February 2008 Archives

Watching this YouTube video, followed in turn by this one.

(The first is a demo of how to turn a Nintendo Wii remote into a head-tracking display controller. The second video is a demo of how to integrate Second Life structures and avatars into a real-world meeting using real-time video editing. Put 'em together with a 4G mobile phone and head-mounted display and you've basically got prototypes of the by-then-ubiquitous tech I was talking about in HALTING STATE.)

And in other news, if you haven't heard of Anonymous and their internet-mediated War on Scientology you need to watch the video in that first link. And it's not just some oddball hackers in a basement somewhere; the demonstrations in meatspace around the world are a quite impressive example of delocalized transnational internet-mediated political action that has got to be scaring the living daylights out of any number of insecure and/or corrupt politicians.

Democracy: as Winston Churchill put it, "it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. "

Today, I couldn't help noting that even regimes governed by ideologies hostile to western free-market orthodoxy adopt a lot of the forms of democracy. (Look at Iran, for example: within the limits staked out by the religious authorities established by the late Grand Ayatollah Khomenei, it's a highly politicized and democratic society. ) On the other hand, if you rewind the clock to 1938, democracy was pretty widely viewed as being on the ropes: autocratic regimes were the norm rather than the exception. Seventy years before that, it was monarchies as far as the eye could see.

So. Why are democratic forms of government spreading?

By way of disconnected and rambling thinking-aloud (with no basis whatsoever in actual political theory — hey, I'm a blogger, you expect me to study stuff before I open my mouth and start talking about it?) I'd like to propose a handful of reasons:

1. Democracy — and elections in particular — do not so much select the best possible leaders from a pool of contenders, but avoid selecting the worst possible leaders from the pool of contenders.

To stand a chance of election, a candidate has to convince the electorate not only to vote for them, but not to vote against them. (Witness the Chirac/le Pen presidential run-off in France in 2002, and the pissed-off socialists bearing banners saying "vote for the crook, not the fascist".) Yes, it is possible for a rogue candidate to get through the filter of public disapproval — but in order to do so, they have to (a) get a large base to vote for them, and (b) more importantly, prevent a majority of the population from uniting against them. Hitler managed to hold his base together in 1933 in the face of fragmented opposition and a perception of national crisis; even so, his most brutal rhetoric was reserved for party ears, rather than the public, until the NSDAP grip on government was secure.

More often, we see unsuitable candidates weeded out before they can get their hands on the levers of state power.

2. Democracy provides a pressure release valve for dissent. As long as the party in power are up for re-election in a period of months to (single digit) years, opponents can grit their teeth and remind themselves that this, too, shall pass ... and wait for an opportunity to vote the bums out. Democracies don't usually spawn violent opposition parties because opposition parties can hope to gain power through non-violent means. But a regime that concedes no limit to its duration threatens its opponents sense of control over their own destiny; the longer the perceived injustice stretches out ahead, the harder it is to resign one's self to waiting and voting in due course.

3. Never underestimate the value of an organized succession. With monarchies, you know where the next king's coming from ... probably. Hereditary succession has a bunch of drawbacks, not least (a) they can go horribly off the rails if a single hairless primate has reproductive problems, and (b) it has yet to be demonstrated that political competence is a genetically associated trait. (It also usually begs the question of why this particular family is destined to rule, either shuffling it off onto the shoulders of the local version of the Invisible Sky Daddy™ or reducing it to "because I say so; address any further questions to my employees from SAVAK".) If an unsuitable heir is proposed, in the absence of a pressure release valve for dissent, opposition can lead to actual civil war.

Even dictatorships have problems with the organized succession. Most members of ruling juntas want, like everybody else, to die at home — not in a prison cell or facing a firing squad. When dictators die, the consequences are usually turmoil on a par with the death of an heirless king; and if it's a ruling committee or politburo, the death of senior members usually results in, at the least, upheaval and competition. Any administrative solution that reduces the probability of facing a firing squad tends to be popular among the survivors of a dictatorship; note for example the gradual shift towards collegiate management in the Soviet and Chinese systems after the demise of their respective charismatic dictators (Stalin and Mao).

Democracy is at a huge advantage over dictatorship or monarchy when it comes to handling the organized succession problem, because the entire system is predicated on the possibility of non-violent succession and an amnesty (or at least amnesia) for the former rulers. Parenthetically, this also makes it extremely dangerous to prosecute the former elected rulers of a democracy, at least for crimes they may have committed during their time in office — it sends a signal to future administrations that they may end up being persecuted by their opposition (and by extrapolation, they can save themselves by exchanging their elected status for a permanent dictatorial one).

Anyway. Here we have three ways in which democracy is less bad than rival forms of government: it usually weeds out lunatics before they can get their hands on the levers of power, it provides a valuable pressure relief valve for dissent, and it handles succession crises way better than a civil war.

Unfortunately democracy has some really huge drawbacks too ... that'd make a fine topic for another rant, but I'm getting a bit tired of this right now, and I've got some work to do.

But anyway: looking (with my science fiction writers' eye) at the above list of reasons why democracy sucks less, I'm inclined to wonder: can we conceive of a form of government that combines the lack-of-comparative-weaknesses of democracy with other, additional strengths? And if so, what would it look like?

You have the mike ...

You know how jet-lagged I was? I mistook the page proofs for the paperback edition of HALTING STATE for the page proofs of the hardcover of SATURNS CHILDREN.


If you've read HALTING STATE in hardcover (US hardcover only, please) and spotted a typo or blooper, please post in the comment thread below this entry. (It'd help if you could tell me what page the typo is on, and provide some textual context — e.g. three to five words, verbatim, as printed, including the typo — so I can search for and find it. I need to get any corrections back to production by the 6th of March, so there's a week to get them to me.)

Cows with blogs.

Yes, that was the subject of conversation in the pub last night. I can't provide any URLs, but I am assured that the dairy industry in Scotland is extremely interested in fitting their herd with telemetry to track everything from their location (via GPS) to their blood pressure, activity levels, and possibly even emotional state: an eventual goal is that the subjects of this exercise will effectively become spimes. As Bruce Sterling (who coined the term) explains it, "a Spime is a location-aware, environment-aware, self-logging, self-documenting, uniquely identified object that flings off data about itself and its environment in great quantities." Presumably the blogging bovines would emit an RSS feed that their owners could browse (or should that be "graze"?) in order to determine that Daisy has gotten into the bottom field again, or is overdoing the clover.

NB: I want the wikipedia admins to know that I am very annoyed that someone has deleted the wikipedia article on spimes. It's all very well to do the housekeeping, but it's gone too far when useful resources are being erased before I can link to them from my blog, dammit.

(I ascribe the subsequent conversation about GM cows with nitrated oligosaccharides in their milk, and the utility of explosive blogging bovines in any future Pakistan/India conflict, to a combination of beer and jet lag.)

Meanwhile, it has been reported that dwarfs represent a growing crime problem in Sweden, with thieves robbing long distance coaches by sneaking miniature accomplices into the luggage compartments inside sports bags. Mind you, that's positively mundane compared to the nude wet meat soil bandit's antics in Cool, California.

I was going to try and say something sensible about the Dyatlov Pass incident, but just the facts of the matter beggar the imagination. Sort of like a Russian Blair Witch Project, only it actually happened, kinda-sorta.

And I've been brain-wormed by a phrase from nowhere — "I'd sleep with the teddy tonight if it didn't smell so strange". I don't know what it means, don't really know where it came from, and I wish it would go away. (I think it wants to hatch into a story, but I'm not ready to write it yet because I think it also wants to be ... gruesome.)

If all this sounds a bit dazed and incoherent, it's because it's a grab bag of my current jet-lagged preoccupations (leaving aside the research into penile degloving injuries, the future of spam, and browsing wikileaks). I'm still a bit disoriented, and I think I'm going to spend the next day putting my feet up with some easy reading. I've just received the galley proofs to SATURN'S CHILDREN (due out July 1st!) and I should really get to work checking them, then pick up tools and crack on with THE REVOLUTION BUSINESS, but all this intercontinental travel and sleep deprivation has left me feeling like a character out of one of William Gibson's more recent novels. And you know what? Living inside that man's head is No Fun At All.

More news as/when my head remembers which time zone it's in. (Did I mention, I don't do all-nighters well? Red-eye flights do my head in, especially when the plane is flying west-to-east with a tailwind so vicious its ground speed is somewhere north of 700 miles per hour, resulting in such a short flight that I don't get to sleep.)

I'll be signing books at Pandemonium Books in Central Square, Cambridge (that's Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, not Cambridge, UK) tomorrow (Tuesday) evening at 7pm.

I'm going to be in Boston from Wednesday through to the following Wednesday. This means blog updates will be scarce.

I'll be at Boskone 45 (a large, regional, science fiction convention) where I'll be on various panels and doing the usual readings, signings, and etcetera. I'll also be giving a reading to the MIT SF Society, and doing touristy stuff in my spare time (seeing friends, doing a tour of the Harpoon brewery — I hope — wandering around the market near Faneuil Hall). I'm also looking forward to some genuine winter weather — aside from a single wimpish cold snap Edinburgh almost hasn't had a winter this year. (On the other hand, I've been to Boston in February enough times to have a good idea what to expect, and will endeavour not to die of hypothermia).

UK Navy to end submarine goat experiments — because the Royal Navy had an urgent defense-related requirement for information that could only be obtained by squeezing goats.

Scottish Government drafts Cat Welfare Code — before the government set us straight we had never imagined that cats were carnivores who therefore required a diet rich in meat, and that if you keep an indoor cat you might have to play with it.

Diebold voting machine [master] key copied from photo at company's own online store! — because you know the security and integrity of your vote means a lot to us.

MySpace: No place for Atheists? — because if you read those teeny-tiny terms and conditions they say they're happy to discriminate against anyone they don't like. (MySpace is a safe haven for bigots. Boycott MySpace!)

Police find crack in man's buttocks — ignore the source; best headline ever.

I'm going to go and have a lie down, now.

I'm seriously considering pitching a detective novel, about the hunt for a serial killer. The unique selling point will be that as the detective homes in on the killer, he gradually comes to sympathize with him, and ends up questioning whether he should actually collar the murderer ... because the victims are all spammers.

It's been a particularly bad month, here: the daily spam load on my mail server hasn't dipped below 30,000, and the amount of bandwidth they're chewing up with their ads for v1agra and solicitations from the desk of Kofi Annan has grown to be roughly the equivalent of a 28.8K modem running 24x7. I finally bitten the bullet and started paying for a commercial spam filtering service (mail-scanning.com) rather than trying to nurse a balky installation of SpamAssassin along after I worked out that the cost of my time exceeded the cost of the service (and it's a business expense anyway). But I am seriously narked insofar as the spammers are costing me real money, and while as a matter of principle I am opposed to capital and corporal punishment, I'd have a lot of sympathy for that fictional unhinged serial killer.

Finally, lest you think that spamming is irritating but harmless, I'd like to draw your attention to the contents of your spam bin. You'll notice that about 40-50% of it consists of attempts to sell you cheap medicines (and a chunk of the rest is a blatant attempt to steal your bank account and identity details). It turns out that about half the pills sold by spammers are counterfeit. And while this isn't going to kill you as long as all you're trying to do is rev up your sex life, it's tantamount to murder if the stuff that's being flogged is sold as a cheap substitute for otherwise-expensive prescription antiviral, antibiotic, or antihypertensive medicines.

Over on bad science blog Depleted Cranium, we have a fun essay titled The Top Ten Things Environmentalists Need to Learn.

I can't commend this piece too highly. Expecting everyone to dump their standard of living in the shitter in order to save the environment is not a realistic strategy because humans don't work that way: it'd require the equivalent of a mass religious conversion, and we have a technical term for periods of history that involve mass religious conversions: we call them interesting. (Usually from a remove of several centuries.) If you really want to know how humans work, in the mass, you need to look to economics; and if you want to effect positive environmental change, you need to figure out how to make people want it.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: the modern environmentalist movement is a puritan religious movement in secular drag. But that doesn't mean that fixing our environmental problems isn't a good idea. Nor are we going to get there by wearing sackcloth and ashes, mortifying the flesh, and trying to live like mediaeval subsistence-farming peasants. Read this article. Then start thinking.

I am a forty-something, which means I am out of touch with what passes for common knowledge among 18 year olds today. (Dodgy joke about keeping in touch with 18 year olds deleted in the interests of good taste.) Beloit College in the USA used to maintain a list for their staff, to explain what the world looks like to an 18 year old freshman: here's their 2006 list. It's heavily biased towards (obviously) American 18 year olds, but it got me thinking.

I write novels for adults. (And I'm not about to start writing YA now, for various reasons.) A typical novel takes 1-3 years from the initial pitch to the first publication, and stays in print for 5-10 years; this means that a gap of up to 15 years separates the initial conception from the final "new" reader.

Now, reading as a habit is something you either pick up in childhood, or never acquire. Then most adolescents stop reading as much. A small proportion then go back to it after their hormones settle down (sometimes a long time later), and these people will continue reading for the rest of their lives, as a rule. And they — if you're reading this, you're probably one of them — are the people who ultimately pay me a living. It's therefore a good idea for me to know what today's 18 year olds have grown up understanding about the world, because an 18 year old who's about to reacquire the reading habit today is probably going to be the 33 year old who picks up the last reprint copy of, say, "Halting State", some time in 2021.

So. In writing SF, I not only need to imagine what the future will be like — I need to anticipate what my future readers will enjoy reading. But, unlike the fictional future, they're here today. So I can meet them halfway by looking at where they've been ...

The year is 2008.

An eighteen year old today was born in 1990.

They don't remember Margaret Thatcher. John Major stopped being Prime Minister when they were seven. The huge political scandals of the last conservative government are history.

Labour are the natural party of government and fiscal prudence. They're also in favour of nuclear weapons, privatization of what's left of the public sector, and friends with George W. Bush (who is the only American president they really remember).

The Soviet Union, the East German Stasi, Nazi Germany, and Napoleon Bonaparte are all boogymen out of ancient history. The Apollo Project — wasn't that an old Tom Hanks movie?

They probably remember 9/11 vaguely, and all the grown-ups being very upset. They were ten at the time.

The Simpsons have always been on Sky.

Kylie Minogue has always been a singer.

AIDS has been around forever, but there are meds you can take to cure it [not true, but a common misconception among the young].

Every adult had, and has always had, a mobile phone. They've had one of their own since they were eleven.

The internet has always been around. Cable or satellite TV has always been around. CDs and DVDs have always been around (and are boringly bulky). Freeview has always been around. iPods have been around since they were ten. They've never seen a Sony Walkman, though they've probably heard old farts mention them. And what did the coffin dodgers do with those big black round things, exactly?

Nobody they know expects to ever hold a job for more than three years.

Homosexuality has always been legal. Abortion has always been legal. The morning-after pill has always been available over the counter. Handguns have always been illegal.

Nobody they know who is under 36 and not already a home-owner expects to ever be rich enough to buy a house. The average house costs as much as a helicopter or a high-ticket Ferrari.

They'll probably go to university, and come out of it with debts equal to two years' worth of their starting salary. (Roughly what somebody twice their age paid for their first apartment.)

Lots of people take antidepressants. Everyone slashes themselves; it's no big deal. (Statistics show a third of UK teens self-harm at some stage.)

They had their first drink when they were 11 or 12. They first had sex when they were 15 or 16. Only about 50-60% of them have passed their driving test yet, although 90% are planning to before they reach 20.

There have always been cameras in shops and schools and other public places, although there are more of them than there used to be. Old folks grumble about privacy, but really, you're being watched wherever you are. If you don't like it, get a hoodie.


Anyone got anything to add? I'm in a list-making mood this week.



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