Saturday, November 29, 2003

Obligatory post

Interesting piece in BusinessWeek on the rise of India, the basic point being that America can use their demographic advantage, relatively high skill levels, and use of the English language. It's good to see that that this is finally being noticed, as it is one of the biggest stories in the world.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Bruce Sterling's good stuff

Bruce Sterling is often referred to as the other father of cyberpunk besides William Gibson. I don't think that this is in some ways really really accurate, as his work often has strayed far from what is usually described by that word, but maybe it once was. (That said, it is relatively easy to forget that he was perhaps more important as an editor than a writer at the time, particularly if you came in to cyberpunk late). Cyberpunk caught a brief glimpse in the early 1980s as to just how strange the future would be, and while the other cyberpunk writers mostly seemed to keep in touch with that future as it grew less strange, Sterling seems to have let go of that future and instead kept in touch with that sense of strangeness. Although his cyberpunk contemporaries are still in several cases writing good stuff, it feels conventional, as the world has come to resemble the cyberpunk vision of 1982, while Sterling's stuff does not. Sterling seems to have an unending desire to travel the world chasing things that are technology based as well as trendy and hip in a certain way, which is perhaps what keeps his work fresh. In any event, he is one of those writers who I find enormously refreshing to read, simply due to being so smart that I know whatever he has to say on anything is going to be mentally stimulating. (Virginia Postrel is someone else evokes the same reaction in me). Even though there are some things that he writes about with which I substantially disagree (most notably he is far more pessimistic about the consequences of global warming than I am) he always has interesting things to say. And in a world containing so much bullshit, that is a great relief.

Sterling has been writing features for Wired Magazine since it began (and he has always been on the masthead, so maybe they have been paying him a salary all along), but the current editorial regime seems to have rather sensibly ramped up his involvement. He is now writing a monthly column for the magazine, and they are also paying him to blog. He already had a blog somewhere else, but it seems to have moved for financial reasons and hopefully the volume will now increase. This is not to say that Sterling's volume has ever been low, precisely. As well as columns, non-fiction features, short stories, and about a book a year, he also is self-appointed "Pope-Emperor" of the Viridian design movement, which is nominally a movement to solve the world's environmental problems based on the belief that people will solve the world's environmental problems if you provide technological solutions that are really neat and have great design and fashion sense. (The name comes from the fact that "viridian" is a shade of green that is not found in nature, the point being that the viridian movement consists of pro-technology greens). Sterling operates a mailing list of "Viridian notes", which are sent out every now and then (perhaps once a week or two on average). These manage to stay on topic about half the time. the rest of the time, they are simply about whatever is on Sterling's mind. If you go back to what I said about finding just about anything Sterling writes to be interesting and refreshing because he is so smart, you will realise that I find this fine, or indeed actually good. (Sterling also has a tendency to invite readers of the Viridian notes to parties in his home in Austin, Texas from time to time. I really must contive to be in Texas at the right time one of these days).

In any event, I tend to think that if I ever become famous, this blog is going to look something like Sterling's, which is full of thoughts as to what is on his mind, links to things that he has written and that have been published, tantalising references to things that have not yet been published (His new book The Zenith Angle is out in April (although I don't yet know what it is about, other than that someone myseteriously invents a super weapon that attacks US spy satellites, although that sounds like something out of 1950s sf, apart from the satellites), links to interviews he has given, and more. (When I am famous, my blog might have an FAQ list like this, too. (Scroll down a bit) He even addresses the great religious issue as to whether you should use "target=new" to make your links open a new window, a point on which I disagree with the mighty Samizdata editors, but I digress). Like this interview for instance.

At one point Sterling is asked his favourite of his own novels, and his answers are that his readers seem to most likeSchismatrix and Holy Fire, but that he likes a lot of his short fiction. I will agree with him. I love his short fiction. And unlike many science fiction writers who for financial reasons stop publishing short fiction after getting novels published, he continues to write it.

The two novels listed are both good novels - Schismatrix is sort of (in both plot and mood) Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination retold in the computer age, and Holy Fire is set in a world in which demographic trends, medical tehnology, and a certain type of puritanism have been taken to logical extremes - but they are not actually my favourites of Sterling's work. These would be Islands in the Net and Zeitgeist. You could call both of these post September 11 novels in a way. Islands in the Net was published in 1988, but is set in a future world of failed states, multinational corporations, NGOs, organisations that are sort of blurred as to where they are on the continuum between corporations and NGOs, missing nuclear weapons, multinational police/spy organisations with arbitrary powers, and organisations preaching weird mixtures of idealism and terrorism. But despite all that, it's an optimistic future. Sounds weirdly familiar, although I am not always optimistic about the one we are living in.

Zeitgeist, on the other hand, is a (present day) roam around the marginal and somewhat decaying states of South Eastern Europe mixed in with a lot of shady Russian and Turkish crime figures, omniscient (and not) security organisations and a lot of girl band pop music. (Sterling has noticed that in real life, dubious military warlords and manafactured girl band pop singers who belong to some Turko-pop or Serbo-pop movement that would seem very tired in London but is somehow very exciting still in Belgrade or Nicosia seem to go go together somehow). And this is all mixed in with a lot of French deconstructionism. Sterlings readers were divided between those who found the book puzzling and those who found it hysterically funny. The book was written pre-September 11, but there is somehow something very post September 11 about it. (Think of the photos a week or two back of Jessica Lynch and Britney Spears together). Whereas William Gibson wrote a (excellent) post September 11 book post September 11, and Neal Stephenson in Cryptonomicon wrote what was perhaps the quintessential novel about the tech boom of the late 1990s, Sterling wrote his post September 11 novel pre- September 11, and maybe pre 1990.

Which makes me wonder what he will write next.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Light blogging, perhaps

I am visiting a friend in Cambridge, which is beautiful at this time of year. I may or may not be doing any more blogging today, depending on whether my laptop is actually working when I get home. As for the new one, I think I am going for a Dell system with a Pentium 4 2.4 GHz. There is also an option with a Celeron at 2.4GHz for about £60 less, but I am working under the assumption that the Pentium 4 is worth the extra money. Anyone have an opinion on that? (Thanks for the advice on the previous question, by the way).
My regards

May my American readers (and indeed anyone else who wants to celebrate the occasion) have a good Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Posting search requests of the day is just too easy.

And this ended up here just why?

Yes, she is. Married, though.

I believe that lots of people do, although I kind of like the Indian subcontinent myself.

I'll remember to take my own food next time I am in Newfoundland. It's not a particularly pressing issue though.

If that's what turns you on, I suppose.

And I tend to think he was sacked. A poor decision from the selectors if you ask me.
Technical Question

Does anyone have a good idea how an AMD Athlon XP2600+ compares to a Pentium 4 at 2.4GHz in terms of performance, or where I can find some unbiased benchmarks?
Michael Jennings quote of the day

Q. What do you think is the main disadvantage of the contemporary computers, besides being slow?

A. They're full of products from Microsoft.

-- Bruce Sterling, in a Brazilian interview, getting to the core of how Bill Gates has been charging monopoly rents and generally hindering the progress of the computer revolution since 1976.

Update: My blanket anti-Microsoft sentiments have been challenged by a reader. And yes, I was being glib, to some extent. (My opinion of Microsoft is none the less not high). This is one of the occasions where I need to explain myself, the explanation is long, and I really do not have time for this right now. However, I shall do so by the end of the year.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Something worth reading

This article in Prospect on "Market dominant minorities" (ie ethnic minorities that dominate the economies of countries to which they are not indigenous - for instance Chinese in the Philippines or Indians in Kenya) and the problems they face when democracy is increased by Yale law professor Amy Chua is good. Go read.

Link via Patrick Belton, whose comments are also worth reading.

Monday, November 24, 2003


I have a (long) piece on the finish of the rugby World Cup over at ubersportingpundit.

Update: I also have a much shorter piece on England's continuing celebrations of their victory.
Search request of the day

No. I went to the real Cambridge.

After hanging around in the departure lounge at Heathrow for a couple of hours a few weeks back, I ultimately succumbed to one of the posh duty free stores in the departure lounge. In particular, I succumbed to the airport store of Berry Bros & Rudd, the poshest wine merchants in London. (By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen etc etc). This type of posh English shop (that also appeals to a certain type of American) is something I am entirely comfortable with after my years at Cambridge, but that is another story. Suffice to say that it contained some rather good drinks.

I managed to avoid paying £7500 for some stupendous aged magnum of Petrus, but I couldn't resist a (slightly cheaper) bottle of 1984 (bottled 2002) cask strength Dufftown (Speyside) single malt Scotch whisky. This cost more money than I really should have spent, but I will console myself with the fact that I saw a bottle of the same whisky for sale in a department store in Tokyo for three times as much.

Since I returned to London, the bottle has just been sitting in my cupboard, but I have just poured myself a wee dram. This is truly a stunningly good bottle of Scotch.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Another 40th anniversary

Today is the 40th anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode of Dr Who. It is a fine thing that it is coming back. It is a terrible thing that it was ever cancelled in the first place. I am in favour of abolishing the BBC. Besides the fact that the licence fee is obscene, one reason for this is that the BBC is full of the sort of self-important wankers who sneer at genre fiction, even great genre fiction.
Language shifts

David Sucher asks the question "What is genre fiction", and finds further down in his non-permalinked comments that the dictionary definition does not really fit the way in which the word is used nowadays. My thoughts are that in terms of current usage I would define "genre fiction" as fiction designed at a specific audience demographically, and not a widely diverse general audience. Certainly that is the way Hollywood uses the term. Hollywood uses the word for horror, teen comedies, "urban" films (which is code for films aimed at black audiences), certain types of thriller, certain types of animated film (ie those aimed specifically at children rather than those aimed at general audiences - so that "Finding Nemo" is not genre fiction but "The Powerfpuff Girls" is), certain types of fantasy film (By this definition "Underword" is a genre film, whereas "The Lord of the Rings" isn't) and similar.

Interestingly, what Hollywood thinks of as science fiction is (post Star Wars in 1977 at least) not "genre" but mainstream, as it is aimed at general audiences. Whereas written science fiction is very much a genre market, as only certain types of people read it.

In terms of books, I think you might say that "genre fiction" is anything that is filed in a separate section in a bookshop from the standard "fiction" section. In terms of film, it is anything with a budget under about $25 million. (If Hollywood spends more than that it needs to find a general audience in order to make its money back, so "genre films" are generally not made for more than that).

Some would say that as you quote it above, "genre" is a polite word for "ghetto". Certainly it is a term that self-important literary critics (and a certain type of self-important) reader use to snear at types of writing they don't like.

It's interesting to compare the usage of this word with "dialect", actually. Linguists will define a dialect as any specific varient of a language, so that standard American English is a dialect, and so is Glaswegian Scots, and that high German is a dialect, as is Swiss German. (None of these "dialects" can be defined all that specifically, either, as dialects tend to have further sub-varients and blend into one another and lines between them are hard to impossible to draw). However, the word "dialect" as used is often more applied to marginal and non-standard versions of the language than to standard versions.
Living in England, it is of course imperative to talk about the weather

Well, it rained in Sydney for the World Cup final, it is raining and the sky is grey here in London, and two cricket matches in Sri Lanka have been abandoned without play due to rain. Are these separate weather patterns, or is it one big patch of cloud and rain covering Europe, Asia, and Australia? (Yes, I do know the answer, and even that this speculation is silly, and in any event it is easy to check by looking at a satellite photograph or too. However, the weather is getting me down a little).

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