August 2012 Archives

(Note: Kari and Charlie are both at Chicon 7, the world science fiction convention, this week. Replies to direct questions might be sluggish. ]

The weirdness of the real world is a permanent problem for the jobbing novelist. You simply can't make up stuff half as weird as what you read in the news:

Bride dies at 'trash the dress' photoshoot (killed by the wedding dress, no less)

Rembrandt lost in post by gallery (they tried to save the cost of a courier and insurance)

A lion is reportedly loose in rural Essex (if the climate there warms, could they go feral and start breeding?)

There are two ways to look at this. One is to synthesize — to pick a bunch of seemingly disconnected news reports, file off the serial numbers, and use them to seed your fiction with arbitrary existential noise, to provide a backdrop of excessively odd but realistic randomness behind the highly structured machinery of plot and character. And another is to take a bunch of disconnected news reports and to articulate them in some way, spinning a story out of found objects. (It's not a Rembrandt, but the last photograph — on glass plate, not digital — of the drowning bride, who was pulled under water by not-a-lion-but-a-crocodile escaped from the municipal sewers ...)

What can you do with these three random Rorscharch-test news items? (Or contribute your own high weirdness items to the mix.)

[ Discuss here ]

Over the last couple of months, Phil and I have been rewatching the classic BBC tv series, Blake's 7, which was originally shown between 1978 and 1981. Back then, as a teenager (yes, I'm old), I would watch or read anything that had 'science fiction' on the label. Some of it was dreadful - Buck Rogers Across the 25th Century, anyone? Some of it - Zelazny, Delany, LeGuin - was wonderful. And there were all sort of things in between.

Blake's 7 was, for me, at the upper end of the tv shows. And it still has a lot going for it. Yes, the props were sometimes poor, the scenery wobbled (and so, sometimes, did the acting). Seasons 3 and 4 had some seriously poor scripts. But for all that, the core of it remains. It was, at heart, egalitarian, socialist even - the mode of resistance to autocracy was communitarian and populist, the aims of the rebels to install widespread democracy and equality, not a new oligarchy. The loss at the end of season 2 of Gareth Thomas, who played Blake, weakened this - the overarching plot became more concerned with the powerplay between Avon and Servalan - but the loss of rebellious focus became itself a trope in the show, and provoked the final stages of the final series, in which Avon descends into madness and the worlds of the show into chaos.

But what I loved most of all, what I still love, is the women. Jenna and Cally, Dayna and Soolin and Servalan. They were there, front and centre, in every episode. They were, by and large, portrayed as competent, intelligent, efficient and equal. The plots sometimes revolved about rescuing crewmembers, but the captives were as likely to be the men as the women. The male characters patronised them at their peril - occasional guest stars did and were slapped down. Their plot arcs never focused on romance or their childbearing abilities, and seldom on family. These women, and the bulk of the female guest stars, were there as people, not eye candy.

Watching this, I realised something. This kind of female character, the kind that are genuine equals, not just in the eyes of the other characters (supposedly) but in the eyes of the scriptwriters and directors, is rarer and rarer in tv sf. Show after show plays the 'strong female character' card upfront, and cheats on it in the details. Star Trek, in most of its reboots: women as nurturers, women who are forever falling in love or wanting comfort, women who are written as cardboard. Babylon 5: a future where you can be any race or sex or sexual orientation, but if you're female and human, you can't be over 25 or over 90lbs unless you're an alien or an actor liked by the director, but in any case, your role will come back, in the end, to who you're in love with. Old style Dr Who was blessedly free of love and family, but the reboot recycles those themes over and over. And then there's Torchwood, about which all I can say is that at least the men are equally ruled by their hearts, but they get to be shown as tough a lot more often - and they are, overall, less likely to die. (Torchwood loves to kill women.) Buffy, which I love with a deep and abiding passion, did better. Its female characters are people. But the only point to Angel (the character) was as a love interest, and a heavy-handed one at that. I will own at once to not being a fan of David Boreanaz, and I never found Angel remotely interesting or plausible. But the show worked overtime to provide romantic interests, when it could have had just as much fun without.

And then there' the remade Battlestar Galactica. Like Buffy, it did do much right - and it went further, presenting the women as capable of both good and evil acts, as fully rounded complex people. I could have lived with that. But they had to have Starbuck fall in love with Lee, a move which had no plot value whatsoever, no real function safe to add sentiment and soap. They had Dee marry, divorce and die, because they had run out of ideas for her. All the women, sooner or later, fell in love. That wasn't required of all of the men (though some did, and Tigh came with that wonderfully twisted back-story). Over and over, faced with a female character, writers seem to be unable to find any storyline for her that isn't about romance, that doesn't reduce her to biology. That tells me something. It tells me that in the mind of that show, women aren't people. They can only have specific types of story. All the other stories - revenge, greed, honour, fear, ambition - are for men only.

Blake's 7 never did that to me. I miss that. And you know, I want my real women back.

(I've off to worldcon tomorrow morning, so will be travelling and not able to check back on comments for a while. My apologies.)

[Due to spam taking down our normal comment system, this entry can be discussed here ]

In almost every subject, there are things which 'everyone knows'. The earth is round. Apples fall down, not up. You can see the Great Wall of China from Space. Some of these are true, more or less; some, like the one about the Great Wall, are not. History has its fair share of these, and Celtic history has its own subset - nature loving Celts, with their vast cultural empire spreading across much of central and western Europe, worshipping in the kindly, pagan-influenced Celtic church, men alongside women, all free and proud and equal, possibly dressed in plaid and woad, but all fabulously egalitarian and modern in their attitudes to gender politics, sexuality, abortion and the natural world. Such are the myths of Avalon.

And of course, like many myths, they aren't true. There was no great empire: the whole issue of pan-Celticism is coming increasingly under critical scrutiny from archaeologists and historians and being found wanting. The practices of the churches - note the plural, it's important - in the different Celtic and Gaelic speaking areas were varied and variable, most churches operating alone or with a small group of others. There is no evidence that the Celts were any 'greener' in their approach to their environment than any other peoples. (They liked to write nature poetry, but then so did the Anglo-Saxons. And the mediaeval Han Chinese, for that matter.) And then there's that great sacred cow, the myth of the strong, equal, Celtic woman. Of all the arguments I've got into over the years about 'what everyone knows' about early mediaeval Ireland and Wales, this is the commonest. And the one that winds me up most. I tend to refer to it as Celtic Druidical Princess Crap. Because, frankly, it is.

I blame the Victorians. I blame the writers on the mystical 'Celtic Twilight'. I blame folklorist Jean Markale, whose research methods were, frankly, inadequate. I blame Jessie Weston. I blame all the writers of romantic Celtic fantasies featuring right-on feminist ass-kicking super-powered heroines front and centre. Because - and watch carefully - there is no evidence to support this.

Let me say it again, louder. THERE IS NO EVIDENCE FOR THIS. The bulk of our extant sources - law codes and chronicles, saints' lives and charters, prose tales and poems - paint a picture that is almost the exact opposite. Women in early mediaeval Wales and Ireland were far from equal. They remained, lifelong, legal minors, subject to the control of their father, husband or son. Their lives were worth less than those of men. They could not own land, nor could they own much property, and, with a few minor exception (all small personal items, clothing mainly) they could not dispose of their property without the permission and sanction of the man who controlled them. They could not bear witness in court, even to acts of violence against them, because, legally, they were not fully people, their words weren't valid in law. They could not inherit land (save in very, very unusual circumstances) nor could they inherit offices. They could not choose their own husbands, and, while they could divorce their husbands in some circumstances, their children would remain with the father (whose property they were) and a divorced woman would probably have to return to her birth kin. Once there, she was likely to end up as a servant, unless her father was very powerful and could find a man willing to marry a non-virgin. Women whose kin cast them off had nowhere to go, no options beyond service or prostitution. And, if they left the lands of their husband, father, son or overlord, they could be enslaved without sanction. (This latter could befall men, too: outside your homeland, your legal status became much lower.) Women did not rule, did not become warriors, did not make laws or participate in public society. They were, by and large, property. Irish law codes make this explicit: the two units of currency recognised under them are cattle and slave girls. Women were commodities, not full legal people.

At about this point, most modern people say, 'Oh, but, what about Boudicca and Cartimandua, Mebh (Maeve) and Scathach, Rhiannon and Morgan? They were queens and warriors and druidesses.' If I'm really lucky, they'll go on to explain to me that all the things I've said are down to interference and reorganisation of 'proper' Celtic culture (always a monolith in this argument) by the church. 'It was St Patrick. He made the women unequal. But the old sources show that really they were equal to the men, before him.'

The 'old sources' are the same sources I'm talking about, read, usually, through the lens of Jean Markale and his successors. What Markale, and other promulgators of this myth did was this: they gathered together every source they could find mentioning women, from across several countries and cultures which they chose to call 'Celtic' and dating anywhere from the 5th century to the nineteenth, set them down side by side as all equally valid and reliable, and then picked out the examples of women that looked good, that gave this 'equal, powerful' image. Most things that contradicted it were thrown away as 'Christian-influenced' and thus inauthentic. As historical methodology goes, this leaves a lot to be desired.

For one thing, not all sources are equal. A late source - from the eighteenth century, say - cannot be expected to be as reliable and accurate as an early one. The later the source, the more chances there are of errors and reworkings and introduction of materials from elsewhere. Wales is not Ireland, nor is Brittany Wales, and southern France is none of them. Peoples who speak related languages, even mutually comprehensible ones, often differ quite noticeably from each other in culture. And then, most of these sources are written. Writing, in the Celtic countries, is an artefact of the introduction of Christianity. There are many people - few of them historians - who believe you can take an early text, the Mabinogi, say, and go through it and pick out the 'Christian' influences, leaving behind a 'pagan' core. Alas, it's not that simple. Certainly, some things are more overtly Christian than others - you can see this most clearly in law codes, where laws derived from Biblical precedent sit alongside laws that clearly reflect native practice. But this does not mean that one strand is necessarily older than the other, and even if one is, that strand is seldom the one you want it to be.

One of our earliest surviving law codes for Ireland is the 6th century Cain Adomnan, the Law of Adomnan, which is concerned with the treatment and protection of widows and orphans, in particular against abducting or enslaving them, abandoning or starving them, and the expropriation of their goods. It's not concerned with making women obey men, or give up their property to men, or stopping them being warriors or queens. It's about protecting women from men. There's a reason for this. Early Ireland was not a particularly nice place to be a woman, especially a widow, because widows had no value in that society. No-one was obliged to look after them and they possessed no legal voice of their own. Adomnan, who was the abbot of the monastery of Iona, was trying to give them that. If they had been equal, there would have been no need for him to do so. Much of the earliest Christian writings from Ireland show concern about the treatment of women and an desire not to downgrade the women, but to make the men treat them better. The missionaries who came to Ireland in the fifth century did not find a feminism heaven. They found hierarchical, male-dominated, warlike, slave owning culture that had little care for the weak.

So what about Boudicca and Mebh and the rest? They all have one thing in common: they exist in exceptional circumstances. They do not represent the norm. Both Boudicca and Cartimandua came to the fore when their cultures were under great pressure from the Romans. Cartimandua very possibly owes much of her significance not to her fellow Britons but to the Roman invaders, in fact. The Romans were accustomed to women who, if not rulers, influenced and manipulated rulers, disposed of property and had considerable power. They expected Cartimandua, who was the wife of a chief, to be the same and they treated and depicted her that way. Boudicca was a product of a crisis, of a desperate war. She was clearly an extraordinary person, capable of inspiring and leading, but her position was due to circumstance, not daily practice. Deprived of male leadership, she stepped into the role and was accepted, because the situation was dire, and she, clearly, was able to inspire those around her. But she was not commonplace.

As to Mebh and Scathach, Rhiannon and Morgan... They all have one thing in common: they're fictional. They're creatures of myth and story, a milieu in which daily norms are frequently overturned or abandoned, in which the abnormal, the bizarre - a woman ruling men? A woman warrior? - is expected. Their roles in those myths tell us what their function was: they are there to be defeated and overthrown, mastered and married. They transmit and confer power and glory on men: they do not keep it for themselves. And if they try - as Mebh and Morgan do - it goes wrong, it brings decay and danger and dissolution. A woman ruling is a bad thing, the myth says. A woman will bring only harm. This isn't the coding imposed on a once feminist myth by Christianity. This is the mythology of a society that knew that women were second class, lesser than men, not fit to own land, to fight, to rule.

And, as my friend J once said: how is this supposed to work? The women are equal to men, they're warriors and queens, until a handful of foreign priests turn up and say, 'This is wrong! Stop it!' And these powerful women say, 'Oh, oops, you're right,' and just hand over the power to their husbands and brothers? And the men - who have accepted them as equal for generations - just let that happen? That's saying the women may have been powerful, but they were also really stupid, and the men were all misogynist really. That's not a theory, that's an insult. If the women really had been as the modern myth insists, why didn't they just turn on the missionaries and drive them out or kill them?

There are three answers, I guess. The first is the one J offered, that the women just gave in and the men, all closet misogynists, rubbed their hands in glee and accepted. The second involves accepting that the Christian missionaries really did have some kind of divine power that made this happen and that their god really did create women as second rate, and has the power to enforce it. I don't believe either of them. Neither of them are remotely sensible as answers.

The third is this: there were no Celtic Druidical Princesses. There were no self-empowered feminist kick-ass warrior-queens as a daily occurrence. The women of early mediaeval Ireland and Wales were second class people within their own cultures, controlled by their kinsmen, expected to serve at home and stay out of public life.


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Many evenings, sometime after ten, a skein of geese fly over our house, on their way home from their daylight feeding grounds. I've never seen them clearly - too high, too dark - but I hear them, calling out to each other as they fly their regular route. And then, my other half (his name is Phil) insists that our bedroom is also on the migratory path of a herd of medium size wildebeest, who, it seems, pass through between 1 and 3 a.m., on they way (I can only imagine) from one side to the other of the Serengeti. (This pattern has, you must understand, nothing whatsoever to do with the nocturnal habits of cats, and in particular nothing whatsoever to do with our two rambunctious neutered male cats and their habit of holding play fights on the bed.)

It often seems to me that the house - and my desk in particular - is on the migratory route of thousands and thousands of schools of books. At any given time, alongside all those who regularly make their homes on shelves, my desk-top and bedside table hold several who are, I can only imagine, resting in transit. There's a cartoon doing the rounds at present on facebook about the dangers of inviting books into your homes (they breed, they annoy the neighbours and they can never, ever, be persuaded to leave). It reminds me of my life. Right now, there are something in the order of ten books transiting past me. I can count 14 scattered on my desk. Most of these are books that have been lent to me, and are waiting to be returned. But in addition to these, there's a biography of Dumas, which I'm using for an article I'm writing on him, a Welsh grammar, a slim and entirely bogus volume on Celtic magic (research for the novel-in-progress, which riffs off various fake theories) and a novel I'm supposed to be reviewing. I'm not exactly reading any of these - they're more for dipping into (apart from the review copy) but they're currently in use.

The bedside table is a lot worse. I have developed, it seems, the habit of reading more than one book at once. I'm really not sure how this happened. It just crept up on me, I swear. The books made me do it. I am not, not, not, incurably butterfly-minded. Right now, that table holds a book on anarchism (research for Worldcon programme), a book on the psychology of creative writing, a book on the novels of Chinese writer Jin Yong (Louis Cha), a book on the origins of the scientific revolution, a book about grimoires, a how-to-write book, a book on the history of British cinema, and my e-book reader. Oh, and Dion Fortune's book on training in ritual magic.

I'm part-way through all of them. The books on magic and on the scientific revolution are research, again for that novel-in-progress. (It's not steampunk. It's also not urban fantasy, or gaslight romance, though it may in some ways turn out to be Gothick. It does have a spaceship. And aether. And a cat who isn't. As a writer, I am hopeless at fixing on a subgenre and staying within it. This is probably a character flaw. That dilettante tendency, yet again. ) They are all fascinating: well-written, detailed, well-researched, thoughtful. The past, as ever, is filled with extraordinary corners, with depths and twists and ideas that never cease to amaze and inspire and awe me. The two writing books are the fringes of a long-standing habit I have of reading about writing. The how-to one was recommended to me by someone as a useful and supportive books for mid-career writers, but I am clearly the Wrong Writer for it, as I'm finding it very annoying, and prescriptive and full of Campbellian clichés. (I am not a fan of Joseph Campbell. I studied social anthropology as part of my first degree, and, well... If I want to read about myth, I can think of better places to start.) The one on psychology is varied: it's a collection of papers and some of them are interesting, but my overall word for it would probably be naïve. There's a lot of counting and assumptions, but the samples are small and, to my mind, anomalous, and it has told me anything that doesn't seem obvious. I think, for how writer-brain functions, I'm still sticking with Jung and Dennis Palumbo. The other two - the book on Jin Yong and the book on cinema - are there because I just want to read them. I've loved the works of Jin Yong since I first met them via the lens of film adaptation, and I've sought and read all of them that are available in translation (which is only three, which is unsatisfactory). He writes what looks on the surface to be adventure novels - tales of wandering swordsmen and martial artists, political manoeuvrings and strange abilities, of mysteries and escapes and plots and revenge. He has a lot in common with Alexandre Dumas, in some ways. And like Dumas, there is far more under the surface, a deep engagement with social order and the nature of power, with ethics and human ambitions, with the use and abuse we make of legend and ability, history and expectation. I recommend him highly. I recommend the book on him, too (Paper Swordsman, John Christopher Hamm), though it's very frustrating, because most of the works it discusses by Jin Yong have not been translated.) And the cinema book - Mark Sweet, Shepperton Babylon? I don't know, except that my mother brought me up with a love of film, and I have been watching them and reading about them as long as I can remember. And this book looks at those we have forgotten, those writers and directors, producers and actors who works are lost or forgotten, to whose faces we can seldom now put names, but who were once lionised. It's an interesting book, and, despite its title, more elegiac than scandalous. I'm enjoying it.

So: what are you all reading, today, and why? What do you think of it?

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I am, as Charlie said yesterday in his introduction, a historian. More precisely, I'm a historian specialising in the history of the Celtic-speaking peoples - the Welsh, the Irish, the Scots, the Bretons, the Cornish - in the early middle ages (roughly speaking between around 400 C.E. and 1200 C.E., give or take a century or so at both ends, depending on the country). But I have sub-specialisms in Anglo-Saxon England, early medieval Scandinavia (vikings!) and, out of pure awkwardness, 17th century France. My particular expertise in all that is Wales, 500-1300. All very neat and academic, all very remote, or so it often looks.

There are, as a result of this, three questions that I get asked a lot. The first is, most obviously, 'What's the point of studying that?' The early middle ages are remote from us now, and I specialise in areas that have changed almost beyond recognition in the succeeding centuries, through conquest and annexation and foreign influence. There are a number of answers I give to that question. One, which to me is the most obvious is: well, it's interesting. I belong to that set of people who were born curious, who want to know, who love to learn and study and explore, and the more abstruse or challenging the subject, the more I enjoy it. It is, I suppose, the thrill of the chase. The answer I give to parents of students, to journalists and to critics, however, is this one: we need to know our past in order to understand the structures and forms of our present. And, in many cases, the origins of those structures and forms lie hundreds or even thousands of years back. Why am I writing this in English and not Welsh or French even some modern reflection of classical Latin? The answer to that has its roots in the migrations and invasions of both the British Isles and a great part of Western Europe in the 3rd through 6th centuries by peoples from the north and the east, in the form and shape of the Norman conquest of England in the last part of the eleventh century, in the effects of the feudal structures imposed by that latter and their expansionist nature. Had some part of this gone another way, taken another turn, met a different barrier or reverse, I might well be writing this in a language much closer to German (and you might be speaking that latter, too, and all without any influence from twentieth century events). Our history helps to explain us as we now are, and that is always useful

The second question is more of a comment. 'I didn't know they had any history.' This is usually in response to me saying, 'Well, I'm a historian of Wales, sort of.' This remark is meant most often as a joke - Wales deliberately misheard as whales - but it has a serious undertone. Wales is not a major player in the eyes of the world, or, indeed, in the eyes of most of the British. It most commonly crops up in the media as a BBC measurement cliché, ('an area the size of Wales!') or in reference to a singer or actor (Charlotte Church, Ioan Gruffudd). But it's a joke with a sting. The truism is that history is written by the victors and we often leave out the separate histories of those we have conquered or who we hold unimportant. Removing histories is a means of colonialism, of Empire, of dominance. Remembering and teaching those histories is a means of resistance and celebration. When people make that joke, what they are saying under the humour is that only some peoples, only some cultures are worthy of serious attention. They don't say because they're mean, by and large, or even because they really think that. They say it because their background and education makes it an easy shot. The history of Britain, as taught in schools here in the UK (and most people don't study history after school) is, by and large, the history of the English, of England, which is the culturally dominant group. The other cultures are silenced - not just the Celts, but the Indian diaspora, the African and African-Carribbean population, the Chinese, the Italians and Jews and Poles, and all the other peoples who make up the modern British. When we study outside our cultural mainstream, it's a little act of subversion, a small rebellion, an act of reclamation. I believe in those. We need to know ourselves fully, in all our variety, not just the single story of the dominant.

The third question is; but what is history anyway? That's a big one, and usually asked by those who are genuinely interested. And there are many, many answers to it. My answers to the first to questions are part of it, as are every single other question I've asked myself, of the sources and materials I study. History is us, it is, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, now and this blog, it's the world as it is as it wakes today, and as it was yesterday. It's that rat in the arras and the flag over Capitol Hill, the wars that still damage the world, and the struggle against them, the people whose names and deeds we memorialise - Qin Shi Huang Di, Napoleon, Minamoto no Yoritomo, Gandhi, Kenneth Kenyatta, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Samia Nkrumah, George Washington, Isabella of Angouleme, Trahaearn ap Caradog, Brian Boru, Harold Bluetooth, King Shaka kaSenzangakhona, Tecumseh, Catherine the Great, Lenin, Isaac Newton, Sappho.... I could go on and on. History is the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we came from, and the stories we rewrite to suit ourselves. It's the stories we try to forget and the stories we suppress. It's how we explain ourselves to ourselves, a source of comfort and a source of shame, a tool of war and a means of peace. History is us, history is why the modern world is at it is, and that is why it matters.

We have a new guest blogger to keep you informed and entertained for the next couple of weeks: author and academic Kari Sperring.

Kari Sperring grew up dreaming of joining the musketeers and saving France, only to discover that the company had been disbanded in 1776. Disappointed, she became a historian instead and as Kari Maund has written and published five books and many articles on Celtic and Viking history and co-authored a book on the history and real people behind her favourite novel, The Three Musketeers (with Phil Nanson). She has published short stories in several British anthologies: Her first novel Living with Ghosts was published by DAW books in March 2009: her second, The Grass King's Concubine, came out, also from DAW, in August 2012.

She's been a barmaid, a tax officer, a P.A. and a university lecturer, and has found that her fascinations, professional or hobby-level, feed and expand into her fiction. Living With Ghosts evolved from her love of France and its history, ghosts, mysteries, Celtic culture, strange magic, sharks, and sword-fights: The Grass King's Concubine has even found a creative role for book-keeping. She's British and lives in Cambridge, England, and is currently at work on her third and fourth novels at once, because she needs more complications in her life. She can be found at http://www.karisperring.com, on Facebook (Kari Sperring), Twitter (@karisperring) and on Live Journal as la_marquise_de_.

Is the internet having an epic snit this summer?

1. I'm doing a lot of flying in the US in the next few weeks. TSA guidelines theoretically permit ipads and netbooks up to 11.6" to stay in your carry-on during screening, while requiring larger laptops to be screened separately (with the concommitant risk of damage/theft you'd expect). Do they actually observe this guideline, or can I expect to have to do the unpack-everything dance even with a netbook or tablet?

2. I have an unlocked mifi. Last time I visited the only reasonable deal for a pre-paid data-only SIM for it was from T-Mobile, on GSM/EDGE only. Are any other vendors selling pre-paid data-only SIMs in the USA? (Note that AT&T want credit card billing details, which isn't acceptable because I don't have a US credit card. Yes, I know all about the Virgin Mobile pre-paid mifi that's actually a Sprint EV-DO device. It's a pile of crap. I want a SIM with data that I can pay cash up-front for with no strings. Yes, it is acceptable if it expires after 30 days. No, I do not want to take out a US cellco contract: I don't visit for long enough.)

3. (Mac software specific.) I have a requirement for a combined outline processor and mind-mapping tool, similar to Inspiration, but with import/export of OPML format outlines as well as pretty pictures. (Because I may not be working, but I'll still be making notes while I travel.)

Alas, Inspiration decided to go after the schoolkid market and don't support import/export in any usable format (except Microsoft Office, which I don't consider to be "usable" for my purposes—I need OPML to feed to Scrivener). The nearest I've found to a workable solution so far is that OmniOutliner for iPad and IThoughtsHD can both import/export each other's OPML and play nice together. This is very close to what I need, but the ability to flip instantly between outline and mind-mapping views of a project would be good, and I could do with a decent desktop application on the Mac. (Got OmniOutliner Pro; it's great for outlining, not so good at the mind-mapping stuff.) Anyone got any suggestions? As noted, Inspiration lacks import/export features, OmniOutliner lacks mind-mapping features, and XMind seems to lack outlining features. Any suggestions?

So, I've finished the editing death-march from hell (through-edits to seven novels, 730,000 words; 11,500 changes tracked, wall-clock time: six weeks) and now I'm taking about 72 hours of down-time. Then next Wednesday I'm flying out to the US.

This trip is not entirely a vacation. I'll be at the worldcon, Chicon 7, and then I've got a signing tour, with Cory Doctorow, for "The Rapture of the Nerds".

First, my worldcon itinerary; the tour schedule continues below it.

A comment on the Spies! discussion brought me up short by asking an interesting question:

I foresee the range of blackmail material to narrow considerably, already for celebrities sex videos are more of an oops than anything really damaging and I expect this probably to extend to politicians gradually.
Is this actually true?

Nothing to see here; I'm elbow-deep editing a novel right now, slogging through the mire. I should be back to normal blogging by Wednesday or Thursday (I hope), and then I intend to take a vacation for a few weeks, because since the first week of July I'll have ploughed my way through editing roughly 730,000 words of fiction. (To put that in perspective: "The Lord of the Rings" is around 480,000 words; "War and Peace" is about 620,000 words: "Cryptonomicon" is around 461,000 words.) Of this, 110,000 words is "Neptune's Brood", due out next July 7th; the rest is something I'm not at liberty to talk about yet.

Normally I'd collect typos from the hardcover release of a novel about six months after publication, for the mass market paperback edition. But with the arrival of the ebook era, things are changing and we can roll out a corrected and revised version a lot faster.

So — if you stubbed your toes on any typos, errors, or other problems that can be fixed with a single word change in "The Apocalypse Codex", please tell me about them in the comments on this entry!

Internet Evolution are kindly hosting a live interview with myself and Cory Doctorow this afternoon, at 11:00 a.m. ET, 8:00 a.m. PT, 4pm BST, on their internet radio show. We'll be talking about The Rapture of the Nerds, among other things. Yes, I'll be around to chat on their website after the phone chat. Click through the link above to register if you're interested!

Spying is one of the three oldest professions: agents of the state who snoop on citizens or on the activities of other states.

But since the early 1960s, there's been an accelerating trend away from HUMINT towards ELINT (and other less-well-recognized forms of intelligence through analysis of observational data collected from non-human sources).

We're now well into the age of biometric monitoring, and this is raising huge obstacles in the face of traditional spycraft; if your spy travels on a biometric passport, then simply replacing their passport with a new one won't hide their identity from the border authorities of the nation they're visiting. Indeed, the zealous attempts of anti-terrorist security agencies to make it difficult or impossible to disguise your identity may cause extensive blowback on HUMINT operations by their governments' intelligence agencies. What does it imply about the future of espionage if a given agent can only operate in a given target nation under one identity?

Does the second oldest profession have a future in the 21st century?

(This is an abridged version of the talk I gave at TNG's Big Tech Day in Munich, June 2012.)

On the subject of ubiquitous computing devices and urban architecture

A couple of basic physical rules underly the dizzying progress in electronics that we have seen over the past fifty years. Moore's Law, attributed to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, postulates that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit of constant size doubles approximately every two years. Originally coined in 1965, Moore's law has run more or less constantly ever since. It can't continue indefinitely, if only because we're getting close to the atomic scale; a silicon atom has a Van der Waals radius of around 200 picometres, and to build circuits that mediate electron transport we need discrete atomic-scale structures. It is not obvious that we can build electronics (or other molecular structures) with a resolution below one nanometre. So it's possible that Moore's law will expire within another decade.

Having said that, predictions of the imminent demise of Moore's Law within a decade go back to the 1970s. And if we can't increase the two-dimensional structure count on an integrated circuit, we may still be able to increase the number of structures by building vertically.

A newer, and more interesting formulation than mere circuit count is Koomey's Law, proposed by Jonathan Koomey at Stanford University: that the energy efficiency of computers doubles every 18 months.

This efficiency improvement has held true for a long time; today's high-end microprocessors require far less power per instruction than those of a decade ago, much less two or three decades ago. A regular ARM-powered smartphone, such as an iPhone 4S, is some 12-13 orders of magnitude more powerful as a computing device than a late 1970s-vintage Cray 1 supercomputer, but consumes milliwatts of power for computing (rather than radio) operations, rather than the 115 kilowatts of the Cray.

Taking them together, what do these two laws imply about the not-too-distant future?

Specials

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