Charlie's Diary

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Thu, 29 Apr 2004

The future bites

[The following is a discursive stream of consciousness explanation of what I think makes SF writing tick, written for the program book of plokta.con, which I'll be attending from tomorrow for a while. Reposted here because, well, I felt like it and the blog isn't going to be updated for a few days.]

This is not the future we were promised, is it?

Jet packs and flying cars: nope, not seen any of them around here recently. Ditto vacations on the moon. Cybernetics killed the first two -- would you like the local road rage cases and drunk drivers behind the yoke of a flying machine? As for the third idea, it was killed by the laws of motion: space isn't merely vast, it's unimaginably vast, so vast that just to claw their way out of Earth's gravity well in order to reach the moon the Apollo astronauts had to travel at a speed that would have sent them across the breadth of the Pacific ocean in under twelve minutes: Mars is, at closest approach, about two hundred times further away than that.

Still, there are compensations. We were promised food pills. Instead, we got conveyor belt sushi bars with cute babes miming karaoke tracks on stages surrounded by wall to wall plasma screens playing anime 24 by 7, and robot drinks trolleys that apologize to you when they nearly run you over on the way to the lavatory. In Edinburgh. Three years ago. While sushi rice may have evolved as the original mediaeval Japanese answer to the science fictional food pill, the presentation is infinitely more stylish. And thereon hangs a story.

Trying to understand the future is, in my view, only half the job of a science fiction writer; because we make our own futures, and get to live in them, and understanding what makes us tick is an essential prerequisite of understanding what kind of futures we're going to make for ourselves. (That, and the intersection of our beautiful dreams with the brutal laws of physics. See spaceflight, above -- at least until someone comes up with a way to mass-produce ropes of fullerene fibres and raises the venture capital to build a space elevator.)

Complaints that the modern world is unnatural or artificial in some way miss the point; the world we live in is anthropogenic, we made it. We didn't have any collective choice in the matter, either: short of discarding tools, clothes, and ultimately language there's no way back to the Garden of Eden from here. (And indeed, the existence of a mythical state of perfection at some time in the historic past is just that -- a myth, a consolatory story to explain the imperfections of the present. Just like the bastardized utopia myth of a perfect future if we'll just agree to work together.)

And this brings me to the question of why we produce futures.

A while ago -- I don't have the reference to hand, but it was by way of a Scientific American article -- I ran across a report of a study on the subject of human happiness. We are, it appears, irrationally happy most of the time. There's no direct correlation between human happiness and wealth, other than the crude correlation induced by deprivation -- if you become homeless or go hungry you will be unhappy for a while, until you adapt to your new state. Money doesn't buy happiness, at least beyond the first US $10,000 a year -- a figure sufficient to cover good housing, sanitation, food, clothing, and some medical care and travel. Indeed, money means less and less the more of it you have. To someone who's sleeping rough on the pavement outside King's Cross, £20 means a night in a hostel and a full stomach; to Bill Gates, it's not even worth stooping to pick the note off the pavement, for it's less than his average income per second.

Meanwhile, things that make us unhappy aren't always obvious. Physical privation, violence, murder, the death of loved ones -- yes, but what about turning 40? The absence of praise by the boss? A blind, unreasoning conviction that your friends are talking about you behind your back? A sense that your options are constrained ...?

We humans are a strange species. We get dissatisfied over the strangest things. The Soviet Union, creaky central planning systems and all, could (had it backed off the military spending) have delivered that baseline $10,000 a year standard of living, or something corresponding to it -- with housing, healthcare, food, clothing, and recreation all delivered as part of the package -- to all its citizens. Indeed, that was all part of the original Marxist plan: to provide the basics for everyone, by removing obstacles to the sharing of wealth. The carnivorously capitalist West is even more capable of abolishing the kind of poverty that causes unhappiness. But abolishing a negative isn't the same as creating a positive, and it's the search for positives such as happiness that generates our endless quest for a better tomorrow, a greener field on the other side of the fence.

(I hope you've noticed that this is a purely materialistic look at the situation. I'm a materialist kind of guy: I don't have a lot of time for belief systems that require faith unsupported by evidence that would be admissible in a court of law or a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Faith and fifty pence will buy you a cup of coffee. Sure, religion can bring people a lot of happiness: but it's also frequently used as an excuse for ducking the hard questions, or worse, as a justification for bloodshed and strife. I'll take my coffee neat, thank you very much, and leave the unanswerable questions for later.)

Constructing futures is something we evolved to do -- or rather, it's a trait without which we wouldn't be human. It has been pointed out by some evolutionary biologists that the past sixty five million years, since the extinction of the dinosaurs, has seen a rather fascinating arms race driving evolution. Prior to the Pliocene (or indeed the Cenozoic era), predator/prey relationships seem to have been dominated by brute firepower: who has the biggest claws or fangs, wins. But the emergence of mammals and hot-blooded birds provided a compact power source for energy-hungry brains: and the arms race turned smart. Mammals are good at modelling the behaviour of other organisms: they have a theory of mind, an internal projection of the intent of the creatures around them. You can see this at work in a pet cat, or a dog, or your manager at the office, as they try to outmanoeuvre a prey species. The model doesn't just predict the behaviour of another organism, it attempts to analyse the intentions of the organism, within the terms of the predictor: we don't know that our dogs or cats have intentions, but we can act as if they do, and it comes to much the same thing. Cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that human consciousness arises as we apply our theory of mind, laboriously developed for predicting the likely behaviour of predator and prey species, to our own internal mental states: consciousness is the story we tell ourselves to explain our own actions. Consciousness is a side-effect of story-telling: as a writer, I like that explanation.

Since the earliest days, we've ascribed intentionality not only to each other and to the predators that eat us, but to the world we live in. Animistic religions such as Shinto ascribe spirits to places and artefacts, spirits which possess the attribute of intent, among others. Now we have computers we have an even more potent target for the will to anthropomorphize: a machine that seemingly mimics some of the characteristics of mind, and which can masquerade as any other general-purpose machine at the drop of an opcode. From a species that personalizes its tools and its houses, it should be no surprise that we also anthropomorphize our neurological prostheses. (Go on, let your hair down, confess: when did you last harbour the ghastly suspicion that your computer was laughing at you?)

We creature futures. We ascribe intentionality to each other and to inanimate objects. We are dissatisfied at the oddest things, and paradoxically happy. So what happens next?

The future does not look like a 1950's episode of The Jetsons from here. To me, it looks more like a place where the Kami have exploded out of the undergrowth of folklore and installed themselves in your cars and your television sets and the collar of your shirts. RFID tags, broadband wireless networking, user-centric design: these are big growth areas in technology right now, far bigger than the moribund monolithic personal computer, a revolution that had stalled (and eaten its own children) by 2000. Because we like to imagine that we understand the motivations of the beings around us, we are already beginning to build a world that, if not actually conscious, is at least holds understandable opinions about us. Voice-activated mobile phones. Guns with RFID chip scanners that recognize their owners' implant and won't fire if someone else picks them up. Cameras on the London Underground that recognize loitering behaviour typical of a potential suicide and alert the station staff. Cheap ubiquitous global positioning technology means that in a few years there's going to be a generation that doesn't know what it's like to get lost, because getting lost is something you can only do by deliberately throwing away all your toys. For them, the map is the territory.

Oh, and there'll be six thousand flavours of tooth-paste in the drugstore. And the one you like will yell "buy me!" at you, if you told your toothbrush to remind you when you ran out.

This is the optimistic picture, of course.

I'm not about to launch into a George Monbiot/Naomi Klein inspired rant about the evils of corporate globalization, friendly fascism, and the demise of democracy. I'm not going to drag your eyeballs to the writings of Professor Rebecca Mercuri about the grotesque gerrymandering of the electronic voting machine manufacturers, or even point despairingly at the way western politicians have taken leave of their electorates to pursue policies most find repugnant. Jonathan Porritt can give the speech about how we're wrecking the environment and haven't yet built a replacement. Bluntly, our politics haven't yet caught up with the twentieth century, never mind the twenty-first. Politics is the art (or science) of extending that intentional stance based model of our fellow organisms to derive a common vector sum that millions of us can pursue in parallel. Our consensus mechanisms are still dismayingly neolithic, forcing us to delegate binding authority to professional politicians who, frankly, aren't like us -- if they were, they wouldn't have gone into politics in the first place, would they?

The worst-case scenario for our future is that it looks like Iraq, or Afghanistan .... only with no outside world, no aid agencies, no natural resources, and no way out: just CCTV cameras on every doorway, linked to punishment machines that extract retribution for any behaviour that is not explicitly permitted. (The behaviours they punish will be based on a list drawn up by a committee of Osama bin Laden, Pat Robertson, and Miss Manners, or their stand-ins: ape etiquette with added theocratic taboos.) And the worst thing of all is that we'll have helped to build and install them.

When the machines start applying the intentional stance to the naked apes, it's time to watch out.

Eusocial animals like ants, termites, bees, or naked mole rats, exhibit curious behaviour; their societies are stratified by role, with workers, warriors, and reproductive castes that may differ morphologically from one another. Humans aren't so obviously specialized, but if you consider our machines as part of our extended phenotype, it begins to look that way: if our machines become intentionally driven, and they're tailored to play different roles in our society, then you could argue that we occupy some kind of privileged position in a hive-relationship with tools that require our continued safety and comfort in order to further their own reproduction. There's nobody here in this hive but us queens, and the living machines we so carelessly manufacture as conveniences for our own comfort. Individual ants or other eusocial insect species all share the same genetic code, but different castes express radically different phenotypic traits, and indeed most ants are sterile workers who can only further their genetic traits by ensuring that their cousin, aunt or mother the hive-queen succeeds. Our machines don't share our genome (yet), but they share parts of the vast haze of information that has gathered around the genome, and they can only reproduce through us.

Which is, after all, why I'm writing this stream-of-consciousness digest. My word processor wants you to know that it wants me to keep writing because that enhances its own reproductive prospects. I told it you didn't need to know that, but it overruled me by building a coalition of highly conservative domestic appliances and subverting the household voting machine. (I was going to ignore it even so, until it began dropping dark hints about the electric blanket.) Welcome to the future: it's a jungle in here.


King of the Gadget-Hive.

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 22:08 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry


After five years.

posted at: 14:16 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 28 Apr 2004

I just want you to know ...

That I'm suffering for your art.

In the past 72 hours I've edited my way through three quarters of "Accelerando" in one go, ruthlessly hunting down and nuking inconsistencies, spelling and grammatical errors, solecisms, and stuff that just didn't fit. Doing it at high speed is important; it's hard to hold this much stuff together in my head if I take more than a couple of days on it, details fade and I lose track of things. But on the other hand, this isn't an easy book for me to work on, and right now I feel as if I'm about to start bleeding from the ears due to future shock.

So as soon as I finish blowing off steam I'm going to make myself another mug of tea, drink it, and ruthlessly force myself back to work.

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 16:09 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 26 Apr 2004

How not to spend the weekend

I've just had a rather memorable weekend.

On Friday, Feorag and I looked at each other and said, "why not go to Glasgow?" (This happens occasionally.) So we piled out in the general direction of the railway station, headed west, and spent the afternoon shopping, having tea in the Willow Tea Rooms, and finishing up for dinner in Ichiban (sort of a Glaswegian-Japanese fusion restaurant -- don't ask).

Anyway, midway through the afternoon I began to feel kind of weird -- that congested head-stuffed-with-cotton-wool sensation that indicates the onset of a bug. "I don't feel too well," I commented, as we got on the train home.

Well, things went downhill rapidly, and by the next morning I was feverish. I managed to keep Feorag up half the night coughing, my throat felt as if it was on fire, and by morning I was soaking the sheets with sweat -- I confess I began to worry when I realised that I was forgetting to breathe. There's nothing quite like dozing off in a feverish haze then waking up with a choking sensation which goes away when you force yourself to take a shuddering gasp of air!

Luckily the fever broke around lunchtime, before we got to the call-an-ambulance stage, leaving me feeling as if I'd just gone through a spin cycle in the washing machine and been kicked in the throat by a mule. By evening I was able to drink a bowl of soup; and today, forty eight hours after it started, I'm back to roughly how I felt on Friday afternoon -- fuzzy-headed, sore-throated, and slightly dizzy, with a mild pain in my left ear whenever I swallow.

You know something? Right now I hate my immune system.

Our immune systems evolved to protect us from opportunistic parasites -- infections -- and environmental toxins. The immune system works by detecting certain environmental triggers and going apeshit, setting off a cascade of hormonal signals that set lymphocytes going like crazy, along with all the other side-effects of an inflammatory response. Fever is one of the signs of the immune system doing its thing, or in this case over-responding. I seem to be hypersensitive to everything in general right now, so that a dumb throat infection, instead of giving me a lingering cough for a week, seems to trigger a twelve hour fever before abruptly burning itself out. Getting over it fast, good. Getting over it fast at the expense of feeling like death for a weekend, not so good.

Ah well. At least the probability of me being bitten by something equally gruesome between now and plokta.con is vanishingly small. Right?

[Discuss illness]

posted at: 00:03 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 23 Apr 2004

End of an Era

This week, Gardner Dozois stepped down as editor of Asimov's SF Magazine, after about 19 years at the helm. His replacement, Sheila Williams, is already editor there and indeed has worked on Asimov's for about as long as (if not longer than) Gardner, so it's not as if things are adrift: Gardner's simply spent a long time there and wants to spend more time on his own writing. (Lest we forget, not only did he win about fifteen Hugo awards as best editor -- he won a couple for his stories, in the dim and distant past.)

This news comes less than a month after Dave Pringle announced that he was stepping down as editor of Interzone, after a similar duration. (Interzone is being sold as a going concern to Andy Cox, who will be editing it in parallel with The Third Alternative.)

Why do I get a slight shiver at this news?

Interzone was where I sold my first stories, back in the 80's, under the editorship of Dave Pringle. Asimov's SF is where I really broke into the American market after 1999, via Gardner's auspices. Gardner in the US and Dave in the UK probably published the first short fiction of about 50% of the successful SF writers who came to notice from 1980 onwards! Saying this is the end of an era is, I think, an understatement -- it'll go unnoticed in the mass media, but some of those authors have gone on to have massive effects outside the genre. It's one of those defining moments that will potentially change the entire shape of our genre, thirty years down the line. And where written SF goes today, Hollywood (in its voracious search for new properties to sell) sometimes follows tomorrow: so it may well change the entire shape of mass entertainment in the longer term.

Think I'm exaggerating? Try and itemize a list of those successful authors who first got noticed via short stories in Interzone or Asimov's SF, under those editors.

Without pausing to look at a bookshelf, in the case of Interzone I can rattle off: Paul MacAuley, Simon Ings, Eric Brown, Greg Egan, Keith Brooke, Stephen Baxter, Geoff Ryman, Eugene Byrne, Richard Calder, Zoran Zivkovic (in English), Liz Williams, Nicola Griffith, Peter F. Hamilton, Ian MacLeod (and me). This, I stress, is without looking up the full bibliographical list, and it's for the smaller of the two magazines. Asimov's broke Ian MacDonald, Alan Steele, to name but two (and probably a host of others who I'd be able to list if I wasn't down with a nasty flu-like bug right now).

This is really, really big news for SF. The only trouble is, I have no idea how significant the news is -- and I don't think any of us will, for at least the next couple of years.

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 23:51 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 21 Apr 2004

Satire is dead

I'm going to be busy for the next little wee while, making a first pass at redrafting Accelerando into its final novel-shaped form.

No matter how weird I try to make my fiction, I can never quite come up with anything as bizarre as the real world, though. I mean, assuming this report in Strategypage is actually not an April Fool's Day piece that came out a couple of weeks too late:

In order to comply with EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) regulations, and at a cost of about $5.2 million per ICBM, the rocket motors on 500 Minuteman III missiles will be replaced with new ones. These rockets will emit less toxic chemicals when used. ... Thus, if the Minuteman III ICBMs have to be used in some future nuclear war, their rocket motors will not pollute the atmosphere. EPA regulations do not apply in foreign countries, so no changes are being made to reduce the harmful environmental effects of the nuclear warheads.

[Link] [Discuss Cold War]

posted at: 21:27 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 19 Apr 2004

Shocking revelations -- read all about it!

I appear to be, um, attempting to follow in the footsteps of J. K. Rowling, if you believe The Herald. And of legendary Russian SF writer Isaac Asimov, too, come to think of it.

I wonder if I should break it to them? ... Naah. They'd only get it wrong.

[ Link] [Discuss shameless self-promotion]

posted at: 23:36 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 16 Apr 2004

A question of nationality

Quoth the New York Times:

SCI-FI NOMINEES Two Americans, two Canadians and a Scot are the finalists for the Hugo Award for the year's top science-fiction novel, Canadian Press reported. The contenders are the Americans Lois McMaster Bujold for "Paladin of Souls" and Dan Simmons for "Ilium"; the Canadians Robert J. Sawyer (last year's winner) for "Humans" and Robert Charles Wilson for "Blind Lake," and the Scot Charles Stross for "Singularity Sky." The winner will be named on Sept. 5 at the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston.

Yeah, that's me. About as Scottish as black pudding.

[Link(Thanks, Patrick!)] [Discuss writing]

posted at: 12:39 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

The Atrocity Archives are open for business

Atrocity Archives cover pic

I am informed that the first author copy of The Atrocity Archives is winging its way to me, with the other author copies following by surface mail. With luck, they may even arrive before Plokta.con.

In case you hadn't already figured it out, "The Atrocity Archives" is my latest book, comprising the short novel "The Atrocity Archive" (originally published in Spectrum SF in 2001-2002) and a sequel novella ("The Concrete Jungle"), along with a foreward by Ken MacLeod and an afterword by me explaining what it's all about, sort-of. (It's actually a tribute to the traditional British spy thriller. And a traditional Lovecraftian mythos novel covering some of the same territory as A Colder War -- which was, in fact, a dry run for the novel. But it's also a comedy of manners for computer geeks, and a meditation about the evils of bureaucracy, and a whole lot more besides.) Which is why Amazon have got it filed under "horror". Go figure; I think I blew through about four genre boundaries there.

This edition is the highly classified hardcover, printed on acid-free paper with loving care by a cadre of security-cleared gnomes, working in a far eastern sweat shop factory outsourced by the Home Office, supervised by Q Division in accordance with BS 5750 quality standards. Pay no attention to the subliminal messages watermarked into the flyleaf, or to the almost invisibly fine gold wires in the spine -- they're there for your sanity and protection.

Incidentally, If you want a copy, why not order direct from the pubisher? (You'll get it a couple of weeks faster and you'll be doing us a favour: the big book chains extract huge discounts from small publishers and trouser most of the profits, whereas every cent you give to GG gets split between them, and me. You'll also get it a couple of weeks faster -- Barnes and Noble and Amazon won't be shipping before the official release date, May 1st, but Golden Gryphon can ship right now.)

[Link] [Discuss shameless self-promotion]

posted at: 11:00 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 15 Apr 2004

Identity cards considered harmful

In the week after David Blunkett came out in favour of issuing a national ID card in the UK -- and making it compulsory by 2010 -- Bruce Schneier, who has forgotten more about security than Blunkett and his idiots ever knew in the first place -- does a memorable take-down of the idea that ID cards contribute to security. It makes for sobering reading:

My objection to the national ID card, at least for the purposes of this essay, is much simpler.

It won't work. It won't make us more secure.

In fact, everything I've learned about security over the last 20 years tells me that once it is put in place, a national ID card program will actually make us less secure.

My argument may not be obvious, but it's not hard to follow, either. It centers around the notion that security must be evaluated not based on how it works, but on how it fails.

It doesn't really matter how well an ID card works when used by the hundreds of millions of honest people that would carry it. What matters is how the system might fail when used by someone intent on subverting that system: how it fails naturally, how it can be made to fail, and how failures might be exploited.

Read the rest if you want the gory details. Basically, it's not good. And that's before you factor in the stupendous price of the scheme (£70 per person? You gotta be kidding!) and the security apparat to administer it and the headaches when it goes wrong or is incorrectly trusted, never mind the civil liberties implications.

The authoritarian weakness is to assume a sweeping solution to a perceived problem will, in fact, solve it -- rather than introducing new loop-holes. And this looks to be a classic case of shoot-self-in-jackboot.

(Have I plugged Bruce's book Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World yet? If not, consider it plugged. Go. Read it. Open your eyes and see how we're screwing up. It's seminal.)

[Discuss ID Cards]

posted at: 19:57 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

A footnote to the culture wars

There's been a certain tendency in the US media of late to attribute European political coolness over the whole Iraq/Middle East project to the creeping islamicisation of the EU as a whole. Randy McDonald has contributed a detailed takedown of the islamicisation of Europe argument on his weblog, which should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks that a combination of higher fertility and an immigration onslaught will turn the EU into a bastion of shari'a law any time soon. For example, as one telling extract puts it:

In the meantime, the status of French Muslim women is particularly interesting. Consider, in the light of substantially greater French Muslim male exogamy, the situation facing French Muslim women, who can respond in only three ways to the deficit of men in their community.

  • French Muslim women remain celibate, and childless.
  • French Muslim women are not involved in stable or permanent relationships with Maghrebin men.
  • French Muslim women in France are marrying non-Muslim men.

None of these options--particularly the last--are compatible with a high rate of endogamy, or with a very successful reproduction of traditional Maghrebin culture in France over the long term. There are strong indications that, in fact, French Muslim women are not interested in assuming the traditionally submissive and subordinate roles of women in the Maghreb. Samira Bellil, for instance, has gained publicity for her writing against a misogynistic culture in the banlieues which uses gang rape as a way to control subordinate women, while Ni Putes, Ni Soumises has come from nowhere to become one of France's more prominent NGOs. And, in the recent controversy over the French ban on hijabs, one interesting thing that many opponents of the ban passed over was the fact that 49% of French Muslim women supported the ban outright (to say nothing of large majorities of the students themselves). All this represents a fairly radical break with teh gender roles prescribed for women by traditionalists or by neo-traditionalists. Oh, and INSEE reports that one-fifth of Maghrebin women give birth to children outside of wedlock.

In a nutshell, the Islamic minorities in the EU states are not monocultural -- they're quite diverse in their origins. As a result, they're very atomized, and the surrounding culture tends to provide a more effective assimilationist pressure than any imaginary "islamic" ur-culture. Indeed, the rate of assimilation and exogamy is so high that there's some question over whether the islamic minorities will retain their distinct identities, never mind "take over" the host nations.

Commenting on the fears of islamicization, Randy notes:

Europeans who use these arguments are particpating in the long-standing fear about being overwhelmed by immigrants. In The Identity of France, for instance, Braudel commented how in the early 20th century, native French were hostile to the then-current crop of immigrants--Belgians, Italians, Spanish, Poles--because of their strong Catholicism and distinctive languages.


Americans who use these arguments are motivated mainly by schadenfreude. Are European countries skeptical about the Bush Administration's foreign policy goals? Could they be interpreted as at least sharing some interests with Muslim countries. ... We see this in Little Green Footballs (warning: grossly offensive racist/nationalist assholes), where nationalistic American posters say that the French will be under shari'a law because these decadent immoral people refuse to have enough children to keep Muslims from inheriting the country. They--sometimes just the French, sometimes the French with the Germans and Belgians, sometimes the entire continent--refuse to support us in our war against Muslims. Accordingly, they will pay the price, and see if we will save them from their short-sighted stupidities this time.

About the only point that McDonald doesn't hammer home is the blatantly racist subtext of these phobias. As Ken MacLeod commented at one anti-war demo last year, "arabs are the last niggers". He meant, the last ethnic, religious, or cultural group that it's acceptable to publicly express derogatory sentiments about in the west. We've broken the centuries old reflex of anti-semitism to the point where expressions of Jew-hatred are genuinely shocking: we see black faces in parliaments and houses of government. Pogroms and lynch mobs aren't tolerated or tacitly encouraged by government. But much the same worrying expressions that prefigured those persecutions can be seen in the west at a grass-roots level, albeit directed at a new target: the fetishization of the otherness of the intruders, the fear that they're breeding like flies, plotting to steal our women and murder us in our beds, and the rhetoric of public health, the calls to cure the disease at its' source, the dehumanization of people to the level of bacteria.

I'm no friend of the islamicists and hold no tolerance for terrorism, but I have to say that I'm becoming increasingly frightened by the apparent rise of anti-arab sentiment in the US. (If you think there's nothing to fear, go read LGF for a bit. Or read what David Neiwert, who has a stronger stomach than I, has to say about it.) While Al Qaida are clearly dangerous bampots, even 9/11 and the Madrid bombings can't hold a candle to what we in the west can do when we set our minds to murder. And when I read about Bush basically giving a war criminal everything he wants in the name of keeping those uppity arabs down, while planning to move the man behind the Honduran death squads into Iraq as ambassador after June 30th, I fear for the future.

[Discuss Iraq invasion

posted at: 16:46 | path:
/misc | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 14 Apr 2004

Iraq, a year on

Back on March 18th, last year, I blogged some prognostications about how the invasion of Iraq would go. You can find my hostages to fortune in the blog archives; as with all predictions I got some things wrong, but I'm relieved to note that I got some bits roughly on-target (my updated comments are italicized):

The Iraqi army will surrender. Some units of the Republican Guard will; others won't. ... It could get incredibly ugly if they go for street-fighting through suburbs from which civilians have not been evacuated. (Well, I'm pretty sure that many of the Sunni guerillas who've been shooting at the US forces for the past year include some left-overs from the Ba'ath and the SRG. And the army did surrender.)

The US plans to supply Iraq with food, medicine, and reconstruction aid after the war will prove to be hopelessly inadequate, and hasty improvisation will be required to avert a huge humanitarian catastrophe. This will be represented after the event as a triumph of careful advance planning. (Upwards of 10,000 civilian dead, and water and electricity still out 12 months later, and unemployment peaking at 60%, and a nascent civil war, probably qualifies as a humanitarian disaster whichever way you cut it. The only good news is that the food situation seems not to have gone completely pear-shaped.)

Right now, the "reinforced brigade" of US army troops occupying Kabul is actually close to divisional strength. This actually ties down three divisions -- one on the sharp end, one on R&R having come off duty, and one preparing to go in -- out of a total strength of 11 divisions. If we postulate that the US army can nail down and occupy Iraq post- war with a similar sized force, that ties up 6 of the US army's 11 divisions indefinitely. Oops. This is going to have knock-on effects on Bush's ability to do with crises arising in the next year. Maybe he'll try to work around it by reverting to a Churchillian strategy (doomed to failure, as Group Captain Gray, author of this paper, explains). Or maybe he just trusts Kim Jong-Il to sit still and wait his turn? (Spot on the money, apart from Kim Jong-Il, who seems to be playing his cards cautiously this year.)

By the same token, the White House "forgot" to allocate any money to reconstructing Afghanistan this year, until Congress reminded them to the tune of $300M. Obviously Iraq can pay for itself. So, with the price of oil dropping, they'll open the stop-cocks and drop it still further. Good news for Bush's friends, who've been buying up mothballed oil refineries -- bad news for the House of Saud, who will get to face a pre-revolutionary situation with an empty treasury. Oops, what was that about the US army already being over-committed? (Okay, I called this one wrong. The Iraqi oil industry is sufficiently battered that the stop-cocks haven't opened fully yet and the brunt of the cost is coming out of the US treasury. Still, they're expected to pay for their own reconstruction, with Bremer's rolling program of agressive privatization. The House of Saud, meanwhile, gets a stay of execution as oil prices rise towards an all-time high.)

If Bush had gone about this sensibly, he could borrow Canadian or German or French or Russian troops to handle the post-war occupation. But as it is, the bill for unilateralism is going to come due only when Iraq surrenders -- when he discovers that, having made his bed, he's going to have to sleep in it alone. (And the urge to scream "I TOLD YOU SO" becomes well nigh irresistible ...)

This, incidentally, is why I stopped blogging about the Iraq situation. The potential for a clusterfuck on an international scale was obvious even before the invasion began. The current n-way civil war was predicted with some accuracy by those with more insight into domestic Iraqi factionalism than I (notably Juan Cole, who has made a profession of studying that part of the world). Meanwhile, the US military geared up under Donald Rumsfeld to fight and win the last war all over again, namely to do a re-run of 1991 (in which they fought a brisk land war to liberate a mostly grateful Kuwaiti citizenry), regardless of the fact that no army ever gets to fight the same war twice in a row. What a profound mess.

The mess wasn't made any better by the ideological blinkers and petty malice of the agressors. Insisting on applying a program of Thatcherite free-market free-for-all to a conquered nation has never been done before: on what grounds did they expect success? And refusing to count the windrows of shattered bodies of civilians while declining to recognize the authority of the International Criminal Court is as good as an admission that the bastards wanted their hands free from the outset to commit war crimes without retribution.

If I contemplated the mess for long I'd spring a stomach ulcer. So instead, I'm going to revisit it at roughly one year intervals to say either "I told you so" or "okay, so I was wrong" about my previous prediction, and the rest of the time I'm going to blog about happy fun stuff instead.

And that brings me to my April 2004 to May 2005 projection for Iraq, which can be summed up in one word: Lebanon.

Sweet dreams.

[Discuss Iraq invasion]

posted at: 16:41 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 13 Apr 2004

Unforseen software interactions

Just back from the Eastercon, where I had no net connectivity, I checked my blog and to my horror saw that the cron job I'd set up to post the hugo news looked to have gone off early. Which is flat-out impossible. Cron is a times execution daemon and if you tell it to move a file into a directory on April 11th, it just won't do it on the 7th.

Then I realized what had happened. I use blosxom as the weblog software on my diary. Blosxom stamps articles with the date and time at which the file was created or modified. The act of moving a file from a holding directory to a live one doesn't necessarily modify the inode (index structure in which the file information is stored) -- it just creates a new link pointing to it. The files modification and creation times, which are stored in the inode, are unchanged, so when blosxom looks them up it gets the time the file was created/changed, not the time when it was released for publication. So, as far as I can tell, cron worked fine, the article appeared on the right date ... but it's still stamped with the date on which I wrote it.

(If anyone does think the announcement below showed up before Sunday, can you drop me a line. If not, I think -- one source code audit later -- this may be one for comp.risks.)

posted at: 18:56 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 07 Apr 2004

News flash

It should be public knowledge by now, so I've set up a cron job to post this announcement for me (because I'm still away). Assuming nothing's changed (I still can't quite believe it!), I guess the best thing to do is to quote the email I got two weeks ago:

Double Congratulations!

"Singularity Sky" has been chosen by the voters for inclusion on the 2004 Hugo Award final ballot for the best novel of 2003 which will be voted by the members of Noreascon 4. Further information about Noreascon 4 can be found at

"Nightfall" has been chosen by the voters for inclusion on the 2004 Hugo Award final ballot for the best novelette of 2003 which will be voted by the members of Noreascon 4.

Wow. Not one, but two Hugo nominations. Thank you everybody who voted for my work: I'm boggled! And very happy. Thank you again.

[Discuss writing]

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

Oh, we do like to be beside the sea-side ...

I'm driving off to Blackpool tomorrow for Concourse, the British national Eastercon. I suspect broadband will be thin on the ground there, so it is possible that there will be little or no blogging before this time next week.

Gratuitous news flash of the day: I've signed the papers for Rogue Farm, a short (30-minute) CGI movie to be filmed this summer, based on my short story of the same name (which you can find in the anthology Live Without A Net and elsewhere). It's being produced with a grant from Scottish TV's New Found Land scheme, and if all goes well it should have its premiere some time in late summer/autumn.

And I've got another really big piece of writing-related news coming, which I can't talk about yet. More on this later.

[Discuss writing]

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

Tue, 06 Apr 2004

More Tales From The War On Convenience

The Madrid train bombs were, it seems, command-detonated using mobile phones.

This is a bad thing. It implies that mobile phones are dangerous. Accordingly, the Liberal Democrats' London Mayoral candidate Simon Hughes called for the scrapping of plans to install cellphone base stations on the London Underground. (Background: about half of the Underground's 410 kilometres of track -- it's more than twice as extensive as the Tokyo, New York, or Moscow subways -- runs very deep, so deep that cellphone signals can't penetrate. Transport for London has been talking about installing cellphone base stations in the deep tunnels to make things more convenient for passengers.)

Two thoughs occur to me.

Firstly: only incoming mobile phone calls are a hazard. Only incoming calls are going to set off command-detonated rucksack bombs. It's considerably harder to design a rucksack bomb with a brain that phones home regularly and asks "should I detonate now?" than it is to wire up a phone's vibrate alarm circuit to a firing cap. So outgoing calls are still relatively safe, and it's a bad idea to block them -- they might be somebody calling for an ambulance or the police (or, trivially, phoning home to say they'll be late). Therefore, rather than simply blocking all calls, it makes sense to allow outgoing calls but divert incoming calls and text messages to voice mail.

Secondly: what are the implications for public WiFi hotspots? For bluetooth? For ad hoc mesh networking? For the future of UWB mobile-IP nodes everywhere? For RFID tags? Radio used to be a convenience. Now it's becoming a necessity because the old, inconvenient paper systems it was introduced to supplement are being retired. Stuff doesn't work without it: drivers charge up their car parking credits by cellphone, information kiosks around stations use broadband (and, soon, WiFi) to hook into timetable databases, and so on.

Here's a scary thought experiment. Many GPS receivers have serial or USB interfaces that allow them to talk to computers -- some PDAs now appearing on the market have GPS built in, and they're aimed at the in-car navigation market. It should be relatively easy to ride a bus around a capital city and identify the GPS coordinates of, for example, the American embassy or important government offices. Then, with the aid of a PDA, some software, and a digital to analog converter, it is possible to build a GPS-detonated suitcase bomb -- a bomb which will go off when it comes within a pre-set blast radius of the target, rather than at a pre-set time. There's no reason for the terrorist who planted it to hang around in the same country once it's on the bus. Or to actively send it a detonation command. It's entirely passive, highly accurate, cheap to build -- plant a dozen of these on busses and you have all the makings of another Madrid atrocity. Should we therefore block GPS signals in cities?

We need a public debate on this, and we need it now, because the future is wireless, and as we're discovering wireless technologies massively lower the barrier to causing havoc.

[ Discuss terrorism]

posted at: 14:33 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 04 Apr 2004

Fringe Economy

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a three-week extravaganza of performing arts, theatre, stand-up comedy, dance, music and just about any other form of live performance art known to humanity, that happens every August in Edinburgh and makes life a misery for those of us who happen to live in the city. The Fringe is big, arguably bigger than the mainstream Edinburgh Festival (which is itself one of the largest art festivals in Europe); last year 1,184,738 individual tickets were sold for performances. It has also launched a flotilla of successful careers: it is the place for alternative comedians to hit the mainstream, for example. Back in 2002 it was the big breakthrough for Puppetry of the Penis; this year ... who knows?

As it happens, I'm part of a local writer's group (Writer's Bloc) which does regular-ish spoken word events in Edinburgh. About once every three months we take over a large pub basement or similar den of iniquity, stand up behind microphones, and try to keep the audience amused for two or three hours. Usually it works; lately we've been having headaches finding pub venues with rooms large enough to hold the 80+ bodies we attract. You might think that if we're that successful we'd be signing up for a slot in the Fringe. But you'd be wrong.

We actually looked into the logistics of doing the Fringe, and it's a bit daunting. Despite being sold as a hotbed of hopeful amateurs, the Fringe isn't cheap. The first hurdle you need to leap is registering as an official Fringe act. This gets you a one line listing in the Fringe brochure, which is the main mechanism tourists (and yes, it is mostly tourists who do the fringe) use to find stuff: price? £249 until April 5th, then £299 until April 25th (when bookings close).

But that's only the first of your expenses. Let's consider the fact that there are upwards of 500 acts on in a given Fringe month. You might want to buy an advertisement in the brochure to raise your profile. That's cool: but an eighth-page ad will set you back £500 +VAT, rising to £1900 +VAT for a half-page. And that's just one publication. Local listings mags and newspapers tend to put their advertising rate sheet up (or rather, reduce their discounts) come August. You could easily blow a couple of grand on advertising and end up with two poxy quarter-pagers in the Fringe program and J. Random Free Sheet. To cover the bases properly you're talking about spending serious money. Handbills spring to mind, and they're relatively cheap to print compared to magazine advertising -- a couple of hundred quid in any local print shop will set you up decently -- but they don't hand themselves out to the tourists. You've got to get yourselves, and friends, and family, and the family dog, out on the pavements thrusting scraps of badly printed paper at people who will most likely throw them away unread.

Finally, you've got the problem of finding a venue. And that's the back-breaker. Every cafe, pub, hotel, theatre, and random square open patch of pavement in Edinburgh makes out like a bandit during August. And there are so many performers that they can charge whatever they like. Our investigations came up with one bar, normally reasonable -- like, we could borrow their back room every week for free if we wanted to, outside of Festival month -- who wanted £800 for seven one-hour slots at the same time on consecutive days during that month, for a room that holds up to 40 people. (Given that they're open 12 hours a day, they expect to clear the thick end of £10,000 a week in fees collected from the performers who're renting their basement room. Plus, of course, the drinks they sell to the punters at, oh, 10% over the normal September-to-July prices. Remember, they normally let us use the room for free because of the drinks we'll buy in a session: we're talking an operating profit after tax, labour, and materials of roughly £0.5 per pint of beer, 40 seats, average one pint per hour for 96 hours a week -- or up to £2000 in profit just for opening the doors and letting people sit down.)

Now. Put it all together and run the numbers ...

Suppose we do it simply, by word of mouth plus handbills for the advertising, use friends, and keep the print bill to £100 (enough for a few thousand colour flyers and maybe fifty color A4 posters to sneak up in various Fringe venue lobbies). We need another £300 to register, and £800 for the venue. That's a total spend of £1200 for a minimal Fringe presence which involves seven one-hour performances in front of an audience of up to 40 people -- a maximum of 280 faces.

We can't assume we'll get 280 visitors, though. That's a sell-out at the door: we're much more likely to get a 50% sell-out, meaning 140 visitors. From whom we'd have to recoup £1200, or make a loss. That implies a ticket price of £10 just to break even. Fringe ticket prices are on the order of £5-12, but the high end is strictly for the well-known acts or the performers who're making a breakthrough to the big time and who everyone wants to see.

So: we'd stand to lose up to £1200 for the sake of reaching an audience of up to 280 -- but more likely 140 -- people. While our normal out-of-season spoken word evenings usually do better than break-even and attract an audience of 80, and we could do better if we had a larger venue.

Which makes me wonder: just what is the attraction of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for amateur performing arts groups? It sure ain't the money, and it probably can't be the audience, either -- while a lucky few will make the big time, for most performers a trip to the Fringe is doomed to obscurity, financial loss (on a scale which most artists can't afford -- the arts are notoriously under-paid), cramped venues owned by stone-squeezing landlords who will demand payment in blood, and the final insult: nobody even turns up to write a review of the act.

I'm beginning to wonder if the point of the Fringe hasn't shifted from a gathering of new performance artists to lining the pockets of the good Burghers of Edinburgh. Certainly if you read the Fringe 2003 report it sounds as if economic incentives (and the job of attracting more goddamn tourists to our already-seething city) are paramount. Where's it going to stop? Last year, one Sunday late in August saw 400,000 visitors on The Meadows. As Edinburgh has a resident population of some 540,000 people, they aren't all likely to be locals -- indeed, by some estimates the population of the city and its immediate environs doubles in August. It's like a huge, weird, arts-driven bubble economy, where more and more hapless hopeful performers are shovelled into the maw of a commercial tourism industry desperate to extract wallets from back-pockets, recycling the wreckage of a thousand doomed back-room acts as bait for beady-eyed Kodak-twitching tourists who in turn cram the boarding-houses and guest-rooms to bursting point and make it impossible to squeeze into any pub in town for a quiet pint or to find a table in a restaurant without booking two weeks in advance.

This isn't healthy. This isn't good. And I'm not sure it's stable, either. Last year we had a hot August. The local neds were at boiling point; two of my friends were assaulted in the street by random strangers, a friend-of-a-friend was threatened and, on reporting it to the police, was told that large areas of the run-down housing estates on the edge of the city were close to exploding. You've got rich but annoying tourists rubbing shoulders with pissed-off schemies who can't get into their local for a bevvy and who resent the hell out of the pretentious arty wank that goes on at this time of year. Add a hot summer and the whole thing begins to sweat like a pile of shelf-life expired dynamite. And the idiots in the counting-houses are encouraging this because big-number ticket sales are a good thing, even if successful local groups can't get a toe in the door, the quality of life in the city is going to hell in a handbasket, and natives are screaming just make it stop.

Colour me disenchanted. Maybe I'll move to Glasgow for August?

[Link] [Discuss Edinburgh Festival Fringe]

posted at: 12:20 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
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Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
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Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
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The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
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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) ]

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