Charlie's Diary

[ Site Index] [ Feedback ]

Fri, 31 Oct 2003

Public relations

It has been brought to my attention that in order to obtain your cooperation in installing my minions in those countries that still run Democracy 1.0 (as opposed to the new, improved Democracy 2.0 currently being installed by my contractors at Diebold Corporation and elsewhere) it is necessary to behave as if your votes are a valuable resource. At least, until we can eliminate the pesky audit trail that proves you voted for them and not for us.

Therefore, please allow me to re-phrase the last sentence of my previous message as follows: "I encourage you to vote for Michael Howard. Vote for the tax-cutting cuddly face of new, improved, sparkly-clean conservative virtue!"

(Yes, PNH, the fascist octopus is indeed beginning to sing its swan song. And you ain't heard nuttin' yet.)

[ Link (Electronic voting fraud) ] [ Discuss Evil Overlords ]

posted at: 19:49 | path: /overlord | permanent link to this entry

Meet your new rulers

As Evil Overlord (Planetary) it has come to my attention that the British Isles are currently being governed by regrettably liberal-minded wishy-washy types such as Tony Blair, Jack Straw, and David Blunkett. This needs to be Rectified. I'd therefore like to commend to you my new Minion and your next provincial gauleiter, Mr Michael Howard. As Labour MP Tom Watson explains, Mr Howard is eminently suitable to the post of Evil Overlord (Planetary) Minion i/c United Kingdom. He is, in fact, as suitable as anyone can be who isn't actually the bastard cloned love-child of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft -- my two favourite Evil Overlord Minions (and the ones he most closely resembles). His policies betray a touching hatred and contempt for fags, women, wogs, poor people, criminals stupid enough to get caught, trade unionists, healthcare workers, and indeed just about everyone except my other most excellent Minion (retired), General Alfredo Pinochet.

Vote for him, scum! Vote for the jackboot upon your neck!

[ Link ] [ Discuss Evil Overlords ]

posted at: 12:44 | path: /overlord | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 30 Oct 2003

My Evil Plan

I am currently feeling somewhat tired and taking a week off work, lazing around and contemplating my future. Despite being able to make a comfortable living writing science fiction and fantasy novels, I feel that my broad vision and grand strategic skills would be better employed in a more prominent role. There's been a lot of wind-baggery lately about a New World Order, or a Project for a New American Century, but I know how to do it better; their ambitions are all a bit limited. Yes, I intend to apploy for the job of Evil Overlord (Planetary). Here's what I believe I can bring to the post:

Your typical Evil Overlord dresses in black, sits in a high castle overlooking a blasted wasteland, and sends forth armies of Orcs (or the US Marine Corps) to devastate continents. But that's the naive way to do it. My plan is not to tell anyone that I'm the Evil Overlord (Planetary) -- at least, nobody except the folks who count, who can in turn be indexed on your fingers and toes if you have a full complement of digits and understand binary.

I will live in a modest ranch somewhere in the richest military power on the planet -- like Kennebunkport, say -- and I will entertain political leaders from around the world and discuss their Swiss bank account statements and the pending indictments before the Hague international court with them until they see that it is in their interests to listen to my sage advice. By being pivotal in this way, I can control events from behind the curtain (maintained by my good friend Rupe, who won't let any nasty journalists pry into my private life) while putting a useful idiot in the White House to run Province Number One in accordance with my requirements.

A bit of mis-management lower down the pecking order will keep my minions, the presidents and prime ministers and ayatollahs, on their toes, vying for my favour. It'll also serve to produce the semi-permanent state of Emergency that justifies the enormous standing armies of intelligence/secret police agents who maintain the war on terror (also known as the war on people who know what I'm up to and want nothing to do with it).

Mine will be a very democratic evil overlordship -- everyone gets to vote for my choice of minions from a pre-approved list of evil overlord henchpeople, and the minions don't even have to pay lip service to me in public. (In fact, if they *do* pay lip service to me in public they'll have a little accident with a bottle of oxycontin and have to go to the Betty Ford Clinic for a rest).

For those bits of the globe that are annoyingly recalcitrant, my minions will prepare Sock Puppets which they can revile to their hearts' content -- the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Republican Party. Every so often I'll let a bunch of upstarts 'win' and overthrow their particular Sock Puppet; meanwhile my minions within the upstart movement will work their way to the top by attending executive committee meetings while everyone else is away demonstrating.

It has been said that my friend Rupert Murdoch regularly calls up his guru Arthur C. Clarke to chat about the future, communications satellites, the media, and so on. I'm a bit less overt -- but I will make sure that Noam Chomsky's tenure is unchallenged, and that he has plenty of time to write, and I will read everything he writes in manuscript form and apply his fascinating techniques for social control to my own ends. (Of course he thinks he's doing you all a favour by explaining this stuff ...)

As for why I want supreme power, that takes some consideration. The planetary GDP is roughly US $40Tn a year (that's $40,000Bn). I figure a 1% supertax ought to ensure that all my plans are catered for, allowing me to indulge in grandiouse -- not to say megalomaniacal -- schemes without restraint. For example, I've seen the Louvre and I wasn't impressed. For my personal art collection, nothing less than a titanium pyramid will do -- a titanium pyramid, on the moon. Should only cost a hundred billion or so: that's chicken feed. (A fitting goal for the Indian Space Agency to undertake on my behalf, I think, seeing that NASA are currently pork-barrelled into uselessness and their replacement agency isn't scheduled for creation until five years after the next American revolution.)

As for why you should support me for Evil Overlord, I can offer you a number of fringe benefits. For one thing, it is not in my personal interests to allow the junior management to throw strategic nuclear weapons around, indulge in mass extinction events, ignore earth-smashing asteroids, and otherwise act in the belief that they can get away with mischief. For another thing, I'm not as stupidly provincial as your current lords and masters; in my capacity as Evil Overlord (Planetary) I have to energetically pursue a policy of cosmopolitan internationalism in order to justify the (Planetary) bit. Finally, I promise to be more amusing and congenial, not to mention more witty and imaginative than my predecessors as I feed unfortunate investigative journalists to the candiru fish in the atrium of my glass-walled hideaway skyscraper in the Himalayas. I mean, I used to be a science fiction writer: I'm superbly qualified to dispose of a budget of $400Bn a year in interesting and creative ways that will surprise, entrance, and horrify you.

Vote for me: why settle for the lesser evil?

(PS: Do you think people would take me more seriously as an evil overlord if I changed my surname to "Stroessner"?)

[ Discuss Evil Overlords ]

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

Tue, 28 Oct 2003

Gadgetitis redux

Well, last week my Treo 600 arrived. It's a great phone -- but when your phone sprouts a QWERTY keyboard for text messaging and email it helps if the space bar works. Mine didn't, and the phone's new enough to have confused Orange -- in the end they escallated the issue to the desk of someone with "manager" in their title, and a replacement (with working space bar) turned up this morning, so I'm reasonably happy, but it shows that new gadgets can display new and unprecedented failure modes. Thing is, a phone with a non-working spacebar is still perfectly functional as a phone -- but not as a mobile internet/email terminal.

Anyway, all that should be sorted out by tomorrow (I just have to charge up the new phone, swap SIM and SD/MMC cards, and send the old one back).

Coincidentally, today my Alphasmart Dana Wireless arrived. It's the 21st century Cambridge Z88 replacement, and it appears to work okay; right now it's plugged in and charging up. One annoying nit is that the software that comes with it expects to be installed from a Mac or Windows system, and I'd prefer to use it with Linux. This wouldn't be a problem if they'd packaged the stuff in old-fashioned zip archives, but as most modern users wouldn't know a zip archive if it bit them (or so the current opinion runs in marketing circles) they come in fancy installer executables. Which means I need to mug a friend with an XP box before I can install things like Documents to Go on it and get motoring.

The payoff I'm looking for with all this new kit is a machine for writing on and a machine for keeping in touch with the universe, both able to run for many, many hours while a long way away from an electrical outlet, anywhere in the world. Oh, and they should weigh less than half as much as a laptop and (equally importantly) cost less than half as much as a laptop to replace if they break. I am fed up with expensive, excessively delicate machines that require you to schlepp around a briefcase full of support equipment if you want to use them for more than a couple of hours. It's interesting to note that both of my chosen pieces of gear run PalmOS, while none of the more conventional operating systems seem to cater to these needs, which I'd have thought would fill an obvious niche.

(Oh yeah. Weight of Dana plus Treo 600: 1.13Kg. Weight of iBook plus spare battery: 2.56Kg, and that's before you add in the mobile phone. Even if you leave out the spare battery, the iBook is more than twice as heavy!)

[ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 14:20 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 27 Oct 2003

Speaking of spam

Quicktopic, which hosts the discussion system I use, have begun adding ads to the discussions. Intrusive ads. So I'm going to rig up a replacement as soon as I have the time and energy. This may involve moving my diary to Movable Type, now that the MT installation on this system is working smoothly.

posted at: 21:57 | path: /spam | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 26 Oct 2003

I hate SMTP servers ...

I just spent three hours upgrading mailman, the mailing list system on this here Linux box, to the latest (2.1.3) release from the stable 2.0.x we were running, just so I could take advantage of the improved spam trapping features it provides. It was a royal pain in the arse and I wouldn't have bothered, were it not for the enthusiastic but ineffectual spammers who have bombarded the moderated charlie-pr mailing list (which gets about one bulletin every six months) with spam in the past week or two.

Meanwhile, a quick check on Demon Internet's servers show something like 10,600 pieces of spam waiting for download by -- a dialup account I stopped using for mail in 1998 (and for anything else about two years later). And that spam-load has built up in the 28 days since I last polled Demon. That's 500 spams a day -- and I haven't had any legitimate email via that account in the past couple of years.

It's time for a new protocol, folks. Email's dead.

[ Discuss spam ]

posted at: 21:38 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 25 Oct 2003

The liver is evil and must be punished

It's a quarter past midnight on Friday night and I've just finished work for the evening. I'm going cross-eyed (damn these new spectacles) and if it was a bit earlier I'd be heading out to the pub to celebrate. Because ...

About two and a bit years ago, I sold two SF novels to Ace. And my agent said, "hey, Ace won't publish the first one for a couple of years. Why don't you take a year out to try writing a big fat fantasy series, or alternate history, or something I can sell for LOT$ OF MONEY?" [[NB: she was wrong about Ace taking two years.]] And I thought for a bit and said, "how about if I write a Marxist deconstruction of your traditional extruded fantasy product, as told from the point of view of the Dark Lord?" And she said, "don't be silly." So I said ...

Bah, you're not interested in this stuff. So cut to the chase: I'm writing a mammoth alternate-history-time-travel-fantasy epic for Tor. (Actually they contain a post-feminist political critique of neoconservative imperialism and Straussian philosophy, but my agent told me to play up the unicorns instead ... but I digress.) Anyway, I'm under contract for three books. And I just now finished the final edit on volume #2, which will be going off to my editor on Monday. Which is why I'd normally go out to the pub to drink myself into a stupor -- because that's the only sane response to finishing the sixth draft of anything.

Meanwhile, oh, I sold another couple of books to Ace this month. Next summer sees the publication of "Iron Sunrise", the sequel to "Singularity Sky"; assuming all goes to plan, summer 2005 should see publication of "Accelerando", and summer 2006 should roll with "Glasshouse". "Accelerando" is the insanely complex, baroque, and somewhat anarchic lump of exposition from which the stories in Asimov's SF magazine are drawn; Asimov's bought the eighth (of nine) last month, and Gardner personally threatened to fly into Edinburgh and burn an upside-down microprocessor on my lawn if I didn't damn well deliver the ninth, and sooner rather than later. (Okay, I exaggerate. A little.) "Accelerando" is more than merely difficult to write -- I've been working on it since summer '99, and having a submission deadline for the final draft (gulp!) is quite terrifying, even if it's nine months away.

"Glasshouse" is the short novel that mugged me back in April. Weirdly enough, it works (modulo some work that the end needs). I wrote it because John Varley didn't. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.) Helpful clue: "glasshouse" is old British army slang for a military prison.

Anyway, I'm taking the weekend off. After the weekend, when I get down to work it will be to attack either (a) my current collaboration with Cory Doctorow (a sequel to Jury Duty), (b) the end of "Accelerando", (c) the third fantasy novel for Tor, (d) a review for "Foundation", or (e) my sanity.

There's no rest for the wicked ...

[ Discuss writing ]

posted at: 00:37 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 24 Oct 2003

Concorde, adieu

Excuse the silence, please: I'm trying to finish a book. It was supposed to be nailed down today -- but instead I found myself shivering in a car park for several hours in order to see this:

The last Concorde flight, departing

That was the last ever Concorde flight departing from Scottish airspace. I was there, standing about five hundred feet away from the main runway at Turnhouse as it rotated. Contrary to rumour, Concorde is not the loudest airliner in the world -- even on afterburner it's no worse than an old Boeing 727 (without stage III hush-kit, those puppies were very noisy). Still, it's probably the most beautiful, elegant aircraft in the air; there's nothing else quite like it. (That it goes like a bat out of hell is just extra icing on the cake.) As Buckminster Fuller said, when you solve an engineering problem, if the solution looks beautiful, you probably got it right.

Anyway, I guess this means I probably won't get to fly supersonic until I'm in my fifties. (Optimistically.) And it's just one more item in a long, dismal litany of abandoned promises. Big, advanced nuclear reactors pumping out power too cheap to meter. Truck and car carrying hovercraft the size of 747's. Saturn V's. They all went the way of the dinosaurs, and now we have to put up with this. It's too much: I want my bright shiny future back!

(PS: as a final insult to add to the injury, my favourite pub in Edinburgh -- in fact, my local for most of the past decade, notwithstanding that it's a good half-hour's walk away from where I live -- closed its doors for the last time last Saturday night at, oh, about 2:30am. Which means I can't even go to the pub to raise a toast to the engineers who built Concorde. Sometimes life sucks ...)

posted at: 20:52 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 21 Oct 2003

Brief political interlude

Aside from the death toll banner at the top of this page, I've been trying to keep off the topic of politics -- and especially the US/UK occupation of Iraq -- for the past couple of months. My reasons for keeping off the subject are numerous. It's pervasive, it's polarizing, every time I think about it I can feel my blood pressure spike, and opining about it is probably pointless. We saw just how much attention Tony Blair paid when the largest anti-war demonstrations the UK has ever seen kicked off at about a week's notice; I have no reason to believe that my opinion is going to affect events in the slightest.

I'm going to take down the Iraq Body Count banner when one of two conditions occurs: either the lower estimate passes 10,000 dead, or the invaders withdraw their forces. I suspect the former will come to pass before the latter -- probably much sooner, given the likely consequences of introducing Turkish troops into the region or privatising the state-run food rationing and distribution system (both of which appear to be planned).

I'm at a loss to guess where all this is going (although the phrase "to hell in a hand-basket" springs to mind), especially with regard to the situation in Iraq. All the news seems to point to a US occupation administered by folks who are too ideologically canalized to recognize the quagmire they've stumbled into. There is no such thing as a peaceful occupation, and there's no such thing as an occupier who is welcome: because occupations are always carried out by soldiers -- by definition, violent strangers -- and foreign soldiers are never welcome. However, I still harbour a vague hope that the Iraq adventure will eventually be seen as the high water mark for the Anglophone neo-conservative imperialists, especially as it coincides with their wilful participation in the destruction of the western middle classes.

The future?

After Iraq, the future belongs to the guys who own the English-speaking telephone call centres in India, and the cheap computer hardware stores in Shanghai.

[ Discuss politics ]

posted at: 17:38 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry


So, the Handspring Treo 600 turned up yesterday afternoon. Today, I unplugged it from the charger, phoned Orange, and got it activated. Then I remembered to phone Orange and ask for GPRS to be activated too. Then I had fun beaming my contacts across to it from my Palm. Then I fidgetted with it, figuring out how to use it as a phone. And as a phone it is, indeed, pretty awesome. And then I discovered ...

The space bar doesn't work.

The Treo 600 has a QWERTY-layout keyboard (okay, thumbboard) for typing email and SMS messages. And it works fine -- all except the space key, which appears to be catatonic or not wired up or something. Sigh. So I'm now waiting for Orange to get back in touch about shipping me a replacement, which they said they'll do once they can beat their computer system into compliance. And I am suffering from an acute attack of gadgetitis, an inflammation of the gadget-fondling organs, because the Treo 600 is quite clearly an extremely cool piece of mobile communications kit ... if only it could send and receive email or text messages with spaces between the words.

Meanwhile, back to work ...

posted at: 16:03 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 18 Oct 2003

It's my birthday today

Here is a user manual. If anyone feels inclined to arrange for me to take a ride in the technological artefact it describes, I would be unspeakably grateful. (And very surprised.)

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 15:56 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 17 Oct 2003

And now, some words from our sponsor

Shamelessly forwarded from an EFF mailing list:

Today, we're asking for your help with the Broadcast Flag. This is a proposed technology mandate that would give Hollywood studios a veto over the design of the output and recording technologies that get built into DTV receivers -- which is by way of saying the stuff that we take for granted on our general-purpose machines, like CD/DVD burners, high-speed cabling standards like FireWire, and so on. This is an unprecedented maneouvre: the Hollywood studios are saying that tech companies should have to get the studios' permission before releasing new tools to their customers. These are the studios that tried to ban the VCR, that sued ReplayTV over commercial-skipping, that put Fritz Hollings up to the CPDTPA bill, a proposal to make all technologists get the entertainment industry's approval before producing new equipment.

What's more, the Broadcast Flag demands that approved technologies will have to be built to be "tamper-resistant." That means that we'll have a law that will require an entire class of general-purpose technologies to use only obfuscated, closed-source drivers. That's right, it bans open source for tech that can be used in DTV applications.

We need lots of people to write into the FCC asking them to set this proposal aside, and we want you to help. If you are willing and able, we'd like you to post a call-to-action on your site. You can write your own, or feel free to re-use this letter (please omit the leading paragraph!) or the copy on the EFF's site:

action center link

That link contains our "action center" item, which allows people to send a fax to the commission with one click.

Seriously. This proposal doesn't directly affect me, because I'm based in the UK. But if you live in the USA, this is a particularly odious attempt by the entertainment industry to grab complete control of your next generation of TV broadcasting system and prevent you from watching it on equipment uncertified by the MPAA, time-shifting to avoid ads, viewing it on computer, recording programs, or ultimately watching TV without pay-per-view. So get writing, now.

[ action center link ] [ Discuss copyright-censorship ]

posted at: 21:26 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 16 Oct 2003

Hello to MetaFilter

Hi there, MetaFilter readers. Hope you like it here.

(Message for "Rough Ashlar": I didn't say what you seem to think I said. I'd have corrected you via the MeFi comments system, but it seems to be closed for new business right now. Probably just as well. FYI, the column I wrote for Shopper went through a couple of name changes, but ended up being called "Linux Expert" because, bluntly, that's what those members of the public who aren't familiar with the minutiae of the Eric Raymond/Richard Stallman open source/free software love-in think in terms of. With a remit to cover BSD, MacOS/X, and commercial UNIXen, it might have better been called the UNIX column -- but as the then editors decided, that'd have put off those readers who've heard of this free thing called Linux and want to learn about it. Pedants who insist on calling it GNU/Linux and wax lyrical about the difference between the LGPL and the GPL can fuck right off: life's too short, especially when it's parcelled out in 3000 word monthly installments.)

[ Link ] [ Discuss MetaFilter ]

posted at: 23:05 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 15 Oct 2003


A few developments since Sunday.

I'll be writing one more column for Shopper; I don't like leaving any job unfinished or on bad terms, and they need a bit of breathing space to find a replacement. So issue 192 will be my last -- five years and one month after I started the column. (Memo to self: must update the Linux area of my website with the remaining columns from 2001-2002, not to mention my two-year run of Perl tutorials in Linux Format.)

After resigning from Shopper I ordered an Alphasmart Dana Wireless (PDF), as they've finally started shipping the European model. You can't run Half Life 2 on it, or play DVDs, but any subnotebook computer that's designed to be abused by toddlers, run for 25 hours on a single charge, is drop-tested off a building, weighs under 1 kilogram, and has WiFi has got be to useful for something. Purely coincidentally, the next day I got an email from AlphaSmart's PR company offering to loan me a review machine if I wanted to write about it in you-know-where. Sigh. Great timing, guys.

I may have sold another couple of novels. I say "may" because I haven't signed a contract yet. Until I get the paper, it ain't sold: experience has taught me to be superstitious about that kind of thing. (But I'm probably not giving much away if I say it's the next two SF novels, via a major American publisher, and they won't be in print before 2005.) If it goes ahead, those will be my seventh and eighth novel sales (and my ninth and tenth books).

Congratulations to the Chinese space program on today's orbital achievement. As an afterthought clearly inspired by the glorious achievements of the Shenzhou-5 project (and too much caffeine) Hoggy brings us a frightening vision of the future (what with those cyborg monkeys who can control robot arms by thinking).

Finally, I will be at Novacon 33 in Birmingham (November 7th to 10th). Feel free to say "hi" if you see me there.

[ Discuss Journalism ] [ Discuss Conventions ]

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

Sun, 12 Oct 2003

Letting go is hard to do ...

I'm risk-averse by nature. This isn't the same as conservative, or cautious: I'm quite capable of jumping with both feet into a major life-change. However, I like to know where I'm going and keep my options open. I tend to avoid irrevocable changes. I like to be able to back out of blind alleys. And so on.

Today is Sunday. Tomorrow I'm going to send an email that will end a business relationship of twelve years' standing, one that (arguably) I should have ended six months or more ago. After I send it, I won't be a computer magazine columnist any more. I'll be a full-time novelist. I've been writing for Computer Shopper for nearly thirteen years, and sending in a monthly column like clockwork for the past five years, without a single break: that's the longest continuous activity in my life. (How many jobs have you had that lasted for thirteen years?)

Shopper got started in 1988 or thereabouts, back in the dim and distant past. It was, in some respects, the last hurrah of the old school computer magazine; as recently as eighteen months ago you could open an issue and be confronted by a feature that assumed you knew one end of a soldering iron or a symbolic debugger from the other. Editor Jeremy Spencer ran it with a whim of steel from his farmhouse and testing lab in rural Shropshire, commissioning articles and columns from a pool of freelancers rather than employing in-house copywriters and journalists. In fact, the whole idea of Shopper was that it would speak with authority, its columns written by experts rather than journalists: it was in some degree founded in reaction against the trade-press journalism that, by the late 1980's, was already overrunning the newsstand computer press.

As you might expect, such an odd magazine -- a couple of hundred pages of technical, authoritative editorial content sandwiched inside a telephone directory of advertising -- couldn't flourish in a mainstream magazine publisher. Shopper was published and nurtured by Felix Dennis, enfant terrible of British publishing ever since his conviction during the infamous Oz trial; by the early 1980's Dennis had become something of a media mogul. He looked at the US computer scene, and had the idea of launching Computer Shopper in the UK. Back then the US Shopper wasn't owned by ZD; he did a deal for UK rights to the title with Stan Veitch, who owned it and was about to sell it. Graeme Kidd was hired to launch the magazine and didn't want to simply recycle US copy. So he put Jeremy Spencer in the frame and Dennis gave him the job of commissioning copy. The magazine came to occupy the high ground that VNU's Personal Computer World (then the British equivalent of Byte) had just vacated; by the mid to late 1990's, Shopper was the #1 top-selling monthly newsstand computer magazine in the UK, with everything from articles on how to buy your first computer to columns for minority platforms. It maintained the same sort of claim on the affections of its readership that the early computer magazines held in the 1970's and early 1980's.

My history with Shopper is an odd one. Back in 1990 I was finishing a computer science degree, in between writing and selling short stories (with some degree of success). I needed a UNIX-type operating system to run on my PC but, being a student, I was close to broke. Then a thought struck me: why not try my hand at reviewing? I thumbed through a handy copy of the magazine that seemed most clueful -- and most likely to be receptive to the idea -- and phoned the editorial number. "Hello, is Jeremy Spencer available?" I asked. "I'm a writer and I'm in the process of completing a computer science degree, and I'm wondering if you'd be interested in a review ...?"

I didn't know a lot about how trade publishing works. If I'd picked PCW instead of Shopper, or one of the other VNU stable magazines, I'd probably have been blown off. Future Publishing hadn't started their long climb to success, and in any event they preferred to use freelancers who knew what they were doing. But Jeremy had a different plan: to find experts and give them the basic skills they needed in order to write for magazines. I lucked out, or sounded plausible, or something: Jeremy in due course sent me a copy of Mark Williams' Company Coherent for review, which I duly wrote up, and I got paid for it (to my shock earning five times as much per word as Interzone ever paid -- you could actually make a living at this game). I was hooked. You could, like, ask people to send you toys and get paid money, lots of money, for playing with them and then writing up your thoughts.

Back then, it seemed obvious (with 20/20 hindsight: why?) that computers were going to Change The World. Maybe you could pin the blame on William Gibson for tickling the collective imagination with Neuromancer, a vision of a (skewed, impractical, but seductive) planetary network. (Not that he deserves the blame, exactly: that is more appropriately ascribed to the hundreds of thousands of engineers who laboured with monastic dedication for decades to build the worm, spam, and virus infested howling wasteland of junk data we now inhabit.) Or maybe you could blame Apple's marketing department and Ridley Scott for that advertisement. The zeitgeist was certain: computers were the engines for the new age of steam, the age of information, and they were going to drag us willy-nilly into the future. By re-training in CS, I wasn't merely getting the hell out of a profession that was an emotional and intellectual dead-end for me (with a nervous breakdown waiting in the shadows if I persisted in it); I was getting a party card and a chance to join the Revolution. And, by writing for what I saw as the pre-eminent populist magazine of the field, I was in the privileged position of a party enthusiast being asked to write for Pravda.

We all know where that went, don't we?

During the 1990's I worked for a variety of companies: first for Real World Graphics (a now-defunct supercomputing hardware outfit from Hertfordshire), then for the Santa Cruz Operation (who sold their UNIX rights to Caldera after I left -- Caldera then changed their name to SCO, and we know what they're up to these days), then a web outfit called FMA (which went tits-up in early 1997), then some freelance programming, then for three and a half years at Datacash -- I was the first programmer Gavin and Dave (MacRae) hired, two weeks before the limited company was formed, and I left a couple of months after the IPO. And my departure from Datacash coincided with the bubble bursting, the scales falling from various eyes, the NASDAQ IT stock crash, and ...

This isn't the place for the lecture on how the web industry sawed off the branch it was sitting on. Or the essay about how 90% of the jobs in IT are basically make-work, guaranteed by the shitty design quality of the tools the commodity software business delivers, a poor record which in turn is propagated because a business model based on selling software licences requires regular churn and new products in order to keep raking the money in. But by the very late 1990's, the computer magazine business was hurting. The internet allows folks like you and me to buy computers (and parts thereof) online. And in 1998-99 the web advertising market crashed. The price of online ads went down, and they began to seriously eat into magazine advertising territory. People didn't need to buy a magazine like Computer Shopper any more when they could type their desired search specs into Google. So circulations began to slowly decline.

In early 2000, I resigned from Datacash because (a) I was burned out after three and a half years' of writing and maintaining the core servers for a payment service provider, and (b) Andrew Veitch, CEO of NSL Internet, finally made me an offer I couldn't refuse -- come on board NSL at senior management or board level and establish a software development division within the company. NSL looked as if it was going to float successfully by summer, and this was a very good prospect. But halfway through my notice period (which Datacash had pegged at three months) the bubble burst. NSL's underwriters pulled out, several kilotons of shit hit the fan, and NSL underwent a hostile take-over by another ISP that had managed to do the IPO limbo under the lowering bar of stock market expectations earlier in the year and now sought growth through acquisition. My promising new job evaporated under me, leaving me hung-over and blinking at the new reality of the post-Revolution world.

So I picked up the phone to Jeremy again, and a couple of other editors I knew, and this time I wasn't just after pocket money.

Computer journalism -- freelance journalism -- was my bread and butter for two years. Gradually, during those years, my personal affairs underwent a different revolution, one I'd hoped for for decades but long since ceased to expect: I broke through into Asimov's SF magazine, acquired a literary agent, began selling novels and appearing on awards ballots. But if it wasn't for the journalism I wouldn't have been in business as a writer. I was routinely turning in 8-10,000 words a month for Shopper, covering the Linux beat, and writing for other magazines too: PC Format, Linux Format, Linux Magazine, Linux User.

I mentioned the declining advertising revenues, didn't I? In 2000, Shopper's ABC-audited circulation was on the order of 185,000 copies a month. (If you're an American reader, you can get a feel for what this means in the UK market by multiplying by five -- the UK has a fifth the population, remember.) But by January 2003, Shopper's circulation had slipped to barely more than 100,000 a month. These circulation figures are critical because they're what convinces advertisers to buy page space. A half-page in black and white near the back of Shopper used to go for £2000 -- and Shopper at its height had nearly 500 pages of advertising a month, with colour and cover ads costing considerably more. As Shopper's circulation slid, so did its page count -- from a peak of 714 pages to barely 400. Meanwhile, Felix Dennis had lost interest in running the day to day affairs of his publishing empire. Focussing on writing poetry in his mansion, he offloaded operations onto a corporate hierarchy who ran the stable of Dennis magazines out of a central office in London. All except Shopper, which until then had been run by Jeremy Spencer from that farm in Shropshire.

The inevitable happened in March this year. A row blew up over the management of the magazine between the existing editorial staff and new broom management. Who promptly shipped in a cabal of experienced journalists from Computer Buyer -- a sister magazine originally founded by Dennis as a spoiler move to deter rival publisher VNU from butting in on the lucrative Shopper market -- to take over the magazine and turn it around.

Computer Buyer was not like Computer Shopper. Run from inside the big office, it employed full-time feature writers; journalists whose job was to translate press releases into English, interview executives, and review software. Not experts. Not people who were expected to speak with authority on the direction of the field as a whole. Not people overly gifted with imagination, either: their program for turning around Shopper's declining ABC ratings (notwithstanding the fact that their own magazine's ratings are similarly declining) is to glitz it up, attracting new readers. But the new readers they're after are people who want to learn how to buy a PC -- which for them, is a once every five years chore. They'll read a few issues, buy a PC, and stop bothering with the magazine. Meanwhile, Shopper's core subscriber base (who, surveys concluded, are often influential in company buying decisions, often subscribe for many years on end, and are generally knowledgable and loyal) are receiving no attention.

As for me ...

I've written the Linux column for Shopper ever since it was founded, in issue 131: I just handed in the column for issue 191, a chain of sixty unbroken columns filed along the way. And I find that I simply cannot be arsed to deal with the clowns who have taken over the head office any more. Until April I had complete editorial content autonomy in my column -- the nearest thing to academic tenure you'll ever find in journalism. (In one famous incident MacBiter, the Mac columnist, filed two pages of copy consisting of a discussion of his haemorrhoids and speculating on which members of editorial staff also suffered from the embarrassing itch. Not only did they run it -- they commissioned a cartoon to run alongside it. And, having gotten it out of his system, MacBiter was back on biting form in the next issue. Not bad, considering that twelve years of waxing sarcastic about Steve Jobs every month can burn out even the most hardened cynic.) But since April I've been treated like a clueless office intern by a bunch of office seat warmers who were still in high school when I began writing this column.

The first signs of how the new regime planned to run the magazine were predictable, but nevertheless offensive. After being used to editorializing and opining on the state of the industry at whim for a period of years, I was rudely surprised by being told I couldn't talk about SCO and their lawsuits. It seems that, despite being Shopper's Linux columnist and having actually worked inside SCO for some years as a technical author attached to the UNIX development group, and despite working as a freelance journalist for over a decade, I can't be trusted to write about the most important issue in the Linux world today. But that's okay, because some guy with a journalism diploma and a couple of years on the staff of Computer Buyer can write the in-depth historical retrospective and strategic analysis my readers want for me. And, y'know, I might be opinionated, and that might annoy SCO, and the new editors wouldn't want to do that.

I soldiered on for a few months, turning in boring overviews of technical fields associated with Linux. Reviews of commercial distributions that are all the same bland corporate desktop pap. An exegesis on the ontology of text editors on UNIX, from ed onwards, explaining how they fit together and which skills are transferrable. And so on. But this is fundamentally boring, and moreover, it's not what I'm there for.

The final straw came this month. I sent in a survey of blogging software for Linux. Linux is the pre-eminent platform for weblogging tools, with everything from Slashcode to Livejournal by way of Blogger running atop it. It's also a rapidly growing interest for millions of people. If this isn't an application domain appropriate to the operating system in question, I don't know what is -- but it evidently rattled the cage of Shopper's new commissioning editor, who felt it necessary to tell me that as blogging tools aren't actually, y'know, part of Linux, they have no place in my column.


I blinked and looked around, and started asking some questions that have been growing in the back of my mind. Why was I still writing for these clowns? Partly it was because they pay -- but also, and as long as I'm doing it I can still claim to be a freelance computer journalist. I could use that to hawk around for new commissions if I needed to, if I needed to go back to being a freelance journalist for 100% of my income.

But the fact is, I don't need the money that badly right now. My agent just told me that a publisher is interested in a follow-on two book contract and moreover are offering a bigger advance. Those will be my seventh and eighth novels. Meanwhile, another couple of foreign publishers crawled out of the woodwork to bid for translation rights to a book. In the past couple of years, fiction hasn't simply become a line item on my tax bill -- it's become a bigger source of income than the journalism.

Meanwhile, looking a bit deeper in search of other reasons for keeping on at it, I was forced to confront an unpleasant conviction that the computer magazine biz has turned to shit. From being the banner-carriers of the revolution, we've ended up as pigs at a trough fed from the sump of corporate public relations. The industry is a treadmill, dominated by risk-averse multinationals turning out one bland plastic box after another. The software biz is dominated by the Evil Empire. The revolution hasn't changed anything fundamental about human power relationships -- in fact, inappropriate use of email and web facilities at work are now cited as the #1 cause for dismissal of office staff in the UK. The wild sense of excitement and potential that computers brought in the late 1970's and early 1980's has evaporated. I spent the back end of last week sitting in the isolated kitchen of a farmhouse in Dumfrieshire, comparing experiences with a couple of other freelancers -- a former magazine editor, and one who is currently making her entire living as a feature writer. It's not just me: these experienced pros held the same uneasy conviction, that we're just going through the motions, that the only reason anyone but a fool would do computer journalism today would be the promise of money.

I've been thinking about quitting for three or four months, now, but I've held off each time, thinking things might improve: new editors at the magazine, a change of heart, whatever. But this week I've begun asking myself why I hope things might change. Because it doesn't really mean anything to me any more; I'm not the cutting age of some kind of technological revolution, I'm just more roadkill on the information superhighway. And I don't need to swallow shit from a twenty-something drone in a corporate office churning out propaganda for the profit factories of Jim Alchin, Michael Dell, Andy Grove, or Carly Fiorina. I don't need the money half as much as I need my self-respect.

This is my last Computer Shopper column. Not that it'll be published there, but in a very real way it's the coda to a thirteen year odyssey through the guts of a prolapsed revolution. No more. Letting go is hard to do, especially when it involves burning your bridges. But tomorrow I'm going to email in my resignation. And I will let go of being a freelance computer journalist and focus on the thing that matters -- my writing.

(END COPY -- 3100 words)

[ Discuss Journalism ]

posted at: 17:23 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 11 Oct 2003

21st century steam locomotives and biplanes

Steam locomotives may be about to make a come-back on British railways, in the form of the 5AT, a 4-6-0 configuration steam locomotive designed to reach speeds upwards of 180 km/h and be far more efficient and far less polluting than the last steam locomotives manufactured in the UK. They're looking for investors today and want to have a prototype running by 2010 ...

Weird Russian biplane Meanwhile, can anyone identify this thing for me? It claims to be called "Kometa", but a quick google reveals no matches for it among the Lithuanian match factories, high-altitude observation planes, and cruise missiles that share the name.

[ Link (Loco) ] [ Link (Even more Loco) ] [ Link (Russian biplane) ] [ Discuss dieselpunk ]

posted at: 20:38 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 10 Oct 2003

Unscheduled hiatus

Sorry about the black-out; I'm just back from an unscheduled short-notice overnight trip into the Scottish borders to help out a friend. Wish I'd brought along my digital camera -- on the way back we passed a Buddhist centre (described by another friend of ours as "Dharma Disneyland" -- there's a curiously Mousified feel to the sight of a ten-foot-high fake gold Buddha sitting in a duck pond in front of what looks like a light industrial unit with wind chimes), and while we were out there I made a fairly close acquaintance with a pair of leonbergers -- the largest dogs I've ever seen. (Imagine you're sitting in a chair at the kitchen table eating. Then this horse-sized wet nose descends on your shoulder. The dog isn't straining -- he's sitting on the floor behind you ...)

posted at: 21:42 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 07 Oct 2003

Ooh, shiny!

Sony just announced the PSX. Want.

posted at: 16:22 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry


I'm not dead, I'm just doing the let's-redraft-a-novel thing. I have a deadline at the end of the month. It's nothing terribly difficult; I just have to take the second half of an oversized novel, and turn it into a separate book that can stand on its own. Once I've done that, I can get back down to writing the sequel. So don't be surprised if I'm not around too much this week.

In other news, Warren Ellis says:

Patrick Farley is possibly the best comics creator that comic shops have never heard of. He works pretty much exclusively on the web, producing works of great skill and ambition and passion and very focussed madness. His site is has gone pay-per-view. Sort of. In order to cover his bandwidth costs and be able to produce work more than once every blue moon, Patrick Farley has put the latest instalment of his berserk brand-nightmare post-Rapture fantasy APOCaMON behind a BitPass barrier. For 25 Yanqui cents, you get to read it 666 times.


If everyone reading DPH right now gave him 25 cents this week, then you would have in fact invented a feasible independent channel for one of the best comics creators America's produced in the last three or four years. I mean, what the hell else can you buy with twenty-five lousy cents?

Here's a hint: I'm going to go pay, because Farley is every bit as good as Warren says. And that's saying a lot.

Chris Williams, who should know better than to encourage me, had to scratch my dieselpunk itch by pointing me at this web page describing the Napier Nomad, an insane example of baroque technology pushed way beyond the bounds of reason. It's what happens when you start trying to design an aviation diesel engine for the jet age -- an afterburning two-strike diesel engine at that. Then Arthur Wyatt found me a photograph of a Land Ironclad called the Independant. (I'm still not sure that the Baker Jumping Car isn't a wind-up, though.)

Oh yeah: the books I'm currently working on may be shelved under "fantasy" but they're not going to have any of these titles or these characters, let alone feature any of these plots!

[Discuss writing ]

posted at: 16:19 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 05 Oct 2003

Oh, what a surprise

I just did an online Myers-Briggs personality test. Here's what came out of it:

ENTP - "Inventor". Enthusiastic interest in everything and always sensitive to possibilities. Non-conformist and innovative. 5% of the total population.
Take Free Myers-Briggs Personality Test

Surprised? Nope, not in the slightest. (Consider, after all, what I do for a living.) But it somewhat improves my opinion of this particular type of personality test.

[ Link ] [ Discuss shameless self-promotion ]

posted at: 23:16 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 04 Oct 2003

This is not a hoax

White Rats Morris is a queer/pervert/leather Morris dancing side. Based in San Francisco, naturally. Dress code is: anything as long as it's black. And when they want bells on their costumes, they sew them on. To skin.

[ Link ] [ Discuss new art forms ]

posted at: 19:07 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Extreme tanks

SF Writer in search of insane spurious technology, episode 34509:

In the early days of the second world war, British tanks sucked. Partly it was their tracks -- they used mild steel that tended to come apart after only a hundred miles or so -- and partly it was their armament, but a large chunk of it was their design. They fell into two categories -- "cruiser" tanks designed to be used like cavalry, fast and lightly armed, and "infantry" tanks designed to support infantry advances -- because the British army basically hadn't gotten the hang of this new-fangled Blitzkrieg doctrine, despite its inventor (Major-General J. C. F. Fuller) being one of their own (albeit a bit demented).

So they can probably be forgiven for flailing around in the dark, looking for good ideas, before they came up with such success stories as the Comet and the Centurion (which missed service in the war by a matter of months, and is still used by the Israeli army).

The Old Gang, aka the Special Vehicle Development Committee (SVDC), was formed in 1940 from former WW1 tank designers. They were half-certain that the future of warfare would see a reversion to trench war -- that the new war of mobility would inevitably bog down in the mud and mire. And therefore they designed two tanks -- TOG 1 and TOG 2.

TOG 1 Tank TOG 1 was basically a WW1 tank with a diesel engine, room for a horde of infantry on board (to ride across those pesky trenches), and a wee turret up top. It didn't work. Not deterred, they went on to design TOG 2 ...

TOG 2 Tank TOG 2 weighs 80 tons, is 33' 3" long, 10' 3" wide, and 10' high. Designed for a crew of six, it had a maximum speed of 8.5 mph. Yes, those are doors above the tracks to allow passengers in and out as it sails majestically above the much and mire. Powered by twin diesel-electric generators this is the ultimate extension of the first world war tank concept -- by the standards of Vimy Ridge it is fast, manoeuverable, heavily armed and armoured. But by 1941 it was just a little bit out of date ...

[ Link ] [ Discuss dieselpunk ]

posted at: 19:07 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 02 Oct 2003

Extreme Ironing

Someone please tell me this is a joke. Please?

"In the last six years, extreme-ironing clubs have sprung up from Chile to South Africa. There's been a world championship in Germany, an expedition to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and an ironing session under the frozen ice of a Wisconsin quarry. Extreme ironing is the subject of a forthcoming British book of photographs and a television documentary that first ran in December on Britain's Channel 4."

(Today's quota: 1500 words on the collaborative novella, about 1000 words edited on the next novel -- a slow day.)

[ Link ] [ Even sillier link ] [ Discuss dumb ]

posted at: 19:23 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 01 Oct 2003

I'm back

And normal service will be resumed right as soon as I finish writing up this months' Linux column for Computer Shopper. (Sigh.)

Dublin defeated expectations by resolutely refusing to rain, at least for more than a couple of hours at a time. P-Con itself was thoroughly enjoyable, and I hope to be going back next year. But right now I've got a big work backlog to cope with, not to mention a to-do list that includes upgrading Blosxom (this weblog's software), MailMan, SSH, Movable Type, and most of the software universe on this server -- then to remove the blanket ban on large emails and replace it with a smart vermifuge filter in the mail system, edit a novel, write a novella, and generally overdo things. One day at a time ... just so I know where I am I'm going to take to posting work quotas here.

(Today's work quota: 3100 words of non-fiction, 0 words of fiction, as of 3:25pm. And I'm about to go shopping.)

posted at: 15:26 | path: /fandom | 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
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

Quick links:

RSS Feed (Moved!)

Who am I?

Contact me

Buy my books: (FAQ)

Missile Gap
Via Subterranean Press (US HC -- due Jan, 2007)

The Jennifer Morgue
Via Golden Gryphon (US HC -- due Nov, 2006)

Via (US HC -- due June 30, 2006)

The Clan Corporate
Via (US HC -- out now)

Via (US HC)
Via (US PB -- due June 27, 2006)
Via (UK HC)
Via (UK PB)
Free download

The Hidden Family
Via (US HC)
Via (US PB)

The Family Trade
Via (US HC)
Via (US PB)

Iron Sunrise
Via (US HC)
Via (US PB)
Via (UK HC)
Via (UK PB)

The Atrocity Archives
Via (Trade PB)
Via (Trade PB)
Via Golden Gryphon (HC)
Via (HC)
Via (HC)

Singularity Sky
Via (US HC)
Via (US PB)
Via (US ebook)
Via (UK HC)
Via (UK PB)


Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
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, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

[ Site Index] [ Feedback ]

Powered by Blosxom!