Weeknote, Sunday 3 July 2022

Some weeks fly by and leave you feeling that nothing has been done. Unfortunately, this is one of those weeks. While I’m sure that if I looked back through my calendar and plotted the meetings I’ve had and the places I’ve been, I would feel like the days had been packed, without doing that, I’m left with the thought that nothing much happened.

Work-wise, that’s not true: I spent two days this week in extensive workshops on a couple of projects. The travel involved (both were early starts up in Peterborough, a two-and-a-half-hour journey from home) also knocked out a lot of my spare time. Even if you’re getting home on time and the travelling is easy (it is), it’s wearing. Even quiet reading becomes a chore if you’re mentally exhausted.

June and July always feel like the sluggish months of the year for me, when the heat of the day saps my energy. Unfortunately, my Indian DNA doesn’t give me the gift of coping well in hot weather: instead, my father’s midlands genes kick in, and I feel like I’m wading through treacle. And apart from the absolute soaking I got cycling down to the station on Thursday morning, the warm weather doesn’t offer much relief.

Writing has been minimal, reading also, but we finished watching Danny Boyle’s Pistol. Unfortunately, the last couple of episodes lost their way a bit. Having focused on humour and fun in the first few, it was hard to turn it around when things got darker later. The murder of Nancy by Sid and Sid’s subsequent death just don’t lend themselves to lightness. Looking at the series as a whole, the episode which focuses on the back story to the song “Bodies” is the pivot: things got a bit scary for the Pistols, and the series reflects that. All that said, the performances are great: no one looks like their character physically, but absolutely nails the characteristics.

Weeknote, Sunday 5th June 2022

This might be abbreviated as we have just returned from spending a long weekend camping with some lovely friends. Memo to self: take more pillows. And a titanium back. Oh, and of course, it rained, because this is England in June. I am fond of camping, though, at least the whole sitting outside with a campfire reading a book bit.

Apparently, there was some kind of jubilee celebration too? Must have missed it.

After much fooling around, I managed to get Scrivener 3 working on Linux via Wine. In theory, this should be easy, but there are a lot of configuration bits and pieces to go through to make it work, and annoyingly the articles which tell you how to do it have some minor errors in the options they suggest. Now I’ve got it done, though. I have been able to completely nuke the Windows partition from my ThinkPad, as there are no other Windows applications I need to use on it.

Watching

Episode three — sorry, “Part III” — of Obi-Wan Kenobi was OK. I’m not really getting drawn into it, which has been true of quite a few of the Netflix/Disney+/Amazon Prime series. I haven’t even really got into the second series of Russian Doll. Maybe it’s me?

Reading

While spending time stuck in a tent, I finished Neal Asher’s Weaponized. Asher’s speciality is space opera on the cusp of horror, with a different take on what a post-scarcity society run by AIs would look like compared with Banks’ Culture. In this one, Asher comes back to a theme that he used in his first novel, Gridlinked — that of what it might be like to be so altered by technology that you start to lose your humanity. Where Gridlinked looked at this from the perspective of computing tech, this time around, it’s about genetic engineering of a sort.

If you’ve read and liked Asher before, you’ll enjoy this one, but parts of it definitely felt like Asher-by-numbers, and I’d like to see him abandon the Polity Universe — although he would probably end up suffering the same experience as Gary Gibson, dropped by his publisher after he started writing novels which weren’t like his Shoal sequence:

The thing I learned writing for Pan Mac was that publishers expect you to write books as much like each other as possible. In many ways, this actually makes sound business sense. It means readers come to you seeking the specific type of experience you can provide them with, and it also makes it easier to market you. You always knew with an Iain M. Banks Culture novel what you were going to get. Ditto with an Peter F. Hamilton book, or even a Clive Cussler book, and so on and so on.

My problem was that no one fucking told me this, so I had to figure it out largely for myself. Unfortunately, I had a problem: I get bored easily. Worse, while I have no trouble generating story ideas, they aren’t automatically ideas that fit in the context of starship+aliens+space travel. Or rather, I had plenty of mediocre ideas for space operas, but brilliant ideas for entirely different kinds of books.

Having read that and Alistair Reynolds’ Eversion in a row, it’s time for a change of tack, and I’m not sure what I’ll read next. I might finish off D. B. C. Pierre’s Release the bats, which is about as far away as you can get from space and aliens.

The New Victoriana

In 1997 I wrote a piece for the long lost and much missed Rewired about a cover story from Wired. It was one of the first pieces I wrote which appeared online, and it’s probably one of the angriest things I’ve ever written. Although reading the Wired piece back I think I might have been a bit harsh, I think I on to something.

Originally published on Rewired, July 7th 1997

Wired 5.07 arrived late in Britain, a couple of weeks after it had first hit the streets of San Francisco. When it did make it, when I finally got around to reading Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden’s cover feature, my reaction was that if they wanted to print a piece of science fiction, why didn’t they get Arthur C. Clarke to write it?

The biggest problem with the feature is that Schwartz, whose well-known views frame the article, only wants to think to one level of difficulty, and his determination to be optimistic makes him refuse to think beyond that. For example, technology will save the environment because “infotech… makes much less impact on the natural world.” And yes, at the simplest level he’s right — the environmental impact of sending something digitally rather than via FedEx is lower.

But this ignores the environmental cost of creating the infrastructure in the first place. Where do all those plastics used in PCs come from? How much water is wasted and polluted in the process of PC and chip manufacture? Problems like these are simply ignored by Schwartz, who would presumably just wave his magic techno-wand and make them go away.

Another example is transportation; Schwartz sings the praises of the hydrogen cell. He ignores the technological problems that need to be solved — fair enough, within the boundaries of this work of “speculation” — but then claims that “the only waste product [is] water.” Yes, at the end of the line — from the car itself — that’s true. But what are the waste products of producing the hydrogen cells in the first place? What is the environmental impact of all that additional water in the atmosphere?

An even worse error is ignoring the impact of the simple production of more cars. When the combined populations of China and India are rich enough to afford the Western standard of a car or two (or more) per family, then you have an awful lot of steel, aluminium, and copper to find somewhere. What’s the impact of the additional mining, smelting, more factories, and so on? These issues, the less obvious ones, are the most important of all — and Schwartz ignores them.

To add insult to injury, the cover line, “We’re facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom and a better environment for the whole world,” doesn’t even reflect the feature. Schwartz’s approach to Africa is typical of this; while the developed world gets ever richer, Africa gets biological warfare, ethnic conflict, and increased poverty (except, of course, in ‘enlightened’ South Africa). The only solution is the eventual intervention of the rest of the world.

Yeah, of course what Africa really needs is more intervention from white men. As if the West’s interventions in Africa for the past 300 years haven’t been damaging enough. Schwartz appears to see the problems of Africa in total isolation from the rest of the world, as if the exploitation of African resources by the West wasn’t continuing to damage the African economy — and, incidentally, provide us rich folk with some of the cheap commodities we take for granted. As if the problems of Africa could be cured by a quick dose of Western culture. As if “enlightened” multinational companies didn’t continue to prop up oppressive dictatorships in order to ensure that business continues smoothly — without the troublesome peasants complaining about the destruction of their livelihoods and environment in the race for “progress”.

Schwartz is just as dumb about Europe, and is particularly naive about Britain. Yes, Britain’s official unemployment rate is much lower than much of the rest of Europe’s — but that has more to do with the way that successive governments have massaged the figures, rather than any huge reduction in unemployment. School leavers, people on training schemes, anyone over 55 — all are excluded from the figures, which makes our level look marvellous. A better measure might have been the OECD’s economic rankings, which Britain has been sliding down for two decades, or that the poorest 10% of Britain’s people are poorer in real terms than they were 20 years ago (while the richest 1% are much, much richer).

But Schwartz evidently doesn’t keep up with European news. Far from Britain being the only “laggard” in the race towards the single European currency, it looks likely that no one will be ready for 1999. Even Germany and France, the two bulwarks of the Euro, are set to fail to meet the economic criteria for entry into the single currency. Schwartz would claim that this is due to their welfare state systems; others, perhaps less ideologically committed to the destruction of welfare states, might point to the crazy cost of pan-European initiatives like the Common Agricultural Policy.

But all that can be avoided by that old fashioned panacea, “strong leadership”. Yes, the people of Europe must suffer when their welfare systems are dismantled, and if they complain strong leaders will push them forward. No matter what they want, this is good for them. This is where Schwartz starts to turn the stomach, but it gets worse.

The crisis in China caused by the difference in wealth between the city dwellers and the peasantry is avoided, by authorities “occasionally using draconian measures”. This offhand way of describing torture and oppression sickens. I wonder whether Peter has ever read an Amnesty International report about China, where one of the favorite “draconian methods” is to insert an electric “crowd control baton” (read as “cattle prod”) into the vagina or anus and turn it on, full blast?

Perhaps in the big picture world that Schwartz lives in, such oppression doesn’t matter. After all, if you can convince yourself that utopia is just around the corner, that all we have to do is be optimistic, then it’ll all be worth it in the end. Sure, this Long March will have some casualties, but what revolution is bloodless? The fact that, once again, the casualties will be the poorest and weakest people in the world doesn’t appear to matter to him.

In the “Goofy Leftists Sniping at Wired” topic in The Well’s Wired conference, I called Wired’s revolution “a nasty Victorian counter-revolution”. Schwartz’ feature typifies that new Victoriana, with its attitude to Africa with its calls for “strong leadership”, with its optimism about progress, and ironically, given the “global” nature of Schwartz’ vision, its flag waving for a particular nation. Yes, the dear old USA, the country that’s “first among equals” must lead the way into this techno-utopia, guiding those backward folks in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.

Just as Britain saw itself as the guardian of the world’s affairs in the last century, a shining beacon of civilization that would bring order and good conduct to the world, so the strong leadership of the US will enlighten us all.

Well excuse me, Peter, but some of us want no part of another age of Victorians. Some of us “just don’t get it”; and don’t want it, either.

Weeknote, 24th April 2022

A brief note this week: we have only just got back from Oxford so there’s not much time to write.
We were in Oxford in part to see Jesse Darling: No Medals No Ribbons at Modern Art Oxford. It’s on for another week, and if you’re in the area I’d really recommend it. Darling’s work is playful, but also fragile, beautiful and sometimes uncomfortable too. Gravity Road, the biggest piece which dominates an entire room, has notes of flight, escape and roller coasters.

Reading

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers. The fact that I read this in less than a day tells you two things: One, it’s short; Two, it’s an absolutely fantastic book. I’ll have more to write about it in due course once I’ve sat on it but this is a story which is filled with delight and wonder and optimism and it’s probably exactly what you need to read right now.

Watching

Dune again. It’s probably sacrilege to say that Villeneuve has created something that easily exceeds its source material but he has with this. There’s hardly a frame in it which isn’t some large degree towards perfection. And boy are there some good battles.

Weeknote: 3rd April 2022

It’s a week since I tested positive for Covid which means it’s been a week when not much has happened other than a large amount of lying in bed and feeling sorry for myself. Having done exactly that on Monday, I tried doing some work on Tuesday, only to collapse back into bed in the afternoon. Friday was the first day where I could actually get through an entire day without feeling so drained that I had to retire and I still feel ill. Bearing in mind that I am vaccinated, boostered and have had it before I dread to think what I would have been like without the essential jabs. And let no one tell you it’s “just like a cold now”, because it isn’t. It’s like the worst flu you’ve had, but lasting longer and being far more infectious.

All of which means I’m in isolation, possibly until Wednesday. Legally of course I could just completely ignore the fact I’m infectious and wander around maskless giving every vulnerable person I meet a disease, but I have more morals than the government so I’m not going to do that.

Annoyingly the enforced isolation comes at precisely the moment I was feeling like emerging from the wintering I’ve been going through – getting the bike out, travelling more (we are supposed to be down in Brighton next week, but with Kim also now isolating there’s no guarantee we can). The past few weeks I have finally started to feel like life is getting moving again, and enjoying it.

Being sick, and so being unable to do the amount of energy-sapping meetings (virtual) as normal also meant I had time to do more writing, and it’s underlined for me how much I miss it. It’s really only in the past five years that my work has moved from writing words to doing spreadsheets/presentations/management and having some space and time to write made a huge difference to how I feel. All of which means I need to carve out time (and protect it) for writing.

Some of that writing – shock, horror – was actually fiction, which is an area that I don’t normally delve into at all. It started with a simple writing prompt and ended up as a solid couple of thousand words in a couple of hours. I’m not saying they are good words, but they’re words.

Reading…

Astounding Days by Arthur C Clarke. This is Clarke’s “science fictional autobiography”, packed full of anecdote about the mid-century science fictional London and his own work. I’ve been listening to a lot of Clarke short stories lately, as I have all five volumes of them via Audible, and they’re great to fall asleep to. I have heard the first half of “The Sentinel” many times: its end, less so.

Writing…

What will it take to change people’s minds about Brexit?

“We survived”

Time lies

Watching…

Picard: it’s getting good.

Meanwhile, on the Internet…

Terry Pratchett pockets a palmtop PC: A short video clip of Terry being interviewed about libraries caught my eye and thanks to some super-sleuthing from Rob Manuel and Jay Grooby I was able to identify the device that he was using to write – an Olivetti Quaderno from 1992. This was a pretty unique mini-laptop which had no pointing device at all, and a really weird placement for the numeric keypad. It also has one of the most weird promo videos of technology history, which is an hour long. The first minute is entirely composed of a women’s gym class and the camera’s focus is mostly the instructors breasts. If any Italian speakers can tell me why, I’d love to know.

Neil Cybart wrote about how Apple is now in a league of its own, and looking at tech at the moment it’s hard to disagree. A great example of this is Universal Control which is an absolute game-changer, and something that only Apple can do thanks to the degree of work they put into underlying technologies and integration.

Jason Snell reviewed the Apple Studio Display and like everyone else loved the display while hating the webcam. Apple really messed up with the software for this.

What will it take to change people’s minds on Brexit?

I do wonder what the level of poverty and misery is that Brexit supporters are willing to inflict on their fellow citizens before they start to think “hang on, I might have made a bit of an error here”.

I suspect the answer is “quite a lot” for a couple of reasons. First, for many, winning the referendum was the first time in maybe a decade they had felt like they had any control over their lives, and were on the “winning” side. Once you have had that feeling, it takes a lot to shift you away from the position of winning: you’re emotionally attached to it in a way which is very, very deep.

Second, though: Brexit was largely delivered by the old, the conservative (small c) and less well-educated. None of those demographics are known for changing their minds often.

What’s also interesting is how the number of people who believe we were right to leave is remarkably consistent. Yes, as of today, 49% believe we were wrong to leave compared to 39% who believe we were right, and the gap has been widening since the middle of last year, but the gap widened in 2020 to about the same amount and then bounced back.

I would love to understand more about the factors moving those polls, because I think it’s almost certainly less obvious than most people think. But it’s clear that there is a rump of probably around a third of the country which believes Brexit was right no matter what the consequences they have seen so far, and are likely to believe the same in the future.

While it’s tempting to think that people are sick of hearing about it and tone down the anti-Brexit rhetoric (I’m looking at you Keir) it’s clear that the underlying attitudes and issues which are driving that 39% are going to be influencing British politics for a long time.

“We survived”

You see a lot of this: “we survived”. It’s called “survivorship bias”, and it’s the error of focusing on those who got past an event while ignoring those who did not. It’s VERY common with people who want to make out “the good old days” were great.

The classic example is in war, of course. You’ll have seen this image on various Twitter threads, from WW2 research: The bullet holes on returning aircraft show areas where a plane could take damage and still fly well enough to return safely to base. Engineers were smart enough to then reinforce the other bits. Clever engineers!

So how about our survivor of poverty? Well we all know that mortality rates for children under 5 have fallen dramatically, as you can see from this graph.

In 1800 in Britain, a whopping 329 children failed to survive their first five years of life. Today that number is four. And the progress is global: since 1990, the number of child deaths per 1000 has fallen from 93 to 37 – still far too high, but a huge improvement in a short space of time.

What does this have to do with Sylvia and her indoor toilets? Well, as you can see in the graph above child mortality rates declined massively from 1900 – 228 per 1000 – to 1950 (44). So those post-1950 boomer births benefitted massively from improved sanitation, vaccination, and living conditions. When Harold MacMillan said in 1957 “you’ve never had it so good”, he wasn’t lying.

But this dramatic fall between 1900 and 1950 masks a further one since: the child mortality rate in the UK is now… 4. Since 1950, we have reduced the number of children dying in early childhood by 90%.

So yes, Sylvia remembers a happy, healthy childhood. But that’s partly because if weren’t healthy you were much less likely to survive to the age of five. And of course, you aren’t around to talk about it today.

Time lies

(Thanks to Lee Woodard for the title!)

This kind of attitude is only possible if you either didn’t live through “the good old days” or now have lost your marbles. I was born and grew up in a council house. It wasn’t a bad area when I was growing up, it was definitely rough round the edges. When I did my CSE social studies and went on a court trip, it wasn’t that surprising that one of our neighbours was up for soliciting. But it was classic working class – as in, most people were working, because jobs existed. Thatcher changed that, but I digress.

When the houses were built, they were new and shiny and everyone wanted to be in them. They were replacements, further out of town, for the slums in the west end of Derby. And those were proper slums: back to back terraces in awful conditions built in the 18th/19th century where disease was rife, plumbing was non-existent, and there was a pub on every corner. When Marx and Engels wrote about the condition of the English working class, they could have been writing about Derby’s west end.

The estate I was born on though was new, and offered a huge upgrade in living standards. There was running water in every house. Actual plumbing. A bath! Three separate bedrooms, a living room and kitchen. A front garden for roses, and a back garden to grow your vegetables. Compared to where my father had grown up, this was luxury. But: there was no central heating. No double glazing, and no insulation to speak of. There was a coal fire in the living room, and the family spent all their time there. There was a toilet – but it was outside, built into the house in a weird arrangement which meant you had to leave the house by the back door and go back in to the toilet. For the first ten years of my life, the toilet was outside, and you get used to checking if the water is frozen before you do a poo. The cold is still something I can feel. All I have to do is close my eyes and that cold comes back.

It was better than working class people had before. But compared to today? It was shit. Anyone who reminisces about then as “the good old days” is deluding themselves. Today I sit in a nice house with double glazing and if I want a pee, I can do it in comfort and warmth. I’m not huddled around a fire on freezing mornings trying desperately to get warm, because the blankets – no duvets – never kept you warm enough at night.

People like “Buy British” and others who harp on about the good old days would last about five minutes if you took away all their creature comforts. As of course would I – and that’s a good thing!

There is this weird attitude amongst idiots like him (and we all know it is a him) that somehow increased prosperity and better living conditions is a bad thing, that people “don’t know they’re born”. It’s nonsense of course. Their parents will have said the same thing of them.

And of course it’s all rosey-tinted bullshit. I grew up with the National Front marching on the streets, gay bashing being run of the mill, black people suffering terrible racism. Women being raped and assaulted and it never being reported. Paedophilia being so unremarkable that “he got a 14 year old pregnant and ran off” was a common topic of conversation (literally everyone knew a bloke who had done something like that). Families all had secrets. The food was shit too, and I could write a hole essay on how food in he old days was crap.

There are no good old days. We have been lucky enough to live in a period where the standard of living has consistently improved, where the basic necessities of life of have been met in ever-better ways. And people like Buy British, with their Rosie-tinted bullshit, conspire in excusing the Tories (for it is them) who are actually now taking us backwards, in every respect. Back to an era when “men were men and women were grateful”. Back to shit housing, poverty food (or no food). Back to when being gay was something you kept silent, or you’d suffer the consequences. Back to black people and women knowing their place and being grateful to white middles aged blokes. Well, Buy British and his chums can all just do one. I don’t want that world back, because I’m old enough to remember it with clearer eyes than theirs.

One more thing. I’ve reminded by posts like these of the wonderful scene in Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman episode “Men of good fortune”, where an old man in 1489 is complaining about how chimneys and handkerchiefs are making people soft. Plus ça change…

Flotsam

I wrote this piece 17 years ago for fun as part of a series about the life I was living at the time. Some of the elements of it had completely slipped my mind. I’m publishing it now basically to put it to bed. It’s waiting a long time.


On beaches, the sea delivers its bounty. Driftwood, old bits of net, occasionally even valuable items are washed up from the oceans on to the edges where sea meets land. Yet wherever there’s a seaside town, the process is reversed: human beings are washed up from the land on to the edges of the sea, attracted by casual jobs, easy sex, or the sense of freedom that inevitably comes from living by what always looks like an infinite ocean.

Wonderboy is a classic example of the kind of person that washes up in Brighton, the most glorious and transient of all British seaside towns. Escaping from a semi-feudal village in the East Midlands, that hinterland of the imagination where I too was born and bred, she moved down to live with her girlfriend after spending far too long as the real only gay in the village. That’s a common story, here. Although few other Brighton refugees have ever snorted drugs off the back of a man wearing a woman’s Tesco uniform, at least to my knowledge. 

What’s less common is what happened next. She split from her girlfriend, and, returning from holiday, Wonderboy found the locks changed, her stuff in the street, and (worst of all) her prized sofa’ssofas sold. Other people would at this point have fled to parents or friends back home, but like many of those who wash up here, Wonderboy was made of sterner stuff. Instead, she slept on the beach, sharing cans with drunks; opened squats and lived with odd South American men; and sold henna tattoos to the tourists to make enough money to buy the essential Marlborough Reds.

We met through mutual friends, andfriends and cemented that friendship over pints of cider at the Earth and Stars, Doctor Brighton’s, and the Marlborough, followed by early mornings dancing like idiots at Revenge. Asking her to share a flat with me was so obvious I can’t believe it took me as long as it did to ask her if, in the vernacular, she was up for it.

She said to me once that I pulled her out of the gutter, but that’s bullshit. She needed a place to live, I needed a flatmate after discovering that living on your own is very, very boring, and we got on. The person who pulled her out of the gutter was herself, because she was always ready to move on, to jump up whenever there was a chance there to be taken. All she needed was an opening. All I did was offer a chink of light.

The irony of it is that our council has actively sought to destroy the kind of peripheries that attract people like Wonderboy, in favour of the smooth, slick, New Labour vision of a family-friendly, everyone-friendly cosy little whitewashed picket fenced Islington-On-Sea. But what they don’t understand is that, no matter how many overpriced new “apartment developments” (“CITY LIVING! BY THE SEA!”) they approve, no matter how many times they try and push out the drunks, the druggies, the detritus, they’ll always fail. Because, at the end of the day, those looking for somewhere to find a little freedom will always wash up here. It’s the sea, you see.

Thinking about the iPad Pro

Want to see the best example of why the iPad isn’t really a multi-tasking professional machine yet? Try opening up Apple TV while you’re connected to an external monitor. Yes, you can play a video file and you will see the movie play on the big screen. Meanwhile, your iPad screen will be black. And try and open up another application so you can do something else on the iPad while watching that movie, and up will pop the application you just opened on the big screen.

Bear in mind that the processor on the iPad that I’m using – last year’s 12.9in iPad Pro – is a pretty powerful thing. And the iPad can do lots of things at the same time: I can have music playing, watch something using Picture in Picture, have two apps on split screen and another one via SlideOver, all cramped on to the iPad’s screen, and it will work perfectly. What I absolutely can’t do have anything on a monitor that’s not mirrored, unless the developer has worked to create an extended view – which most don’t – and even then I can’t really do much else at the same time.

Here’s what you can do: open up the TV app (or any other application which supports something on an external display. Put the app you want to also work on into the other side of the screen, making it split with TV. Play your movie. And it all works! But what a kludgy, useless kind of hack this is.

You can even have have another app on screen as a SlideOver window, and it works! But forget for a minute that you have had to make this crazy fudge of a way of working, and open up another app… and all of a sudden whatever you have on the big screen will stop working, and you’re back in mirroring hell. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will stop (don’t judge me) and you will need to work out how to juggle the windows all over again.

This isn’t good enough. Not for a device that costs north of £1000 and that has the processing power which the M1 delivers. Apple has a lot of work to do with iPadOS, and I would expect it to arrive at this year’s WWDC.