Charlie's Diary

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Sat, 30 Aug 2003

Sunny Toronto

Sorry it's taken me so long to surface; I've been kind of busy.

Our flight out went without a hitch, we arrived in Toronto on schedule, managed to stay up on Tuesday night until a sensible hour, and transitioned to local time without any headaches. It would all have been great if I hadn't come down with a vicious head-cold the day before spending nine hours in one or another aluminium can scrabbling its way laboriously across the stratosphere.

Wednesday we spent bumming around town, gawping at sights and doing some shopping. Toronto has one single street -- its name escapes me -- which is to dressmaking fabric and trim about as content-rich as Amsterdam and London put together, and I've got a feeling Feorag's luggage is going to be overweight on the way home. Copious small Japanese and Chinese shopping malls, weird high-rise architecture, polite drivers who don't try to run down the pedestrians at every opportunity, a weird subterranean rat-run of malls ...

Anyway. I'm now stuck in the middle of this here worldcon. And my time is not my own. So I'm just snatching a few minutes here to say I'm still alive, capable of blogging, and by the way, has anyone else noticed the eerie similarities between the adolescence and young adulthoods (up to 1919) of Fritz Lang and Adolf Hitler?

(Oh yeah -- one other thing. If you are at Torcon 3 and run into myself and Feorag, try to remember that the wedding congrats are optional. It all happened some time ago ...)

[ Discuss conjose (yes, I know this was last year's topic -- I believe in recycling) ]

posted at: 16:18 | path: /fandom | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 25 Aug 2003


While packing, I realised I was going to leave my iPod home and take the older, bulkier, but recording-capable Archos Jukebox 20 instead. The iPod is normally my walkman-substitute and also my offsite data backup -- I keep my life's work in a corner of it so that if I'm out and about and the house burns down I can just(!) grab a second-hand iMac and be back to business within a day or so.

(I'm not too worried about leaving it behind on this trip because I'm taking a laptop with a similar backup filesystem. The key is to have the backup, not to get hung up on what media it's stored on.)

But lately I've been thinking about really long-duration reliable backups. CD-R's are unreliable; not as bad as floppy disks, but a measurable subset of them will be unreadable after only two or three years. Floppies -- spit. Tape drives are painfully slow and tapes suffer the same delamination problem as other magnetic media.

It seems to me that for ultimate safety you can't beat print on acid-free paper -- at least, for text. Retreival is a pain, but if it comes down to it I can always restore from backup any already-published book: take a scalpel to a hardcover, feed it through a scanner and OCR software, and you can get back the text.

Unpublished books are another matter. What I ought to do is print out a copy of every day's work as I write it, then each subsequent draft, and store them in an offsite facility. What I actually do is generate PDFs and email them to my agent -- not the same thing at all! I don't work on paper at all, it's strictly an output format. If I do print a copy out it'll be on cheap listing paper using a laser printer -- and there's some question over the stability of toner on paper in the long term: it doesn't always bond well to the paper and even moderate heat or humidity can cause it to peel off the page.

I'm thinking about mending my ways, but obviously toner on cheap paper isn't the way to go. What I'd need is a black and white inkjet printer. It needs to be cheap to run, fast, not necessarily high resolution -- 300 dpi would be fine -- and use stable, durable ink. Did I say cheap? Most inkjets expect you to buy a new cartridge every 200-300 pages, but a single novel draft can easily run to 600-1,200 pages. I don't want to have to stop to change £25 cartridges three times during a single print run.

Anyone got any pointers to suitable machines?

[ Discuss writing ]

posted at: 16:40 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 24 Aug 2003

On Vacation, Continued (preparations)

I have a disgustingly full schedule next week at Torcon 3. In addition to various other bits of business I've got scheduled, if you're at the con you can come and watch me make a fool of myself, reading from something-or-other (not decided yet but probably my next novel from Ace, "The Iron Sunrise") on Friday at 6pm. Or you can come and poke the hung-over and torpid writer at the Kaffee Klatsch on Monday at 2:30pm. I'm also on several panels during the con -- details at the programming web site.

Communication between now and Wednesday will be sporadic as I run in tiny circles screaming and making sure we're both packed and at the airport in time (and that I've read the writer's workshop submissions and charged the laptop and mobile phones and washed the underwear and packed the right kind of foreign mains adapters and briefed the cat-sitter and ...) -- I really need a vacation, and seven concentrated days of being out in public at a con or holed up in smoke-filled rooms with editors probably doesn't count.

Oh yeah: was at the pub with Warren Ellis Friday night and last night. What can I say? He was the one blogging from his cameraphone.

[ Discuss writing ]

posted at: 00:21 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 22 Aug 2003

On vacation

I got the novel off to Tor. Then I fell over. Not physically, I hasten to add, but metaphorically -- I am completely drained, not to put too fine a point on it. Knackered. Exhausted. Written out. Supposed to be working on a collaboration with Cory, but ... well, we'll see if I recover in the next week or two. I should have been doing my accounts this week -- instead, I've been slacking. Or recovering. Or something.

(Obligatory whine: my Powerbook has developed a hairline crack in the case. I am hoping Apple are willing to repair this under AppleCare (it's under warranty) -- as a separate component the chunk of titanium in question sells for $250 a pop.)

On Tuesday we're heading for Torcon, the world SF convention (which this year is held in Toronto). Our travel agent finally surfaced and the lost tickets have, in principle, been sorted. (Collect replacements from Lufthansa desk on day of travel. Yeah, right.)

I am wondering where the hell my copy of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri for Linux has gotten to. Haven't played it in years, but as I'm taking the ultra-teeny Linux laptop to Canada instead of the cracked Mac, and feeling burned out, a good long game would seem like the right thing to take. Except I can't find it. Fume. I wonder if they'll port Sims 2.0 to Linux? (The Sims for Linux is due out this month, but without any of the expansion packs it's likely to be a bit arse.)

[ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 18:03 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 20 Aug 2003

Blood on the server room floor

I use two levels of spam filtering -- an ancient handcarved perl script called NAGS, now obsolete, running inline with the much more sophisticate SpamAssassin. SpamAssassin is a heavyweight -- capable of bringing my weedy little server (PII/450, 64Mb RAM/10Gb disk) to its knees, but this week it has saved my ass. Because there's a test in SpamAssassin (MICROSOFT_EXECUTABLE) which is 100% effective at weeding out Microsoft-specific virus payloads, including Sobig-F (see below).

Yesterday, NAGS trapped about 14 instances of Sobig-F, and I thought it was a heavy attack. So I tweaked SpamAssassin to add the MICROSOFT_EXECUTABLE test. Today I went over to Glasgow, shopping with Feorag (as one does). When I got back, I checked my spam trap.

272 copies of Sobig-F. That's 30 megabytes of viral crap. In 36 hours. In my spamtrap. I'm obviously popular; Feorag only got 49.

I've never seen anything like it. Multiply this attack by everyone out there and you've got a serious assault on the infrastructure of the internet as we know it. Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing fame got hammered by 300 copies, and as he's on a 4800 baud dialup that must hurt. I've been hearing stories of companies with firewalls and maybe 40 staff where someone made the mistake of opening the attachment -- within an hour the company mail servers had ground to a halt with several thousand viruses clogging up the spool area.

I can imagine what's going on in the NOCs of all the ISPs. I'm glad I don't work in those places. Problem is, this epidemic doesn't seem to be amenable to an easy fix. It's an emergent effect of insecure email protocols, operating systems which harbour bugs that can be triggered via said insecure email protocols, and small world theory. What is to be done?

Update: Cory Doctorow is dead famous for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that he co-edits BoingBoing and is outreach director of the EFF. As he points out, Sobig-F follows a power law that increases with the number of people who've ever sent you email. He's experienced a peak of 8-10 viruses per minute, although it's now dropped back to a couple per minute. That's a peak of 800Kb-1Mb/minute, or 50-60Mb/hour, which to put it in perspective is about one-fifth the saturation bandwidth of a T1 line.

[ Discuss microsoft ]

posted at: 21:37 | path: /virus | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 19 Aug 2003

Virus storm rising

In the past hour and a half I've received via email 11 copies of some kind of Windows worm. My second-level spam filter is overflowing with the buggers -- luckily as a non-Windows user I'm pretty much immune, but they're coming in at a rate of >1Mb/hour. I'm glad I'm not currently collecting my email via Palm Pilot and mobile phone! Blaster, last week's exploit du jour (which tried to take down Microsoft's software update website), had a 6Kb payload, but this obese little turd carries a 93Kb chunk of code with it, so it looks like a new one to me. It's the highest level of worm activity I've ever seen, by somewhere between one and two orders of magnitude, and most of the initial copies appear to have emanated from Finland, which makes me wonder. Anyone else seen this, or know what's going on?

[ Discuss microsoft ]

posted at: 12:25 | path: /virus | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 18 Aug 2003

Summer nothings

Spent today wandering around Edinburgh, not taking in any Fringe shows, just relaxing. No web surfing, no wild rants, no writing, no opinions. In fact, today could easily have been cancelled. So, just to ensure there's something in my blog for you to look at, here's Mafdet the middle-aged kitten (who has lost about a kilogram of weight since she first arrived here last December):

middle-aged kitten

[ Discuss cats ]

posted at: 21:23 | path: /cats | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 17 Aug 2003

Extreme wrist-watches

I do not wear a wrist watch. Maybe it's because I'm surrounded by timepieces -- I virtually never go out the house with less computing power on my person than the entire North American continent circa 1973 -- and maybe it's because I find wearing things around my wrist irritating.

But if I did wear a watch I'd probably end up buying a new one every few months from Tokyoflash, just for the sheer pleasure of owning another gizmo. Some of these are just crazy, a classic illustration of the way in which a core need (timekeeping) has spawned an entire design subculture.

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 23:08 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Done it, I think.


posted at: 19:26 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 16 Aug 2003


I'm in the second and final edit pass through that goddamn novel, and there is absolutely nothing on the web with which I can distract myself. Baah. Near as I can figure I've got a 500-word glue scene to write (to replace the scene I wheeked out of the penultimate chapter to turn into the surprise-epilogue), some tap-dancing transplantation to perform on a minor mcguffin, and some polishing in the last chase scene, and then it's done. Which makes it all sound so self-contained and predictable that you might be forgiven for wondering why I just backed up the files (to spare laptop and iPod) before downing tools in order to go to the pub. I mean, why not finish the damn thing and get it out of the way?

The answer can be encapsulated by a word: tedium. Writing a first draft is fun, and scary, and challenging, and obsessive, and exciting. Editing an n-th draft for the sixth time, two years after that first wild explosion of ideas, is one of the most tediously boring kinds of intellectual drudgery I can imagine. And I'm just reaching the peak of anomie -- tomorrow I will sit down, grit my teeth, work my way through the to-do list, format it up and email it to my editor, then turn with relief to the vastly less tedious job of entering last year's business expenses into a spreadsheet to send to my accountant.

Yes. The sixth draft really is that bad.

[ Discuss writing ]

posted at: 17:58 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 15 Aug 2003

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

Anders Sandberg adopts a systematic approach to the problem in terms of quantum gravity:

The basic issue is the maximal density of active angels in a small volume. It should be noted that the original formulation of the problem did not refer to the head of a pin (R¼1 mm) but to the point of the pin. Therefore, the point, not the head, of the pin is the region that will be studied in this paper.

One of the first reported attempts at a quantum gravity treatment of the angel density problem that also included the correct end of the pin was made by Dr. Phil Schewe. He suggested that due to quantum gravity space is likely not infinitely divisible beyond the Planck length scale of 10exp-35 meters. Hence, assuming the point of the pin to be one Ångström across (the size of a scanning tunnelling microscope tip) this would produce a maximal number of angels on the order of 1050 since they would not have more places to fill.[1]

While this approach does produce an upper bound on the possible density of angels, it is based on the Thomist assumption of non-overlap.

And so on.

[ Link ] [ Discuss theology ]

posted at: 17:24 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry


It's turned hot again around here. Added to which, I was at the pub until about three in the morning on account of having finished my first (of two edit passes) through the novel I've got to hand in next week. The second pass is basically fine tuning on the ending, and should take a couple of days -- probably at the weekend -- so I'm taking today off work. Hence, no work to avoid, hence, no masses of blog updates.

posted at: 16:47 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 14 Aug 2003

Paging Dr Strangelove

New Scientist this week is reporting that:

An exotic kind of nuclear explosive being developed by the US Department of Defense could blur the critical distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons. The work has also raised fears that weapons based on this technology could trigger the next arms race.

The explosive works by stimulating the release of energy from the nuclei of certain elements but does not involve nuclear fission or fusion. The energy, emitted as gamma radiation, is thousands of times greater than that from conventional chemical explosives.

The technology has already been included in the Department of Defense's Militarily Critical Technologies List, which says: "Such extraordinary energy density has the potential to revolutionise all aspects of warfare."

Scientists have known for many years that the nuclei of some elements, such as hafnium, can exist in a high-energy state, or nuclear isomer, that slowly decays to a low-energy state by emitting gamma rays. For example, hafnium-178m2, the excited, isomeric form of hafnium-178, has a half-life of 31 years.

The possibility that this process could be explosive was discovered when Carl Collins and colleagues at the University of Texas at Dallas demonstrated that they could artificially trigger the decay of the hafnium isomer by bombarding it with low-energy X-rays (New Scientist print edition, 3 July 1999). The experiment released 60 times as much energy as was put in, and in theory a much greater energy release could be achieved.

Well, yeah.

Only, a couple of months ago this very same idea was being touted around as a power source for reconnaisance drones that could stay airborn for months at a time. However, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories don't seem to think it'll work:

LIVERMORE, Calif. -- Physicists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in collaboration with scientists at Los Alamos and Argonne national laboratories, have new results that strongly contradict recent reports claiming an accelerated emission of gamma rays from the nuclear isomer 31-yr. hafnium-178, and the opportunity for a controlled release of energy. The triggering source in the original experiment was a dental X-ray machine.

Using the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne, which has more than 100,000 times higher X-ray intensity than the dental X-ray machine used in the original experiment, and a sample of isomeric Hf-178 fabricated at Los Alamos, the team of physicists expected to see an enormous signal indicating a controlled release of energy stored in the long lived nuclear excited state. However, the scientists observed no such signal and established an upper limit consistent with nuclear science and orders of magnitude below previous reports.

So what's going on here?

The idea of using Hafnium isomers as an energy storage device has been knocking around for a few years now. There seem to be two possibilities: the physics works, or it doesn't. If it works, then the LLNL results (from tests carried out in 2001) take some explaining -- how did a major research lab get it wrong? But if it doesn't work, why on earth is this wonder-weapon being touted around by the US Department of Defense, years after the LLNL research poured cold water over it? What bureaucratic agenda could be furthered by pursuing research (with extensive funding) into a technology that isn't compatible with physics as we currently understand it and that appears to be unworkable?

I wonder where the money trail leads, and if it is only money that's at issue. After all, if you promise a politician a magic wand to solve military problems emerging tomorrow, they may be tempted to pay less attention to avoiding such problems today ...

[Link] [Link to LLNL release] [Discuss ww3]

posted at: 18:43 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Lovecraftian conspiracy theory #1

Some people take H. P. Lovecraft too seriously. Like this guy:

Lizard-like aliens descended upon ancient Mayans and interbred with them, producing "a form of life they could inhabit, they fluctuated between a human and iguana appearance through chameleon-like abilities."

Edgar Allen Poe, according to an article in New Federalist, was a counter-intelligence operative serving the U.S. government in the first half of the 1800s. Thus, Poe's stories possibly hint at an insider's knowledge of events. From what vision-world did H.P. Lovecraft perceive and write about "the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men... They had shape but that shape was not made of matter... the Great Old Ones spoke to (the first men) by molding their dreams; for only thus could Their language reach the fleshy minds of mammals... (One day, the Great Old Ones would appear openly.) The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones, free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves..."

Er, yes. Well.

[ Link ] [ Discuss paranoia ]

posted at: 14:56 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 13 Aug 2003

Fair and Balanced Friday

My diary is undergoing a temporary change of name, in honour of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News who appear to think they own a common phrase. Hit on this link if you want to know why.

[ Link ] [ Discuss copyright-censorship ]

posted at: 13:09 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

Today ...

Is the 11th annual Left Hander's Day.

Yes, this includes me. I'm one of the 15% minority whose longevity is threatened by inconsiderate assholes who design a world that is fundamentally incompatible with those people who don't react the same way -- from cameras with shutter release buttons on the right to scissors with moulded grips we simply can't hold to road drills and industrial machinery that maims.

I am therefore declaring my workplace a left-handed centre for the day.

[ Link ] [ Discuss longevity ]

posted at: 11:10 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

More news from the publishing trenches

John Clute (probably the most perceptive critic working the SF field at present) dissects "Singularity Sky" in SciFi Weekly, with the kind of lucid, insightful gaze that makes me feel like something tiny being examined on a microscope slide by Wellsian Martians ("vast, cool, and unsympathetic intellects"):

Not that it isn't fun to see Rachel make fools of various functionaries. Not that there aren't moments of inspiration throughout, good jokes, well-imagined aliens. Not that our SF sense of dramatic irony -- traditional SF readers are very used to feeling superior to bureaucrats -- isn't tickled by the comeuppance visited upon the minions of the New Republic. Not that it's not perfectly obvious that all this PG-13 inanity has stuffed the goose of story precisely to fool its readers into thinking Singularity Sky is safely brainless. Not that it isn't a shame to see as brilliant a cogitator as Charles Stross cozening himself into retelling, at great length, the old nursery rhyme, the one that goes:

The grand old Duke of York
He had ten thousand men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.

Not that we don't care. Because we do. Because we want to see Charles Stross, who has brilliant moments here, extrude that brilliance through an entire book. He could be one of the shapers of SF. I do think he will soon begin to shape.


I think I've just been handed a school report card saying "can do better." (Having said that, what I can say in my defense is that I began writing "Singularity Sky" around 1994, and mostly finished it by 1998; it significantly pre-dates the other work he's judging it against, and I think it'll be interesting to see what he makes of the next couple of novels ...)

[ Link ] [ Discuss writing ]

posted at: 10:10 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 12 Aug 2003


I used to work for a cool software company called The Santa Cruz Operation back in the early nineties. By the late nineties, they'd shortened their name to SCO, gotten into trouble by ignoring Linux, and in the end sold their UNIX assets to Caldera Inc. Who promptly renamed themselves and, most recently, appear to have set out to sue the entire universe for having the temerity to exist.

As a sometime computer journalist, especially a Linux columnist, it behooves me to be polite, balanced, civil, and so on. But sometimes words fail me, as when I saw this egregious display of shit-headedness.

It's a good thing I don't work as a programmer or tech author any more because if I did I would feel it necessary to take out a lawsuit against CEO Darl McBride claiming damages for defamation. By dragging a once respectable company's name through the muck and mire of this stupid and mendacious FUD campaign (which to my eyes looks dangerously close to extortion -- demanding money with menaces -- and which has been described by others as resembling an illegal pump and dump scam) he's destroyed a large chunk of my professional resume; if I still worked in the field this would constitute personal harm.

Sorry to vent. I just didn't feel like bottling that up any more.

(Yes, I do blame Darl McBride.)

[ Link to Dumb Corporate Propaganda Stunt ] [ Discuss SCO shitheads ]

posted at: 19:47 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

A mirror made of wood

wooden mirror

It's a mirror, made of wood. (A 35x29 grid of wooden blocks controlled by servos, each able to be tilted 30 degrees up or down to reflect the light. A camera hidden in the middle sends digitized images to a Macintosh Quadra 860AV which digitizes the image, renders it down to 35x29, converts to 8-bit grayscale, and uses the grayscale values to adjust the tilt angle of each block to change the brightness. Fifteen frames per second provide the illusion of continuity.)

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 14:17 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Jesus says: switch!

Classic parody of the Apple "switch" ads, featuring one Jesus J. Christ on the evils of Windows ...

[ Link (Quicktime -- thanks, Feorag!) ] [Discuss geekery ]

posted at: 12:45 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Lethal heat

It's so hot in continental Europe right now that people are dying like flies in Paris:

Hospitals in the Paris region were unable to find beds for the continuing flow of arrivals. A spokesman for the health ministry conceded that "the extreme heat is clearly linked to an increase in mortality".

Mortuary workers said they could not remember a period of such extreme overcrowding. "Our 28 places have been full since Friday," an official at the Mont-Valerian funeral parlour said. "On Saturday we had to turn down 30 requests."

"We are seeing three or four times more than the normal number of dead," said another mortuary attendant from the suburbs of Paris.

Meanwhile, could this be the beginning of the shutdown of the Atlantic cold water conveyor system that the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute warms could trigger a new ice age?

[ Link ] [ Discuss warming ]

posted at: 09:50 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 11 Aug 2003

Inside the MIT Media Lab

Sensory overload:

You step out of an elevator on the third floor of a university building. You're in a beige carpeted corridor, with whitewashed walls on one side. On the other side, a glass wall separates you from the Disruptive Technology Laboratory. Open the door and look inside. The lab is about thirty feet square, with small offices off to either side. It's cluttered with open plan desks; at one corner a cluster of black sofas sit in a circle around a big television set with a stack of video equipment and an Xbox. At the opposite corner, there's a bench with oscilloscopes, soldering irons, and the other detritus of electronic prototyping.

In one corner, a bunch of students are trying to reinvent the wheel -- specifically, the car steering wheel, which they're trying to add intelligence to. (Imagine you're driving a car, spproaching a busy roundabout. Your hands tense and your pulse rate soars -- it's a bad time for your cellphone to ring, isn't it? That's why the intelligent wheel knows enough about your emotional state to switch the incoming call to voice mail until you're calm enough to talk, and turn down the radio volume while it's about the job) ...

[ Read more ] [ Discuss Media Lab ]

posted at: 22:25 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry


Those fun guys at the MIT Media Lab bring us a new streaming radio station -- Eigenradio.

Eigenradio makes its optimal music by analyzing in real time dozens of radio stations at once. When our bank of computers has heard enough music, it will go to work on making more just like it. Since we listen to so much music all the time, Eigenradio is always on and always live. What you hear on Eigenradio is the best of the New Music, distilled and de-correlated. One song on Eigenradio is worth at least twenty songs on old radio.

And when you've had enough of Eigenradio there's always Spam Radio.

[ Link that is KILLING the RIAA ] [ Much more questionable Link ] [ Really Weird Link ] [ Discuss mp3 ]

posted at: 22:01 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Squids In Spaaaaace

the horror, the horror

This is all Feorag's fault.

[ Link ] [ Discuss The horror! The horror! ]

posted at: 16:36 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Read this (or be terminally uncool)

Warren Ellis seems to be getting into the writing-fiction-online-via-a-blog thing with "LISTENER: A book for the Internet in sixty entries". You can find it on Livejournal and the first parts are 1, 2, 3, and 4. Follow it via the blog.

According to Warren, this is all Cory's fault.

[ Link ] [ Discuss writing ]

posted at: 14:29 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

The policeman's beard is half constructed

The annual chatterbox contest throws up some rather cool quotes from the Turing-test candidates:

Judge: Have you ever watch American football?
Hex: I am most certainly not an American! In fact, I find that quite insulting! I'd rather you accuse me of being a computer!
Judge: are you a computer?
Hex: Syntax Error in line 10. Core dumped. Please bugger off.
Judge: lol
Hex: I'm sorry, but I refuse to reply if you're going to be silly.

Of course, it's going to be rather harder to pass the original Turing test than that little exchange might indicate. Alan Turing, a product of the English public school system writing in 1950, established his test as an imitation game with the pragmatic goal of building a conversational computer system that could fool a judge within a wide domain of human interactions. Consciously or otherwise, the domain Turing picked was one in which the judge is a male human being and the goal of the computer is to fool the judge into believing that he is communicating with a a human female. These days we have highly-sophisticated constructs that are dedicated to carrying out this very task over the internet -- we call them "police officers". Meanwhile, I humbly submit that a piece of software that could successfully emulate a circa-2003 British female would clearly fail the circa-1953 Turing test by not conforming to the expected stereotypes.

Which leaves us flailing around trying to write bots who deal with more general problem domains -- like this:

Iniaes: Sure, I can accept all forms of payment.

[ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]

posted at: 11:07 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Global Warming

Well, I don't know about global but there's definitely something weird happening locally -- with temperatures in the high twenties in Edinburgh, and an all-time record temperature set yesterday -- 38.1 degrees in Gravesend (100.6 Fahrenheit), this is shaping up to be one of the hottest summers ever for the UK.

Heat: I hates it, yes my precious, I hates it.

[ Discuss warming ]

posted at: 10:51 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 07 Aug 2003

Air rage

No blog entry today (other than this) because I'm knackered -- spent no less than five hours on the phone to three travel bureaux and several departments within Lufthansa, trying to figure out WTF to do about my tickets to Torcon 3 in Toronto at the end of this month.

I booked the tickets back in May through a small one man travel agency I've been using for years. He usually posts them to me a month before departure -- he's 400 miles away. It seems that this time, the tickets were issued three weeks ago but never got here. The travel agent isn't answering one of his phone lines and the other three (fax plus voice plus emergency mobile) are all disconnected; not a good sign, and I suspect he's died or otherwise gone out of business with extreme prejudice.

The good news is that the payment was received, the tickets were issued, and I have a booking reference. But the bad news is that it turns out that Lufthansa have no standard procedure for dealing with the consequences if the tickets are sent out on time but get lost between the travel agent and the customer. The tickets are merely contracts for travel but the airline behaves as if they're cash money. And you can't imagine the problems that arise when the tickets are issued by a big ticketing agency, then sent to a medium-sized travel agency, which then sends them on to a one-man-and-his-dog sub-agent who vanishes into a black hole rather than forwarding them to the customer. Every single conversation seems to begin with "have you spoken to the travel agent?" and ends with "yes, we can do that, as soon as the travel agent faxes us to confirm the tickets are lost in the post ..."

Note: Lufthansa are one of the more efficient flag carrier airlines. The mind, she boggles. I'm harbouring weird daydreams that I've been caught up in a highly unethical sub rosa experiment designed to test how susceptible frequent fliers are to air rage ...

Anyway, after five hours on the phone it looks like I can probably pick up a pair of replacement tickets from the Lufthansa desk at Edinburgh Airport. Although they may try to charge me $100 per ticket for losing them. Grr. Time to find another travel agent ...

[ Discuss dumb ]

posted at: 22:23 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 06 Aug 2003

One for the review stack

Treepad Lite is a combination PIM, outline processor, text editor and brainstorming program. Now there's a Linux version. Must take a look at it one of these days ...

(The Portege 2000 is now happily running Linux and, modulo one or two slightly rough edges -- wireless network roaming is a mild pain, and I haven't set up infrared yet or done any serious dinking with USB -- it's working fine. So I now have a Linux/Intel testbed again.)

[ Link ]

posted at: 22:37 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 05 Aug 2003

He's b-a-a-c-k ...

Nearly twenty years after the spectacular flop of Sir Clive Sinclair's C5 electric vehicle, it seems the "success" of the Segway (yeah, have you seen one, too?) has provoked the Cambridge inventor to make a follow-on attempt.

The Sinclair C6, we are informed, has been under development for a decade -- and we should "just wait til next year".


[ Link ][ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 17:40 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Soldiers in ballgowns

Another really weird (and quite unpleasant) meme is spreading in Liberia:

[ in the '90's] Taylor's dolled-up marauders -- aka the National Patriotic Front of Liberia -- put on one of the most disturbing shows the planet has ever seen. ... In an essay in Liberian Studies Journal, an administrator at Cuttington University College tells a story of Taylor's forces storming the rural campus during the initial stages of the war in "wedding [dresses], wigs, commencement gowns from high schools and several forms of voodoo regalia. ... [They] believed they could not be killed in battle."

According to the soldiers themselves, cross-dressing is a military mind game, a tactic that instills fear in their rivals. It also makes the soldiers feel more invincible. This belief is founded on a regional superstition which holds that soldiers can "confuse the enemy's bullets" by assuming two identities simultaneously. Though the accoutrements and garb look bizarre to Western eyes, they are, in a sense, variations on the camouflage uniforms and face paint American soldiers use to bolster their sense of invisibility (and, therefore, immunity) during combat. Since flak jackets or infrared goggles aren't available to the destitute Liberian fighters, they opt for evening gowns and frilly blouses.

[ Link ][ Discuss fashion victims ]

posted at: 17:15 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Extropians under the Bed

Remember the weird-sounding DARPA plan to establish a futures market for predicting terrorist attacks? (Not so weird as it sounds: it turns out to be a Delphi poll in wolf's -- or maybe Wolfowitz' -- clothing.) Well, it turns out that the original proposal was hatched by none other than Robin Hanson, sometime extropian and economist with a hatload of theories about the future. The Register's Andrew Orlowski has done a none-to-friendly backgrounder on the extropian roots of the OSP terrorism futures market, but you may prefer to read what Hanson has to write on the subject of the economics of SF, ideas futures (the demilitarized, or maybe pre-militarized, version of the Poindexter weirdness), and why there's a greater than 5% chance that we're living in a computer simulation.

All good stuff, although maybe a little too speculative to base a global anti-terrorism strategy on it.

[ Link (The Reg on Extropianism ] [ Discuss singularity ]

posted at: 16:12 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 04 Aug 2003

It's disgusting, I tell you

Not to mention Fishy. (NB: this site should not be accessed by spawn, whitebait, sprats, winkles, or anyone who may find this material offensive.)

[ Link ] [ Discuss ]

posted at: 15:50 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 03 Aug 2003

Back from UKUUG

That was a pretty interesting weekend.

I have a personal weakness; I find it very difficult to sit through more than one lecture in a row, and after about three interesting ones in the space of a day my brain simply seizes up. Which made this years' UKUUG Linux conference kind of frustrating, because there were two parallel program streams with lectures running simultaneously and back-to-back from 9:30am through 'til after 6pm each day.

Now I've got to sit down and write it up for my next Shopper column, a thought occured to me: what does it mean? Personally speaking: not a huge amount. I'm burned out, cynical and jaded about the computer business in general, because over the past twenty years it has become a deeply boring commoditized industry. Early design decisions have become entrenched in the name of backward compatability, marketing guys with plastic smiles and immaculate suits have replaced wild-eyed visionaries, and the interesting stuff is all happening in weird far-away design teams, sequestrated from the incurious public gaze. It's about as capable of capturing the imagination as, say, a new tweak on the design of boarding stairs at Airbus or Boeing that promises to shave 20% off the weight of said airliner accessory.

I did pick up two things, though. The first, a general feeling: Linux is in the process of embracing and extending the hardware biz at every level. When I saw someone taking notes on a talk about massively parallel supercomuters (using Linux) on a palmtop (running Linux) the message was kind of hard to miss.

And the next thing: at a very specific level, mini-ITX motherboards and cases are The Way To Go. Tiny, cheap, fanless PCs with trailing-edge processors -- only 1GHz -- are nevertheless a really amazingly cool idea, especially when you start thinking in terms of turning them into personal video recorders (running things like FreeVo) or in-car GPS navigation systems. Or Beowulf clusters. Marketing hype has obsessed most punters with clock speed, so that the owner of a 2.4GHz processor sneers at their neighbour with the 2.1GHz clock -- but if both machines have the same bus frequency, memory, and disk architecture, all the extra CPU speed means is that the faster machine will spend more time in cache stalls. "Slower" computers (we're still talking faster than a Cray XMP here) that don't sound like an air conditioning system, that can run off a trickle of current and live in a case the size of a paperback book, and that are tailored to a specific task, are really useful. Me, I'm off to build a household music server to hold the contents of the 600-odd CD's cluttering up the place -- and if that works, I'm going to add a set-top box for the cable TV decoder. See you later!

[ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 19:32 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 01 Aug 2003

Why I'm being quiet

This week it's the UKUUG (UK Unix User's Group) annual Linux conference. And as it's in Edinburgh, where I happen to live, I'm a wee bit busy spending all my time in the grounds of a public (read: very private indeed) school, sitting in on talks by such luminaries of the linux field as Jon "Maddog" Hall and Dr Steven Tweedie.

Except the weather today is great, I'm a bit tired, and after one talk too many about the woes of the UK Government's e-gateway's mis-implementation of W3C standard digital signatures on XML messages I just had to bugger off home to recover.

Maybe I'll post a brief report tomorrow, but I'm not Cory Doctorow and I just don't have the energy for moblogging.

[ Link ]

posted at: 17:06 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
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The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
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Simon Bisson's Journal ]
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Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
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Meerkat open wire service ]
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Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

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(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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