Charlie's Diary

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Sun, 29 Feb 2004

USAF orbital space bomber designs of the 1950's

DynaSoar designs

I don't read Encyclopaedia Astronautica often enough. Mark Wade, historical space geek par excelence, updates it about once a month with the result of his latest digging. Recently he's updated it with a comprehensive history of the DynaSoar project of the 1950's and 1960's. DynaSoar was cancelled in the late 1960's, shortly before first orbital launch, in its final incarnation as a manned orbital spaceplane; but it has a much longer history, dating all the way back to Peenemunde and the Nazi secret weapons program: "it evolved from the German Saenger-Bredt Silverbird intercontinental skip-glide rocket bomber. Walter Dornberger, former head of Peendmuende, was at Bell Aircraft in the 1950's and developed the Sanger-Bredt concept through various iterations," as Wade notes.

Among other fun facets of the design, was the (not really recognized at the time) environmental implications: "the booster could be powered by two of the high-performance liquid fluorine/hydrazine Chariot motors being developed by Bell ... [or if unavailable] ... a single Atlas sustainer engine or the X-15 XLR-99." Liquid fluorine and hydrazine are not, shall we say, among the most environmentally friendly of substances. Another fun facet was the use of derivatives of the same vehicle for strategic reconnaissance and as an intercontinental orbital nuclear bomber. (Did anyone consider the possibility that the other side might misinterpret a recce overflight as a pre-emptive attack and go apeshit?) But most interesting of all is the completely over-the-edge gonzo approach to building Things That Go Fast And Explode; if at first your bomber doesn't go fast enough with jet engines, stick it on top of an ICBM that leaves an exhaust trail of hydrofluouric acid, and light the blue touch paper.

The klaxon sounds in the hardened silo deep beneath the earth. A space-suited astronauts run from the ready room, grabs the bar over the hatch, and hoists his legs into the cockpit. The ground crew attach his suit hoses, check that he is strapped into the ejection seat. The pilot closes the hatch above him. The blast doors open, the rocket is raised to the surface of the earth. Minutes later the Titan roars from the silo, launching the Dyna-Soar space bomber on an intercontinental nuclear strike mission ...

Dr Strangelove, eat your heart out.

[Link] [Discuss dieselpunk]

posted at: 13:53 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 26 Feb 2004

"The defence believes that the advice given by the Foreign Office Legal Adviser expressed serious doubts about the legality (in international law) of committing British troops in the absence of a second [UN] resolution."

I suspect this may be the beginning of the end for Tony Blair.

Former cabinet minister Clare Short has gone on the record as saying MI5 bugged UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the run-up to the Iraq war. There's some serious jeopardy here; in doing so, Short technically violated the Official Secrets Act, which means she could do serious prison time -- if anyone in the Home Office has the guts to bring charges against her. In the wake of Katherine Gun being let off the hook, this looks highly unlikely -- Gun's defense strategy appears to have the government terrified.

The Guardian is reporting that a key plank in that defense strategy was evidence that the Foreign Office believed the war was illegal (in the absence of a second UN resolution, which never happened, if you remember).

Key fact to bear in mind: the UK hasn't opted out of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

UPDATE: This story happened to break the same day as the Prime Minister's scheduled weekly press conference. It makes for bitterly amusing reading. Blair seems to be a little bit off-balance; can't think why ...

[Discuss politics]

posted at: 17:46 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 25 Feb 2004

Spin Control

It's a cold day today -- I've just been outside and the wind chill is somewhere between -5 and -8 degrees. Feels colder than Boston eight or nine days ago. Brr.

It's been a cold day in hell for the British government, too, with the Crown Prosecution Service dropping charges against Katherine Gun. Gun was the GCHQ whistle-blower who leaked the story about the NSA and GCHQ bugging UN embassies of countries that were sitting on the fence over the Iraq invasion; as The Guardian drily put it, "for her defence, she had planned to seek the disclosure of the full advice from the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, on the legality of the war against Iraq, which could have been potentially damaging and embarrassing for the government."

Which is the classic British understatement of the year. If the trial had gone ahead, and she'd been found not guilty after introducing that kind of evidence in her defense, it would have amounted to an implicit accusation -- with attached "guilty" verdict -- that the Blair government had waged an illegal war in Iraq. And it is particularly telling that despite an open-and-shut case that Gun spoke to the press and gave away classified information, the CPS declined to present any evidence against her. Someone obviously realised that if this spun out of control Slick Tony might end up occupying the cell next door to Slobodan the Horrible.

(Parenthetically speaking, one might wonder -- a trifle wistfully -- what the upshot would be for Bush if Blair's government suddenly found itself on the losing side of a jury trial that hinged on the assertion that the Iraq invasion was illegal. But 'twas not to be ...)

Which leads me to ponder a related matter of the cover-up being more poisonous than the crime, etcetera: the alleged goings-on between the sheets involving that fine upstanding supporter of Texas' sodomy laws Governor Rick Perry of Texas (Republican, of course) and Secretary of State Geoffrey Connor.

Let's not get into the dirty details here; I'm sure it'll all come out in the wash (and the tabloids) over the next week or three. The point is, the timing couldn't be worse for George W. Bush, who nailed his colours to the mast by backing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage this week. Y'see, to anyone who's been watching British politics for the past decade, the echoes of John Major's ill-starred Back to Basics campaign are deafening.

To quote the BBC's apt summary:

In 1993, the Major government - perhaps fatally - launched the 'Back to Basics' campaign. It was notorious for its high moral tone and sparked intense media interest in MPs' private lives. Environment Minister Tim Yeo let the side down almost immediately after a tabloid expose in January 1994 revealed he had fathered an illegitimate child by Conservative councillor Julia Stent.

Mr Major then lost two parliamentary private secretaries and a second minister in the same month. PPS Alan Duncan resigned in January 1994 after news that he had made £50,000 from an illicit purchasing deal on a council house.

PPS David Ashby also quit after admitting that he shared a hotel bed with another man.

Minister for Aviation and Shipping, the Earl of Caithness, then resigned after the suicide of his wife, who shot herself in despair at his relationship with another woman ...

No, the list doesn't stop there -- I just got bored with cut'n'paste. Suffice to say, the government's announcement of a morality campaign, followed by a first sex scandal, triggered a media feeding frenzy in which numerous ministers were hounded out of office for failing to adhere to the values being promoted, culminating rather memorably in the death of Stephen Milligan, MP, an event so bizarre it would be dismissed as completely unbelievable by anyone reading it in a work of political satire.

Bush has given his enemies a hostage to the fortune of the entire Republican party. If the US press are even a tenth as salacious and active as the British press were a decade ago, they'll have a field day outing hypocrites who, like Governor Perry, say one thing while doing the opposite.

In the case of the UK, it took nearly a year for the "Back to Basics" shit-storm to die down in the UK, as newspapers competed for the next juicy scandal in a circulation war; by the time it was over, the Tory party's already battered reputation had taken a further nose-dive, leaving them a by-word for sleaze rather than a party of probity. (The only really astonishing thing about the whole business is that John Major and Edwina Currie managed to keep their affair secret for another eight years.)

In the case of the USA, it hasn't started yet. Arguably, the American press are simultaneously more uptight and less inclined to bite the hands of their political masters than the British press. However, the Tories weren't facing an election year deadline and managed to limp on for another few years -- Bush is potentially a lame duck, with a battered economy and a war on two fronts that isn't going so well. By firmly coming out on the side of the bigots Bush has put his entire party in the frame, and if the press corps scent blood in the water and start looking for more evidence the scandal will be reaching its peak intensity round about the time of the next presidential election.

[Link] [Discuss politics]

posted at: 23:46 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

It's not Grey Tuesday any more ...

And normal background colouration will be resumed.

posted at: 11:20 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 24 Feb 2004

Grey Tuesday

fuck the RIAA

This site is grey today because it is respecting Grey Tuesday.

EMI are apparently sending legal nastygrams to participating sites:

We are aware of the so-called "Grey Tuesday" event, sponsored by and described on the website as a "day of coordinated civil disobedience" in which participating sites will make the unlawful Grey Album available for downloading, distribution, and file-sharing in order to force "reforms to copyright law that can make sampling legal." Your site is listed among those that will engage in this openly unlawful conduct. Any unauthorized distribution, reproduction, public performance, and/or other exploitation of The Grey Album will constitute, among other things, common law copyright infringement/misappropriation, unfair competition, and unjust enrichment rendering you and anyone engaged with you in such acts liable for all of the remedies provided by relevant laws. These remedies include but are not limited to preliminary and permanent injunctive relief as well as monetary and punitive damages necessary to remedy your openly willful violation of Capitol's rights.

I have two words for EMI's legal department: Fuck and off.

And I have a suggestion for the rest of you: Boycott Capitol Records and EMI until they come to their senses. This can loosely be defined as: realizing that the audience is not the enemy. I'm serious. If you buy their records, you encourage their gangster-like tactics by demonstrating that extortion works. The only language these guys understand is money: so hit them where it hurts.

[Link] [Discuss copyright-censorship]

posted at: 15:31 | path: /copyright | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 23 Feb 2004

Thinking outside the [beige] box

Wave Report takes a look at a really cool NEC research project aimed squarely at replacing those boring rectangular computers we interact with with something ... different.

P-ISM is a "concept computer" -- an exercise in blue-sky design aimed at reconceptualizing what the hell a computer ought to be like. Wave Report's folks say: "the design concept uses five different pens to make a computer. One pen is a CPU, another a camera, one creates a virtual keyboard, another projects the visual output and thus the display and another a communicator (a phone). All five pens can rest in a holding block which recharges the batteries and holds the mass storage. Each pen communicates wireless, possibly Bluetooth."

I got yer computer, right here in this pocket protector.

But seriously, this is cool; I don't hold much hope for the projector screen (it adds a hidden requirement -- for a flat white surface), but flexible OLED roll-up displays are on the way, and they'd do the same job. I'm not sure about the virtual keyboards (ever tried touch-typing on the top of a table?) but a minor design compromise would be to use something like Think Outside's forthcoming folding bluetooth keyboard for PDAs (itself not much bigger than the base station for the P-ISM) when a keyboard is required, and a bluetooth-equipped stylus with some kind of position sensor for mouse/handwriting input the rest of the time. Storage is getting cheaper and consuming less energy, to the point where the next generation of PDAs (due by 2005) will sport gigabytes of solid-state storage, so it's a done deal. Power is still a headache but maybe fuel cells will replace batteries some time soon -- who knows?

The key thing is to get away from beige boxes. The beige-box appliance model is inherently limiting, as a quick glance at the history of home stereo systems will demonstrate. Back in the 70's we all had chunky racks of boxes, sized for a 19" rack because that was just big enough to accomodate a turntable and tone-arm sized for 33 rpm vinyl disks. And everything fitted around this form factor, because the box was a standard size. Even cassette decks were sized to fit the turntable and the 12"-diameter LP record, until the Walkman came along and upset several apple carts by demonstrating that you could have high quality stereo cassette players that were sized in proportion to their own medium. More recently, we've seen music centres shrink until they're sized in proportion to the compact disc format -- about 12 centimetres wide. It's taken the iPod to break us free from that particular blind spot, and it's still very much a handicap of all modular sound systems that they are built to accomodate the largest standard physical medium currently in use.

It's the same with computers. We size them to fit their big, rigid, glass-fronted screens; thus we have PDAs (a screen with a slab of electronics glued to their ass), tablet PC's and notebooks (a bigger screen with a slab of electronics hooked up to them via a hinged joint), and desktops (the IBM "three box" layout, dating to about 1982). But once we cut loose from physical screens, or switch to flexible displays or projector displays or eyes-up displays, we can throw the traditional form factors out of the window and have fun.

I don't think the Borg-style wearable is going to catch on as a day-to-day system for most people (although discreet spectacle-mounted displays and tiny cameras for life journaling are a bit more plausible) because they're simply too intrusive. As Peter Cochrane noted, about the quickest legal way to empty a first-class railway compartment is to open your briefcase and start attaching your mobile office to your head. People respond to wearable computers with reflexes honed by years of exposure to "Terminator", "Universal Soldier", and Star Trek. Which is to say, only the bad guys wear their hardware on the outside. However, I think something that resembles a pen case with five pens and a fold-out keyboard is much easier to accomodate on your person and fit into your life, and it kicks the shit out of a traditional laptop design. Remember the old monochrome plasma-screen luggables of the late 1980's? Or how your archaic stereo separates system with the turntable on top looks today? Thats how cumbersome today's iBook is going to look in five to ten years' time. This is a viable model for how the future will look, and I'd be surprised if something conceptually similar to the P-ISM isn't near-as-dammit permanently attached to my anatomy by 2014.

[Link Via slashdot] [Discuss toys]

posted at: 19:59 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 20 Feb 2004

Whoops ...

And a big "hello" to all you slashdot readers who went to the trouble of finding the blog!

(The server will now expire in a cloud of burning plastic ...)

posted at: 20:55 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 19 Feb 2004

Angst, Copyright, and Art

That damned cold has moved onto my chest. Consequently, I've been hanging around indoors for the past couple of days. I'm now over the jet lag but not feeling up to work; if I was still going into an office I'd be phoning in sick, but now the morning commute is down to approximately three metres that's kind of hard to do. So I'm moping around the flat, using up tissues like crazy, reading crime novels, and not playing with the cats as much as they'd like. They've gotten awfully talkative since we came home and Frigg in particular seems to want to bounce around the place like a wild thing, just when I'm at a low ebb. (She's a far cry from the obese blob we took away from the cat and dog home a year ago.)

Things seen on the web ... one victim of the RIAA's drive-by lawsuits is doing the right thing and suing the litigious scumbags for extortion. I make my living by selling the rights to intellectual property I create, and I've got nothing but admiration for this woman. One salient point that gets lost in the heat and noise over file sharing is that the RIAA are not in the artists' corner -- they're a cartel of rapacious trough-gobbling multinationals who have largely cornered the music distribution biz, who artificially inflate the price of music, who do not contribute any kind of added value to the consumers, who effectively prevent independent artists from getting into the retail stores, who threaten and sue their own customers ... in my opinion, these people behave like gangsters, and deserve to be treated as such.

In related news, EMI's attempt to crack down on the rather brilliant DJ Danger Mouse's recent Grey Album (which remixes Jay-Z's The Black Album and the Beatles White Album, and was described by Rolling Strone as "the ultimate remix record" and "an ingenious hip-hop record that sounds oddly ahead of its time") has triggered a grassroots protest campaign: the folks at are planning a mass-mirroring. I wish them luck: this won't be the first landmark album to have been suppressed by copyright totalitarians (the JAMMs' Abba album and Negativeland's U2 both spring to mind).

Here's the rub: fans who share music, books, video, whatever, are not the artist's enemies. Art -- any art form -- is an attempt at communication. (Even if it's a private creative journal, meant for the author's eyes only, it's an attempt at communication between past and present.) Yes, those of us who create literature, poetry, music, paintings, sculptures, or whatever may well want to earn a living: and indeed, we may hope that our audience will see fit to reward us for our work. It follows that people or institutions who actively prevent people from seeing our work can only be described as enemies of art. They're trying to prevent us from communicating. In this case, they've gone from being the guy who passes the hat around in front of the audience to being self-inflated gatekeepers who refuse to admit any members of the audience who do not or cannot meet the price of admission set by these self-same gatekeepers, precious little of which ever reaches the artists.

This is not to say that there aren't situations in which the RIAA is justified in going after copyright violators: the most obvious such situations are those where criminal enterprises are mass-producing forged albums in an attempt to rip off everyone from the consumers through to the artists. But in general, if someone is violating copyright without the means or motive of profiting thereby I find it hard to see any moral justification for demanding financial damages. Let the fine match the actual profit, not the imagined loss of sales.

I'm taking pot-shots at the RIAA and the music industry because they're the most egregious offenders today, although the film biz is doing its best to catch up. Book publishers and writers are mostly not actively attacking their own audience. (There are some visible exceptions, but in general the book biz seems to have stayed sufficiently in touch with reality to realise that suing fans is counter-productive.) But mostly I'm blowing off steam because I'm worried that this business is symptomatic of a trend in our social interactions towards placing a cost on everything, and valuing nothing that comes without a price tag. Once all communications cost money, my lips are effectively sealed. And I don't want to live in a place like that, thank you very much.

[Discuss copyright-censorship]

posted at: 18:20 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 17 Feb 2004

Back home again

Apologies for the lack of updates; I was too busy to write anything much while I was at Boskone, and we flew back yesterday on a red-eye via Amsterdam. I've been home for about five hours now. I'm sitting in front of the laptop wearing a dressing gown and drinking improbably strong tea (the current caffeine source of choice), having just awakened from a post jet-lag nap, and in another five or six hours I will take a sleeping pill, and when I wake up again I should be back on something approximating UK time. (West to east flight always hits me much harder than east to west.)

My impressions from this trip are mixed, but mostly positive. For one thing, it's been a bit of a relief to confirm that despite the weirdness-and-despair amplifier that is the mass media, people in the United States are in fact still basically sane ordinary folks and haven't turned into some kind of slavering jackbooted Borg oriented on grinding the planet beneath the iron boot-heel of totalitarian oppression.

Maybe that statement warrants some explanatory notes, because on the face of it it probably sounds really weird to anyone who lives in the United States. But I haven't actually been in the US since February '03, before the Iraq war, so I've had to rely for my impressions of what's been going on there recently on a combination of email to and from friends, blog postings, and of course the mass media.

Now, the mass media generally amplifies Bad Shit because Bad Shit makes for much better copy than cute fluffy puppy dogs and other happy fun non-events. The absence of Mad People Doing Terrible Things doesn't exactly help sell newspapers, so newspapers focus on the Bad Shit to such an extent that it skews our impressions of the state of the world. And while I know in an abstract way that the media amplifies Bad Shit, and I consciously try to bear this in mind, there's been an awful lot of Bad Shit reported over the past year and the effect of such reporting is pernicious: if you live outside the USA you may well get this weird subliminal impression that the United States is on the edge of turning into some kind of weird postmodern fascist nightmare.

Paradoxically, what set me at ease was discovering that most of the people I hung out with (unregenerate east coast liberals, for the most part) were also terrified that the USA was turning into a weird postmodern fascist nightmare. I found this very reassuring. It reminded me that the USA is huge, and diverse, and while sections of it seem to have gone completely barking mad, other very large sections are not only not crazy, they're fighting back against the bad craziness. Which does exist, but which gets amplified by the Bad Shit amplifier -- especially overseas. What's really going on in the US seems in UK terms to be more like Thatcher circa 1979-83 than Hitler circa 1933-36. Which is a relief, because although Thatcher was a peculiar kind of political monster, she was one that could be dealt with by political means, rather than needing to be subdued by the use of extremely large numbers of guns.

Another thing I needed was my annual reminder of just how parochial the US news media are. Today's half-baked theory: America's view of the rest of the world can best be understood by a European if you start by imagining that America is psychologically located on Mars, fifty million plus kilometres from the quaint neighbours on that funny third planet over there. The quality and quantity of foreign news reporting is absolutely dismal for the most part, highly selective, and framed entirely in terms of the domestic political discourse. ("Political crisis rocks Ruritania! How opinion of US tourists affects balance of power between Ruritanian Royal Family, Junta!") It reminded me of how badly we in the UK need the BBC -- not because the BBC is always right, or always unbiased, or always insightful, but because it provides a reference baseline for the quality and quantity of foreign news reportage in the other media, and the BBC's charter includes the clause "to educate".

In the US, I saw precious few signs of a committment to education in foreign affairs outside of a few major broadsheet newspapers and weekly or monthly magazines aimed at a core readership of foreign policy wonks. I can't help feeling that this has contributed to the psychological sense of insulation that keeps people in the US half-believing that the rest of the world either doesn't exist, or is an annoying obstruction created solely to get in their way. Its the News, Stupid. If your sources of information are skewed and corrupt, you make policy decisions based on ignorance. It's a much simpler explanation for the bad craziness that has engulfed us since 9/11 than the conspiracy theories that are doing the rounds: and more importantly, it suggests a solution to the problem.

Anyway. After a year of bad headlines and paranoia amplification, it was a big relief to discover that everyone I ran into was still basically sane, that the Customs, INS, and Homeland Security functionaries I dealt with were uniformly friendly, efficient, courteous and helpful, that (with the exception of the pocket Himmlers in charge of office security in New York -- a city understanably still deep in collective post-traumatic stress disorder) people were basically no crazier than anywhere else, and that my main problems were dodging the monster trucks on the crosswalks and trying not to overrun my baggage allowance due to the strength of the pound against the dollar. I will freely concede that I might have been the victim of some kind of Stalinist Potemkin-village facade organized by evil masterminds from the Office of Special Projects, but something tells me that what evil exists in the US administration is more interested in trying to rig the forthcoming elections in Iraq and elsewhere than in trying to dupe visiting British science fiction writers.

(Obligatory gadget interjection: right now, for no reason I understand except a surfeit of greed and stupidity on the part of UK retailers, portable DVD players sell for a price in pounds sterling equal to their price in the USA in dollars. At an exchange rate of nearly 1:1.9, I'd have to have been an idiot not to bring one home.)

Of course, not everything was great.

I have a huge gripe about my week in Boston: the air conditioning. New England in February is cold enough to freeze almost all the moisture out of the air, and the Boston Sheraton has an air conditioning system from hell -- it has temperature control, but no humidity control. The place is dryer than high noon in Death Valley. Even worse, all the hotel staff seem to think that exposure to temperatures below 75 degrees fahrenheit -- 23 celsius or thereabouts -- is liable to cause hypothermia. In a vain attempt to chill out, I dialed the temperature in our room down to 16.5 celsius (63 fahrenheit), as low as it would go ... and the next day discovered two things: firstly, that despite the exterior temperature being several degrees south of freezing, the aircon, wheezing its guts out as it ran constantly, couldn't actually cool the room down to that temperature: and secondly, the maid had added a thermal blanket to the bedding, presumably in an attempt to keep us from catching our death of cold.

The combination of high temperatures, dry air, and nylon carpet was literally electrifying. Feorag wore a charm bracelet and I constantly kept a coin in my fingers: we had to earth ourselves against metal fixtures and fittings every time we walked more than ten metres, leading to a startling succession of crackling bright sparks. After five days of this, my sinuses came out in protest and I succumbed to a head-cold from hell, which started in my nose and ended up on my chest just in time for the flight home. I'm used to about forty percent relative humidity, and indoor temperatures around 17-18 celsius; life in an arid Van de Graaf generator disguised as a five star hotel doesn't suit me.

Which finally brings me full circle to my current situation, sitting tiredly in my office chair in front of a computer, drinking tea and revelling in air I can breathe without feeling as if I'm inhaling from the nozzle of a hair dryer. It must be my Innsmouth heritage showing -- I need humidity to survive. And so I depart in search of more strong tea and a nice bath to relax in. Normal blogging will be resumed shortly. Ribbit.

[Discuss politics] [Discuss SF fandom]

posted at: 17:18 | path: /fandom | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 14 Feb 2004

"Robots are just computers with feet"

(That's what the panelist from IBM said.)

Yeah, I survived the side-trip to NYC and I'm back in Boston, enjoying an SF convention. Which is why I'm not writing much right now. NYC was interesting, a bit like the worst elements of London and Glasgow thrown together in a car crusher and, well, squished. (Officious, intrusive, downright annoying, and dysfunctional security on the front door of all the office buildings I went into; just what is it with these people? I could understand real security, but when they insist you put your fistful of change back in your pocket before you walk through the metal detector, and the damn thing doesn't so much as beep at a concentration of metal that weighs as much as a knife or a small pistol, you've got to wonder what the hell is the point of this charade?)

Oh yeah. I am shipping books home in boxes to avoid going over my airline baggage limit. Memo to self: buy new bookcases, plural.

posted at: 19:42 | path: /fandom | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 10 Feb 2004

In Boston

... Where it is, perversely, a little bit warmer than Edinburgh.

Memo to self: in future, do not get the 6am flight to Schiphol when your departure for Boston doesn't board until 12:30pm; even the insane mad-shopper-magnet that is the Dutch airport mall tends to lose its attraction after three hours. (And I'm sure there was a later connecting flight that could have gotten us there in time.) As it is, I had the kind of day that starts when the alarm goes at 3:30am (after two or three hours' disturbed sleep) and ends at 11pm five time zones away (i.e. 4am in the zone you set out from). Consequently, if this entry is rambling and a bit incoherent, you'll know why. I'm one of those guys who can't pull an overnight stretch -- I begin hallucinating after about 24 hours of continuous consciousness, and came dangerously close last night.

Airport reading: If you like Scottish black humour and/or crime fiction, you really really want to read Be My Enemy by Christopher Brookmyre (not published in the US, so nyaah). Ignore the carping Amazon reviews, just buy the book: it's the best crime novel Iain Banks didn't write ...

Random observation: this time, the US immigration and customs officials I interacted with were polite, friendly, and generally helpful and efficient (utterly unlike their normal selves). In contrast, the Dutch airport security officials (who are normally polite, friendly, and generally helpful and efficient) were scarily paranoid and suspicious. Three security checks plus an interrogation before boarding a North West DC-10 seems a little heavy, and I wasn't being singled out for special treatment -- everyone was getting it. When the normally laid-back Dutch start getting paranoid, it's time to worry: someone has the wind up them about trans-Atlantic travel, and no mistake. Could this be why?

[Link][Discuss 9/11]

posted at: 14:57 | path: /excuses | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 08 Feb 2004

Off on a jet plane

I'm off to the airport at 4am tomorrow, heading for Boston by way of Amsterdam. I will not be back until the week after. I expect to have network connectivity for some of the trip; however, I may be a bit too busy to spend much time blogging.

[Discuss overwork]

posted at: 19:00 | path: /excuses | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 07 Feb 2004

More excuses

The blood test results came through: I am not, indeed, dying of Kuru or Rabies -- or indeed of anything, as far as the vet can tell. This would be good news, if I wasn't so far gone in existential despair that it made no difference to my state of mind. Instead I was up until half past two in the morning last night, discovering that indeed there is no hardware fault in my new Palm Tungsten T3, nor in the memory card, nor the keyboard, but instead the crappy excuse for a word processor has a tendency to undergo the computational equivalent of a grand mal convulsion when I append more than one hundred words of text to the draft of the current novel. Repeatedly.

(Solution: chop draft of novel into two files, back up regularly, grit teeth, and file a bug report.)

On Monday, Feorag and I are flying out at zero dark o'clock in the direction of Boston, by way of Amsterdam. (Must remember to take a bag of aniseed balls as pet treats for the sniffer dogs at Logan.) While I'm busy having a vacation (not to mention attending an SF con and various business meetings in NYC -- I don't do relaxing vacations, I relax afterwards when I get home again) I fully expect to be overcome by a frustrating wave of creative ambition, hampered by a profound lack of time, privacy, and non-crashing word processors. Experience shows that this is one of the most effective ways to jump-start a stalled writing process, a couple of weeks later: let's hope it doesn't mind being second-guessed.

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 11:06 | path: /excuses | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 04 Feb 2004

The Digital Death Rattle of the American Middle Class: A Cautionary Tale

Dion Dennis writes a cautionary tale which explains, basically, why neo-liberalism (the economic dogma of choice for libertarians and hyper-capitalists everywhere) is a really, really bad idea in the long term:

our techno-corporations are our contemporary colonial powers, restlessly traversing the rhizomatic arrangement of people and places in search of profit and performative nirvanas. By doing so, they aggressively reshape social routines, values and relationships in the process. As such, they bring more than cut-rate employment opportunities to Indian or Romanian computer programmers. What is imported into these developing countries is an entire social philosophy (neo-liberalism), which effectively sees the developing world exclusively as a new techno-colony, a means to its performative and profitability ends. [26] If culture, history or boundaries do not serve these short term ends, then the tendency is to undermine or discard these elements of world culture, replacing it with a self-obsessed techno-corporatist Social Darwinism ...

Along with the elimination of other redistribution functions (such as the estate tax), the overall tendency will be to reduce social mobility, and reconstitute the U.S. in the direction of a closed and more static social system. Restricting access to higher education will simultaneously allow for reduced state expenditures, which will lead to reduced taxes, while shaping reduced expectations of social mobility among the poor and the lower middle classes. And that reduction of expectations and the consequent reductions in the number of U.S. "symbolic workers" will be line with the declining competitiveness of U.S. intellectual labor in a global intellectual labor market.

If all this is so, the American digerati have become the vanguard of this round of global restratification, signifying the digital death rattle of the American middle class.

Here's a hint: America today, here tomorrow.

Note that Dennis is not presenting a prescriptive solution to the problem. He's just pointing to the fact that the problem exists, and it's spreading like cancer. Charging students fees for access to higher education, privatising transport networks and water supplies, the creeping corporatisation of civil life -- these are all familiar symptoms here in the UK, the early markers of a disease in progress. Exporting call centres to India is another symptom, like the sneeze that exports coronavirus capsids from the cold-ridden individual. The current implementation of capitalism isn't merely inequitable, it's infectious and incapable of surviving without expansion. The implications are pretty frightening when you pause to think about it: we're sowing the seeds of a global system that grows like a weed and leaves devastated infrastructure and shattered societies in its wake. And as action begets reaction, I'm beginning to think that the dominant ideology of the 21st century -- from, say, 2030 onwards -- will be Socialism 2.0. And for good reason.

[Link] [Discuss politics]

posted at: 13:30 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

Excuses, excuses ...

"The cat ate my weblog."

Um, no ... how about:

"Phase of the moon (Neptunian)"

... or ...

"I would have written, but I was abducted by aliens and subjected to a long and humiliating ritual in which they repeatedly refused to insert icy-cold metal instruments into my body cavities, no matter how pathetically I pleaded with them"

... (eew! kinky!)

... or ...

"I'm waiting for the blood test to find out if I'm going to die of Kuru or Rabies or whatever it is that Kutting-Edge Writurz are dying of this decade"


Baah, humbug. The simple truth is, I haven't written anything because I'm lazy. Lazy: afflicted by a lassitude of obscure origin. Burned-out, tired, drained, enervated, out of go-juice, up shit creek without an outboard motor. Spinning my wheels, futtering around with computery things rather than doing anything productive. I need a vacation. It is slowly dawning on me that I have been working flat-out for the past three years, desperately trying to get established, and I just don't have the stamina of a teenager any more. , I have unforgivably neglected the weblog -- not to mention the novel I'm supposed to be writing -- for the past few days, because I'm stuck in a haze of gray exhaustion that nothing seems to lift.

That's not to say that there's nothing to report. Bruche Schneier's done another op-ed, explaining why monitoring ID doesn't assure security. And my story Nightfall made the final list for the 2003 BSFA award for best short fiction. But I can't actually summon up the energy to get worked up about anything today. So I'll shut up now until I've got something new to say.

[Discuss overwork]

posted at: 11:19 | path: /excuses | 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

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Missile Gap
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The Jennifer Morgue
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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)

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