Charlie's Diary

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Sun, 29 Sep 2002

Paging General Elphinstone ...

A BBC reporter got to spend a day wandering around the US military base at Bagram, in Afghanistan. The sting in his last couple of paragraphs brings tears to the eyes, especially if you know anything about the history of western involvement in Afghanistan:

When I'd first arrived in Afghanistan a year before, the Americans were seen as liberators, allies, in the fight to rid Afghanistan of the hated Taleban and their foreign, trouble making, friend Osama Bin Laden.

The Americans too had had a clear purpose - to get the "bad guys". But a year on that goal has faded.

The bad guys have disappeared, melted away in to the mountains and heaving streets of Kandahar and Karachi.

Among the Americans frustration is growing.

To the local Afghans, they are starting to look increasingly like occupiers.

Is the fate of Elphinstone's expedition taught in US history classes? Somehow I doubt it. But it damn well ought to be required reading for anyone who thinks that the current US presence in Afghanistan is going in the right direction.

[ Link ] [ Discuss 9/11 ]

Posted at 21:08 # G

If you telephone the void ...

You will receive Nietzschean technical support.

Been there, done that.

[ Link ] [ Discuss funnies ]

Posted at 10:58 # G

Sat, 28 Sep 2002

Lost, lost ...

I know I mean to keep updating this blog daily, and I know I keep failing. My most recent excuse is that I've falled into Sluggy Freelance and haven't finished reading my way through the archives yet. The internet, plus broadband: a bane on society!

(That, and I'm trying to wrap my head around a complete redesign of a novel in progress ...)

[ Link ] [ Discuss pomo ]

Posted at 17:51 # G

Wed, 25 Sep 2002

Candidate sons-of-bitches

If/when the US military invade Iraq, who gets to sit in Saddam's big chair once the big bad dictator's been kicked out?

The Sunday Herald has a happy fun analysis of Iraqi opposition groups and the candidates for the post of tame US-friendly dictat- er, democratically elected leader. Meet General Nizar Al-Khazraji -- former Iraqi chief of staff, highest level defector to the west, accused of using chemical weapons against Halabja in 1988 and kicking a baby to death in front of witnesses (among other crimes). Or Brigadier-General Najib Al-Salihi, who suppressed the post-1991 rebellion in Iraq (in which numerous civilians were murdered, in some cases by being hanged from the gun barrels of tanks, and 1.5 million Iraqis fled their homes). And meet Ahmad Al-Chalabi, who isn't a war criminal and who runs the Iraqi National Congress (a CIA-funded opposition group) and is under threat of a 32-year prison sentence in Jordan for embezzlement on an heroic scale.

FDR said of Somoza, "he may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch. One of these criminals is likely to be given the keys to one of the world's most oil-rich kingdoms, courtesy of Dubya and his little revenge fantasy. Read it and weep.

[ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]

Posted at 09:16 # G

Mon, 23 Sep 2002

Mr Fox, here's the new set of hen-house keys you ordered

Uh-oh. According to the BBC, "The UK music industry is to co-fund a new post at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to act as a link with the government in the struggle with music piracy."

Imagine the stink there'd be if the RIAA paid for Congressional aides? But our new lean, mean, public-private-partnership obsessed Labour government seems to think that this is a Good Idea. And the guy they've selected to fill the seat, Stephen Navin, was previously acting chief executive of the V2 Music Group, and before that BMG and Warner Music, said at his appontment that technological advances meant "legitimate means of distributing music" were "under threat".

He added: "The industry can only have the confidence to invest in new technologies if it can be sure that its work can be adequately protected in this brave new world ... There will probably always be an element of illegal downloading from the internet, but we have got to minimise and isolate this element."

I think this is pointy-haired speak for "you p2p and alternative business model types are all fucked".

[ Link ] [ Discuss mp3 ]

Posted at 18:11 # G

Sun, 22 Sep 2002

7/9ths of the way ...

I just heard that I've sold story number seven in the series that began with "Lobsters" to Asimov's SF Magazine.

That's seven in a row. Seven out of a projected nine in the total story arc that began in January 2000. I'm 7/9ths of the way through the longest single writing project I've ever undertaken -- not in word count but in duration and brain sprain. Wow.

Now I guess I'm going to get back to working on the current novel while I recharge my weirdness accumulator in time for story #8. If I hurry I may get the entire sequence written in less than three years!

[ Discuss writing ]

Posted at 17:12 # G

Sat, 21 Sep 2002

Good News

The police in Beverley Hills have decided not to charge Buzz Aldrin with assault after he punched the lunatic who's been stalking him with a bible for the past couple of years and claiming that the moon landings were faked. Sounds like a victory for common sense (unlike this one).

[ Link ] [ Discuss dumb ]

Posted at 13:21 # G

NWO 2.0, Part 2

I asked, earlier this week, if anyone thought that this report was a load of bullshit. Here's one of the replies I got: "Neil Mackay managed to dig up the most far-out, right-wing, mouth-foamings of a group of fascist nutters, and made it look like it is genuine US policy." (Not trying to single you out, Martin, just citing you as a representative response.)

Anyway, the official new National Security Strategy, submitted by the White House to Congress for approval this month, turns out to run along exactly these lines: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hope of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States." And, "While the US will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesistate to act alone." "To contend with uncertainty and to meet the many security challenges we face, the United States will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia as well as temporary access arrangements for the long-distance deployment of US troops."

What we have here appears to be a global policy document from the White House that is isomorphic with "the most far-out, right-wing, mouth-foamings of a group of fascist nutters". Right down to the refusal to recognize established standards of international law in respect of war crimes, the intention of going to war in order to pursue of the national interest whenever the guy in the big house think's it's useful, a willingness to launch pre-emptive attacks on other nations if they so much as think about challenging US military hegemony, and a casual throw- away about needing bases throughout the world in order to prosecute a policy of global engagement.

The Guardian broke the story in the UK; you can read the original document on the White House web site. Note that the first couple of pages are full of nostrums about freedom, beauty, and pretty happy mom-and-apple-pie things. To find the alarming stuff you have to dig into the meat. Which is extremely alarming ... unless you happen to be a Citizen of Rome.

[ Discuss NWO ]

Posted at 12:51 # G

Thu, 19 Sep 2002

Polymorphic and Pansexual

Human beings get up to a lot of weird things together -- more than most other species, even bonobos. And as a species we seem to be able to imbue just about anything with sexual significance. Here's a rather amazing Venn diagram/map/directed graph of human sexual fetishes; I will confess to seeing a few here that were completely new to me.

(NB: It's probably not safe to view this at work or if you have a friendly block censor/thought cop. This is part of a website Katharine Gates put together to promote her non-fiction book on incredibly strange sex, Deviant Desires. I mean, come on -- sneeze fetishism?)

[ Link ] [ Discuss sex ]

Posted at 18:31 # G

I guess I already knew this ...

Regular readers of this diary will be aware that the Conservative and Unionist Party is not my favourite political organisation -- but to be fair, it's worth bearing in mind that most of us start out by deciding who we do (or don't) support and rationalizing our reasons after the event. So in this second term of New Labour spin-control, it's reassuring for me to discover evidence from an impartial and objective source that things really are worse under the Conservatives -- to the tune of a 17% upwards blip in the suicide rate, especially among people who (like me) don't like Tories.

The Beeb carries the news:

The suicide rate increases under Conservative governments, research suggests.

Australian scientists found the suicide rate in the country increased significantly when a Conservative government was in power.

And an analysis of figures in the UK seems to suggest a similar trend.

Overall, they say, the figures suggest that 35,000 people would not have died had the Conservatives not been in power, equivalent to one suicide for every day of the 20th century or two for every day that the Conservatives ruled.

The UK Conservative Party refused to comment on the research.

Well they would, wouldn't they?

[ Link ] [ Discuss pinko commie fag liberal triumphalism ]

Posted at 15:48 # G

Tue, 17 Sep 2002

Apropos nothing ...

... I'm a bit busy today, so after the heavy stuff over the past day or two I'm shutting down for a little while. I've got a novella to finish, an interview with about a quarter of the EFF's staff to knock into shape (thanks, Cory!), and a visit to a local company to arrange -- all by next Monday.

What this means is I ought to shut up and work for a few days. (Except I probably won't: I'm like that.)

Meanwhile, here's Gardner Dozois' left nipple (the horror! the horror!).

[ Discuss ]

Posted at 17:42 # G

Mon, 16 Sep 2002

New World Order 2.0

The Sunday Herald says:

A SECRET blueprint for US global domination reveals that President Bush and his cabinet were planning a premeditated attack on Iraq to secure 'regime change' even before he took power in January 2001.

The blueprint, uncovered by the Sunday Herald, for the creation of a 'global Pax Americana' was drawn up for Dick Cheney (now vice- president), Donald Rumsfeld (defence secretary), Paul Wolfowitz (Rumsfeld's deputy), George W Bush's younger brother Jeb and Lewis Libby (Cheney's chief of staff). The document, entitled Rebuilding America's Defences: Strategies, Forces And Resources For A New Century, was written in September 2000 by the neo-conservative think-tank Project for the New American Century (PNAC).

The plan shows Bush's cabinet intended to take military control of the Gulf region whether or not Saddam Hussein was in power. It says: 'The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.'

The PNAC document supports a 'blueprint for maintaining global US pre-eminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests'.

This 'American grand strategy' must be advanced for 'as far into the future as possible', the report says. It also calls for the US to 'fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theatre wars' as a 'core mission'.

The report describes American armed forces abroad as 'the cavalry on the new American frontier'. The PNAC blueprint supports an earlier document written by Wolfowitz and Libby that said the US must 'discourage advanced industrial nations from challenging our leadership or even aspiring to a larger regional or global role'.

Either this is complete bullshit, or it's confirmation of several or my more paranoid worries -- that the Bushies hate and fear the EU, that their agenda isn't about promoting economic competition and the rule of law but about implementing a world empire, and that the Iraq business has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction and everything to do with the need for a garrison to keep the oil under control.

I'd really like to believe this is bullshit. Someone please convince me?

[ Link (Thanks, Avedon!) ] [ Discuss NWO ]

Posted at 23:28 # G

The fire last time

Sometimes it's a real eye-opening experience to read foreign media. If you see the sidebar on this blog you'll know that every so often I go trolling in Pravda -- the English language edition, that is. Pravda is fun these days, full of goat-raping flying saucer aliens, bizarre conspiracy theories, and a uniquely weird spin on foreign affairs. But sometimes it's also frightening:

Two months ago, PRAVDA.Ru published an interview with John Hrankowski, a survivor and crew member of the USS Liberty, who had been on board the American vessel on the tragic morning of June 8, 1967 when the Liberty was attacked by the Israeli air force.

... Mr. Thompson recommended us to talk to Russian submariner Captain Nikolay Charkashin, who has been investigating the circumstances surrounding the Liberty tragedy during the past several years. What is more, a book by Nikolay Cherkashin, (Mysteries of Lost Warships,) was recently published. This is the result of his independent investigations of Russian submarines from Empress Maria to the Kursk.

[Possible motives for sinking the USS Liberty discussed ] ... Israel wanted to stop leakage of information and, at the same time, established a precedent for US troops to fight against Arabs. If the Americans landed, the Soviet troops would also have done the same, and a great stir would have started then.

The Soviet submarine K-172 under the command of Nikolay Shashkov armed with missiles and nuclear warheads was at the very same moment in the Bay of Sidre. The submarine received instructions to surface and deliver a blow against the Israeli coast if the Americans landed troops on Syrian shores. The submarine had eight nuclear missiles on board. However, as we know the Israeli coast means the whole sate of Israel stretched along the sea. Israel would have been completely destroyed if such blows were delivered by the Soviet submarine.

... The K-172 crew had to operate under emergency conditions; the submariners nearly died of high concentration of mercury vapor in its compartments. Several people were poisoned with the vapor, suffered from hallucinations and giddiness, and no explanation could be found to it. Can you imagine what submariners suffering from hallucinations could have done with nuclear warheads?

Now this is Pravda, the newspaper that reported today that UFOs prevented a nuclear blast at Chernobyl in 1986; obviously their reports need to be taken with a few kilograms of sodium chloride. But a lot of historical material about the Soviet navy has come out since 1991 that was frankly top secret during the Cold War, and this is not radically out of line with other stuff published in more reputable sources. we know that the nuclear forces of the USSR didn't use permissive action interlocks until the 1980's -- unauthorised launches were prevented by the presence of a Political Officer with a gun and orders to kill an officer who went gaga and tried to start World War Three without orders. And nuclear missile subs, even in the west, don't use PAL -- they use dual-key systems and psychological screening to prevent accidental launch. If the story about K-172 is true, just as the Six Day War was at its hottest a boomer full of hallucinating sailors was stooging around the Mediterranean coast getting ready to turn downtown Tel Aviv into glass ...

... but luckily they didn't.

Why am I blogging this? Well, warnings about evaluating information sources aside, it's another plausible account to add to the alarming and expanding list of points where the Cold War nearly turned hot. Cuba we know about. The Korean war we know about. Less well known was the big NATO exercise in 1982/83 that nearly convinced the Supreme Soviet that an attack was imminent. Then there's the persistent rumour about the Israeli nuclear strike that was launched against Saddam Hussein's SCUD launchers while the missiles were falling on Jerusalem, a strike that was recalled only minutes short of its target zone. And there's this summer's alarm call over Kashmir.

Not only is the world an unsafe place, it is more unsafe than we know -- possibly more unsafe than we can imagine. And I can't think of a better reason for moving with extreme care over Iraq, because this one holds true even if the Bushies and their friends are 100% correct about Saddam's access to weapons of mass destruction and support for fundamentalist terror cells hostile to his own regime.

[ Link (thanks, Feorag! ] [ Discuss ww3 ]

Posted at 16:03 # G

Sat, 14 Sep 2002

"I read it on Usenet so it must be true"

I've purposely tried to avoid talking about September 11th this week, because it's clearly the topic on everyone's mind and I doubted that I had anything to contribute that hasn't been hashed over a thousand times already.


MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, has published a translation of an article by Suleiman Abu Gheith, allegedly an Al-Qaida spokesman. The article was originally posted on the website of the Center for Islamic Research and Studies and MEMRI's translation contains some choice titbits:

"America is the head of heresy in our modern world, and it leads an infidel democratic regime that is based upon separation of religion and state and on ruling the people by the people via legislating laws that contradict the way of Allah and permit what Allah has prohibited. This compels the other countries to act in accordance with the same laws in the same ways ... and punishes any country [that rebels against these laws] by besieging it, and then by boycotting it. By so doing, [America] seeks to impose on the world a religion that is not Allah's."

"America, with the collaboration of the Jews, is the leader of corruption and the breakdown [of values], whether moral, ideological, political, or economic corruption. It disseminates abomination and licentiousness among the people via the cheap media and the vile curricula."

We have the right to kill 4 million Americans - 2 million of them children - and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, it is our right to fight them with chemical and biological weapons, so as to afflict them with the fatal maladies that have afflicted the Muslims because of the [Americans'] chemical and biological weapons."

"America knows only the language of force. This is the only way to stop it and make it take its hands off the Muslims and their affairs. America does not know the language of dialogue!! Or the language of peaceful coexistence!! America is kept at bay by blood alone ..."

(You can find the whole thing here.)

Well, all this looks like stirring stuff, and if you're an enlightened western heretic like me it ought to get your blood boiling. Shouldn't it? That's certainly what a lot of bloggers seem to think -- but I'd like to sound a note of caution.

Here's the rub: I am frightened and appalled not so much by the content of this translated essay -- which is frankly hostile -- but by the readiness with which so many otherwise sensible people instantly leap on it as clear justification for conflict with the islamic world, with Iraq, and with Al Qaida.

How about doing a little verification first?

MEMRI is an organisation with an axe to grind. It's basically a non-profit think tank based in Washington DC, with a remit to find the worst possible quotes from the Muslim world and disseminate them as widely as possible. According to Brian Whitaker, writing in The Guardian, MEMRI was founded by colonel Yigal Carmon, former anti-terrorism adviser to Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin; other founders and board members "are described as having worked for Israeli intelligence". (You can find his essay on the matter of who MEMRI are here.)

Now, when we go digging into Brian Whitaker's background we find some interesting material linking him to these issues on pretty much the opposite side from MEMRI. But this shouldn't be surprising: once you start evaluating information sources, a lot of stuff slots into context, and bias starts leaping out of the woodwork at you on all sides. Once you know who's putting the spin on the report you can at least figure out how to read between the lines, and once the masks come off on all sides it's much easier to assign credibility to news reports.

Now, to MEMRI and the case in point. As every agitator since Josef Goebbels knows, the most effective form of black propaganda is to identify an unpalatable truth about your enemy and shout it from the rooftops. MEMRI muddies the waters of our perceptions of Middle Eastern politics by deliberately injecting bias through omission. They're not in the business of propagating reports about arab academics or politicians who say concilliatory things, because such statements do not serve their purpose. Nor do they explain whether the Center for Islamic Research and Studies is a two-bit personal website run by a crank or an official news portal run by one of the region's governments. Mud sticks, and this mud is stickier and smellier than most.

I'm not accusing MEMRI of making this report up. They don't need to. There are nearly a billion muslims on this planet, and the Middle East has a larger population than the United States. Someone can be found to express any opinion, no matter how odious, if you cast a sufficiently wide net across a large enough cesspool. (Imagine a mirror-image Arab news organisation combing the US local newspapers for editorials demanding that we kill them all or forcibly convert them to Christianity. They wouldn't have to look far with the likes of Anne Coulter about, would they?)

The real problem is not the poisonous spewings of Suleiman Abu Gheith, who is obviously a man struggling with some serious personal demons -- and also quite possibly involved in a murderous organisation (although I only have his word for it, right now, and you can ask any cop about people who confess to atrocious crimes they haven't committed and get an earful). The big problem is the lack of analytical thought with which this blood-curdling report has been received. I've seen little or no sign of critical appraisal of sources among bloggers reporting on this piece, and that frightens me more than anything else about it. A week or two ago I mentioned being worried that "USA Today" was allowed to call itself a news paper; well, the title of this piece is where you end up when you don't know how to evaluate your sources for bias.

[ Discuss 9/11 ]

Posted at 21:07 # must be true"">G

Fri, 13 Sep 2002

The Bride wore Black (and red -- mostly red) ...

... And split the wedding cake with an axe.

We stayed up way too late; thanks to Sam and Cleodhna for a great party! (And the usual best wishes and etcetera to them, although I think we already said everything in person yesterday.)

Normal blogging service will be resumed as soon as the hangover departs.

[ Link ]

Posted at 14:59 # G

Thu, 12 Sep 2002

Mad rush panic ...

Just remembered some friends are getting married in Glasgow today and we need to be at the reception this evening -- which is too late to get the train back from, and we can't borrow a vehicle in time. Rush, scurry, book hotel (phew!), prepare clothes, panic. Expect no more blog updates today/tomorrow ... especially as I have to go straight into a meeting as soon as I get back.

Posted at 13:44 # G

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

The inimitable Anders Sandberg provides a quantum gravity solution to the angel density problem ...

[ Link ] [ Discuss pomo ]

Posted at 13:42 # G

Tue, 10 Sep 2002

Dead or alive?

Are we actually dead and living inside a computer simulation? (No, the answer is not obvious.)

[ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]

Posted at 22:13 # G

Additional information about the big dilemma ...

Just in case you were wondering, I don't have to make my mind up about which novel to write just yet; I'm pursuing another project at a rate of knots this month, a novella set in the same universe as my short novel "The Atrocity Archive". It's not official yet, but there's a publisher out there who'd like to bring out a hardback edition of "The Atrocity Archive" if only it was a little longer -- and a supplementary, hitherto-unpublished novella is one way of doing that.

So I've got a bit longer to think about the novels ...

[ Link (PDF) ] [ Discuss writing ]

Posted at 22:11 # G

Mon, 9 Sep 2002

A writer's dilemma

I have a career-related headache. Normally I'd keep quiet about it, but some of You, The Readers, may have interesting perspectives that can shed some light on my dilemma.

I'm currently writing my way through a two-book contract with Ace books. Book #1 on the contract, "Singularity Sky", is due out in hardcover in August 2003. (It's being published in January 2003 in the UK by Big Engine, as Festival of Fools, in a slightly different version.) Book #2 is due in by May 1st, next year. And thereon hangs a tale.

I'm writing two books right now, either of which could be the one that I send to Ace. One of them was originally conceived as such -- it's a straight sequel to "Singularity Sky". I originally began it in 1997, shelved it, then dusted it off and picked it up again this year. The first draft is currently 70% written, and I've got problems with it: because it's simply not exciting. Maybe it's because I've moved on in the five years since I made my first stab at it, and "Singularity Sky" itself is also something of a trunk novel. Or maybe it's a literary equivalent of what the software world calls "second system effect", whereby release 2.0 (and 4.0, and subsequent even-numbered versions) of a piece of software suffer the ills of saggy code, bloated bugware, excessive featuritis, and all manner of other problems. Be that as it may, I think the sequel could turn out to be a decent novel -- but it needs another 50,000 words, then a year on the shelf and a determined polish-and-re-write. In other words, more work than I can cram into the next six months.

And then there's the other book. The other book isn't a book, it's a series of novelettes, currently running in Asimov's SF Magazine. The story arc splits neatly into nine episodes, and I've got two more left to write, putting me 7/9'ths of the way through it. It's erratic, sparky, difficult to write, and a bit eccentric. (It also got me onto the Hugo ballot this year.) It will make a novel, with another 30,000 words of story material, a whole lot of polishing work, and some additional gap-filling and re-writing. And right now it feels a whole lot closer to finished than the aforementioned sequel.

I'm like the donkey tethered between two mangers, unable to make up its' mind which to eat from. I have a choice: press on with the dull and uninspiring sequel and hope it catches fire when I get to the end and redraft it, or drop it and switch to the eccentric, risky, radical, but far more interesting alternative project and hope my editor doesn't have a heart attack when it lands on her desk.

What to do?

[ Discuss writing ]

Posted at 16:55 # G

Sun, 8 Sep 2002

Back home

We're back home again, via a two-day stay in San Francisco with Cory Doctorow. Along the way I got a chance to spend an afternoon at the EFF, interviewing the folks there -- expect a magazine write-up some time soon. Our flight back was over-booked, so Feorag and I volunteered to be bumped onto a later one (in return for travel vouchers); imagine our surprise when, instead, we were upgraded to business class on the same flight!

The jet lag effects were even more brutal than I remembered, and in combination with a head-cold have left me feeling drained. (Except for my ears, which are anything but drained -- must remember, decongestants don't work if you sleep during the flight and become too dehydrated to swallow as the plane descends.) But normal service should be resumed shortly.

[ Discuss ConJose ]

Posted at 17:09 # G

Thu, 5 Sep 2002

ConJose #2

Well, it's over. Feorag and I checked out of the hotel today; we're crashing in SF with Cory Doctorow until we fly home over Friday/Saturday, so this blog will probably get back to normal (i.e. daily updates) by Monday.

San Jose was -- is -- a really odd town, to people with a British (European) sensibility. I suppose the same thing goes for anywhere else in the USA, and it doesn't take a Bill Bryson to spot some of the roots of the syndrome. It's not the grid layout and wide streets; you get exactly the same thing in Edinburgh's new town (which is a mere 200 years old), and many other European cities. What it is, is the sense that the entire city just kind of fell out of the back of a squadron of Hercules transport planes ten years ago. It feels amazingly impermanent or ridiculously new -- houses in the cheap parts of town with peeling wooden sidings like a garden shed, or skyscrapers downtown that look as if the owners haven't unpeeled them from the plastic wrapper. I think I'm going to have to write some more about this when I'm not typing with a 5000 mile each way speed-of-light lag between me and my server.

Observation: if USA Today is meant to be a newspaper, this goes a long way towards explaining why so many Americans are woefully ignorant of the rest of the world. It's like an amazingly high budget full colour multi-part equivalent of the daily fishwrap local papers you get in the UK as a vehicle for classified ads and sleazy discount furniture stores. Wow.

We kept the TV switched off completely, out of sheer blind terror of accidentally running into Barney the Dinosaur and Baby Bop and projectile- vomiting all over the hotel suite. But as far as I could tell from the channel listing, American cable TV is just the same stuff we get in the UK, only without the BBC or ITV channels.

I have, of course, been buying Far Too Many Books, and am going to have to arrange to ship them home in a sea container tomorrow rather than pay Lufthansa's scary excess baggage charges. I still have this lousy cold -- air conditioning does not agree with me -- which is going to make flying a misery. Luckily we have strong (legal) drugs and a pair of shiny new noise- cancelling headphones, which work by a principle Arthur C. Clarke invented in the 1950's and used as a McGuffin for a short story instead of patenting. (Damn, that guy gets everywhere.)

I think I'm going to spend Sunday recovering. Then back to work on Monday ...

[ Discuss ConJose ]

Posted at 01:02 # G

Mon, 2 Sep 2002

The morning after ...

It's Monday morning, after the Hugos. I didn't win; the rules seem to be that it's an open vote unless Ted Chiang has a story in that category. (Congratulations, Ted.)

Had a real gas on the Singularity panel, with Vernor Vinge, Walter Jon Williams, and Jim Kelly. (Greg Bear, our moderator, clearly transcended right after Sunday lunch, so we were shy one vast cool superhuman intellect.) But anyway, once I get the gaps spliced out I'm going to put the MP3 of the session on the web. (I'm still hunting for the legendary videotape of the "you're a genocide!" "no, you are!" Scottish Socialist SF Versus the Randroids panel so that I can rip that one, too.)

It's surprising how much of a worldcon you don't get to see when you're on lots of program items. However, I've had time to hole up with a couple of editors, and it's probably not too premature to mention that it now looks likely that my short novel "The Atrocity Archive" will get a hardback outing in the US, once I've written a supplementary novella to stand beside it in the book.

Today I get to do my (delayed) reading, once I decide what to read: then I can relax. And even if "Lobsters" didn't win a Hugo, being there was fun -- and it's made the preliminary ballot for the Nebulas, in a different category from Ted's story, so there's still hope for it.

[ Discuss ConJose ]

Posted at 16:15 # G

Sun, 1 Sep 2002

ConJose #1

Sorry I've been silent for so long: things have been a bit hairy.

I pulled an overnighter on Monday night, hoping to be so tired that I'd be able to sleep on the 747 from Frankfurt to San Francisco: a sad delusion, but it ensured I was nice and woozy by the time we climbed aboard the brewery van at 4am for the trip to Turnhouse. Lufthansa run their flights with characteristic efficiency, but the same can't be said for the (freshly privatised) National Air Traffic System, which dumped a 15-20 minute delay on us. Which wouldn't have been so bad, except the first leg of our journey was a 2-hour flight to Lufthansa's hub at Frankfurt, then a 30 minute transfer window in which to get us aboard the 737 for SFO. As we prepared to disembark the cabin attendants pulled us aside: "you will not make your connection, go to the transfer desk instead."

So we schlepped our backpacks to the transfer desk, where the blue- eyed paragon of efficiency on duty gasped at us in disbelief: "I told you you would not make the flight? Go to bat D22 immediately! I!" We made the flight ... but when we arrived in San Francisco we discovered that our luggage hadn't.

I am not going to describe the subsequent day because I don't remember it too clearly. (40 hours of sleep deprivation does that to me.) To make matters better, I was nursing something that might have been a summer cold -- or hay fever -- before we flew; by the time I arrived it was making it quite clear that it was a cold, and my ears took about a day to return to normal. I hate repressurization ...

Freakish experiences of your life: having, say, Joe Haldeman come up to you and say "I really like your work" is, um, slightly disconcerting but gratifying. But when the experience is repeated with Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Robert Silverberg, and Vernor Vinge, you start looking over your shoulder wondering when the guy they're I talking about is going to show up and denounce you as an imposter. Weird.

We're staying in the Fairmont Hotel. The elevators in the Fairmont appear to have a smart routing algorithm that isn't quite smart enough and breaks down under heavy load, leading to enormous queues. This was so bad on Friday night that Cory Doctorow and I began to hatch a whole new story idea based on, well, buggy elevator software.

With the jet lag mostly under control and the cold firmly deciding to settle in and leave me feeling woozy and dumb, I made the mistake of drinking a whole litre of Mountain Dew on my first panel on Friday morning. That was a mistake: the caffeine dose equivalent of two litres of Coca Cola is enough to make anyone hyper, and hyper I dumb is a bad combination. But I more or less survived, even though I forgot I was meant to be moderating the panel. Later on, I went along to the Sidewise award ceremony as the alternate-universe Ken MacLeod (and the alternate-universe siamese-twins Steve Baxter and Simon Bradshaw). The alternate history award was vited to the alternate history author Ken McLeod; I'm informed our very own Ken will receive his award plaque when it's been proof-read.

UPDATE: the Revolutionary Scottish SF Writers panel was a gas -- China Mieville and Eric Raymond didn't quite murder each other, but I'm hoping to find a tape of the session that I can rip and upload. Hottest convention panel I've ever seen, much less been on ...

[ Link (Cory blogging the 'con, real soon now) ] [ Discuss ConJose ]

Posted at 02:30 # 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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