Charlie's Diary

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Fri, 23 Dec 2005

Paranoid thought for the day

Like somewhere over 80% of the UK's adult population, I have a driving license. Like over half the population, I have a car. And I was somewhat taken aback (but not too surprised) to read a report in the Independent that from 2006, every journey by car will be monitored by camera. Existing roadside CCTV cameras are being hooked into the police ANPR system (automatic number plate recognition) and by next March, they're expecting to be logging up to 35 million number plate reads per day, along with precise time and location information.

(They're waving the Terrorism bloody shirt around a lot, seemingly in ignorance of the fact that the July 7th bombers did their stuff on public transport. But that's about par for the level of logic I'm coming to expect from our public servants these days. It seems to be a case of "if something is possible it must be done" in respect of any and all possible surveillance technologies. Presumably because of a misplaced neo-Benthamite trust in the panopticon ...)


As I said, I own and drive a car. I'm not much of a boy racer (I'm actually that sluggish Volvo Estate driver you're fuming because you're backed up behind ...) but I've got a feeling that it would be prudent to make a new year's resolution to drive precisely within the legally allowed maximum -- within, in other words, 10% of the speed limit -- from now on. In fact, preferably from a couple of years ago on. Even when there's not a GATSO or a police car in sight. Because ...

These CCTV cameras are already up and running. And it's highly likely that some or all of the take from these cameras is being recorded for posterity.

It's quite feasible to log all our motorway traffic. Let's say they're using MPEG4 as a compression standard. MPEG4 footage at TV resolution, in colour, runs to about 0.5Gb/hour, but you can compress it a lot further by only recording segments where some object of interest (i.e. a vehicle) is moving through the field of vision, or only recording in black and white, and so on. A ballpark figure is that a motorway camera is going to deliver 5-7Gb of data (one DVD full) per day, and warehousing that kind of amount of data for a network of a couple of thousand cameras is eminently practical -- it's only a couple of terabytes a day for the entire country.

Now, these cameras aren't being used for speed enforcement just yet, and indeed ANPR is primarily aimed at traffic analysis, not speeding. However, it's a fair cop that if you drive onto the M1 motorway at Junction 1 and leave it 200 miles later, at Junction 40 or thereabouts, in three hours or less, you must have exceeded the speed limit. So, once the ANPR network is chewing down all that juicy data, persistent speeders -- people who cruise up the motorway at 80mph instead of 77 -- are going to get a nasty shock.

Finally, as image analysis kit gets faster, it's only a matter of time before some bright spark at the Highways Agency gets the idea of pulling any and all archival footage and scanning it for speeders, then issuing tickets. Never mind that it'll be a couple of years in arrears -- they were breaking the law, weren't they? It's no different from using databases of archived DNA samples to crack cold case crimes. And if you object to it, why are you trying to protect lawbreakers ...?

[Discuss Big Brother]

posted at: 17:13 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 21 Dec 2005

Not much to say ...

I've been quiet recently because I don't have much to say. (You want me to comment on politics? Hah. Iraq continues to go to hell in a handbasket, the Dead Pool on Tony Blair's career remains open, and oil is going to stay expensive for the forseeable future. Meanwhile, the Party has generously agreed to increase our chocolate ration from 25 grams per month to 22 grams ...)

I've mostly been puttering around, failing to effectively get to grips with book #4 in "Merchant Princes" (which, if I pull my finger out, might reach the 33% point by Christmas Day -- when I'd originally intended to have finished the first draft), ripping the hitherto-unripped half of my CD collection into iTunes (Chainsaw Kittens? Glands of External Secretion? Various Cyberdog compilations? Hello? Anybody listening?), and visiting family members.

On the professional side: "Singularity Sky" is, I believe, now available in French translation, and "The Hidden Family" is due to follow "The Family Trade" over there. "Accelerando" is getting a German translation, while "Singularity Sky" and "Iron Sunrise" have sold to Japan. The trade paperback of "The Atrocity Archives" is now available from Ace, and very handsome it looks, too.

I can now safely admit to having sold another five novels -- I'm due to deliver three more volumes of "Merchant Princes" to Tor, at a rate of one per year, and two SF novels to Ace (again, one per year: they're going to be a near-future SF thriller, and a sequel to "Iron Sunrise"). In addition, there may be a short story collection appearing some time in 2008. Those of you who read my words printed on the corpses of brutally murdered trees will be pleased to know that I expect to continue contributing to deforestation and global warming for at least the next couple of years.

Finally, I want you to know that I hate Christmas.

I'm not entirely sure why I hate Christmas -- it's been a feature of my life for as long as I can remember -- but there's something about the mixture of sanctimonious blather about goodwill to all hominids, frenzied bulemic consumption, smug togetherness, and misplaced bonhomie that gets on my nerves like fingernails scraping down an old slate blackboard. (And I really hate the music that goes with Christmas, from Victorian carrols on up to the crass commercialism of more recent chart-toppers.)

To the extent that people use Christmas as a time to give donations to childrens' charities, do the peace on earth and goodwill to all shuffle, and try to be nice ... I've got to ask, why confine it to this particular time of year? If you believe such sentiments are apposite, then there's another 364 days that can benefit from them. And if not, then isn't it all a bit hypocritical? (I'm really scratching my head over this one: thing is, Christmas isn't part of my cultural baggage -- as far as I know, none of my ancestors have ever been Christian -- so I'm fumbling in the dark here.)

But what I really hate most is the crassly exploitative commercialization of the holiday season. It's not enough to hole up at home and over-eat while watching crap suitable-for-the-entire-family movies on TV, but we're supposedly required to buy expensive greeting cards and mail them to near-total strangers (thus, lining the pockets of the Post Office and the likes of Hallmark), buy lots of glittery decorations and contribute to deforestation (which I'm already a past master at), and somehow spend maybe 20% of our annual surplus income in the space of about three weeks. Excuse me, Mr Retailer? If you want to stick your hand in my wallet, would you mind maybe trying to deliver some value for money, rather than the insanely tacky gift-wrapped rubbish that's inflicted on us every autumn?

Anyway. It has been my habit over the past few years to spend the back end of December quietly working on a book. And I'm not going to veer from that pattern this month. Just don't expect much in the way of blogging while I'm getting on with it.

Merry Grinchmas!

[Discuss Grinchmas]

posted at: 17:26 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 05 Dec 2005

Acute future shock, part 19

I've complained before about how the real world conspires to make jobbing science fiction writers feel like complete idiots, unable to imagine anything remotely as weird as reality.

Well, yesterday's dose was a bit of a grab-bag, but I think I'm up to speed on my future shock. Having just finished reading the proofs of "Rainbows End" by Vernor Vinge (hint: if you like near-future SF, this is the current benchmark novel -- or it will be, when it comes out next April/May) I figured I was pretty much immune to being mugged by weirdness. Was I hell ...

Spotted in the computing section of a bookstore: a text titled Extrusion Detection. WTF? Yes, it's a neologism by analogy from intrusion detection (the art of detecting anomalous network activity indicative of an attack on your own systems). As the cover blurb went on to explain, "70% of network attacks originate within the enterprise ..."

(If that doesn't tweak your sense of wonder, then consider this: it implies that enough people are now sufficiently network-savvy to make deliberate internal threats a major worry for security administrators. Alternatively, the worms are winning. Either way, it's bad.)

Then there was this gem, culled from the Telegraph: yoghurt dispute hits a brick wall. It appears a home owner in Wiltshire is being sued by her local council for failing to paint her house with live yoghurt. (They failed to take action earlier when she refused to comply with an order to use manure; the yoghurt was their second choice.) There is, it seems, a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, but I'm not sure my sanity can withstand that kind of reasonableness.

Oh, and in Sweden, police are searching for the vandals who set fire to a 13 metre high straw goat in the centre of Gavle.

I swear, if the universe won't stop doing my job for me, I'm going to give up and start writing high fantasy trilogies instead. At least they're weird in a predictable way.

[Discuss funnies]

posted at: 13:14 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 02 Dec 2005

Conspiracy Theories

I generally try to avoid getting political in this blog, because (being a mercenary sort) I'm not inclined to piss off one sector or another of my audience and potential customer base. (Hey, you can read, can't you?) But I think I can safely admit to a certain degree of fascination with the policy train-wreck currently unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic (and, to a lesser extent, in London).

It is, perhaps, more important to study the political circumstances that made the Iraq war possible than to consider the war itself. At this point there's relatively little wiggle room in Iraq; it's more than two years since the invasion and it's doubtful that any new directions in western foreign policy can make much difference to the eventual outcome -- too much water (and blood) has flowed under the bridges on the Tigris and Euphrates. The big questions we ought to be worrying about are: how did we get into this mess, and more importantly, how do we avoid getting into similar messes in future?

First of all, it's apparent that the mess in question is the outcome of several interacting political processes, which go back a very long way indeed. I'm not talking about George W. Bush and his need to one-up his daddy here. I'm not talking about Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz or Dick Cheney. It'd be tempting to blame Winston Churchill -- after all, he's dead (so he can neither defend himself nor be personally harmed), but he, too, is a Johnny-come-Lately in the terms I'm thinking of. If we really want to assign blame, the person to nail it on is that long-dead Liberal British Prime Minister, William Gladstone.

There are no bedrock certainties in politics other than change. The 1874 general election, into which Gladstone led the Liberal Party to defeat, was fought on such issues as the abolition of the income tax and the pressing need to invade lots of third world principalities and bring enlightenment (not to mention Christianity) to the natives. (His rivals, the notorious tax-and-spend Conservative followers of Disraeli were in contrast to go on to raise the income tax in order to pay for the peaceful purchase of the Suez Canal.)

Looking at the policies and the labels from today's perspective is like looking into a curious funhouse mirror version of politics as we know it: the 19th century Liberal Party was largely the party of the zealot free-marketeers, today's self-identified Libertarians, with a smattering of socialist radicals muttering into their beards, and a curious mixture of Benthamite utilitarians trying to remake society as a smooth-running machine. The Conservatives were, in contrast, both the party of the rich landowner rentier class and the aspiring shopkeepers and mercantilists. If there was an axis of debate that defined mid-Victorian politics it seems to have been a tug-of-war between the Libertarians and the Utilitarians.

Having lost the election, Gladstone got a bad case of do-goodism (tempered by religious help-yourself-ism) over a nasty little uprising then going on in the Balkans, at that time under the thumb of the Ottoman empire. His pamphlet Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East (1876) set the pattern for much wrong-headed thinking on the subject of the middle east in the English-speaking world: as others have noted, the western attempts to answer the question of what to do with the East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire took little or no account of the interests of the people who lived there. And the acuity of the question became severe once the Versailles Treaty threw into sharp relief the concurrent collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the dependency of modern western war-fighting methods on the availability of oil (which was, coincidentally, something the Ottoman Empire sat upon a great deal of).

Now, let us hit the fast-forward button and zip across several time zones and nearly a century of history. From 1953 and the CIA-backed coup against Mossadegh in Iran onwards, and definitely since the Suez Crisis of 1956, the major western influence in the Middle East has clearly been the United States. And American politics and foreign policy on the eve of the 21st century is not like unto British 19th and early 20th century foreign policy -- or is it?

Well, looking deeper than the resemblance between current plans to replace US troops in Iraq with air power and Winston Churchill's poison gas memo or the use of RAF bombers to police Mesopotamia (Iraq) during the 1920 uprising, it seems to me that the really interesting point is the doctrinal belief that it is possible to invade a nation and completely change the ideology of the governed -- a belief that is not unique to and original to today's neoconservatives, but which was shared with a number of other political or religious creeds. In the 19th century, it was the Gladstonite missionary zeal that contemplated the conversion (or at least the subjugation) of the heathens to the cause of modernizing, expansionist Christianity. Today, there seems to be a similar political dynamic at work in the inner circles of American foreign policy as formulated by the post-cold-war Right: from the Project for a New American Century to the White House is but a short hop.

The key insight I'd like to bring to your attention at this point is that the purported political axis of the latter half of the twentieth century -- between capitalism and socialism or communism -- is a canard; in historical terms it's an aberration, for the historical pattern is a struggle between the proponents of authoritarianism and those of what is today called libertarianism (and used to be Liberalism). The aberrant conditions of the cold war made for strange bed-fellows, so that the socialist and capitalist factions were themselves coalitions of libertarian and authoritarian types: and today the old power axes are breaking down and the deeper historical factions are surfacing.

It has been argued that there are two key influences on the neoconservative policy makers: the Shachtmanite version of Trotskyism, a somewhat mutant American variant, was clearly an influence of many of the neocons in their earlier 1960s incarnation, and the views of right-wing crypto-Nieztchian philosopher Leo Strauss. There's a curious intersection between the views of Trotsky (it is the job of the vanguard to lead the proletariat but not to represent them, to form their opinions and give shape to the revolution that will overthrow the bourgeoisie) and those of Strauss (the rise of the bourgeosie is a tragedy for western civilization: the correct order for society is one oriented towards struggle, led by warriors whose actions will be shaped by an elite of behind-the-scenes philosopher-princes). And it's worth noting that former leading denizens of Trotskyite organizations -- in the UK, the former Revolutionary Communist Party is the leading example, as dissected by George Monbiot -- have developed a habit (especially noticable since 1979) of suddenly turning up wearing suits and driving BMWs while working for right wing think-tanks.

So here's a neat conspiracy theory for you.

Trotskyism, like old-fashioned muscular British liberalism with its noncomformist Christian side-track, is to some extent an elitist ideology that expects its followers to shape the world (and especially to direct the vast mass of shapeless unopinionated ordinary folks). It is 1979. You are sitting with your mates in a squat, discussing the writings of the great man, when a thought occurs to you. Capitalism is, of necessity, doomed -- in the long run. But in the short run, sitting in a damp squat discussing Trotsky while living on lentils is uncomfortable and dull. Wouldn't it be neat if you could further the revolution while making out like a bandit? What you do is, you buy a suit and you get a respectable job as a researcher at a political think-tank -- a right-wing one, because right now the right are flailing around looking for clues about how to overturn the frankly counter-revolutionary social democratic consensus of the 1960s and 1970s. If anyone asks, you just tell them you've seen the light. You then get the capitalists to pay you to feed them outrageous nonsense -- policies that in the long run will either punish the ignorant masses for not following your advice when you were there to offer it, or that will radicalize them and goad them into a pre-revolutionary frenzy. Policies such as, oh, de-nationalizing the air traffic control system, privatizing the water companies, replacing the electoral machinery with easily corrupted voting machines and the free press with a neatly disciplined network of media machines.

It's a pretty good wheeze, and you and your mates -- over a period of a couple of decades -- get well bedded in in the west: you've got your Porsches and Maseratis and Armani suits and you're still working towards the revolution! It's the best of both worlds, you get to have your ideology and eat cake. But there are some bits of the world that won't buckle under, and every so often it's necessary to make an example of one of the inconvenient independents pour encourager les autres. Like, oh, that fascist dictatorship over there in the middle east, the one with all the oil. And, hey, why don't we use them as a test bed?

We'll say we're going to Install Democracy, then we drop the ball and radicalize the hell out of them by stealing everything that isn't nailed down, and if that induces a Trotskyite revolution, wa-hey! -- and if not, well, if it induces an Islamicist revolution instead, who cares? It's a new inconvenient independent, a new broken state, and we can put them in the queue for re-processing later. Meanwhile, it plays at home by increasing our strategy of tension, damaging conservative patriots' faith in the ability of their government to organize a piss-up in a brewery, and in the long term this works towards the eventual goal of bringing the revolution home. All we need is a handsome rock-jawed front man to stick up on top of the tree, waving the flag and explaining that this is necessary in grunts of one syllable that they'll all think they understand.

In short: the Invasion of Iraq, and the forthcoming Invasion of Whereverstan that will follow it whenever the hangover shows signs of wearing off, do not serve any rational foreign policy agenda. Rather, they're about sustaining a strategy of tension that plays to the agenda of entryist factions who are gradually reverting from 20th century play rules to those of the 19th century. And attempting to make sense of Iraq (or indeed, of the neoconservatives) without an understanding of historical Liberalism, is a losing game.

(Oh, and yes, I am arguing that George W. Bush is a communist dupe. Good night, and God Bless America.)

[Discuss Iraq invasion]

posted at: 17:28 | path: /politics | 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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Walter Jon Williams ]
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Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
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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) ]
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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) ]

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(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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