Friday, December 31, 2010

Why write?

This is why. I've been looking for reasons for a while. I knew Marx offered a few, but Keith Richards? Hmm.

Late to the party

This seems to be a time for me to discover lots of blogs that are worth reading. That's partly because I've recently got more interested in economics and futures so have been looking for sources but the best ones I've found range over lots of subjects.

This is a great example of that and I really like the assertion that the singularity, aka the rapture of the nerds, has already been and gone. It ended in 1918 if this is to be believed. There is a great discussion of why the notion of the early Singularity is wrong, here.

Following the early Singularity link lead me to another great blog. Curse you internet, when am I supposed to sleep?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Gun shot

I really hope this never happens to me, but I thought I'd post this information about being shot with a handgun in case I need it in the future. Words cannot do justice to how terrible it sounds and it does make me think that every shooting I've seen in a movie or read about are pale imitations.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Before they were famous - ACC

This is number three in an increasingly regular series.

I thought I would take a leap into the past and see what Arthur C Clarke was like at the start of his career. The first story he sold was Rescue Party which appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in May 1946. It was not the first he had published. A story he sold later, called Loophole,
appeared the month before. Rescue Party was written in March 1945 when ACC was 28, in the RAF and working on the development of radar. Soon after the war he began studying mathematics and physics at Kings.Ron Miller's cover on the June 1950 issue of A...Image via Wikipedia

Knowing that I can see how the atmosphere ACC inhabited while writing the story informs its themes and conclusion. It's essentially a mystery story that reveals how technology helped mankind escape the sun going supernova. The story is broadly about a number of aliens who
investigate what has happened to the creatures that live on Earth. The big reveal comes at the end when humanity is discovered prospering a long way away from Earth. The threat in its closing line is all the more chilling given the period in which it was written.

What is astonishing about the story is its faith that technology can solve all problems and its view of mankind as a vigorous, innovative species that shows up all those aliens by developing technologies in mere centuries that they slaved over for millennia. In that sense it is as dated as an Ealing comedy.

It is also dated by its description of what was cutting edge tech in the 1940s. Valves, relays and thyratrons get a mention as do the "almost human Hollerith analyzers". I wonder if they still used punch cards? It's from a time when IBM, which subsumed Hollerith, was turning out up
to 10 million punch cards a day. Its interesting to note (for me, at least) that the 80 columns of text on some early monitors is a hangover from the punch card days.

From the lordly pedestal of the 21st century those technologies look quaint and I guess the same will be true 70 years from now when a human (or whatever we have become by then) reads the SF of today. Social networks? Pah.

Rescue Party also suffers from the faults of many stories about aliens in that the creatures and races depicted are not really that different from people. They have a few physical and mental differences but those are talked about rather than shown. What was good was that the aliens
are not gods, the technology they use has its limits and much of the tension of the story emerges from a race to find out what happened to man before the sun goes boom and the aliens get fried.

To its credit the story nips along smartly (though there are a lot of adverbs) and is a good whistle-stop tour of a dying Earth. As Eric Flint writes in his introduction, despite the threat at the end, it is an inspiring story. It contemplates a future and mankind's part in it. I don't believe it for a second but its good to dream.
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Thursday, December 02, 2010

Reservoir Gods

And so it came to pass that the Istari were brought before the Council of the Valar to hear more about the signal task their wise masters would set before them.SarumanImage via Wikipedia

And in one voice the Valar spoke. "Maiar, great spirits, my brothers, you know already the work we have charged you with, of giving aid to the good people of Middle Earth to resist Sauron in his dominance. Now we would perform a ritual to that end and bestow on you the names and colours by which you will be known among men. You will be known thus. Saruman, the white; Gandalf, the grey; Radagast, the brown. Oh, and to Allatar and Pallando, you will be, err, blue? Yes, blue."

"And now, we move to..., yes. Radagast. What would you say to the Council?

"Just one thing. Why the fuck do I have to be brown?"

"It is our unquestionable wisdom that..."

"Unquestionable, my arse. Why can't we pick our own colours?"

"No. We tried that before. Didn't work."

"Anyone want to trade? Allatar? Pallando?

"I can think of a reason you're brown."

"Fuck you, Saruman. Easy for you to say. You have a cool-sounding name.

"Grey isn't great."

"It's a sight better than brown, Gandalf. Think grey, get doves, dappled horses, storm clouds. But brown? That's too close to shit.

"Again, I can think of a reason..."

"Saruman, really, shut it. Okay? Or I'll stick that staff where the Daystar don't shine."


"I want to pick my own colour. How about black? I'll be Radagast the black."

Thus spake the Council of the Valar. "Black! You fucking idiot. We're the good guys. Now we know why we named you brown, you shit for brains. You're brown. You are so brown."

"Fuck you."

"And you. You're done."

And so the Council was dissolved and the Istari placed upon Middle Earth to set about their great task. And everywhere Radagast went he was known to say: "Brown, yes, but more towards beige, y'know. Really. That's what they said and who am I to question the wisdom of the Valar?"
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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Capitalism's grave

This is just astonishing. Chomsky always is but this sets a high water mark even for him. I love his assertion that business elites are instinctive Marxists. The questions by Keane Bhatt are pretty damn good too.Mugshot of Charles Luciano at 1936,Italian-Ame...Image via Wikipedia

Reading it brought together a lot of ideas I've been playing with that I had hoped could create an interesting setting for a story. The setting would be a world in which all government is gone and everything is run by organised crime groups.

It'd be an interesting place to write about because much of what is cherishable about the modern age (equality, freedom of speech and movement, social mobility) would be gone. To be honest, I'm increasingly surprised that it has lasted as long as it has.

If a society is built around crime then the norms we are taught and which tell us to treat each other well, or do as we are done by, will have been ripped up. In that setting the social contract that defines civil society, like all verbal contracts, is not worth the paper it is written on.

Mind you, this suggests that not all will be doom and gloom in a crime-controlled civilisation. I wonder if the reverse will be true if the bad guys are in charge. A speakeasy might be a place you go to behave well, hear chamber music and recite poetry.

Bizarrely, my thinking about this was helped by a section of Don Winslow's The Winter of Frankie Machine in which Frankie rants about the differences between organised crime scams and the (legitimate) rackets that big business and politicians run. Frankie makes the point that there is no difference, except that the legitimate scammers tend to get away with it and only the chumps try organised crime.

Winslow's book also has a lot to say about Nixon's links with the mafia. Really? Kennedy, I knew about but Tricky Dick? Hmm.

For a long time though I've stumbled over how that society might come about. It seemed too much of a leap to just impose it. I needed some event or chain of circumstances that pointed in the right direction even if they did not lead me by the hand. The map not the territory.

The Chomsky interview suggests those circumstances might have already come about. Evidence for this is here (and you don't get much better witnesses than a former chief economist of the IMF) and in many of the posts here. No doubt I'll be getting Yves Smith's book as well.

I realise that all the information here plays to my white, liberal, middle-aged bias and there are other legitimate interpretations of recent events but I also realise that you need a place to stand if you want to view the territory.

I was loathe to post this as it strays a bit too close to the real world and actual events. As this blog is supposed to be about fiction that troubled me as I wanted to maintain that air gap between one and the other. What I'm starting to see more clearly than ever is how much of a fiction, fiction is. It's not fact, it's not fantasy, it's life.Enhanced by Zemanta

Friday, November 19, 2010

Good reading

Another ace find. An actually useful list of the good bits on the web. I've seen a lot of this type of site and many lose focus after a while and neurotically link to everything that anyone has remotely liked. This looks much more discerning plus it chimes with my guilty white liberal POV.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Look and learn

Great feature about how data is changing the way some humanities scholars are approaching their subject. I love the section that mentions a project to trace how ideas spread by plotting the letters sent between eminent thinkers. Plenty of grist for lots of mills.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Card sharps

I have no idea why anyone would play poker online for real money and this story only serves to re-inforce my prejudice. Mind you it is a great glimpse into a very odd world.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Famous numbers

Great deconstruction of why the numbers on Number 10 look like that plus a history of how it has changed. Ace.

High flying

From the wtf dept - the US air force wants to use neural enhancers to make pilots smarter and cripple foes.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Finding focus

Reading these helps me get back into writing. They all have an enviable density that I strive to emulate. The Chabon excerpt is just spectacular. There are others but these are the ones I reach for time and again.

Vladimir Nabokov
Speak, memory: An Autobiography Revisited

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).

William Gibson
New Rose Hotel

Hiroshi showed all the signs of having settled in. He’d found a German girl with a taste for conservative loden and riding boots polished the shade of a fresh chestnut. He’d bought a renovated town house on the right square. He’d taken up fencing and given up kendo.

Michael Chabon
The Martian Agent

A spatulate darkness, shaped like a shark, poured itself along the rue and alleys of the Vieux Carre. It splashed against the sides of houses and shops, then surged up walls of brick and clapboard to flood the Quarter’s rooftops - drowning chimney pots, weather vanes and tin flues - before brimming over the volutes of a cornice and ladling itself once more down an iron balcony to the street.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Slow saucers

Great essay in this new (to me) gem of a magazine. Another one I'm noting that I'm sure I'll want to find at another time. It's great on how the characteristics of UFOs change to match the times in which they are seen. Fabulous.

Six-legged societies

I've been thinking a lot about how and why societies are organised and this look at ants and how they organise their world has straightened out some of my thinking.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Steal this post

I guess there are other measures that could mean this isn't as surprising as it sounds - cyber theft exceeds physical theft - but its still an interesting moment.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Skewed economics

A great look at Somalia and the weird way its society has adapted to rampant criminality. There's even a stock exchange based around the performance of the different pirate gangs.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Trap streets and rooms

I'm a big fan of trap streets as they offer such juicy opportunities for the real and virtual to mix. The link is getting stronger thanks to the growing number of navigation apps on smartphones.

Alchmey and Newton

Newton spent more time on alchemy than on the physics that established his immortality. There's a growing collection of digital copies of his alchemical papers.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Useful Russian words

ne boltai - don't babble
voronok - black raven (Russian equivalent of the Black Maria)
poryadok - order
ushanka hat
pospeshish - lyudei nasmeshish - if you do things in a hurry you will make people laugh
kozha da kosti - skin and bones
sushki - tiny sweet bagels
dvoika - failure
gluposti - silliness
dvoechnik - a failure
pyatorka - success (five)
chut chut - a tiny bit
molodets - good for you
kulturnaya - cultured
blat - connections
gorit i gorit - burning and burning
holod sobachii - dog's freezing cold
vodovorot - whirlpool
lishnie lyudi - useless people
chuzhoi - not part of the family
svoi - part of the family
besporyadok - disorder
rukhami ne trogat - do not touch with hands
Nyet hud bez dobra - there is no evil without good
hozyain - master
dushi - serfs/souls
ukaz - a decree
uzhasnaya - awful
chernila - ink (a name for cheap port)
svolochi - bastards
Most of these were taken from Elena Gorokhova's ace biography A Mountain of Crumbs.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Bout time

Lots of useful information about the arms trade and lots of great settings. Very Gibsonian.

Future gazing

Great insights into what is happening now and how tech/life might develop.

Bot history

Steve Gibson versus the IRC bot handlers (PDF) because I'll need to find this again.

Market maker

Smart tale of a man who prowls second-hand book stores armed with a barcode scanner linked to the web - he only buys the books he can make a profit on.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Search that

I'm very late on to this but it is such genius that I want to record it - a user name that is hard to find online because it has a non-printing character in it. Too cool.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Potions please

The story of Tristan and Isolde must be the first to mention a love potion. It is also, as far as I can see, one of the few to explore the consequences, or lack of them, of drinking such a potion.
The story is that Tristan is bringing the fair Isolde back from Ireland as a wife for his uncle, King Mark. The Love PotionImage via Wikipedia
On the way, the pair manage to drink a love potion that means they fall in love. In some versions they are tricked into drinking it, in others they do it with full knowledge. They continue their journey, Isolde marries Mark, but the two lovers are constantly sneaking away to spend time with each other. The potion, of course, frees them from any responsibility for their actions.
Queen Isolde prepared the potion as a way to ensure that her daughter and King Mark fall in love. Is it something that all Queens get taught? Knowledge of these kinds of things seems taken for granted in fairy tales.
Beyond this, fairy tales that feature magic potions are pretty rare. As far as I can tell. There are a few such as The Little Mermaid, Snow White (kind of), The Water of Life, The Black Bull of Norroway, Donkey Cabbages, the Blue Bird and a few others.
Reading a few fairy tales made me realise that the world they depict is pretty damn strange. Plus some of the basic laws of this world reveal themselves. For instance, if you go weeping in a garden or forest someone will turn up to help you. Usually they have magical powers and will offer to help you in return for you aiding them. These bargains often do not turn out well.
Of course, the whole moral landscape of the fairy tale has been ably mapped out and classified by Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vladimir Propp did the same but with more emphasis on the function of the motifs in the stories. There is even a webpage that lets you generate your own Proppian folk tale. I just tried it and got this as a sample par...
"From the corner of my eye, I saw the man from the mountain open his razored jaw and draw a poisoned needle from underneath his tongue. I watched the needle fly from his finger through my father's ear and out the other, turning all his fluids into ones of pure jade and stone. Then the foreigner strapped my jaded father to his back and continued to ride into forbidding wastelands."
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Sea and surgery

This archive of journals by Royal Navy medical officers (1793 - 1880) looks like an absolute goldmine of felt experience. I wonder if Patrick O'Brian made use of them for Maturin before they were widely known.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Heavens above

Anaximander is the Greek philosopher credited with originating the idea that the sun, moon and stars are set on celestial spheres. At least, he wRosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...Image via Wikipediaas the first to write about it. There's a good chance that the idea was pretty thoroughly discussed in Greek philosophy circles and he is the only one to have his writings about it survive.

The idea he puts forward is that the earth is surrounded by vast nested wheels whose rims were hollow and filled with fire. Holes in the rims let through light that we call the sun, moon and stars. He thought that the stars were closest, then the moon and finally the sun.

The conception of the heavens as being made up of celestial spheres has undergone a lot of modification since Anaximander first wrote about it.

Plato stuck his oar in the 4th century BC saying that the heavens were a vast sphere containing the stars and the planets were set in rings rather than wheel rims. Ptolemy refined this idea and made it much more mathematically rigorous.

From what I can see, it was in the Middle Ages that the idea of the celestial spheres underwent a lot of modification. Probably because maths was being popularised (to an extent) at the same time. The changed idea had an empyrean realm outside that holding the stars which was the abode of God and all the elect (those saved by God).

Interestingly, each of the lower spheres had its own subordinate celestial being that kept them moving - angels. The idea was that the spheres were made of a liquid that was solid (in the sense of continuous) rather than hard.

The growing skill with observation and telescopes kept catching out the models that were being proposed as it kept showing novel phenomena that could not be accounted for.

Maths was key to all this. Especially for those wise men who wanted to operate on the spheres and communicate with the spirits that dwelt within them. Trithemius' great work Steganographia is essentially a book of really hard maths that wise men were supposed to use to understand what was happening above their heads.
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Friday, September 17, 2010

Forward to the past

The opening of this essay - Dickens in Lagos - is just classic. The rest of it isn't bad either. Lapham's is a great find.

Is it me?

Sometimes when writing fiction the hardest thing to leave behind is yourself. This was brought home to me this week when I was preparing to write a difficult scene in which the assistant of the main character was murdered. I'd not been looking forward to it because of the strong emotions involved, my inexperience of writing such a scene and doubts about my descriptive powers to bring the scene alive.ShadowImage by Rickydavid via Flickr

I thought I'd got the answer to the dilemma by making the main character push past the guards and run away. In doing so I was channelling the advice given by Orson Scott Card in his book Character and Viewpoint which ran through a few ways to deal with scenes like this.

However, as I tried to deal with the logistical problems introduced by the MC scarpering I realised that it wasn't him running away from the emotion, it was me. I scrapped the few thousand words I'd written, screwed my courage to the sticking place, sat down and tackled the scene. With the MC watching.

Finished, I re-read it and realised that I'd tried to duck the murder again by making him stare into the eyes of the assistant rather than see the terrible wounds caused by the blade's of the tyrant's guards. I scrapped that and did it again. It's now much better, I think, more honest and I have learned, a little, about how to write a murder scene and explore what a witness might feel. It was harrowing to write and I think some of that comes out on the page.

I've had sneaking suspicions about the shadow a writer casts on their work for some time and I'm willing to be that it can explain lots of the duller bits of lots of books. Like huge sections of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in which he roams around the countryside getting nothing done. That, I'd guess is the result of JKR not wanting things to finish and his time in the wilderness reflects that indecision about the denouement.

The light that fiction casts on the unconscious of the author was brought home most forcefully by an observation made by David Smail. He mentioned the preponderance of fiction written by middle-aged men that features young capable women who conceive an (unlikely) affection for the middle-aged male who is the main character. That might explain the popularity of that sort of fiction with middle-aged men.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy which features a middle-aged man who has a relationship with a younger woman who, conveniently, has a personality disorder that precludes any kind of emotional attachment. Wish fulfilment or strong characterisation? It's too close to call.
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Friday, September 10, 2010

Gibsonian threads

I'm re-reading Spook Country (to familiarise myself with it prior to reading Zero History) and the stitch count meme has turned up again. It's mentioned on page 2 and is used to describe Hollis' bed sheets. I was really happy when I spotted it - I'm such a geek.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Before they were famous

Number two in an occasional series.
An interpretation of Cthulhu in the sunken cit...Image via Wikipedia
Stephen King's first published story was "In a Half World of Terror" though he wanted it to be called "I was a Teenage Grave Robber". It first hit print in 1965 when it was serialised over three issues of a fanzine called Comics Review.

However, that went bust so only two parts were printed. The whole thing was published in 1966 in another fanzine called Stories of Suspense. There are a few copies of the story floating around the web. They are typed in versions as the spelling mistakes in the one I saw wouldn't have made it past any competent editor. I wanted to read it as I'm a fan and I'm curious about how he did in his early days as a writer. As I was with William Gibson.

As tales go, it's not bad. Pulpy, to be sure, but it's action-packed and moves along swiftly. His influences, mainly Lovecraft, are apparent from the name on the grave being robbed to that of the love interest. I'd guess there are a lot I've missed as I've not read too many other pulp writers.

It does have a rough-hewn feel to it as it is peppered with adverbs (I counted 15 including the glorious "stumblingly") and makes some of the mistakes of beginning writers. For instance, it's a first person POV story but one that does not convince. Events are reported not felt. Also nothing happens unless it is filtered through that main view. Plus it messes about timelines in ways that I've always been told to avoid. Maybe he was sure of doing well - as Strunk and White advise? Perhaps, he was 19 when it was published so might just have had the arrogance of youth. The prose is a bit lumpen and skirts the edge of cliche a bit too often. Do chins have corners? Maybe they do. Is the night like velvet? Perhaps it is.

Having said that there are some good details and some of the stylistic elements familiar from the later King are there in shadow form. It doesn't shy away from the nasty stuff and the beasties are a surprise. I was expecting the undead and didn't get it. It's recognisably by him.

I guess the key element that got it published is that it feels whole. All the parts work together. As well as being the love interest Vicki is obviously the good that Dan manages to rescue from his terrible experience. Plus she is the one that emphasises the terrible danger he is in as she has seen what grave robbing can do to a person. He saves her and she saves him. Neat.
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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hypertext - old style

I could almost feel the chunks of information in my head sliding into new constellations as I went through this essay by SBJ. Just fabulous.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

IanVisits » Huge Panorama of London in 1845

Well this, IanVisits » Huge Panorama of London in 1845, could be useful for those scenes in the novel I've not yet written about London which involves an aerial battle, or the view from an airship gondola. Might have to change it slightly to include the ways I'd like to remake London but, hey, it's a start.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Checking Gibson

Every Gibson book I've read has had details in it that have made me turn to the web to check them out. Loden was one and in Idoru I came across one exchange that mentions the "stich count" in Brooks Brothers Oxford shirts. I've encountered bed sheets are sold by thread count in the past but not shirts. It's not that I doubt Mr G but I wanted to know more.
I had no idea that, in some cases, the size of the thread used in the weave determined the name of the garment. It's actually pretty complicated working out which is better when dealing with single and two-ply yarns. Poplin is no longer a mystery to me.
The only query I have is about whether it is possible to spot the right stitch count. I guess you can if you are a tailor or know what you are looking for. Would that be a way to spot the fakes - the stitch count in their shirts? At a high society do? Hmm

IEEE Spectrum: The Future of Social Networking is the Surveillance State

Anything that mentions PKD is bound to catch my eye. This IEEE Spectrum: The Future of Social Networking is the Surveillance State looks interesting too. Not just getting a sense for what is about to happen but also helping with the social sciences. 

Polyvore Taps Users' Passion for Fashion | Kara Swisher | BoomTown | AllThingsD

I'm reading Idoru which is why this Polyvore Taps Users' Passion for Fashion | Kara Swisher | BoomTown | AllThingsD got me thinking. What if fashion trends were based on what people do online - in this case put outfits from different designers together.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Writing rules

I'm not sure how many lists for good writing I have seen, but this,
seems a good one. If only because it makes mentions some of the stuff I've been suspicious about for a while.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Look down

On the platform of my local station, I noticed that the Mind The Gap notice is written in three different fonts. Ooh. So that got me thinking about fonts on the railways and whether that has any history. And, of course, it does.

It wasn't just fonts, either. When British Rail was created back in 1965 it had its own entire design department that worked on everything from fonts to the iconic signs adorning its rolling stock. The folks in that came up with a Rail Alphabet for frick's sake. It replaced the font, Gill Sans, that had been used on the railways since 1928 - two years after Eric Gill came up with it and the same year that Monotype Imaging released it for wider use. Another fan of Gill Sans was, is, the BBC.

Hey, there are also fonts for use on road signs too. Called, almost inevitably, Transport.

It didn't end there. There was also a set of cutlery designed for use on the railways and in many other government institutions. Called "Thrift" it was designed by David Mellor. Spooky moment - his wife was the biographer of Eric Gill. Ooh, it looks like you can still buy Thrift. Fab.

Thrift cut the 11 pieces of flatware usually found in a canteen of cutlery to five and each one was pared back to its basics so it could be made cheaply. Despite that it looks fab. How many hands have held Thrift knives and forks - untold millions I'd guess. How many know? Hardly none, I'd guess. I love the fact that the story is hidden in plain sight though.