Charlie's Diary

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Wed, 31 Mar 2004

Dieselpunk? In your eye!

huge -- I mean
GIGANTIC -- diesel engine

The Wartsila-Sulzer RTA96-C turbocharged two-stroke diesel engine is what you get when you make a deisel engine so frickin' huge that you could use one of its cylinder heads as a hot tub. The whole thing weighs in at a cool 2300 tons, the crank-shaft alone weighing a mere 300 tons, and it puts out a 75 megawatts when it's running -- about 108,000 horsepower in old-fashioned equestrian units. It's not very economical, gulping about 4000 litres of fuel per hour, but it does achieve a thermal efficiency of over 50% in maximum economy mode (putting most power stations to shame).

Yes, it's mobile. They use these suckers to drive container ships. Big container ships.

If you thought the Victorian age was the age of big engineering and everything's been going downhill since then, the guys from Diesel United, Ltd of Japan are probably laughing at you.

[Link] [Discuss dieselpunk]

posted at: 23:10 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

A very American holiday

Tomorrow is National "I'm Embarrassed by my President" Day.

[Discuss dumb] (Take this as you will)

posted at: 21:39 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 28 Mar 2004

Coming up for Air

Okay, I got halfway into that story before realizing that it wanted to be a novella. (Here's a hint: if you're only halfway in and it's already 8500 words long, it is not a short story.) So I decided to stop for a while, because, let's face it, I am tired. A week next Thursday I get to go on vacation for most of a week (it's the Eastercon, Concourse), and I've got to write something for the Plokta folks, and I've got to hand a novel in some time in July, but aside from that I can take a little time to relax. I think. (Y'see, July's novel is a cheat -- the first draft is already written. Phew!)

Yesterday was an early spring day, as opposed to a late winter one: it was warm enough to go outside in sandals and sleeveless vest, rather than wet/cold weather gear. Feorag and I went for a walk, and among other things found a hole in the wall cafeteria/cooperative/talking shop up near the university that's run by a cooperative of arts faculty types, has a bolt-on art-gallery and free public WiFi, and provides halfway decent coffee as well as comfy sofas. This is not your grandfather's Edinburgh -- all dour presbyterian stone monoliths and bars full of dedicated heavy drinkers -- it's more like Berkeley-on-the-Forth. I suspect I may be spending some time writing there this summer, if I need to get out of the house (it's a mile's walk away, and doing that before sitting down to work would be a good habit to get into), regardless of whatever John Scalzi says about writing in cafes. (Yes, John, that was a very bad pun. So bite me.).

Oh yes: I am still buying books roughly four times as fast as I can read them. What is this a sign of?

[Discuss writing]

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

Thu, 25 Mar 2004

No, I don't understand this either

Dwarf hamster clutching machine gun

(Been quite 'cause I'm working on a short story. More later ...)

[Discuss pomo]

posted at: 17:34 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 23 Mar 2004

Wow, it's a live one

Yesterday I wrote a review of Bruce Sterling's forthcoming novel The Zenith Angle in Slashdot.

Slashdot discussions are frequently banal flamefests, but this comment takes the biscuit. (Kudos to Feòrag for drawing it to my attention.) It's surprisingly grammatical for a slashdot flame, which on its own is enough to make me smell a rat -- but the way it rapidly accelerates in an outward-bound direction from terra firma, before losing contact with reality as it goes ballistic, makes me suspect that this is not your usual slashdot-reading troll but something far rarer and more interesting:

Perhaps the single worst symptom of the general level of incompetence throughout the publishing industry remains the odious Teresa Nielsen Hayden. An editor who dotes on calling writers "twerps" and "idiots," she adores infantile name-calling like "auctorial insanity." Meanwhile, Hayden's own spavined prose sticks to the ear like congealed bacon fat, riddled with "to be" constructions of the kind that would embarrass a high school essayist.

Don't get me wrong. Excellent writers abound in science fiction - they just can't get published. Kathe Koje and Carter Scholz some to mind -- but, guessed it. These superb writers barely squeeze into print once per leap year, while third-rate wannabes like Bruce Sterling and burn-outs who've made a career of rehashing their one good novel like William Gibson , and inept thugs like Teresa Nielsen Hayden rise to the top of the heap.

Whimper. Where to begin ...?

This has got to be a troll. Megatrope isn't so much wrong-headed as travelling at high subsonic speed down an alien reality tunnel: the thumbnail description of Gibson's recent novels doesn't bear any resemblance to the books I read -- is Megatrope somehow confusing Gibson with Samuel Delaney? Moreover Megatrope registered their slashdot ID very recently and has never posted another comment or, indeed, anything. But there's more: Megatrope is simply too damned literate to be your normal slashdot reading gruntmonkey. There's an axe-grinding agenda at work here, and it smells highly fishy.

The authors Megatrope likes are indeed good at their trade, but blaming TNH for their absence from print implies that publishing is some kind of zero-sum game, and one editor could somehow swing the entire publishing industry around and force everyone to ditch the odious grandfathers of cyberpunk, in order to replace them with Megatrope's idea of something good, thus reforming the genre. It's ridiculous, on the face of it -- and indeed, Megatrope's real plaint is that Teresa Neisen Hayden is responsible for the state of SF publishing as we know it. Smell the heady aroma of crank-case lube emanating from the slashdot flame! For see, Megatrope's real complaint isn't that they doesn't like Bruce Sterling's novels, it's that evil New York editors are keeping the Good Stuff out of print.

I suppose I should close by saying that the weirdest aspect of the whole business is that Megatrope is actually quite good at the ragged-assed polemic (even if their opinion of various recent novels are about 80% divorced from consensus reality.) Indeed, as Megatrope writes:

Bruce Sterling excels, all right...but not as a novelist.

His speciality? The chautauqua. A hallelujah-I-done-found-Jesus William Jennings Bryan old-fashioned rabble-rousing speech. Sterling does great chautauqua. His rip-roaring rodomontade "A Contrarian View Of Open Source" remains by orders of magnitude the best piece of persiflage Sterling ever wrote.

This is halfway true, but as a paragraph it works equally well if you file off the serial numbers and drop Megatrope's own name in. It's easier to write a short, tight, controlled rant than a novel; after all, in a novel you've got room for the discursive structure to go all over the place and wander in and out of its own intestines before tying itself in a knot and dying of the literary equivalent of toxic megacolon. Right?

Which leads me to ask, is Megatrope by any chance an embittered refugee from the Tor slushpile? And does their arrival on a slashdot thread I started mean that I'm about to pick up my very own critical stalker?

[Link (caution, flammable)] [Link(review][Discuss writing]

posted at: 17:31 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

How Not To Do It (Links)

Wow. That Salon magazine piece on the midlist writer's quandry has really triggered some foaming and pontificating by real midlist writers. Here's a sample of Nick Mamatas venting:

The following do not necessarily make you wise: getting cancer, growing up po', growing up wealthy but in a former imperial holding, having a miscarriage, marrying well, paying $275 per square foot for an apartment, extramarital affairs, being very well-read, having a blog with lots of readers, living out in the woods and peeing in a creek, worrying aloud about how authentic you are, declaring that you'll leave the country if a Republican is elected, and giving birth to an autist.

(Go read the rest; you know you want to.)

Over in the blue corner, John Scalzi is also getting irritable:

Articles like this just enrage the hell out of me and make me think that my tribe is populated by jerks with a sense of entitlement the size of a hot air balloon (and as subject to the random winds). Are authors as a class this disconnected to the real world? My personal experience tells me no, but then again most of the writers I know are genre writers, who despite their fanciful subject matter seem to be grounded in the realities of the economics of writing books. I doubt this woman writes science fiction or romance.

And he also has some kick-ass general advice for authors.

Finally, Teresa weighs in in Making Light, which means the rest of us puny mortals can relax because The Authority Has Spoken. Or something like that. The comments, in particular, are worth reading because Teresa has probably got more jobbing midlist authors in her regular correspondents than Jane Austen Doe has met in her whole damn career. And, funnily enough, most of them are being rude about Doe's apparent sense of entitlement.

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 11:30 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 22 Mar 2004

My Brilliant Career (not)

In today, there's a feature by a pseudonymous writer lamenting the death of the midlist novel. "I've published several books, won adoring reviews, and even sold a few copies. But I've made almost no money and had my heart broken. Here's everything you don't want to know about how publishing really works," she begins.

Really? I'm tempted to say, "my heart bleeds", but that would be both understating it a bit and over-egging the pudding. There's quite a lot of truth in her complaint -- nevertheless, I don't believe Jane Austen Doe's writing career is a typical one, and in particular she made one key mistake, right at the outset of her career, the consequences of which have haunted her for a decade. She's got my sympathy, and my understanding -- but I wouldn't want anyone else to think her experience was typical.

This particular dead horse needs to be flogged publicly, lest it gives aspiring writers the wrong idea, but I suspect I'm not the ideal guy to do the job. So in the interests of a full declaration, here are my reservations about my own competence to write this dissection.

For starters, I don't have a huge statistical base of information about advances and print runs to fall back on: all I could discuss with authority would be my own experience, which may well not be typical. (And besides, I prefer not to bare the full details of my own income stream in public.)

For seconds, things are different outside of the genre boundaries I curently work in. I've sold SF, fantasy, and horror novels -- if Jane Doe is writing in, say, Romance or Detective fiction, much less the literary mainstream, then I could blow figures out of my ass until the cows come home and it wouldn't be relevant. It's a truism that fantasy typically has larger print runs than SF; and where print runs are larger, advances follow. Finally and thirdly, I hesitate to criticize another author's misfortunes -- whether they appear well-deserved or not -- on the sole basis of a magazine article. Magazine articles are prone to partial or inaccurate representations, special pleading, editorializing, weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, and exaggeration of the facts of the matter. So let's just say that what I'm going to say here isn't meant as a personal criticism, merely as my own subjective response to her essay in Salon magazine.

Jane Austen Doe's story starts when, in 1994, she signed a book contract for a novel -- with an advance of $150,000. The novel was published in 1996, and sold a whopping 10,000 copies in hardcover and paperback (combined). Oops.

Somewhat taken aback, Doe found her next novel bounced. So she ghost-wrote a celeb autobiography to keep the wolf from the door. In 1998 she got a new agent and a new contract for one under her own name -- this time with a $10,000 advance. The book came out in 2001 and sold a combined tally of 25,000 copies, with total author earnings (after hiring an agent and publicist) of $21,000.

The next book, signed for in 2002 and published in 2004, got an advance of $80,000; a print run of 10,000, and sales figures not yet in. Finally, her fifth book is still doing the rounds.

Now, what's wrong with this picture?

Let's look at a typical US book sale -- a novel. Due to the vagaries of bookselling, most novels these days sell for under US $24 (because the big bookstores don't like being overstocked on overpriced tomes by authors who aren't selling). A typical contract pays a royalty of 10% of net to the author, rising to 12.5% or even 15% if it sells over a threshold (say, 10,000 hardcovers). The magic number for mid-list hardcover sales that I was given -- we're talking real books, not the extruded fantasy epics the publishers announce to the trade rags -- is 5000 hardbacks. Less than 5000 actual sales, result: misery. More than 10,000 sales, result: happiness. We can then add paperbacks. A typical midlist novel will ship 25-40,000 paperbacks to bookstores. There's then a big gap to print runs over 60,000 -- which ship to the mass market outlets as well as bookstores. Typical cover prices are in the range $6-$8, with royalties of 7.5% to 10% if the book sells some outrageous number. Actual sales will always be less than the print run, because books are sold to stores on a sale-or-return basis; a sell-through of over 70% is expected in hardcover, but it may be less in paperback.

Now. Jane Austen Doe's first novel got an advance of $150,000. Ignoring inflation, if we factor in a $24 cover price and a 10% royalty figure, the publisher would have had to sell 62,500 hardcovers. At a 12.5% rate that's still upwards of 50,000 sales. In hardcover. That isn't midlist, that isn't even close -- the publisher would be announcing a quarter million print run to the press and hyping it for all they were worth. Jane Austen Doe was destined for the national best-seller list on the basis of that advance. So what went wrong?

Let's be fair. Jane Austen Doe wasn't a total ditz: she did ask the right question. Question to agent: "Is there a downside to an unknown author getting such a big advance for a first book?" Unfortunately she got the wrong answer. Agent's answer: "What are you gonna do, turn it down?"

Idiot. (The agent, I mean. The author was merely naive and inexperienced. The agent's answer, in contrast, has haunted her, blighting her subsequent career for a decade. At least, that's my impression ...)

The 10,000 total sales of hardcover and paperback that she reports isn't even solid mid-list territory. A solid midlist novel would reap on the order of 3,500-7,000 hardcover sales and 10,000-25,000 paperbacks in the US, plus quite possibly the same again in other world markets. (I'm probably not giving anything away if I say that my first-equal/second novel, "Singularity Sky", is currently being translated into Spanish and Czech, with German and other language editions to follow, and a handsome UK hardcover outing due this summer. In fact, aggressive pursuit of foreign (non-US) sales is probably the key to a successful midlist career. The combined advances for non-US editions of "Singularity Sky" are already within spitting distance of the US advance, while my second/first-equal novel "The Atrocity Archive" has secured significantly bigger advances outside the USA.)

Bluntly, Jane Austen Doe's first novel appears to have bombed after being mega-hyped in order to bring in an unrealistically high advance, by an agent who pocketed the advance (call it 15% of $150,000 -- or a handsome $22,500) then did unreasonably little to promote her subsequent career. Career? I don't know about the author, but the agent seems to have been running on a policy of "take no prisoners". Which is a bad idea in an industry where everyone knows everyone else, and if you burn a contact over breakfast the whole neighbourhood knows by lunchtime.

What followed was predictable, if a bit extreme. JAD's first agent had a huge millstone around their neck -- a flop that had cost the publisher a huge amount of money. If the publisher printed only 10,000 copies, then they probably made a profit roughly equal to the author's royalties -- or around $25,000 -- on a property they paid $150,000 for. That's a disaster in publishing terms, the kind of mess that people get blamed and fired for. It's probably not JAD's fault that the publisher screwed up so monumentally, but if her agent had negotiated a normal first midlist novel advance of $15,000 rather than going for broke the publisher would have hit break-even, Jane Austen Doe's name wouldn't have become synonymous with "commercial disaster area" around that particular water cooler, and she'd have been able to sell repeatedly to the same publisher (with increasing print runs and advances each time).

I'll skip over the work-for-hire; JAD's second novel sale, the one with the $10,000 advance, is much more typical of the midlist. So is the sales volume. The profit isn't great, and I'm inclined to wonder if she sold foreign language rights at all -- but if you can do two novels a year at that level, making $25,000 per book, you've got bread on the table. Alas, Jane Austen Doe isn't a fast writer, and typically takes 1-2 years per book. It's like the difference between a rock band with five members who sign to a major label, and one with three -- the one with five only has 60% of the money per person to live off, and probably flops.

Unfortunately with that fourth book, we're back to the stupid advances again. A $80,000 advance means you need to sell 33,000 hardcovers, or maybe 10,000 hardcovers and 70,000 paperbacks (on a 10% royalty level and a cover price of $8). This is right at the top end of midlist sales -- you've got to be hitting the mass market to shift that kind of volume. (I'm not there, nowhere near it in fact; chance would be a fine thing.) If you expect a profit of $25,000 on the basis of your last book, then is it reasonable to expect the publisher to more than triple that on the next? I don't think so ...

Despite the unrealistic advance, she might have managed to earn out if she hadn't been clobbered by a dose of severe bad luck -- the publicist from hell. Maybe the publisher could have made back the advance if the marketing guy hadn't cut and run: it's not unheard-of. However, I have to say I wouldn't be optimistic about it. I know solid professionals with ten to twenty novels under their belts who would be overjoyed to get that kind of advance (and a little bit worried on the side). It's hard to shift enough books to earn out a $80,000 advance: very few people succeed. And a second failure to earn out on that scale (after the $150,000 fiasco only five years earlier) would be enough to spell doom for any career.

I want to stress again the point that all I've got to go by is my own experience, plus what was laid out in the article, which may not be the whole picture. But what we have here looks, from where I'm standing, to be the result of a disastrous intersection between greedy, over-ambitious agents, editors who should have known better, and an author who wasn't cynical enough about what her agent was telling her -- and who didn't run the numbers with an eye to what could go wrong (as opposed to right).

Small advances do not automatically mean that the author makes less money. A book advance is merely a non-returnable loan against future profits. A $10,000 advance on a book that sells well enough to garner $50,000 in royalties means the publisher stakes the author $10K up front, then shells out another $40K over the next couple of years. In contrast, a $50,000 advance on a book that sells so badly it only earns $10,000 in royalties means the publisher forked out a non-returnable $40,000 over and above what they could afford. If you do that too many times, publishers will shiver and start to cross themselves and reach for the garlic whenever you cross their threshold. The option of a small advance and future royalties to pay is much more palatable to a publisher than the risk of an excessive advance and a loss on the balance sheet.

Of course, the down side to small advances is that you (the author) need to have a year or two of cash flow -- gross -- in the piggy bank, as a cash flow float. It's always nice to have the interest on someone else's money piling up, hence the enduring attraction of the big advance. But ... is it so nice you'd pawn your own future career against it?

I'd like to offer Jane Austen Doe my sincerest hopes that she gets it together to sell her fifth novel -- and that it earns out the advance, whether it is large or small. But, I'd like to observe that, of my first eight novels (yes, to my astonishment I've sold eight of the buggers), not one has gone for even half of the $50,000 advance she's hoping to land for her fifth novel. On the other hand, I can still go out in sunlight, eat garlic bread, and show a reflection in a publisher's mirror. Maybe one day I, too, will get a $150,000 advance for a novel. But I hope it doesn't happen too soon -- otherwise I'll have to regretfully ask my agent to negotiate it down a bit. Because Jane Austen Doe's got one thing right: if the book makes a loss, any number of factors may be responsible -- but the author is the person most likely to be blamed.

[Link][Discuss writing]

posted at: 23:04 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

The quality of modern literary criticism

Reprinted in full, from my weblog feedback form:

Originally from: abbie whatmaore

i hate u ur not charlie simpson i wanted charlie simpson

(All exclamation marks and punctuation reproduced as seen, albeit with the addition of line breaks.)

As a miracle of accurate self-description I find this quite impressive. Meanwhile, please note: if you can't even spell your own name, you probably ought to stay out of my mailbox.

Teresa gets a better class of troll on her blog. Colour me envious.

(PS: Who the hell is Charlie Simpson? Anyone know?)

[Discuss Morons]

posted at: 16:59 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Recipes I don't want to know too much about

Here's a link (thank you, Zotz) to the Thorax Cake.

Yum yum (not) ...

[Link] [Discuss Food]

posted at: 14:40 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 21 Mar 2004

Odd sights in the sky

Yesterday afternoon I was working in my study when I heard loud aircraft noise, at low altitude -- growing very fast, dopplering, then fading away, like a military overflight rather than an airliner.

I live very close to a densely populated city centre, so military overflights at low altitude are unusual; and most airliners detour round the city, so that if anything goes wrong on final approach or takeoff they fall in the Firth of Forth (rather than taking out a tenement block or two).

Anyway, today Feorag and I went out for lunch. On our way home, at precisely 3pm, I heard loud engines, and looked up just in time to see a pair of Tornado F3s in close formation coming towards us. They were flying along the line of Leith Walk, north to south, at an altitude of about five hundred feet. No ferry tanks, not sure if there were any missiles (as F3s carry them in semi-recessed bays under the fuselage, rather than on the wing), but I'm pretty certain they were the air defense version rather than bombers. They were doing something like 150-250 miles per hour, flying straight towards the city centre.

A point to note: there are no air shows today. Another point: this is controlled airspace. The RAF does not routinely fly fighter patrols over British cities at such low altitudes: an engine flame-out would almost certainly leave a smoking hole in a densely crowded residental area. In fact, the flight line they were following would have been flat-out illegal at an air show.

What's going on?

[Discuss 9/11]

posted at: 15:26 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 20 Mar 2004

Finished: Reprise

I know I said I'd finished the novel on Tuesday. And I had. However, before sending a novel to your editor it's a good idea to give it a read-through. When you're writing a novel, you typically work at 1000 to 10,000 words per day -- in comparison, you typically read at 200-500 words per minute. When writing you can lose track of what you said ten days ago and repeat or contradict yourself, oblivious to the fact that your readers will have been there just twenty minutes ago.

It's also chastening to see just what atrocities a spelling checker can pull you up on, even though they often don't pick up trivial mistakes: "there" and "their" are, after all, both correct spellings. (Don't get me started on the subject of so-called grammar checkers: let's just say that they're not fit to be allowed within spitting distance of a work of creative writing, as opposed to a boring business memo.)

I just completed the intensive read-through and bug-fix on the finished manuscript. Which, rather than taking one day, ended up taking nearly four -- and we're talking ten to twelve hour working days here, too. Anyway, I don't think it sucks totally. In fact, I'm moderately satisfied. Satisfied enough that I'm willing to expose it to the withering glare of a critical readership. So I've just emailed it to my editor, and if he's satisfied I will breathe a sigh of relief.

When I was finishing up an hour ago, reformatting the manuscript for final output, I stumbled across a note in the front matter. It was the Draft 1 start date ... March 9th, 2002. Yes. I've been working on this bloody thing, on and off, for 106 weeks. It'll be at least a year before it's in print. And it's the first volume of a projected three volume story arc, so at the current rate I'll still be working on it in, oh, mid-2008. (Hopefully not: I'd like to get it finished faster than that!)

Writing is not a job for people who crave instant gratification.

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 21:12 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 16 Mar 2004

One gadget I'd like to buy

Having just finished another novel, I scratched my head over how my working methodology has changed in the past year.

A year ago I was mostly working on an Apple Powerbook G4, 15" screen, 1GHz processor and 1Gb of RAM. Those machines are the bee's knees ... if what you want is a transportable desktop machine with the performance and screen size that implies. As a laptop something that big is a little bit vulnerable. I dented mine. Not good.

I decided to downgrade to an iBook G4. It was nearly as powerful as the Powerbook, but half the price (Only 640Mb of RAM instead of 1Gb, but if you're just writing a book and web surfing, what's the difference?) The iBook is a great little laptop and it beats the pants off trying to wrestle Linux onto any Intel laptop, which is why I'm now almost an obligate Mac-head -- I switched to Linux from Apple, and now I've switched back again as Apple added the UNIX infrastructure I wanted.

But the laptop is still kind of cumbersome. Mostly it sits on an iCurve stand on my desk, with a bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and acts like an ersatz desktop machine -- except when I take it away in a big padded backpack. It's not, in other words, my permanent companion.

Palm PDAs are a hell of a lot better at portability, but not quite there yet as a companion machine. The Tungsten T3 I'm currently using is tooth-grindingly close but it's hampered by an operating system out of the stone age (or the late 1980's), and being just slightly too small. Something closer in size to the original Apple Newton -- the Messagepad 100 -- would be better. The MP100 was unfashionably large by modern PDA standards, being pitched at the size of a reporter's notepad. I'm pretty sure you could cram a PalmOS machine into that size, with a 640x480 colour screen and WiFi and Bluetooth and multiple expansion slots, and still have plenty of room for batteries (please, Palmsource, go back to using disposable over-the-counter cells!) and a decent-sized stylus.

But on the other hand ...

... I have lately found myself day-dreaming about a tablet iBook.

In my dream, the tablet iBook would be exactly the same size as a current-model 12" iBook, except maybe a couple of millimetres thinner. Instead of a traditional clamshell laptop body, with a keyboard/trackpad on the bottom half and a screen built into the lid, there'd simply be a screen with a toughened glass or plastic front on top, like the Tablet PC form machines from the likes of HP and Compaq (but without the whizzy bolt-on keyboards). It would have a pen, instead of a mouse, and Bluetooth; a keyboard would be an optional extra, connecting via Bluetooth or USB. There'd probably be no internal CD/DVD drive at all, but support for an external USB drive. The space freed up by the optical drive would both lighten the machine and make for a spare battery bay, giving a 10-hour road life. For handwriting input, let it use Graffiti; if it was easy enough for a million businessmen to learn it on their PDAs, it'll work well on a tablet iBook today.

One important note: stick to iBook components. Make it the same size as a 12" iBook. Use the same motherboard, the same batteries, if possible the same screen elements (with the addition of the digitizer). Let's not see a whole new range of expensively customized hardware. By keeping to standardized components, Apple could commoditize this particular unit, keep it cheap ... and sell one to every desktop Mac owner as a mobile companion.

I see a tablet iBook being used exactly as Microsoft tried to get people to use the tablet PC -- with a big difference. Microsoft screwed their Tablet PC by pitching it at corporate sales forces and managers, and targeting it at the £1600/$2500 price point. This is just plain wrong. Mobile sales staff need a full-size laptop (but it better be cheap!), while their bosses need a PDA and a desktop. Trying to combine all of that in one machine at a premium price left people scratching their heads and asking, "why should I pay $3000 for a tablet PC when I can pay $1000 for a desktop and $500 for a PDA?"

In contrast, the Mac user base is skewed heavily towards creative and media types. I'd love to have a machine I could stick in a desk stand and type text onto with a keyboard, then pick up and take away and edit the text on with a pen. And I bet that with Photoshop and Illustrator on board, a tablet iBook would be a big hit with graphic professionals looking for a quick, easy tool for doodling and developing ideas. Scribble on it on the move, then transfer the concepts to the main desktop system back at the design shop. PDAs are woefully underpowered when it comes to this sort of task -- the existing drawing tools are just toys. A tablet iBook, in contrast, could work with the same suite of design tools as a full-blown desktop Mac, but make it easier to take the design suite on the road to see clients.

The one thing a tablet iBook would have to be is cheap. But iBooks are already cheap entry level laptops, and the tablet model could be cut-down even further -- no hinge, no trackpad, no keyboard, no optical drive, a display element embedded inside the sealed lucite lid casing. The only extra hardware would be a stylus and the digitizer -- which is not the priciest component of any PDA by a long way. The main changes would lie under the hood, in software support for a Graffiti-like pen input system, a digitizer, and ensuring that the OS could be driven (at a pinch) without a keyboard. It should be possible to retail a machine like that for around £500 or US $750.

If Apple ever get round to it, I'll be in like a shot, because I don't like having to sit at a desk in front of a computer to edit text -- the desk is for writing. Editing a manuscript is something you do with a pen, sitting on the sofa or in bed with the material on your lap or spread around you. Likewise, the graphics workstation is for production work. Generating ideas is something that happens on the move, while visiting clients, in the local cafe, or anywhere. Think of the tablet iBook as a machine for helping people to think different in different places.

[Discuss toys]

posted at: 18:05 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry


At 93,300 words.

I can't believe I wrote the last 10,000 words in one day. (Well, I can -- I mean, I saw myself doing it. And I can even guess why: climax to fast-moving novel, fully plotted-out in detailed outline, reluctant to get up for toilet breaks, etcetera etcetera.) But oww, my hands ache!

Tomorrow: go to dentist, spell-check novel, email novel to agent. Then gibber quietly and spend the rest of the week in the pub.

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 00:41 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 14 Mar 2004

2004 Hugo awards

You probably aren't a member of the 2004 world science fiction convention, or an attendee from the 2003 worldcon. Which means you don't get to nominate or vote for the Hugo awards. Tough.

If, on the other hand, you are an eligible Hugo voter, I really ought to remind you that nominations are still open for a little bit longer. If a work gets enough nominations, it ends up on the shortlist of five items in each category that the attendees can vote among for the Hugo awards.

This is a hint -- I published the following items for the first time in 2003 (meaning they're eligible for nominations):

  • Novel: Singularity Sky, pub. Ace, 2003
  • Novella: Curator, pub. Asimov's SF, Dec 2003
  • Novella: Jury Service (with Cory Doctorow),
  • Novelette: Nightfall, pub. Asimov's SF, April 2003
  • Short Story: Flowers from Al (with Cory Doctorow), pub. New Voices in Science Fiction (ed. Mike Resnick, pub. Daw Books)
  • Short Story: Rogue Farm, pub. Live Without a Net, (ed. Lou Anders, pub. Roc)

Obviously, it'd make me happy if you were to nominate any or all of the above for a Hugo. Equally obviously, a couple of them are hard to get hold of. So if you are an eligible voter and you want to read one of them, ping me with your worldcon membership number (not your PIN!), tell me what you want, and I'll do something about it.

[Link(Hugo award online nomination form)] [Discuss conjose]

posted at: 21:51 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 12 Mar 2004

Progress update

I've been ill. Either it's the gut problem I'm seeing a consultant for, or it was a recurrence of the hideous cold/bronchitis bug from Boston, but something put me in a high fever on Sunday night and I was unable to work again until Tuesday. Luckily whatever it was went into retreat rapidly and I'm more or less back to normal, albeit a bit shaken and a bit behind schedule. Ick. If there's just one killer argument in favour of the whole mind-uploading robot body posthuman cyborg shtick, it's the deficiencies of the human immune system.

Ailments aside, I've just sent in the page proofs to the second novel of 2004, "Iron Sunrise". And I've gotten back to work on the latest novel for Tor, managing to push this draft up to 80,000 words. Which is good. I'm now on the narrative path leading up to the climax of the story, with maybe 10-12,000 words to go and everything planned out in nauseating blow-by-blow detail -- the rest of the novel should go on autopilot. If anything the excessive outlining might make it harder to write -- because the work isjust leg-work, like painting by numbers. Normally I tend to fly by the seat of my pants, allowing room for big plot twists to introduce themselves at the last minute. But this one is on a tight deadline, and it probably helps that there won't be any more rude surprises. On current form (3000 words a day) there are 3-4 days work to do before I have a rough'n'ready first draft. I probably won't be working on Saturday, but that means I'm looking to Tuesday or Wednesday next week to finish it.

Which leaves me -- I can barely believe this -- one week from completion of the first draft of my sixth novel under an actual real publishing contract. The first drafts of numbers seven and eight are already finished, thanks to the vagaries of my schedule. I still can't get used to this! I spent years writing, dreaming that maybe I'd get to sell a book one day -- and suddenly I'm a week away from having completed eight. If I get this one in the can, I don't actually need to start writing any more novels for ... oh, close to two years.

(Not that I'm about to take two years off. You know me better than that, right? But given that I'm feeling run down and having health issues, being ahead of schedule with both my publishers means that I've got the luxury of being able to take sufficient time off to rest up and relax, without blowing through deadlines -- which tends to fill me with very un-relaxing angst.)

Oh yeah. I mentioned the first drafts of #7 and #8 being finished: in the case of #7, that's because Asimov's SF have accepted the final, ninth story in the sequence called "Accelerando", which is going to mutate into Accelerando: the novel, by some time this summer. And that will be another weight off my mind. That project has been a millstone around my neck ever since I began it in the summer of 1999. You know you've bitten off more than you can chew when you feel as if you've turned into a deep-sea nightmare like this Gulper Eel. "Accelerando" did weird things to my head. I'll have to try to describe it -- later, when I've recovered a bit more.

Still. One week, and the pressure-cooker deadline is over. All I have to do then for the rest of 2004 is polish, and polish, and polish the glittering chrome some more. And try to get my energy back.

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 00:47 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 07 Mar 2004


I am tired. But in the past two and a half days, I've expanded that first draft to 74,000 words. If I kept up that rate, then in another five days I'd hit my minimum first-draft target and in another three I'd blow through my word limit. Alas, I can't do that: I've got to re-check the proofs to IRON SUNRISE and get them back to my editor by the middle of the week. So I'm about to take two or three days off THE CLAN CORPORATE, and then I'll probably need a day to lie down and pant before I go back to attack the ending.

Hmm. Eight days plus three days. That sounds almost manageable. Eighteenth of March. Hmm again: then I think I shall sleep for the rest of the month.

If I'd known how hard this job would be before I started, I'd probably have given up and decided to become an accountant instead.

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 23:58 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 05 Mar 2004


Excuse the infrequent updates this week; I'm finally over the chest bug I brought home from my trip to Boston, and I'm working hard trying to catch up with a deadline. 66,000 words down, 24,000-34,000 words to go ...

posted at: 12:26 | path: /excuses | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 02 Mar 2004

USAF atomic-powered bomber designs of the 1950's


Of course, not all the Strangelove-era hardware developed by the United States military can be laid at the door of barking mad German rocket scientists; some of the technologies were 100% home-grown, like this one, the atomic-powered bomber.

Did I say mad? Look at it this way: imagine you are J. Random 1950's-era Planetary Superpower, and you wish to be able to drop very large bombs anywhere on the planet. ICBMs are not yet accurate enough or sufficiently available, so you decide to use bombers. Which is a more sensible approach to dealing with your bomber fleet's limited strike radius: work on improving the fuel efficiency of turbojets and build a fleet of tankers for in-flight refueling, or gamble on a difficult, high-tech fix by trying to build nuclear powered bombers?

From 1948 until 1962, the US Department of Defense pumped a couple of billion dollars into trying to build a nuclear-powered bomber. They got as far as static-testing an HTRE-3 air-cycle reactor and flying the ASTR test reactor in the rear bomb bay of a heavily modified B-36 bomber, the NB-36H.

As with so much else, there's a wealth of information about this stuff on the web. You can find a history of the project, and monographs on the US Navy's attempts to build a nuclear-powered flying boat; even the 1950 NACA reports on the feasibility of three cycles for the nuclear propulsion of aircraft.

In the end, the advent of the ICBM (not to mention in-flight refueling) killed off the atomic-powered bomber -- but the technologies lived on for a while, in the shape of the Vought SLAM, aka Project Pluto (even more information here), the atomic-powered cruise missile.

I swear I'm not making any of this up.

[Discuss dieselpunk]

posted at: 12:25 | path: /weird | 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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