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Journal Journal: Feorag's blog

Feorag's started a blog. Okay, it's actually an online version of her 'zine, Pagan Prattle, which she's published irregularly for the past 15 years or so (and which is neither pagan nor prattle, if you ask me). If you're into Loony Fundamentalist Nonsense, as Feorag is, go read.
User Journal

Journal Journal: Why I'm a member of the EFF

The Electronic Frontier Foundation campaigns almost entirely on US legal issues relating to civil liberties and the internet. Why am I, living in Scotland, a member?

Some of the answers are here, in this article by rusty on Kuro5hin, the thinking geek's uber-Slashdot site. But those only cover what the EFF does, not why it's important to non-Americans.

The reason is important, but not exactly simple: what passes into law in the USA seems to get echoed at the next WIPO treaty session in the form of an international agreement, which gets passed into law in the EU and then the UK shortly thereafter. Because UK citizens don't generally get consulted about international treaties while they're being negotiated, we have a lot less chance of avoiding bad agreements once they've been passed by WIPO than we do if they're blocked there, first. If a law gets rejected by US legislators, the odds are that it won't get passed by WIPO -- at least, not easily.

We are already living under a de-facto world government; it's a free trade system controlled by international treaty organisations, and it's not a democracy. The only people who can afford to lobby their 'representatives' are big corporations or lobbying groups who can afford to fly around the diplomatic circuit at will. I view political lobbying in the US as being a pre-emptive strike against bad legislation in the UK. This situation sucks, but short of applying for US citizenship or tearing down the whole treaty system (returning the world to the state it was in in 1933) there's no obvious way to change it.

So, even if you're not American, think hard about supporting the EFF. Who knows? It may be your interests they're defending, tomorrow.

User Journal

Journal Journal: What the dot-com crash was really about

Cory Doctorow's written an editorial on O'Reilly.net in which he discusses the root causes of corporate disillusionment with the internet, and where the next revolution will come from. Provocative and worth reading even if you think you know it all. Elevator summary: the internet is unreliable, this doesn't fit with corporate assumptions about marketing, so the old-fashioned businesses have caught cold. (New businesses that can cope with unreliability and peer to peer equality are a different matter.)
User Journal

Journal Journal: What I want for Newtonmass

... is one of these.

Unfortunately they're just a theoretical possibility at this stage, but when you take the old HitchHiker's catch-phrase "brain the size of a planet" seriously and start extrapolating towards the limits of computation achievable using nanotechnology and the energy of a single star, this is what you get: a Matrioshka Brain is a Dyson Sphere on steroids.

If you buy Hans Moravec's estimate of the computational complexity of a human mind, and assume that mind uploading is possible, a single Matrioshka Brain gives you the ability to host as many human-equivalent minds as you'd get if every single star in our galaxy had an inhabited planet with the population of the Earth in 2001 orbiting it. Alternatively, a single MB could re-run the life and consciousness of every human being who has ever lived in simulation in about half an hour.

Of course, a Matrioshka Brain is a piss-poor computer when compared to a neuron star (no, that's not a typo), but we don't really know how to structure strange matter yet. Doubtless when we've built an MB it'll figure it all out in the first ten minutes or so.

I'm just astounded that these concepts haven't caught on among SF writers yet. Maybe they're too big, or something?

User Journal

Journal Journal: No comment

I have been parodied.


I should have seen this coming.

(Exits, stage left, in search of a cold shower.)

User Journal

Journal Journal: Nazism 2.0

An urban legend sweeping the Arab (and western neo-Nazi) press alleges that the Israeli security apparatus warned jews to stay away from the World Trade Center on September 11th.

Note: not Israeli citizens -- jews. Turns out that anti-semitism (of a level that would have been familiar to Germans in the 1930's and 1940's) is sweeping the Middle East: Mein Kampf is at #6 in the bestseller list in the Palestinian Authority area, and a big-budget dramatization of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" is due on Middle Eastern TV screens next year. Islamist fundamentalist movements have lapped up the old 1930's propaganda and recycled it for their own consumption. And they're exporting this ideology: when the Zimbabwean government starts blaming the Jews for their economic ills, it looks like the traditional scapegoat is back in fashion.

Whee! On top of all the other problems the west faces in dealing with the Middle East, we now have a de-facto resurgence of Nazism to get to grips with. I am so looking forward to this bright new century ...

User Journal

Journal Journal: British Plane Spotters arrested in Greece: the Truth?

You've probably seen the news about a group of twelve British and two Dutch plane spotters who were arrested while on a plane spotting trip to Greece, and charged with espionage (carrying a 20-year maximum sentence). They've now been released on bail and the main charges dropped, replaced with minor ones.

The following message was posted to the (public) scoopgen mailing list on Sunday by Chris Fudge, one of the released members of the plane spotting party, and I think it bears reproduction here because of what it suggests about the way the media has handled the whole affair, especially in the current climate of paranoia about terrorism.

Dear all

Just starting to plough through 5000+ Emails and realised the amount of attention that I have been attracting.

[ snip ]

Just a few points about our arrest (if you can keep a straight face !)

  • I was arrested for taking pictures at an airshow. I don't have a camera!
  • We had an invitation to the Greek airshows from a Brigadier-General in the Air Force
  • The faxed invitation from the Air Force magically disappeared for four weeks.
  • The eight original charges against us have all been dropped as they were based on lies.
  • The court charged us 300 pounds each for every visit we made. The EEC (e.g. the British tax payer) paid $40 each per day for our accommodation ($40 x 14 people x 36 nights). It's a money making scam especially as we were sleeping on the floor.
  • A retired Greek Air Force General, a senior Greek Intelligence Officer, plus others have offered to appear in court in our defence.
  • The Greek Government is still saying that we took photos four weeks after the charges were dropped!

You will pleased to know that there is no evidence against me but It is claimed that I offered 'psyological support' to the group! They are unlikely to drop the charges as we will then be able to prosecute them for wrongful arrest etc. The British MEP's are also looking at the legal aspect with a view of a prosecution through the European courts.

Back to Charlie:

What we have here is an innocent (feh!) money-making scam by some bureaucrats that backfired and has turned into a full-blown international incident between the UK and Greece -- one that promises to occupy most of the agenda of an EU Foreign Minister's summit later this month.

But just try to imagine for a moment what the news coverage would have been like if the plane spotters had included any arab or middle-eastern faces. Or if Greece was operating under the proposed legal regime US Attorney General Ashcroft wants to introduce, or with the detention provisions that UK Home Secretary Blunkett has just pushed through.

Here's a new acid-test for anti-terrorism laws: "imagine that a corrupt cop decides to turn you into their pet revenue-generating scheme. Under the new proposed law, are you (a) better off, (b) much the same, or (b) less able to defend yourself?"

User Journal

Journal Journal: Defended to death?

The Taliban get a lot of stick in the west for their disgusting attitude towards women.

But they're not the only ones who believe in the patriarchal control of women, as the case of Shamsa al-Maktoum's bid for freedom and subsequent alleged kidnapping suggests.

There's a charitable way to view this situation (concerned father taking security precautions to protect fractious adolescent), and an uncharitable way. The fact that the police are treating it as kidnapping leads me to believe that the uncharitable view is more plausible -- that for cultural or religious reasons, the crown prince of Dubai thinks his daughter is his property rather than an independent adult.

(I'd like to be proven wrong on this point, but I'm not holding my breath. "You are now entering the Middle East: please set your watches back four centuries ...")

User Journal

Journal Journal: The flip side of Afghanistan

Lots of intriguing pearls of wisdom got buried in the midden of media triumphalism when the Taliban got their asses kicked.

Phil Agre, who runs the Red Rock Eater News Service, a sort of blog-by-email, has been culling interesting links to some of these pearls. (If you haven't seen RRE, maybe you ought to check it out.)

Here are some explorations of how some of GWB's friends are in bed with dubious Saudi charities fingered as terrorist fund-raising fronts, why the Northern Alliance are nearly indistinguishable from the Taliban, the uncomfortable reasons why the Bush administration refuses to go after the real culprits (in Saudi Arabia), and how US oil companies are subsidizing Al-Quaida.

I can see Osama bin Laden sitting in his cave and quoting Lenin to his followers: "the great thing about capitalism is that the capitalists will sell us enough rope to hang them".

(Note for the irony-impaired: I am not a fan of Osama bin Laden. Or Lenin, come to think of it.)

One moderately good piece of news: the UK's House of Lords, formerly a broken parody of a constitutional instrument, has actually begun doing some good for democracy in overly-managed Blairtown. Home Secretary David Blunkett's anti-terrorism bill has been gutted, with the most dangerous provisions for civil liberties stripped out in order to get the rest of it past a fractious, rebellious, House of Lords. Like US Attorney General Ashcroft, Blunkett had tried to ram through a number of repressive provisions under the guise of a clampdown on terrorism; these included a new offense of incitement to religious hatred (which I imagine had the Church of $cientology drooling down the phone to their lawyers) and astoundingly wide-reaching wiretap and data retention provisions for telecommunications carriers. The HoL is in transition from being an unelected chamber of hereditary inbred chinless wonders to -- I hope -- being a directly elected upper chamber; currently it's occupied by political apparatchiks and bishops, but at least the apparatchiks and bishops seem to be taking their revising responsibility seriously. And -- possibly because they don't have to worry about defending their seats at the next election -- they're willing to do the Right [but unpopular] thing ...

(Second note for the irony-impaired: the UK's statute books are already crammed with thirty years' worth of the most draconian anti- terrorism laws in the developed world. Somehow I don't think Passing Another Law will reduce the chances of a suicidal fanatic crashing a 747 into Canary Wharf one iota -- but making it an imprisonable offense to criticise any religious beliefs would tear up and throw away the "freedom of speech" clause in the Bill of Rights we finally got last year.)

User Journal

Journal Journal: What did I buy?

Not a lot, really. However, I discovered a couple of coolish things.
  • Dixons (large chain electronics store) has branches in the duty-free sections of most UK airports. They're selling Palm M505's for 254 including tax, way below the street price.
  • There's a Japanese shopping mall in Hendon, North London , and they're having a half-price sale of very nice crockery -- bowls, tableware, ornamental stuff, all imported, all Japanese, at about a third what you'd pay for it elsewhere.
  • The stall at Camden Market that sells Theremins -- including a DIY desktop model for 30 -- was impossible to locate on a crowded Saturday. (Anyone know of a good source of compact theremins?) However Cyberdog was well worth a visit.
  • M & L Engraving of Derby engrave pewter and glassware, and make leather goods. Send them 40 and they'll build you a custom-made Palm Pilot belt pouch -- with room for a folding keyboard -- to order. And what a pouch! We're talking about quarter-inch thick hide with a fabric-lined brass plate inside it so that if you sit on your PDA it will survive. As this is a tenner cheaper than the official Palm product (and infinitely more durable), I had to order one.
User Journal

Journal Journal: Newtonmass shopping

I've been busting a gut this week to get my workload nailed down before I head off to London (tomorrow) for a long weekend that will involve shopping for presents, the Pig's Ear Beer Festival, and the 'tun (London SF group meeting).

Expect postings next week, discussing what's Hot and what's Grot on the pre-Newtonmass retail scene. Maybe.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Decaying Democracies

Patrick Nielsen Hayden had some interesting comments in his weblog, Electrolite about my earlier article explaining why I'm unlikely to want to visit the US until the business of applying military tribunals to non-citizens is settled. In it, he pointed out how there's a slight case of motes, beams and eyes at work here.

To be fair, he's quite right. I'm going to start by denying personal responsibility: I didn't vote the New Labour control freaks into office, and I don't like what they're doing. It seems to be basically Thatcherism with better PR, and I disliked it enough the first time round. Having said that, however, basically I agree with him. And I'm beginning to think there's a more insidious, and threatening, tendency at work. One we should all be screaming about.

In the past couple of decades, democracy has made great strides -- in fact, more than half the countries represented at the UN have democratic forms of government. We're told that this is a good thing, but every time I open a newspaper or look at a website I see evidence of democratically elected representatives in one country or another passing insanely repressive laws. The US gets a lot of stick over this partly because the American media are widely syndicated worldwide, but it happens elsewhere. Australia's net-nannying law (that will ban all internet content that isn't suitable for children). The English police force's registers of delinquent children. Moves to maintain public registers of sex offenders that don't distinguish between serial rapists and young couples who were caught having sex at 15. (According to recent figures, about 30% of British children -- of both sexes -- start having sex before the age of consent, which is 16.)

It looks to me as if democracy isn't what's under attack -- it's civil rights, and a surfeit of democracy, applied in inappropriate ways, is the means of attack. Once a law is passed it is hard to get it struck down or reviewed. Improved communications have made it easier to get a lobbying group rolling, or start a grass roots campaign, and panic legislators (who need to be seen to be doing something, anything) into acting thoughtlessly.

Legislators today can't do much about the economy; in this thoroughly globalised era they can't impose tarriff barriers, mess with interest rates, or impose policy through taxation or fiscal means. So in an attempt to justify their posts, they're hunting for new causes. And the control freak tendency -- people who basically believe that other people can't be trusted to do the right thing -- is everywhere, and appealing for action.

What I fear is a future in which 100% of the seats at the UN are occupied by representatives of elected democracies -- and everywhere citizens are oppressed by insane violations of their civil rights, passed into law by elected legislatures held to ransom by special interest lobbies.

Someone, please tell me I'm barking at shadows?

User Journal

Journal Journal: Who are the good guys?

The whole Afghanistan situation bugs me. News coverage on this side of the Atlantic (the UK) is mixed, and it's hard to separate ideologically biased editorializing from factual reporting.

Here's a particularly scary article from The Guardian, in which Tariq Ali gives an explanation of the real motivations of Zahir Shah (former King of Afghanistan), the Northern Alliance, and the political reasons why Pakistan funded and backed the Madrassas (religious schools) That produced the Taliban. It goes back to rivalries between the Afghan and former British Indian governments over control of the Pashtun territories of what is now Pakistan's North West Frontier. If true, it paints a frightening picture of a subcontinent that could be about to go up in mushroom clouds, as an Afghan territorial claim dating to the second world war destabilizes a region where two nuclear powers are facing off against each other.

So why do I only put conditional credence on this?

It's hard to say. There's something in the author's tone that suggests he has axes to grind -- but I can't tell what his agenda is, from here. I just don't know; I lack sufficient knowledge of the political realities of the region to know whether this is a carefully spun propaganda ploy that urges sympathy for the Taliban, or a clarion-call warning that the west is backing the wicked in a war with the evil, and that good intentions will be the ultimate casualty.

(If there's one thing that would be worse than September 11th, it would be jumping in with both feet to try and ensure it never happens again -- and triggering a regional nuclear war.)

User Journal

Journal Journal: What did you do during the war?

No, not that war.

World AIDS Day is the first of December. To date, "only" a couple of million people have died of this disease, but because of its slow incubation and 100% fatal consequences HIV is an even more devastating threat to our future than tuberculosis or terrorism. Every day more people die of this plague than died in the World Trade Center attack.

I'm not doing a lot about it. However, there are a couple of thousand condoms and information packs in my living room: that's because my partner Feorag is a novice brother in the Scottish branch of the Order of Perpetual Indulgence, and they take it rather seriously.

Every day this week they'll be out in Edinburgh and elsewhere in Scotland, pushing the message about safer sex, and raising funds for medical charities.

Meanwhile, we see news like this from South Africa.

Is there no limit to human stupidity?

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