Charlie's Diary

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Sat, 29 May 2004

Moore's Law to end in 600 years: Silicon Valley in panic

According to a paper by Lawrence M. Krauss and Glenn D. Starkman, there's a hard limit to the amount of computation that can be done in the universe if -- as currently observed -- it is expanding at an accelerating rate. As Physics Web explains:

the nature of the universe itself also places limits on computation because it is not possible to transmit or receive information beyond the so-called global event-horizon in an accelerating universe.

The acceleration of the universe is driven by something that has repulsive rather than attractive gravitational interactions. However, although this so-called "dark energy" is thought to account for around two-thirds of the universe, no one knows what it is made of. Possible explanations for dark energy include a "cosmological constant" or something known as quintessence.

Krauss and Starkman have determined how far an observer could travel in such a universe and still be able to transmit energy back to Earth. They then determined how much energy could be transmitted this way. To calculate the total amount of information that could be processed, they assumed that the universe has a minimum temperature, below which no energy -- and therefore no information -- can be extracted. Theory predicts that this minimum temperature exists if the universe has a cosmological constant.

The duo calculated that the total number of computer bits that could be processed in the future would be less than 1.35x10120. This means that the effective information available to any observer within the event horizon of an expanding universe will be significantly less than the total so-called Hawking-Beckenstein entropy -- the entropy that is associated with a black hole -- in the universe.

Let's not rush around screaming just yet: the universe isn't about to halt on us. To put this in human terms, Hans Moravec expounds an estimate for the computational complexity of a human brain of around 1014 ops/sec. I'm inclined to think he errs on the optimistic side by at least 3, and more likely 6-9, orders of magnitude, but it's hard to see a human brain requiring more than 1017 MIPS to simulate accurately down to the synaptic level. Elsewhere, speculative posthumanists as Robert Bradbury discuss the amount of computation you can do with the entire mass of a solar system -- it's only about 1020-25 times higher than my upper (conservative) limit for a human brain. And by the time we move on to discussions of the computational bandwidth of a Kardashev Type III civilization some really big numbers are flying around. But we're still about 1060 step-units below the upper bound derived by Krauss and Starkman. That figure of 1.35x10120 corresponds to about 1040 times the number of elementary particles in the observable universe. So we aren't going to run out of bits any time soon, at least not in human terms. But there are some other tantalizing hints that puzzle me:

"It is interesting that the numerical value in [reference 8] for the future information processing capacity of an observer in an accelerating Universe is comparable to the value claimed for the computational capacity of our entire observable Universe over its past history ..."

I'm still trying to get my head around the implications of that one. Anyone got anything to offer?

[Link] [Discuss singularity]

posted at: 19:50 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry

Where's a giant caterpilar with a hookah when you need one?

Quoth Reuters (by way of Yahoo news):

BRAZZAVILLE (Reuters) - A giant three-tiered mushroom which measures a yard across and was found in the tropical forests of the Republic of Congo has left experts in the capital Brazzaville scratching their heads.

"It's the first time we've ever seen a mushroom like this so it's difficult for us to classify. But we are going to determine what it is scientifically," Pierre Botaba, head of Congo's veterinary and zoology center, told reporters on Thursday.

The giant fungi stands 45 centimeters (18 inches) high and has three tiered caps on top of a broad stem. The bottom cap measures one meter across, the second one 60 cm and the top one is 24 cm wide, Botaba said.

The bizarre-looking mushroom was found in the village of Mvoula about 40 miles from Brazzaville and transported carefully to the capital by the local chief.

No photographs, dammit. Time to re-read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

[Link] [Discuss strange wildlife]

posted at: 19:15 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 28 May 2004

Brief Encounter

Feòrag and I just got home from the pub (where we'd gone for a Writers Bloc reading and subsequent refreshments) at 1:45am.

Walking down Leith Walk at zero dark o'clock is usually safe. It can be a bit rough between 10pm and midnight, but by 1am the really bad cases are off the street and the surviving drunken revelers making their way home aren't usually troublesome -- but they can sometimes provide an interesting insight into the psychology of drunken neds.

About a block from home we were deep in conversation when I spotted an atypical specimen staggering drunkenly up the walk towards us. He was shaven-headed, unstable on his feet in that way that subtly suggests a six pack of Tennant's Super somewhere in his recent past, and he was wearing jeans and a sweat shirt with some kind of odd decorative belt buckle. As we got closer, Feòrag was holding forth with some vehemence about the significance of judiciary attitudes to sentencing in male rape cases: at which point I noted, with some disbelief, that the wee bampot's wedding tackle was hanging out of his fly, balls and all. (Uncircumcised, slightly flabby, and that zip had got to be digging in, the way it was drawn up right to make his packet stand out.) Being polite, I pointed my eyeballs discreetly elsewhere and made encouraging noises as Feòrag continued to talk, trying not to notice our flasher's jaw dropping as he glared offendedly at us.

It wasn't until we'd passed him (without incident) that I pointed out to Feòrag that we'd been flashed. This was news to her: she hadn't noticed, and was rather disappointed.

Somewhere in Edinburgh a frustrated exhibitionist is worrying that maybe he needs to answer one of those ENLARGE YOUR PENIS ads.

I love this city.

[Discuss bampots]

posted at: 02:13 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 24 May 2004

Tie one on

Neckties. We hates them, preciousss, don't we?

Well, I do. My neck is short and thick: about two sizes larger than the rest of me, in terms of off-the-shelf men's shirt sizing. So if I wear a dress shirt I invariably get lost in a mound of wrinkles, or have to put up with a too-tight collar. Then there's the whole necktie thing. As far as I'm concerned the only reason for having a ligature around your neck is that you're about to be hanged. They're uncomfortable, constricting and hot (and yes, I sweat through my neck), fiddly to put on and take off, and invariably end up accidentally dunked in the soup or wind-swept into disarray. As an eccentric item of display maybe a case can be made for them, but as a day-to-day item of clothing they suck -- and especially as the determinant of the formality of male attire, which seems to be how they're mostly used. (How else to explain the bizarre use of clip-ons as part of security or police uniforms?)

When I was a kid I had to wear one as part of school uniform. When I was a young adult I had a "professional" job that required me to wear one, along with a suit, or a white coat. It became an increasingly irritating token of an oppressive conformity that I grew less, not more, accepting of as I grew older. Then I wised up and realised that ties were unnecessary as long as I avoided social situations in which I would be judged negatively by influential strangers if I didn't wear one. The old saying "first appearances count" is not actually correct: it would be more accurate to say, "first impressions count". It follows that if you arrange your work so that people you do business with form their first impressions of you before they see you your lack of an ornamental noose won't affect their opinion of you significantly. In the age of email and telephony, this turned out to be was relatively easy. Indeed, I think the last time I wore a tie was probably to a business meeting five years ago (if you ignore a more recent fancy-dress party), and I don't think I own even one of the cursed things at present. But I digress ...

I've just had the pleasure of having my anti-necktie prejudice placed on an empirical footing by a team of researchers at the New York Hospital Medical Centre of Queens:

The researchers, at the New York Hospital Medical Centre of Queens led by Dr Steven Nurkin, looked at ties worn by doctors, their assistants and medical students at a teaching hospital in New York and compared them with ties worn by the hospital security staff.

Almost half the ties (47.6%) worn by clinicians were found to harbour potential disease-causing bacteria.

"Studies such as this remind us about what we may bring to our patients' bedside," Dr Nurkin said.

"By increasing our awareness and making simple behavioural changes we may be able to provide a better quality of healthcare."

The researcher said their study questioned whether wearing a tie was in the best interests of patients.

White coats or medical smocks tend to be changed regularly and cleaned in an environment that is designed to prevent cross-infection. Even shirts and trousers are laundered regularly. But ties tend to be made of expensive and difficult fabrics (silk, anyone?) and get cleaned only when it's absolutely necessary, as in when they get dipped in the soup -- or in a patient's wound dressing. Truly, it's disgusting.

About the only note of caution I'd sound is that pretty much the same sort of studies were rolled out in the late years of the 19th century by the nascent razor blade industry to try and wean Victorian gentlemen away from their whiskers. But as most patients in a hospital are more likely to come into close proximity to their doctor's necktie than a beard, I'm going to let that one rest.

[Link] [Discuss fashion victims]

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

A message from our sponsors

In between fits of emergency damage control on the server, a couple of bits of news emerge from the writing front. Lobsters, which originally came out in June 2001, was translated into Japanese some time ago: it has now made the shortlist for the Seiun Award (for translated fiction), the Japanese equivalent of the Hugos. Of course, it's up against that Ted Chiang story, which means it's going to lose, but that's nothing new. And the news arrived at just the right moment to cheer me up (there's nothing quite as depressing as fighting a rear-guard action to keep a dying server alive on intensive care, unless it's doing the same thing for a human being.)

And then I discovered "The Atrocity Archives" had been reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle, who seemed to like it (the phrase "science fiction's more pleasant surprise of the year" leapt out and bit me between the eyes, despite the trailing treacherous words "... so far".)

And the post today delivered the proofs for "Survivor", the final story in the series running in Asimov's SF. Hmm.

[Discuss writing]

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

Fri, 21 May 2004

Alas, poor server ...

This server is dying.

Back when I rented it, on a three year lease in mid-2000, it looked fine for my purposes, which were running a web server for a couple of medium-duty personal websites (intermediate between very-heavy personal and light-duty corporate) and providing email service for my friends, family, and self.

That was before the web server had to handle upwards of 100,000 distinct page impressions per month and the web server found itself acting as a spam filter. I reckon we're getting a couple of thousand spams a day between us, which may not sound like much -- but the server is an aged Cobalt RAQ3; a Pentium-II running at 450MHz, with 64Mb of RAM and a 10Gb disk. The spam filtering server SpamAssassin eats working memory by the double-fistfull, and filtering a single message can chomp up about 10-20Mb for a few seconds. If three spams come in within the space of a minute, the machine begins to grind. It badly needs more memory -- but that isn't really an option.

Adding blogging software, blog-despamming software, mailing lists courtesy of MailMan, and other nice stuff only makes the picture worse. So does the exponential growth in spam. If the spam vanished, things would be fine, if a bit tense: but as it is, I've watched this machine run with a load average in the range 5.0 to 30.0 for the past six hours and it's clear that it is dying on its feet. A load average of 1.0, in UNIX-ese, means that there's a single job queued up and ready to run behind whatever the computer is doing right now; a load average over 1.0 means the machine is fully loaded, and a load average anywhere over 10 means the machine is badly overloaded. This year's peak load so far was around 75 ...

Which is why you probably can't get through to my blog, or to The Prattle or Paganlink or from time to time: I've had to shut down the web server for long enough to clear a backlog of mail.

Anyway. Next week I'm about to buy a new house rent a new server. It'll have about five to ten times the MIPS, sixteen times the memory, and sixteen times the disk capacity of the current one. But it will take me some time to move everything over, because not only is it the web server for several domains, it's doing mail, and spam filtering, and FTP, and mailing lists, and web, and primary DNS, and a bunch of other stuff. I am going to have to put my slowly-rusting Linux hat back on and do a load of system administration work, instead of writing.

Bah, humbug.

[ Discuss Linux ]

posted at: 18:28 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 19 May 2004

The screaming never stops

I am trying hard not to post anything about this, because it's just too obscene.

Instead I am going to pretend I come from another time-line where the world is still safe for such innocent capitalist antiquarian pursuits as buying your very own Tandy WP3 word processor, Cambridge Z88, Binary LED watch, or nixie tube wristwatch.

But, you know, it isn't really safe out there -- and however hard you jam your fingers in your ears, the screaming never stops.

[Discuss Iraq invasion] or [Discuss toys]

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

Mon, 17 May 2004

I was a teenage typewriter nerd

One of my long-term regrets is that I was born too early. Too early for computer science to be taught at school early enough for me to take it as an 'O' or 'A' level topic and then go on to do it at University the first time round, anyway -- I suppose if I'd been born any later I wouldn't remember watching Neil Armstrong step off that ladder live on a flickering black and white TV. But I digress: my first acquaintance with the QWERTY keyboard came not from any electronic device, but courtesy of an elderly manual typewriter when I was about 11.

Typing wasn't something that was taught at the boy's school I went to, but I already knew that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. My sister (who's somewhat older than I am) had a very compact Empire Aristocrat, and for no reason that I can remember she gave it to me. I happily beat it to death over the next three or four years, finding that it gave legs to the D&D scenarios (and early, really really bad short stories I was cutting my teeth on) of my mid-teens. It was an all-metal machine with an all-metal case, implying that it was manufactured nearer to 1950 than 1960, and probably aimed at journalists. Eventually it died of metal fatigue: the keys began snapping, and the cost of repairing it annoyed my parents until my mother bought me an Adler 25 for a birthday present. It was another manual typewriter: I'd had my heart set on a Smith-Corona golfball electric, just then coming down in price to a point where it was within the scope of my dreams, but I wasn't to get my hands on an electric machine for another few years. I was a four-fingered self-taught typist, because my little pinkies lacked the strength (and length!) required to hammer the manual keyboard into submission -- it took me years to convert myself into a true touch-typist after I switched to using electric typewriters and word processors.

When I went to university in the early eighties, home computers were still rather pathetic, and PCs were far beyond my budget: the cost of a PC-XT clone, daisywheel printer (9-pin dot matrix printers were Not Acceptable for coursework), and (gasp) disk drives was close to what I had to live on for eight months. However, in my second year I lashed out and, with the proceeds of a vacation job (and a small savings account left by my grandfather) I lashed out and bought myself a frightening Brother CE-70. It was, in a very real way, my first word processor: it had a massive 8K memory, enough to hold almost a page of text, and it has a 20 character LCD display above its daisywheel print head. This was in many ways a class machine, a heavy duty electronic office typewriter that could allow me to edit lines of text before hitting the print button. You could even buy a serial interface for it, if you had a computer and wanted to use it as a printer or a teletype terminal.

That was, of course, my last typewriter. The next year, Amstrad launched the Amstrad PCW8256 all-in-one word processor. Actually, it was a CP/M machine with all the bits, plus a dedicated WP package that could run on the bare metal, but it was also a fully functional computer: I sold the typewriter and bought a PCW with the change, and never looked back.

Incidentally, it was a software omission in the PCW's LocoScript 1.01 word processor that got me interested in programming. The early machine I bought came with a version of LocoScript that lacked a word count feature. As an aspiring fiction writer I needed a word counter badly -- so badly that I began reading the manuals, stumbled across the Mallard BASIC interpreter and the CP/M boot disk, and started using my PCW as a real computer rather than a typewriting appliance. I'd briefly owned a ZX81 previously, but it was insufficiently useful to capture my imagination; in contrast, the PCW was a real computer, with disk drives and printer and serial and parallel ports (and, later, a modem and a hard disk -- yes, I bought a hard disk drive for my PCW after I hit the real world and got a job!). BASIC seemed more trouble than it was worth, but sitting near the top of my bookshelves I still have a Digital Research Pascal/MT+ boxed set for CP/M, complete with the compiler and linker on a 3" floppy disk (no, not a 3.5" disk but a 3" disk, of the weird mutant hybrid type Amstrad adopted). That set me on the path back to academia and a computer science degree, and in some way determined my future; it's probably no coincidence that my first published short stories were written on that machine.

Still, I get a thrill of nostalgia when I see an exotic old manual typewriter. I occasionally pull my copy of Century of the Typewriter (by Wilfred A. Beeching, former Director of the British Typewriter Museum) off the shelf to marvel at its description of the Burbra pneumatic typewriter (consumables: fabric ribbons and cans of compressed air) or the Dobson and Wyn Pocket Typewriter of 1887. And I therefore commend to you Chuck & Rich's Antique Typewriter website and museum if you get a thrill out of weird and wonderful writing machines.

The only problem with being a typewriter geek is that, unlike (say) being a fountain pen geek, the implements are bulky and heavy. Which is why, with some regret, I must admit that I don't currently have a typewriter of any kind. But who knows? Neal Stephenson apparently wrote his Baroque Cycle books using a pen. Maybe if the dieselpunk idea takes off I'll have to go back to an Imperial '66' wide-carriage manual ...

[Link] [Discuss toys]

posted at: 23:11 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Been away ...

In Leeds, seeing family. Normal Service Will Be Resumed shortly ...

posted at: 00:20 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 13 May 2004

A word from the sponsors

I've been quiet this week because on Tuesday a large wedge of paper landed in my letterbox with a thump -- the copy edited manuscript of The Family Trade, which (I am informed) is due out in the last week of September. This is the first volume in the ongoing fantasy series I'm writing (in between SF novels), and it's now slouching towards the bookshelves -- or it will be, when I put the checked MS back in the mail tomorrow.

Which reminds me: I really must update my FAQ with some dates ...

The next red-letter day in the US is July 1st. That's when Ace are due to publish Iron Sunrise (although Amazon won't be shipping it until July 6th). Not entirely coincidentally, Singularity Sky, to which "Iron Sunrise" is the sequel, goes paperback at the very end of June. And the first UK release of "Singularity Sky" (in hardcover, from Orbit) is due July 1st, too. (If you want the UK hardcover of "Iron Sunrise", or the UK paperback of "Singularity Sky", you'll have to wait until February '05.)

The Family Trade is due out in hardcover from Tor in the last week of September: no definite word on the paperback release date yet, but it should be significantly less than a year. (Books 2 and 3, "The Hidden Family" and "The Clan Corporate", are already clogging up my editor's office.) There's no definite word on a UK edition as yet, either.

The book most people bug me about, "Accelerando", is due in hardcover around July '05, hopefully simultaneously in the UK and US. (The last two stories in the series it collects and expands on are due in Asimov's SF magazine later this year.) It will be followed the same time in 2006 by "Glasshouse" (which is set in the same universe).

(Speaking of "Accelerando", earlier this week someone asked me just why I wrote it. The resulting email probably makes a nice little essay on the subject, and when I've tidied it up a bit I'm going to post it here. But not right now ...)

If you've lost count, this brings me up to eight novels sold in the US, of which two are in print right now, another four have been handed in and accepted, one is about to be handed in, and another needs some final polishing. The translation and non-US rights picture is a bit blurry, but the four SF novels are sold in the UK, and I'll get round to posting an update on the various translations that are in the works as soon as I can confirm all the contracts are solid. For now, the only one I've been told the publication date of is the French translation of "The Atrocity Archives", which is due out in November this year.

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 23:40 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 10 May 2004

Happy fun stuff

Well, I dunno about happy and fun, but it's not actively bad ...

The Cassini/Huygens deep space mission is now within sight of Titan, towards which it has been cruising for the past several years. In July, the Huygens lander will parachute into Titan's atmosphere, hopefully telling us a bit about what conditions are like on the largest moon in the solar system.

And the head of the Russian space agency is quoted as saying that a manned Mars mission by 2011-13 is feasible using off-the-shelf hardware. The report is a bit short on details, but if this is referring to the unused Mir modules and the Kliper Soyuz-replacement (and Onega booster), it's promising.

I really want to be around to see live video from the surface of Mars. And no, robots don't count.

[Discuss space]

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

Sat, 08 May 2004

Happy talk

Y'know, I currently have this overwhelming urge to jam my fingers in my ears, jump up and down, and yell: "no! This is not happening! Everything is just fine!" The impulse towards denial is enormous. Unfortunately, corroborating information that draws an ugly picture is virtually impossible to avoid. And that's before we look at the allegations that US forces participated in prisoner massacres in Afghanistan.

It seems to me that the state is the only body that rots from the top down ...

I have an itchy feeling that it's no coincidence that Bush is the first US President to be an MBA, and that this stuff is happening on his watch.

In another discussion of this subject, Brian Bruxvoort remarked, "the focus on the release of the pictures instead of the actions seems in-line with a administration that thinks of itself like a business. The damage they see is PR fallout, the tarnished image of the company, not the acutal human suffering they've caused."

I think he's quite right. Corporate managers can afford to ignore the broader consequences of their actions for society at large because that's not part of their job description. Their job is to maximize shareholder value, and leave the State (or charities) to pick up the pieces after the next round of downsizing. If you're running the government, then picking up the pieces and looking after the big picture is what you're supposed to be doing. But this is an administration of executives trained in business management rather than government. Bush's MBA, Cheney's position at Halliburton ... they're all business leaders. Their entire experience leads them to focus on their business goals while telling them that they can leave dealing with the fallout for somebody else.

Moreover, their attitude to dissent can be explained by the hypothesis that they're trying to run the USA like a corporation rather than a country. Compare and contrast their denunciations of any dissenting opinion with Tony Blair's nuanced willingness to accept that dissenting viewpoints are legitimate, even if he isn't going to act on them. What's going on here -- why are these politicians -- supposedly politics is the art of reconcilling distinct viewpoints -- so unreceptive to argument?

In general, most corporations are internally constituted as perfect Stalinist dictatorships, directed from the center by managers who are free to do anything as long as it furthers their mission. There is an almost total lack of accountability from the employees, except where it may be imposed by external regulatory authorities. The corporate model is as profoundly anti-democratic a system as can be imagined, but we put up with it because it has the saving grace that it exists as a little island within a larger society. Corporations have a strictly limited scope for oppression.

The problem I'm noticing is people with the mind-set of corporate upper management trying to run a country as if it is a corporation. Dissent is suppressed, all actions must be goal-oriented, policy is dictated unilaterally from the centre and collateral damage is ignored. The emphasis on appearances that typifies the current administration is simply an old ingrained habit from operating within the constraints of a broader context (of a corporation in a market regulated by a bigger entity); the contempt displayed for dissenting viewpoints is characteristic of the worst excesses of a corporate monopoly.

Rumsfeld is a corporate manager. Bush is, too. So is Cheney. It all seems to be of a piece with the willingness to use any means to get results, however evil, the obsession with meeting goals regardless of colateral damage, the determination to spin criticism as subversion or treason, and so on. They think they're running America, Inc., may the devil take the hind-most, and society can look after itself. In this kind of climate, is it any surprise that low-level employees try to shape up to the perceived expectations of their masters and deliver results by any means necessary, however dehumanizing or monstrous? And is it any surprise that they refuse to be held to account by anyone except their shareholders? (And I'm not talking about Congress here.)

(I'm going to go away now and think happy thoughts about fluffy pretty things and try not to get any more depressed than I am already, before my head explodes.)

[Discuss Iraq invasion]

posted at: 13:22 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 06 May 2004

Nothing new here ...

I'm back home again, exhausted from my travels but otherwise unharmed. I am, however, catching up on the news from the past week. It's funny how, deprived of regular net bandwidth and stuck in the pressure-cooker environment of a science fiction convention the real world tends to recede. So it's only really over the past day or so that the significance of the news from Iraq and Abu Ghraib prison began to sink in.

With twenty-five deaths in US military custody (including incidents described as murder to a BBC correspondent) being investigated, and photographic evidence of war crimes (euphemistically described as "Iraqi Prisoners Controvery" by the Washington Post) surfacing, I am reminded that we've been here before.

By way of example, in 1971, during the early stages of the Northern Ireland insurgency, when internment was introduced a special system of interrogation (sometimes known as the "Ulster Hybrid") was introduced:

Twelve of 342 arrested men were subjected to several techniques which appeared to serve as pre-interrogation procedures. This included placing a black bag over their heads ('hooding'); being made to stand against a wall with their hands held high above their heads and legs apart for up to 16 hours at a stretch and being deprived of sleep for the first two or three days. In addition, the rooms where the men were left had recorded "white noise" played in them and the men were made to wear boiler suits (perhaps to reduce tactile stimulation). It was also alleged that the men's diets were severely restricted to occasional administrations of dry bread and cups of water (British Medical Association, 1986, pp.15-16; Shallice, 1972, p.388). The British Army termed this "interrogation in depth" and the methods used (hooding, noise bombardment, food deprivation, sleep deprivation and forced standing positions) were known collectively as the "five techniques" (Hogg, 2003). At the time, the UK government stated that these procedures were necessary in order to "provide security for detainees and guards", an "atmosphere of discipline" and to prevent inter-prisoner communication (BMA, 1986, pp.15-16).

(From Psychology and the war on terror by Dave Harper.)

This mistreatment has extremely serious side-effects:

Three men later seen by professor Daly, an Irish psychiatrist at University College, Cork, were reported to have become "psychotic" within 24 hours of the beginning of the interrogation. The symptoms were loss of the sense of time, perceptual disturbance leading to hallucinations, profound apprehension and depression, and delusional beliefs. One man is said to have heard and seen a choid conducted by the protesant leader, Ian Paisley; another could not stop himself from urinating in his trousers and on his mattress; a number had suicidal fantasies. Shallice reports that most other cases of hooding suffered severe mental injuries after it was all over and that almost all of Daly's other patient (20 in all) had overt psychiatric illness. Anxiety, fear, dread, as well as insomnia, nightmares and startle respose were common; depression was almost universal. Psychosomatic symptoms such as peptic ulcers had developed rapidly.

(Quoted from "War on the Mind: The military uses and abuses of psychology", Peter Watson, ISBN 0 14 02 2300 2, pub. Pelican, 1980.)

It should be noted that the British government discontinued the use of these techniques after the Irish government took the case to the European Commission of Human Rights in the early 1970's, where it was deemed that these techniques certainly fitted the relevant definition of torture under the Geneva Conventions (read down a little way to see it). But it would appear that the old and bloody tools were not forgotten; they were just set aside, discussed and remembered still, to await the arrival of a more conveniently dehumanized victim. And if there's just one species of dehumanized hate-figure in the west today, it's got to be the Islamicist terrorist.

Other bloggers (notable picks: Kathryn Cramer and Rivka) are all over the subject of what's going on at present. But I've got a nasty feeling that what we're seeing isn't merely the tip of an iceberg confined to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the tip of an iceberg of institutionalized torture at the heart of all western attempts to deal with the question of Islamicist terrorists.

Ignorance and impatience are a fatal combination, and I find it frighteningly easy to believe that intelligence agencies, short of trained interpreters and cultural experts, are resorting to more and more brutal techniques to try to break the will to resistance of suspected terrorists. The slippery slope argument applies in spades: if you're holding someone who may know where the ticking bomb is planted today, and can justify torturing them to make them confess, why not torture the friend of a friend of an acquaintance of the guy who might plant a bomb next week? And so the pervasive sense of urgency surrounding the War On Terrorism (as exemplified by the rhetoric and the term itself), combined with a level of ingrained contempt and hostility towards the culture of the suspects, leads to corner-cutting of the most brutal kind imaginable.

Which is to say: I think the torture is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise at the heart of the neoconservative program to restructure the Middle East. It's the same disease that enabled another cultured, well-educated western society two thirds of a century ago to efficiently and systematically brutalize half a continent: the conviction that the Other is backward, ill-educated, unworthy of tolerance, brutish, must needs be governed for their own good and punished for rebellion against the self-evidently correct policies of the superpower ... you can't justify the invasion and occupation of other nations these days without espousing a belief that their citizens are morally, intellectually, or ideologically inferior. To view someone as inferior in one of these ways is to dehumanize them. And, once dehumanized, they become fair game for the most odious of practices: collective punishment, suspension of civil rights, torture, and finally mass murder of civilians -- whether by gas chamber or cluster bomb makes no difference.

This is a wake-up call. We aren't just on the slippery slope, we're two-thirds of the way down it and trying on the jackboots for fit.

(Meanwhile, I see that US army forces have entered Najaf. Where do I go to hand back my "member of the human species" badge?)

[Discuss Iraq invasion]

posted at: 19:53 | path: /wartime | 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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Via Subterranean Press (US HC -- due Jan, 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some webby stuff I'm reading:

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

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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