Archive for the ‘sci-fi’ Category

I’ve been reading J.G. Ballard on and off for years. The first thing I read of his was the short story My Dream of Flying to Wake Island, which was included in an anthology edited by (of all people) Frederick Forsyth. I remember vividly the weird, inspiring force of it. Much later I got into him seriously; our local library held a surprising amount of his science fiction.

It was permission to wonder at what mental processes underlay the bizarre things that powerful and respectable people were constantly doing, to treat the present in the same way that other SF writers treat the future and most other writers treat the past. (This is, of course, the distinctive achievement of the New Wave he co-founded.) And, no matter how weird and sinister this history of the future became, Ballard offered us no fear of the future.

I regularly complain that British culture is ridden with compulsory nostalgia. In fact, it seems to me that every citizen is required to complete a term of national service in the past and to remain on the reserve in case of a worrisome outbreak of futurity. I wonder what power relationships this nostalgia conscription serves. Ballard, at least, offered an opportunity to desert from compulsory nostalgia, and a compelling vision of reality-as-fantasy that actually seemed to respond to the forces that govern the future – who fucking cares, after all, about tedious British politics and official literature? (That the Grauniad Review asked Martin Amis of all people to reflect on Ballard is the final, confirming stamp on this.)

The Ballardian environment: someone asks Slashdot for advice about assembling a cluster of servers in tropical jungle, nobody seriously asks why. Brazilians borrow a US Navy tactical communications satellite, which turns out to operate entirely in the clear and unsecured, because who’d do that?

A right-wing US politician advises his colleagues to emulate the Taliban because they

“went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person’s entire processes.”

We know, meanwhile, that the people who did this were the CIA, working for the politicians he supported. As Ballard himself said, of course it’s obscene and intended to be so.

Surprising numbers of people believe that spoof rightwing TV blowhard Stephen Colbert is a real rightwing blowhard.

Additionally, there was no significant difference between the groups in thinking Colbert was funny, but conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.

Accident, or is he deliberately feeding them bad lines? Perhaps that’s how Bush got elected.

Hedi Slimane photographs the cadets of Saint-Cyr; surprisingly basic drugs reactivate an immune mechanism we stopped using 7 million years ago – and what else? In California, people are knocking down houses that were built last year and the swimming pools are famously turning green.

Somali pirates pursue cocaine-white glassfibre Monegasque superyachts; pirates with media spokesmen, that is. RIP, JGB; if you prefer, that is.

25 years; the strike was the first political event, indeed one of the first events, I actually remember. At least I remember power cuts and TV news broadcasts with the number of weeks the miners had been out counting up. After that, I recall Chernobyl – they set up a radiation monitor in the car park and my mother was interviewed on TV in front of it – and Gorbachev (we had a photo of him, complete with birthmark!), and then, it all starts rolling past.

Years later I actually met Scargill, at a conference of economics students; it was some testimony to his oratory that he was cheered to the echo by an audience that included about fifty per cent Young Conservatives. Perhaps it was the other fifty per cent. The organisers certainly aimed for stimulation – the other keynote speakers were John Redwood and Patrick Minford, of all people. Around the same time I met my first Scargill-hater, who actually was an ex-miner. History is like that.

Here is the man himself’s version. I don’t know the detailed history well enough to criticise it, although it strikes me that his idea of cutting off the coal supply to the steel industry, a sort of John Robb-ish cascade-failure attack, was based on a fundamentally false assumption. Namely, it assumed Thatcher cared what happened to the steelworks; as we now know, she was just as keen to screw them as she was the miners, and not much better with regard to the downstream steel-consuming industries either.

But one thing I don’t think anyone has mentioned about this is that whatever had happened in 1984, there could only ever have been a stay of execution for ten years. In 1995, the starting gun for serious climate fear was fired when the IPCC scenarios crossed the 95% confidence interval into significance; and as James Hansen says, it’s the coal. Essentially lumps of carbon, with some added toxic heavy metals for laughs, and there’s so much of the stuff that we won’t run out before we cook the planet.

Consider the alternate history for a moment; NACODS walk out as well, the government is forced to give in. Thatcher, of course, doesn’t quit, but there is either a 1922 Committee coup or else she loses the 1987 election, or perhaps there is a repeat of 1974 – she calls an election for a mandate to take on the miners again, and loses. Neil Kinnock walks into Downing Street, either in a Labour government or a coalition with the Liberals and SDP.

Where do we go from here? The TUC-driven European turn in the Labour Party hasn’t happened yet, but neither has the D-Mark shadowing and ERM fiasco. The Labour Party has taken a goodly dose of the new social movements, as in the original time-line, but the prestige of the NUM on the Left would be immense.

But whatever happens in the Kinnock-Steel government, at some point in 1995 the Chief Scientific Advisor walks into the Cabinet Room, and about ten minutes later, all hell breaks loose. After all, in this scenario we’ve been merrily burning much more coal than in the original timeline for the last ten years, and the coal lobby is the strength of the Left.

The political implications would be more than weird. The activist Left, all other things being equal, is heavily green-influenced, so it ends up against the miners. The mainstream Labour Party is wildly conflicted. And the rightwing science-dodger ecosystem has no choice but to support the miners; Anthony Browne and friends in Doncaster, probably with bags of Exxon-provided cash. Thrill as they try to tack between screwing the government and keeping their North Sea investments.

So the strike 2.0 happens in the late 90s/early 2000s, with mobile phones and the Internet on the protesters’ side (flashmobs at Ferrybridge), tasers and pervasive CCTV on the police side, and all the party affiliations surreally flipped. God knows how that would have played out.

Someone ought to write the book.

One thing this brings up is just how necessary social democracy is; sometimes, it’s not enough to be right, and huge impersonal forces are going to work their will, like the steadily rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And then, it’s up to the society we create around ourselves whether the changes that will happen will be humane or brutal and tragic.

Manly-Warringah RLFC’s successful trip to the UK in the last few weeks, which saw them beat Leeds for the World Club Challenge, was assisted by an interesting piece of technology. All the players have been wearing networked GPS data loggers during the games, so Statto gets a live feed of data on precisely where they move, how fast, and what they’re doing. And just how hard they go in; there’s a three axis accelerometer in there too. It’s the work of their conditioner Dean Robinson.

Aussie clubs have been very good with statistics for years; in the 1990s, the Brits were still very impressed with themselves for counting tackles while the Aussies were looking at how you could measure the energy battle and coach to tire the other side out. But this impresses even me.

Weirdly, in a sense their team is blogging all the time it’s playing. Discussion ensues, over here. They used to say that you can smoke while playing a game but not while playing a sport, but then, the legendary French fullback Puig-Aubert used to bum fags off the fans and he was in the French World Cup winning side of 1951. It’s probably true that you can blog while playing a game, etc, but as you can see, technological change is even getting rid of that distinction.

In a surveillance society, you can be a star blogger without even noticing.

I liked this (via):

Although technically speaking releasing testosterone precursors on the world’s trading floors to try to rally valuations wasn’t criminal as such, the affected traders lobbied to declare it illegal. But governments liked the idea too much, and oxygen masks were forbidden.

(Electronic traders were of course immune, but they knew floor traders would be bullish and that was enough for them to become so, too. Soon there was no need to spend on the chemicals anymore.)

I think it was at last 3GSM I suddenly thought of the possibility of someone inventing a sales drug – a pill that would fill you with energy and induce repetitive behaviour (always be closing, right?), whilst at the same time making you hypersensitive to others’ emotions…but completely indifferent to them, and also completely incurious about what you were doing. The street, or the Street, would probably call it Animal Spirit.

And then I jumped under a tram. No. In fact I thought someone should write the book before someone actually invented it, with whatever nightmarish meat-hook consequences that would have. Then I forgot all about it at wheels-up, until now, when the approach of the next 3GSM brought it slithering to mind.

Cool; an application that uses rules you give it to generate weird and three-dimensional graphics. (Via Sterling, who else.) This comes to mind, though; what if it could generate STL computer-aided design files? They are the kind that the RepRap’s host software eats, I think. And making them in hardware, you have to admit, is just that crucial bit cooler.

Especially when the RepRap ends up surrounding itself in increasingly tiny interlocking cubes, like that spider in the J.G. Ballard story whose web is made of brain tissue, and which eventually goes mad and strangles itself. Hey, you’d get an Arts Council grant for the film, if not the installation. A tad messy even for an art establishment that loved Tracey Emin.

An interesting document was turned up in the course of the row about John Brennan, the CIA officer who was the Obama team’s original choice as intelligence chief before he was dropped as being insufficiently opposed to torture, under a volley of criticism from the blogosphere. (“Opposition was mostly confined to liberal blogs,” said the NYT.) Here’s an interview he did with PBS television.

[INTERVIEWER]:Just before 9/11, in that summer and the spring, how hard was Tenet pushing on the terrorism threat?

[BRENNAN]:I think he was pushing at every opportunity he had. … George and [former CTC Director] Cofer [Black] were very much of a mind-set that we can’t sit back and wait; we need to do things. We need to do things in Afghanistan. We need to go after Al Qaeda. We need to ratchet up the pressure on the Taliban.

George took several trips out to Saudi Arabia and other places to try to gain support from the Arab states to try to put pressure on the Taliban to give up bin Laden and others. George would knock on any door. He would pursue any course. I think what he was trying to do, prior to 9/11, was to make sure the administration was focused on that.

[INTERVIEWER]: And were they?

I think they were aware of the issue. I don’t think they, in fact, appreciated the seriousness of it, because I think they were trying to get their ducks in a line on a number of fronts to include Iraq prior to 9/11.

You heard the guy – they didn’t appreciate the threat from Al-Qa’ida because they were busy ginning-up a war with Iraq. And who was responsible for this?

[INTERVIEWER]: When did you get the first hints … that there was this movement in the direction of Iraq …?

[BRENNAN]: The train started to leave the station before the election of 2000, with the neocons putting things out. There was a real focus that we needed to do something about Iraq. It was gaining momentum and strength. And with [Iraqi National Congress founder Ahmad] Chalabi and [former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard] Perle and others feeding those fires, I do think they just had a complete lack of understanding of the complexity of doing something like that.

They’re very outspoken and vocal about the need to take action. It’s easy to execute; if there is criticism that is being made of this administration, [it] is that the decision to take action is only part of the challenge. It’s the follow-through; it’s the strategic planning afterward. Those areas really need to be paid attention to, because the U.S. military [has] no problem as far as just decimating the Iraqi army, but the people like Chalabi and the other neocons, and people like [then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy] Doug Feith, who I think has a very superficial understanding of some of these issues — I don’t know how much time Doug Feith has spent in the Middle East or in Iraq, but it’s a very, very complex society.

Miaow. So catty you could throw him a ball of wool!

[INTERVIEWER, talking about Paul Pilar and the Iraq NIE]: He told us that … even at the time, he wasn’t aware about how politicized it was, but he was — especially as he looks back on it, especially around the “white paper” — really embarrassed, I think is the word he used at how faulty it was. Did it feel that way at the time, or does it just look that way in hindsight?

[BRENNAN]: At the time there were a lot of concerns that it was being politicized by certain individuals within the administration that wanted to get that intelligence base that would justify going forward with the war.

[INTERVIEWER]: Could I ask you who?

Some of the neocons that you refer to were determined to make sure that the intelligence was going to support the ultimate decision.

Ah, I see. The facts were being fixed around the policy. The intelligence was being, ah, sexed up. Recognising this ought to be the criterion of seriousness for anyone seeking a post in the intelligence/foreign policy complex, or indeed anything else. That Brennan does so and says so openly is a very strong mark in his favour, as is this:

That’s where the issue of maintaining an independent intelligence organization is so critically important, because departments have certain policy objectives and goals. If you have a department such as the Department of Defense that controls the intelligence function as well, there is a great potential for that intelligence to be skewed, either wittingly or unwittingly, in support of policy objectives.

Yes. Yes. Which is also why it’s important to maintain a independent career-path there, like it is in the civil service. I was very surprised to learn that had Brennan been appointed, he would have been a rare bird as a career spook in charge of The Community. Mind you, the three best MI5 chiefs – Guy Liddell, David Petrie, and Martin Furnival-Jones, in my opinion – were respectively an army officer, a cop, and a professional spook, so British experience doesn’t necessarily corroborate this.

Clearly it was right to drop him; but it worries me that getting rid of the neocons and torture fans will require people who are a) clued-in about the intelligence service, b) committed to cleaning up, c) ruthless bureaucratic thugs, and if possible d) personally untainted.

Regarding intelligence and independence, meanwhile, this blog has often said that one of the main reasons why the UK got involved in all this is that we don’t have an independent reconnaissance satellite capability. Out of the major powers in Europe, the UK, Spain and Italy went to the war; neither the UK nor Spain has an imagery satellite, and Italy launched one jointly with France a few months after Iraq. France and Germany both have their own synthetic-aperture radar sats, and didn’t go to the war. Poland, Romania, et al have large armies but no recce capability and they went.

But perhaps this isn’t as significant as it used to be. It appears that The Guardian is the first newspaper to become an independent space-faring power. Seriously.

From a vantage point 423 miles above the Earth, the lawless waters of the Gulf of Aden appear tranquil and the 330-metre-long ship sitting low under a £68m cargo looks like a tiny green cigar floating on an inky ocean.

These pictures, taken by a satellite commissioned by the Guardian and hurtling over Africa at four miles a second, show the Sirius Star, the Saudi supertanker which 12 days ago became the biggest prize ever seized by the Somali pirates who have claimed the Gulf of Aden as their hunting ground.

I love the “commissioned by the Guardian and hurtling over Africa at four miles a second” bit. That’s incredibly science-fiction, and in a good way – Arthur C. Clarke would be delighted. This has been possible for some time; who else remembers poring over’s IKONOS or DigitalGlobe shot of the day in the bullshit-rockin’ autumn of 2001? But as far as I know, this is the first attempt by a media organisation to acquire overhead imagery on an operational timescale. Hey, it’s Tim Worstall’s worst nightmare – Polly Toynbee in spaaace!

What might have happened or not happened had somebody tried this earlier is a very interesting question. Of course, finding the Sirius Star is a fairly easy challenge – we know where to look, she is a huge and unambiguous target, and she is nicely contrasting with the sea in a part of the world where the skies are usually clear. We still need SAR capability of our own, quite possibly more than we need Trident, and IKONOS won’t sell you that.

Zombies march on Sarah Palin campaign event, as they do in Halting State (although this seems to have been planned well in advance, and that was a flashmob). Charlie couldn’t predict Sarah Palin, however; politics can always outweird science fiction.

Relatedly, the BT 21CN network upgrade always promised to unearth a ton of weird things in the way of surplus real estate. And the daddy of them all, the fortified Kingsway long-lines exchange under High Holborn is on the market. Originally built as a deep air-raid shelter, with a view to later being part of the Central Line, it became part of Special Operations Executive and then, in 1954, one of four major long distance switching centres that got deep bunkers. The others are or were in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. The Manchester facility, codenamed GUARDIAN as in the newspaper, caught fire a few years back, causing a major outage across much of the North West.

There’s video, too; what struck me is that the entire site is painted Light Straw, BT’s standard colour for absolutely everything (including vans when I was a kid), throughout. Supposedly they rejected the first Ericsson AXE digital switch because it didn’t come in light straw.

Among other things, the Kingsway site was the terminal for the first transatlantic telephone cables, and like all really cool stuff, was imported into the science-fiction canon in 1980 by James Herbert, who gave it mutant rats. Read the whole thing; there are some great stories – they locked the facility down for nuclear attack in October 1962 and didn’t come up for two weeks, occasionally it overheated and bits of the walls melted, the canteen originally served a three-course dinner and had trompe l’oeil murals of tropical islands for windows, there was at one point a pub down there as well, and supposedly the original builders were “from another European country and didn’t know where they were”.

Or *what* they were? Seriously; it’s so Laundryesque it’s not true, especially because the SOE department that was down there packed up lock, stock and barrel on VE Day and BT was never informed what they had been up to. (The Laundry, of course, is a section of SOE that somehow didn’t get shut down in 1945 by the career spooks in SIS.)

But the really spooky and science-fictional detail is this: there are no rats.

more unwritten books

This is fascinating – a drug that up-regulates the rate of neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons, in your brain, which may be a treatment for depression. Obviously the risks are around what happens to the new neurons. I can’t help thinking there’s a science fiction outcome in this somewhere.

He imagined that satellite broadcasting might help a hundred Indian villages save two cows a year and understood what an impact that might have. Says a commenter at PZ Myers’ place, on the occasion of Arthur C. Clarke’s death. Two cows a year; now that’s genius. I can’t presume to say whether this came true; I don’t have any data on satellites and Bos indicus. But I do have some numbers on fish.

Brough Turner likes to keep track of this stuff, and here’s an actual peer-reviewed study. You can get a presentation version here (pdf). On the coast of Kerala, not all that far from Clarke’s home, mobile phone networks deployed in stages down the coast between 1997 and 2000; this graph shows what happened next.


Price is on the Y axis, time on the X. Not just that, but the improvement in allocative efficiency led to an 8% increase in the fishermen’s profits and a 4% drop in the price to the customer; at the same time, the quantity of fish going to waste went down from 6% of the catch to near zero.




Ericsson RBS2111.

I was given Of Time and Stars as a very little boy; I am frankly terrified by the number of people posting all over the Web to say how much it inspired them with the sense of wonder and joy of science…what future was it preparing us for?

Via comp.risks, across the wire the electric message came: German students crack encryption on over 2bn RFID smartcards made by NXP Semiconductor. The cards in question are NXP’s MiFare Classic type, and are used for public transport….but also for access control in sensitive government installations, it turns out. Inevitably, NXP threw up its hands – who could have imagined anyone would use our product against the label?

What is especially interesting is that an unnamed European country has placed troops at facilities that were supposedly secured by MiFare RFID locks; it’s a real HALTING STATE moment. Time to break out the sealed bags of PAYG mobiles and bottled water, start the alerting tree, and move to your crashout location. (I know civil servants who actually did draw new mobiles, on BT Cellnet as was, for the millenium weekend.)

Of course, as the pesky student points out, it’s an inherent weakness of RFID that it’s, well, radio frequency identification; everything is public, so if the crypto doesn’t work, the whole system becomes a menace.

Update: The mighty Bruce Schneier has much more. The cards are the ones used in the Tube.