Wednesday, September 26, 2007

God is not Great -- Christopher Hitchens

Having watched, listened to and enjoyed numerous video clips of Christopher Hitchens on You Tube I decided to buy his book God is not Great (How Religion Poisons Everything) and now, being about a third of the way in, I can make some comparisons between it and the Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. In essence the two writers have assaulted the same territory and the books are very similar, but they have approached it from different directions. Dawkins is a scientist used to conveying his ideas in an as clear and concise a manner as possible and, having donned some literary garb, is still doing the same thing but in a much more palatable way for the general reader. Hitchens has approached the whole territory from the literary side and is more focused on that angle than the sometimes quite arid and exact scientific viewpoint, which certainly comes out when you hear Dawkins speak. Certainly Hitchens is just as sincere and strong in his opinions as Dawkins, but he’s also more concerned with writerly flourishes and probably the opinion of the literary critics in his circle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still enjoying his book’s pyrotechnics immensely, and recommend it, however, thus far I prefer The God Delusion.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hospital MRSA.

Our Health Secretary will apparently say, “Today I am setting out how we will equip the new regulator with tougher powers, backed by fines, to inspect, investigate and intervene where hospitals are failing to meet hygiene standards.”

So, apparently, this is going to help crack down on MRSA, but who I wonder is going to be fined? Is it going to be the Nigerian illegal immigrant mopping all the floors and wiping down all surfaces with the same bucket of dirty water? Is it going to be the doctor who failed to wash his hands after taking a dump? Or the nurse whose education now tells her more about how she should treat the Nigerian cleaner than about hygiene? Is it going to be the wanker politicians who so overloaded the NHS with red tape, targets and useless bureacrats to deal with all this that there’s not enough money for a bottle of Domestos? Is it going to be the waste-of-space hospital managers who sit quivering in their offices?

No, of course it isn’t. The dirty hospital will be fined, the guilty parties will continue trousering their inflated salaries, more red tape will be generated, the doctors and nurses will be wasting their time filling in paperwork, and stumbling over a new strata of ideologically correct bureaucrats incapable of dealing with the real problems and, because the hospital budget has been reduced, patient services will be trimmed down, hurried, cut. And where will the money from the fine go? To another hospital? Well maybe a small portion of it, after most of it has been hoovered up by the twats administering it all.

End result: microscopic change in services, huge amounts of money wasted.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Plastic Waste.

Just to put in a counterpoint to my recent rants, I thought I’d point out that though I disagree with the AGW religion, I am in agreement with much else the ‘green’ movement highlights. So, keeping it specific, I though I’d talk about plastics which, in my opinion are worse than AGW, even if it were true.

Plastics are damned useful. They can be formed into just about any shape we might want, they can be impermeable to water, they decay very slowly, they can be as strong as steel and as soft as cotton, excellent insulators, any colour under the sun and even no colour at all. We can make just about anything out of them, and frequently do … but why am I telling you this? If you don’t already know it already, then just walk around your home and you’ll see.

The problem with plastics is that they are damned useful, get used, and decay very slowly. A further problem is the throw-away society in which they are being used. And these facts combined are causing some major fuck-ups. We really should stop using the damned substance unless it is really needed, yet time and time again this oil-based limited resource is used once and discarded. Here’s a few facts grabbed at random off the Internet:

  • A plastic milk jug takes 1 million years to decompose.
  • A plastic cup can take 50 - 80 years to decompose.
  • Americans use 2.5 million plastic bottles every HOUR.
  • Plastic bags and other plastic garbage thrown into the ocean kill as many as 1 million sea creatures every year.
  • An estimated 14 billion pounds of trash, much of it plastic is dumped in the world's oceans every year.
  • There are 13,000 pieces of plastic litter per square kilometre of the world's oceans.
  • The worldwide fishing industry dumps an estimated 150,000 tons of plastic into the ocean each year, including packaging, plastic nets, lines, and buoys.
  • Every year we make enough plastic film to shrink-wrap the state of Texas.
  • Plastic production uses 8% of the world's oil production.
  • Nearly every piece of plastic EVER made still exists today.

I mean, why is it necessary to wrap fruit, which already has a skin, in a layer of plastic, in a plastic tray, and then lug it out of the supermarket in a plastic carrier bag? Hell, just buy your apples or pears and take them home in a re-useable bag, then put them in your fruit bowl. The only difference here would be less plastic crud in your bin ready to go out to the dustmen and end up in the remit of the recycling police.

Another one is cotton buds with plastic sticks: one delve in the earhole then down the toilet and flushed away, then off to fuck up marine life. Plastic carrier bags, give me strength … WHY? Well, because people are accustomed to being supplied with them. Cut the supply and people will soon get used to taking along their own bags, then perhaps we’ll see a few less trees decorated with a foliage of the damned things aruond supermarkets. Plastic bags generally are overused, and found jamming up the guts of numerous sea creatures, along with numerous other throw-away plastic items.

Another great way to cut down on landfill would be if printer companies weren’t so fucking greedy – be nice if just one of them made a printer with refillable reserviors and a life-span above about two years. The same applies to a lot of other electrical stuff.

Then there’s a particular bugbear of mine, and this is directed at you, yes you, the one who buys Volvic, or Evian or any other of those bottled waters. That stuff is no better than tap water, in fact, it is very often much worse and, after you’ve drunk it, one more fucking plastic bottle goes in the bin. Please, Mr or Mrs I-think-I’m-cool-with-my-bottled-water, go find the Penn and Teller video clip on You Tube about bottled water, and learn just how much of a complete prat you are.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Article 10: Into The Machine.

Here's another old one.


INTO THE MACHINE

The image that sticks in my mind, from the covers of early Science Fiction paperbacks, is of a robot, like the bastard offspring of a dustbin and a food processor, chasing a half-naked woman across some lunatic professor’s laboratory. Of course, as was the case with many SF pulps of the time, the stories inside were intelligent, and bore no relation to the cover picture. For this the writers should have fed the publisher feet-first into his own printing press. Ever since early SF writers cast the robot in the role of Frankenstein’s monster, the image of a sentient machine murdering its makers and taking over, has endured – examples of the type being Terminator, HAL, and numerous Dr Who baddies (I’m sure any of you reading this can think of many more). However, for machines to take over bespeaks a certain superiority that does not yet seem likely. First, we must make them better than ourselves.

Although we are even now developing computers that can out-think us in many specific respects, the science of cybernetics, and straightforward material technologies have a long way to go. A computer can beat a man at chess – great – but can it actually pick up the pieces and move them, recognise certain members in the audience, converse with its opponent, then walk away from the table afterwards? We can make a mechanical hand that has a more powerful grip than our own and it can move with eerie similarity, but will it function for eighty years without falling apart? We are an awfully long way from being able to create something that can outperform a human being.

All this is moot, though, for the development of human technology that has taken us from the flint arrowhead to the PC, follows an undeviating course. All our machines are merely tools – extensions of ourselves. Just as binoculars are an extension of human sight, books are an extension of human memory and communication, and just as pair of pliers is an extension of the human hand, the computer is an extension of the human mind. These are, in the main, indirect extensions. But we try to make them more direct all the time: soft shaped grips for the pliers; Windows, mouse, the virtual glove and voice recognition for the computers. We are moving closer all the time – getting into the machine.

Most direct extensions are at present the province of the medical world. Prosthetics have been around since before Captain Hook and in the last century most of us have seen moveable plastic limbs. Prosthetics are, like the rest of our tools, extensions of us. Now consider where they are going.

This technology is developing at an increasing rate: from such devices to assist the body, as do pacemakers and the Jarvik heart pump, we are leaping ahead to those that actually restore function, such as chips surgically implanted to restore sight to the blind. Already being tested are prosthetic limbs that can be surgically attached and wired into the nervous system (the most interesting advance being feedback i.e. making fingertips that can actually feel). Through people like Kevin Warwick, who is actively experimenting with implants to link him to a computer, and through advances in medical prosthetics, we will eventually reach a stage where the replacement is better than the part replaced, or will provide additional abilities. People are going to want these – needed or otherwise.

It could be argued that at this point it would be possible for the superior computer/AI mind to acquire its required physical interface with the world, strangle the mad professor, then march off to exterminate the rest of the human race. However, by then it would be too late for the machines to take over, for we will be as much, if not more than them. By the time we can build a machine that could destroy us, we’ll be able to upgrade ourselves to equivalent or greater efficacy.

Pursuing Warwick’s experiments to one conclusion, it will be possible for the computer to truly become an extension of the human mind – directly linked, not via a nerve impulse to open doors. This may come about as a medical technique for restoring/curing the brain damaged, or it might be developed as the next quickest way to get onto the Internet. Whatever. There will come a time when someone will be able to go into a shop to buy extended memory or larger processing power, and it won’t be for their PC, or rather, the lines will be so blurred that PC and person will be indistinguishable. Your future girlfriend won’t be staying in because she’s washing her hair, but because she’s running a virus check and defrag on what lies underneath it.

Often in SF, the humans are little different from us, and the machines vastly superior. The truth of the matter I feel is that in the next few centuries definitions of what is human will become rather hazy, and the individual of that future unrecognisable to us. In the end humans will be able to upload/download their minds into machines, extend their memory, leave part of their minds in machines, load machine minds and programming into their own. Their bodies might be more synthetics than flesh while biotechnology would have by then given us living computers. Pointing to different items and classifying one as a machine and one as a human being will be as difficult as distinguishing egg white and sugar in a meringue.

Of course, all the above refutes many of the plot elements of Gridlinked with its omnipotent AIs, psychotic android and indefatigable Golem, which goes to prove that truth may well be stranger than fiction, and that writers are not to be trusted.

ENDS

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Film Deal (Not).

Ah bollocks. A month or so ago I got an email from a guy asking me about the film rights for Hilldiggers and, ever since, I was understandably keeping my fingers crossed what with the guy concerned being a story editor from 20th Century Fox. Unfortunately he couldn’t rally up enough interest amidst the executives.

It seems that what I need is one or any combination of three things to become attached to said book: talent (I’m presuming we’re talking about some actor here), book-to-film agent or a producer. So if any of you guys know anything about this sort of stuff…

It is annoying to google ‘book-to-film agent’ and find, for example, this on one screenplay agency site:

Looking for completed feature sci-fi scripts. Only interested in big-budget summer blockbuster-type stories with strong fantastical elements that require lots of special effects.

Damn, apart from the fact that none of my books are scripts, the second sentence describes them perfectly. I need to have a look at my screenplay writing stuff and maybe have a pop at it myself. Either that or try to get someone more experienced with this sort of thing onboard.

Sigh.

Article 9: Literature.

Literature.

According to my dictionary ‘literature’ is a term defining everything from leaflets giving information on haemorrhoids to War and Peace. Even a Blair speech is literature, though a form of it somewhat overburdened by ellipses and bathos. But the first dictionary meaning admits the word commonly refers to ‘poetry, novels, essays etc’, so are all these always literature? No, apparently, because there is another usage of the word that seems to define it by what it is not.

The wider literati intelligentsia – a diverse collection of self-promoting critics and would-be academics – feel it their business to decide what to include under this title and what to exclude. Why they feel they have this right is debateable. But then people of a similar stripe denigrated Charles Dickens for his penny dreadfuls, and William Shakespeare for catering to plebs who just wanted plays containing plenty of royalty, murder, sex and ghosts. So we have this thing I will italicize as literature, and what a strange beast it is.

Genre fiction is not such a beast until sufficiently aged (perhaps buried in peat and dug up again). Those books that are popular and show no sign of going away, are only reluctantly accepted, because to the literati intelligentsia ‘popular’ equals ‘not-literature’. Books moving into the literature category, popular or otherwise, undergo a transformation. In long turgid dissertations they become satirical, noir, surreal, allegory (insert favourite pretension), and the clunky robots, magic swords or smart-talking detectives blowing away bad guys are, with some embarrassment, shuffled off stage. Thus, The Lord of the Rings is a political allegory of World War II and Sauron is quite obviously Hitler; The Sirens of Titan is a superb satire favoured by neophyte academics, but the less said about the Tralfamadorian on Titan the better; and Raymond Chandler ‘leads writers of the twentieth century’ with his ‘brutal noir’ and ‘inimitably literary style’. It would be nice if those writing such dissertations occasionally came out with an honest statement like, “Actually, I really liked that book, but I’m a pretentious git so I’ve got to dress it up in what I consider to be more presentable clothing and work very hard on its diction.”

This is a situation to which those writing fiction in the SFF world are quite accustomed (hence Pratchett’s tongue in cheek statement about being ‘accused of literature’), but it is unfortunate that our genre is not immune, internally, to the same snobbery directed against it, for it is merely a microcosm of the entire writing world and contains its own self-styled judges. In the not-literature category they lump anything by E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs (not sufficiently peat-aged yet), Robert Heinlein (wrong politics) and anything unashamed of being definitely science fiction or fantasy, and in which the writer aims to entertain an audience rather than demonstrate personal brilliance. In the literature category they give us the boredom of the New Wave (in reality just a bigger and noisier version of similar waves spreading their flotsam over the shores of SFF now), various other versions of, “Well, not a lot happened, but I managed to write a novel about it,” and the products of those writers so enamoured of the literature label they produce stunning prose and mind-numbingly deep insights into the human condition, while usually forgetting essential story. The literature/not-literature classifications are all very very subjective and in need of seasoning with large pinches of salt.

But how should you identify excellence? How then do you know what is good? Well, pick it up and read some of it, then if you want to carry on, make your own decision when you finally close it. How, after that, do you identify great literature? Simple really: you bury it in peat for a couple of centuries then see if it is still recognised when dug up. In other words you don’t, posterity does. I suspect today’s literati intelligentsia would be horrified at the rich strata of J K Rowling, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett that will be revealed. But by then, ensuing generations of critics and academics will have produced reams of turgid prose about the work of those writers, without too much mention of gnomes, wizards or vampires.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide!


All rather confirms what I already know about the 'green' movement. Okay, you've done protesting, now get back to Mummy and Daddy's house in Berkshire.

(From Devil's Kitchen)

Media Darlings.

What a contrast we have here. Pavarotti was the son of a baker who through grit, talent, hard work and determination became famous as one of the world’s greatest tenors whose singing gave pleasure to millions. The other person in the photo was a slightly dim hurray Henrietta targeted by the royal family as a brood mare because they thought she would be no trouble, therefore married into fame, became a media darling because she had big photogenic doleful eyes and who, despite her great works for charity, still managed to shuffle off this mortal coil leaving a twenty-one million inheritance. I know which one deserves flowers and public mourning, it’s a shame so many don’t.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Something Else.

Something else is a scourge of modern Britain and it is about time nanny government, the BMA pretend doctors, the leading lights in our compensation culture and the insurance companies took notice. Something else kills us in our millions yet it is utterly ignored. You see, my chances of getting lung cancer if I don’t smoke are about 1 in a 100, rising to maybe 5 in a 100 by smoking (not entirely sure about this, but these figures are only for an example). But there’s lots of other ways smoking can kill me, so let’s suppose my chances of dying from a smoking-related disease are 20 in a 100 or 20%. Now, with life being 100% fatal, this means that I have (100% - 20% = 80%) an 80% chance of dying from something else. It’s a killer, that’s what it is. I think it would be foolish for me to give up smoking since, the moment I give up, my chances of dying from something else will begin to rise and just keep on rising.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Bob's Wall Update.


However, learning he was one cover short, Bob immediately got onto me about it and I had to scan the front, back and spine of my single copy of Africa Zero, whereupon he assembled them into the full picture. His wall is now up to date, including a picture of the Macmillan cover of Prador Moon. And no, Olaf, he doesn't just nail 'em to the wall, he does read them. He was quite annoyed recently upon discovering his copy of Polity Agent was missing pages, and badgered me for a new copy.

Africa Zero Picture.


This is for Kirby Ubben to demonstrate why my brother Bob didn't actually need a picture of the cover of Africa Zero...