Charlie's Diary

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Wed, 31 Dec 2003

Happy Hogmanay

Tomorrow is Hogmanay.

In the spirit of the celebrations, I've just laid in a serious stash of beer. Later on this evening, via a couple of pubs and a party or two I should be installing a hangover. Tomorrow I will repent my wicked ways (until, oh, this time next week), and the day after that I will start writing another novel. In the meantime, happy new year!



posted at: 18:24 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 29 Dec 2003

Things that come in my postbag

Well, the mail has resumed normal service after the Christmas glut. And boy, did I receive an interesting assortment!

  • Credit card statements (naturally)
  • A couple of late Christmas cards (ditto)
  • An invoice from the Inland Revenue for next year's income tax (hollow laughter)
  • An author copy of New Voices in Science Fiction, a short story collection I've got half a story in (two weeks after I gave up hope, cracked, and bought my own copy)
  • An advance proof copy of Bruce Sterling's next novel, for comment (which I'm really looking forward to)
  • Three copies of the dust jacket for "Iron Sunrise" (they're dropping the definite article from in front of it -- oh, and apparently if the cover doesn't look like I imagined it would, I must now do my best to bring Western Civilization to a screeching halt: thanks for the tip, Teresa!)
  • A summons for High Court jury service
  • The bills aren't a problem -- but the jury service falls right in the middle of next month's planned writing death-march. See, I've got this novel that is due in at Tor either December 31st, or as soon as it's written, whichever comes first. (Let's be fair: due to the previous novel running behind schedule -- the publisher decided at a rather late stage that they wanted it splitting into two volumes -- I've got an extension. But I don't like extensions, I like hitting deadlines: and the original deadline is now 48 hours away and closing.)

    I've spent the Christmas period tooling up this enormous, tightly-planned outline, which is now ready to go. I've got a bluetooth keyboard, so I don't break the laptop, and I've got a truck-load of soft drinks and snacks sitting on the mezzanine, and a spare set of anti-RSI gloves, and about 20,000 words of off-cuts from the previous draft (back when I was writing a 250,000 word novel instead of a 100,000 word book), and, well, I'm generally pumped and ready for action. As of January 2nd (one must respect Hogmanay, after all) I was planning on getting down to work and beating NaNoWrMo by a factor of two. But trying to do all that while concurrently sitting on a jury is a bit ... hmm.

    Hmm ... again.

    Like I said, it's interesting what comes in my post-bag. I just hope I can get this all sorted out in time.

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 12:35 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 27 Dec 2003

    More news from the Barbie Liberation Organization

    Astute afficionados of the weird may recall the Barbie Liberation Organization, who in 1993 carried out mass voice-box transplants on GI Joe and Barbie dolls in shops leading up to the Christmas rush. (The resulting epidemic of Barbies saying "dead men tell no tales" and GI Joes expressing a desire to go shopping triggered much clucking in the media, although the original grossly gender-stereotyped voiceboxes had caused no such fuss.)

    Well, it turns out that dressing as Barbie is a survival trait -- if you're a lobster:

    Practical jokers Jim Bright and Chris Costello never imagined that their idea of dressing a female lobster in a Barbie outfit - accessorized with pink high heels - would save her from the steam pot.

    But it did - at least 10 times.

    As a gag, the fishermen clad the crustacean and placed her in a friend's trap last September.

    "It's a monotony hauling traps day after day," said Costello, "and we just wanted to break it up a little bit. It totally worked."

    Barbie Lobster, as she has come to be known, has been hauled up - and thrown back - at least 10 times. The radios used by lobstermen buzzed with chatter and laughter each time a new sighting of Barbie was reported.

    Costello made a special trip to Wal-Mart to buy the blue blouse, red- and white-checkered skirt and shoes.

    The men had wanted to dress up a jumbo lobster, but it was too fat to fit into a Barbie ensemble. Instead, they chose a svelte 1½-pound model.

    "They slipped right on, just like Cinderella," Bright said of the footwear.

    Costello disagreed, saying it was a challenge to put the high heels on the little lobster legs. There are four legs on each side so the men attached them to the two in the center.

    "You try squeezing Barbie shoes on a lobster," he said. "That was the most time-consuming thing."

    Barbie hasn't been seen since early December and apparently was unkempt and nearly naked, except for her shoes.

    (A reference to this incident has got to make it into the final draft of "Accelerando".)

    [Link (thanks, Teresa!] [Discuss pomo]



    posted at: 21:01 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 25 Dec 2003

    The work is done

    I don't have enough energy to write about this at length yet ...

    Back in mid-1999, life was stressful. I was lead programmer on the server development side of a dot-com that was experiencing business growth of 30% per month. I had a to-do list years long, a standing order for ten minions (who would turn up far too late to be helpful, at least at the time), and a job that involved grappling with web services at one end and the arcane guts of the British credit card clearing system at the other. (If acronyms like APACS, X.25, RID and TID mean anything to you, you have my deepest sympathies.)

    Pressure does odd things to you. Sometimes you crack; and sometimes you find a way out. My way out was a novelette called "Lobsters", which exuded lots of the high-pressure weirdness of my day to day life on the sharp edge during the peak of the dot-com frenzy. "Lobsters" was a breakthrough story for me. It ended up coming out in the June 2000 issue of Asimov's SF Magazine, was shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula and Sturgeon awards (losing in each category to Ted Chiang's Hell is the Absence of God -- one of those once-a-decade stories that scoops the awards and makes everyone else green with envy), and drawing quite a bit of attention.

    Well, the ending of "Lobsters" seemed to demand a sequel, so I sat down a few months later to write "Troubadour" -- and realised halfway through it that actually I was writing a novel, in nine episodes spaced out across a century of subjective time. Each group of three novelettes would study one generation of a dysfunctional family, living through a period of rapidly accelerating technological change -- a Vingean singularity.

    (Oh yeah. Did I mention that the conventional wisdom in interested circles, since Professor Vinge coined the term, is that it's impossible to successfully treat this topic in SF? There's nothing like biting off more than anyone believes it's possible to chew ...)

    The compressed time frame brings its own challenges to a novel, too. Back in the 1980's, Bruce Sterling wrote a brief series of hyper-compressed short stories set in the not too distant future, and a hauntingly evocative novel called Schismatrix. Pseudonymous reviewer Vincent Omniaveritas (actually Bruce himself) writing in the cyberpunk ideology critzine Cheap Truth summarized it thus: "boils down the three-percent beer of space opera into a jolting postmodern whiskey." Which is all very well, but if you grab a pint glass full of whiskey and try to chug it you'll end up spraying everywhere if you're not lucky. "Cheap Truth" was the clarion call of the cyberpunk generation of the 80's; now twenty years in the past, cyberpunk imagery is so mainstream that it shows up in night clubs, second-rate knock-offs of "The Matrix", and dot-com boardrooms. Being stoned on my own hubris it seemed entirely appropriate to steal Chairman Bruce's clothes and try to turn out a novel in the form of a series of compressed, linked stories that distilled the three percent beer of cyberpunk into something you could use as fuel in a Zippo lighter. I'd say each episode in "Accelerando" contains about half the hard-SF idea quotient of a normal novel. At least, each one of these nine chapters left me feeling as wrung-out as if I'd written half a book.

    I said this was a case of biting off more than anyone could reasonably expect to chew, and I was right. Writing those stories was hard work; in the middle of #6 I actually took some time off to write a 195,000 word fantasy novel because it was easier. On the other hand, hard work brings its own rewards. In the case of "Accelerando", the first five stories have picked up two Hugo, one Nebula, one Sturgeon and one BSFA award nomination; the other stories haven't been out long enough for the annual award cycle to tick round, but I live in hope. Meanwhile, my agent sold "Accelerando" (as a novel) to Ace, who should be publishing it in July 2005. The novel will be somewhat different from the stories -- for one thing, it's all joined-up -- but it's the same essential concept. Three generations, one singularity, massive social and technological and cultural change, to such an extent that each successive generation is almost a different species from its predecessor. (They think differently -- one of the traditional blind spots of the early cyberpunk obsession with brain implants and "jacking in" to the net, seemingly without asking any of the deeper questions about what this means for the nature of intelligence.)

    Anyway. Today is Christmas day, 2003, and after four and a half years I have just finished the first draft of the final chunk of "Accelerando", which sort of ties everything up -- or at least the most important pieces -- and brings that particular story to a close. The outline of the novel is now more or less clear to me, although there's some significant restructuring and a bunch of additions to be applied to it before I can send it to my editor at Ace. (Those of you reading the installments in Asimov's should -- I hope -- get to see the last chunk a bit sooner, assuming Gardner Dozois likes it as much as the previous eight pieces he's bought.)

    Meanwhile, I'm feeling a little bit giddy. "Accelerando" currently tops off at 140,000 words, but while I have been writing it I have written -- and sold -- another 620,000 words of fiction (including five other novels and a fistfull of novellas and stories). The world has moved on, not entirely along the trajectory I expected, but not too far off course either. There is already a sort-of companion novel, "Glasshouse", set in the same universe as "Accelerando" (but some centuries later), written and due out from Ace the year after. But for now it's time for me to (a) blow off steam, and (b) take stock.

    Where the hell do I go from here?

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 11:38 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 24 Dec 2003

    Incidentally ...

    If you were to ask me "what are you doing for Christmas?" I would have to give my usual answer: "I'm working, of course".

    Christmas bugs me. Not the religious side of it, although that isn't my cup of tea (I suppose anyone who believes in that particular religion is perfectly entitled to go to church, but do you have to play insanely irritating religious music everywhere for a month in advance?) ... but the whole secular-consumerist package with added overtones of seasonal excess sticks in my craw. The assumption that everybody is on vacation gets right up my nose, too. I am not on vacation: I am determined, come hell or high water, to get the final chunk of "Accelerando" finished tomorrow -- at least in first draft. (And at 12,000 words I am very near the end indeed.) I'm not going to down tools for a week off from the climax of my masterwork just because the collective wisdom of marketing managers past insists that I need to eat and drink to surfeit then sleep off the hangover for the greater glory of the retail industry's profits!

    So here's a seasonal bah! humbug! to you all.



    posted at: 20:23 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Happy Newtonmass

    Tomorrow is the birthday of our favourite eccentric mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton. Shame it keeps getting confused with all those Mithraist solstice celebrations, but what the hell.

    In line with the seasonal spirit, Feorag ran up this solstice greeting card for you all to imagine kissing under the mistletoe:

    kiss the Cthulhu!

    [ Discuss The horror! The horror! ]



    posted at: 17:54 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 21 Dec 2003

    From the classified ads column

    Someone's selling an aircraft carrier on eBay.

    It appears to be the 17,500-ton Colossus Class light fleet carrier HMS Vengeance, most recently used by the Indian navy as a helicopter carrier and refitted with an angled flight deck after the second world war. The minimum bid is US $6.5M, with an instant sale for offers over $8M, and you'll probably want at least double that to get it even remotely seaworthy -- it's not exactly in good shape.

    My alter-ego the Evil Overlord is counting his filthy lucre and speculating about the cost of buying a brace of Sea Harriers and setting out to conquer a small Pacific atoll for use as his Island Base ... although he'd rather own the current HMS Vengeance, if given the chance: what's the point in being Evil Overlord if you don't have any weapons of mass destruction?.

    [ Link ] [Discuss Evil Overlords]



    posted at: 20:50 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 19 Dec 2003

    Update

    Still spraining my cerebrum. Off to a party in Fife this evening, and hoping to get back before the blizzards the Met Office is forecasting for late Saturday arrive ...



    posted at: 11:25 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 17 Dec 2003

    I need a word

    ... For the sensation of thinking so hard that your brains feel like they're oozing out of your ears under the pressure.

    Yes, I'm halfway through "Accelerando" story #9, "Survivor". And it's hard work, because I'm trying to somehow combine that elusive sense of closure that all long works of fiction need (and without which, Gardner assures me, I can expect an angry mob of Asimov's SF magazine readers to come and burn an upside-down microprocessor on my lawn) with a viable final episode in the bugfuck family saga I've been writing for four years -- despite having to cram it all into a novelette.

    On the plus side, I got 1500 words done today. On the minus side, I think I just sprained my cerebrum. (The fantasy novel I've got to write next month is going to seem like a stroll in the park in comparison.)

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 17:54 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Must write harder

    Back from three days of spurious sysadmin work in Leeds. Followed by a day of exhaustion; now it's time to get back to work, I think.

    Meanwhile the new printer arrived (an HP Laserjet 1300) and is plugged into the Airport Extreme pending my big network switch-over from the old, crummy Belkin router.

    In other news from the reality-especially-when-simulated-is-far-stranger-than-fiction department, the controversy continues over allegedly under-age teen prostitution inside a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (i.e. a computer game). The whole issue of copyright inside MMORPGs is increasingly bizarre (warning: Microsoft Word document) and there seems to be a trend towards allowing gamers who create objects within the game to own copyright in them, potentially turning internal game universe entities into something exchangable for real money. How long until someone exposes a 419 scam running entirely in a gaming universe?

    [ Link ] [ Discuss copyright-censorship ]



    posted at: 14:19 | path:
    /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 14 Dec 2003

    Saddam captured ...

    ... in Tikrit. And they're going to put him on trial.

    While shedding no tears for the beast of Baghdad -- who climbed to the top of the Ba'ath party of Iraq over a pile of corpses, by way of the secret police -- I can't help wondering whether this is a good thing for the west. I suspect his being at liberty may have been a restraining factor on the various Iraqi factions jockeying for power -- and taking pot-shots at the occupiers. Now he's out of the way, the spectre of a revived Ba'athist dictatorship has lifted from the followers of al-Sadr and the various other Shi'ite factions and the communists and the nationalists and the just plain pissed-off that their country has been invaded. The factions who suffered under Saddam no longer have to worry about that stuff: we may just have released the brakes on the armed resistance. Moreover, if Saddam is smart enough (and I hope he isn't) and the military authorities stupid enough (and after Gantanemo Bay I fear that they are), he may use a trial as an opportunity to wrap himself in the flag of Iraqi nationalism and turn himself into a martyr to the anti-American cause.

    Saying "ding dong, the wicked witch is in custody" is a dangerously naive reaction to this kind of news. By way of a thought experiment, I suspect a good metaphor is this: imagine it's November 1945, and Adolf Hitler has been dug out of a cellar, alive, in the US occupied sector of Germany, where he has been coordinating sporadic resistance attacks. He goes on trial at Nuremburg and is in due course sentenced to hang. What, sixty years later, would his historical record have been like? And more importantly, what, twenty years later, might the German people have made of a leader who put up a spirited defense in a kangaroo court, rather than taking the coward's way out of the consequences of his actions by shooting himself?

    [ Link] [Discuss Iraq invasion]



    posted at: 11:59 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 13 Dec 2003

    Excuses, excuses

    The reason I haven't blogged lately is that I'm in Leeds. Where my family live. Where I'm busy upgrading my sister, brother-in-law, and father to run OS/X on various shades of surplus-to-requirement powerbook and iBooks, installing Airport access points, configuring broadband lines, and otherwise catching up on a year's worth of system administration work for my blood relatives. In return for this they're feeding me, watering me, and telling me to get my hair cut.

    As this posting demonstrates, I've finally managed to get my sister's NTL broadband connection talking to an Airport and thence to my own iBook, in the wind-swept garrett on the top floor. This is a Good Thing. Less good is the fact that I talked myself into buying a copy of Poser for Feorag and began playing with it, instead of working on the current story. But piling real work on top of mere system administration is, well, just not on.

    Meanwhile, by way of BoingBoing, here's news of a fascinating development: the first demo of an open source CPU core that can be implemented using FPGAs -- cheap off-the-shelf reconfigurable chips that can be programmed to emulate other circuits. It's a long way to go until we see the Free Hardware Foundation's GNU Nanoassembler 1.0, but this is clearly a significant step on the way because it means goddamn royalty and copyright encumbrance free microprocessors that run goddamn royalty and copyright encumbrance free software (sorry for shouting there). All too many linux geeks think that it's enough for the software not to involve paying the Microsoft tax -- without realising that Intel, AMD, and the like are ultimately just as restrictive. FPGA based CPU cores running open RISC architectures are the first step towards really free (as in speech, not as in beer) computers and, by extension, towards the development of an architecture of the commons. Which is critically important because computing these days is infrastructure, and by building it on foundations owned by rapacious multinationals we're leaving our future working environment in hock to them.

    (Do I hear a chorus of "give the workers the means of production and they'll feed themselves for life" in the house?)

    [link] [Discuss microsoft]



    posted at: 23:27 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 09 Dec 2003

    Bampots in the News

    (Being the first of an irregular series of bulletins about bampots.)

    Investigating the german cannibal subculture: federal investigator Wilfried Fehl claimed during the trial of Armin Meiwes (for killing and eating another man) that there's a whole "flourishing cannibal scene" in Germany. "We are talking about dentists, teachers, cooks, government officials and handymen."

    Meanwhile, according to the Washington Post dirty bombs are going missing in Transdneister, a country most of us have never heard of for the simple reason that most governments don't recognize it. Transdneister issued a unilateral declaration of independence in 1990 and fought a brief civil war with Moldova -- it's a predominantly Russian region and didn't want to join in the perceived likely Moldovan merger with Romania. Anyway, they've got scads of SAMs, dirty bombs, all sorts of left-over Soviet weapons, and a government that makes Zimbabwe look like a model of moral probity ... and they're selling them to the highest bidder.

    Finally, White Supremacist terrorists in Texas developed chemical weapons and were only detected when a cyanide shipment they'd ordered was delivered to the wrong address. None of the arrestees are talking, and it's feared that accomplices may still be at large and planning to mount a gas attack somewhere in the US.

    [Cannibal bampots] [Worrying post-Soviet nuclear bampots] [Chemically assisted bampots] [Discuss bampots]



    posted at: 20:29 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    I'm back

    ... Despite the 2 hour delay on the return flight caused by freezing fog around Edinburgh. (Standing around in a car park at 1am while de-icing the vehicle for the trip home is no fun. Once I got it running the thermometer read -4 degrees celsius. Brr.)

    Some good news emerging from the trip is that I now have some vague publication dates for my novels in the UK. "Singularity Sky" will show up in hardcover from Orbit in July 2004. And "Iron Sunrise" (out in hardcover in the US from Ace in July '04) will arrive in hardcover in the UK in February '05 -- Orbit are playing catch-up with my US publishing schedule, but I am hoping that by mid-2005 my SF novels should emerge at roughly the same time on both sides of the pond.

    Hint to gizmo-obsessed UK air travellers; Dixons (big electronics retail chain) run duty-free stores at most UK airports, and while the prices are generally no lower than street price, they run a few loss-leaders to get the punters to part with their money. One particular loss-leader right now is Apple's 40Gb iPod -- the saving from buying one at an airport shop instead of direct from Apple (or an Apple dealer) was not unadjacent to the price of two return air fares to London! So I'm currently schlepping all my backup data off the old 20Gb iPod and onto a new 40Gb model.

    (In case you were wondering, the iPod isn't just a mobile music player -- it's a fast external hard drive for my Mac. I keep a backup of everything on it. Because it follows me outside the house, the house could burn down tomorrow and I'd be back in the writing business just as soon as I could find a second-hand iMac. But the 20Gb one has been getting a bit full recently, and an upgrade was in order.)

    Other things ...

    Well, London is still there. And life is as surreal as ever; while out and about shopping on Friday, who should I run into but Cory Doctorow? We really have to get this synchronicity thing under control. Oh, and hi to all the rasfc folks I had lunch with on Sunday -- it was nice to meet you!

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 14:47 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 03 Dec 2003

    I'm outa here

    I've been moaning about needing a vacation; so I'm taking one. Won't be back on the blog until Tuesday next week at the earliest -- got stuff to do and places to go.

    In the meantime, it's now a dead cert that Orbit (Transworld) will be publishing "Singularity Sky" and "Iron Sunrise" in the UK -- at least, they've paid for them -- and issue #1 of the resurrected Argosy magazine will be coming out with a chapbook containing two collaborative novellas by Cory Doctorow and myself -- "Jury Service" (previously published by SciFi.com) and a new sequel, "Appeals Court".



    posted at: 14:40 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 01 Dec 2003

    Scribble, scribble

    So I just finished (modulo some polishing by Cory) our latest collaborative novella, "Appeals Court", a sequel to Jury Service. (No, you can't read it yet -- not until it's published, at least.)

    Now to whimper, grit my teeth, and attack the final novelette in Accelerando.

    [Link][Discuss writing]



    posted at: 18:14 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 30 Nov 2003

    Back home

    ... From delivering Feorag and various co-conspirators to perform at the Banchory-Ternan Morris Men's Annual Feast and Ceileidh. The driving was scary (torrential rain, total darkness, unlit winding country roads -- conditions that seemingly turn all fellow road-users into homicidal maniacs), but when we got there the food was excellent, the beer was strong, and ...

    No, let's not go there. (Suffice to say, Morris dancing, or indeed the kind of disorganized chaos of the ceileidh, is not something I am ever going to try. I just sat on the sidelines wearing black and clutching my pint, like a bizarrely alcohol-enhanced Wee Free elder.)

    Anyway, if you misbehave in the blog comments I'll post my photographs here. (Yes, that is a threat.)

    Meanwhile, more signs that we're living in the right century. According to Cory, Discovery (in the US) are selling a DNA sequencing for children kit that I really must take a close look at. "Yes, kids, hours of endless fun as you carefully reassemble the sequence for smallpox and hybridize with Interleukin IV for the playground gift that keeps on giving! Time off work for all the family!" (Well, probably not, luckily -- at least until they start including a cut down version of these babies in the toy box. Which hopefully will happen later rather than sooner -- the "explosion proof design!" bullet point against the OligoProcess™ machine is dead giveaway that this type of gear is not quite ready for mass production in a wide range of bright primary colours.)

    Finally, here is something totally bizarre and luckily fictitious (thank you, Warren, for goading me into blogging it). I'm sure there'd probably be someone sad enough to buy one, but given that we already have cats, who needs it?

    [ Discuss pomo ]



    posted at: 19:17 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 28 Nov 2003

    Long quietude

    Incidentally, the reason blog entries have been thin on the ground this week is that I'm (a) grappling with finishing the latest collaborative novella with Cory Doctorow, and (b) getting myself firmly stuck in on a new laptop. The laptop is a new G4 iBook, and part of the reason it's taking so long is that I'm offloading a metric ton of stuff that I normally do on my CoLo server onto it -- reading email (I've been using Mutt for the past six or seven years, but Apple's new email client is getting good enough to replace it), running a usenet server, spam filtering (the stuff that's been bogging down the CoLo server mercilessly -- I've got a 1Mb cable modem connection, so I can do the spam sorting down on the laptop without incurring a huge phone bill), and so on.

    I'm going to be away for part of this weekend, and working hard to make up for lost time. So there may be no updates between now and Monday.



    posted at: 12:51 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 27 Nov 2003

    Hyperglycaemia attack

    This is so cute that any diabetics are advised to lay in a spare insulin syringe before clicking on the link.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss cats ]



    posted at: 20:37 | path: /cats | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 25 Nov 2003

    A bundle of weird shit

    Warning: if you are remotely squeamish, do not click on any of these links (except maybe the first two).

    Here are Laibach's kittens. If that's not spuriously strange enough for you, we have added chibi-style cute Lovecraftian horrors, the [extremely dubious] Temple of Black Jesus, this [absolutely totally dubious, not work-safe] series of beauty shots that sort of expose a little too much in the tradition of [if you don't know what this is, really don't look -- no, on second thoughts you'll have to cut'n'paste the link, I'm too squeamish] http://goatse.cx/, and more proof that Japanese people invent the weirdest perversions.

    [ Discuss dumb ]



    posted at: 18:49 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 24 Nov 2003

    Thunderbirds are Go ...

    Orolnyok in flight (Yes, this one isn't about politics, it's about cool technology that really belongs in a Gerry Anderson super marrionation TV show.)

    Recently I've been reading some fun books about weird Soviet aviation experiments published by Midland Publishing (whose UK distributor is here and whose US outlet is www.specialitypress.com). In particular I've been browsing Russia's Ekranoplans by Sergey Komissarov, a remarkable book documenting the development of these unique vehicles. It's full of weird tidbits, like this:

    Mriya/Orlyonok Aviation and Maritime Search-and-Rescue System

    This SAR system was evolved by the Alexeyev Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau together with the Antonov Design Bureau. It's task consisted in detecting the accident site on the sea surface, performing rescue work, and rendering the necessary assistance to people in distress. The system comprises the An-225 Mriya (Dream) carrier aircraft and the Orlyonok WIG vehicle carried on top of its fuselage. The overall weight of the system is 610 tonnes (1,345,000 lb).

    Once an accident has been reported, the An-225 with the Orlyonok attached to it 'piggy-back' takes off, heading for the area where the accident has happened. In the vicinity of the accident site the Orlyonok starts its engines and detaches itself from the carrier aircraft, making a gliding descent to the water surface where it alights. According to the project plan, the Orlyonok was to be fitted with special equipment enabling it to render urgent medical aid and accomodate up to 70 survivors. In accordance with the designers' concept five systems making part of a unified SAR complex would be located in different parts of the world's oceans. The international complex was expected to cover virtually all major maritime traffic routes, fishery areas and areas of offshore oil and gas extraction. Since both components of the SAR complex had already been created and had undergone operational trials, it was presumed that creation of such a system would be less costly than establishing other similar systems. However, a prerequisite for putting such a plan into effect was the setting up of an international rescue service. Unfortunately this project was not put into practice.

    Okay, so we've got a viable design here for Thunderbird Two. Doubtless Antonov and Alexeyev could cough up the others in short order. So all we need is International Rescue ...

    Although, on second thoughts, for the authentic Gerry Anderson puppet animation feel, the Orlyonok ought to be carrying a nuclear-powered midget submarine.

    [ Discuss dieselpunk ]



    posted at: 12:02 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 21 Nov 2003

    The void stares also

    I try to stay off the topic of politics and the middle east, I really do. It's not good for my blood pressure, it irritates a large proportion of my readers, and it doesn't achieve anything. But yesterday's bombings in Istanbul demand comment ...

    I really don't like George W. Bush. In fact, when I see him on television I have to change channel before the urge to put my boot through the screen becomes irresistable. (I haven't felt such a visceral anger at a politician since Margaret Thatcher was laying around her with an axe in the 80's.)

    However, there are some issues I agree with him about.

    Item number one on the list is that Al Qaida blowing people up is Wrong, and should be stopped. Item number two on the list is that it is not acceptable to stop Al Qaida blowing things up by giving in to all their demands, which in maximalist form would amount to surrendering the whole of western civilization to a barbarous mediaevalist fundamentalism. And third on the list is that Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party was a vile and repugnant dictatorship (and North Korea doesn't look too good, either).

    So why did I go on an anti-George W. Bush march on Tuesday, and why do I want to put a foot through the TV screen whenever I see his face?

    The devil is in the details.

    Bush's response to the 9/11 disaster was grossly inappropriate on every level. He started with a huge international outpouring of goodwill -- an unprecedented discontinuity in the diplomatic firmament which a cannier politician could have parlayed into a widespread international campaign against the causes of terrorism, Instead, the response of his administration varied from a polite "no thanks, we don't need your help" to biting the extended hand. Iran was offering to help back in September 2001, for example. The UK sent its largest military deployment since the second world war, and got clobbered with trade sanctions by return of post. And that's just for starters; rather than going after the root causes of the disease (of Middle Eastern terrorism, that is), the Bush administration decided first to tackle one of the symptoms (Afghanistan), then to go and beat up the neighbour (Iraq) who had nothing to do with the problem in the first place. We can take it as read at this point that there were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction posing a threat to the west; I believe there's also an extreme shortage of reliable evidence pointing to any connection between the late Iraqi government and Al Qaida (who, it should be noted, hated everything Ba'athism stands for).

    The Iraq invasion was foredoomed to be a disaster. Since March, the US and allied forces have succeeded in killing more Iraqi civilians than the blood-drenched dictatorship's thirty-year batting average. They've destroyed infrastructure, increased unemployment from 30% to 70%, and committed war crimes (collective punishment, attacks on civilians, detention without cause, and the planned sale of state assets in a flat violation of the Geneva Conventions). And some of us haven't forgotten who made the monster in the first place. (Yes, that is Donald Rumself shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, in an episode he'd probably prefer to see swept under the carpet these days.)

    Back home, they've done their best to destroy what was left of a proud tradition of civil rights -- already damaged badly by the succession of wars that shaped the agonizing history of the 20th century. I'm not the best person to discuss what has happened to civil liberties in the USA, but I would like to note at this point that I'm no enemy of the US: I seriously considered emigrating in the early 1990's. Now I'm very glad indeed that I didn't; I have an uneasy feeling that I would have been in the position of a Polish Jew emigrating to Germany in the late 1920's.

    And now we come full circle, back to Al Qaida. They're still murdering people. They've turnned the US occupation of Iraq into a recruiting stand! What went wrong?

    Basil Liddell-Hart described the two biggest mistakes a Great Power could make, historically, in his two rules: "never start a land war in Asia, and never start a war on two fronts". Afghanistan is the classic "land war in Asia" mistake. There are no frontiers; unless the US forces are able to sweep through the North-West Province of Pakistan with fire and the sword they will be unable to touch the Taliban in their heartland. (Not that the Taliban, however odious they may be, are the roots of the Al Qaida problem; they actually discussed handing Osama bin Laden over in early 2001, an offer which the US State Department screwed up by insisting on adding conditions that the Taliban couldn't agree to.) Afghanistan is a very dangerous place to get bogged down in militarily, as the Soviets, and before them the British discovered to their cost. But it's not the tap-root of Middle Eastern terrorism; Afghans don't come pouring out of the mountain country in their countless hordes to strap on suicide belts. Rather, the angry young men gravitated to Afghanistan as a refuge and a place to meet their own kind and form common cause. The Jihad got its start there in the 1980's, with CIA backing for the religious factions of the Mujaheddin fighting against the Soviet occupiers.

    As for Iraq ...

    Iraq is the "war on two fronts" error writ large. Rather than going after the causes of terror (again, how many times do I have to repeat this? Keep your eye on the ball!) Bush seems to have hared off after the man who he believes tried to have his daddy assassinated in 1993. (Saddam is a sore loser -- so would you be, if your friends like that nice Don Rumsfeld turned around and declared war on you in 1991.) I'll leave the postmortem on how the neoconservative faction hijacked the war to the US foreign policy wonks, and the grandiose PNAC conspiracy theories likewise. The point is, Iraq wasn't a source of Middle Eastern terrorism. But it is, now. The anger and despair coming out of the occupation is a motor driving large numbers of angry young men throughout the Middle East closer and closer to the point at which they feel like doing something a lot more serious than merely kicking the TV set. Something that they feel will shake us in the west to our core, by demonstrating the depth of their rage.

    Israel. Palestine. Suicide bombings. And now, Turkey. The question that always occurs to me when I see the aftermath of another hideous explosion on TV is, "what kind of anger is it that drives a person to do this kind of thing -- to themselves, as well as to their enemies?" It's easy for us, in our capacity as potential targets, to write suicide bombers off as unfeeling monsters. But I think that's a mistake. They're clearly angry about something. And it's typically something personal. Orwell painted a grim dystopian future in 1984: "picture a boot stamping on an unprotected face, forever". These people aren't lying down; they see what they're doing as kicking back. And I don't see any good coming of it, because the harsh fact of the matter is both sides are equally wrong.

    Declaring a war on terrorism in the wake of 9/11 was good politics for George W. Bush. But it's a misleading metaphor; because war is terrorism by other means, just as terrorism has become an extension of diplomacy by the weak against the strong, to fold, spindle and mutilate Von Clauswitz's famous dictum. If a war against terrorism is to be successful it must be fought in peoples' hearts and minds, with unusual weapons like trust and respect, and a willingness to negotiate with the moderates before our intransigence turns them into desperate extremists.

    Insisting that a war on terrorism is a literal war, involving bombers and tanks, is foolish in the extreme. Handing them a victory on a plate -- by surrendering our civil liberties on the altar of security -- is insane. Killing terrorists generates more anger among the communities the terrorists are drawn from, and anger breeds more violence. But negotiation works. It worked in Northern Ireland, where the depths of religious bigotry rival anything to be found in the Middle East. And it can work in the Israel/Palestine mess, if negotiations can be arranged and both sides are willing to back down from their maximalist positions. I doubt negotiation has any chance of working with Osama bin Laden or his closest followers, but as the Ha'aretz interview above suggests, even suicide bombers aren't completely beyond hope.

    But back to Bush. George speaks of a clear-cut conflict between good and evil, right and wrong. He's sure it's a war, and he's sure that good will prevail. Well, I agree with him about that, too -- but I'm not sure which side he's on. He's too enthusiastic about splitting the universe into clear-cut categories; and he seems to lack the ability to negotiate or compromise in pursuit of his goals. It seems to me that a talent for convincing yourself that your enemies are evil, and that you are therefore justified in using any means against them, is itself one of the most clear-cut forms of evil. As Neitzsche put it, "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you." Bush has plenty of monsters to fight -- he's surrounded by them. And the effects are clearly visible.

    [ Discuss Bush ]



    posted at: 12:08 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 20 Nov 2003

    Demonstrations

    I was late getting out last night, so rather than trying to figure out where the Edinburgh march had gotten to I headed straight for the US Consulate, which is just over the road from where I live. As a point of note, it's well-known -- to the marchers, if not the general public -- that the US Consulate in Edinburgh is staffed during office hours only, and by local Scots employees. At the time of the march (6:30pm onwards) there was nobody there. So, probably for this reason, the police presence was no heavier than you'd expect for any other peaceful but large demonstration.

    I don't have an accurate count of the size of the march, which in any event was a side-show to the big event due in London today, but if it's anything to judge by the Metropolitan Police -- who are said to have been preparing for up to 100,000 marchers -- are in for a very nasty surprise. I'd say this one had somewhere in the range of 3000-6000 demonstrators; the column took a quarter of an hour to walk by, ten-abreast. That puts it close to the same scale as the largest of the anti-war demos in March, and if it's indicative of the size of the London protest today it suggests there could be up to half a million people on the streets of the capital protesting about Bush's visit.

    There's not much else to say. The crowd were cheerful and fairly well-behaved, and in addition to the usual subculture protestors included a lot of folks who seemed to have come straight from their office jobs to join in. The police were professional, unprovocative, and mostly bored (from what I saw of them) and I'm not aware of any arrests or trouble. Afterwards I met up with Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks, and we decamped in the direction of a pub where we ran into Andrew Greig, Ian Rankin, and a couple of other scribblers.

    [ Discuss Bush ]



    posted at: 12:03 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 17 Nov 2003

    Bizarre links of the day

    Tomorrow George W. Bush arrives in the UK, an event so unspeakable in its ghastliness that I think we could all do with some practice at coping with hideous things. Without further ado (or reference to www.rotten.com) I therefore suggest you desensitize yourself by following some of these links. (NB: mostly work-safe, but vomit bucket recommended.)

    To start off slowly, by way of Grouse! we have the Ugly Wedding Dress of the Day weblog, clear evidence that the Fashion Police death camps in the Appalachians aren't working nearly fast enough. Now we turn our eyes to Budapest, where artistic insensibility acquires a whole new meaning with the discovery that the corpse of a man who hanged himself a year ago was mistaken for an abstract sculpture for more than a day by students and workmen entering a newly re-opened university building. Looking further east, those whacky Japanese can always be counted on to invent such a bizarrely recherche new perversion that the rest of us are left scratching our heads (and then swallowing). Mind you, we occidentals have created our own in-your-face offenses against sensibility -- notably brutalist architecture, BIFF's web page, and G. G. Allin.

    Thank you, thank you. If you're still with me after that little lot, and you haven't thrown up, then you are ready to cope with a state visit by George W. Bush.

    [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 17:47 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 16 Nov 2003

    Friendly requests

    The Guardian is running a report today on discussions between the Home Office and the White House on security requirements for George W. Bush's visit to the UK this week.

    According to the report the following requests were made by the White House:

    1. The entire London underground railway system to be shut down for the duration of the visit (apparently in response to fears that suicide bombers might hijack a tube train and blow it up under the President's feet)
    2. That US military aircraft, including helicopters and ground attack aircraft, be allowed to patrol London's airspace
    3. That 250 Secret Service agents, including snipers, who will be travelling with the President be granted diplomatic immunity from prosecution in the event they shoot and kill civilians (whether deliberately or by accident)
    4. That the Presidential security detachment should include units armed with miniguns (read: high cyclic rate machine guns)
    5. Closure of a large chunk of central London (to the point where Cabinet staff are being advised to "work from home" for the duration of the visit, if possible)

    It appears that the final demand is actually going to be granted, at least in part. As for the others ... well, I am pleased that helicopter gunships and heavy machine guns manned by evidently-paranoid security personnel with diplomatic immunity won't be featuring on the streets of London, but words fail me when I try to describe how I feel that the request was even made in the first place.

    Heads of state are subject to random attack from time to time, and Bush does have legitimate security concerns. But if the White House is so worried about his safety from the members of the public of his closest ally, why doesn't he stay at home? And what does this say about the state of the trans-Atlantic relationship?

    Hint: on Wednesday I'll be on the Edinburgh anti-war demonstration. I can do no less.

    [ Link ][ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 12:24 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 14 Nov 2003

    Buddy, can you spare $9.5M?

    No, this is not a spoof -- SpaceDev are for real, and they really are auctioning a low-cost microsatellite launch on eBay. Now, there are limits to what you can do with a satellite massing just 60 kilograms, but they're not as tightly constrained as they used to be; for example, the Voyager-1 science platform massed about 70 Kg back in 1977, but today you could squish it down into 2-3 kilos. We've come a long way.

    (I think this one should be filed in the "20 reasons this really is the 21st century" drawer.)

    Now, if only someone would actually win the goddamn X-Prize, we could get this century back on track again ...

    [ Link ] [ Discuss space ]



    posted at: 20:53 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 12 Nov 2003

    Clean-up time

    Yikes! You go away for a couple of weeks and what happens? Your evil twin breaks out of the Government Warehouse, steals your blog, makes himself at home, and starts ordering all and sundry to build titanium pyramids on the moon and vote for Michael Howard.

    Madness!

    Anyway, I'm back to normal and that Evil Overlord guy can go and find his own blog -- this one's mine. I've got a lot of catching up to do right now; I'm working on a collaboration with Cory Doctorow, three or four short stories, and a bunch of copy edits for a novel are due to land on my desk any day now. (The book in question is "Iron Sunrise", the sequel to "Singularity Sky", and this weeks' good news is that it looks like it'll be coming out in the UK, and probably quite a bit closer to its first US publication date than the earlier book.) Anyway, I hope you'll excuse me if I don't blog too much for the next week or so. Between digging my way out from under the backlog and tidying up all the secret lairs and weapons of mass destruction the Evil Overlord left lying around I've got my work cut out.



    posted at: 12:46 | path: /overlord | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 06 Nov 2003

    Your evil overlord wants you to know that ...

    Having a hideous head-cold means that you don't have to smell what you're doing when you muck out the cat's litter tray.

    (Of course, being an Evil Overlord means you have Minions to take care of such tasks for you, and to find creative uses for the toxic waste products -- there's nothing like burying your enemies up to the neck in a pile of cat-poo to make them crack, and I'm sure minion-of-the-month John Ashcroft will be enthusiastically deploying this tactic just as soon as he's rammed through the PATRIOT III Act that will give him the powers of inquisition that he truly needs in order to get the job done.)

    Meanwhile, your evil overlord will shortly be departing from his lair on a fact-finding mission to a science fiction convention. Expect further transmissions next week.

    [ Link (Apparel for the discerning evil overlord) ] [ Discuss Evil Overlords ]



    posted at: 13:06 | path: /overlord | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 04 Nov 2003

    The revolution will not be televised: it will not take place at all.

    As your Evil Overlord, I want you to know that I hate revolutions. Revolutions are exceedingly bad for entrenched power, and there've been too many of them in the last century -- technological as well as ideological.

    Take computers, for example. They're okay when they're locked in a corporate basement processing the big databases that allow my minions to adjust your monthly chocolate rations, but things got entirely out of control in the 1970's when those meddling kids at Intel started making "micro-processors" that wild-eyed subversives called Steve could do subversive things with. Luckily my pal Bill Gates -- the lawyer, that is -- suggested a good wheeze to one of my assistants in the Department of Bureaucratic Overcontrol, and thirty years later it has payed off: Bill's son now owns most of the world's software by way of a sleazy and devious web of monopolies, contracts, and back-pocket judges. One of the Steve's turned out to be un-buyable, but the other one ... let's just say he doesn't know what planet he's on, neither do his followers, and that's the way we want to keep it. (And you wondered about the Kool-Aid at Apple Developer Forum?)

    But you rabble. Sometimes you puzzle me.

    Take this Linus guy. Some Finnish computer science student or other. Trying to soak teen-agers for thousand buck software licences sounded like a good way of putting them off for life, but it backfired in this case, and as peer-to-peer hadn't been invented we had no way of planting anything incriminating on him. Nor did we even see the threat. He started writing an operating system. He wasn't the first fellow to do that, or even to do it for free -- there's a strange hermit-like figure called Richard or Dick or something who keeps demanding that I change my name to Evil Overlord (GNU/Planetary) or something -- but my land sharks didn't realise until too late the dangers of letting this thing called the GPL loose on a piece of software. (Or the whole internet mess, which is costing ever so much to bring under control because people think it means they actually have free speech and they get much angrier when you disillusion them than when they didn't think they had it at all.) But I digress.

    As of eighteen months ago, Linux wasn't just registering on Bill's radar, it was registering on my radar. It's an industrial strength system that can run databases, and there are all sorts of weasel-minded cryptography nerds out there trying to use it to build undetectable file stores, peer to peer networks, and so on. This absolutely must be stamped out at once, or all my attempts to get the internet under control again will be pointless. Bill said he'd invent something called Palladium to do it, and some discreet nudging in Congress got some honest politicians to propose a bill that would make it a capital offense to run non-Microsoft operating systems, but that's too slow. Lots of third-world Evil Government Minions got the idea that they could save money by running Linux, and once that kind of idea takes root all that's left is to send in B-52's loaded with Agent Orange. It's a plague, I tell you.

    Luckily, one of my spin doctors was able to put me in trust with some folks who would see reason. First on my phone list was a Mr McBride from Utah, who had recently bought a second hand software company's name and wondered why there was no money left in it. Darl was overjoyed when I suggested that Evil Overlord (Planetary) Operations would back him if he attempted to prove that Linux was a product of Satan and he is now well on his way to campaigning for sysadmins to be burned at the stake for using the virulent freeware. But while I hadn't been paying attention, some early Linux developers had turned corporate. This suggested another avenue of attack ...

    Well, I can happily announce today that Linux is back under control. Red Hat, in one of those inexplicable corporate foot-shootings that happen from time to time, has announced that they're discontinuing Red Hat Linux. This move is inexplicable until you realise that they'll be continuing to market it, with an extra digit in the price, as Red Hat Enterprise, but it means they're out of the game: they're not a threat to Evil Overlord operations any more. Because I'm going to make sure that a lot of enterprises buy Red Hat Enterprise contracts. The threat of corporate malfeasance lawsuits, not to mention my minion Darl's barking, should focus Red Hat's thinking for many years to come.

    Meanwhile, my friends in Utah -- do you think I ought to move Evil Empire HQ to Salt Lake City? -- completed the clean-up without even having to be asked. Novell have been trying to turn from a Netware (dying) into a Linux (growing) corporation for ages. Today Novell bought SuSE, the only other really successful desktop Linux company. Given Novell's historic record of success in the consumer market, this guarantees Microsoft's continued domination of the desktop and the continuation of our thirty-year long propaganda strategy. This consists of convincing the public that personal computers are useless for anything except browsing dodgy websites like this one. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy -- if they believe it, they won't go looking for the truth on-line. I can't exaggerate the threat that ubiquitous free communications and public speech posed to my operations, but as with so many other technological problems, the solution lies in how you look at the problem.

    We're getting close. My US Senate minions, led by senators Berman, Smith and Conyers, are about to introduce a bill to target peer-to-peer clients including web browsers, making it a crime to distribute them without a warning that they "could create a security and privacy risk". FUD, but useful FUD because it will leave the majority of timid users stuck with my friend Bill's son's web browser (the next release of which will add subliminal pop-ups slaved to Fox News). We've even nobbled that Linus guy into not opposing our moves to build Digital Rights Management into the next generation of microprocessors. With Linux under the control of large corporations and some handy laws to deploy against the wild-eyed Debian info-terrorists, the personal computer revolution will be well and truly nailed down and wrapped up, and the internet will be well on the way to being just another propaganda channel.

    Then it'll be back to business as usual. Kiss the annual upgrade fee, scum!

    [ Discuss Evil Overlords ]



    posted at: 16:52 | path: /overlord | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 03 Nov 2003

    Salute the Flag!

    I am extremely disappointed in you all.

    Goddamn bleeding heart liberals, wanting to pull the troops out of Iraq.

    Today's news from Iraq is good news. It means that we are winning the war against the top-down hierarchically controlled remnants of the Ba'athist resistance, or maybe the disparate half-a-dozen bottom-up national resistance movements (to say nothing of the bull-goose loony suicide bomber wannabes who are flocking in from the Middle East and Europe in hope of strapping a bomb on and taking some crusaders to hell over Ramadan). At any rate, we're winning the war against whoever the hell we're fighting. Ahem, I mean, the war against whoever you're fighting. I'm sitting here in this air-conditioned office in Evil Overlord HQ on Skull Island and I'm not fighting anything, except maybe the pounds I'm adding to my waistline.

    Look, let's get this straight. It is your job to fight the war against whoever I say the enemy is. If you question your leaders you are unpatriotic, and patriotism is next to godliness, isn't it? And those evil terrorists, they flew airliners into skyscrapers -- who knows what Mohammed Atta and his evil henchpeople are planning to do next?

    Okay. You think I'm not being serious? This war is the best thing to have happened to business in years. I had my doubts about Georgie's response to 9/11 (sticking his dick in the buzzing hornet nest of Afghanibuttfuckistan less than ten years after the Soviets got enclued and high-tailed it out of Kabul: less than two centuries after the goddamn British empire -- the folks who accidentally conquered India and ran it at a profit for a century -- found out the hard way that when you played "rock, scissors, stone" with Pathans you had to count your fingers afterwards) seemed a bit odd at first. But the Iraq scam is truly brilliant. I am duly grateful to Dick for handling my Halliburton proxies; this is going to take years to sort out. And the longer you guys stay in downtown Baghdad, and the more things the other guys blow up, the more reconstruction contracts will be there for my friends. You put it up, they knock it down, I get paid. It's as simple as that.

    Getting a bit more technical: as Major General Smedley Butler pointed out in the 1930's, war is a racket. A racket is a scheme whereby a properly constituted enterprise can maximize profits without the sort of lilly-gilding and attention to obeying the letter of the law that businesses which wish to comply with, for example, health and safety regulations, are subject to. But there's a paradox in this: because if crime is business, it faces added overheads -- it must provide its own insurance, law, enforcement, and punishment services, and avoid attracting the attention of the legitimate governing authorities. Thus, the real world (as opposed to the one James Bond inhabits) is short of multi-billionaire Blofeld figures, running SPECTRE-sized multinational criminal syndicates. The operational overheads a criminal multinational faces are higher than those of a law-abiding firm, making them less efficient in the marketplace.

    The exception to this rule is that when the racket can claim the protection of overwhelming military force it can operate more profitably than a conventional corporation. This is where General Butler's comments become apposite. In the wake of an invasion, the police and the interior ministry and corporate management of the vanquished become impotent in the face of the carpetbagging entrepreneurs riding the coat-tails of the invader's tanks. And invading armies are not geared up to manage corporate reconstruction effectively.

    As long as the situation in Iraq remains one of a military occupation, with contracts handed out on an open-ended basis with no oversight, the contractors will tend towards the condition of organized criminals -- on a colossal scale. And with at least five billion dollars already missing from the Iraq reconstruction funds in only six months, I and my Evil Minions are optimistic about the prospects for an indefinitely prolonged occupation.

    Remember, if you break it you pay for it. Occupying soldiers are notoriously bad at not breaking things -- in fact, they tend to get the locals angry enough to break even more stuff of their own. And someone else gets to pick up the tab, and hand out the cash to my cronies. Which is why I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in reducing the rate of breakage.

    Kiss the cheque book, scum -- and don't forget to salute the flag!

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Evil Overlords ]



    posted at: 00:25 | path: /overlord | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 01 Nov 2003

    Your Evil Overlord Orders You To ...

    1. Buy my books. (That goes without saying, right? What point is there in being Evil Overlord if I can't make people buy my books? Buy my books, scum, or you will live just long enough to be truly sorry.)
    2. Teach everyone to read. Anyone who cannot read will in future have rude statements about their parentage tattooed on their forehead, by way of an incentive. (See item, "Buy my books", above.)
    3. Consume and Obey.
    4. Those of you who live in the Vatican City have an election coming up soon. Before you cast a vote in favour of a successor for the current pontiff, I urge you to remember the fate of the electing cardinals who disagreed with Matteo Orsini. Here's a clue: the watchword is plastic. I'm sure you'll find a way to the conclusion that keeping me happy is your holy duty.
    5. Those of you who live in the United States of America have an election coming up next year. Before you cast a vote, please remember that I do not look kindly on scum who fail to vote for one of my sock-puppets. Determining which of the candidates on offer is my sock puppet is an intelligence test. Lose it, and you have four years to regret your mistake. (Here's a clue: of the current candidates, which one looks most like a minion of the Dark Lord -- the guy in the White House who is currently trying to boost the price of hardcore action by declaring Protection From Porn Week while simultaneously fighting a land war in Asia and a war on two fronts, or one of the other guys?)

    That's all for now.

    [ Discuss Evil Overlords ]



    posted at: 18:04 | path: /overlord | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 31 Oct 2003

    Public relations

    It has been brought to my attention that in order to obtain your cooperation in installing my minions in those countries that still run Democracy 1.0 (as opposed to the new, improved Democracy 2.0 currently being installed by my contractors at Diebold Corporation and elsewhere) it is necessary to behave as if your votes are a valuable resource. At least, until we can eliminate the pesky audit trail that proves you voted for them and not for us.

    Therefore, please allow me to re-phrase the last sentence of my previous message as follows: "I encourage you to vote for Michael Howard. Vote for the tax-cutting cuddly face of new, improved, sparkly-clean conservative virtue!"

    (Yes, PNH, the fascist octopus is indeed beginning to sing its swan song. And you ain't heard nuttin' yet.)

    [ Link (Electronic voting fraud) ] [ Discuss Evil Overlords ]



    posted at: 19:49 | path: /overlord | permanent link to this entry

    Meet your new rulers

    As Evil Overlord (Planetary) it has come to my attention that the British Isles are currently being governed by regrettably liberal-minded wishy-washy types such as Tony Blair, Jack Straw, and David Blunkett. This needs to be Rectified. I'd therefore like to commend to you my new Minion and your next provincial gauleiter, Mr Michael Howard. As Labour MP Tom Watson explains, Mr Howard is eminently suitable to the post of Evil Overlord (Planetary) Minion i/c United Kingdom. He is, in fact, as suitable as anyone can be who isn't actually the bastard cloned love-child of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft -- my two favourite Evil Overlord Minions (and the ones he most closely resembles). His policies betray a touching hatred and contempt for fags, women, wogs, poor people, criminals stupid enough to get caught, trade unionists, healthcare workers, and indeed just about everyone except my other most excellent Minion (retired), General Alfredo Pinochet.

    Vote for him, scum! Vote for the jackboot upon your neck!

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Evil Overlords ]



    posted at: 12:44 | path: /overlord | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 30 Oct 2003

    My Evil Plan

    I am currently feeling somewhat tired and taking a week off work, lazing around and contemplating my future. Despite being able to make a comfortable living writing science fiction and fantasy novels, I feel that my broad vision and grand strategic skills would be better employed in a more prominent role. There's been a lot of wind-baggery lately about a New World Order, or a Project for a New American Century, but I know how to do it better; their ambitions are all a bit limited. Yes, I intend to apploy for the job of Evil Overlord (Planetary). Here's what I believe I can bring to the post:

    Your typical Evil Overlord dresses in black, sits in a high castle overlooking a blasted wasteland, and sends forth armies of Orcs (or the US Marine Corps) to devastate continents. But that's the naive way to do it. My plan is not to tell anyone that I'm the Evil Overlord (Planetary) -- at least, nobody except the folks who count, who can in turn be indexed on your fingers and toes if you have a full complement of digits and understand binary.

    I will live in a modest ranch somewhere in the richest military power on the planet -- like Kennebunkport, say -- and I will entertain political leaders from around the world and discuss their Swiss bank account statements and the pending indictments before the Hague international court with them until they see that it is in their interests to listen to my sage advice. By being pivotal in this way, I can control events from behind the curtain (maintained by my good friend Rupe, who won't let any nasty journalists pry into my private life) while putting a useful idiot in the White House to run Province Number One in accordance with my requirements.

    A bit of mis-management lower down the pecking order will keep my minions, the presidents and prime ministers and ayatollahs, on their toes, vying for my favour. It'll also serve to produce the semi-permanent state of Emergency that justifies the enormous standing armies of intelligence/secret police agents who maintain the war on terror (also known as the war on people who know what I'm up to and want nothing to do with it).

    Mine will be a very democratic evil overlordship -- everyone gets to vote for my choice of minions from a pre-approved list of evil overlord henchpeople, and the minions don't even have to pay lip service to me in public. (In fact, if they *do* pay lip service to me in public they'll have a little accident with a bottle of oxycontin and have to go to the Betty Ford Clinic for a rest).

    For those bits of the globe that are annoyingly recalcitrant, my minions will prepare Sock Puppets which they can revile to their hearts' content -- the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Republican Party. Every so often I'll let a bunch of upstarts 'win' and overthrow their particular Sock Puppet; meanwhile my minions within the upstart movement will work their way to the top by attending executive committee meetings while everyone else is away demonstrating.

    It has been said that my friend Rupert Murdoch regularly calls up his guru Arthur C. Clarke to chat about the future, communications satellites, the media, and so on. I'm a bit less overt -- but I will make sure that Noam Chomsky's tenure is unchallenged, and that he has plenty of time to write, and I will read everything he writes in manuscript form and apply his fascinating techniques for social control to my own ends. (Of course he thinks he's doing you all a favour by explaining this stuff ...)

    As for why I want supreme power, that takes some consideration. The planetary GDP is roughly US $40Tn a year (that's $40,000Bn). I figure a 1% supertax ought to ensure that all my plans are catered for, allowing me to indulge in grandiouse -- not to say megalomaniacal -- schemes without restraint. For example, I've seen the Louvre and I wasn't impressed. For my personal art collection, nothing less than a titanium pyramid will do -- a titanium pyramid, on the moon. Should only cost a hundred billion or so: that's chicken feed. (A fitting goal for the Indian Space Agency to undertake on my behalf, I think, seeing that NASA are currently pork-barrelled into uselessness and their replacement agency isn't scheduled for creation until five years after the next American revolution.)

    As for why you should support me for Evil Overlord, I can offer you a number of fringe benefits. For one thing, it is not in my personal interests to allow the junior management to throw strategic nuclear weapons around, indulge in mass extinction events, ignore earth-smashing asteroids, and otherwise act in the belief that they can get away with mischief. For another thing, I'm not as stupidly provincial as your current lords and masters; in my capacity as Evil Overlord (Planetary) I have to energetically pursue a policy of cosmopolitan internationalism in order to justify the (Planetary) bit. Finally, I promise to be more amusing and congenial, not to mention more witty and imaginative than my predecessors as I feed unfortunate investigative journalists to the candiru fish in the atrium of my glass-walled hideaway skyscraper in the Himalayas. I mean, I used to be a science fiction writer: I'm superbly qualified to dispose of a budget of $400Bn a year in interesting and creative ways that will surprise, entrance, and horrify you.

    Vote for me: why settle for the lesser evil?

    (PS: Do you think people would take me more seriously as an evil overlord if I changed my surname to "Stroessner"?)

    [ Discuss Evil Overlords ]



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

    Tue, 28 Oct 2003

    Gadgetitis redux

    Well, last week my Treo 600 arrived. It's a great phone -- but when your phone sprouts a QWERTY keyboard for text messaging and email it helps if the space bar works. Mine didn't, and the phone's new enough to have confused Orange -- in the end they escallated the issue to the desk of someone with "manager" in their title, and a replacement (with working space bar) turned up this morning, so I'm reasonably happy, but it shows that new gadgets can display new and unprecedented failure modes. Thing is, a phone with a non-working spacebar is still perfectly functional as a phone -- but not as a mobile internet/email terminal.

    Anyway, all that should be sorted out by tomorrow (I just have to charge up the new phone, swap SIM and SD/MMC cards, and send the old one back).

    Coincidentally, today my Alphasmart Dana Wireless arrived. It's the 21st century Cambridge Z88 replacement, and it appears to work okay; right now it's plugged in and charging up. One annoying nit is that the software that comes with it expects to be installed from a Mac or Windows system, and I'd prefer to use it with Linux. This wouldn't be a problem if they'd packaged the stuff in old-fashioned zip archives, but as most modern users wouldn't know a zip archive if it bit them (or so the current opinion runs in marketing circles) they come in fancy installer executables. Which means I need to mug a friend with an XP box before I can install things like Documents to Go on it and get motoring.

    The payoff I'm looking for with all this new kit is a machine for writing on and a machine for keeping in touch with the universe, both able to run for many, many hours while a long way away from an electrical outlet, anywhere in the world. Oh, and they should weigh less than half as much as a laptop and (equally importantly) cost less than half as much as a laptop to replace if they break. I am fed up with expensive, excessively delicate machines that require you to schlepp around a briefcase full of support equipment if you want to use them for more than a couple of hours. It's interesting to note that both of my chosen pieces of gear run PalmOS, while none of the more conventional operating systems seem to cater to these needs, which I'd have thought would fill an obvious niche.

    (Oh yeah. Weight of Dana plus Treo 600: 1.13Kg. Weight of iBook plus spare battery: 2.56Kg, and that's before you add in the mobile phone. Even if you leave out the spare battery, the iBook is more than twice as heavy!)

    [ Discuss toys ]



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

    Mon, 27 Oct 2003

    Speaking of spam

    Quicktopic, which hosts the discussion system I use, have begun adding ads to the discussions. Intrusive ads. So I'm going to rig up a replacement as soon as I have the time and energy. This may involve moving my diary to Movable Type, now that the MT installation on this system is working smoothly.



    posted at: 21:57 | path: /spam | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 26 Oct 2003

    I hate SMTP servers ...

    I just spent three hours upgrading mailman, the mailing list system on this here Linux box, to the latest (2.1.3) release from the stable 2.0.x we were running, just so I could take advantage of the improved spam trapping features it provides. It was a royal pain in the arse and I wouldn't have bothered, were it not for the enthusiastic but ineffectual spammers who have bombarded the moderated charlie-pr mailing list (which gets about one bulletin every six months) with spam in the past week or two.

    Meanwhile, a quick check on Demon Internet's servers show something like 10,600 pieces of spam waiting for download by antipope.demon.co.uk -- a dialup account I stopped using for mail in 1998 (and for anything else about two years later). And that spam-load has built up in the 28 days since I last polled Demon. That's 500 spams a day -- and I haven't had any legitimate email via that account in the past couple of years.

    It's time for a new protocol, folks. Email's dead.

    [ Discuss spam ]



    posted at: 21:38 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 25 Oct 2003

    The liver is evil and must be punished

    It's a quarter past midnight on Friday night and I've just finished work for the evening. I'm going cross-eyed (damn these new spectacles) and if it was a bit earlier I'd be heading out to the pub to celebrate. Because ...

    About two and a bit years ago, I sold two SF novels to Ace. And my agent said, "hey, Ace won't publish the first one for a couple of years. Why don't you take a year out to try writing a big fat fantasy series, or alternate history, or something I can sell for LOT$ OF MONEY?" [[NB: she was wrong about Ace taking two years.]] And I thought for a bit and said, "how about if I write a Marxist deconstruction of your traditional extruded fantasy product, as told from the point of view of the Dark Lord?" And she said, "don't be silly." So I said ...

    Bah, you're not interested in this stuff. So cut to the chase: I'm writing a mammoth alternate-history-time-travel-fantasy epic for Tor. (Actually they contain a post-feminist political critique of neoconservative imperialism and Straussian philosophy, but my agent told me to play up the unicorns instead ... but I digress.) Anyway, I'm under contract for three books. And I just now finished the final edit on volume #2, which will be going off to my editor on Monday. Which is why I'd normally go out to the pub to drink myself into a stupor -- because that's the only sane response to finishing the sixth draft of anything.

    Meanwhile, oh, I sold another couple of books to Ace this month. Next summer sees the publication of "Iron Sunrise", the sequel to "Singularity Sky"; assuming all goes to plan, summer 2005 should see publication of "Accelerando", and summer 2006 should roll with "Glasshouse". "Accelerando" is the insanely complex, baroque, and somewhat anarchic lump of exposition from which the stories in Asimov's SF magazine are drawn; Asimov's bought the eighth (of nine) last month, and Gardner personally threatened to fly into Edinburgh and burn an upside-down microprocessor on my lawn if I didn't damn well deliver the ninth, and sooner rather than later. (Okay, I exaggerate. A little.) "Accelerando" is more than merely difficult to write -- I've been working on it since summer '99, and having a submission deadline for the final draft (gulp!) is quite terrifying, even if it's nine months away.

    "Glasshouse" is the short novel that mugged me back in April. Weirdly enough, it works (modulo some work that the end needs). I wrote it because John Varley didn't. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.) Helpful clue: "glasshouse" is old British army slang for a military prison.

    Anyway, I'm taking the weekend off. After the weekend, when I get down to work it will be to attack either (a) my current collaboration with Cory Doctorow (a sequel to Jury Duty), (b) the end of "Accelerando", (c) the third fantasy novel for Tor, (d) a review for "Foundation", or (e) my sanity.

    There's no rest for the wicked ...

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 00:37 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 24 Oct 2003

    Concorde, adieu

    Excuse the silence, please: I'm trying to finish a book. It was supposed to be nailed down today -- but instead I found myself shivering in a car park for several hours in order to see this:

    The last Concorde flight, departing

    That was the last ever Concorde flight departing from Scottish airspace. I was there, standing about five hundred feet away from the main runway at Turnhouse as it rotated. Contrary to rumour, Concorde is not the loudest airliner in the world -- even on afterburner it's no worse than an old Boeing 727 (without stage III hush-kit, those puppies were very noisy). Still, it's probably the most beautiful, elegant aircraft in the air; there's nothing else quite like it. (That it goes like a bat out of hell is just extra icing on the cake.) As Buckminster Fuller said, when you solve an engineering problem, if the solution looks beautiful, you probably got it right.

    Anyway, I guess this means I probably won't get to fly supersonic until I'm in my fifties. (Optimistically.) And it's just one more item in a long, dismal litany of abandoned promises. Big, advanced nuclear reactors pumping out power too cheap to meter. Truck and car carrying hovercraft the size of 747's. Saturn V's. They all went the way of the dinosaurs, and now we have to put up with this. It's too much: I want my bright shiny future back!

    (PS: as a final insult to add to the injury, my favourite pub in Edinburgh -- in fact, my local for most of the past decade, notwithstanding that it's a good half-hour's walk away from where I live -- closed its doors for the last time last Saturday night at, oh, about 2:30am. Which means I can't even go to the pub to raise a toast to the engineers who built Concorde. Sometimes life sucks ...)



    posted at: 20:52 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 21 Oct 2003

    Brief political interlude

    Aside from the death toll banner at the top of this page, I've been trying to keep off the topic of politics -- and especially the US/UK occupation of Iraq -- for the past couple of months. My reasons for keeping off the subject are numerous. It's pervasive, it's polarizing, every time I think about it I can feel my blood pressure spike, and opining about it is probably pointless. We saw just how much attention Tony Blair paid when the largest anti-war demonstrations the UK has ever seen kicked off at about a week's notice; I have no reason to believe that my opinion is going to affect events in the slightest.

    I'm going to take down the Iraq Body Count banner when one of two conditions occurs: either the lower estimate passes 10,000 dead, or the invaders withdraw their forces. I suspect the former will come to pass before the latter -- probably much sooner, given the likely consequences of introducing Turkish troops into the region or privatising the state-run food rationing and distribution system (both of which appear to be planned).

    I'm at a loss to guess where all this is going (although the phrase "to hell in a hand-basket" springs to mind), especially with regard to the situation in Iraq. All the news seems to point to a US occupation administered by folks who are too ideologically canalized to recognize the quagmire they've stumbled into. There is no such thing as a peaceful occupation, and there's no such thing as an occupier who is welcome: because occupations are always carried out by soldiers -- by definition, violent strangers -- and foreign soldiers are never welcome. However, I still harbour a vague hope that the Iraq adventure will eventually be seen as the high water mark for the Anglophone neo-conservative imperialists, especially as it coincides with their wilful participation in the destruction of the western middle classes.

    The future?

    After Iraq, the future belongs to the guys who own the English-speaking telephone call centres in India, and the cheap computer hardware stores in Shanghai.

    [ Discuss politics ]



    posted at: 17:38 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Gadgetitis

    So, the Handspring Treo 600 turned up yesterday afternoon. Today, I unplugged it from the charger, phoned Orange, and got it activated. Then I remembered to phone Orange and ask for GPRS to be activated too. Then I had fun beaming my contacts across to it from my Palm. Then I fidgetted with it, figuring out how to use it as a phone. And as a phone it is, indeed, pretty awesome. And then I discovered ...

    The space bar doesn't work.

    The Treo 600 has a QWERTY-layout keyboard (okay, thumbboard) for typing email and SMS messages. And it works fine -- all except the space key, which appears to be catatonic or not wired up or something. Sigh. So I'm now waiting for Orange to get back in touch about shipping me a replacement, which they said they'll do once they can beat their computer system into compliance. And I am suffering from an acute attack of gadgetitis, an inflammation of the gadget-fondling organs, because the Treo 600 is quite clearly an extremely cool piece of mobile communications kit ... if only it could send and receive email or text messages with spaces between the words.

    Meanwhile, back to work ...



    posted at: 16:03 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 18 Oct 2003

    It's my birthday today

    Here is a user manual. If anyone feels inclined to arrange for me to take a ride in the technological artefact it describes, I would be unspeakably grateful. (And very surprised.)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 15:56 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 17 Oct 2003

    And now, some words from our sponsor

    Shamelessly forwarded from an EFF mailing list:

    Today, we're asking for your help with the Broadcast Flag. This is a proposed technology mandate that would give Hollywood studios a veto over the design of the output and recording technologies that get built into DTV receivers -- which is by way of saying the stuff that we take for granted on our general-purpose machines, like CD/DVD burners, high-speed cabling standards like FireWire, and so on. This is an unprecedented maneouvre: the Hollywood studios are saying that tech companies should have to get the studios' permission before releasing new tools to their customers. These are the studios that tried to ban the VCR, that sued ReplayTV over commercial-skipping, that put Fritz Hollings up to the CPDTPA bill, a proposal to make all technologists get the entertainment industry's approval before producing new equipment.

    What's more, the Broadcast Flag demands that approved technologies will have to be built to be "tamper-resistant." That means that we'll have a law that will require an entire class of general-purpose technologies to use only obfuscated, closed-source drivers. That's right, it bans open source for tech that can be used in DTV applications.

    We need lots of people to write into the FCC asking them to set this proposal aside, and we want you to help. If you are willing and able, we'd like you to post a call-to-action on your site. You can write your own, or feel free to re-use this letter (please omit the leading paragraph!) or the copy on the EFF's site:

    action center link

    That link contains our "action center" item, which allows people to send a fax to the commission with one click.

    Seriously. This proposal doesn't directly affect me, because I'm based in the UK. But if you live in the USA, this is a particularly odious attempt by the entertainment industry to grab complete control of your next generation of TV broadcasting system and prevent you from watching it on equipment uncertified by the MPAA, time-shifting to avoid ads, viewing it on computer, recording programs, or ultimately watching TV without pay-per-view. So get writing, now.

    [ action center link ] [ Discuss copyright-censorship ]



    posted at: 21:26 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 16 Oct 2003

    Hello to MetaFilter

    Hi there, MetaFilter readers. Hope you like it here.

    (Message for "Rough Ashlar": I didn't say what you seem to think I said. I'd have corrected you via the MeFi comments system, but it seems to be closed for new business right now. Probably just as well. FYI, the column I wrote for Shopper went through a couple of name changes, but ended up being called "Linux Expert" because, bluntly, that's what those members of the public who aren't familiar with the minutiae of the Eric Raymond/Richard Stallman open source/free software love-in think in terms of. With a remit to cover BSD, MacOS/X, and commercial UNIXen, it might have better been called the UNIX column -- but as the then editors decided, that'd have put off those readers who've heard of this free thing called Linux and want to learn about it. Pedants who insist on calling it GNU/Linux and wax lyrical about the difference between the LGPL and the GPL can fuck right off: life's too short, especially when it's parcelled out in 3000 word monthly installments.)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss MetaFilter ]



    posted at: 23:05 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 15 Oct 2003

    Coda

    A few developments since Sunday.

    I'll be writing one more column for Shopper; I don't like leaving any job unfinished or on bad terms, and they need a bit of breathing space to find a replacement. So issue 192 will be my last -- five years and one month after I started the column. (Memo to self: must update the Linux area of my website with the remaining columns from 2001-2002, not to mention my two-year run of Perl tutorials in Linux Format.)

    After resigning from Shopper I ordered an Alphasmart Dana Wireless (PDF), as they've finally started shipping the European model. You can't run Half Life 2 on it, or play DVDs, but any subnotebook computer that's designed to be abused by toddlers, run for 25 hours on a single charge, is drop-tested off a building, weighs under 1 kilogram, and has WiFi has got be to useful for something. Purely coincidentally, the next day I got an email from AlphaSmart's PR company offering to loan me a review machine if I wanted to write about it in you-know-where. Sigh. Great timing, guys.

    I may have sold another couple of novels. I say "may" because I haven't signed a contract yet. Until I get the paper, it ain't sold: experience has taught me to be superstitious about that kind of thing. (But I'm probably not giving much away if I say it's the next two SF novels, via a major American publisher, and they won't be in print before 2005.) If it goes ahead, those will be my seventh and eighth novel sales (and my ninth and tenth books).

    Congratulations to the Chinese space program on today's orbital achievement. As an afterthought clearly inspired by the glorious achievements of the Shenzhou-5 project (and too much caffeine) Hoggy brings us a frightening vision of the future (what with those cyborg monkeys who can control robot arms by thinking).

    Finally, I will be at Novacon 33 in Birmingham (November 7th to 10th). Feel free to say "hi" if you see me there.

    [ Discuss Journalism ] [ Discuss Conventions ]



    posted at: 18:16 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 12 Oct 2003

    Letting go is hard to do ...

    I'm risk-averse by nature. This isn't the same as conservative, or cautious: I'm quite capable of jumping with both feet into a major life-change. However, I like to know where I'm going and keep my options open. I tend to avoid irrevocable changes. I like to be able to back out of blind alleys. And so on.

    Today is Sunday. Tomorrow I'm going to send an email that will end a business relationship of twelve years' standing, one that (arguably) I should have ended six months or more ago. After I send it, I won't be a computer magazine columnist any more. I'll be a full-time novelist. I've been writing for Computer Shopper for nearly thirteen years, and sending in a monthly column like clockwork for the past five years, without a single break: that's the longest continuous activity in my life. (How many jobs have you had that lasted for thirteen years?)

    Shopper got started in 1988 or thereabouts, back in the dim and distant past. It was, in some respects, the last hurrah of the old school computer magazine; as recently as eighteen months ago you could open an issue and be confronted by a feature that assumed you knew one end of a soldering iron or a symbolic debugger from the other. Editor Jeremy Spencer ran it with a whim of steel from his farmhouse and testing lab in rural Shropshire, commissioning articles and columns from a pool of freelancers rather than employing in-house copywriters and journalists. In fact, the whole idea of Shopper was that it would speak with authority, its columns written by experts rather than journalists: it was in some degree founded in reaction against the trade-press journalism that, by the late 1980's, was already overrunning the newsstand computer press.

    As you might expect, such an odd magazine -- a couple of hundred pages of technical, authoritative editorial content sandwiched inside a telephone directory of advertising -- couldn't flourish in a mainstream magazine publisher. Shopper was published and nurtured by Felix Dennis, enfant terrible of British publishing ever since his conviction during the infamous Oz trial; by the early 1980's Dennis had become something of a media mogul. He looked at the US computer scene, and had the idea of launching Computer Shopper in the UK. Back then the US Shopper wasn't owned by ZD; he did a deal for UK rights to the title with Stan Veitch, who owned it and was about to sell it. Graeme Kidd was hired to launch the magazine and didn't want to simply recycle US copy. So he put Jeremy Spencer in the frame and Dennis gave him the job of commissioning copy. The magazine came to occupy the high ground that VNU's Personal Computer World (then the British equivalent of Byte) had just vacated; by the mid to late 1990's, Shopper was the #1 top-selling monthly newsstand computer magazine in the UK, with everything from articles on how to buy your first computer to columns for minority platforms. It maintained the same sort of claim on the affections of its readership that the early computer magazines held in the 1970's and early 1980's.

    My history with Shopper is an odd one. Back in 1990 I was finishing a computer science degree, in between writing and selling short stories (with some degree of success). I needed a UNIX-type operating system to run on my PC but, being a student, I was close to broke. Then a thought struck me: why not try my hand at reviewing? I thumbed through a handy copy of the magazine that seemed most clueful -- and most likely to be receptive to the idea -- and phoned the editorial number. "Hello, is Jeremy Spencer available?" I asked. "I'm a writer and I'm in the process of completing a computer science degree, and I'm wondering if you'd be interested in a review ...?"

    I didn't know a lot about how trade publishing works. If I'd picked PCW instead of Shopper, or one of the other VNU stable magazines, I'd probably have been blown off. Future Publishing hadn't started their long climb to success, and in any event they preferred to use freelancers who knew what they were doing. But Jeremy had a different plan: to find experts and give them the basic skills they needed in order to write for magazines. I lucked out, or sounded plausible, or something: Jeremy in due course sent me a copy of Mark Williams' Company Coherent for review, which I duly wrote up, and I got paid for it (to my shock earning five times as much per word as Interzone ever paid -- you could actually make a living at this game). I was hooked. You could, like, ask people to send you toys and get paid money, lots of money, for playing with them and then writing up your thoughts.

    Back then, it seemed obvious (with 20/20 hindsight: why?) that computers were going to Change The World. Maybe you could pin the blame on William Gibson for tickling the collective imagination with Neuromancer, a vision of a (skewed, impractical, but seductive) planetary network. (Not that he deserves the blame, exactly: that is more appropriately ascribed to the hundreds of thousands of engineers who laboured with monastic dedication for decades to build the worm, spam, and virus infested howling wasteland of junk data we now inhabit.) Or maybe you could blame Apple's marketing department and Ridley Scott for that advertisement. The zeitgeist was certain: computers were the engines for the new age of steam, the age of information, and they were going to drag us willy-nilly into the future. By re-training in CS, I wasn't merely getting the hell out of a profession that was an emotional and intellectual dead-end for me (with a nervous breakdown waiting in the shadows if I persisted in it); I was getting a party card and a chance to join the Revolution. And, by writing for what I saw as the pre-eminent populist magazine of the field, I was in the privileged position of a party enthusiast being asked to write for Pravda.

    We all know where that went, don't we?

    During the 1990's I worked for a variety of companies: first for Real World Graphics (a now-defunct supercomputing hardware outfit from Hertfordshire), then for the Santa Cruz Operation (who sold their UNIX rights to Caldera after I left -- Caldera then changed their name to SCO, and we know what they're up to these days), then a web outfit called FMA (which went tits-up in early 1997), then some freelance programming, then for three and a half years at Datacash -- I was the first programmer Gavin and Dave (MacRae) hired, two weeks before the limited company was formed, and I left a couple of months after the IPO. And my departure from Datacash coincided with the bubble bursting, the scales falling from various eyes, the NASDAQ IT stock crash, and ...

    This isn't the place for the lecture on how the web industry sawed off the branch it was sitting on. Or the essay about how 90% of the jobs in IT are basically make-work, guaranteed by the shitty design quality of the tools the commodity software business delivers, a poor record which in turn is propagated because a business model based on selling software licences requires regular churn and new products in order to keep raking the money in. But by the very late 1990's, the computer magazine business was hurting. The internet allows folks like you and me to buy computers (and parts thereof) online. And in 1998-99 the web advertising market crashed. The price of online ads went down, and they began to seriously eat into magazine advertising territory. People didn't need to buy a magazine like Computer Shopper any more when they could type their desired search specs into Google. So circulations began to slowly decline.

    In early 2000, I resigned from Datacash because (a) I was burned out after three and a half years' of writing and maintaining the core servers for a payment service provider, and (b) Andrew Veitch, CEO of NSL Internet, finally made me an offer I couldn't refuse -- come on board NSL at senior management or board level and establish a software development division within the company. NSL looked as if it was going to float successfully by summer, and this was a very good prospect. But halfway through my notice period (which Datacash had pegged at three months) the bubble burst. NSL's underwriters pulled out, several kilotons of shit hit the fan, and NSL underwent a hostile take-over by another ISP that had managed to do the IPO limbo under the lowering bar of stock market expectations earlier in the year and now sought growth through acquisition. My promising new job evaporated under me, leaving me hung-over and blinking at the new reality of the post-Revolution world.

    So I picked up the phone to Jeremy again, and a couple of other editors I knew, and this time I wasn't just after pocket money.

    Computer journalism -- freelance journalism -- was my bread and butter for two years. Gradually, during those years, my personal affairs underwent a different revolution, one I'd hoped for for decades but long since ceased to expect: I broke through into Asimov's SF magazine, acquired a literary agent, began selling novels and appearing on awards ballots. But if it wasn't for the journalism I wouldn't have been in business as a writer. I was routinely turning in 8-10,000 words a month for Shopper, covering the Linux beat, and writing for other magazines too: PC Format, Linux Format, Linux Magazine, Linux User.

    I mentioned the declining advertising revenues, didn't I? In 2000, Shopper's ABC-audited circulation was on the order of 185,000 copies a month. (If you're an American reader, you can get a feel for what this means in the UK market by multiplying by five -- the UK has a fifth the population, remember.) But by January 2003, Shopper's circulation had slipped to barely more than 100,000 a month. These circulation figures are critical because they're what convinces advertisers to buy page space. A half-page in black and white near the back of Shopper used to go for £2000 -- and Shopper at its height had nearly 500 pages of advertising a month, with colour and cover ads costing considerably more. As Shopper's circulation slid, so did its page count -- from a peak of 714 pages to barely 400. Meanwhile, Felix Dennis had lost interest in running the day to day affairs of his publishing empire. Focussing on writing poetry in his mansion, he offloaded operations onto a corporate hierarchy who ran the stable of Dennis magazines out of a central office in London. All except Shopper, which until then had been run by Jeremy Spencer from that farm in Shropshire.

    The inevitable happened in March this year. A row blew up over the management of the magazine between the existing editorial staff and new broom management. Who promptly shipped in a cabal of experienced journalists from Computer Buyer -- a sister magazine originally founded by Dennis as a spoiler move to deter rival publisher VNU from butting in on the lucrative Shopper market -- to take over the magazine and turn it around.

    Computer Buyer was not like Computer Shopper. Run from inside the big office, it employed full-time feature writers; journalists whose job was to translate press releases into English, interview executives, and review software. Not experts. Not people who were expected to speak with authority on the direction of the field as a whole. Not people overly gifted with imagination, either: their program for turning around Shopper's declining ABC ratings (notwithstanding the fact that their own magazine's ratings are similarly declining) is to glitz it up, attracting new readers. But the new readers they're after are people who want to learn how to buy a PC -- which for them, is a once every five years chore. They'll read a few issues, buy a PC, and stop bothering with the magazine. Meanwhile, Shopper's core subscriber base (who, surveys concluded, are often influential in company buying decisions, often subscribe for many years on end, and are generally knowledgable and loyal) are receiving no attention.

    As for me ...

    I've written the Linux column for Shopper ever since it was founded, in issue 131: I just handed in the column for issue 191, a chain of sixty unbroken columns filed along the way. And I find that I simply cannot be arsed to deal with the clowns who have taken over the head office any more. Until April I had complete editorial content autonomy in my column -- the nearest thing to academic tenure you'll ever find in journalism. (In one famous incident MacBiter, the Mac columnist, filed two pages of copy consisting of a discussion of his haemorrhoids and speculating on which members of editorial staff also suffered from the embarrassing itch. Not only did they run it -- they commissioned a cartoon to run alongside it. And, having gotten it out of his system, MacBiter was back on biting form in the next issue. Not bad, considering that twelve years of waxing sarcastic about Steve Jobs every month can burn out even the most hardened cynic.) But since April I've been treated like a clueless office intern by a bunch of office seat warmers who were still in high school when I began writing this column.

    The first signs of how the new regime planned to run the magazine were predictable, but nevertheless offensive. After being used to editorializing and opining on the state of the industry at whim for a period of years, I was rudely surprised by being told I couldn't talk about SCO and their lawsuits. It seems that, despite being Shopper's Linux columnist and having actually worked inside SCO for some years as a technical author attached to the UNIX development group, and despite working as a freelance journalist for over a decade, I can't be trusted to write about the most important issue in the Linux world today. But that's okay, because some guy with a journalism diploma and a couple of years on the staff of Computer Buyer can write the in-depth historical retrospective and strategic analysis my readers want for me. And, y'know, I might be opinionated, and that might annoy SCO, and the new editors wouldn't want to do that.

    I soldiered on for a few months, turning in boring overviews of technical fields associated with Linux. Reviews of commercial distributions that are all the same bland corporate desktop pap. An exegesis on the ontology of text editors on UNIX, from ed onwards, explaining how they fit together and which skills are transferrable. And so on. But this is fundamentally boring, and moreover, it's not what I'm there for.

    The final straw came this month. I sent in a survey of blogging software for Linux. Linux is the pre-eminent platform for weblogging tools, with everything from Slashcode to Livejournal by way of Blogger running atop it. It's also a rapidly growing interest for millions of people. If this isn't an application domain appropriate to the operating system in question, I don't know what is -- but it evidently rattled the cage of Shopper's new commissioning editor, who felt it necessary to tell me that as blogging tools aren't actually, y'know, part of Linux, they have no place in my column.

    Well.

    I blinked and looked around, and started asking some questions that have been growing in the back of my mind. Why was I still writing for these clowns? Partly it was because they pay -- but also, and as long as I'm doing it I can still claim to be a freelance computer journalist. I could use that to hawk around for new commissions if I needed to, if I needed to go back to being a freelance journalist for 100% of my income.

    But the fact is, I don't need the money that badly right now. My agent just told me that a publisher is interested in a follow-on two book contract and moreover are offering a bigger advance. Those will be my seventh and eighth novels. Meanwhile, another couple of foreign publishers crawled out of the woodwork to bid for translation rights to a book. In the past couple of years, fiction hasn't simply become a line item on my tax bill -- it's become a bigger source of income than the journalism.

    Meanwhile, looking a bit deeper in search of other reasons for keeping on at it, I was forced to confront an unpleasant conviction that the computer magazine biz has turned to shit. From being the banner-carriers of the revolution, we've ended up as pigs at a trough fed from the sump of corporate public relations. The industry is a treadmill, dominated by risk-averse multinationals turning out one bland plastic box after another. The software biz is dominated by the Evil Empire. The revolution hasn't changed anything fundamental about human power relationships -- in fact, inappropriate use of email and web facilities at work are now cited as the #1 cause for dismissal of office staff in the UK. The wild sense of excitement and potential that computers brought in the late 1970's and early 1980's has evaporated. I spent the back end of last week sitting in the isolated kitchen of a farmhouse in Dumfrieshire, comparing experiences with a couple of other freelancers -- a former magazine editor, and one who is currently making her entire living as a feature writer. It's not just me: these experienced pros held the same uneasy conviction, that we're just going through the motions, that the only reason anyone but a fool would do computer journalism today would be the promise of money.

    I've been thinking about quitting for three or four months, now, but I've held off each time, thinking things might improve: new editors at the magazine, a change of heart, whatever. But this week I've begun asking myself why I hope things might change. Because it doesn't really mean anything to me any more; I'm not the cutting age of some kind of technological revolution, I'm just more roadkill on the information superhighway. And I don't need to swallow shit from a twenty-something drone in a corporate office churning out propaganda for the profit factories of Jim Alchin, Michael Dell, Andy Grove, or Carly Fiorina. I don't need the money half as much as I need my self-respect.

    This is my last Computer Shopper column. Not that it'll be published there, but in a very real way it's the coda to a thirteen year odyssey through the guts of a prolapsed revolution. No more. Letting go is hard to do, especially when it involves burning your bridges. But tomorrow I'm going to email in my resignation. And I will let go of being a freelance computer journalist and focus on the thing that matters -- my writing.

    (END COPY -- 3100 words)

    [ Discuss Journalism ]



    posted at: 17:23 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 11 Oct 2003

    21st century steam locomotives and biplanes

    Steam locomotives may be about to make a come-back on British railways, in the form of the 5AT, a 4-6-0 configuration steam locomotive designed to reach speeds upwards of 180 km/h and be far more efficient and far less polluting than the last steam locomotives manufactured in the UK. They're looking for investors today and want to have a prototype running by 2010 ...

    Weird Russian biplane Meanwhile, can anyone identify this thing for me? It claims to be called "Kometa", but a quick google reveals no matches for it among the Lithuanian match factories, high-altitude observation planes, and cruise missiles that share the name.

    [ Link (Loco) ] [ Link (Even more Loco) ] [ Link (Russian biplane) ] [ Discuss dieselpunk ]



    posted at: 20:38 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 10 Oct 2003

    Unscheduled hiatus

    Sorry about the black-out; I'm just back from an unscheduled short-notice overnight trip into the Scottish borders to help out a friend. Wish I'd brought along my digital camera -- on the way back we passed a Buddhist centre (described by another friend of ours as "Dharma Disneyland" -- there's a curiously Mousified feel to the sight of a ten-foot-high fake gold Buddha sitting in a duck pond in front of what looks like a light industrial unit with wind chimes), and while we were out there I made a fairly close acquaintance with a pair of leonbergers -- the largest dogs I've ever seen. (Imagine you're sitting in a chair at the kitchen table eating. Then this horse-sized wet nose descends on your shoulder. The dog isn't straining -- he's sitting on the floor behind you ...)



    posted at: 21:42 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 07 Oct 2003

    Ooh, shiny!

    Sony just announced the PSX. Want.



    posted at: 16:22 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Interlude

    I'm not dead, I'm just doing the let's-redraft-a-novel thing. I have a deadline at the end of the month. It's nothing terribly difficult; I just have to take the second half of an oversized novel, and turn it into a separate book that can stand on its own. Once I've done that, I can get back down to writing the sequel. So don't be surprised if I'm not around too much this week.

    In other news, Warren Ellis says:

    Patrick Farley is possibly the best comics creator that comic shops have never heard of. He works pretty much exclusively on the web, producing works of great skill and ambition and passion and very focussed madness. His site is http://www.e-sheep.com.

    http://www.e-sheep.com/apocamon/ has gone pay-per-view. Sort of. In order to cover his bandwidth costs and be able to produce work more than once every blue moon, Patrick Farley has put the latest instalment of his berserk brand-nightmare post-Rapture fantasy APOCaMON behind a BitPass barrier. For 25 Yanqui cents, you get to read it 666 times.

    ...

    If everyone reading DPH right now gave him 25 cents this week, then you would have in fact invented a feasible independent channel for one of the best comics creators America's produced in the last three or four years. I mean, what the hell else can you buy with twenty-five lousy cents?

    Here's a hint: I'm going to go pay, because Farley is every bit as good as Warren says. And that's saying a lot.

    Chris Williams, who should know better than to encourage me, had to scratch my dieselpunk itch by pointing me at this web page describing the Napier Nomad, an insane example of baroque technology pushed way beyond the bounds of reason. It's what happens when you start trying to design an aviation diesel engine for the jet age -- an afterburning two-strike diesel engine at that. Then Arthur Wyatt found me a photograph of a Land Ironclad called the Independant. (I'm still not sure that the Baker Jumping Car isn't a wind-up, though.)

    Oh yeah: the books I'm currently working on may be shelved under "fantasy" but they're not going to have any of these titles or these characters, let alone feature any of these plots!

    [Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 16:19 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 05 Oct 2003

    Oh, what a surprise

    I just did an online Myers-Briggs personality test. Here's what came out of it:

    ENTP - "Inventor". Enthusiastic interest in everything and always sensitive to possibilities. Non-conformist and innovative. 5% of the total population.
    Take Free Myers-Briggs Personality Test

    Surprised? Nope, not in the slightest. (Consider, after all, what I do for a living.) But it somewhat improves my opinion of this particular type of personality test.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss shameless self-promotion ]



    posted at: 23:16 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 04 Oct 2003

    This is not a hoax

    White Rats Morris is a queer/pervert/leather Morris dancing side. Based in San Francisco, naturally. Dress code is: anything as long as it's black. And when they want bells on their costumes, they sew them on. To skin.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss new art forms ]



    posted at: 19:07 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Extreme tanks

    SF Writer in search of insane spurious technology, episode 34509:

    In the early days of the second world war, British tanks sucked. Partly it was their tracks -- they used mild steel that tended to come apart after only a hundred miles or so -- and partly it was their armament, but a large chunk of it was their design. They fell into two categories -- "cruiser" tanks designed to be used like cavalry, fast and lightly armed, and "infantry" tanks designed to support infantry advances -- because the British army basically hadn't gotten the hang of this new-fangled Blitzkrieg doctrine, despite its inventor (Major-General J. C. F. Fuller) being one of their own (albeit a bit demented).

    So they can probably be forgiven for flailing around in the dark, looking for good ideas, before they came up with such success stories as the Comet and the Centurion (which missed service in the war by a matter of months, and is still used by the Israeli army).

    The Old Gang, aka the Special Vehicle Development Committee (SVDC), was formed in 1940 from former WW1 tank designers. They were half-certain that the future of warfare would see a reversion to trench war -- that the new war of mobility would inevitably bog down in the mud and mire. And therefore they designed two tanks -- TOG 1 and TOG 2.

    TOG 1 Tank TOG 1 was basically a WW1 tank with a diesel engine, room for a horde of infantry on board (to ride across those pesky trenches), and a wee turret up top. It didn't work. Not deterred, they went on to design TOG 2 ...

    TOG 2 Tank TOG 2 weighs 80 tons, is 33' 3" long, 10' 3" wide, and 10' high. Designed for a crew of six, it had a maximum speed of 8.5 mph. Yes, those are doors above the tracks to allow passengers in and out as it sails majestically above the much and mire. Powered by twin diesel-electric generators this is the ultimate extension of the first world war tank concept -- by the standards of Vimy Ridge it is fast, manoeuverable, heavily armed and armoured. But by 1941 it was just a little bit out of date ...

    [ Link ] [ Discuss dieselpunk ]



    posted at: 19:07 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 02 Oct 2003

    Extreme Ironing

    Someone please tell me this is a joke. Please?

    "In the last six years, extreme-ironing clubs have sprung up from Chile to South Africa. There's been a world championship in Germany, an expedition to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and an ironing session under the frozen ice of a Wisconsin quarry. Extreme ironing is the subject of a forthcoming British book of photographs and a television documentary that first ran in December on Britain's Channel 4."

    (Today's quota: 1500 words on the collaborative novella, about 1000 words edited on the next novel -- a slow day.)

    [ Link ] [ Even sillier link ] [ Discuss dumb ]



    posted at: 19:23 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 01 Oct 2003

    I'm back

    And normal service will be resumed right as soon as I finish writing up this months' Linux column for Computer Shopper. (Sigh.)

    Dublin defeated expectations by resolutely refusing to rain, at least for more than a couple of hours at a time. P-Con itself was thoroughly enjoyable, and I hope to be going back next year. But right now I've got a big work backlog to cope with, not to mention a to-do list that includes upgrading Blosxom (this weblog's software), MailMan, SSH, Movable Type, and most of the software universe on this server -- then to remove the blanket ban on large emails and replace it with a smart vermifuge filter in the mail system, edit a novel, write a novella, and generally overdo things. One day at a time ... just so I know where I am I'm going to take to posting work quotas here.

    (Today's work quota: 3100 words of non-fiction, 0 words of fiction, as of 3:25pm. And I'm about to go shopping.)



    posted at: 15:26 | path: /fandom | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 25 Sep 2003

    Off to P-Con

    I'm off to P-Con in Dublin tomorrow morning for the weekend. Normal service will be resumed when I return (next Wednesday).

    [P-Con ] [ Discuss Conventions ]



    posted at: 20:50 | path: /fandom | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 24 Sep 2003

    Sanity prevailing in one small arena

    It looks like there's been a minor victory for sanity today in the patent wars, as the European Parliament today approved a draft Directive that paves the way for the introduction of software patents in Europe -- but, thanks to grass-roots petitioning by critics of the measures, the original draft has been moderated considerably by MEPs. The revised (and passed) directive doesn't allow the patenting of business methods, severely restricts the types of software that can be patented (excluding software found in embedded devices like mobile phones, video recorders and set-top boxes), and restricts software patents to "true inventions". Oh, and only manufacturers (not users) of patent-infringing devices can be sued.

    The fight isn't over yet, but the worst excesses of the US patent system -- which is driving many US companies to outsource their software development to foreign companies because of litigation fears -- look as if they've been held at bay.

    [ Link ][ Discuss copyright-censorship ]



    posted at: 19:20 | path: /copyright | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 22 Sep 2003

    3 ... 2 ... 1 ...

    Gary Farber provides an essential link: James Oberg's detailed write-up of the Shenzhou-5 due for launch between the 10th and 15th of October, with which China will become the third power to put its own astronauts (okay, taikonauts) into orbit using home-grown boosters. And they're not just interested in doing one-shot launches using a capsule that looks like it's based on Soyuz. Shenzhou is actually a home-grown design, the booster is home-built too, and China is shooting for the #2 slot in manned space exploration.

    Phillip S. Clark, a British space consultant specializing in Russian and Chinese technology, expects China's space agency to launch a small 12- to 14-ton laboratory, perhaps within the next two years. Clark predicts that in 2006 or 2007 China will loft a larger station similar to the Russian Salyut stations launched in the 1970s and 1980s. Ultimately, Clark believes, China will begin the orbital assembly of a structure like the 130-ton Russian Mir station.

    Got that? A Chinese space station by 2010.

    According to space experts such as Harvey, boosting astronauts into orbit will be enough to make the world see China in a new light. "There will be a perception that the country has reached space superpower status," he says. "If China follows that with its own Salyut-class space station, it will impress the Asian region specifically and the world as a whole." China's goals for its space program are obviously not the same as America's, Russia's or Europe's. Judging from the hardware already built and the infrastructure in place, it seems clear that for the foreseeable future China intends to follow its own path in space.

    [ Link ][ Discuss space ]



    posted at: 20:54 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 20 Sep 2003

    Election rigging for pleasure and profit

    The EFF is currently trying to raise the alarm over a deeply sinister development at the IEEE. In case you haven't heard of it, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is an enormous and important professional body which, among other things, spawns committees that set out public standards for electronics, software, and hardware devices to conform to.

    Normally, IEEE activities are nothing but praiseworthy, but this month something weird and nasty is happening in those hallowed halls -- something with poisonous implications for democratic government, world-wide.

    You've probably heard about electronic voting machines. If you tracked the US presidential election you'll remember the hanging chads in Florida, the undesirable side-effects of using antique mechanical card-punch machines for filling out ballots. In the UK, Tony Blair and his panglossian ministers are getting all starry-eyed about internet voting, in an attempt to get the under-25 voters interested in the whole business. Anything that makes votes easier to count, and makes it easier for people to vote, would appear on the surface to be a good thing. However ...

    As Rebecca Mercuri, professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr College (and a specialist in electronic voting systems) points out at length, electronic voting harbours potentially immense dangers. As she writes: "I am adamantly opposed to the use of fully electronic or Internet-based systems for use in anonymous balloting and vote tabulation applications. The reasons for my opposition are manyfold, and are expressed in my writings as well as those of other well-respected computer security experts. At the present time, it is my strong recommendation that all election officials REFRAIN from procuring ANY system that does not provide an indisputable paper ballot. A detailed explanation, along with my recommendation for appropriately configured voting equipment, is provided in the full text of this statement, available here."

    In case you're too lazy to read professor Mercuri's opinion, here's her key point: "Fully electronic systems do not provide any way that the voter can truly verify that the ballot cast corresponds to that being recorded, transmitted, or tabulated. Any programmer can write code that displays one thing on a screen, records something else, and prints yet another result. There is no known way to ensure that this is not happening inside of a voting system." In a nutshell: software can be hacked. If you don't have a piece of paper to hold, you're stuffed. It can't be proven to be a democracy any more than a system where the ballot boxes are carted away from the polling station by workers from the governing party, re-packed, and then appear mysteriously at the count in the custody of those same party adherents.

    Speaking as a sometime programmer with a master's degree in computer science, I agree with her. She's dead right. Electronic voting systems are dangerously easy to rig. So the only way to safely approach electronic voting is with complete openness. To be acceptable, an electronic voting system must meet at least the following requirements:

    • It must print a paper record of the vote cast, which the voter must be able to see, and which must be retained, and which can be reconciled with the electronic record of the vote.
    • The software used must be open to third-party auditors, to the extent that it can be verified and if necessarily formally proven to be above suspicion. (Translation: only open source need apply.)
    • The hardware used must be open to third-party auditors, preferably conform verifiably to off-the-shelf standards, and may be challenged and replaced by the election commission with equivalent off-the-shelf equipment (to ensure that no sneaky hardware back doors are installed).

    Needless to say, current electronic voting systems don't meet these requirements. They're almost all made by private commercial concerns like Sequoia Voting Systems or Danaher Corporation, Diebold Election Systems and ES&S. They're black boxes; in most cases the licence terms expressly forbid opening the hardware for inspection, let alone providing source code to the software. And the companies who make them may harbour conflicts of interest.

    Now here's the EFF's beef with the IEEE:

    In the aftermath of the Florida election debacle, the IEEE took up the question of standards for voting equipment. It created a working group, called Project P1583, overseen by a Standards Coordinating Committee known as SCC 38. After passage by IEEE, this standard will go to ANSI for final validation. The substantive work is in its final stages, and the draft standard is currently out to ballot.

    This particular vote is extremely important, because the IEEE sits on an advisory committee to the forthcoming Election Assistance Commission established by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). This means that this standard could ultimately be adopted broadly throughout the United States. In a very real sense, the future of democratic systems in the U.S. and around the world are implicated by this standard -- the stakes couldn't be higher.

    Problem: Unfortunately, instead of using this opportunity to create a performance standard, setting benchmarks for e-voting machines to meet with regards to testing the security, reliability, accessibility and accuracy of these machines, P1583 created a design standard, describing how electronic voting machines should be configured (and following the basic plans of most current electronic voting machines). Even more problematic, the standard fails to require or even recommend that voting machines be truly voter verified or verifiable, a security measure that has broad support within the computer security community.

    To make matters worse, EFF has received reports of serious procedural problems with the P1538 and SCC 38 Committee processes, including shifting roadblocks placed in front of those who wish to participate and vote, and failure to follow basic procedural requirements. We've heard claims that the working group and committee leadership is largely controlled by representatives of the electronic voting machine vendor companies and others with vested interests.

    This is an enormously important issue. What the IEEE standard specifies will probably be taken up by the US government under the HAVA proposal and will set a benchmark that will be followed worldwide. The big players in the commercial e-voting systems market want to ensure that the playing field meets their requirements, not the requirements of representative democratic governments, and they're nobbling the committee in order to get a lock on the standard. If we're not lucky we'll be stuck with voting machines that provide no audit trail, give no opportunity to verify that they're impartial and record votes correctly, and are made by corporations whose owners are political partisans who favour one party over any other.

    If you're an IEEE member, please go look at the EFF alert and do something, as soon as you can. Help preserve democracy: it may be the most important political act you ever make.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss electronic voting ]



    posted at: 17:57 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    And now, the News

    A small cabal with a plan for planetary hegemony has seized control of a major superpower, and is implementing a scheme to destroy that nation's civil liberties (using national security as a smoke screen). The government fronted by the cabal tampered with a UN weapons inspection support, is carrying out assassinations and sponsouring coups against democratic governments abroad, and is attempting to destroy unions at home. Their friends and cronies are picking up monopolies and big government contracts as they attempt to destroy the ability of the internet to act as a channel for alternate political voices, and avoiding punishment even when convicted of serious crimes. They're violating international treaties, lying about the benefits of liberating Afghanistan from the Taliban, and seeking to recolonize Africa. Their troops are implicated in massacres abroad and massive environmental damage at home -- and are deployed in an attempt not to secure an oil supply or prevent terrorism, but in order to prevent the rest of the world switching to an alternative trading currency.

    Yep, Project Censored's 2004 report on the Top 25 under-reported news stories of 2002-2003 is out, and it makes for grim reading. This summary scratches the surface of their headlines -- but only just. It's a synopsis of the important stuff that didn't make the mainstream media -- events which tell a story that differs from the public narrative, a story that is politically incorrect (from an establishment point of view), a story that reveals unpleasant truths about the society we live in. When you put it side by side with the panglossian vision purveyed by the mainstream, and try to triangulate on what is really going on by looking for motives behind the lies and misstatements of truth in the mass-media headlines, it exposes something we don't like to think about: the gap between our heavily propagandized (but notionally free) media and the reality it claims to represent impartially. Because -- make no mistake -- if these stories were clearly false, they could be refuted easily and in public.

    The lack of refutation, and the deafening silence in the mass media, tells its own tale. Remember, any coverage is good coverage. The way censorship works in the West is to deny stories that contradict the received truth the oxygen of publicity, lest people ask why they are being so vehemently contradicted. Our mechanisms of social control are more subtle than those a totalitarian dictatorship because our system requires the illusion of consent if it is to function efficiently.

    Seriously, if you're not familiar with Project Censored, you want to read this report. And last year's. And the year before that. Because if you don't, you won't know half of what's really going on.

    And now, the weather.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss politics ] [ Discuss warming ]



    posted at: 15:29 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 19 Sep 2003

    Grr

    So. I bugger off for most of a week, buy a car, drive around large chunks of Yorkshire and Lancashire, finally get home dog-tired and in need of a bath, then log on to check my email. And what do I find? Another Microsoft-specific worm, the Swen-A (aka Gibe-F). It's so prolific that it's hammering my mail server -- about 330 copies received since it first started up yesterday -- and each copy runs to 140Kb or more in size. The SpamAssassin system is catching them but they're coming so thick and fast that this puny little server can't reclaim memory from terminated SpamAssassin scripts fast enough to keep up. With results like this (in UNIXese):

    [root@raq981 /root]# w
      6:27pm  up 73 days, 23:24,  2 users,  load average: 59.08, 60.54, 63.32
    USER     TTY      FROM              LOGIN@   IDLE   JCPU PCPU  WHAT
    charlie  pts/0    82.41.202.133     6:13pm  3.00s  0.44s 0.08s  sh 
    root     pts/1    82.41.202.133     6:14pm 39.00s  0.44s 0.23s  w 
    

    The key indicator are the three decimal numbers after "load average" -- the instant, one minute, and five minute load ratings. A load average of 1.00 means the machine has one job waiting to run for each CPU. A load average of 59 means the machine is staggering along sluggishly, with 59 jobs tapping their fingers impatiently as it hurries to keep up.

    Yes, Windows viruses can totally fuck a UNIX server up beyond recognition. All it takes is enough of them.

    (Now writing procmail rules to bin the bastards on sight, rather than relying on the accurate but memory-hungry SpamAssdassin. Gaah. Where's my bath?)

    [ Discuss Spam ]



    posted at: 19:11 | path: /virus | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 15 Sep 2003

    The mezzanine is in. The writer is out.

    The new mezzanine in my study is in place and the rewiring proceeds apace. I'd post a photo in the blog except (a) it's still a mess, (b) I'm tired, and (c) tomorrow morning I'm off down south to visit relatives and buy my brother's car. This means I'm unlikely to update the blog until Friday at the earliest.

    Since last week, Frigg (the big black cat) has managed to drag herself up the ladder in the bedroom and explore the top cupboard. As we're currently using the same ladder to get at the mezzanine I'm wondering how long it'll take the cats to explore up there ...

    [ Discuss cats ]



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

    Fri, 12 Sep 2003

    Separated at birth?

    Has anyone else noted that Mel Brooks, playing Governor Le Petomane in Blazing Saddles, bears a striking resemblance to George W. Bush, playing President of the United States?

    Just curious. (And if anyone's got a better picture of Le Petomane? Like the shot of Le Petomane going cross-eyed while playing with his pen?)

    Oh yeah: not much activity lately due to rebuilding of my study and cumulative exhaustion -- I haven't slowed down since getting home from Toronto, and after getting through my immediate backlog of work I've had to box up a ton of crap to make space for the installation of a mezzanine. Which will come in handy for next year's re-decorating plans ...

    [ Discuss dumb ]



    posted at: 21:52 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 10 Sep 2003

    Drool

    Orange are apparently getting ready to launch the Treo 600 as early as next week according to The Register.

    pic of Treo 600 In case you're wondering, the Treo 600 is the tri-band smartphone from Treo -- the company founded by the guys who founded Palm, and which was recently re-acquired by Palm earlier this year -- that promises to deliver what the Palm Tungsten W doesn't, quite. It's a tri-band GSM/GPRS phone. It does infrared and USB, has a Handspring-compatible interface (meaning: it will probably talk to the Think Outside folding keyboards Real Soon), a 144MHz StrongARM processor and 32Mb of RAM, a 640x480 digital camera, and runs PalmOS 5.0. It's way more powerful than the Tungsten W, works anywhere in the world, and has only one drawback I can see -- the 160x160 screen. I really need the 320x320 screen of the Tungsten C or newer Palm machines to do proper amounts of word processing (that is, editing files as well as simply writing first-draft copy), but even without an external keyboard this machine is going to be close enough to my ideal all-in-one system that, well, I'm going to be at the head of the queue.

    pic of Ericsson T39m My current phone is an Ericsson T39m -- a nice, tiny, triband mobile with GSM/GPRS and bluetooth and IR, but none of the more fancy modern features. I've been carrying it for nearly two years now and it has it's shortcomings: it's crap for texting and if I want to use the internet with it I have a headache. It means carrying the Tungsten C and XP Keyboard around and lining everything up on the IR port just so (the Tungsten C doesn't do Bluetooth). While the Tungsten C is a powerful enough computer that I can leave the laptop at home on long trips, it still means carrying three gadgets around instead of one. Whereas the Treo 600 isn't quite as powerful, but should do fine for checking the email, texting folks, making notes, being a PDA, and (if/when the XP Keyboard comes out for it) banging out text.

    I've been taken in by the conventional wisdom for some time now, that mobile phones would eat the PDA market. But the Treo 600 makes it look like the reverse could be true. Jack the screen res up to the 320x480 of the newest PalmOS machines, add Bluetooth/WiFi/VoIP and some level of hardware expansion (at least to support external input devices like a folding keyboard), and this kind of PDA is going to eat the sub-notebook PC market's lunch, and the feature-rich mobile phone.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 19:25 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 09 Sep 2003

    Ridiculous

    45Mb of virus delivered to me in 26 hours. That's just under 2Mb/hour. Another way of looking at the situation is that it's consuming up to 15% of the monthly bandwidth allowance on this colocated server. Another order of magnitude increase (and Sobig.F is already an order of magnitude worse than any other worm I've ever seen) and it'll start costing me real money.

    Today's daydream of punishment for the virus writer responsible: to be sentenced to clean out the cats' litter tray (with his hands tied behind his back). Preferably once per individual virus received (that's what ... 450 times for the past day's work? The cats will die of old age first!).

    On a more practical note, Paul Graham has a modest proposal for fighting spam. It won't work against viruses -- but against ordinary spam it should be a killer. Simply put, spammers send spam indiscriminately in order to generate hits on a website (through which they aim to sell goods or services). They expect a response rate of typically under 0.1%, and they send millions of junk messages (at the expense of the unwilling recipients). If they received a response rate of 10-100%, it would literally swamp their servers, subjecting them to high bandwidth usage charges and turning the tables on the "free lunch" paradigm that makes their business marginally profitable.

    It should be easy enough to turn the tables on the spammers. Imagine, if you will, a software filter through which all positively-identified spam is sent by SpamAssassin. The filter extracts all URLs from the mail and then spiders them a couple of times. If a hundred thousand people with this tool are hit by a spam, it'll generate many hundreds of thousands to millions of hits on the spammer's website within a matter of minutes, hammering them into the ground.

    There are problems with this approach to spam fighting. Firstly, legitimate emails containing URLs are broadcast to lots of mailing lists every day -- there needs to be some mechanism for positively identifying the mail as spam before spidering ensues. Secondly, if such a mechanism is badly designed it could open the way to distributed denial of service attacks. (Much as Osirusoft or ORBS or other spam blacklisting sites can take down an entire domains' ability to send and receive email, a malevolent attacker with spamware could broadcast spam with a URL pointing to their intended victim's server, and ensure that their victim was trashed by the spam response system.) I'm not convinced by the idea -- but anything would be better than the current mess.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss spam ]



    posted at: 14:56 | path: /virus | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 07 Sep 2003

    Crazy ...

    I'm successfully filtering out all the incoming copies of the Sobig.F virus before they hit my inbox.

    But since I last zeroed out my virus trap, 80 hours ago, I have received 73Mb of virus payloads. That's nearly 1Mb per hour, and the rate is accelerating -- it was only about 6Mb in the first day, but it's now tending towards 1Mb/hour.

    This has got to be sucking up a good chunk of the total email bandwidth of the internet.

    UPDATE: sixteen hours have passed, and my virus trap is now up to 117Mb. That's 3.5Mb of viral crap per hour, or about the bandwidth of a 14.4K modem dialup. This is a worse shit-storm than the original Sobig.F attack a couple of weeks ago. I'm off to the pub tonight (it being Feorag's birthday) and I'll be soliciting suggestions for how best to deal with the asshole responsible. A free pint will be won by the most creative but appropriate torture ...

    As a side-note: because of a distributed denial-of-service attack that suspiciously coincided with the first Sobig.F attacks, Osirusoft (one of the main spam relay blacklists) went offline a couple of days ago. Before they went offline their administrator, in what appears to be a fit of pique, set the SPEWS blacklist to blacklist the entire internet. If you use SpamAssassin, please update your configuration so as not to use Osirusoft as a blacklist -- otherwise you won't get any email from me, or a hell of a lot of other people, either. (More information on Slashdot and elsewhere.) It has been speculated that the Sobig series are being developed by spammers in order to turn infected machines into relay zombies ... it's at times like this that I realise I'm really living in the 21st century and I wish it would go away.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss spam ]



    posted at: 18:48 | path: /virus | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 06 Sep 2003

    Michael Meacher's Statement

    Michael Meacher, former environment minister in the Blair government, has created a localized shit-storm by speaking out on Iraq, the War on Terror, and 9/11.

    Two things make this interesting. The first is that he's picked up on the PNAC allegations, intelligence failures in the run-up to 9/11, and the Reichstag Fire theory, and put them together with the west's increasing dependence on Middle Eastern oil supplies to connect the dots in a very ugly (but internally consistent) way. I've suspected something like this was the real explanation ever since the war on Iraq began to loom, but it's interesting to have a former senior politician say it in public -- especially given the vehemence of the denials and denunciations issuing from Downing Street and the US Embassy.

    The second thing is the explosive implication of him raising it at this point in the Hutton Enquiry. I think it's looking inevitable that Blair is going to come out of this process with his credibility badly dented. He may survive politically, but it almost certainly marks the beginning of the end for his period in office and the big upcoming question in British politics is going to be: who will replace him when the time comes?

    Meacher has dumped a steaming turd in the foreign policy punch bowl, associating his anti-neoconservative explanation for the 9/11/Iraq mess with Blair's unreliability and spin. He implicitly highlights a failure in British foreign policy at the highest level. In doing so, he provides a stick for any alternative leadership contender to use to beat on Tony Blair -- but if they use it they're going to have to follow it up by distancing themselves from the Bush administration's politics, possibly to the extent of ending the trans-Atlantic relationship that's been a foundation stone of British foreign policy since 1940.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



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

    Thu, 04 Sep 2003

    Jetlagged in Leith

    Well, I'm back and I'm mostly on UK time again. (I don't pull overnighters well and I'm really bad at dealing with west-to-east jetlag -- I was on Toronto time the morning after I arrived, but took a full 24 hours to readjust to being in the UK.)

    The flight tickets sorted themselves out just in time for the trip -- thanks to Fearghas for putting me in touch with the travel agent, who had gone on vacation but was still in business. Weirdly, despite the angst and tooth-grinding before the trip the flights themselves went incredibly smoothly, despite me hatching a head-cold the day before departure. (As a result of which I spent the first couple of days of the worldcon half-deaf and in the odd stupid-but-hyper headspace that comes of dosing up on pseudoephedrine.)

    In the dealer room at Torcon 3 I ran across a badge which I felt compelled to buy. It says, I love being a writer -- I just don't like the paperwork. This is particularly apt, considering that I'm just now getting my teeth into the last financial year's accounts: either I've gotten a lot more fanatical about hanging onto receipts or I'm buying a lot more junk, but it looks to me as if this year I'll be sending a mammoth spreadsheet to the accountant. (I could just send him the raw receipts, and he'd take them, but then I'd get a bill for about triple the rate he's currently charging. Tedium or money, what's it worth to you? My time costs less than my accountant's, which is why I'm doing the job myself.)

    I did not win a Hugo. That's okay -- I didn't expect to. (Not winning a Hugo is a lot easier, the second time around.)

    Toronto is a really nice city, at least on first acquaintance. I wish I'd been able to book a longer stay. It had all the advantages of any American city, but without giving me the sense of subliminal weirdness I get wherever I go in the USA. There's something about the United States, a subtle sense of manifest destiny combined with cultural and political assumptions that are totally alien, that stops me from feeling I can relax and take things for granted. Toronto, in contrast, I felt comfortable with: the kind of place I could see myself living.

    It struck me, while I was out there, that exposure to the internet has gradually reduced my attention span to that of an amphetamine-crazed ferret. I am reading more than ever before, but fewer books, and less is sticking. It's time to strictly limit my daily webtime and start making headway on the to-read bookcase I've been steadily accumulating through buying books faster than I can read them for the past couple of years. This decision is, in part, prompted by the discovery that last year I bought a whole shelf-length of books back from ConJose, and this year I've repeated the exercise, and I've only read half of last years' load.

    Pride of place in the things-I-found-in-the-Torcon-dealer-room goes to a whole ton of goodies from Apogee Books. Apogee are in the process of publishing a metric ton of NASA mission transcripts, from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and STS programs -- they also do books on such diverse subjects as DynaSoar (the X-20 spaceplane of the 1960's), Russian space projects, and planetary probes. If/when I get it together to do the hard-SF novel about the Russian Mars fly-by mission of 1967-69, this (along with Encyclopaedia Astronautica) is critical reference material. Especially the two-CD set of all the NASA Mercury, Gemini and Apollo mission transcripts.

    Next, there's "The Strange Case of Dr Mabuse: A study of the twelve films and five novels", by David Kalat. It's a scholarly survey of the diabolical Doctor Mabuse, master criminal and man of mystery, a bad guy as well known to continental audiences as Count Dracula or Doctor von Frankenstein's creation.

    And finally, I picked up a shedload of fiction, including Barry Hughart's complete works in one volume and the famous but hard-to-find "Scream for Jeeves".

    Resolution for the new year: read this lot before next year's worldcon. And try to actually stick some book reviews on this weblog. I know you want them, really ...

    [ Discuss conjose ]



    posted at: 18:14 | path: /fandom | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 03 Sep 2003

    I'm back

    And jetlagged as fuck.

    Normal blogging will be resumed after approximately one sleep cycle ...



    posted at: 12:49 | path: /fandom | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 30 Aug 2003

    Sunny Toronto

    Sorry it's taken me so long to surface; I've been kind of busy.

    Our flight out went without a hitch, we arrived in Toronto on schedule, managed to stay up on Tuesday night until a sensible hour, and transitioned to local time without any headaches. It would all have been great if I hadn't come down with a vicious head-cold the day before spending nine hours in one or another aluminium can scrabbling its way laboriously across the stratosphere.

    Wednesday we spent bumming around town, gawping at sights and doing some shopping. Toronto has one single street -- its name escapes me -- which is to dressmaking fabric and trim about as content-rich as Amsterdam and London put together, and I've got a feeling Feorag's luggage is going to be overweight on the way home. Copious small Japanese and Chinese shopping malls, weird high-rise architecture, polite drivers who don't try to run down the pedestrians at every opportunity, a weird subterranean rat-run of malls ...

    Anyway. I'm now stuck in the middle of this here worldcon. And my time is not my own. So I'm just snatching a few minutes here to say I'm still alive, capable of blogging, and by the way, has anyone else noticed the eerie similarities between the adolescence and young adulthoods (up to 1919) of Fritz Lang and Adolf Hitler?

    (Oh yeah -- one other thing. If you are at Torcon 3 and run into myself and Feorag, try to remember that the wedding congrats are optional. It all happened some time ago ...)

    [ Discuss conjose (yes, I know this was last year's topic -- I believe in recycling) ]



    posted at: 16:18 | path: /fandom | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 25 Aug 2003

    Backups

    While packing, I realised I was going to leave my iPod home and take the older, bulkier, but recording-capable Archos Jukebox 20 instead. The iPod is normally my walkman-substitute and also my offsite data backup -- I keep my life's work in a corner of it so that if I'm out and about and the house burns down I can just(!) grab a second-hand iMac and be back to business within a day or so.

    (I'm not too worried about leaving it behind on this trip because I'm taking a laptop with a similar backup filesystem. The key is to have the backup, not to get hung up on what media it's stored on.)

    But lately I've been thinking about really long-duration reliable backups. CD-R's are unreliable; not as bad as floppy disks, but a measurable subset of them will be unreadable after only two or three years. Floppies -- spit. Tape drives are painfully slow and tapes suffer the same delamination problem as other magnetic media.

    It seems to me that for ultimate safety you can't beat print on acid-free paper -- at least, for text. Retreival is a pain, but if it comes down to it I can always restore from backup any already-published book: take a scalpel to a hardcover, feed it through a scanner and OCR software, and you can get back the text.

    Unpublished books are another matter. What I ought to do is print out a copy of every day's work as I write it, then each subsequent draft, and store them in an offsite facility. What I actually do is generate PDFs and email them to my agent -- not the same thing at all! I don't work on paper at all, it's strictly an output format. If I do print a copy out it'll be on cheap listing paper using a laser printer -- and there's some question over the stability of toner on paper in the long term: it doesn't always bond well to the paper and even moderate heat or humidity can cause it to peel off the page.

    I'm thinking about mending my ways, but obviously toner on cheap paper isn't the way to go. What I'd need is a black and white inkjet printer. It needs to be cheap to run, fast, not necessarily high resolution -- 300 dpi would be fine -- and use stable, durable ink. Did I say cheap? Most inkjets expect you to buy a new cartridge every 200-300 pages, but a single novel draft can easily run to 600-1,200 pages. I don't want to have to stop to change £25 cartridges three times during a single print run.

    Anyone got any pointers to suitable machines?

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 16:40 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 24 Aug 2003

    On Vacation, Continued (preparations)

    I have a disgustingly full schedule next week at Torcon 3. In addition to various other bits of business I've got scheduled, if you're at the con you can come and watch me make a fool of myself, reading from something-or-other (not decided yet but probably my next novel from Ace, "The Iron Sunrise") on Friday at 6pm. Or you can come and poke the hung-over and torpid writer at the Kaffee Klatsch on Monday at 2:30pm. I'm also on several panels during the con -- details at the programming web site.

    Communication between now and Wednesday will be sporadic as I run in tiny circles screaming and making sure we're both packed and at the airport in time (and that I've read the writer's workshop submissions and charged the laptop and mobile phones and washed the underwear and packed the right kind of foreign mains adapters and briefed the cat-sitter and ...) -- I really need a vacation, and seven concentrated days of being out in public at a con or holed up in smoke-filled rooms with editors probably doesn't count.

    Oh yeah: was at the pub with Warren Ellis Friday night and last night. What can I say? He was the one blogging from his cameraphone.

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 00:21 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 22 Aug 2003

    On vacation

    I got the novel off to Tor. Then I fell over. Not physically, I hasten to add, but metaphorically -- I am completely drained, not to put too fine a point on it. Knackered. Exhausted. Written out. Supposed to be working on a collaboration with Cory, but ... well, we'll see if I recover in the next week or two. I should have been doing my accounts this week -- instead, I've been slacking. Or recovering. Or something.

    (Obligatory whine: my Powerbook has developed a hairline crack in the case. I am hoping Apple are willing to repair this under AppleCare (it's under warranty) -- as a separate component the chunk of titanium in question sells for $250 a pop.)

    On Tuesday we're heading for Torcon, the world SF convention (which this year is held in Toronto). Our travel agent finally surfaced and the lost tickets have, in principle, been sorted. (Collect replacements from Lufthansa desk on day of travel. Yeah, right.)

    I am wondering where the hell my copy of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri for Linux has gotten to. Haven't played it in years, but as I'm taking the ultra-teeny Linux laptop to Canada instead of the cracked Mac, and feeling burned out, a good long game would seem like the right thing to take. Except I can't find it. Fume. I wonder if they'll port Sims 2.0 to Linux? (The Sims for Linux is due out this month, but without any of the expansion packs it's likely to be a bit arse.)

    [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 18:03 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 20 Aug 2003

    Blood on the server room floor

    I use two levels of spam filtering -- an ancient handcarved perl script called NAGS, now obsolete, running inline with the much more sophisticate SpamAssassin. SpamAssassin is a heavyweight -- capable of bringing my weedy little server (PII/450, 64Mb RAM/10Gb disk) to its knees, but this week it has saved my ass. Because there's a test in SpamAssassin (MICROSOFT_EXECUTABLE) which is 100% effective at weeding out Microsoft-specific virus payloads, including Sobig-F (see below).

    Yesterday, NAGS trapped about 14 instances of Sobig-F, and I thought it was a heavy attack. So I tweaked SpamAssassin to add the MICROSOFT_EXECUTABLE test. Today I went over to Glasgow, shopping with Feorag (as one does). When I got back, I checked my spam trap.

    272 copies of Sobig-F. That's 30 megabytes of viral crap. In 36 hours. In my spamtrap. I'm obviously popular; Feorag only got 49.

    I've never seen anything like it. Multiply this attack by everyone out there and you've got a serious assault on the infrastructure of the internet as we know it. Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing fame got hammered by 300 copies, and as he's on a 4800 baud dialup that must hurt. I've been hearing stories of companies with firewalls and maybe 40 staff where someone made the mistake of opening the attachment -- within an hour the company mail servers had ground to a halt with several thousand viruses clogging up the spool area.

    I can imagine what's going on in the NOCs of all the ISPs. I'm glad I don't work in those places. Problem is, this epidemic doesn't seem to be amenable to an easy fix. It's an emergent effect of insecure email protocols, operating systems which harbour bugs that can be triggered via said insecure email protocols, and small world theory. What is to be done?

    Update: Cory Doctorow is dead famous for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that he co-edits BoingBoing and is outreach director of the EFF. As he points out, Sobig-F follows a power law that increases with the number of people who've ever sent you email. He's experienced a peak of 8-10 viruses per minute, although it's now dropped back to a couple per minute. That's a peak of 800Kb-1Mb/minute, or 50-60Mb/hour, which to put it in perspective is about one-fifth the saturation bandwidth of a T1 line.

    [ Discuss microsoft ]



    posted at: 21:37 | path: /virus | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 19 Aug 2003

    Virus storm rising

    In the past hour and a half I've received via email 11 copies of some kind of Windows worm. My second-level spam filter is overflowing with the buggers -- luckily as a non-Windows user I'm pretty much immune, but they're coming in at a rate of >1Mb/hour. I'm glad I'm not currently collecting my email via Palm Pilot and mobile phone! Blaster, last week's exploit du jour (which tried to take down Microsoft's software update website), had a 6Kb payload, but this obese little turd carries a 93Kb chunk of code with it, so it looks like a new one to me. It's the highest level of worm activity I've ever seen, by somewhere between one and two orders of magnitude, and most of the initial copies appear to have emanated from Finland, which makes me wonder. Anyone else seen this, or know what's going on?

    [ Discuss microsoft ]



    posted at: 12:25 | path: /virus | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 18 Aug 2003

    Summer nothings

    Spent today wandering around Edinburgh, not taking in any Fringe shows, just relaxing. No web surfing, no wild rants, no writing, no opinions. In fact, today could easily have been cancelled. So, just to ensure there's something in my blog for you to look at, here's Mafdet the middle-aged kitten (who has lost about a kilogram of weight since she first arrived here last December):

    middle-aged kitten

    [ Discuss cats ]



    posted at: 21:23 | path: /cats | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 17 Aug 2003

    Extreme wrist-watches

    I do not wear a wrist watch. Maybe it's because I'm surrounded by timepieces -- I virtually never go out the house with less computing power on my person than the entire North American continent circa 1973 -- and maybe it's because I find wearing things around my wrist irritating.

    But if I did wear a watch I'd probably end up buying a new one every few months from Tokyoflash, just for the sheer pleasure of owning another gizmo. Some of these are just crazy, a classic illustration of the way in which a core need (timekeeping) has spawned an entire design subculture.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 23:08 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Done it, I think.

    Phew.



    posted at: 19:26 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 16 Aug 2003

    Gaah

    I'm in the second and final edit pass through that goddamn novel, and there is absolutely nothing on the web with which I can distract myself. Baah. Near as I can figure I've got a 500-word glue scene to write (to replace the scene I wheeked out of the penultimate chapter to turn into the surprise-epilogue), some tap-dancing transplantation to perform on a minor mcguffin, and some polishing in the last chase scene, and then it's done. Which makes it all sound so self-contained and predictable that you might be forgiven for wondering why I just backed up the files (to spare laptop and iPod) before downing tools in order to go to the pub. I mean, why not finish the damn thing and get it out of the way?

    The answer can be encapsulated by a word: tedium. Writing a first draft is fun, and scary, and challenging, and obsessive, and exciting. Editing an n-th draft for the sixth time, two years after that first wild explosion of ideas, is one of the most tediously boring kinds of intellectual drudgery I can imagine. And I'm just reaching the peak of anomie -- tomorrow I will sit down, grit my teeth, work my way through the to-do list, format it up and email it to my editor, then turn with relief to the vastly less tedious job of entering last year's business expenses into a spreadsheet to send to my accountant.

    Yes. The sixth draft really is that bad.

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 17:58 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 15 Aug 2003

    How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

    Anders Sandberg adopts a systematic approach to the problem in terms of quantum gravity:

    The basic issue is the maximal density of active angels in a small volume. It should be noted that the original formulation of the problem did not refer to the head of a pin (R1 mm) but to the point of the pin. Therefore, the point, not the head, of the pin is the region that will be studied in this paper.

    One of the first reported attempts at a quantum gravity treatment of the angel density problem that also included the correct end of the pin was made by Dr. Phil Schewe. He suggested that due to quantum gravity space is likely not infinitely divisible beyond the Planck length scale of 10exp-35 meters. Hence, assuming the point of the pin to be one ngstrm across (the size of a scanning tunnelling microscope tip) this would produce a maximal number of angels on the order of 1050 since they would not have more places to fill.[1]

    While this approach does produce an upper bound on the possible density of angels, it is based on the Thomist assumption of non-overlap.

    And so on.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss theology ]



    posted at: 17:24 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Slowdown

    It's turned hot again around here. Added to which, I was at the pub until about three in the morning on account of having finished my first (of two edit passes) through the novel I've got to hand in next week. The second pass is basically fine tuning on the ending, and should take a couple of days -- probably at the weekend -- so I'm taking today off work. Hence, no work to avoid, hence, no masses of blog updates.



    posted at: 16:47 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 14 Aug 2003

    Paging Dr Strangelove

    New Scientist this week is reporting that:

    An exotic kind of nuclear explosive being developed by the US Department of Defense could blur the critical distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons. The work has also raised fears that weapons based on this technology could trigger the next arms race.

    The explosive works by stimulating the release of energy from the nuclei of certain elements but does not involve nuclear fission or fusion. The energy, emitted as gamma radiation, is thousands of times greater than that from conventional chemical explosives.

    The technology has already been included in the Department of Defense's Militarily Critical Technologies List, which says: "Such extraordinary energy density has the potential to revolutionise all aspects of warfare."

    Scientists have known for many years that the nuclei of some elements, such as hafnium, can exist in a high-energy state, or nuclear isomer, that slowly decays to a low-energy state by emitting gamma rays. For example, hafnium-178m2, the excited, isomeric form of hafnium-178, has a half-life of 31 years.

    The possibility that this process could be explosive was discovered when Carl Collins and colleagues at the University of Texas at Dallas demonstrated that they could artificially trigger the decay of the hafnium isomer by bombarding it with low-energy X-rays (New Scientist print edition, 3 July 1999). The experiment released 60 times as much energy as was put in, and in theory a much greater energy release could be achieved.

    Well, yeah.

    Only, a couple of months ago this very same idea was being touted around as a power source for reconnaisance drones that could stay airborn for months at a time. However, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories don't seem to think it'll work:

    LIVERMORE, Calif. -- Physicists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in collaboration with scientists at Los Alamos and Argonne national laboratories, have new results that strongly contradict recent reports claiming an accelerated emission of gamma rays from the nuclear isomer 31-yr. hafnium-178, and the opportunity for a controlled release of energy. The triggering source in the original experiment was a dental X-ray machine.

    Using the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne, which has more than 100,000 times higher X-ray intensity than the dental X-ray machine used in the original experiment, and a sample of isomeric Hf-178 fabricated at Los Alamos, the team of physicists expected to see an enormous signal indicating a controlled release of energy stored in the long lived nuclear excited state. However, the scientists observed no such signal and established an upper limit consistent with nuclear science and orders of magnitude below previous reports.

    So what's going on here?

    The idea of using Hafnium isomers as an energy storage device has been knocking around for a few years now. There seem to be two possibilities: the physics works, or it doesn't. If it works, then the LLNL results (from tests carried out in 2001) take some explaining -- how did a major research lab get it wrong? But if it doesn't work, why on earth is this wonder-weapon being touted around by the US Department of Defense, years after the LLNL research poured cold water over it? What bureaucratic agenda could be furthered by pursuing research (with extensive funding) into a technology that isn't compatible with physics as we currently understand it and that appears to be unworkable?

    I wonder where the money trail leads, and if it is only money that's at issue. After all, if you promise a politician a magic wand to solve military problems emerging tomorrow, they may be tempted to pay less attention to avoiding such problems today ...

    [Link] [Link to LLNL release] [Discuss ww3]



    posted at: 18:43 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Lovecraftian conspiracy theory #1

    Some people take H. P. Lovecraft too seriously. Like this guy:

    Lizard-like aliens descended upon ancient Mayans and interbred with them, producing "a form of life they could inhabit, they fluctuated between a human and iguana appearance through chameleon-like abilities."

    Edgar Allen Poe, according to an article in New Federalist, was a counter-intelligence operative serving the U.S. government in the first half of the 1800s. Thus, Poe's stories possibly hint at an insider's knowledge of events. From what vision-world did H.P. Lovecraft perceive and write about "the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men... They had shape but that shape was not made of matter... the Great Old Ones spoke to (the first men) by molding their dreams; for only thus could Their language reach the fleshy minds of mammals... (One day, the Great Old Ones would appear openly.) The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones, free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves..."

    Er, yes. Well.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss paranoia ]



    posted at: 14:56 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 13 Aug 2003

    Fair and Balanced Friday

    My diary is undergoing a temporary change of name, in honour of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News who appear to think they own a common phrase. Hit on this link if you want to know why.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss copyright-censorship ]



    posted at: 13:09 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Today ...

    Is the 11th annual Left Hander's Day.

    Yes, this includes me. I'm one of the 15% minority whose longevity is threatened by inconsiderate assholes who design a world that is fundamentally incompatible with those people who don't react the same way -- from cameras with shutter release buttons on the right to scissors with moulded grips we simply can't hold to road drills and industrial machinery that maims.

    I am therefore declaring my workplace a left-handed centre for the day.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss longevity ]



    posted at: 11:10 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    More news from the publishing trenches

    John Clute (probably the most perceptive critic working the SF field at present) dissects "Singularity Sky" in SciFi Weekly, with the kind of lucid, insightful gaze that makes me feel like something tiny being examined on a microscope slide by Wellsian Martians ("vast, cool, and unsympathetic intellects"):

    Not that it isn't fun to see Rachel make fools of various functionaries. Not that there aren't moments of inspiration throughout, good jokes, well-imagined aliens. Not that our SF sense of dramatic irony -- traditional SF readers are very used to feeling superior to bureaucrats -- isn't tickled by the comeuppance visited upon the minions of the New Republic. Not that it's not perfectly obvious that all this PG-13 inanity has stuffed the goose of story precisely to fool its readers into thinking Singularity Sky is safely brainless. Not that it isn't a shame to see as brilliant a cogitator as Charles Stross cozening himself into retelling, at great length, the old nursery rhyme, the one that goes:

    The grand old Duke of York
    He had ten thousand men.
    He marched them up to the top of the hill
    And he marched them down again.

    Not that we don't care. Because we do. Because we want to see Charles Stross, who has brilliant moments here, extrude that brilliance through an entire book. He could be one of the shapers of SF. I do think he will soon begin to shape.

    Urk.

    I think I've just been handed a school report card saying "can do better." (Having said that, what I can say in my defense is that I began writing "Singularity Sky" around 1994, and mostly finished it by 1998; it significantly pre-dates the other work he's judging it against, and I think it'll be interesting to see what he makes of the next couple of novels ...)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 10:10 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 12 Aug 2003

    SCO

    I used to work for a cool software company called The Santa Cruz Operation back in the early nineties. By the late nineties, they'd shortened their name to SCO, gotten into trouble by ignoring Linux, and in the end sold their UNIX assets to Caldera Inc. Who promptly renamed themselves and, most recently, appear to have set out to sue the entire universe for having the temerity to exist.

    As a sometime computer journalist, especially a Linux columnist, it behooves me to be polite, balanced, civil, and so on. But sometimes words fail me, as when I saw this egregious display of shit-headedness.

    It's a good thing I don't work as a programmer or tech author any more because if I did I would feel it necessary to take out a lawsuit against CEO Darl McBride claiming damages for defamation. By dragging a once respectable company's name through the muck and mire of this stupid and mendacious FUD campaign (which to my eyes looks dangerously close to extortion -- demanding money with menaces -- and which has been described by others as resembling an illegal pump and dump scam) he's destroyed a large chunk of my professional resume; if I still worked in the field this would constitute personal harm.

    Sorry to vent. I just didn't feel like bottling that up any more.

    (Yes, I do blame Darl McBride.)

    [ Link to Dumb Corporate Propaganda Stunt ] [ Discuss SCO shitheads ]



    posted at: 19:47 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    A mirror made of wood

    wooden mirror

    It's a mirror, made of wood. (A 35x29 grid of wooden blocks controlled by servos, each able to be tilted 30 degrees up or down to reflect the light. A camera hidden in the middle sends digitized images to a Macintosh Quadra 860AV which digitizes the image, renders it down to 35x29, converts to 8-bit grayscale, and uses the grayscale values to adjust the tilt angle of each block to change the brightness. Fifteen frames per second provide the illusion of continuity.)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 14:17 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Jesus says: switch!

    Classic parody of the Apple "switch" ads, featuring one Jesus J. Christ on the evils of Windows ...

    [ Link (Quicktime -- thanks, Feorag!) ] [Discuss geekery ]



    posted at: 12:45 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Lethal heat

    It's so hot in continental Europe right now that people are dying like flies in Paris:

    Hospitals in the Paris region were unable to find beds for the continuing flow of arrivals. A spokesman for the health ministry conceded that "the extreme heat is clearly linked to an increase in mortality".

    Mortuary workers said they could not remember a period of such extreme overcrowding. "Our 28 places have been full since Friday," an official at the Mont-Valerian funeral parlour said. "On Saturday we had to turn down 30 requests."

    "We are seeing three or four times more than the normal number of dead," said another mortuary attendant from the suburbs of Paris.

    Meanwhile, could this be the beginning of the shutdown of the Atlantic cold water conveyor system that the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute warms could trigger a new ice age?

    [ Link ] [ Discuss warming ]



    posted at: 09:50 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 11 Aug 2003

    Inside the MIT Media Lab

    Sensory overload:

    You step out of an elevator on the third floor of a university building. You're in a beige carpeted corridor, with whitewashed walls on one side. On the other side, a glass wall separates you from the Disruptive Technology Laboratory. Open the door and look inside. The lab is about thirty feet square, with small offices off to either side. It's cluttered with open plan desks; at one corner a cluster of black sofas sit in a circle around a big television set with a stack of video equipment and an Xbox. At the opposite corner, there's a bench with oscilloscopes, soldering irons, and the other detritus of electronic prototyping.

    In one corner, a bunch of students are trying to reinvent the wheel -- specifically, the car steering wheel, which they're trying to add intelligence to. (Imagine you're driving a car, spproaching a busy roundabout. Your hands tense and your pulse rate soars -- it's a bad time for your cellphone to ring, isn't it? That's why the intelligent wheel knows enough about your emotional state to switch the incoming call to voice mail until you're calm enough to talk, and turn down the radio volume while it's about the job) ...

    [ Read more ] [ Discuss Media Lab ]



    posted at: 22:25 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Eigenradio

    Those fun guys at the MIT Media Lab bring us a new streaming radio station -- Eigenradio.

    Eigenradio makes its optimal music by analyzing in real time dozens of radio stations at once. When our bank of computers has heard enough music, it will go to work on making more just like it. Since we listen to so much music all the time, Eigenradio is always on and always live. What you hear on Eigenradio is the best of the New Music, distilled and de-correlated. One song on Eigenradio is worth at least twenty songs on old radio.

    And when you've had enough of Eigenradio there's always Spam Radio.

    [ Link that is KILLING the RIAA ] [ Much more questionable Link ] [ Really Weird Link ] [ Discuss mp3 ]



    posted at: 22:01 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Squids In Spaaaaace

    the horror, the horror

    This is all Feorag's fault.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss The horror! The horror! ]



    posted at: 16:36 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Read this (or be terminally uncool)

    Warren Ellis seems to be getting into the writing-fiction-online-via-a-blog thing with "LISTENER: A book for the Internet in sixty entries". You can find it on Livejournal and the first parts are 1, 2, 3, and 4. Follow it via the blog.

    According to Warren, this is all Cory's fault.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 14:29 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    The policeman's beard is half constructed

    The annual chatterbox contest throws up some rather cool quotes from the Turing-test candidates:

    Judge: Have you ever watch American football?
    Hex: I am most certainly not an American! In fact, I find that quite insulting! I'd rather you accuse me of being a computer!
    Judge: are you a computer?
    Hex: Syntax Error in line 10. Core dumped. Please bugger off.
    Judge: lol
    Hex: I'm sorry, but I refuse to reply if you're going to be silly.

    Of course, it's going to be rather harder to pass the original Turing test than that little exchange might indicate. Alan Turing, a product of the English public school system writing in 1950, established his test as an imitation game with the pragmatic goal of building a conversational computer system that could fool a judge within a wide domain of human interactions. Consciously or otherwise, the domain Turing picked was one in which the judge is a male human being and the goal of the computer is to fool the judge into believing that he is communicating with a a human female. These days we have highly-sophisticated constructs that are dedicated to carrying out this very task over the internet -- we call them "police officers". Meanwhile, I humbly submit that a piece of software that could successfully emulate a circa-2003 British female would clearly fail the circa-1953 Turing test by not conforming to the expected stereotypes.

    Which leaves us flailing around trying to write bots who deal with more general problem domains -- like this:

    User: DO YOU ACCEPT JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR PERSONAL LORD AND SAVIOR?
    Iniaes: Sure, I can accept all forms of payment.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]



    posted at: 11:07 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Global Warming

    Well, I don't know about global but there's definitely something weird happening locally -- with temperatures in the high twenties in Edinburgh, and an all-time record temperature set yesterday -- 38.1 degrees in Gravesend (100.6 Fahrenheit), this is shaping up to be one of the hottest summers ever for the UK.

    Heat: I hates it, yes my precious, I hates it.

    [ Discuss warming ]



    posted at: 10:51 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 07 Aug 2003

    Air rage

    No blog entry today (other than this) because I'm knackered -- spent no less than five hours on the phone to three travel bureaux and several departments within Lufthansa, trying to figure out WTF to do about my tickets to Torcon 3 in Toronto at the end of this month.

    I booked the tickets back in May through a small one man travel agency I've been using for years. He usually posts them to me a month before departure -- he's 400 miles away. It seems that this time, the tickets were issued three weeks ago but never got here. The travel agent isn't answering one of his phone lines and the other three (fax plus voice plus emergency mobile) are all disconnected; not a good sign, and I suspect he's died or otherwise gone out of business with extreme prejudice.

    The good news is that the payment was received, the tickets were issued, and I have a booking reference. But the bad news is that it turns out that Lufthansa have no standard procedure for dealing with the consequences if the tickets are sent out on time but get lost between the travel agent and the customer. The tickets are merely contracts for travel but the airline behaves as if they're cash money. And you can't imagine the problems that arise when the tickets are issued by a big ticketing agency, then sent to a medium-sized travel agency, which then sends them on to a one-man-and-his-dog sub-agent who vanishes into a black hole rather than forwarding them to the customer. Every single conversation seems to begin with "have you spoken to the travel agent?" and ends with "yes, we can do that, as soon as the travel agent faxes us to confirm the tickets are lost in the post ..."

    Note: Lufthansa are one of the more efficient flag carrier airlines. The mind, she boggles. I'm harbouring weird daydreams that I've been caught up in a highly unethical sub rosa experiment designed to test how susceptible frequent fliers are to air rage ...

    Anyway, after five hours on the phone it looks like I can probably pick up a pair of replacement tickets from the Lufthansa desk at Edinburgh Airport. Although they may try to charge me $100 per ticket for losing them. Grr. Time to find another travel agent ...

    [ Discuss dumb ]



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

    Wed, 06 Aug 2003

    One for the review stack

    Treepad Lite is a combination PIM, outline processor, text editor and brainstorming program. Now there's a Linux version. Must take a look at it one of these days ...

    (The Portege 2000 is now happily running Linux and, modulo one or two slightly rough edges -- wireless network roaming is a mild pain, and I haven't set up infrared yet or done any serious dinking with USB -- it's working fine. So I now have a Linux/Intel testbed again.)

    [ Link ]



    posted at: 22:37 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 05 Aug 2003

    He's b-a-a-c-k ...

    Nearly twenty years after the spectacular flop of Sir Clive Sinclair's C5 electric vehicle, it seems the "success" of the Segway (yeah, have you seen one, too?) has provoked the Cambridge inventor to make a follow-on attempt.

    The Sinclair C6, we are informed, has been under development for a decade -- and we should "just wait til next year".

    Sigh.

    [ Link ][ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 17:40 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Soldiers in ballgowns

    Another really weird (and quite unpleasant) meme is spreading in Liberia:

    [ in the '90's] Taylor's dolled-up marauders -- aka the National Patriotic Front of Liberia -- put on one of the most disturbing shows the planet has ever seen. ... In an essay in Liberian Studies Journal, an administrator at Cuttington University College tells a story of Taylor's forces storming the rural campus during the initial stages of the war in "wedding [dresses], wigs, commencement gowns from high schools and several forms of voodoo regalia. ... [They] believed they could not be killed in battle."

    According to the soldiers themselves, cross-dressing is a military mind game, a tactic that instills fear in their rivals. It also makes the soldiers feel more invincible. This belief is founded on a regional superstition which holds that soldiers can "confuse the enemy's bullets" by assuming two identities simultaneously. Though the accoutrements and garb look bizarre to Western eyes, they are, in a sense, variations on the camouflage uniforms and face paint American soldiers use to bolster their sense of invisibility (and, therefore, immunity) during combat. Since flak jackets or infrared goggles aren't available to the destitute Liberian fighters, they opt for evening gowns and frilly blouses.

    [ Link ][ Discuss fashion victims ]



    posted at: 17:15 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Extropians under the Bed

    Remember the weird-sounding DARPA plan to establish a futures market for predicting terrorist attacks? (Not so weird as it sounds: it turns out to be a Delphi poll in wolf's -- or maybe Wolfowitz' -- clothing.) Well, it turns out that the original proposal was hatched by none other than Robin Hanson, sometime extropian and economist with a hatload of theories about the future. The Register's Andrew Orlowski has done a none-to-friendly backgrounder on the extropian roots of the OSP terrorism futures market, but you may prefer to read what Hanson has to write on the subject of the economics of SF, ideas futures (the demilitarized, or maybe pre-militarized, version of the Poindexter weirdness), and why there's a greater than 5% chance that we're living in a computer simulation.

    All good stuff, although maybe a little too speculative to base a global anti-terrorism strategy on it.

    [ Link (The Reg on Extropianism ] [ Discuss singularity ]



    posted at: 16:12 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 04 Aug 2003

    It's disgusting, I tell you

    Not to mention Fishy. (NB: this site should not be accessed by spawn, whitebait, sprats, winkles, or anyone who may find this material offensive.)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss ]



    posted at: 15:50 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 03 Aug 2003

    Back from UKUUG

    That was a pretty interesting weekend.

    I have a personal weakness; I find it very difficult to sit through more than one lecture in a row, and after about three interesting ones in the space of a day my brain simply seizes up. Which made this years' UKUUG Linux conference kind of frustrating, because there were two parallel program streams with lectures running simultaneously and back-to-back from 9:30am through 'til after 6pm each day.

    Now I've got to sit down and write it up for my next Shopper column, a thought occured to me: what does it mean? Personally speaking: not a huge amount. I'm burned out, cynical and jaded about the computer business in general, because over the past twenty years it has become a deeply boring commoditized industry. Early design decisions have become entrenched in the name of backward compatability, marketing guys with plastic smiles and immaculate suits have replaced wild-eyed visionaries, and the interesting stuff is all happening in weird far-away design teams, sequestrated from the incurious public gaze. It's about as capable of capturing the imagination as, say, a new tweak on the design of boarding stairs at Airbus or Boeing that promises to shave 20% off the weight of said airliner accessory.

    I did pick up two things, though. The first, a general feeling: Linux is in the process of embracing and extending the hardware biz at every level. When I saw someone taking notes on a talk about massively parallel supercomuters (using Linux) on a palmtop (running Linux) the message was kind of hard to miss.

    And the next thing: at a very specific level, mini-ITX motherboards and cases are The Way To Go. Tiny, cheap, fanless PCs with trailing-edge processors -- only 1GHz -- are nevertheless a really amazingly cool idea, especially when you start thinking in terms of turning them into personal video recorders (running things like FreeVo) or in-car GPS navigation systems. Or Beowulf clusters. Marketing hype has obsessed most punters with clock speed, so that the owner of a 2.4GHz processor sneers at their neighbour with the 2.1GHz clock -- but if both machines have the same bus frequency, memory, and disk architecture, all the extra CPU speed means is that the faster machine will spend more time in cache stalls. "Slower" computers (we're still talking faster than a Cray XMP here) that don't sound like an air conditioning system, that can run off a trickle of current and live in a case the size of a paperback book, and that are tailored to a specific task, are really useful. Me, I'm off to build a household music server to hold the contents of the 600-odd CD's cluttering up the place -- and if that works, I'm going to add a set-top box for the cable TV decoder. See you later!

    [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 19:32 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 01 Aug 2003

    Why I'm being quiet

    This week it's the UKUUG (UK Unix User's Group) annual Linux conference. And as it's in Edinburgh, where I happen to live, I'm a wee bit busy spending all my time in the grounds of a public (read: very private indeed) school, sitting in on talks by such luminaries of the linux field as Jon "Maddog" Hall and Dr Steven Tweedie.

    Except the weather today is great, I'm a bit tired, and after one talk too many about the woes of the UK Government's e-gateway's mis-implementation of W3C standard digital signatures on XML messages I just had to bugger off home to recover.

    Maybe I'll post a brief report tomorrow, but I'm not Cory Doctorow and I just don't have the energy for moblogging.

    [ Link ]



    posted at: 17:06 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 29 Jul 2003

    News from the publishing trenches

    While visiting London at the weekend, I spotted feral copies of Singularity Sky frolicking in their native habitat (the shelves of Forbidden Planet on Tottenham Court Road). Anyone planning on hunting this particular game will need to be fast and skillful; between successive encounters on Saturday and Monday one of the three shelf-squatters had vanished, presumably captured. 'E's a wily one is this critter, hard-backed and with an evil grip if you let 'im get 'is teeth in, but 'e's no match for an experienced crocodile hunter or critic, as indicated by Greg Feely's review in the Washington Post.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 13:50 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    I already knew this ...

    [Neck-]ties are a health hazard.

    Quoth the Guardian:

    Tests by eye specialists in New York suggest those who think a tighter tie might make them look smarter could be increasing their risk of glaucoma, a condition which, untreated, can lead to loss of sight.

    Men with thick necks and white-collar professionals might also be in greater danger of damaging their vision, according to a study published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

    ...

    The study's authors, led by Robert Ritch, of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, speculate that a tight tie constricts the jugular vein and raises blood pressure both in the vein and inside the eye.

    Me, I don't wear a tie voluntarily. This extends to weddings, funerals, and other formal occasions. I'm one of the aforementioned males with thick necks, not to mention retinal trouble (currently quiescent), and I hate the things with a passion. I've always suspected they were bad for you, and I'm grateful for this confirmation.

    [ Link ][ Original paper ] [ Discuss fashion victims ]



    posted at: 13:30 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 24 Jul 2003

    Thought for today

    I won't be shedding any tears for Uday or Qusay -- a more unpleasant pair of mass-murdering scum would be hard to find. But I think it's time to ask one question: after the US occupation forces in Iraq find or kill Saddam, what will they do when the resistance continues?

    (Clue: reading the press transcripts of interviews with ordinary Iraqis, a lot of people there have been afraid that if the US withdrew, the old regime would reappear. Without that fear, I predict that resistance will continue -- less ba'athist, more nationalist. And there won't be a head to lop off this particular hydra.)

    I'm now going to make an effort to try to talk about happy fun things instead of things that make me want to chew the door frame and bay at the moon. Like, being on Scottish TV last week, or measuring how much weight the cats have lost lately (they're on a diet). I'm going to be spending a long weekend in London, starting tomorrow. And I think I'm going to take most of August off work, because I'm still feeling a bit burned out and after the past two years I figure I deserve it. (That's the problem with being self-employed and working from home -- you end up working seven days a week and never taking any vacations, because there's no boss around to keep reminding you that you ought to work harder.)

    [ Discuss working too hard ]



    posted at: 10:37 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 22 Jul 2003

    Update: the T-word

    I thought I was risking hyperbole in the blog entry below in alleging that the evidence against the Camp X-Ray detainees was either hearsay or extracted under duress. Turns out that an MI5 agent has confirmed my worst fears in front of a panel of judges sitting on a special immigration hearing: MI5 considers statements extracted under torture to be useful as evidence.

    This isn't directly speaking about the Camp X-Ray cases, but it says something about how far the standards of evidence have slipped within the security services. (Hint: if you're wondering why I'm so worked up, try to imagine how long you would hold out under torture before saying anything at all to make your captors stop.) Can we trust anything these people say any more?

    [ Link ][ Discuss Camp X-Ray trials ]



    posted at: 12:32 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 21 Jul 2003

    A national disgrace

    Moazzem Begg and Feroz Abbasi are two British citizens. They're being held in Camp X-Ray at Guantanemo Bay. They were listed as being among the inmates to be tried before a military tribunal (without benefit of an independent defense lawyer, under extreme pressure to enter a 'guilty' plea or face an unfairly-imposed death penalty with no appeal possible).

    Within the UK this treatment is seen as grossly unfair; it prompted newspaper editorials, and more than 200 MPs -- of all parties -- signed a motion calling on the government to do something about what was widely seen as an appalling miscarriage of justice waiting to happen.

    Now we're getting to see exactly what "do something" means, when Tony Blair is nudged unwillingly into asking his pal George for a favour. And for once it reflects much worse on Blair than on Bush, who after all is only doing what he's always done:

    Speaking to Sky television during his trip to the far east, Mr Blair hinted that President Bush had handed him intelligence warning of the dangers of returning the men to Britain, where they would almost certainly be set free.

    "We have got to look at a whole range of considerations, not least our own national security," he said.

    His remarks show he has been persuaded by US concern that Mr Begg and Mr Abbasi would be free to return to Pakistan if they were repatriated because legal experts do not believe they could be charged with any offence in Britain.

    In his first public comment about the men since a White House dinner with Mr Bush on Thursday, Mr Blair indicated that he now supported a military trial as he called on people to give the US credit for the tribunal. "Any military commission that [the Americans] have is subject to rules that I think would be regarded as reasonably strict by anyone."

    But he said the Americans would have to go some way to observing legal norms. "Obviously if we have our own nationals tried in that way we would want to make sure that every single aspect of this was consistent with the proper rules."

    Britain has expressed "strong reservations" about the trial, which would be conducted by a military judge and prosecution. The men would be entitled to appoint their own defence team but the lawyers would have to pass a strict vetting procedure, for which the lawyers themselves would have to pay.

    The prosecution would be able to present as evidence testimony gained under duress and unsworn statements, and the tribunal has the power to impose the death penalty.

    Mr Blair's remarks indicate that President Bush has agreed to loosen the rules, but a normal criminal trial on the mainland, along the lines of the trial of the Californian supporter of the Taliban, John Walker Lindh, has been ruled out.

    Okay, let's get this straight.

    • There is not enough evidence to convict these men of anything in a British court.
    • Evidence against them is of the level of hearsay, confessions given under duress (read: torture), unsworn statements, and assertions made by intelligence agencies (see also "Uranium, Nigeria").
    • In the case of one of the accused, he's a thirty-something teacher with four children who claims he was in rural Afghanistan helping set up a school; there's evidence that his arrest was a case of mistaken identity.

    Yet despite all these non-trivial objections, Blair's main response after raising the matter with the Bush administration is to run up the white flag, roll over, and say "okay, military tribunals good, lock 'em up and throw away the keys." He seems to be making the calculation that the main energizing force behind UK objections to the tribunal hearings is the application of the death penalty, and that if he can get the US military to apply an alternative the objections will go away -- even if it means sentencing men to life in a hell-hole prison without benefit of a fair trial, appeals process, and without sufficient evidence to secure a conviction in court.

    Something stinks.

    And the source of the smell is the fact that Blair's cited reasons for not demanding a civil trial for them don't hold water.

    According to the Guardian (and supported by this report in the Daily Telegraph), Blair cited two reasons. Firstly, that if they were returned to the UK for trial there would be a risk to national security, and secondly that there wouldn't be enough evidence to convict them and, if found not guilty, they might return to Afghanistan.

    This beggars the imagination. To deal with the objections in reverse order: their return to Afghanistan is not a threat. There's a new government there. Assuming they are members of Al-Qaida, they're basically low-level grunts. Al-Qaida have low-level grunts coming out of their ears already, all over the Pakistani western provinces: two more aren't going to win the war on terrorism for the bad guys. If they return to Afghanistan they probably aren't going to do anything except get themselves shot by the US military or the Afghan army being bolted together by the Karzai government. Unless they're officers, or specialists in areas such as bomb-making or assassination, their release won't make any significant difference.

    But there's another, far more important issue at stake here. Why does Blair insist that British national security is at stake? That's a fascinatingly ambiguous statement to make ...

    The UK has just survived a thirty-year long terrorist insurgency. We have far more experience of running a court system under seige, with guerillas blowing things up and threatening to shoot witnesses and members of the jury, than the US authorities can probably imagine. There can't be any reason to believe that these terrible, terrible men (including a hardened schoolteacher) are going to acquire guns and bombs as if by magic and fight their way out of the courtroom. So what's the story? Is Blair afraid of attracting reprisals from Al Qaida? If so, he seems to have forgotten that, as he was telling us repeatedly last summer, the UK is already near the top of the target list. That doesn't hold water.

    About the only way I can read this bizarre statement from the prime minister is that in a trial, evidence submitted by the security services would be exposed to public scrutiny and found to be deficient. In other words: the evidence against them was gathered from the same sort of intelligence sources that gave us uraniumgate and the death of Doctor Kelly by way of fallout, the government is afraid that this would come out in court, and consequently the accused will not be allowed their day in court because the proceedings might embarrass Tony Blair.

    The scandal over Iraqi weapons intelligence is already threatening to destabilize the British government. A single tragic death emerging from the mess was enough to monopolize the press over the weekend and visibly rattle the Prime Minister. I suspect that the Guantanemo prisoners may be the key to an even bigger scandal with the potential to bring down the current leadership.

    [ Link (Guardian) ] [ Another Link (Telegraph) ] [ Discuss Camp X-ray trials ]



    posted at: 10:35 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 18 Jul 2003

    Written out

    I guess I should have seen this coming.

    The weather's broken but I'm still feeling totally unlike working. Got a novella to re-write but trying to get to grips with it is like re-heating last night's left over takeaway: unappetizing and greasy. Also got a different novella to collaborate on, but it's really hard to generate enthusiasm. As for the original story I'm trying to write, don't get me started. For about the first time in two years I am feeling written out -- spectacularly so. The only thing holding me at the keyboard is residual guilt in the face of the load of work that is ever so slowly piling up as a backlog.

    Luckily, nothing (except the collaboration, and I've got someone else to keep prodding me over that) is urgent. I should be able to take a week -- even a month -- off without problems, as long as I get down to work again afterwards. But the fear, what if I can't re-start when I come back to it, keeps nagging at me, keeping me sitting in front of the keyboard for an unproductive day of worrying when I ought to be relaxing, taking some time off to get my shit together. I have a secret curse: the ancient Jewish work ethic rides me like a goddamn vampire, sucking the pleasure out of lazing around.

    Be it resolved: tomorrow I am going to go out and enjoy myself and go to a party in the evening and not write a word. Life's too short for self-inflicted guilt trips, and worrying that I won't be able to edit my way through the second draft of a novella if I take a week off once in a blue moon is, let's face it, bloody stupid.

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 21:57 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 16 Jul 2003

    The heat, the heat

    Gosh, it must be almost 25 degrees outside. Far too hot to write! Or do much of anything except lie in the shade, panting. I moved to Scotland because the English summers were too hot for me -- maybe I'm going to have to try Antarctica next.

    (Meanwhile the work is mounting up, with edits to a big fat novella and a novel, translator's questions on another novel, two collaborations to write and a story that wants out, if only the weather would bloody cool down enough that I could think. Which brings me to that quintessentially British discussion forum ...)

    [ Discuss The Weather ]



    posted at: 19:11 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 13 Jul 2003

    Some Words from our Sponsors

    "But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship ... That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    -- Nazi Reichsmarshall Herman Goering

    "We have nothing to fear but fear itself"

    -- Franklin D. Roosevelt

    Seems to me that it's way past time we tried to identify who is trying to make us afraid -- and how they stand to benefit.

    [ Discuss Fear ]



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

    Fri, 11 Jul 2003

    In print

    Got home half an hour ago to be welcomed by a fat envelope containing three hardcover copies of Singularity Sky. This is the culmination of endless hours (days, weeks, months ...) of work, a project I started in 1996 and which at times looked as if it would never get anywhere. My first novel, in hardcover, from a major publisher. Never mind the serialisation of another novel in a relatively obscure magazine, or the poorly produced short story collection from a small publishing house: this is the real thing. Wow.

    I suppose at this point I ought to come out with some kind of platitude about it making the effort seem worthwhile, but I can't do that. The appearance of a book is mundane in the extreme ... what makes it feel so odd is the memories attached to the process of writing it and the work that came after along the weary road to getting it into print.

    (As an aside for those of you who've ordered copies: they've been printed -- these aren't proofs, they're final copies -- and they were posted to me about two weeks ago, which means your own orders are almost certainly already in the pipeline.)

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 21:07 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 09 Jul 2003

    Peripatetic blogger

    Off for a couple of days (going to a meeting related to my other occupational hat, as a freelance computer journalist). Won't be blogging on the move -- I really need to install Movable Type and a moblogging system, but this server's a bit overloaded already and first I need to get a more powerful system, which costs money, and therefore isn't a spur-of-the-moment event.



    posted at: 11:20 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 07 Jul 2003

    It's that time of year again ...

    When I wake up and say, "if this is Tuesday, I've got to install and review the latest release of Red Hat". Happy Joy.

    I write a monthly magazine column about Linux and free software in general. I can't get away without doing these reviews at least once every eighteen months. And it's fascinating to see just how the field has evolved. I currently use Mac OS/X as my desktop environment on this here TiBook, but my CoLo server is on Linux, my text processing tool of choice is Vim, and there's a lot of commonality under the hood.

    Quick impressions: very slick. The latest SuSE and Red Hat distros are easier to install than any Windows version I've seen, and no harder than Mac OS/X 10.2 (Jaguar). When you get to the turn-it-on experience you're confronted -- assuming you have reasonably standard hardware -- with something that looks not unlike Windows XP, albeit with a shitload of applications that don't all work quite the same cluttering up the iconic button that both KDE and GNOME seem to think we need in order to better ape the Windows "Start" experience. And the stuff just works. I could quite happily install SuSE 8.2 or Red Hat 9.0 on a laptop and, modulo full hardware support (don't get me started on IrDA or Bluetooth!) I'd never need to install anything more -- beyond a couple of Perl modules I need for my eccentric writing toolchain.

    Bluntly, it's just not exciting any more. The revolution's over, Linux is the fastest growing OS environment, and barring any truly spectacular cock-ups -- which at this stage would have to be inflicted via corrupt legislative back-channels involving the WTO or WIPO treaty frameworks -- there is now a de facto free alternative to the Beast of Redmond.

    It's good enough that if I didn't already have this really cute six month old Mac kit sitting to hand I'd be thinking about buying a PC laptop (say, one of the graded refurbished Toshibas that Morgan Computers are selling -- probably a Portege 4000) and wiping Win2K in order to install SuSE 8.2, on grounds of ease of use and general flexibility.

    So why am I bored?

    A big chunk of the reason I got into computer journalism in the first place was because I'm hooked on the shock of the new. That -- and the money, of course -- sucked me in. Computing was the fast, cheap, and out of control field of the 1980's and 1990's. Now it's gone corporate and stable, double percentile compound growth replaced by linear projections. The end is in sight for Moore's Law, and even if quantum processors show up it's hard to see how they can possibly have the revolutionary impact that the first PCs had.

    Then there's the question of what have we done with these engines? It looked for an exciting couple of years as if the internet was going to eat the political infrastructure of the west. Instead it's been coopted into the new television, policed by net nannies and propagated by media corporations. Far from raising the consciousness of the masses, the masses dumbed down the consciousness of the net. The big dumb, that's what we've created. An industry that trucks out bits of plastic and metal with built-in obsolescence raised to a level far beyond anything the 50's auto industry could imagine. Software produced by corporations to line their pockets at the expense of consumers, promising that each upgrade will bring relief from the copious bugs inflicted by the last. Spam, spam, more spam, and viruses.

    Feh. I need a new hobby.

    (On Wednesday I have to head off to Shopperlabs for an annual get-together. Guess I'll see if there's anything new to whet my appetite with there. But I'm not optimistic. The barriers to entry in the field have risen high enough that they're nearly insurmountable to the fascinating eccentrics who made the industry what it is -- and by the same token, an industry dominated by suits with powerpoint presentations is unlikely to produce anything interesting.)

    [ Discuss Free Software ]



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

    Sat, 05 Jul 2003

    Transmitting from over the edge ...

    I'm back from Amsterdam, and somewhat refreshed. So what do I do next but check out the truth about Black Helicopters website?

    weird shit "Black Helicopters (BH) are not just helicopters with a black paint-job as you may have been told. They are, in fact, autonomous agents -- lifeforms -- created by New World Order agencies via nanobiotechnology. Their purpose is to spy on the activities of Americans in order to gather tactical information and discover "subversives" who are not bowing to the will of the Liberati's UN-backed Federal Government. Furthermore, when the NWO Invasion takes place in the not-to-distant future, they will round-up citizens for internment in concentration camps or carry out the elimination of the more vocally anti-Liberati ..."

    (I'd be more inclined to believe this if it was a bit less lucid.)

    Meanwhile, if you were wondering where the woman with the glass legs (down the page) came in, it turns out to be a still from part 3 of the Cremaster Cycle of short, very very weird art films by Matthew Barney, which seem (I haven't seen them yet) to be like unto the weirder works of Peter Greenaway (fan site -- PG has no web site of his own). Her name's Aimee Mullins, she's a model and paralympics record holder, and she doesn't seem to have a web site either. (Thanks to Allan H. for the tip-off.)

    Finally, for a while now I've been drooling after various Tumi bags, but been put off by the price (best described as Extreme Luggage for the fiscally over-endowed). It turns out that, while the luggage shop in Schiphol Airport's shopping mall charges the usual insane prices (EUR 850 for a roller-equipped mobile office isn't their most expensive model), the luggage shop in the departure area -- once you clear immigration and baggage check -- sells the same stuff at close to a 50% discount. Which is how I ended up with a 20'' wheeled backback without selling my left kidney to pay the deposit on the mortgage on my soul.

    [ Link ] [ Another link ] [ A Link to unfeasibly expensive luggage ]



    posted at: 00:41 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 28 Jun 2003

    Blogging hiatus ...

    charlie and karen signing the wedding registry Spot the wedding photograph.

    I hereby give notice that blogging is suspended for the next week because both Feorag and I are going to be in Amsterdam behaving pretty much like any other couple whose ten-year try-before-you-buy shareware licence just expired. I won't be reading email, either, except on the special super-secret palmtop account that doesn't get published because it currently receives at 9600 baud via an international mobile phone call forwarded via my secret super-villain headquarters in the Bahamas. This means, funnily enough, that I won't be working myself up into fits of righteous indignnation over anything I read on the web, so even if I had a moblogging system I wouldn't have much to say. Besides, something tells me we're going to be otherwise preoccupied for a while.

    Thanks to everyone who came to the wedding, and I hope you enjoyed yourselves as much as we did.

    [ Discuss wedding ]



    posted at: 17:40 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 26 Jun 2003

    Ten reasons why I do not read HTML email

    1. When you sent me email, you are requesting access to my eyeballs. Access is granted only on my terms. I choose to read my mail in monospaced 10-point text in a terminal window. I don't care if you want to use blinking underlined boldface or WingDings, it will be read in monospaced 10-point text in a terminal window or not at all.
    2. HTML is not an RFC standard for email text. (Go here if you don't know what an RFC is.)
    3. HTML allows you to embed links, and inline images stored on a web server. I often receive and process my email offline. I do not want to open your missive on my Palm Pilot and have to wait ten years while it goes online via my cellular phone and downloads your precious letterhead or stupid snapshot at 9600 baud.
    4. Images can be sized to one pixel by one pixel, and made transparent. IMG SRC tags can point to server-side programs that log the client that sent a request for the one-by-one invisible image. The IMG SRC request can carry data such as the email address to which the mail was sent. This confirms that the email has been received. This is known as a web-bug, and it is a favourite technique of spammers for verifying that an email account is valid and there's someone there to receive their spam. I don't like spam, thank you very much.
    5. Javascript (or rather, ECMAScript) is untrusted third-party code that can be executed on my computer if I read your HTML email. Sorry, but I don't run untrusted code -- and that includes scripts of unknown origin arriving in my mailbox.
    6. HTML email is bloated -- typically to at least double the size of the plain text. (And that's without images or script content.) Repeat after me: "consuming someone else's bandwidth without their prior content is wrong." Especially if you don't know whether I'm going to read your missive using a cable modem or a cellphone making an international dialup call at 9600 baud.
    7. Through force of habit I use an email client called Mutt. Mutt is an extremely powerful non-graphical UNIX-based tool that runs in a terminal window. Mutt is small and fast, in large part because Mutt is not a web browser. I am not going to switch to reading my email in a web browser just to stroke your ego.
    8. SpamAssassin, the discerning netizen's spam trapping tool of choice, thinks that HTML email with no plain text accompaniment is spam. That's a good heuristic -- almost all spam email is HTML-only. I do not read spam.
    9. Long experience shows that those mail clients most vulnerable to worms, viruses, and other stupid infections invariably default to using HTML instead of plain text. There's a reason for this (see #5 above). By using an email client that doesn't process HTML, you can drastically cut the risk of picking up a nasty infection.
    10. Long experience shows that people who persistently send HTML email are often not aware that they are doing so. This is symptomatic of a marked lack of situational awareness -- they haven't bothered to find out just what the internet is, what the conventions surrounding its use are, and how to configure the tools they are using. Merely pleading ignorance is no defense -- did you expect to get behind the wheel of a car and drive it without learning what the controls do and what the rules of the road are? In general, I have found that people who persistently send HTML email rarely have anything of interest to say. It indicates a preoccupation with style over substance, ignorance over experience -- which is why it goes straight in the trash.

    (And no, I'm not going to tell you who just rattled my cage. Let's just say I'm scratchy right now and leave it at that, okay?)



    posted at: 22:29 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 25 Jun 2003

    Woolgathering day

    amputee wedding fashion shot I was up until 3:30am last night, being interviewed by Gardner Dozois and cracking bad puns, so I'm slightly incoherent today. At left is something I stumbled across on Warren Ellis's blog, which in turn he scraped off Reverse Cowgirl. As amputee wedding fashion shots are thin on the ground and I get mean when I'm the only person in the house who's feeling disturbed I figured I'd share it with you.

    Meanwhile, I've been grovelling around on the floor, disturbing five-year-old dustbunnies and unwiring my study. The score so far: three repo'd mains extension blocks with a total of 14 sockets, about ten metres of obsolete thin ethernet cable, various strange odds and ends, and an insanely rare soap-on-a-rope connection cable with Macintosh serial plug for the no-longer-made Psion Series 3a palmtop.

    In between fretting I've been reading "Tank", by Patrick Wright -- a social history of the main battle tank -- and was somewhat perturbed to discover that Major General J. F. C. Fuller (tactical genius of the Tank Corps during the First World War, inventor of blitzkrieg, and sometime member of the British Union of Fascists) was also an acolyte of Aleister Crowley before the war, an initiate of the Argentum Astrum, and left behind in his papers the incomplete manuscript of a novel titled "The Hidden Wisdom of the Illuminati".

    If you put this sort of thing in a novel nobody would believe you ...



    posted at: 16:18 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 24 Jun 2003

    Meet the author

    Just a quick reminder that Asimov's SF magazine, in conjunction with SciFi.com are hosting an online chat session with me tonight at 9pm EST (that's two in the bleeding morning here in Scotland, and 5pm in California). Follow the white rabbit ...

    [ Link ]



    posted at: 23:03 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 23 Jun 2003

    Blogging hiatus

    We interrupt this silence to notify you that blogging will be intermittent to patchy (at best) for the next two to three weeks. Reason: I'm getting married, then going on vacation for a while, and when I get home I'll probably have a work backlog to catch up with.

    [ Discuss ]



    posted at: 13:27 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 20 Jun 2003

    Slashdot

    Looks like Ken MacLeod, general secretary of the Scottish Socialist Science Fiction Vanguard Party, has just been slashdotted. Way to go, Ken!

    (Oh yeah: the suspected splittists at the Cell meeting last week are in fact doctrinaire party members, suspicious hirsute tendencies or no.)



    posted at: 18:57 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Blowback

    Labour MP George Galloway was a ferocious opponent of the invasion of Iraq. Then the Christian Science Monitor's journalist in Baghdad turned up papers that appeared to show he'd been receiving big cheques from the Ba'ath party. (Original report here.) "Inconceivable," I said, mostly because of the figures involved, and the way the documents were uncovered -- and it turns out that I'm right. According to today's Guardian:

    The Monitor said an initial investigation of the documents it received from a man who identified himself as General Salah Abdel Rasool seemed to confirm their authenticity.

    But subsequent ink tests showed that the two documents carrying the oldest dates - 1992 and 1993 - "were actually written within the past few months".

    The Monitor said the "newest document - dated 2003 - appears to have been written at approximately the same time."

    (Note: the Telegraph had a different bunch of documents linking Galloway to the Ba'ath party -- but I am inclined to question the veracity of any documents alleging an illegal financial arrangement between Galloway and the Ba'ath regime at this point. We've got clear evidence that one of the two sets of documents was forged -- and the other seems to relate to funding of the Mariam Appeal (according to The Telegraph, although they go out of their way to obfuscate the issue) rather than Galloway himself.)

    Now. One wonders who might have planted forged documents incriminating a western critic of the invasion? (Who, it should be noted, has been suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party and is facing an investigation because of these allegations.) My money is on the CIA or another US intelligence agency -- staffed by people who wouldn't be close enough to UK politics to realise that MPs are on a salary of around US $70,000 a year, that members external interests are subject to public scrutiny, and that accepting even an envelope stuffed with twenty pound notes, much less cheques for $3 million, is ever so slightly difficult.

    The rather shady General Salah Abdel Rasool seems to have made some money by passing over the documents, but not very much (an $800 payment for "translation services" to a neighbour). Especially when the overheads of preparing at least three boxes of forged files are taken into account. If I was of a paranoid disposition I'd say someone in military intelligence cut a deal with the General -- to inject these documents into circulation in the west via the press, in return for payment.

    It will be interesting to see which of the warbloggers who gloated over these allegations eat their words. Or even mention the CSM's retraction.

    [ Link (Guardian) ][ Link (Christian Science Monitor) ]



    posted at: 13:09 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 19 Jun 2003

    Things to do on a rainy Thursday

    I've been feeling more than a little run down, of late, so I spent a chunk of this morning taking stock. (This included taking my sorry excuse for a body to the doctor, whereupon I find myself scheduled for a battery of invasive and somewhat annoying tests which will, I hope, determine whether or not I am suffering from diverticulosis.) More seriously, I did a sanity check on my workload. I was planning on finishing the first draft of the next novel before Torcon, at the end of August. Think again: if I was to do that, my sustained productive word rate would add up to two novels every five months (with a side order of a mere 20,000 words of journalism and the same again of short fiction on top).

    This is not smart. This is not clever.

    Especially not smart and not clever is the fact that despite this work-yourself-into-an-early-grave schedule I can make myself feel guilty about not working hard enough. I can work up a head of angsty steam by taking a day off that leaves me feeling more tired than I was before the break. I end up sitting in front of the computer feeling exhausted and despondent and uncreative and trying to write anyway, but only dribs and drabs flow because I'm spending most of my time checking to see if any email has come in or pootling around various websites. In fact, when I'm tired and should really be taking time off, I actually find myself spending more hours infront of the computer than when I'm feeling productive.

    So. After I finish this blog entry I am going to load a bunch of stuff onto my palm pilot -- in case inspiration strikes (because I'm almost certain that it won't, ergo, if unprepared, it will) -- and then kick back for a few days. Or weeks. Work, writing, will happen when it's good and ready. I don't need to write another novel right now just to prove to myself that I can do it. I am not guilty of slacking. I don't have to pace my work like I'm back in a dot-com seething with growth running at thirty percent per month. Life's too fucking short (as a friend of mine demonstrated by dying last night) and I really ought to focus on enjoying it a bit more while I've still got it.

    Anyone want to buy one overachieving guilt complex, slightly used?

    [ Discuss working too hard ]



    posted at: 15:05 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 18 Jun 2003

    Empire coming down

    Some other snippets from The Guardian today. First, a background piece by Luke Harding in Khost, Afghanistan. It turns out that the Taliban are still around, and US heavy-handedness is a helping rebuild their support:

    UN officials have watched the behaviour of the US forces in Afghanistan with increasing dismay, and say that it is frequently reckless. "This doesn't help us at all," one said. "The people are basically pro-America. They want US forces to be here. But American soldiers are not very culturally sensitive. It's hardly surprising that Afghans get angry when the Americans turn up and kick their doors in."

    Bacha Khan said: "The Taliban are getting stronger and stronger. This is because US troops are misbehaving. I want my bodyguard's killer brought to justice. I'd also like my son back."

    Meanwhile the same heavy handedness is winning friends and influencing people in Baghdad. US Administrator Paul Bremer dissolved the Iraqi military, security forces, and information ministry last month. Which is all very well, but in a country of 24 million people it rendered 400,000 men -- most of them heavily armed -- unemployed and without a source of income. Some of them began demonstrating yesterday because they'd lost their jobs, and things got very heated. They heated up some more when US soldiers shot and killed two Iraqis (according to AP -- a US army spokesman told CNN that two Iraqis were slightly injured but nobody was killed). Whatever the truth, making people unemployed then shooting at them when they demonstrate is really going to send the right message: "we're your friends, we're here to help you, now GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES AND SPREAD 'EM ..."

    Meanwhile a sniper shot and killed a US soldier on patrol in Baghdad. And there are reports of car bombs and land mines going off overnight. I don't have a precise figure in front of me but that's -- what? -- forty US troops killed in Iraq since Dubya declared the war was over? And what looks like a large-scale resistance movement getting off the ground, fuelled by the resentment of ordinary men who've been shat on by the heavy-handed occupation?

    Oh, and Salam Pax has some interesting news from the university, about how Hawza, the shi'ite religious party, is working on building support down at ground level. Watch this stuff -- what happens on campuses today determines the shape of society a generation down the line.

    I wonder if the US administration realises just how familiar this behaviour all looks to anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the history of anti-Nazi resistance movements in occupied Europe sixty years ago. (But I forgot: they can't lose because they're the good guys. And they know they're the good guys because the President told them so.)



    posted at: 12:23 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Dust settling, museums

    Today's Guardian contains a summary of what happened to Baghdad's museums by Eleanor Robson, council member of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq and a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. It makes for grim reading. Far from a mere 33 pieces being destroyed, very serious damage has been inflicted that will take years to even begin to repair.

    The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs lost 600-700 manuscripts in a malicious fire and more than 1,000 were stolen. The House of Wisdom and the Iraqi Academy of Sciences were also looted. The National Library was burned to the ground and most of its 12 million books are assumed to have been incinerated. In the galleries of Mosul Museum, cuneiform tablets were stolen and smashed. The ancient cities of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra lost major sculpture to looting. The situation is far worse in the south. Some 15-20 large archaeological sites, mostly ancient Sumerian cities, were comprehensively pillaged by armed gangs.

    The destruction isn't as complete as originally reported, but it's worth considering what a disaster of this magnitude in, say, the UK would entail. Imagine London bombed. The V&A trashed, the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels looted, the British Library complex on Euston Road burned (along with all those annoying old bits of paper like the original draft of Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, and so on), the Natural History Museum used as a defensive fortification and shelled. (Goodbye, Apollo 10.) Discovering afterwards that, say, only 33 of the primary exhibits on one floor of one of the museums were lost because the rest had been moved to secure storage wouldn't exactly be anything to crow about ... and triumphalist assertions that this indicated there was nothing to worry about would be treated with the contempt they'd deserve, because the Brits are honourable westerners and not Persons of Heads of Rag.

    (Yes, I'm angry about the endemic anti-Arab racism that this whole sorry business has dragged front-and-centre in the west's media. This region was the cradle of human civilization and dismissing it simply because of the behaviour of the most recent government on the scene deserves the odium due to the wilfully ignorant, for whom we usually reserve the appellation "barbarians".)

    [ Link ]



    posted at: 12:06 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 15 Jun 2003

    A brief explanation of tomorrow's news

    The Whiskey Bar brings you this week a fun analysis of next year's makes-1929-look-like-a-storm-in-a-teacup economic collapse. Indispensible reading, and a lot less tinfoil-hat oriented than some of the other accounts of what the United States' collapsing current account balance means.

    And no, there's no schadenfreude here. As I earn more than half my income in US dollars I would really, really hate to see the dollar devalued, or runaway stagflation, or any of the other likely consequences when the shit hits the fan.

    Incidentally, Billmon didn't mention the other fiscal stimulus that great powers have traditionally used to dig their way out of this kind of hole: starting a world war.

    [ Link ]



    posted at: 18:17 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 14 Jun 2003

    Take this century back; it's broken

    I have a recurrent feeling these days, that I'm living in the wrong trouser-leg of time. Somehow history has taken a wrong turning, and instead of cruising along the infosuperhighway of the future, in radiant sunlight with the roof down and music blaring, we're rolling out of control, bumping down a rutted dirt track towards a dead end, clouds gathering overhead and a demented neoconservative Tourette's case yammering on the radio.

    ('Scuse me while I untangle the metaphor.)

    Look, my personal life is fine. I've always wanted to be a full-time SF writer (don't ask why, if I wanted to know I'd pay a shrink), and I live in a mostly-beautiful city (if you can ignore the neds and the eldritch wee bampots in black anoraks with rolling hairy eyeballs who slobber at you on street corners), with a soul-mate who's only slightly less sane than I am, and we're doing okay. But the rest of the world, from what I read about it in the papers, seems to be on a protracted bad trip. And it's getting me down, in the way that only close proximity to the truly bummed-out can achieve.

    Reasons this century is broken:

    • A smirking chimp sticks one finger up at the public and says "you don't count", as he walks away with a constitutional coup and the keys to the last remaining superpower in his pocket.
    • A camera looking up at bright sky and tall buildings, as an airliner streaks in from one corner of the frame.
    • Cops clubbing journalists trying to monitor demonstrations against the Owners. We've been bought and sold like cattle and most people don't even realise there's a price tag stapled to their ear.
    • Oligopolists make a power grab while the watch geese sleep uneasily, their gizzards stuffed with stolen corn.
    • Space shuttle breaking up, magnesium-bright shards peeling away from the re-entry trail.

    Can I have the real twenty-first century back now, please? I don't want this one; it stinks and bits keep falling off it.



    posted at: 21:58 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Fred not Ted

    That's Fred Brooks, not Ted Brooks. (Hangs head in shame.)



    posted at: 21:35 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 13 Jun 2003

    Scribble, scribble ...

    I am informed, via my agent, that my editor at Ace likes "The Iron Sunrise" enough that the cheque is in the post. And if all goes well, it should emerge in hardcover from Ace in July or August 2004, around the time that "Singularity Sky" (to which it is the sequel) hits the shelves in paperback.

    It's the first sequel I've sold, the first time I've completed on a multi-book contract, and the first time I've sold more than one book to the same editor. If this goes on I could even get to make a habit of it ...

    I'd like to add, lest this sound overly self-congratulatory, that I was extremely worried about this book to the point where, at one stage, I asked if I could have a couple of months extension on the deadline -- I didn't need it, as things turned out, and handed it in two weeks ahead of the due date, but it's a sign of how uncertain I was that I'd gotten it right. Part of my problem was that I wrote the first half of it in 1998 ... and when I picked it up again in 2002, that material was simply not up to scratch. Another part was that I had to lever open the world I'd invented for the first novel and make it bigger and more interestingly intricate, without contradicting myself. And the third part? I've discovered a horrible truth: writing novels is so similar (as a subjective experience, for me) to writing software that I tend to suffer from Second System Effect.

    Second System Effect is a term coined by Ted Brooks of IBM back in the 1960's to explain why even-numbered versions of software universally suck. Ted was project lead on OS/360, IBM's first interactive timesharing mainframe operating system. The first release worked, did the job, and was generally cool (for its day). But the second release went off the rails. It came out overdue, bloated, bug-ridden, slow, and prone to all sorts of disastrous hiccups. Brooks analysed the failures of the project in his book, "The Mythical Man-Month", which I would quote at length here except that some kind soul has borrowed my copy and not returned it. His point isn't that hard to summarize, though. Bluntly: if you succeed at a large project, and undertake a sequel, the temptation is to load it with all the bells, whistles and curlicues that you didn't dare integrate into the first implementation because you weren't sure you could make it work. Second systems are typified by huge lists of new features, vague requirements for extra functionality that have complex implications that nobody understands until it's too late, and are often approached with a dangerous degree of complacency ("we've done this before so it much be easy").

    Yes, "The Iron Sunrise" is a more complex and ambitious novel than "Singularity Sky". But it's still less complex than the gnarly nightmare I blithely set out to write! And I was halfway through writing it before the sirens and alarm bells began going off around me. It's a lesson I'm going to take a long time to forget -- less is more. (Especially as I'm back writing a sequel to yet another novel, for the rest of the year.)



    posted at: 23:13 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 12 Jun 2003

    Good news for the Empire

    ... But not so good for the rest of us. For starters, David Teather, writing in The Guardian, provides more details of the plans for an execution chamber at Guantanamo Bay. (This is an original report, not a reprint, and tends to undermine some protestations from elsewhere in the blogosphere that it's alarmist rumour.) Meanwhile, in Zagreb the US government is threatening to withhold aid from countries that don't exempt US troops from the International Criminal Court. (Why? Are they planning to commit war crimes?) There's been an almost complete media black-out of the police human rights abuses in Lausanne at the recent G8 summit, sugggesting the censorship machine is getting more sophisticated:

    we were teargassed about 20 times in 2 hours. They started directing the canisters straight at people, firstly at their legs, then their stomachs, and then at people's heads. I saw several people directly hit in the stomach. As medics, we had only quite basic kit, but I saw a woman with a serious burn on her leg from a canister, so I went to sort out her injury. Four police came and baton charged me, and started beating me. She and a friend escaped in one direction, I, in another, with the police giving chase. I was clearly marked as a medic. We saw several medics, and two of the legal support lawyers being specifically targeted. A little later, I came across a man lying unconscious on the street. It was unclear whether he was even breathing. I tried to go to at least assess his condition, but the police wouldn't let me near him, or find out his name.

    Meanwhile, a friend from New Zealand informs me:

    The New Statesman (9 June 2003, p. 12) has a piece by Joel Bennathan talking about the new extradition treaty between the US and Britain. There is no longer a requirement for the government seeking extradition to produce evidence for scrutiny in the host country's courts.
    As far as I can tell, this means UK residents can be arrested and shipped off based on *US* standards of evidence - which have been laughable in some cases recently.

    (I need to find some substantiation for this last one.)

    Sounds like the Empire is coming together nicely. And lest you think I'm ranting and raving a bit, you might want to bear in mind that it has only been 21 months since September 11th, 2001. In that time we've seen two goddamn wars, a global wave of authoritarian repression, blatant attempts to gerrymander the electoral system in the USA by means of electronic voting machines, and the installation of what is beginning to look to me like the infrastructure for a planetary-level police state.

    Yes, it bloody could happen here. And while I sincerely hope I'm jumping at shadows, there seem to be an awful lot of them closing in these days.



    posted at: 14:37 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Do not ...

    ... Look at this while you are drunk, sober, or otherwise alive and liable to suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder afterwards. Vodka recommended -- strongly. (Warning: Flash required. So all you Linux purists are safe.)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss ]



    posted at: 00:23 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 10 Jun 2003

    Workplace safety

    really stupid fork lift truck trick

    The US Navy doesn't just stage PR opportunities for Dubya and bomb the crap out of third world civilians; they also have time to do some socially useful stuff like run this jaw-dropping website devoted to workplace safety ...

    Question of the day around the plant ... What do you do when your forklift won't go high enough? Well, the answer is simple enough ... you get another forklift, that's what.

    Unfortunately, I don't think these guys quite understood the answer. Perhaps someone should have explained that "get another forklift" means find a forklift that will go high enough, not get two forklifts.

    The mind, she boggles.

    [ Link ][ Discuss dumb ]



    posted at: 20:05 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 09 Jun 2003

    I'm glad I don't live in this guy's universe

    Worldwide, as a Frankenstein slave, usually at night, you go to nearby hospital or camouflaged miniature hospital van trucks, you strip naked, lay on the operating table, which slides into the sealed Computer God robot operating cabinet. Intravenous tubes are connected. The slimy vicious Jew doctor simply pushes the starting button, based upon your Computer God brain on the moon which records progress of your systematic butchery. Your butchery is continued exactly, systematically. The Computer God operating cabinet has many robot arms with electrical and laser beam knife robot arms with fly eye TV cameras watching your whole body. Every part of you is monitored, even from your Frankenstein controls. Synthetic blood, synthetic instant-sealing flesh and skin, even synthetic electrical heartbeat to keep you alive are some of the unbelievable Computer God instant plastic surgery secrets. You are the highest, most intelligent electrical machine in the Universe.

    Mr Francis E. Dec, Equire, we salute you. Now get the hell away from me, you freak ...

    [ Link ][ Discuss kooks ]



    posted at: 21:08 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Unwirer

    Cory Doctorow and I just finished the first draft of Unwirer, our latest collaborative story (for an upcoming alternate history anthology). It's going to have to be cut a bit (it's 11,000 words; our target length is 7000 words) to fit in the space we've got, but if you go have a look here you can find the whole first draft.

    (PS: I've been unwell for the past few days, hence lack of posting.)

    [ Link ][ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 18:20 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 04 Jun 2003

    No comment

    From The Guardian:

    The US deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz - who has already undermined Tony Blair's position over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by describing them as a "bureaucratic" excuse for war - has now gone further by claiming the real motive was that Iraq is "swimming" in oil.

    The latest comments were made by Mr Wolfowitz in an address to delegates at an Asian security summit in Singapore at the weekend, and reported today by German newspapers Der Tagesspiegel and Die Welt.

    Asked why a nuclear power such as North Korea was being treated differently from Iraq, where hardly any weapons of mass destruction had been found, the deputy defence minister said: "Let's look at it simply. The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil."

    I wonder if Wolfowitz realises that he's quite possibly screwed Tony Blair -- the Bush junta's only real overseas ally -- by saying this. (Not to mention finally delivering confirmation of what most of us who supported the anti-war movement believed all along, and proof that the US administration was lying through its' teeth right from the start.) It continues:

    Amid growing calls from all parties for a public inquiry, the foreign affairs select committee announced last night it would investigate claims that the UK government misled the country over its evidence of Iraq's WMD.

    The move is a major setback for Tony Blair, who had hoped to contain any inquiry within the intelligence and security committee, which meets in secret and reports to the prime minister.

    Let's not forget: Blair -- unlike Bush -- doesn't have tenure. If he loses the support of his own party, he could be forced out of office. And as he's staked his personal credibility on the WMD story ...

    Link ][ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 19:49 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    We interrupt this shaggy-author story ...

    To bring you a link to Mother Earth, Mother Board, possibly the best piece of journalism Wired ever published, and almost certainly the longest. As Neal Stephenson summarizes it:

    In which the hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, acquainting himself with the customs and dialects of the exotic Manhole Villagers of Thailand, the U-Turn Tunnelers of the Nile Delta, the Cable Nomads of Lan tao Island, the Slack Control Wizards of Chelmsford, the Subterranean Ex-Telegraphers of Cornwall, and other previously unknown and unchronicled folk; also, biographical sketches of the two long-dead Supreme Ninja Hacker Mage Lords of global telecommunications, and other material pertaining to the business and technology of Undersea Fiber-Optic Cables, as well as an account of the laying of the longest wire on Earth, which should not be without interest to the readers of Wired.

    Indispensible reading, and fairly clearly an account of how the background research for Cryptonomicon got done.

    [ Link ] [Discuss bandwidth ]



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

    Tue, 03 Jun 2003

    Road Trip (part one)

    I promised I'd talk about what I did at the weekend, didn't I?

    Kinlochbervie is the kind of place where there are more turds on the pavement than any big city you've ever visited -- but they're sheep droppings, not dog turds. It's a hamlet in the far north-west of Scotland, about as far north as you can get without falling into the Atlantic. The landscape looks as if someone dropped about a trillion tons of granite into the sea, then fertilized it with sheep droppings for a century or two. The roads are about six centimetres wide apart from the infrequent passing places, intended to allow you to pull over while the confused Belgian RV's thunder round you in a storm of gravel. The main industries seem to be doing incomprehensible things to oil rigs, and poaching. And, god help us, it's where Stef had booked Writer's Bloc to do a weekend of fiction readings.

    (And then there was Brian May, of Queen, and the annular eclipse, and the mob with pitchforks. But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

    Writer's Bloc is an irregular happening that sort of grew like a curious tumour off the otherwise-healthy body of a long-time writer's workshop in Edinburgh. A writer's workshop is a place where men and women who are insane enough to want to actually write fiction in public go to viciously criticize each other's shortcomings and expose their sins in public, sort of like an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter for the terminally word-drunk. Merely torturing and killing trees in order to torment the public's groaning bookshelves isn't enough, and periodically we grow hairs on the palms of our hands and are tormented by the urge to rant in public. Hence Writer's Bloc, which is what happens when about six to eight of us take over a smoky pub basement for an evening of readings -- usually humorous, often with a heavy admixture of horror, and sometimes science fiction.

    Stef is a short, dark-haired guy who has something of the ferret nature about him. He grew up in the highlands and worked on a fishing boat for a while before suddenly turning into a webmaster for a major financial institution in the capital, in one of those curious right-angle career turns that authors are prone to (some would say, by way of researching their novels; as others would say, because all they really want to do is write, and paying attention to something as unimportant as sailing a fishing trawler through a north Atlantic gale with a crew of drunken psychopaths is fundamentally not very interesting).

    Anyway; we were sitting around in the Holyrood Tavern one Saturday afternoon, after having finished ripping each other's work to shreds and ritually pissing on it, when Steff piped up: "hey, guys, why don't we do a reading up in Kinlochbervie?"

    "Isn't that, like, where they burn outsiders in a huge wicker man ever summer solstice?"

    "Naah, it's grossly overstated. Mostly they burn sheep instead these days, and that's only when they get bored working on the rigs. My dad runs an art gallery up there, and he says we can get plenty of folk in for a reading. 'Sides, there's an annular solar eclipse due, isn't there? We could go up and get stoned watching the eclipse and then read the stories."

    Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time. Which is why we shoe-horned ourselves into two cars last Friday morning and set out for the highlands, in an optimistic little literary convoy.

    Kinlochbervie is about three hundred miles from Edinburgh, nestling up in the north-west corner of the isles. It's notoriously wet and windy, so we all packed waterproofs and boots, thus provoking the weather into throwing the kind of once-a-decade heat wave in which the entire Scottish highlands turn brown and curl up like a dehydrated slug or a marketing suit in the depths of the dot-com hangover. Three hundred miles might not sound too bad, but you have to remember that you run out of motorway at Aberdeen; from then on, it's cross-country across the highlands, where a major A-road has two lanes and a normal highway is about ten feet wide, plus passing places every quarter mile. And the poles. Poles every hundred yards or so, alongside the road, so the snow ploughs know where to point each December. When you're hurtling along single-track roads across precarious granite hillsides, at the mercy of oncoming German tourists in camper vans the size of Munich who don't know how to use the passing places, you don't make good time. It's about an eight hour journey, and that's pushing it.

    The Scottish highlands don't belong in the UK -- they look like they ought to be part of Scandinavia. They're mostly made of granite, but the effects of the last ice age (when they were covered by an ice sheet a kilometre deep) are still evident; the terrain looks like a crumbly Lancashire cheese that's been scraped raw by God's own cheese grater, leaving crumbs of rock tens of metres in diameter littering the landscape ...

    (to be continued)



    posted at: 16:56 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Update

    I've been away in the Highlands for a long weekend, reading fiction to bemused villagers, twisting my ankle on beaches and being eaten alive by midges. I'll have a writeup shortly.

    While I was gone, I took my Palm Pilot, loaded with wordsmith, a most excellent word processor hampered only by the pathetic state of the MacOS conversion conduit. In fact, the conduit's so crap that I wrote a front-end to their Linux command-line file converter; if you use wordsmith, you can find it here, and download the source. Like I said, it's just a quick hack that relies on a closed source (ack, spit) command line filter.

    The good news: the fact that I felt the need to hack out a conversion tool should tell you something about how useful a Palm Tungsten C plus Wordsmith and a folding keyboard can be on the move.

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 13:57 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 29 May 2003

    The ongoing crisis

    According to the Financial Times, the Bush administration has deliberately buried a Treasury report "that shows the US currently faces a future of chronic federal budget deficits totalling at least $44,200bn in current US dollars. ... The study, the most comprehensive assessment of how the US government is at risk of being overwhelmed by the "baby boom" generation's future healthcare and retirement costs, was commissioned by then-Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill. But the Bush administration chose to keep the findings out of the annual budget report for fiscal year 2004, published in February, as the White House campaigned for a tax-cut package."

    Can someone explain to me a reason why the current Republican administration in the US want to run up a budget deficit that even the US economy can't pay off? One which doesn't boil down to "an ongoing state of emergency makes it easier to justify drastic measures to maintain order at home"?

    As an aside, the argument that the invasion of Iraq was really about keeping the Euro out of the Dollar's oil business seems more and more plausible every day. Back in the 1970's not-so-good SF was anticipating wars fought over the last oil reserves in the 1980's and 1990's. I'm beginning to wonder if maybe those predictions aren't starting to come true.

    [ Discuss death camps ]



    posted at: 17:06 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 28 May 2003

    Death Camp Guantanamo

    Australia's News.com blows the lid on US government plans to add a death row and execution chamber to the detention facility Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners will be tried by military tribunals in secret, sentenced to death, and executed without right of appeal or access to civilian legal representation. (There's corroboration from the Daily Telegraph.)

    If you put this together with the provisions in the USA Patriot Act II proposal floated earlier this year, which allows the US government to revoke the citizenship of US citizens who support organizations designated as "terrorist" -- even retroactively -- the implications should be truly frightening for any US citizens critical of their government. The sketchy outline emerging here -- and it is still just an outline, there's probably still time to stop it materializing -- goes a long way towards explaining why the Bush administration was so adamant about not signing on to any international courts or conventions on human rights or war crimes.

    Looks like they've been taking lessons from their allies in Egypt, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia. As a tight-lipped Downing Street spokesman said, "the US Government is well aware of the British Government's position on the death penalty."

    [ Discuss death camps ]



    posted at: 10:59 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 27 May 2003

    Real life imitates proverb (again)

    Police marksmen shoot bull in Lancaster china shop (after it escapes from a livestock auction).

    [ Link ][ Discuss wibble ]



    posted at: 11:16 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 26 May 2003

    European Space Agency to acquire manned launcher?

    Looks like ESA might (if they want to pony up the EUR 1Bn bill) take out a contract with EADS and Starsem to start launching Soyuz vehicles from Kourou in French Guiana, with the first launches as early as 2006. "Soyuz would give us the full range of vehicles to get into orbit" -- Esa director-general Antonio Rodota (via BBC News Online). "The low-cost Soyuz can lift medium payloads into low-Earth orbit and geostationary obit. It would also give Europe a manned spaceflight option."

    [ Link ] [ Discuss space ]



    posted at: 23:16 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry

    Weird Webby Wibble, again

    I'm collecting more weird shit for the blog -- shovelling it into the furnace that is the writer's zeitgeist, I guess.

    Are you close-mouthed enough? If not, you probably need to read the NSA Security Guidelines Manual. It'll set you straight on what you should and shouldn't do if you plan to work for the US National Security Agency. It's boring enough that it's almost certainly genuine, and it sure gels with what I'm reading in James Bamford's Body of Secrets, a book I heartily commend to those of you trying to write novels about real spooks (as opposed to James Bond, who is so unlike the real thing that I half-suspect the Broccoli empire is underwritten by MI6 as a disinformation exercise).

    If this spook stuff sounds a bit paranoid, for real paranoia Damien DeBarra spins a really plausible line around the thesis that boy bands are a serious threat to society -- manufactured marketing pap intended to swamp real artists in a sea of over-hyped mediocrity and thus neutralize the serious social and critical potential of popular music. Which is, I think you'll agree, a bit off-beat but not as incredible as the revelations of Archimedes Plutonium or Doctress Neutopia.

    Proof that the apocalypse is at hand comes in the shapely skins of The Sims, a game originally developed under the monicker "Doll's House" in which you, the player, get to design your Sim's homes, dress them, tell them to go to the toilet, and generally run their lives while they yatter at each other in endearing Sim-speak and form meaningful relationships with each other's pet cats. Or alternatively dress up in fetish gear, get naked and make out, or indulge in some quiet serial killing. Yes, with the aid of various free add-ons The Sims can be just like real life! (Although I'm not sure I want to know just what male Sims do with the FemToy.)

    Finally, you too can visit the Second Congress of Atlantis Explorers in Moscow and find out what the latest state of Atlantis-ology is! "I am sure that this issue is extremely complicated and important, so one has to deal with it seriously, on a serious scientific level," as Alexander Gorodnitsky, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences said when asked if he had any hints about the location of the sunken continent. Maybe the Russian Navy could send their newest nuclear submarine to go join the hunt.

    [ Discuss wibble ]



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

    Sat, 24 May 2003

    Today's grab-bag of weird webby wibble

    Oruchuban Ebichu is a bizarre Japanese anime (cartoon) TV series about a hamster (called Ebichu) -- "Ebichu the Housekeeping Hamster". Ebichu lives with and keeps house for OL, a Japanese Office Lady who is somewhat desperate to get married, and her boyfriend Useless, who is. Which sounds innocent enough, except that there's a remarkable level of slapstick sex and violence (mostly against small furry animals) that can give rise to reviews like this. As the official website says, "Recommended for Ages 20 and Over Best Suited for Ages 25 and Over...Single...and Female".

    When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail: and when your only tool is a print spooler ... you get this account of how to turn a perfectly innocent UNIX print subsystem into a streaming MP3 jukebox by printing music files to your sound card ...

    Gallery Serpentine is an Australian goth fashion emporium who sell corsets and bustles and the sort of clothes 1880's Victorian debutantes might have gone for if they'd known about PVC.

    If you're having difficulty with figures -- and not the kind a corset would help with -- you might want to look at the Museum of HP Calculators. HP no longer make these gems, but they released the ROM images from their later machines (the HP-48 and HP-49 series) and you can get a beautiful emulator for a $250 HP-49G called Power48 that you can then run on your $500 Palm Tungsten C. You can also go wardriving with WiFinder, an AirSnort type WiFi detector (the final release of which should be GPS compatible).

    And if you're sad enough to salivate over the electronic gizmos but not the sex-crazed hamster and retro rubbermaid outfits, you probably need to read this blog or visit Bianca's Smut Shack, possibly the oldest smutty site on the web (as I recall from the shock it caused when it first showed up in 1994).

    [ Discuss pomo ]



    posted at: 20:06 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    More weirdness from Japan

    If you feel the need to dress a cat ...

    very silly picture of a cat dressed as Anne of Green
Gables

    ... you need to visit this website for all your feline costumes. As the owners say:

    Anne of Green Gables appeared in popular costume play series! The hair of the red hair of costume is coquettish and cute. The cat which became a hood figure is likely to have a broom at any moment, and is likely to begin cleaning. As for the blouse of the country tone made with the same cloth as a hood, the yellow flower arrangement of the center of a collar is impressive, and looks very prettily! Since it can equip with a hood and a blouse on a piece of Velcro, attachment and detachment are easy!

    (Frigg's comment, from under the bed: "Rrrrrrrr ...")

    [ Link ] [ Discuss dumb ]



    posted at: 10:58 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 23 May 2003

    I'm back

    The silence this week was caused by a spontaneous and unprovoked trip to Leeds, for no reason of earth-shattering importance other than the realisation that I hadn't seen my parents (or brother, and sister, and in-laws) for a couple of months and I needed a change of scenery.

    When I get my head together and catch up on my sleep (I've had three days of impromptu family tech support call-out) it'll be time to do something about my shameful neglect of Unwirer, get the eighth (and penultimate) Accelerando story in to Asimov's SF, and then attack the next novel. In-between getting up to the north-west of Scotland to see the solar eclipse, getting married, spending a week or so in Amsterdam, and other minor distractions ...

    Has anything earth-shattering happened in my absence?

    [ Discuss wibble ]



    posted at: 19:53 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 19 May 2003

    My head hurts ...

    I have just been playing telephone tag with the Inland Revenue. This is what comes of selling foreign language rights to fiction abroad, and of not wanting to pay income tax on the royalties twice over. I think I'm getting a headache. Did you know that according to the Inland Revenue, there are more than 1,300 double taxation treaties world-wide and the UK has the largest network of treaties, covering over 100 countries?

    You know your questions are getting obscure to the point of surrealism when you discover that they've got a specialist Reverse Double Taxation Group, but only one person in the office actually understands what you're asking, and her answer boils down to "write to the Ministry of Finance in Moscow and tell us what they say, we'd love to know." (Mind you, I now know that the place where they've got the answers is: State Revenue Department, Ministry of Finance, Ulitsa Kuibysheva 9, Moscow 103097.)

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 13:33 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 16 May 2003

    Moments of realisation

    I've spent most of the week not getting to grips with the next novel. It needs to be finished by December, but it's a lot bigger than "Glasshouse" -- target length is not more than 200,000 words -- and I wrote the first three chapters back in January/February. So I've been trying to pick them up and figure out why I feel uneasy about them in between succumbing to a bad cold.

    The moment of realisation: say you've got three alternating plot threads set in different parallel universes (like me). If you kick off the novel with alternating chapters, and #1 consists of a head-butt and #2 is a knee in the goolies, it is a bad idea for #3 to be a Vicar's tea party. I speak metaphorically -- describing the tone, not the content, for no goolies are kneed or heads butted -- but chapter #3 is limp.

    (Got to fix that. Heh. Where did I leave my anti-RSI gloves ...?)

    Oh yeah. In other news, my agent read and really liked "Glasshouse". So I guess it will probably be my next SF novel after "The Iron Sunrise" (which is now on an editor's desk at Ace, slouching towards its publishing epiphany some time next summer), and I'm one relieved scribbler. It's always hard to tell if what feels like a mad creative fit is genuine mad creativity or just arrant self-obsessive nonsense, but it sounds like I didn't completely lose touch with reality last month.

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 11:44 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 15 May 2003

    Polar bear attacks submarine

    (Best read while listening to One of our Submarines is Missing by Thomas Dolby.)

    [ Link ][ Discuss dumb ]



    posted at: 13:09 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

    How to improve corporate computer security in one easy move

    Y'know, I don't do this stuff for a living no more. I really don't. But this story from Computerworld just rings true on so many levels that it's completely believable.

    What's astounding is that this sort of thing still happens. For example, my copy of the UNIX research system papers (tenth edition, from 1990) contains a paper by Fred Grampp and Robert T. Morris (senior) on security that includes the following gem:

    The most important and usually the only barrier to the unauthorized use of a UNIX [or other multiuser] system is the password that a user must utter in order to gain access to the system. Much attention has been paid to making the UNIX password scheme as secure as possible against would-be intruders ...

    In practice it is easy to write programs that are extremely successful at extracting passwords from password files, and that are also very economical to run. They operate, however, by an indirect method that amounts to guessing what a user's password might be, and then trying over and over until the correct one is found.

    Guess what -- this paper came out in the early 80's, when networked interactive timesharing systems (like this Macintosh Powerbook) were becoming common enough that attacks were commencing. And there are still big consultancies -- with responsibility for security at large companies -- where nobody seems to understand it.

    It's not stupidity. These folks aren't stupid. But there's clearly a failing here, and I'd ascribe it to institutional culture. My experience of large consulting companies is that their analysts are more focussed on the appearance of professionalism than on the substance, more interested in looking trustworthy to the occupants of the boardroom -- walking the management walk, talking the management talk -- than in actually doing the job. And, just as bad money drives out good, the focus on client relationships drives out competence because clients like predictability, and good security cannot, by its very nature, be allowed to become predictable. (As witness the story in the link below.)

    Structures. Human organisations that are fundamentally defective at the job in hand but that are more successful than competent organisations in the market because they're better at winning contracts. Predictability and security. (Is that an itch in my fingertips? I can feel a story coming on ...)

    [ Link ][ Discuss geekery ]



    posted at: 10:18 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 13 May 2003

    If you or I do it, it's theft ...

    This just in: Bill Gates and Tom Brokaw are (alleged to be) thieves. At least, if The Register's account of events in Watertown, South Dakota are to be believed they don't believe in paying for goods and services they've taken ...

    [ Link ] [ Discuss microsoft ]



    posted at: 12:49 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 11 May 2003

    Lords Discover Spam

    The following exchange in the House of Lords, which took place earlier this year, made it into the hallowed pages of Hansard, the official record of the proceedings of the British government:

    Lord Renton: My Lords, will the Minister explain how it is that an inedible tinned food that lasted for ever and was supplied to those on active service can become an unsolicited e-mail, bearing in mind that some of us wish to be protected from having an e-mail?

    Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am afraid that I have not been able to find out why the term "spam" is used, but that is the meaning it now has. It is a matter that should be taken very seriously because it not only clutters up computers but involves a great deal of very unpleasant advertising to do with easy credit, pornography and miracle diets. That is offensive to people, and we should try to reduce it.

    Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I can help the Minister with the origin of the word. It comes from aficionados of Monty Python, and the famous song, "Spam, spam, spam, spam". It has been picked up by the Internet community and is used as a description of rubbish on the Internet.

    More seriously, is the Minister aware that up to 85,000 pieces of unsolicited e-mail are received by the Parliamentary Communications Directorate each month? Will he join me in congratulating the directorate on its valiant efforts to filter out that menace, given that a high proportion of it is rubbish advertising from the United States and that some of it consists of profane material? The directorate is battling against a rising tide; the Government's assistance is needed in combating it.

    It's nice to see that Their Lordships wish to protect us from spam because it consists of rubbish advertising from the United States -- and some of it is profane.

    On a more serious note, Lord Sainsbury added: "We aim to implement by the end of October this year the privacy and electronic communications directive. This includes requirements that unsolicited e-mails may be sent to individuals only for the purpose of direct marketing with their prior consent, except where there is existing customer relationship between the sender and the addressee. Consultation on the draft regulations started on 27th March and closes on 19th June." And apparently there's a multilateral EU agreement on spam in the works. In a fit of sanity, their Lordships refrained from prescribing technical fixes: "we do not want to specify what ISPs must do, because different people require different levels of protection."

    The exchange ended:

    Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, can the Minister think of a name for the enormous amount of unsolicited ordinary mail we receive?

    Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, when I have a moment I shall bend my mind to that question.

    Anyway, regardless of whether they achieve their goal of sanitizing the internet, we now have an answer to the very important question of whether the denizens of the House of Lords are familiar with Monty Python.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss spam ]



    posted at: 21:36 | path: /spam | permanent link to this entry

    Wow

    I thought things were a bit slow today ...

    [charlie@antipope charlie]$ w 8:39pm up 74 days, 8:29, 4 users, load average: 54.32, 70.26, 68.31
    USER TTY FROM LOGIN@ IDLE JCPU PCPU WHAT
    charlie pts/0 82-41-202-133.ca 4:50pm 1:13m 3.69s 3.64s mutt
    charlie pts/1 82-41-202-133.ca 4:50pm 1:03m 9.58s 9.52s slrn
    feorag pts/2 82-41-202-133.ca 6:23pm 12:15 0.11s 0.11s bash
    charlie pts/3 82.41.202.133 8:38pm 2.00s 0.20s 0.12s w

    Yes, mail loops (on someone else's server, to which two of your local users subscribe) are Not Your Friend.



    posted at: 21:00 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 10 May 2003

    On ultraintelligent machines

    Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an "intelligence explosion," and the intelligence of man would be left far behind (see for example refs. [22], [34], [44]). Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control. It is curious that this point is made so seldom outside of science fiction.

    From Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine, a paper by Irving John Good, then at Trinity College, Oxford. England and Atlas Computer Laboratory, Chilton, Berkshire, England. This paper was based on talks given in a Conference on the Conceptual Aspects of Biocommunications, Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, October 1962; and in the Artificial Intelligence Sessions of the Winter General Meetings of the IEEE, January 1963

    (This may be the first paper to actually note the singular consequences of developing ultraintelligent machines, and some of its conclusions don't look that far out even today, forty years later: "The first ultraintelligent machine will need to be ultraparallel, and is likely to be achieved with the help of a very large artificial neural net. The required high degree of connectivity might be attained with the help of microminiature radio transmitters and receivers. The machine will have a multimillion dollar computer and information-retrieval system under its direct control. The design of the machine will be partly suggested by analogy with several aspects of the human brain and intellect. In particular, the machine will have high linguistic ability ...")

    [ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]



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

    Thu, 08 May 2003

    Signs we're living in a different century

    I've been a bit tired today; had to spend the first part of the week playing catch-up with a months' neglected feature writing (after knocking out draft 1.0 of "Glasshouse"), and now I think I've got a combined case of (a) a mild summer cold, (b) cognitive whiplash from no longer being elbow-deep in something new and obsessive, and (c) up-front exhaustion whenever I contemplate the 200,000 word doorstep I have to write by December. But still ...

    This is not the twentieth century any more.

    I just picked up a 256Mb compact flash card for £41, including international delivery. That's 25 times the size of my first hard disk, for almost exactly a tenth the price.

    While writing up my trip to the Media Lab for Computer Shopper I stumbled headfirst into a moment of epiphany: because I hadn't realised that one of the goals of the Center for Bits and Atom's Fab Lab project is to make it self-replicating -- sufficiently comprehensive that if you have access to one of the compact toolkits you'll be able to make duplicates of it. In other words it's a cargo-cult Von Neumann machine, and they're working on it today, about seven years ahead of where I placed it in Lobsters.

    And the first blind people with with retinal prostheses have been reported to be showing good results. (This means quite a bit to me -- both my retinas are dodgy, in different ways, and I might be needing at least one of these gadgets within the next couple of decades.)

    The twenty-first century: it's not all about recessions, terrorism, and megalomaniacal presidents.

    [ Discuss singularity ]



    posted at: 20:02 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 06 May 2003

    On writing novels

    Long discursive essay coming up. I'd just finished writing a novel and, on one of the newsgroups I hang out on (where the topic of writing fiction is meat and drink) someone asked the following question:

    I have two ideas I think could be novel length, and once I let the ideas ferment a bit longer and get into 'voice' I think I might give it a shot. FWIW I don't outline physically on paper. Once the story seems set in my mind, I hit the keyboard.

    I guess my question would be is there a way to prepare my mind for the wider latitude that a novel offers? Or do I sit my @ss down and write like I always do and practice day after day, slowly learning how to explore in ways that a short didn't allow?

    What follows is my brain dump on the novel-writing process. It's not prescriptive, it's simply a description of how I work. As the Man said, "there's more than one way to do it," and your mind probably doesn't work the same way as mine. Moreover, you'll have to wait until August (or later) to judge how good or bad the results are.

    Having said that, here's my response to the short story writer asking about how to prepare for writing their first novel ...

    The first thing to understand is that a novel is structurally different from a short story. It's not just longer -- although you're looking at a minimum 80,000 words to the 3-4000 you've been working with -- but qualitatively different. Short stories don't have room for sub-plots, not if they're also going to have characterisation or ideas. Moreover, short stories almost never have room for character development. Novels need all of this, and more.

    The next thing to understand is that you never have as many ideas as you think you do when you start out writing a novel. Your novel absorbs material like crazy; you throw loads of stuff at it, stuff you're used to leaving out of your short stories because there simply isn't room, and the novel just sits there in a corner and belches, then says "think you're tough, eh? Gimme another sub-plot! And a recomplication on the side!"

    So. How to start?

    I just finished writing a 90,000 word novel which I did at speed. The reason it went fast was that I had most of it nailed down before I began. The ingredients consisted of: a central character, and a situation of jeopardy the character finds themselves in, the situation arising organically from a sociological-SF idea. The soc-SF idea in question unpacks, exhibiting complex side-effects which recomplicate throughout the book, generating sub-plots and alarums and excursions -- it's not just one idea, but a concept that unleashes a fleet of ideas as logical consequences.

    A quarter of the way through the book, having established the protagonist, their predicament, some friends and rivals, and their situation, I realised that in another 50-60,000 words I'd have to send off for a resolution. I therefore needed something to resolve, which suggested a back-story behind the original soc-SF idea. Scribble some history and suddenly our protagonist has a background that explains why they're probing the soc-SF McGuffin in the first place, and suggests some Bad Guys lurking in the shadows to be confronted later.

    (Word processors are marvelous tools when you need to go back and add some foreshadowing. Just as long as you keep track of all the loose ends.)

    While writing the novel I was also writing the outline. Which flailed around like a wet flag in a gale, never quite pointing in the right direction but acting as a tool to let me steer the novel. (I've done it differently in the past, but when writing a novel as fast and intense as this one, I didn't need the outline to remind me where I'd been so much as I needed it as a what-if modelling tool for the plot.)

    Now, the previous novel I wrote took me (counts on fingers, nearly runs out of fingers) six years. And I provide it by way of a ghastly counter-example. It's a sequel to an earlier novel (Singularity Sky). I began writing it cold after completing draft 1.0 of the first novel, then realised this was a Bad Idea and put it down, half-finished (at 65,000 words) when novel #1 hadn't sold instantly. Lo, novel #1 sold eventually, and it said in my contract that they expected novel #2 by-and-by. So I picked it up and handed in the first couple of chapters as a taster, then realised that the next 55K words were mostly shit. Oops.

    Novel #2 had three interlacing sub-plots written around an elaborate temporal paradox. Which sounds great, except one of the sub-plots was as big as the other two put together, one of them had wandered in from an entirely different novel (which may turn out to be #3 in the series if they ever drag me kicking and screaming back to it), and I tied my brain into a moebius strip whenever I tried to understand the temporal paradox.

    I resolved the situation by viciously excising sub-plots, throwing away the temporal paradox, and resolving to write a more or less straight space opera, cannibalizing anything I could keep. To replace the missing subplot I created another, which worked okay ... but didn't want to join up with the remaining two, until I realised I needed a fourth subplot to act as glue and provide some Space Nazis. This lot occured to me over the course of writing draft 2 (cut draft 1 to 15,000 words then write out to 60,000 words) and draft 3 (cut draft 2 to 40,000 words and write out to 90,000 words). None of drafts 1-3 actually reached the end of the book, but finally I managed to bolt an ending onto draft 3 that sort-of-worked.

    This was something of a fiasco, but I have a secret weapon up my sleeve that most people don't have -- namely, an agent who likes reading my work and who, as a former editor, has a good eye for plot. I asked her if she'd cast an eye over it, and she came back with some cogent suggestions which involved beefing up one sub-plot, merging two major characters from different threads, and throwing away the ending. I took everything on board except throwing away the ending, which I mutated out of recognition instead. This turned into draft #4, at 140,000 words, and is what has finally gone in to my editor, with a working plot, about ten major characters, and comments from one reviewer to the effect that it's better than the first novel. But it came at a price -- 140K words of novel and 80K words of junk on the cutting room floor. That's no way to earn a living at any job, turning in 40% junk. (Must Do Better.)

    Which gives rise to a critically important lesson: don't get clever-clever! Yes, the novel will absorb lots more material than you expect, but at the same time, if you try to weave a complex structure you stand a very good chance of losing control of it because while writing a novel your detail memory of what's going on and your projection of what's going to happen is a moving window on the novel that extends maybe one real-time work day behind and ahead of you. If you're working at 1000 words per day you probably only have a really fine view of the past 2000 words and the next 2000 words you're planning to write. Which is, by no coincidence at all, of the same order as the length of a short story (except what you're writing is not a short story and isn't structured the same way).

    So. What would I do if I was in your shoes (short story writer contemplating trying their hand at a novel for the first time)?

    Start with a character portrait of your main character. Just have a look at them interacting with other people in the context of wherever it is they live. Write 2-4000 words around them. You can use it in the novel, or not -- you don't have to decide right away.

    Start making notes on the universe, its history, and the things your character needs to know about where they live and how they relate to other people. Be as detailed or as vague as you like, just make sure you have some idea. (You'll need this stuff later in any case: it comes in handy when you put together a detailed outline for the pitch to a publisher.)

    Be aware of your foibles. I've just had the fun experience of sub-edits and/or proofing on four novels. This has made me hypersensitive to my usual overuse problem: colons. Which, at one point, got completely out of control: no sentence was complete without one. (In the most recent novel I rationed myself to one per thousand words, max. I seem to have kicked the habit.)

    Think about the plot. No need to get too hardcore at this stage, the plot will almost certainly change because you will add subplots at random as you write, when a minor character kicks you in your authorial shins and says "I wouldn't do that! I'd do THIS instead! Now how're you going to tie everything up at the ending, eh?"

    Plots can come in bits'n'pieces, but usually follow a story arc. The novel begins with scene-setting, then something disrupts the status quo. There's a long rise in tension as the disruption recomplicates, adding complexity and making our protagonists Do Things. Eventually we hit a resolution point at which things Change -- the climax. Finally we have a look at the new status quo (optional, if you're good enough to imply what it will look like to the readers before you get there).

    You need to keep an eye on pacing. One thing I find myself doing if I haven't thought through the next major development in a novel properly is s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the scene leading up to it, going into far too much detail. (So I don't have to put my brain in gear and confront the hill-climb of the upcoming chunk.) At its worst this can result in a novel that sags in the middle, or with an excessively long beginning or (rarely) a grossly over-long ending. Watch out for it. If you find your scenes normally run to 1-2000 words and you're 4000 words into one that isn't something special (like the climax to the entire novel, or the pivot scene that triggers the disruption of the status quo) it's probably a sign that something's wrong.

    Don't get silly and try to write a multi-threaded novel straight off, you'll tie your own shoelaces together and trip over them. If you must do multithreaded, a better way to do it is to write a novella -- say, 30,000 words long -- and then write a second novella of the same length showing the same story from a different angle. Then intercut them chapter by chapter, like chunks of salami. The trick here is to find a story that has enough different angles to be worth looking at repeatedly.

    A valuable asset if you can find it is a plot generator. This is an idea (like the one I mentioned in my most recent novel) that can be established early in the novel and that sits there generating side-effects. Your characters can then bounce off the side-effects until they get dizzy and send off for the ending.

    Another useful tool is some source of rivalry. It's not vital, but character development and the climax scene tend to be helped by having an excuse to stick ten inches of cold steel into the moustachio-twirling villain's abdomen, or through the heroine's bodice laces, or whatever. (And remember, rivalry tends to be a major source of plot development in romance, as well as in action-oriented fiction.) But remember, bad guys need to have at least a marginally believable motivation. If you can plausibly imagine yourself writing the novel from the bad guys' point of view then you've probably got a plausible bad guy -- if you can't, then you haven't designed them properly.

    Horror is a tone. Horror is like monosodium glutamate -- used sparingly in the right places it can enhance the flavour, used to excess you just get a splattery mess everywhere. A dose of horror in the run-up to the climax provides a sense of increased jeopardy. A dose of horror in the initial disruption of the status quo provides an added incentive to the protagonists to Do Something. And so on. A thick coating of horror everywhere, however, is best left to Guy N. Smith. (Killer crabs, anyone?)

    Character development is something to keep an eye on. The plot changes the personality of the main protagonists, and it's likely that the protagonists determine the climax. Certainly they probably ought to be changed by their experiences in the novel, otherwise what is it telling us about the human condition that justifies reading it (as opposed to a bunch of short stories)?

    One of the easiest and commonest character development McGuffins is the romantic engagement or "boy meets girl" plot. The conventional rendering is "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl". With or without variations -- in the case of my most recent novel, "boy meets six-armed alien penguin, boy and six-armed alien penguin have great sex, boy turns into girl, girl loses six-armed alien penguin ..." -- it's a handy tool because it gives your protagonist a goal to aim for and a yardstick for character development. By the way, people have been running riffs on this since the 16th century (and earlier); Shakespeare's comedies are a good source of ideas, notably "As You Like It", "All's Well that Ends Well", "Much Ado About Nothing", and so on. As somebody or other said, "if you're going to steal, steal from the best" -- there's a full run of synopses at http://www.bardweb.net/plays/ that provide a suite of off-the-shelf romantic subplots if you're not imaginative enough to work out the details of six-armed alien penguin sex with hermaphrodites.

    The other big character development things are, as Heinlein noted, "the man who learned better" (i.e. your protagonist gets an education about something), and "the brave little tailor" (humble little guy goes off, has picaresque adventures, wins through partly because of his humble background, and turns out to be quite a mensch). Heinlein classified them as plots, but I'm not so sure that's where they belong -- they're things that happen to your protagonist's self-definition, and you can mix and match them to order. (For example, "The Odyssey" is a mixture of "the man who learned better" and "the brave little tailor", framed by the back end of a "boy meets girl" plot to provide Odysseus' motivation for getting home again.)

    Fun things you can throw in that I haven't mentioned already include: unreliable narrators and ignorant protagonists. These are variations on the central idea that the main character not only doesn't know everything that's going on, but may have been actively misled about some of it. Amnesia is one handy cause of misconceptions, as are lies by another party (the bad guy?), stupidity (but be careful -- readers can't easily relate to excessively stupid protagonists), and misunderstandings caused by miscommunication. You can use unreliable information to trigger a plot development. For example, in the "boy meets girl" sequence you can do: "boy meets girl, boy is misinformed about girl's unvirtuous past, boy loses girl/goes off in a huff, boy learns better", which mixes in a dose of "the man who learned better" and gives your boy a plausible reason to be pissed off at the villain when you need to work out the climax.

    Does all this sound trite and mechanical? Well, yes it is and no it isn't. These are all standard tools that can be used as easily by a hack as by a giant of literature. What makes the difference is the extra something you bring to the task -- your own insight. If you have a better way of handling characterisation, and you're not interested in plot-driven fiction with a conventional climax, then obviously you should follow your own muse. The reason I list them here is because they're useful guidelines that allow me to focus on those details of the novel that I find most interesting, while colouring the background on autopilot.

    Remember, none of this is written in stone. These are just a bunch of suggestions and ideas for tools you can use. You'll probably find yourself using several of these tools on any given novel, because novels are big projects. But there's no rule saying you can't invent your own wholly original tool that nobody has ever deployed in a novel before, or that you have to use all of these tools, or any particular one of them. They're just tools, you're the author, and in the final analysis what you build in the workshop of your mind depends on how good you are at design and which tools you feel comfortable using.

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 10:41 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 02 May 2003

    And if you thought that wasn't weird enough ...

    Those whacky Japanese, part II.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss ]



    posted at: 21:06 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Sailor Moon goes Sumo

    Those whacky Japanese. Again.

    [ Link ][ Discuss ]



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

    Recombinant politics

    The results of yesterday's elections for the Scottish Parliament are coming in. According to the BBC, "with eight of the 129 seats left to fill Labour had 50 seats, the SNP 21, the Liberal Democrats and Tories 15 each, the Greens six, five seats were held by the Scottish Socialists and four by independents".

    (Of the independents, one is a retired doctor, campaigning against the closure of Stobhill Hospital -- she succeeded in unseating a minister in his home constituency.)

    The big news? The SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party -- soft-left socialist party with an agenda calling for a referendum on Scottish independence as a separate EU state) lost eight seats. Labour is down five, and the LDP (Liberal Democrat Party) is down one. What seems to have happened is that Labour has been somewhat damaged by the war, while the radical left parties have cannibalized the soft left side of the vote. (The Conservative gain -- from one seat to three -- isn't really very significant; their baseline support in Scotland is around 8-10% of the population, with no real variation, and the single seat situation was something of an anomaly.)

    Labour won't be able to govern without a formal coalition, almost certainly with the Lib-Dems. In the previous administration Labour ostensibly ran the government, albeit as a minority and relying on the Lib-Dems not to oppose them. This time around, there'll be no such illusions. Among other things this means that Westminster's plan to impose a national identity card system on the UK, piloting it in Scotland, is probably about to come to a screeching halt, as the LDP position on ID cards is more or less "over our dead bodies". And the potential exists for a left-wing rainbow coalition to gang up on Labour if an issue ever surfaces on which the Lib-Dems, SNP, SSP, and Greens all agree. We might even see Labour in Scotland being forced to crawl to the Tories and independent MSPs for support in crucial votes.

    All of which basically confirms two important facts of Scottish politics: firstly, that it's much more pluralistic than anyone expected, with no less than six parties holding three or more of the 129 seats, and secondly, that the main right wing party in Scotland is Labour -- apart from the Tory rump, everyone else is some way to the left. In fact, the outcome can be characterised as Scottish politics moving steadily leftwards, with the Socialist Party and the Greens as the main beneficiaries.

    And in the larger picture, it suggests that Tony Blair isn't going to reap one fly-speck of political solace from being on the winning side in Bush's war when it comes to the next general election. Which is good.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss politics ]



    posted at: 09:38 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 30 Apr 2003

    Why the unrest in Iraq?

    The Times has an interesting story:

    THE revolt of Basra began when a printed notice was pinned to the front gate of the former presidential palace, now the headquarters of the Desert Rats.

    The British Army was slashing its rates of pay for locally hired staff "due to circumstances beyond our control", it announced.

    The wages of skilled workers were to be cut to $22 (£13.80) a month, those of the unskilled to $10. Graduates and trained professionals, who had been working as translators and drivers for about £1.30 a day, found themselves being paid 50p or less. The effect was immediate: less than three weeks after liberating Iraq's second-largest city, the British forces had a strike on their hands.

    The pay was being cut to conform with standards imposed across Iraq by the United States. "This is cruelty," Vahan Gregor, a civil engineer who used to have his own company, said. "The rate is not even enough to pay for the lift into work. A packet of decent cigarettes costs more than a day's pay. A packet of nappies is one month! Is this fair? Even under Saddam, it was better than this."

    "I am so disappointed with the British," Ahmed Ali, a former geography teacher who has been working for the UK force, said. "If you make an agreement, you should keep to it -- not reduce pay after one week. Mr Bush talked so much about freedom and how we would live in great conditions after the war. Well, that was all bullshit."

    So we should be surprised they're out on the streets demonstrating?

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 17:27 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Bush to bin Laden: "You Win"

    Y'know, I swore off anything remotely approximating warblogging a while ago, because it wasn't doing my digestion or my sanity any good. But I just can't ignore the latest pieces of news -- the third Bloody Sunday like incident in Iraq in three days (US army troops fire on and kill demonstrators -- they say they were being shot at, demonstrators deny it), and Rumsfeld announcing that US troops are to be withdrawn from Saudi Arabia.

    Why can't I ignore it? Well, here's a recap on the situation:

    1979
    Soviet Union invades Afghanistan.
    1979-1989
    USA funds mujaheddin fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan, providing money and weapons. Osama bin Laden receives CIA funds. ObL views Soviet occupation as offense against Islam.
    1990
    CIA drops funding for ObL.
    1991
    Iraq invades Kuwait. US troops move into Saudi Arabia.
    1992-2000
    Osama bin Laden's Al Qaida group entrench in Afghanistan, campaign to get US troops out of the Islamic holy sites -- notably Saudi Arabia. ObL promises to turn America into a living nightmare by terrorism.
    9/11
    'Nuff said.
    12/9/01-20/9/01
    USA PATRIOT Act passed.
    12/09/01-3/02
    USA kicks Taliban out of Kabul, occupies city, declares regime change in Afghanistan.
    03/02-04/03
    USA gets increasingly heavy with Iraq, culminating in invasion and regime change.
    30/04/03
    US government announces surrender to Osama bin Laden.

    Yes, I said "surrender". Rumsfeld has just announced that he's basically giving Osama bin Laden what he said all along that he wanted -- a US withdrawl from Saudi Arabia.

    (Meanwhile, the USA PATRIOT act has ushered in a reign of domestic paranoia and police statedom unprecedented in the US since the 1950's, or even the 1917-19 red scare.)

    And as for the situation in Iraq (and especially Falujah) ...

    All I can say is, troops with automatic weapons and crowd control do not mix. It doesn't matter whether Iraqis with guns started shooting, or whether it was a massacre of unarmed civilians. What matters is that a ton of bystanders were shot and killed or injured.

    There's a very precise analogy here, in case you're wondering what those troops from the 82nd Airborn did: Bloody Sunday, January 30th, 1972. And it's enough to send shudders down the spine of anyone who remembers the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

    The situation in NI leading up to Bloody Sunday has eerie resonances with Iraq in the wake of the Ba'athist regime. In both cases, central rule by an authoritarian party representing a minority of the population has just been replaced by direct rule from over the water. The two ethnic groups are divided along religious sectarian lines, and the larger group is poorer and has been effectively sidelined politically for 30 years. They want their say, and they get out on the street and demonstrate because the local Hard Men aren't in charge any more.

    What happened in Northern Ireland on September 30th left a dark stain on British history -- the public enquiries are still going on today, trying to establish the truth about just why 2 Para were sent in with live ammunition. Some of the soldiers say they were fired on by an IRA member. Witnesses on the demonstration deny this, and say the troops just opened fire on the crowd. Whatever, 14 civilians died and many were injured -- and it was the single event that generated the wave of enlistment in the Provisional IRA and started the radicalization of the republican movement in Northern Ireland.

    I watch the current US leadership and I'm simply aghast at their handling of the situation in Iraq, post-invasion. It should have been glaringly obvious that there'd be looting, a breakdown of civil order, and unrest. It should have been equally bloody clear that there'd be a lot of political upheaval. So where were the military police? Where were the water canon and baton rounds and riot gear that could have dispersed the crowd without killing?

    But that's not all. By withdrawing troops from Saudi Arabia, Rumsfeld has just given bin Laden what he wanted. Leaving aside the pros and cons of the US basing troops there (which, as it happens, I'm opposed to), the timing could barely be worse. It's a bizarre mess. I can just see the scene in Rumsfeld's office: "I've got a plan, boss. How about we give the terrorists who attacked us exactly what they want, while shitting on the Iraqi civilian majority in a way guaranteed to generate a new terrorist insurgency?" "I like it, Joe-Bob, let's do it!"

    The mind, she boggles.

    [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 16:51 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    They don't make 'em like this any more (luckily)

    Over on rec.arts.sf.written they're discussing cover blurbs of yore. A cover blurb is what happens after you slave your guts out for, oh, half an hour at least, extruding deathless prose by the kilogram. If you're lucky, what goes on the cover is tasteful, a minor work of art in its own right, and doesn't give away the plot. If you're unlucky a bored (or maybe malicious) marketing hack glances at the first page, then comes up with something like this:

    Women are writing SCIENCE-FICTION!

    ORIGINAL! BRILLIANT!! DAZZLING!!!

    Women are closer to the primitive than men. They are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides. They possess a buried memory of humankind's obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely color and flavor a novel.

    Such a women is Margarget St. Clair, author of this novel. Such a novel is this, SIGN OF THE LABRYS, the story of a doomed world of the future, saved by recourse to ageless, immemorial rites...

    FRESH! IMAGINATIVE!! INVENTIVE!!!

    I cringe in sympathy for Margaret St.Clair, whose novel Sign of the Labrys got saddled with this back cover blurb by someone at Bantam in 1963. (Thanks to Per C. Jorgensen for unearthing this brilliantly polished coprolite.)

    Anyone got anything comparable to draw to my attention?

    [ Discuss blurbs ]



    posted at: 16:19 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 29 Apr 2003

    It's done.

    Length: 90,500 words. Time: 21 days. It'll probably put on some weight in the redraft, but it'll still be on the low side of 100,000 words, which makes it the shortest novel I've written in a couple of years. (Time was when 80,000 words was a respectable length and 90,000 was bloatware, but times change.)

    I am exhausted. But at least I'll be able to work on unwirer without distractions now.

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 14:07 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 27 Apr 2003

    Status ...

    19 days, 83,000 words in. Blogging prognosis for next week: light at first, due to exigencies of writing the climax to the novel, picking up as the week goes on -- this one ain't scheduled to run over 100,000 words on the first draft, and at the current rate it should be nailed down on Wednesday.

    Must resist the entirely stupid psychological pressure to break down and try to prove that I can write a 100,000 word novel in three weeks. That would be silly (and besides, it ain't true -- I might be able to grind out a first draft, but the quality would suffer and it would need more polishing later on). Still, it's been a gas and it's confirmed for me that hitting the ground hard and ploughing through the first draft fast helps maintain consistency of vision (at the cost of polish). Plus, it's a good warm-up exercise for the much bigger novel I'm due to hand in this December and haven't really begun yet.

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 20:01 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 25 Apr 2003

    Glasshouse update

    I'm about to take a break halfway through today's session. Seventeen days, seventy-one thousand words. If I stick to schedule I think I'm going to be celebrating a complete first draft by next Friday -- twenty-four days after I began it. Then I think I shall sleep for a week.

    (In case you were wondering, the routine is: 9am, in front of laptop to tackle email and read the web. Start writing around 11am. Stop writing whenever I hit 4000 words, or 8pm, whichever is later. Rinse, cycle, repeat, seven days a week, until it's done. That's why I'm not blogging much at present ...)

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 13:43 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 24 Apr 2003

    This is how I expect to die, one day ...

    Professor trapped for Easter under a pile of books

    A Croatian professor has spent three days trapped under a pile of books in his apartment in Zagreb before being saved by a neighbour who heard his cries for help.

    The Jutarnji List daily reports the unfortunate 60-year-old mathematics professor, identified only by his initials DK, spent the Easter weekend lying helplessly on the floor, trapped between a bed and a book-case under a pile of books which fell on him.

    The neighbour who called the police and paramedics told the daily that the professor's apartment was very untidy, "filled up with books, tapes, furniture and food."

    "It looked like a real rubbish dump," he said, adding it was hard to imagine how the rather corpulent professor, weighing some 120 kilograms, could freely move around in it.

    He was treated for exhaustion and dehydration in his apartment by paramedics, and recovered enough to refuse hospital treatment.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss dumb ]



    posted at: 19:22 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Banging out the hits

    Y'know the RIAA insist that MP3s are a tool of terrorists?

    Here's the evidence.

    Now if only they did an 88mm armour-piercing MP3 player to go with this ...

    [ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 16:05 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Duck Sausage Clock

    I didn't make it to the Hinckley Eastercon. Probably a good thing, because if this photograph by Major Clanger is anything to go by, I'd have come back with my sanity in tatters:

    Duck Sausage Clock

    Some things are sane, some things are crazy, but it takes a very special kind of mind to create a level of kitsch that qualifies as unsane.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss dumb ]



    posted at: 16:05 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 22 Apr 2003

    The pain, the pain ...

    Day fourteen. Passed 60,000 words. Smoke rising from keyboard. Stereo playing "Drowning in Berlin" by The Mobiles, 80's earworm resurrected thanks to Warren Ellis (whose Transmetropolitan turned me back onto comics/graphic novels after lo these many years). Current writing tastes of "Stepford Wives" meet "The Sims", with added lynch mobs and the ghost of Paul Linebarger. If I ever sell the film rights to this one I want to make damn sure it ends up with a machinima house and Rachel Huntington gets hired to design the visuals.

    I have now been sober for more than 20,000 words. It's time to go out and get pissed.

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 20:22 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 21 Apr 2003

    State of the onion

    Didn't win a Nebula. And nobody's phoned to tell me I've won the BSFA award, so I assume I haven't won one of them, either.

    Don't care, though. I just passed 50,000 words -- the halfway point -- on "Glasshouse". That's in 13 days of frantic typing. Only another 13 days to go ...

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 00:40 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 20 Apr 2003

    Writing in a goldfish bowl

    Back in the 1960's and early 1970's, Harlan Ellison used to sit in a bookshop window with a typewriter, writing science fiction stories. Call it a kind of performance art.

    Well, the web offers a whole new venue for performance art, and Cory Doctorow and I are pleased to announce our latest collaboration. In the wake of Jury Service and Flowers for Alice, we're working on another collaboration, this time for a forthcoming anthology, ReVisions, a collection of alternate science-history stories, that DAW books will publish at some unspecified date TBD. And the collaboration has a blog: Unwirer.

    Yes, you read that right. We're collaborating on a story in public, via a weblog. What you'll see is what we write, as we do it. The last draft posted to the blog will be the draft that we send to Isaac Szpindel and Julie Czerneda, the editors, and it's likely that we'll do some rewriting after that, so there's a near-certainty that the published version will differ from the text we come up with on line. But what's going on in the blog is the real thing -- it's how we're collaborating on this story. As Cory is mostly in San Francisco and I'm in Edinburgh, we can update it from our respective home towns and use the various topic areas to disucss where things go next; stuff we used to have to do in email. And because it's in a blog, you get to say what you think of it. Unwirer is our very own shop window or goldfish bowl. Come watch the authors at work! And tell us if you like it -- or not.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 15:48 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 18 Apr 2003

    :-)

    Okay, so the news is now official; I've made the Hugo shortlist this year, too, with my novelette "Halo". (Meanwhile, the Nebulas will be announced this weekend, and I'm on the shortlist with "Lobsters", and the BSFA -- British Science Fiction Association -- are voting on their awards, and I'm on the shortlist with "Router". Whee!)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 23:44 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    US military blocking medical aid for children in Iraq

    Save the Children yesterday accused the US military of allowing children to die after it refused to grant permission for a plane loaded with medical supplies to land in northern Iraq.

    As a team of Oxfam engineers took off from Manston airport in Kent with tonnes of water sanitation equipment bound for southern Iraq, Save the Children said it had been trying for more than a week to fly in enough medical supplies to treat 40,000 people and emergency feeding kits for malnourished children.

    The US military has said the charity cannot fly aid supplies into the cities of Arbil and Mosul until the area is safe. But Rob MacGillivray, Save the Children's emergency programme manager, said the UN had already declared it safe.

    Note for US readers: Save the Children is one of the largest British disaster relief charities. They're really angry, accusing the US military of violations of the Geneva conventions over their refusal to allow aid supplies into Arbil and Mosul. These guys do not throw that kind of accusation around lightly -- they have a major public reputation to preserve and the blowback if they made baseless allegations would be very damaging. Nor do they have a partisan axe to grind over aid to Iraq in particular -- they're active just about everywhere.

    Feorag's comment -- "what's the matter, are the military afraid it'll dent sales by US pharmaceutical companies?"

    [ Link ][ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 10:53 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 17 Apr 2003

    Back from the future

    One of the disadvantages of living on the ground floor of a tenement flat in Edinburgh is that the radio reception, to be blunt, sucks. I used to listen to a fair bit of radio, but for the past eight or nine years it hasn't really been practical -- short of running a cable up the outside of a four story building and paying someone who (unlike me) isn't afraid of heights to install an aerial, any attempt to listen to the radio tended to induce a wince.

    However, one nice thing about living in the UK is that the BBC is really keen on new technology, and in particular on DAB -- digital audio broadcasting. DAB is a new standard for radio developed by the Eureka 147 committee and now being rolled out in a number of countries -- the UK is one of the leaders, with about 80% coverage and ten commercial networks, as well as the full range of BBC channels. It seems like only about three or four years ago the BBC were announcing their first trials of DAB, but now there's at least as much available via DAB as via FM, and the reception and sound quality is much better. Of course, until recently a DAB receiver would set you back the thick end of six or seven hundred pounds -- but in about the past six months that's changed, thanks to a small UK-based computer and wireless networking company called Imagination Technologies, who set up a subsidiary (Pure Digital) to build cheap DAB receivers.

    (If you live in the USA, you'll have to hold your breath until you turn blue in the face -- existing US FM broadcasters have put the boot in because they don't want any competition, and the nearest thing to DAB you're going to get is a poor quality in-band digital signal to carry channel information. It's a bit like GSM mobile phones, all over again -- the rest of the world goes one way, while the US gets a technically inferior, expensive, locally developed substitute that's incompatible with everyone else.)

    I've just acquired a Pure Digital Evoke-1 Elgar radio, and it's really cool. CD quality sound, without even extending the aerial, indoors (and that's indoors with foot-thick stone walls, not wood or brick). And best of all: I can get BBC World Service without hogging the bandwidth on the cable modem.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 15:42 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 16 Apr 2003

    Status report

    Nine days, and I'm 34,000 words into "Glasshouse". Woooo! I'm having to limit myself to 4000 words a day (experience says that I tend to lose control over the quality if I go much over that), but if I slow up any I'll lose control over the pacing and plot tension. At this rate, around Sunday I can switch to a countdown because I'll be halfway through the first draft ...

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 17:20 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 15 Apr 2003

    Living in the age of acceleration

    There are times when I suddenly realise that we are living in the 21st century, and although large chunks of it are not what we were hoping for, some bits are good.

    Take SARS. (Not literally, you understand.) Horrible plague, bioweapon, or plain mutant cold virus? It only escaped from China a month ago, and wasn't known before the beginning of the year, but just 31 days into the investigation they've sequenced the viral genome responsible.

    Henry Niman of Harvard Medical School said the new data shows that part of the SARS genome is similar to certain avian viruses. That jibes with earlier reports that SARS may have jumped from bird to human.

    "I was playing around with the sequence, and at the far right-hand end is a sequence that's also found in two avian coronaviruses," Niman said. "Thirty-two nucleotides are exact matches between the SARS coronavirus, avian bronchitis virus and turkey coronavirus."

    That's potentially significant, he said, because the sequence had only been found in these two avian coronaviruses up until now. It has never before appeared in a mammalian coronavirus.

    Wow. We're not out of the woods yet -- they're at least a year away from a vaccune -- but it's astonishing how fast they've homed in on the cause. Some things really are better, this decade, and our ability to respond to a wholly new hybrid virus seems to be among them.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss longevity ]



    posted at: 19:33 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 14 Apr 2003

    The pain, the pain ...

    The running total on "Glasshouse" is: seven days, 26,000 words. Owww.

    NB: If you're wondering why I'm not blogging much at present, do the math; if I sustain my current rate, "Glasshouse" should be finished, at around 105,000 words, in less than one calendar month.

    (I have some other good news, which I haven't officially heard yet, but which might just be connected to one of the award shortlists -- not the Nebula, which should be announced next weekend. But that'll have to wait until it's public. Watch this space.)

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 19:48 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 12 Apr 2003

    Another update

    Holy shit: "Glasshouse" has gone from zero to 17,000 words in just 5 days.

    What's more, it seems to make sense. (Onward ...)

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 19:05 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 11 Apr 2003

    I really hope this guy is wrong ...

    Russian Information Agency Novosti reports that Sergei Kolesnikov, an Academician in the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, believes the virus responsible for SARS was been created deliberately, possibly as a bacteriological weapon.

    According to him, the virus of atypical pneumonia is a synthesis of two viruses (of measles and infectious parotiditis or mumps), the natural compound of which is impossible. This can be done only in a laboratory, the academician is convinced. He also said that in creating bacteriological weapons a protective anti-viral vaccine is, as a rule, worked out at the same time. Therefore, the scientist believes, a medicine for atypical pneumonia may soon appear. He does not exclude that the spread of the virus could have begun accidentally, as a result of "an unsanctioned leakage" from a laboratory.

    Here's a random thought: SARS showed up first in China and Hong Kong, but spread fairly rapidly in the direction of the US via air transport routes. What country in the region (a) doesn't get on very well with the Chinese government these days, (b) isn't likely to be very worried about a contagious disease like SARS because its own citizens aren't very mobile, (c) is known to be dicking around with other weapons of mass destruction, and (d) is also pissed off with the Russians right now?

    Clue: it was the last link in the article below this one, and one might well wonder why Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, Alexander Losyukov, might have felt it necessary to publicly say "We are forced to think about preventive measures to defend our national interests and - why hide it - to defend our population on territories bordering on Korea in case of a serious conflict in the region," according to Interfax.

    Be afraid. Be very afraid. I know I'm prone to being alarmed by diplomatic mutterings that come to nought in the end, but there is a good chance that the djinn is already out of the bottle this time. The US pursuit of Saddam is sending a very explicit message to Kim Jong-Il, and that message is "use it or lose it". If SARS is a North Korean strategic bioweapon, it almost certainly isn't the only one. In fact, the nightmare scenario is that it may be the attenuated form of something like the ebola-equivalent mousepox strain that Australian scientists unwittingly stumbled across last year, and this release is a test run in case they feel the need to bring the house down by releasing the real thing. Dr Strangelove, eat your heart out ...

    [ Link ] [ Discuss ww3 ]



    posted at: 13:11 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Manufacturing Consent (in Iraq)

    Remember that memorable news TV footage of dancing Iraqs celebrating the fall of the Ba'athist regime, and pulling down a big statue of Saddam?

    Looks like it was a US tank that did the pulling. In front of a rather small crowd who, under the guns of the US military, did what any prudent native of an occupied country would do and danced like monkeys.

    So much for whooping it up like the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The stench of propaganda lies heavily upon the mainstream "embedded" media these days ... meanwhile, in other news, prominent US-backed Shi'ite cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei was stabbed to death on the steps on a mosque in Najaf, the situation on the streets of Baghdad is beginning to resemble Belfast in 1969 (can you spell s-e-c-t-a-r-i-a-n d-i-v-i-d-e?), the Pentagon says Saddam is either dead or on the run and therefore out of the picture (just like that pesky Osama bin Laden), and Our Boys have got everything under control, including all those weapons of mass destruction. Let me repeat that; everything is under control, and there is no cause for alarm.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 12:53 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 09 Apr 2003

    Update

    I just finished chapter #1 of "Glasshouse" today. 6500 words in 48 hours. I have a good feeling about this -- must press on.

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 18:12 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 08 Apr 2003

    I hate it when this happens

    I sat down this morning to make a few notes towards the proposal for my next-but-one novel. Then I thought, "funny, my wrists are aching" around 6pm. Did a quick word-count on the paragraph or two of character fodder I'd started preparing. Realised there was close to 3,500 words -- almost the entire first chapter -- sitting there on the screen. And it's not going to let go until I've written enough to throw at my agent along with a detailed outline.

    Novels are like trains. They shouldn't be able to sneak up on you silently and rapidly and take you by surprise.

    (For the curious: just try to imagine John Varley writing an SF novel about the Zimbardo prison study. Yes, it makes my head hurt, too.)

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 19:07 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 07 Apr 2003

    A possible explanation for the current unpleasantness ...

    Is George W. Bush a psychopath?

    It would explain a lot. More to the point, the hat fits. Short of getting the US President into a psychiatrist's office for a day, we're not going to get any closer than comparing the listed characteristics against his very public behaviour. And it's true: he does exhibit most of the behavioural traits that go with the package.

    Which provokes me to ask: if Bush is a psychopath (not the same, please note, as a psychotic), what does this suggest about his future behaviour? An election is coming up next year, but it occurs to me that a psychopathic incumbent may very well not behave in the same way as a normal presidential incumbent in the run-up to an election which is likely to be dominated by greivous economic fallout and bad news from the occupation of Iraq.

    What do psychopaths do when faced with the urgent need to manufacture personal support in the run-up to an election? Does the phrase, "a short victorious war" ring any bells?

    [ Link ] [ Discuss politics ]



    posted at: 17:30 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 06 Apr 2003

    The hallucinations are cutting in ...

    I'm quiet right now because I'm afraid I've accidentally fallen victim to The Sims. I normally keep all games way the hell away from my computer, but right now I've just edited my way through a bundle of novels -- the thought of reading someone else's, or writing another, simply doesn't appeal. So instead I'm engaging in a supremely pointless activity that has become eerily obsessive. Going out and walking around town, I couldn't help hearing snatches of sim-speech; the characters in the game talk in random phonemes strung together using a Markov chain generator or something similar, and the effect is eerily lifelike. Have you ever had periods when you felt like you were a character inside a computer game?

    (At least I'm going to get a novel out of it, by hook or by crook. A billion games of Dungeons and Dragons spawned interminable shelves full of regurgitated campaign write-ups disguised as extruded fantasy product: why can't I be the first guy to get something useful out of The Sims?)

    [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 16:45 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 03 Apr 2003

    A digression into statistical lies

    I ran across this story in The Register earlier today, while whomping up my Linux column for the month.

    The BSA (Business Software Alliance) paid IDC (a polling company) to do a worldwide survey of software piracy. The results unsurprisingly showed that 40% of all software installed worldwide wasn't paid for. More to the point, IDC obligingly bolted a stalking-horse onto their conclusions; cutting software piracy, they'd have us believe, will boost economic growth. To quote The Reg:

    The UK has the lowest software piracy rate in Western Europe. At the same time it has enjoyed the region's fastest software sector growth rate - growing 55 per cent over the last six years.

    Says the report: "Strong software growth, in turn, helped the UK achieve the fastest IT growth in the region over the same period. The UK's IT sector is a proven engine for economic growth, adding half a million IT jobs to the economy over six years between 1995 and 2001.

    "Proven engine for economic growth?"

    I would argue that adding IT jobs to the economy is not the same as stimulating economic growth. Consider user support ratios as an example. IT is a service that is intended to allow businesses to function more efficiently. Typical Windows support ratios are that one IT support body is required per 40-160 users. In the UNIX world, UNIX servers don't require additional support personnel anything like as rapidly -- ratios in the range one techie per 200-2000 users are not unheard-of.

    We can pay the unemployed to dig holes and fill them in again, but it doesn't qualify as productive work that has net economic gains attached to it. (It may circulate money faster, but that's not the same thing at all.) Likewise, paying more people to go around reinstalling Windows and cleaning up after Outlook email viruses is not a sensible way to grow the economy. If we were to follow the BSA's recipe we'd chuck all those UNIX servers and switch to the oldest, buggiest version of Windows we could lay our hands on -- after all, it would create more jobs! (Needless to say they'd be shit jobs for shit pay doing work that's the functional equivalent of filling in the holes that had been dug by the purchasing policy -- while the real revenue would be going to the hand behind the BSA sock-puppet, in a foreign software multinational that already has more money than they know what to do with -- but hey, creating huge numbers of jobs is more important than creating jobs that actually do something useful.)

    This is yet another bloody nonsense dressed up in the sheep's clothing of a common-sense nostrum and trotted out by the weasels of mendacity. Sorry if I sound bitter, but I've just been writing up the MPAA's current scheme to get firewalls criminalized in the individual United States, and my tolerance for living on the same planet as these goat-blowing extortion monkeys is currently very limited.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss microsoft ]



    posted at: 17:07 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 01 Apr 2003

    News Flash: Big Engine in insolvency

    Big Engine, who were due to publish my novel Festival of Fools in April (also due to be published as "Singularity Sky" by Ace in the United States in August) are going into insolvency.

    Publisher Ben Jeapes says, "looking at the projected figures of income vs outgoings, there's no other choice. There's nothing wrong with it that couldn't be solved with reinvestment ..." and he's not the only one; the climate for small businesses in the UK today is grim.

    Two years ago this would have been a bitter blow to me. I'm still saddened by the loss of a small but important publisher who has been doing significant and important work within the genre (republishing unduly neglected works like the collected Sladek and Brian Stableford's early novels). I owe Ben a huge debt; he was the first editor to offer me a novel contract, and it was this that secured the interest of my agent.

    However, since then, I sold a total of five novels in the US. This setback isn't going to prevent my books coming out from Ace, Tor, and Golden Gryphon, and they'll still be available in the UK as imports. (In fact, as far as silver linings go, it may even make it easier for my agent to sell my books in the UK; with no pre-existing arrangement with a publisher, she'll have a clean sheet to work with.)

    Time to breath a sigh of regret and move on.

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 12:23 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 31 Mar 2003

    A brief digression

    I have a question:

    Can any of you readers recommend a good external keyboard for me to use with a Macintosh powerbook?

    Some explanation is required. I like the laptop keyboard, which feels somewhat more positive than that of the iBook that it replaced, but it has the half-sized cursor and function keys Apple stick in laptops to save space. Also, the scissor mechanism Apple uses in its powerbook keyboards these days simply can't stand up to the pounding I give them -- I've tried typing more lightly, but I still got through three iBook keyboards in just over a year, and I'd rather not repeat the experience on the new machine. So an external 'board seems like a good idea.

    As to what makes a good keyboard, I'm sorry to say that Apple don't, and never have. The One True Keyboard for me was the original IBM PC AT keyboard, from the 1980's, with separate hardware switches for each key (and none of this cheap new-fangled membrane nonsense at that). It's noisy, but the keys give a lovely positive clunk-click feel when you press them. (Apple seem to believe that you shouldn't be able to feel a keypress; I've tried using the current Apple Pro keyboard and I found it incredibly unpleasant -- like fondling a dead chicken.)

    Other aspects of a good keyboard, as far as I'm concerned? Forget split-keyboard ergonomic nonsense and extras frippery like "launch Outlook Express" buttons -- I want a traditional layout. Forget wireless, too. (It's creepily insecure.) All I want is a good old-fashioned 104/105 key keyboard with a positive keyclick feel and a USB connector, like an updated IBM Model M.

    Unfortunately Cherry don't seem to have added USB to their professional range yet, Logitech have vanished into consumer land, I refuse -- under any circumstances -- to buy a Microsoft keyboard (and my brief acquaintance with same suggests that they also suffer from dead chicken syndrome), so what does that leave? The MacAlly IceKey looks like it might be close, but is there anything else out there?

    (One final note -- I hate Apple's desktop keyboards, but their optical pro mouse is amazingly good. Go figure.)

    [ Discuss Mac keyboard ]



    posted at: 12:47 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 29 Mar 2003

    Telling it like it is

    In case you're not familiar with his writing, Robert Fisk is one of the most experienced western journalists specialising in Middle Eastern affairs. This is a transcript of a speech he gave at Concordia University in Montreal, in November 2002. In it, he discusses a wide range of topics -- from journalistic laziness and evasion (the easy route is simply to regurgitate what the foreign office officials put in front of you) to gross western hypocrisy over the Turkish genocide against the Armenians in 1915, and a chilling meeting with Osama bin Laden in 1997, in a terrorist training camp built by the CIA.

    Compelling stuff, from a guy who hasn't forgotten a time when it was "the duty of journalists, and I quote her [Amira Kass], to monitor the centers of power".

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 18:35 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 28 Mar 2003

    Idiot congressman, redux

    Cretinous congresscritter Darrell Issa believes that when the US reconstructs Iraq's infrastructure (yeah, right), it better not use that eeevil French GSM phone technology for Iraq's telephone system.

    Famous Brit computer journalist Guy Kewney explains why this is complete bollocks.

    (But you knew that already, right?)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss mobile bandwidth ]



    posted at: 21:48 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 27 Mar 2003

    Out from under

    I've pretty much dug my way out from under the gigantic pile of work-related ordure that I was grappling with for most of the past month. Assuming the final draft of my last novel is okay and doesn't need further hacking before I send it in, I think normal blogging should be resuming itself bit by bit in the very near future.

    Meanwhile, in other writing-related news, the next (seventh) Accelerando story, "Curator", is probably going to appear in the October/November double issue of Asimov's SF magazine, and I'm trying to finish number eight (with the last one, #9, next in the queue). I haven't had a lot of time for writing stories recently, what with two pressing novel deadlines and a load of edits to cope with, but I'm going to try and get a few nailed down in the near future (including another collaboration with Cory Doctorow).

    Meanwhile, Festival of Fools is due out pretty soon (late next month, probably), while the US edition (Singularity Sky) is due out on August 5th in hardcover.

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 17:52 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 26 Mar 2003

    The New Disappeared

    From the diary of a Livejournal user (a teacher, working with K12 children in the US):

    Remember Ali, the Iraqi student I wrote about a few weeks before leaving for Italy when telling about going to the antiwar rally?

    He's gone. Disappeared.

    His parents' phone number is disconnected.

    His mother cannot be reached at work.

    His father disappeared first... and now, one of our babies is gone!

    His counselor said to me this afternoon: "Either the parents have been called in by the government for questioning, or else they've all fled."

    I spent most of the next hour crying. I was absolutely hysterical. Thank God my students were in an assembly. Some of the other teachers tried to console me, saying they likely fled to Canada when our local news reported that all Iraqi nationals and Iraqi Americans in the Detroit area were being questioned by the FBI. Saying that I *couldn't* think they'd been detained or deported... that I couldn't think the worst.

    Even if we are starting to notice that a few of our Middle Eastern students and parents and neighbors are disappearing. Another teacher said that my story made her realize she hasn't seen a certain Palestinian student for three weeks.

    The Detroit area has the largest concentration of Middle Easterners outside the Middle East, and one of the oldest Arabic-language and Muslim communities in the country. The Nation of Islam began here, too...

    And now, people are scared.

    I'm scared.

    ...

    Speaking of history, I was informed by my assistant principal that it likely wouldn't be a good idea to get certified in history... as there is now a statewide initiative to take all social studies out of the core curriculum save for American History and to replace it with foreign language. While I applaud global language learning, I was shocked at this news. World History has already been removed from our state curriculum on the K-12 level... you have no idea how hard it is for me to teach these kids Shakespeare or comparative mythology when they don't understand *anything* about other countries.

    And as of Friday all faculty and staff have been ordered by the district (which gets its directions from the state, which gets its directives from the US Department of Education) not to speak against the war or the government in the presence of our students. Not asked, ordered.

    And there's more where that came from.

    Lest this seems like an hysterical over-reaction, you should go read the rest of the article. The picture it forms is very scary indeed. Putting it together with the US Immigration Service's new powers to detain people without legal counsel, and the draft USA Patriot II Act, the picture is of a country where people with the wrong skin colour or politics can disappear in the middle of the night; where knowing enough about the outside world to criticize your government's foreign policy can get you branded as a dissident: where certain classes of people have already been stripped of freedom of speech ...

    If even a tenth of this is true, it's already much worse than I ever expected it to get.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss America uber alles ]



    posted at: 10:34 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 22 Mar 2003

    I didn't go this far ...

    Iain Banks wasn't on today's march. But arguably he went one step further, as this letter to The Guardian suggests. (Go, Iain!)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 16:56 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Today's Demonstration in Edinburgh

    one big demonstration

    I took a camera along to today's anti-war demo in Edinburgh. Just in case anyone is swallowing the lies and spin that the anti-war movement is (a) violent or (b) tiny, you might want to look at my photo albumn. My guess is in the range 10-20,000 demonstrators showed up today in a city of 600,000. Given that there were demonstrations on Thursday in just about every town in Scotland, on the basis of less than 24 hours' organising, I'd expect this pattern to repeat across Scotland with a total turn-out in the 50-100,000 person range across a country of five million. It will be very interesting to see what's going on in London right now ...

    Stop press: my mobile phone tells me that a bunch of demonstrators headed for Charlotte Square after the main march broke up, to go and heckle outside the official residence of Jack McConnell (Scotland's First Minister, who is facing an election in six weeks time). Apparently the police arrested one of the march stewards -- no one is sure why, but the word is that the police are trying to stir something up. If so, I hope they don't succeed.

    [ link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 15:23 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 21 Mar 2003

    Dog Bites Robot

    Researchers at Sony's AI lab in Paris attempted to get an AIBO to pass the canine equivalent of a Turing test. It succeeded, and was soundly bitten for its temerity in approaching the dog's food bowl ...

    We are conducting a series of exploratory studies on animal robot interactions in collaboration with the ethology group of the University of Eotvos (Hungary). The purpose of these experiments is to investigate, from an ethological point of view, how much dogs see AIBO as a conspecific. The questions adressed are: what is the influence on the dog's reactions of movement, smell, presence or absence of eyes, sounds, etc.

    Two kinds of situations are tested. In the first one, puppies and adult dogs interact freely with the robot. In the second one, we organise a situation of implicit competition in which the dog has to defend a piece of meat against the arrival of the robot. Comparative studies are done with a remote control car and a real puppy. The results are being analysed and will be published in the near future.

    ... The horrible screams that you hear at the end of this film were made by the experimenters, who were startled to see the dog attack the AIBO.

    This was the first time that the AIBO was attacked, but it was not the last. During the course of the experiment, the AIBO was sometimes knocked over, bitten and chewed. It is still in perfect working order, and shows no visible signs of damage.

    Nevertheless, we strongly advise you not to try anything similar with your AIBO. AIBO is strongly built, but it contains many delicate components that could be easily damaged. Your warranty will not cover you if AIBO is damaged in this way.

    (Warning: horribly slow site! Apparently it's been boingboinged.)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]



    posted at: 17:37 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    The speed of sound underwater ...

    ... Is about 3000 kilometres per hour. Which is why this report on a supercavitating projectile test (in a flow chamber, not the open ocean -- it's an experiment, see) that broke the sound barrier underwater is rather significant.

    Supercavitation is the big new thing in torpedo and submarine design; the Russians are already offering for sale the Shkval-E underwater rocket, an unguided torpedo that runs at upwards of 200 knots, but much more exotic stuff is on the horizon. (There's a longer and more accessible summary here.) One fun implication is that sonobuoys will not be effective at detecting supersonic torpedoes aimed at carriers. Another is that a torpedo swimming at mach one can cover ten kilometres in about eight seconds -- not much time for defenders to take action. Is this going to mean the early demise of those honking great aircraft carriers the US Navy (and Tony Blair) are so fond of?

    More alarmingly, it suggests the possibility of building something not a million miles away from an underwater equivalent of Project Pluto -- fast, nuclear-powered, devastating, and as completely immune to a space-based anti-ballistic missile system as only a submarine "flying" at mach two half a kilometre under the ocean can be. Which would probably be an incredibly unlikely technological development, except the combination of the Bush doctrine (unilateralism) with the development of space-based weapons, and the fact that 70% of the planet's human population live within a hundred kilometres of the sea, makes it kind of inevitable.

    Ain't progress wonderful scary? (<strangelove>Mein fuhrer, I can walk!</strangelove>.)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss ww3 ]



    posted at: 17:21 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Demonstration time

    Took a few hours off from proof-reading to go on today's anti-war demo in Edinburgh. At the peak I think there were around five thousand people marching along Prince's Street, en route from Parliament Square to the foot of the Mound, and then finally to Charlotte Square and a loud if good-natured heckle outside the official state residence of First Minister Jack McConnell. Jack's in trouble; the next Scottish election is due in just six weeks, and he's not exactly endeared himself to a large segment of the public with his existing track record -- the war is less popular north of the border than in England, and he's between a rock and a hard place (that being Tony Blair's disapproval).

    There was one incident that nearly turned violent -- a bunch of four English thugs of the probably-BNP persuasion (very muscular, wearing England football shirts, shaven heads, bad attitude, not part of the demonstration) got into a parked car and tried to drive through the crowd. Luckily they weren't quite crazy enough to run people down and the police intervened fairly rapidly to remove them (shouting something about the need to bomb ragheads in Baghdad). Other than that, relations between the crowd and the police were fine.

    There's due to be a big demonstration in Edinburgh on Saturday. This was a little one -- one of three that intermittently shut down the city centre for most of the day. It's very interesting to see the systematic BBC underreporting of the demos -- far as I can tell, they're on the low side by a factor of at least two.

    There's a lot of government spin going on right now, and I have a bad feeling that the BBC news has been nobbled, probably at director-general level -- the bias is fairly subtle compared to CNN or Fox or similar, but that only makes it worse, given the BBC's reputation for journalistic integrity.

    Next time I'll try to remember to take a camera.

    [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 00:23 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 18 Mar 2003

    War, and Rumours of War

    Rumour has it that all the BBC newsrooms (TV and radio both) have gone onto a wartime schedule and they're expecting something to happen around 10pm tonight, UK time -- which is midnight in Baghdad, if I'm not very much mistaken.

    Here are my guesses about where we're going:

    • Possibly some of the Ba'ath high-ups will try to bump off Saddam. But they'd have to be very good and very lucky to succeed -- they won't be the first plotters to try.
    • The Iraqi army will surrender. Some units of the Republican Guard will; others won't. The US assumption that because the Republican Guard were crap in the Kuwaiti desert in 1991 they'll be crap at defending their own capital city in 2003 is just that -- an assumption, and possibly a faulty one. It could get incredibly ugly if they go for street-fighting through suburbs from which civilians have not been evacuated.
    • The US plans to supply Iraq with food, medicine, and reconstruction aid after the war will prove to be hopelessly inadequate, and hasty improvisation will be required to avert a huge humanitarian catastrophe. This will be represented after the event as a triumph of careful advance planning.
    • Right now, the "reinforced brigade" of US army troops occupying Kabul is actually close to divisional strength. This actually ties down three divisions -- one on the sharp end, one on R&R having come off duty, and one preparing to go in -- out of a total strength of 11 divisions. If we postulate that the US army can nail down and occupy Iraq post- war with a similar sized force, that ties up 6 of the US army's 11 divisions indefinitely. Oops. This is going to have knock-on effects on Bush's ability to do with crises arising in the next year. Maybe he'll try to work around it by reverting to a Churchillian strategy (doomed to failure, as Group Captain Gray, author of this paper, explains). Or maybe he just trusts Kim Jong-Il to sit still and wait his turn?
    • By the same token, the White House "forgot" to allocate any money to reconstructing Afghanistan this year, until Congress reminded them to the tune of $300M. Obviously Iraq can pay for itself. So, with the price of oil dropping, they'll open the stop-cocks and drop it still further. Good news for Bush's friends, who've been buying up mothballed oil refineries -- bad news for the House of Saud, who will get to face a pre-revolutionary situation with an empty treasury. Oops, what was that about the US army already being over-committed?

    If Bush had gone about this sensibly, he could borrow Canadian or German or French or Russian troops to handle the post-war occupation. But as it is, the bill for unilateralism is going to come due only when Iraq surrenders -- when he discovers that, having made his bed, he's going to have to sleep in it alone.

    [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 19:07 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 14 Mar 2003

    A Bad Day on the Sports Desk

    Eek! This has got to be a career-limiting move. (Thanks, Simon!) From the Guardian Sports section, on-line (before they notice and take it down):

    It's really simple: India are already through, New Zealand have to win.

    Meanwhile, have you ever thought WHAT SORT OF LIFE IS THIS AND WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING BOARDING A TRAIN FOR MOORGATE AT 6.30 IN THE MORNING AND THEN STANDING AROUND FOR AGES WAITING FOR A TUBE WHILE STARING AT A SIGN TELLING YOU THAT IF YOU WAIT FOR FOUR MINUTES YOU CAN BOARD A TRAIN TO UXBRIDGE I'D RATHER WAIT FOUR HOURS FOR A JOURNEY WITH THE GRIM REAPER QUITE FRANKLY AND THEN YOU GET TO WORK AND THEN THERE'S THIS AND I KNOW THE CRICKET'S GOOD AND ALL THAT BUT I'VE GOT OUT OF THE WRONG SIDE OF BED THIS MORNING AND IN ANY CASE IT'S NOT AS IF I'LL WRITE A CRACKING MATCH REPORT AND THEN GET REWARDED BY BEING SENT ON A WONDERFUL ASSIGNMENT AROUND THE WORLD BECAUSE I'LL BE VERY SURPRISED IF ANY OF MY BOSSES WILL READ ANY OF THIS ... [ etc etc etc ]

    [ Link ] [ Discuss ]



    posted at: 14:07 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    New concept of the day: Geoslavery

    Geoslavery is a term coined by University of Kansas professor Jerome Dobson to cover certain abuses of GPS technology, when they overlap with ubiquitous surveillance and GIS:

    By combining GIS technology with a global positioning system (GPS) and a radio transmitter and receiver, someone easily can monitor your movements with or without your knowledge. Add to that a transponder -- either implanted into a person or in the form of a bracelet -- that sends an electric shock any time you step out of line, and that person actually can control your movements from a distance.

    ... "In many ways that's what we're doing with prisoners right now, but they've been through a legal process," he said.

    In fact, many of the existing products are marketed to parents as a way to protect their children from kidnappers. Dobson, however, said parents should think twice before using such products.

    "A lot of people think this is a way to protect their children," he said. "But most kidnappers won't have any compunction about cutting the child to remove an implant or bracelet."

    Furthermore, these products rely on wireless networks, which are notoriously easy for hackers to break into, potentially turning the very products meant to protect children into fodder for tech-savvy child predators.

    One of the greatest dangers of geoslavery is that it doesn't apply just to governments. For example, individuals could use the technology to perpetuate various forms of slavery, from child laborers to sex slaves to a simple case of someone controlling the whereabouts of his or her spouse, Dobson said.

    "Many people have concerns today about privacy but they haven't put all the pieces together and realized this means someone can actually control them -- not just know about them, but control them," Dobson said.

    Betcha it'll show up in David Blunkett's next Home Office bill.

    (Work status: still redlined, but 86% of the way through the novel on top of the stack.)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]



    posted at: 14:02 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 12 Mar 2003

    On hold ...

    Current status: 66% of the way through that final draft of the next novel.

    Current in-tray: one stack of 100 book frontspieces to sign, one set of page proofs for Ace, one set of copy edits for Golden Gryphon, and one set of page proofs for Big Engine.

    It's going to be a long week ...



    posted at: 10:46 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 07 Mar 2003

    Reasons to be knackered, Part Two

    I'm now elbow-deep in the final draft (I hope) of "The Iron Sunrise", which is due at Ace by the end of next month. Meanwhile, I am informed that the galley proofs for at least two novels ("Singularity Sky" and "The Atrocity Archive") are due to arrive for proof-reading next week, and there's some threat of a third bunch of typescript crashing through the letter-box before the end of the month.

    This is therefore probably going to be my last blog entry until I finish the current novel. Whimper. (Signing out.)

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 15:14 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 05 Mar 2003

    The Perle Plan, Redux

    Secret moles leaked this map of the proposed new, improved, post-US-intervention Middle East.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 18:31 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 04 Mar 2003

    Not Invented in the USA

    Here's a description of the characteristics of a certain political leader and their clique, as a series of bullet points:

    • The leader comes from the major right-wing political party, but represents a right-wing faction within it rather than the party mainstream.
    • The leader and their coterie form a tightly-knit community, bound together by a shared ideological outlook and suspicion of outsiders. They don't trust fellow members of their own party who don't fully subscribe to the clique's world-view.
    • They have a set of policies determined by their ideological outlook, and they appear to be pursuing these policies without any interest in the public response to them. They know they're right and they're not interested in protests: proceeding by consensus is seen as weak.
    • They have made specific electoral calculations about their key constituencies and they are actively carrying out policies that will cement their support in those groups (notably high earners) at the expense of citizens who they don't believe will ever vote for them.
    • The in-group have strong links to key industrial sectors and their policies promote the well-being of those sectors at the expense of others.
    • They're willing to employ legislation to make an end-run around regulations that hamper the industrial sectors they favour.
    • There is a revolving door between senior members of this group and the boardrooms of the largest companies in the industrial sectors they favour.
    • The major private media organisations (notably Rupert Murdoch's News International) loves them. And say to repeatedly, through all their radio, TV and newspaper channels.
    • They're willing to use strategic tax cuts, even if they're unsustainable, to buy popularity just before an election.
    • They're socially conservative with a protestant christian religious background, opposed to minority rights, non-traditional gender relationships, gay rights, sex education, quotas, affirmative action, and so on.
    • They take a dualistic black/white view of foreign affairs -- either you're on their side, or you're sleeping with the enemy.
    • As a corollary, they behave publicly as if they believe their domestic political opposition are disloyal -- traitors or stooges of the enemy, or just plaint corrupt and evil -- rather than acting out of principle on the basis of beliefs they don't share with the administration. (They do not believe in the democratic myth of the "loyal opposition".)
    • The leader has a reputation for being personally charming and affable, but wields the big stick ruthlessly when dealing with any sign of dissent within their party but outside their inner circle. Within the inner circle, it's hard to tell -- they're pathologically secretive about their inner workings, eagerly passing legislation to tighten up control over leaks and official secrets.

    Who am I talking about?

    The answer is ... Margaret Thatcher.

    If you thought this was a portrait of the George W. Bush administration, you wouldn't be far wrong. Bush and Thatcher have far more in common than is obvious at first glance; the entire checklist above, for starters.

    What's less obvious is that the opposition to Bush shares a lot of characteristics with the opposition to Thatcher in her first two terms. Like Bush, Thatcher came to power in conditions of economic disruption and unease. She took actions which were deeply unpopular with a huge section of the British population, and when people protested she didn't listen. Worse: she harangued them right back, questioning their sincerity, accusing them of any number of private and public vices, and in some cases mocking them. "No turning back" was the watchword of the ideologically driven revolution she applied to British political life.

    The opposition to her policies was fragmented. Circumstances beyond their control -- in particular, the unemployment crisis caused by Thatcher's destruction of the state-owned industries (in one year, British GDP slumped by close to ten percent) rendered their model of public administration obsolete. There was indeed no turning back, once the axe fell -- much as the application of unilateralist doctrine has damaged the USA's relations with other countries, destroying a bushel of carefully-nurtured treaties. Members of the political opposition were demoralised and divided after their own eight years of power and failed to provide an effective critique of her works, being too busy fending off the pressures of internal dissent.

    Two to three years into her first term, Thatcher was desperately unpopular with the British electorate. But the divided opposition sacrificed their ability to form a united front against her, and then a sinister fascist dictatorship with local imperialist ambitions handed her the opportunity to run a Short, Victorious War, fly the flag, defend democracy, and roll the voters over in a khaki election victory (aided and abetted by her first cynically-timed round of tax cuts).

    When I was in Boston last month, I met a whole bunch of folks who talked politics with me. I probably have a rather skewed, self- selected collection of friends and acquaintances; I make no claim to have met a valid cross-section of Middle America. But two things stood out like a sore thumb. Firstly, nobody who talked politics was willing to admit that they were a Bush supporter; and secondly, they all felt helpless about the situation. "What can we do? At least before the next election?" As Lord Hailsham, Thatcher's teacher, remarked during a period in opposition during the 1970's, "the British form of government is an elected dictatorship". Thatcher understood this, and ruthlessly exploited the freedom from accountability that her parliamentary majority gave her. In a similar manner, Bush simply cannot be held to account before 2004 by any force other than an impeachment -- and as the events of the 1990's demonstrated, it's incredibly hard to impeach a sitting President, even if Congress and Senate are broadly hostile to him and there is some evidence of malfeasance or moral turpitude.

    This metaphor demonstrates two things. Firstly, it provides a model for the long-term political impact of the Bush administration on domestic US politics. Secondly, it provides an object lesson for political opponents of Bush -- a demonstration of the mistakes that a divided opposition made, which allowed a Bush-like administration to rule without accountability for over a decade. In the words of the old saying, "those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it" -- and I fear that the American centre-left are going to get a bellyfull of Bush if they fail to learn the lessons of Thatcher's legacy.

    [ Discuss politics ]



    posted at: 12:33 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 03 Mar 2003

    Reasons to be knackered, part one

    Astute readers might wonder why I've been blogging lightly lately. The answer is a priority clash. I have a deadline of April 30th, by which time I have to hand over a finished draft of a new SF novel to my editor at Ace. Ordinarily this wouldn't be a problem -- it's already been through two drafts, and although there's some restructuring in the pipeline, it would be quite reasonable to get this done in a couple of months. However, I'm also in the process of selling two huge fantasy novels (in a series) to Tor, and for reasons too tedious to go into here (but not entirely unconnected with marketing schedules) my editor at Tor needed to get the edits nailed down fast. Like, by the end of April. Meanwhile, I'm waiting for the proofs of the first book from Ace to show up any day now, which will need checking for typos within a couple of weeks. And I'm having to fend off Cosmos Books (who for some reason have decided to emit a hardback edition of "Toast" -- next week), Golden Gryphon (copy edits to the US edition of "The Atrocity Archive"), and Editions Robert Lafont (French translation of ditto).

    Well, I just emailed the final draft of "A Family Trade", complete with David Hartwell's edits, to my agent. I'm going to give myself 24 hours to recover before I pick up the penultimate pre-submission draft of "The Iron Sunrise" and start hacking at it. And if anyone knows where I could buy an ACME DIY clone-yourself-kit, I'd be very grateful for the pointer. Because after I get all these edits nailed down, I have until the end of December to write another 190,000 word fantasy novel ...

    [ Discuss writing ]



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

    Sun, 02 Mar 2003

    Close, but no banana

    The ongoing Iraqi situation is having a distorting effect on British -- and world -- politics. There's a fascinating article on the Guardian which explains the background to last Wednesday's huge parliamentary rebellion.

    Key extracts give a feel for how badly the Labour party is rattled:

    ... Foreign Office Ministers were dispatched to the Commons to start 'pressing the flesh'. At 10am Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, was to be seen at the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party in Committee Room 14. Ann Clwyd, darling of the Left, told the meeting that Saddam Hussein should be deposed on humanitarian grounds. How else could the world look the Kurds of northern Iraq in the eye after the years of persecution, torture and death they had suffered at the hands of Iraq?

    More than a dozen MPs said that they swung back behind behind the Government after hearing Clwyd's impassioned call to arms. Clwyd will now start a tour of constituency parties of members who fear de-selection because they decided to side with the Government.

    Let me explain just how important that underlined final sentence is.

    Prior to a parliamentary election, candidates are selected by their local constituency party (subject to some nobbling from Central Office). While most MPs stay in the same constituency for their entire career in parliament (there are no term limits so runs of five or six re-elections are not remarkable), de-selection is the ultimate sanction that a local constituency organisation can impose on a sitting MP -- it forces them to look for another constituency, often one with a worse electoral margin, and puts their career at risk. (It also makes them look like a political carpetbagger.)

    The Parliamentary Labour Party, in thrall to Blair, is actually afraid that MPs who voted for the government could be punished by their local party organisations for defying the will of the voters. As Michael Portillo points out, there are eerie parallels between Blair's persistence in following his policies with messianic fervour in the face of massive public opprobium and the events leading up to be overthrow of Margaret Thatcher by her own party. And as Kamal Ahmed put it, at the end of his time-line of events leading up to the commons rebellion:

    Parliamentary opponents of war said that they will consider tabling a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister if he takes military action without a second resolution. Blair had been given more than a bloody nose. There was now a chance it could be a bloody nightmare.

    Meanwhile, some other fun snippets: huge SNAFUs caused by privatisation of most logistics functions have left British troops in Kuwait so short on food that they're relying on food parcels sent by their families. Huge cost overruns in an upgrade to the royal dockyards at Devonport look set to line Halliburton's pockets, while the army's Apache helicopters are in mothballs because an attempt to privatise flight crew training resulted in a typical competitive tendering mess. (Oh, and they're outsourcing to the private sector responsibility for maintaining the Ministry of Defense's secret records.) If Blair gets his way and sends the British military into Iraq he'll be sending them in with inadequate equipment and supplies, largely due to his slavish pursuit of Thatchernomics.

    Meanwhile in the rush to stick Saddam's head on a pike the real issue of who's behind Al Qaida sort of got ignored. It turns out that the Saudi ambassador to London is a former secret policeman and torturer who is alleged to have bankrolled Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden's right hand man. (But that's okay, he isn't a member of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party.)

    And would it be churlish to mention the US dirty tricks campaign currently being pursued against non-aligned nations with seats on the UN security council right now?

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 17:00 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 28 Feb 2003

    Open arse surgery and Lovecraftian horrors

    From the whimsy department -- Feorag's been at it again: this time, a demonstration of open arse surgery on Great Cthulhu. If your horror from beyond spacetime breaks his wing-bone, here's how to make him better again.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss pomo ]



    posted at: 11:46 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 27 Feb 2003

    I'll take mine with milk, no sugar, thanks

    This is just too bizarre to be a joke: a USB-powered electric teacup from the Dreams Come True Co., Ltd, of Japan.

    (No, I don't want one. Apart from being a great way to drain a laptop battery in about five milliseconds and probably burn out your powered USB hub transformer, it's far too small -- and says nothing about Linux compatability, either. And now whenever someone says their PC's cup-holder is broken we'll have to check the USB bus as well as the CDROM drive ...)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 15:07 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Three-line whip

    Looks like nearly a third of the parliamentary labour party rebelled against Blair's three-line whip on policy over Iraq. (I'm pleased to note that my MP, Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North & Leith), was one of the rebels.) It's worth noting -- for non-UK readers -- that under a three-line whip party officials tell MPs how to vote, on pain of punishments up to and including suspension from the party.Blair won, but largely because the entire Conservative party voted with him -- which probably signifies something important about the state of British politics today, if I wasn't too depressed to think about it.

    The shooting hasn't even (officially -- if you ignore the bombing raids the UK and USA have been carrying out for the past decade) started yet. If this is a reflection of the situation before the start of hostilities, then if it goes pear-shaped I really think there'll be a new face at 10 Downing Street within a month or so.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 00:27 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 25 Feb 2003

    More signs of the panopticon singularity ...

    From today's Guardian:

    Schoolchildren in Manchester may be filmed during lessons in an attempt to curb unruly behaviour in the classroom.

    Cameras could be installed in up to five schools in the city by Easter under the scheme proposed by education officials.

    The city's chief education officer, Mick Waters, said he had approached the Department for Education to fund what the council describes as discreet webcams. The department launched a behaviour improvement programme last summer, working with 34 local education authorities.

    I barely know where to begin on this one. It's over twenty years since I was in school, and I do not have children of my own, so I'm not well-informed on the subject; but I've got a distinct impression that the way educational institutions are run has changed just a little bit in the past decade. (Teachers forbidden from touching pupils under any circumstances, for fear of a lawsuit alleging sexual molestation? Security guards and police cameras? What the hell is going on?) However, I can't help wondering ...

    Ivan Illich came up with some interesting and challenging observations on education (as well as some outright rubbish). One of his points that struck me as probably valid was that the social structure imposed by a school (circa 1960-1980) was designed to habituate the inmates to the conditions of working life in an industrial society for the majority of the population. That is, it resembled an abstraction of a factory: you had to be there at a set time, follow meaningless and arbitrary rules, perform tasks set by a supervisor, divide your time by the ringing of a bell, clock in and clock out to order, and so on. The system in this form dates to the 19th century, and after a few years in a school run along these lines the environment of an industrial age factory wouldn't seem so strange.

    If we apply Illich's concept to what Manchester City is doing to its classrooms, we get a rather scary picture: unintentionally or otherwise, they are habituating their children to a regime of omnipresent surveillance. Children in the modern classroom may have internet access, but it's censored (by filters that are as good at blocking access to reference sources on biology as they are at blocking access to porn). Physical contact is policed with inappropriate rigour and the full weight of law imposed, so that on occasion children as young as eight have been suspended from school or even prosecuted for "sexual assault" -- playing in the playground with members of the opposite sex. Running and other forms of energetic activity which might result in injury (and a lawsuit) are forbidden. In a heightened atmosphere of social fear over child abductions, the vast majority of parents won't even let a 14-year-old travel across their home town to go to school on their own; they're chaperoned everywhere except among their schoolmates. And now we're adding universal omnipresent surveillance.

    What kind of workplace -- or life -- are we socializing these kids to expect?

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Big Brother ]



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

    Sun, 23 Feb 2003

    More news from Iraq

    The human cost of external pressure for "regime change" is enormous; this article in The Independent puts it in perspective. And if there was any justice, certain politicians in the west would hang for it.

    "I had been instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults. We all know that the regime -- Saddam Hussein -- is not paying the price for economic sanctions; on the contrary, he has been strengthened by them. It is the little people who are losing their children or their parents for lack of untreated water. What is clear is that the Security Council is now out of control, for its actions here undermine its own Charter, and the Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention." (Denis Halliday, UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq, explaining why he resigned from the post in 1998.)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 19:13 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 22 Feb 2003

    The sound of silence

    Sorry for the silence yesterday -- my new laptop arrived, and I was a wee bit preoccupied with moving my work environment over onto it. (For the technovoyeuristically inclined, it's an Apple titanium Powerbook G4, 15" screen, 1GHz processor, 1Gb of RAM, 60Gb disk, DVD-R/CD-RW, running MacOS/X 10.2.4 and a shedload of UNIXy powertools that I had to install on it. The video card alone has roughly 96 times as much memory as my first PC. It chewed a fat hole in my wallet, even though I didn't pay list price for it, and I think I'm going to have to ensure I keep running it for a couple of years.)

    Meanwhile, normal service will be resumed after I get through with listening my way round the museum of Soviet synthesizers. Seems the USSR was big on electronic music machines, and there are loads of samples of their output all over this website.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 13:29 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 20 Feb 2003

    Rumsfeld Lies

    Donald Rumsfeld says it's just "old Europe" (France, Germany, and Belgium) who aren't on board his little bombing campaign in the Middle East. And last week a bunch of nations -- notably the UK (prop, Tony Blair), Italy (prop, Silvio Berlusconi), and various Eastern European EU-candidate states -- published a letter of support for the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. But how significant is that letter, really?

    Here in the UK only a couple of million people came out on the streets to protest their opposition to the war -- but for every person who goes on a demonstration, there are ten who watch it on TV from home thinking "I should be there". (I was one of them, on account of the fact that I was a couple of thousand miles away at the time: otherwise I'd have been on the march in Glasgow.)

    Meanwhile, a fun Gallup poll shows just how illusory the support offered by the governments of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Poland really is. It turns out that of the governments who signed that letter of support, only the UK is actually sending troops to the region. (Talk, as they say, is cheap.) Meanwhile, the governments who aren't have something to gain -- economic aid from the US, for the most part. And the war is wildly unpopular in eastern Europe -- even more so than in France and Germany, according to the poll figures.

    So Rumsfeld's "New Europe" boils down to a bunch of opportunist politicians hoping to land some foreign aid packages, plus Tony Blair. Go figure.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 15:40 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 19 Feb 2003

    Trans-Atlantic schadenfreude

    Having spent a week or so in the States, I still don't have much to contribute about the current mid-east situation. However, two things did strike me as noteworthy.

    Firstly, the newspapers. I was aghast at the lack of discrimination between editorial and news coverage (ex, USA Today, and others -- the NY Times was a notable exception) on front page items, where raw editorial opinion was mingled indiscriminately with news. This was at its worst in the New York Post which succumbed to a bout of rabid Francophobic nationalism that was at best distasteful, using photoshopped images of a UN Security Council session (with the French and German diplomats' heads replaced by those of weasels, and a caption dripping with vitriol that even Goebbels would have balked at), and at worst libelous. But there were elements of it everywhere -- opinion and hot-blooded nationalism replacing cool consideration and analysis. If this is what passes for news coverage in the USA today, it's no surprise that xenophobia and militarism seem to be on the increase there.

    Happily, it is largely a media illusion, rather than reality. Maybe I self-select for liberal-minded friends, but their general mood was one of disbelief in the actions of their own government. It struck a strong chord with me, until I realised I'd seen it before -- in the UK, during the first couple of years of the Thatcher period, before the reality of the situation had quite sunk in. The Bush administration displays exactly the same high-handed autocracy, radical policies pursued without reference to public opinion or political consensus, secretiveness, pursuit of goals that are not publicly announced by means which are, and the same mood of "there is no alternative" -- it's deja vu, all over again. (Except that Thatcher had at least the minor mitigating virtue of intelligence, which is something nobody has accused the Shrub of recently.)

    Bush is America's Thatcher. (And to those of you who wondered why us Brits were always whining about the Iron Lady, here's your chance to experience it at first hand.)

    [ Discuss politics ]



    posted at: 21:00 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Future Shock, Unlimited

    I'm back, although I'm still a bit startled to still be alive after the flight. For those of you who haven't been following the news, the eastern seaboard of the US has been hit by a rather severe blizard. Feorag and I were on what was probably the last Airbus out of Logan -- all the domestic outgoing flights had been cancelled some hours before Lufhansa decided to pitchfork all the passengers who'd made it to the airport for their flights to Germany onto a single Airbus and attempt to make it through the snowdrifts. Feorag's photographs (on Livejournal) should give you a feel for what it was like -- what they don't show is the horizontal sheets of snow driving across the terminal windows!

    While I was gone I got up to quite a lot of things; meetings with my agent and David Hartwell of Tor about the new books, visits to the Boston Museum of Science, a weekend at Boskone, and of course a guided tour of the MIT Media Lab ...

    Which triggered complete future shock, thuswise:

    Imagine you step out of an elevator on the third floor of a university building. You're in a beige carpeted corridor, with whitewashed walls on one side. On the other side, a glass wall separates you from the Disruptive Technology Laboratory. Open the door and look inside. The lab is about thirty feet square, with small offices off to either side. It's cluttered with open plan desks; at one corner a cluster of black sofas sit in a circle around a big television set with a stack of video equipment and an Xbox. At the opposite corner, there's a bench with oscilloscopes, soldering irons, and the other detritus of electronic prototyping. In this room, a bunch of students are trying to reinvent the car steering wheel. The intelligent steering wheel. Approaching a busy roundabout your hands tense and your pulse rate soars; it's a bad time for your cellphone to ring, and this steering wheel knows it -- so it switches the incoming call to voice mail until you're calm enough to talk. You look around the back of the room. Under a sign identifying it as an experiment in Borgables you see the waistcoat that ate Silicon Valley -- the unlikely offspring of a mating between a sewing machine and a laptop computer, bristling with memory, sensors, and i/o devices. (It runs Linux, of course.)

    Go down a floor. Walk through another glass door beneath a sign proclaiming the Opera of the Future; you're in a room full of brightly coloured baloon-shaped musical instruments plugged into a rackful of experimental electronics and controlling computers. It's the children's Symphony, and the object of the project isn't to reinvent the Stradivarius but to change the way toddlers learn to make music -- by giving them brightly coloured toys that provide immediate feedback, letting them explore the shape of sounds for themselves rather than struggling for years to master the piano keyboard or the guitar fretboard. Against one wall there's a table covered in gadgets that look like oversized computer mice. They're percussion instruments -- toys that you can teach a beat to, then beam the sound to your neighbour.

    Take the down elevator again and you're in the quantum computing lab, next to a two-metre high dewar flask full of liquid nitrogen. This is where they're trying to build a quantum computer -- exploiting the eldritch physical phenomenon of quantum decoherence to solve complex iterative problems in linear time. (It's a bit of a culture shock after the children's symphony and the sympathetic steering wheel, but you're beginning to get a feel for how off-balance a tour of this building can make you -- if you expect a random surprise around every corner you won't go wrong.)

    Round the bend you come into a huge open-plan room where Seymour Papert (inventor of Logo and pioneer of computer education for pre-teens) and his research students came up with Lego MindStorms. (At the other side of it there's a comfy sofa in front of a webcam and a video projection screen -- one of the ongoing six-way teleconferences that knit the Media Lab campus together. Just plonk yourself down, pick up the trackball to select a window, and wave "hello" to someone, somewhere -- a far cry from the stiff formality of a pre-arranged video conference.) On a bench at one side of the room there's a stack of Lego bricks and some microcontrollers. At the other side of the room they're working on personal media -- the convergence between weblogs and video, or collaborative tools designed to let classrooms of children build their own newspapers: thee's another group building a software environment that lets you compose music by painting in broad swatches of colour (and turns the resultant picture into conventional musical notation, as well as playing it).

    Fleeing the open plan environment full of brightly coloured Lego parts and video cameras, you find yourself in a machine shop full of robots, laser cutters, and prototype inkjet printers that print integrated circuits instead of pictures. There's a hard engineering back-end behind the brightly coloured toys -- you're slowly realising that most of the experimental gadgets surrounding you were built right here in this building by research students and engineers.

    Welcome to the future. Welcome to the Media Lab. (And just as soon as I get my head screwed back on I'll go and write the trip up in detail for my column in Shopper.)

    [ Discuss new art forms ]



    posted at: 19:42 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 11 Feb 2003

    Good news

    I'm in Boston right now; not much blogging, but I felt the need to announce that Lobsters has made the final shortlist for the Nebula award.

    (Gloat.)

    I'm currently in the basement of the MIT Media Lab; when I get back to the hotel and finish catching up on my sleep deficit (and finish off with visiting the Free Software foundation) I'll try to write up a coherent report. Let's just say, this place is giving me profound future shock right now. (When you walk through a door labelled "Centre for Bits and Atoms" then catch an elevator upstairs into the Disruptive Technologies Lab, and realise that these signs are descriptive, you tend to get a little bit dizzy and need to sit down.)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss shameless self-promotion ]



    posted at: 19:40 | path: /promo | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 07 Feb 2003

    Going quiet ...

    I'm off to Boston on Sunday at zero-dark o'clock, and not back for over a week. This means that blogging will be occasional at best. While I'm not writing here I'll be holing up with my agent and editor to discuss books in progress, getting a guided tour of the MIT Media Lab, and interviewing the folks at the Free Software Foundation -- all that and visiting friends and enjoying Boskone (the Boston SF con that's held next weekend). Just so you know why I'm slacking ...



    posted at: 18:22 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 06 Feb 2003

    Government plagiarised Iraq allegations from student essay

    A rather interesting press release from CASI, the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq, is circulating in the UK today and really bears reading. In particular, it looks as if the British government's dossier on Iraq, "Iraq - Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation", cites as "intelligence material" -- and indeed uses for the bulk of its contents -- text copied (without permission) from a paper in last September's Middle East Review of International Affairs entitled "Iraq's Security and Intelligence Network: A Guide and Analysis" written by Ibrahim al-Marashi, a postgraduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Even his typos and grammatical errors found their way into the Downing Street dossier.

    It gets better: CASI alleges that the two other main sources in the paper were plagiarised from Jane's Intelligence Review by Downing Street: Ken Gause "Can the Iraqi Security Apparatus save Saddam" (November 2002), pp.8-13, and Sean Boyne, "Inside Iraq's Security Network", in 2 parts during 1997.

    As CASI remark in their press release, "None of the sources are acknowledged, leading the reader to believe that the information is a result of direct investigative work, rather than simply copied from pre-existing internet sources. The fact that the texts of these three authors are copied directly results in a proliferation of different transliterations (eg different spellings of Ba'th, depending on which author is being copied)."

    CASI continue in their report: "There are two types of changes incorporated into the British document. Firstly, numbers are increased or are rounded up. So, for example, the section on "Fedayeen Saddam" (pp.15-16) is directly copied from Boyne, almost word for word. The only substantive difference is that Boyne estimates the personnel of the organisation to be 18,000-40,000 (Gause similarly estimates 10-40,000). The British dossier instead writes "30,000 to 40,000". A similar bumping up of figures occurs with the description of the Directorate of Military Intelligence. The second type of change in the British dossier is that it replaces particular words to make the claim sound stronger. So, for example, most of p.9 on the functions of the Mukhabarat is copied directly from Marashi's article, except that when Marashi writes of its role in: 'monitoring foreign embassies in Iraq' this becomes in the British dossier: 'spying on foreign embassies in Iraq'. Similarly, on that same page, whilst Marashi writes of the Mukhabarat: 'aiding opposition groups in hostile regimes' - the British dossier renders this as: 'supporting terrorist organisations in hostile regimes'."

    NOTE: The government says this is an accurate reflection of the current situation in Iraq. But Marashi used as his primary source documents captured in 1991 for the Iraq Research and Documentation Project, and his own research focus is Iraqi intelligence agencies in Kuwait, August 1990 to January 1991. Thus, information presented in the government dossier as relevant is actually twelve years out of date and refers to the situation in another country -- besides being plagiarized and, arguably, done so in criminal violation of the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act (1988).

    [ Link (CASI Thanks, Chris!) ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 11:27 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 04 Feb 2003

    The camel of parliaments

    I confess, I'm baffled.

    Way back in the mists of time, England -- it hadn't conquered Scotland, or even Wales -- was governed by a monarch. The king was attended by his nobility, who sat in the House of Lords to advise him. A little later, as the feudal model devolved towards modernity, the great and the good of the non-nobility were delegated to go and sit in the house of Commons, therein to advice their king on such sensitive matters as the raising of revenue for the exchequer.

    Mostly this system worked. I say "mostly" -- when it broken down, in the 1630's and 1640's, the consequences were spectacular (and fatal for the king). The outcome was one of the first truly modern governments in Europe -- a monarchy in form, but one where an elected House of Commons held the reins and in extremis had the ability to chop off the king's head or chase him into exile if he overstepped his authority.

    With the ascendancy of the House of Commons complete -- as it has been since the passage of the Parliament Act (1945), which formalised the Commons' ability to override any grumbling by the House of Lords, you might think that such a customary system was stable. But no: in 1997, New Labour came to power with a mandate to reform the House of Lords, to turn it into a relevant second chamber of the legislature, one able to meet the needs of a modern revising chamber without the clutter and deadwood of cobwebby hereditary Lordships who had acquired their seats through genetics rather than energetic good works.

    Well, they just screwed the pooch.

    There is no set constitutional mechanism in the UK for installing a new gearbox in the engine of national politics. Playing it by ear, the Blair government first legislated away the right of the hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords. That left a bunch of life peers -- appointed by the Crown at the nod and wink of the Government of the day, incumbent for life, chosen from the ranks of the great and the good. Many of the life peers are highly competent politicians -- many of them are former prime ministers and cabinet ministers, given the job as a sort of sinecure to while away their twilight years -- but with the will to reform it became glaringly clear that the whole concept of appointing the House of Lords as an act of political patronage had no place in a modern democracy.

    Today, the MPs in the House of Commons just exercised a free vote -- one where no party whip applied, to tell them what line to toe -- on the way they thought the House of Lords should be constituted. A motion to make it a 100% elected upper house failed by 17 votes. A motion to make it 80% elected and 20% appointed failed by 3 votes. Very few MPs voted to abolish the house completely, or (Tony Blair's control-freak favourite) make it 100% appointed. In fact, in the end none of the options for reform passed the house.

    Here's my alternative suggestion:

    Make it a jury. Using a lottery based on the electoral register, every year select a group of citizens equal to 20% of the population of the chamber. Give them a year of training in basic constitutional law, and the support of a non-political civil service department, then stick them in the house for five years. (Give them a salary and a pension at least as good as whatever they were earning before being selected for parliament -- we don't want the best and the brightest to have a motive for actively avoiding service in the House of Jurors.) Their job is not to originate law, but to act much as the House of Lords did in the late 19th century -- as a brake on the professional politicians sitting in the House of Commons.

    Give the people a direct role in government.

    Today, about 80% of MPs are lawyers or professional managers. They are not representative of the public at large, nor are their concerns those of ordinary citizens. They probably wouldn't like the idea of having to explain their policies and legislation to a house of citizens -- but it might help keep them in better touch with the people they are supposed to represent, and in extremis prevent or delay blunders such as the Poll Tax.

    And wouldn't politics be a bit more interesting if every 18 year old left school knowing that there was a one in a thousand chance that during their lifetime they would be required to sit in judgement over the proceedings of parliament -- and that almost certainly someone they knew would end up in such a position?

    [ Link ] [ Discuss politics ]



    posted at: 21:19 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 02 Feb 2003

    On the economic consequences of war

    Extremely long detailed survey on the possible economic impact of a western invasion of Iraq, by Dr Vincent Cable. Cable is a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament, Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and was formerly Chief Economist for Shell and director of the International Economics Programme at Chatham House. The survey is long and exhaustive; let's just skip to his conclusions:

    Those in Washington and London planning an invasion of Iraq probably envisage a scenario much like 1991: a quick, successful campaign which leads at most to a very short oil shock and only limited extra spending.

    The longer the war goes on, however, the greater the risk of a more serious shock and greater costs. These would widen the US twin deficits on fiscal and current accounts and probably precipitate a sharp fall in the dollar and painful adjustment, including a recession. This downturn would be transmitted to the rest of the world, including Britain.

    There is a plausible scenario in which a successful war, and the prospect of very low oil prices in the wake of rapidly expanding Iraqi production, brings about a weakening or even collapse of the Saudi regime and a threat to its production. This would then bring us back to something like the conditions in 1979-80, with the consequence of a world recession.

    (His arguments sound plausible to me; and the former Chief Economist for Shell is probably someone worth listening to when he talks about the economic effects of changes in oil pricing resulting from war. Anyone want to pick any holes in this reasoning?)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 14:49 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 01 Feb 2003

    Oh fuck.

    Space shuttle explosion.

    My sympathy to everyone affected by it ...

    Update: Just turned on the TV and saw NASA have declared an emergency. Contact lost with Columbia over Texas, during re-entry for a landing at KSC. Live TV footage showing multiple re-entry trails ... what looked like an explosion or puff of vapour from the largest one ...

    I guess that's going to be the end of the road for the Shuttle program.

    [ Discuss space ]



    posted at: 14:48 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    More news from the wonderful world of our sponsors ...

    Turns out that the BSFA Award final ballot has been announced, and "Router" is on it!

    This means I'll probably end up at the Eastercon this year (where the results are revealed). It also means that an e-text copy of "Router" will probably turn up on the web sooner rather than later (either on Asimov's SF magazine's website or on my fiction site).

    [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 13:41 | path: /promo | permanent link to this entry

    Cat psychology 101

    Meet Mafdet. Mafdet is a roughly eight year old tabby cat: female, neutered, and friendly. She's one of the two cats we adopted from the Edinburgh Cat and Dog Home when Sekhmet died in December. (The other, Frigg, is an enormous -- and enormously overwight -- black panther with a rather odd, stubby tail and a combination of immense patience and feline reserve.) Mafdet is friendly, but anxious. Periodically she'll rush around the house meeping for human company until she finds some attention. She's not a lap cat or shoulder cat, but she likes being stroked and tickled. And when she's found a human being, she'll walk in circles around their ankles. Or around their head, if they happen to be in bed.

    Yesterday afternoon, Mafdet did her meeping thing and rushed up to me while I was standing in the door of Feorag's study. She did the walking in circles thing. Mildly annoyed, I shifted out of the way, and she continued to orbit. So I began to follow her. After a moment, she paused, confused. I continued to walk around her. She got up and began to walk in circles until we were both traipsing through a circle about a metre in diameter. She kept looking over her shoulder at me anxiously. Finally Feorag and I were in stitches with laughter when Feorag pointed out that I really ought to stop -- Mafdet's tail was bushing up with alarm and she was looking distinctly panicky.

    Apparently cats are allowed to walk in circles around humans, but there is something deeply wrong with the universe when a human walks in circles around the cat. (An hour later she was still watching me anxiously whenever out paths crossed. Poor thing ...)

    [ Discuss cats ]



    posted at: 13:09 | path: /cats | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 31 Jan 2003

    The skeleton iBook

    An extremely cute DIY project for totally remodelling your Apple iBook. Needless to say I'm not doing it -- just extended by warranty by 2 years -- but I still think it's cool.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 22:36 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 30 Jan 2003

    Danger, interviewer at work

    Over on The WELL I'm interviewing Cory Doctorow (of BoingBoing fame), my sometime collaborator. Got questions for Cory? Mail me.

    [ Link ]



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

    Yet more marketing from our sponsors

    I am happy to announce that I've just sold another couple of novels (at least, the contracts are on their way from my agent for signing). The two book contract with Tor is for the first two volumes of the Merchant Princes series, and will be sold as fantasy -- the titles are "A Family Trade", and "The Clan Corporate", and the first of them should be in the shops by December 2004.

    (Sic transit the cutting-edge of post-singularity cyberpunk hardcore; but remember, I never promised anyone a literary movement -- just the best entertainment I can write.)

    In other news, my short novel "The Atrocity Archive" has been nominated for the BSFA award, as has my novella "Router", while "Lobsters" is on the preliminary Nebula ballot. And I've finished a passable draft of "The Iron Sunrise". So I'm feeling pretty smug right now.

    If all this news of novels is confusing you, you're not alone; I've got five books scheduled for publication in the United States in the two and a half years starting this August, and to make matters worse one of 'em is coming out in the UK under a different title. If you want to know about them, you can find the FAQ here.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss shameless self-promotion ]



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

    Wed, 29 Jan 2003

    Counting the dead, in advance

    Jonathan Steele, writing in the Guardian, discusses the current official UN estimates of the human cost of "regime change" in Iraq:

    WHO estimates that 100,000 Iraqi civilians could be wounded and another 400,000 hit by disease after the bombing of water and sewage facilities and the disruption of food supplies.

    "The nutritional status of some 3.03 million people will be dire and they will require therapeutic feeding," says the UN children's fund. About four-fifths of these victims will be children under five. The rest will be pregnant and lactating women.

    Although Iraq's population at 26 million is almost the same as Afghanistan's, UN agencies say the effect of war in Iraq would be far worse. Afghanistan is largely rural so that people have long traditions of coping mechanisms.

    By contrast, Iraq has "a relatively urbanised population, with the state providing the basic needs of the population". Some 16 million depend on the monthly "food basket" of basic goods such as rice, sugar, flour, and cooking oil, supplied for free by the Iraqi government.

    ... Medact, the UK affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, estimates casualties could be five times higher than in the 1991 Gulf war. "The avowed US aim of regime change means any new conflict will be much more intense and destructive, and will involve more deadly weapons developed in the interim," it says in a report available on the first Gulf war, the UN calculated that between 3,500 and 15,000 civilians died during the war (plus between 100,000 and 120,000 Iraqi troops). A new war of the kind projected by the US could kill between 2,000 and 50,000 in Baghdad and between 1,200 and 30,000 on the southern and northern fronts in Basra, Kirkuk and Mosul. If biological and chemical weapons were used, up to 33,000 more people could die.

    Medact examines detailed recent analyses by other specialists on the various tactics the US may use. The wide range of figures comes from different estimates of the degree of Iraqi resistance and the length of the war.

    So.

    It would appear that the current US administration believe it's appropriate to respond to the 2900 civilian dead of 9/11 by murdering between ten and a hundred times as many civilians in Iraq. And Tony Blair seems to be a cheerleader for this atrocity.

    This is why we need the International War Crimes Tribunal.

    (Excuse me, please: I'm so angry right now that I'm not feeling very articulate.)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 13:56 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 27 Jan 2003

    The torture chamber is full of brightly-coloured machine parts

    Torture is a grisly, inhumane, evil business. But sometimes it throws up something that can only be described as surreal. Today's issue of The Guardian features "Alphonse Laurencic, [a surrealist artist] who invented a form of 'psychotechnic' torture, according to the research of the art historian Jose Milicua."

    Mr Milicua's information came from a written account of Laurencic's trial before a Francoist military tribunal. That 1939 account was written by a man called R L Chacon who, like anybody allowed to publish by the newly installed dictatorship, could not have been expected to feel any sympathy for what Nazi Germany had already denounced as "degenerative art".

    Laurencic, who claimed to be a painter and conductor in civilian life, created his so-called "coloured cells" as a contribution to the fight against General Franco's rightwing rebel forces.

    The cells, built in 1938 and reportedly hidden from foreign journalists who visited the makeshift jails on Vallmajor and Saragossa streets, were as inspired by ideas of geometric abstraction and surrealism as they were by avant garde art theories on the psychological properties of colours.

    Beds were placed at a 20 degree angle, making them near-impossible to sleep on, and the floors of the 6ft by 3ft cells was scattered with bricks and other geometric blocks to prevent prisoners from walking backwards and forwards, according to the account of Laurencic's trial.

    The only option left to prisoners was staring at the walls, which were curved and covered with mind-altering patterns of cubes, squares, straight lines and spirals which utilised tricks of colour, perspective and scale to cause mental confusion and distress.

    ... According to the prosecutors who put Laurencic on trial in 1939, a jail in Murcia in south-east Spain forced prisoners to view the infamously disturbing scene from Dali and Bunuel's film Un Chien Andalou, in which an eyeball is sliced open.

    There's more. Much more, all of which goes to suggest that the Spanish civil war was a vile and nasty affair, with atrocities committed by all sides -- Franco-era mass graves are still coming to light -- but leaves me pondering; what is the connection between torture and art? Fiction about torture in which it is described as an art form -- typically a performance art, practiced on living flesh -- are not so very unusual, but it seems to be much rarer for the real torturers to try to use art in a manner like this.

    Colour me perplexed.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss new art forms ]



    posted at: 13:24 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 24 Jan 2003

    Torture and the radicalisation of islamicists

    Important article in The Guardian about the way systematic state brutality in Egypt -- typical of many Middle Eastern countries -- provides fuel for the hard-liners of Al Qaida and related factions.

    "Torturing radical Islamists makes them more violent," Dr Suzan Fayad [a psychiatrist, who works with Nadeem, an Egyptian organisation which rehabilitates victims of violence] maintains. "Islamists don't believe too much in psychiatry and rehabilitation. They believe God will help them.

    "In the early 1990s, the government began to torture Islamists. People said, 'Don't torture them; you will make them seek revenge, especially in upper Egypt where there is a culture of revenge killings.'

    "It's torture that makes them angry and take up terrorism."

    Hafiz Abu Sa'eda, the head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, supports Dr Fayad's claim. He believes the main reason that another Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, became more extreme was the torture inflicted on its members.

    "Torture demonstrates that the regime deserves destroying because it does not respect the dignity of the people," he said. "They began to argue that society should be destroyed and rebuilt again on the basis of an Islamic state."

    Much more stuff, well worth reading; especially the point that western pressure since September 2001 has resulted in many middle eastern regimes conducting mass arrests of anyone vaguely suspected of islamist sympathies, increasing their use of torture -- and that this may actually be generating new hard-line terrorists, rather than taking them out of circulation.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss 9/11 ]



    posted at: 10:01 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 23 Jan 2003

    Off again ...

    I'm about to be away for another long weekend. However, dredging through the bookmarks for food for thought, I came across this: a reprint of As we may think, the classic 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush that many people cite as the first description of a hypertext system.

    If you haven't already read this, read it now. The fact that you are able to read it this way is just one aspect of how it has changed our lives. Because, before this article, the idea of being able to work or think this way simply wasn't common (or even uncommon) currency.

    This is how great ideas germinate ...

    [ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]



    posted at: 18:11 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 22 Jan 2003

    Background reading for the upcoming unpleasantness

    It looks increasingly likely that Gulf War 3.0 is due to kick off in the next month, whatever the state of public opinion in the west. I've mostly tried to stay off the topic, because I don't think I've got anything constructive to offer. (As I said the other week, what John LeCarre wrote in The Times goes for me, too; I'm just trying to hang onto the fact that the noises coming out the White House are not a guide to the opinion of all Americans about the war -- or anything else, for that matter.)

    However, here's something useful; a discussion, in historical context, of the different movements within Islam and an analysis of where the militants come from -- including the origins of the movement started by ibn Abdul Wahhab, spiritual father of the Wahhabites (to whom both the Saudi monarchy and Osama bin Laden are adherents).

    Meanwhile, this is a brief run-down of Ba'athism, the ideology underlying Saddam Hussein al-Takriti's regime. It's by no means as comprehensive as the rather frightening discussion in Samir el-Khalil's The Republic of Fear, but the salient points are there; it's a secular, modernizing, national socialist regime, at the opposite end of the middle eastern political spectrum from bin Laden's mystic ascetism.

    And here is a quick time-line of Iraqi history in the 20th century.

    After reading these items, and bearing in mind the absence of evidence unearthed by the UN inspection process, it seems clear that the current war is concerned with enforcing the Carter Doctrine, rather than dealing with the roots of terrorism. But we knew that already, didn't we?

    [ Link ] [ Discuss 9/11 ]



    posted at: 16:22 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 20 Jan 2003

    Nixie tube digital clocks

    This is just so cool.

    Nixie tube clock

    [ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 20:18 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Speaking of art as communication ...

    Is this art?

    (It's certainly an infectious meme, as witness its spread via LiveJournal. But what, exactly, is it communicating?)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss new art forms ]



    posted at: 11:53 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Tolstoy on Art

    Leo Tolstoy's essay on the nature of art (written in 1896) is still worth reading today; in particular, his analysis of art as a form of communication, and of the quality of at as a function of a work's ability to infect other minds, is a striking foreshadowing of the theory of memes. (Other bits -- his insistence on sincerity as the highest value, and its presence in peasant art but not upper-class art -- look somewhat irrelevant or dated from a century's remove, but the core diagnosis seems sound to me.)

    William Burroughs said "language is a virus". Well, I suspect if Leo Tolstoy were around and writing today, he'd probably say "no, language is an operating system; art is a virus."

    [ Link ] [ Discuss new art forms ]



    posted at: 11:52 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 15 Jan 2003

    What he says

    John LeCarre writes a cogent, concise, and angry comment piece in The Times.

    All I can say to this is, he speaks for me, too. Nothing to add, nothing to subtract.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 15:43 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 14 Jan 2003

    RFID chips considered harmless

    RFID (Radio-Frequency ID) chips are turning out to be the latest civil liberties nightmare, according to Declan McCullagh:

    RFID tags are miniscule microchips, which already have shrunk to half the size of a grain of sand. They listen for a radio query and respond by transmitting their unique ID code. Most RFID tags have no batteries: They use the power from the initial radio signal to transmit their response.

    It becomes unnervingly easy to imagine a scenario where everything you buy that's more expensive than a Snickers will sport RFID tags, which typically include a 64-bit unique identifier yielding about 18 thousand trillion possible values. KSW-Microtec, a German company, has invented washable RFID tags designed to be sewn into clothing. And according to EE Times, the European central bank is considering embedding RFID tags into banknotes by 2005.

    That raises the disquieting possibility of being tracked though our personal possessions. Imagine: The Gap links your sweater's RFID tag with the credit card you used to buy it and recognizes you by name when you return. Grocery stores flash ads on wall-sized screens based on your spending patterns, just like in "Minority Report." Police gain a trendy method of constant, cradle-to-grave surveillance.

    You can imagine nightmare legal scenarios that don't involve the cops. Future divorce cases could involve one party seeking a subpoena for RFID logs--to prove that a spouse was in a certain location at a certain time. Future burglars could canvass alleys with RFID detectors, looking for RFID tags on discarded packaging that indicates expensive electronic gear is nearby. In all of these scenarios, the ability to remain anonymous is eroded.

    I'm a paranoiac about civil liberties and privacy, but I have to say "I don't think so". Here's why.

    In some contexts, RFID chips are clearly a good thing -- they're the answer to a retailer's dream, as a combined stock control and anti- shoplifting widget, and a bank's dream, as the solution to counterfeiting and cash counting. They're also good for you and me insofar as they allow us to indelibly label expensive consumer purchases and maybe register them with the police so that in event of a theft the stolen goods can be identified and returned to their owners (us). The problem is of course the ubiquitous surveillance aspect. What we need is a way of selectively anonymizing RFID.

    I envisage a boxy machine about the size of a microwave oven or a front- loading washer-dryer. The machine is quite cheap, because basically all it is is a Faraday cage and a device for generating strong electromagnetic pulses (EMP). EMP fries microelectronics -- including RFID devices. When you get home, you simply dump your shopping bags into the machine and push the button to burn out any electronics that's tagged along for the ride.

    Obviously you wouldn't want to do this to your iPod or laptop or phone, but those are already identifiable by their wireless network address -- and you can switch them off or leave them at home if you don't want to be identified. The big problem is involuntary identification, by RFID bugs buried in your underwear or the chocolate bar in your back pocket, and as long as we can burn out RFID chips we can preserve our privacy to as great (or as little) an extent as we desire.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss Big Brother ]



    posted at: 18:24 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    January Toys

    Two toys have just caught my eye.

    Firstly, some folks swear by Psion palmtops. Psion aren't selling them any more, but still support the machines. Getting them is difficult; for example, the Series 5MX (which originally retailed for £399+VAT) costs aboout £220+VAT via most companies who still hold stock, and auctions for £100-150 on ebay.co.uk (depending on condition). It now turns out that Morgan Computers have got a job lot of factory refurbished machines in, and are selling them for £99.95 (plus VAT and shipping), as new, under warranty. According to usenet discussion they're basically repaired machines cobbled together from defective ones returned under warranty -- but with Psion's guarantee support they're a bargain.

    Secondly, a year or two ago Siemens came out with a widget called the Pocket Reader. This is a large pen-shaped OCR (optical character recognition) gadget. The idea is, if you see something in a newspaper or on a business card you just swipe your Pocket Reader over it, and import the data via a cable onto your PC later. They used to retail for £109 (plus VAT), but Maplin are currently offloading their surplus stock for £30.

    Finally, it turns out there's a freeware Psion utility for sucking the data off a Pocket Reader onto a Series 5MX (or similar) palmtop -- indeed, there are reader clients for most OS's, including Linux at the support page.

    Anyway. The combination of a Series 5MX and a Pocket Reader gives you an interesting gadget -- a pocket-sized OCR pen and a nifty little palmtop with a reasonable keyboard (some people can touch-type on them; I need the Series 5MX's big brother, the Netbook, to do that).

    [ Discuss toys ]



    posted at: 16:53 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 12 Jan 2003

    Patriotism begins in Photoshop

    Propaganda image

    Can you tell the difference between the genuine USAF security poster about hackers (down below) and these?

    [ Link (Thanks, Ciphergoth!) ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]



    posted at: 18:08 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Against the fall of hype

    With the second reel of "Lord of the Rings" in the public eye, it's worth occasionally revisiting old stomping-grounds -- including the tools of the trade of writing high fantasy. This is a link to a very useful essay entitled "On Thud and Blunder", written by none other than the late Poul Anderson -- famous SF writer and noted exponent of the genre.

    Beneath the magic, derring-do, and other glamour, an imaginary world has to work right. In particular, a pre-industrial society, which is what virtually all hf uses for a setting, differs from ours today in countless ways. ... Far too many writers nowadays have supposed that practical day-to-day details are of no importance and hence they, the writers, have no homework to do before they start spinning their yarns. Not so! The consequence of making that assumption is, inevitably, a sleazy product. It may be bought by an editor hard up for material, but it will carry none of the conviction which helps make the work of good writers memorable.

    (Lots of food for thought here -- especially if, like me, you're contemplating writing something not a million miles away from this territory.)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 17:50 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 11 Jan 2003

    Zen semiotics, US Air Force Security Poster Style

    The US Department of Defense has a brilliant line in cheesy security awareness posters of the "Loose lips sink ships" variety; here's what happens when cliched 1940's style institutional art meets computer hacking and 50's B-movie SF art. (The original was found in the wild at http://www.andrews.af.mil/89cg/89cs/scbsi/images/poster8.jpg, i.e. somewhere on a website at Andrews Air Force Base: but the link below points to a mirror site in case somebody with a clue tries to destroy the evidence.)

    Clearly the same artist was at work who designed those comforting ubiquitous surveillance posters for London Transport and the insane logo for Admiral Poindexter's "all your database are belong to us" organisation.

    [ Link ] [ Discuss dumb ]



    posted at: 10:54 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 07 Jan 2003

    Death and Taxes

    According to legend, there's no escape from death or taxes. Now we have conclusive evidence that there's no escape from taxes in death, as that evil miscreant Saint Walburga (d. 777 AD) has discovered.

    It seems the German TV licencing authorities are threatening legal action and a 1000 euro fine if she doesn't pay her TV licence right now.

    (Meanwhile there's no escape from plumbers, as I'm discovering: about two hours ago my central heating boiler decided to die -- the pump's fine, but the automatic ignition ain't talking. It is, of course, the coldest day for about three years, with the temperature outside somewhere in the -1 to -5 degree range and the temperature oop north in the Great Glen possibly as low as -20 celsius. Why couldn't this happen in summer?)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss dumb ]



    posted at: 08:58 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 06 Jan 2003

    Vernor Vinge in The Guardian

    (Well okay, The Observer is the Sunday edition of The Guardian. Still worth reading ...)

    [ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]



    posted at: 23:17 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 04 Jan 2003

    A night at the movies

    Yesterday, I went to the Filmhouse (one of Edinburgh's two alternative cinemas) to see Mamoru Oshii's Avalon.

    I'm not a film critic. I am not very visually literate, and I don't have the critical vocabulary for tackling this kind of media. It's even worse when I try to describe an experience like watching "Avalon", which is positively elephantine, pregnant with hidden meaning and weird symbolism. So here's a bit of background ...

    Mamoru Oshii is probably best known as one of Japan's top anime directors. His best-known film, Ghost in the Shell, pretty much redefined anime as a mature, thoughtful medium for exploring science fictional concepts relating to the nature of identity in an age where personality is reprogrammable and bodies fungible. It has been said, with some justification, that about 50% of "The Matrix" was ripped off from "Ghost in the Shell"; certainly "The Matrix" was a glossier, high-budget Hollywood take on some of the thematic material that Oshii's monumental cartoon dug its teeth into. Because Oshii had complete creative control -- he was working with the sort of budget associated with a feature length animation, rather than the megabuck budgets of a Hollywood blockbuster -- he was able to work without compromise; while "Ghost in the Shell" has more than enough action to keep the Nintendo generation happy, its slow, lingering landscape explorations -- showing the layered archaeology of a century that doesn't yet exist -- were just the most obvious symptoms of the preoccupations of the mind behind the camera.

    Now we come to "Avalon". This isn't anime; it's a real movie, filmed using genuine old-fashioned film cameras and human actors (and some insanely brilliantly stunning CGI work to bulk up the special effects). Oshii filmed "Avalon" in Poland, using Polish actors, and he's clearly been trying to synergise the anime tradition and style with something Central European. Most of "Avalon" is shot in sepia tones; indeed, one way of looking at it is that it's a classic art-house middle-European subtitled art movie in which the characters spend the entire film angsting about the nature of reality between cigarettes. (And shooting things up with helicopter gunships, tanks, and giant robots -- for this is Mamoru Oshii, after all.)

    The basic premise of "Avalon" is simple. In the near future, we have a combination of direct brain interfaces and massively-multiplayer online roleplaying games. One of these, "Avalon", is somewhat illegal -- some of the players, seeking to reach an unclassified (and possibly non-existent) high level, end up brain-dead. A few extremely skilled players play the game for money. One of these, Ash, goes on a quest for the restricted level -- and discovers more than she bargained for.

    It's what Oshii does with this simple-sounding background that is so stunning. He's made a movie that would be literally incomprehensible to any audience, as little as 30 years ago. Concepts like mind uploading, sprite-based animation, RPG character classes, and the emergent economics of MMORPGs glide past in the background without explanation as Ash searches for her key to the highest level. Meanwhile, keep an eye open for the continuity errors -- that aren't. Parts of this movie are shot in gaming hell, and parts are shot in the real world; telling them apart is the tricky bit. There are any number of sly existential posers bound up in the structure of the cinematic narrative that only bit me on the ankle on the way out of the cinema, in discussion with a group of friends. About the only conclusions we could reach were (a) we needed to see the movie again, at least twice, and (b) Oshii fucks with your head.

    (Final taunting note: "Avalon" is not on general release yet. Miramax have apparently acquired distribution rights to it, but don't look for it in a mainstream cinema. It'll probably be easiest to find on DVD, although the canonical 2-disk commemorative edition is out of production.)

    [ Link (Fan site ] [ Discuss Movies ]



    posted at: 12:45 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 03 Jan 2003

    The Kraken wakes ...

    It lives in the deep ocean, it goes "bloop", and the US navy's sonar array keeps picking it up. Whatever it is, the sound it emits is at a very low frequency, implying that the animal producing it is enormous -- larger than a blue whale. Candidates include a 747-sized giant squid, or maybe great Cthulhu.

    I always find it rather humbling to remember that there are vast reaches of the deep ocean floor that we know less about than the far side of the moon ...

    [ Link ] [ Discuss strange wildlife ]



    posted at: 14:56 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 02 Jan 2003

    And now for someting completely different

    Satanic hampsters?

    [ Link ] [ Discuss ]



    posted at: 13:46 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 01 Jan 2003

    Gabe Chouinard sounds off in Locus

    Gabe Choinard has a good rant in the current issue of Locus in this essay. It's a thought-provoking attempt to define the state and future of science fiction as a genre.

    To leap unhesitatingly to his conclusion:

    Our current cultural shift is one that requires fantasy. We've grown tired of the future, have grown tired of the promise of Progress that never really comes. We're tired of looking outward, and have turned our gazes inward. It's time to stop exploring the Outer Rim, and time to start exploring the Inner Being. Science fantasy allows that; hard SF does not. Likewise, science fantasy is more accessible to a generation of potential fans that have grown up on media sci-fi, such as the Star Wars movies. Science fantasy is a freewheeling almost-anything-goes subgenre that fulfills the needs of a culture that has developed a 'half-imagination' over the years.

    I sort of half-disagree with his conclusions. Gabe has put his finger on a couple of important sore points, but I don't think he's identified the cause of the mallaise -- arguable, if it exists -- that currently afflicts written SF.

    Firstly, I think to some extent he conflates the SF readership with fandom, and this is a mistake. While fans are readers, there are many readers of written SF who are not SF fans, and extrapolating from patterns of behaviour observable in fandom to the broader readership is not an entirely safe course of action.

    Secondly, and more importantly, I think he's misidentifying the cause of the shift in the popularity of sub-forms of SF. To some extent, written fiction of any kind is a victim of marketing; authors don't generally sell their products directly to the readers, and a mallaise afflicting the distribution chain can be misattributed to the consumers (by the producers) or vice versa.

    Most importantly, there are two reasons why out current cultural shift might seem to demand fantasy. One is consumer-centred; the hypothesis that our entire culture is teetering on a knife edge of incipient future shock suggests as a corollary that readers want to escape into an experience that reaffirms their sense of permanence -- like most genre fantasy, which rarely questions or overturns the initially established order. (SF is a literature of revolution, and potentially disturbing to a readership who want reassurance.) But there's another hypothesis that needs to be addressed -- the possibility that the pace of change is currently so fast that predicting even the near future has become problematic for the majority of writers, and the producers are therefore shirking the hard task of doing so and retreating into fantasy (which, after all, sells solidly and is easier to extrude).

    Gabe clearly attributes much of the mallaise in genre SF to the readership. Me, I'm not so sure. And I'll probably have more to say on this matter in future (if I pull my finger out and write that critical essay I've been gestating for a couple of months, instead of working on the next novel).

    [Link ] [ Discuss writing ]



    posted at: 19:56 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

    specials:

    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
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