 # G

Wed, 1 May 2002

Quiet days
I'm not posting a lot today because I'm getting ready for a spoken workd event tomorrow in Edinburgh -- see link -- and upgrading my laptop to run KDE 3.0.

Probably more news on Friday.

Posted at 19:03 # 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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