The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, October 29, 2009

StarShipSofa Stories Volume 1

I've just received my author copy of this fine work, and very good it looks too. Designed throughout in the style of an old pulp magazine or paperback, from the pseudo-distressed cover to the retro ads for products that no longer exist and probably never worked when they did, it collects a number of stories from the site's podcasts. Available as a free download and in several hardcopy editions, the book got a rave review on BoingBoing.

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The sweetest picture of chromosomes you ever did see

Literally - it's made from sweets. (Via.)


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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Social Sessions turn to crime

The second of the Social Sessions, at Edinburgh Central Library on 18 November, about genes and crime in reality and fiction, is now open for registration.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Snark of the week

From the Times Higher Ed.:
There are also persistent rumours that a film company is looking into a big production of Atlas Shrugged for a television series, and this could bring in new Objectivist converts, such as those who do not read.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

A nice comment on last week's social Session

I've added two clarifications in square brackets and stuck in HTML links.

Scotland on Sunday Review, 18.10.09, p. 10

'The Browser' - Stuart Kelly

'C P Snow famously derided the "two cultures" mind-set that separates arts and sciences as two distinct and discreet spheres of activity, and though much has been done to dissolve this distinction, the chasm still remains. one of the most innovative attepts to bridge the divide has been the Writer in Residence scheme for the Edinburgh Genomics Forum, currently held by Ken MacLeod [and Pippa Goldschmidt - KMM]. Last Wednesday, they held a fascinating debate on the depiction of scientists in fiction, with speculative fiction writer Andrew J Wilson giving a whistle-stop tour of the various swivel-eyed, shock-haired, demented geniuses from Victor Frankenstein onwards. He was accompanied by three practicing scientists, Emma Frow, Steve Yearley and Chris French, who all spoke eloquently on the stereotypes of boffins (Dungeons and Dragons was mentioned, as well as the persistence of the "Eureka!" idea - most science is, unfortunately, pure slog). Afterwards, I was lucky enough to get a copy of this year's best contribution to the idea of Homecoming - a gorgeous pamphlet called "Alba Ad Astra", produced by the Writers' Bloc Group [and available from the Forum's other partner for the event, Transreal Fiction, who had kindly provided a bookstall - KMM], which details Scotland's forgotten (and fictitious) space programme."

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Mail on Sunday can still surprise

The Daily Mail and its weekend stablemate the Mail on Sunday have, let us say, a generally conservative stance. It's not the sort of paper in which you'd expect to find this:
When people ask me what it was like growing up behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary in the Seventies and Eighties, most expect to hear tales of secret police, bread queues and other nasty manifestations of life in a one-party state.

They are invariably disappointed when I explain that the reality was quite different, and communist Hungary, far from being hell on earth, was in fact, rather a fun place to live.

The communists provided everyone with guaranteed employment, good education and free healthcare. Violent crime was virtually non-existent.

But perhaps the best thing of all was the overriding sense of camaraderie, a spirit lacking in my adopted Britain and, indeed, whenever I go back to Hungary today. People trusted one another, and what we had we shared.

[... lots of detail about a happy working-class childhood...]

When communism in Hungary ended in 1989, I was not only surprised, but saddened, as were many others. Yes, there were people marching against the government, but the majority of ordinary people - me and my family included - did not take part in the protests.

Our voice - the voice of those whose lives were improved by communism - is seldom heard when it comes to discussions of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.

Instead, the accounts we hear in the West are nearly always from the perspectives of wealthy emigrés or anti-communist dissidents with an axe to grind.

Communism in Hungary had its downside. While trips to other socialist countries were unrestricted, travel to the West was problematic and allowed only every second year. Few Hungarians (myself included) enjoyed the compulsory Russian lessons.

There were petty restrictions and needless layers of bureaucracy and freedom to criticise the government was limited. Yet despite this, I believe that, taken as a whole, the positives outweighed the negatives.

Twenty years on, most of these positive achievements have been destroyed.

People no longer have job security. Poverty and crime is on the increase. Working-class people can no longer afford to go to the opera or theatre. As in Britain, TV has dumbed down to a worrying degree - ironically, we never had Big Brother under communism, but we have it today.

Elsewhere, the Mail on Sunday (like the Guardian last week) casts an intriguing light on Mussolini's early career. Next time someone tells you 'Mussolini was a socialist, you know!' you can always say, 'Yes, but at least he was on the Decent Left!'

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Monday, October 19, 2009

'[T]here are novels set in this universe?'

My recent short story, A Tulip for Lucretius, is the subject of this month's discussion at Torque Control's Short Story Club.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Retorts fizz in sociology discussion

The first of our Social Sessions (below) went well. More people signed up than we could accomodate, though in the event every seat was taken and (as far as I know) no one had to be turned away at the door. The Forum's admin staff and the University's service staff had worked hard to turn the main meeting room in the offices into an informal discussion venue, with low lighting, seats and small tables arranged in curving rows and drinks and nibbles strategically placed.

The crowd was more or less the mix I'd hoped we would attract - some social science people, several 'actual scientists' (a phrase which, as I mentioned later, I keep having to stop myself saying when there are social scientists around), and a very creditable showing from Edinburgh SF fandom and the Edinburgh literary scene.

After about half an hour of informal mingling, during which Mike Calder from Transreal set up a book table in the foyer outside, we all took our seats. I introduced the opening speakers and the subject: the portrayal of scientists in SF and science studies. Andrew Wilson drew on his long experience with Writers' Bloc to give a lively reading of relevant snippets from Frankenstein, The Island of Dr Moreau, Gregory Benford's Timescape and Paul McAuley's The Secret of Life. Steve Yearley outlined what science studies tries to do, why in the 1990s some scientists felt that it was an enemy within academia (hence the Science Wars), and why the issues it tackles - such as defining what exactly distinguishes science from non-science - have some importance in the wider world, including law (who counts as an expert witness?) and education. Emma Frow then brought the interaction of science and science studies into focus in her own work with a group of scientists working in the new field of synthetic biology. The view from the other end of the sociologists' microscope was given by Dr Chris French, who'd not just prepared a five-minute talk as requested but in true scientific spirit run a survey among his colleagues on the question.

The discussion that followed was still going strong when I finally had to call a halt about two hours after we'd started, and it continued in a local pub (The Canon's Gait) and in the smoke-huddle around its doorway.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

'I am Spart!', say a touching number of Tory bloggers

Leftwing blogger and author Dave Osler is facing a libel case over a blog comment. The implications for political blogging in the UK are considerable. Bloggers from left and right, including (I'm pleased to see) some of the more, ah, vehement stalwarts of the British right-libertarian/Tory blogosphere, are rallying round. 'Speaking on behalf of the political blogosphere, may I say that while you're clearly a terminally deluded lefty imbecile, you're our terminally deluded lefty imbecile,' says one. Further expressions of fraternal solidarity would be welcome.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Personal ad

Young Master Early has a used car for sale. Good condition, careful owner, etc.


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Monday, October 05, 2009

'I'm not sure "bimbo" is the best translation'

The Conservapedia crew are busy rewriting retranslating the Bible to cleanse it of liberal bias. (Via.) Their talk page for the Gospel According to Mark is a record of stupidity and blundering that some day they are going to wish had never been there. They've had particular trouble updating the name of the Third Person of the Trinity ('ghost is misconstrued as spectre or phantasm, rather than spirit (interestingly, they're the same word in German, geist, from which I imagine we get the wording', is one scholarly contribution) and after considering 'Holy Force' and 'Divine Force' have settled (for now) on 'Divine Guide'. Which just makes the Third Person sound like some wandering swami.

They also shamelessly add to and mangle scripture. The unforgettable:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.


The messenger preaches among skeptics, "Prepare for the way of the Lord and make straight His path."

And -

And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace.


Jesus asked the intellectuals, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: doing good or evil? Saving a life, or killing one? The intellectuals did not answer."

'The scribes' are 'the intellectuals', you see, with all their book larnin.

Update 6/10/09: My brother James MacLeod has been quick off the mark with a cartoon.

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Speaking of which ...

I'm now on Twitter.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

It's what all the young folks are doing these days

Charles Darwin is on a long sea voyage, and he has a blog. (Via.)

His latest news from the far side of the world is that the Brits have taken the Falklands.

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Sunday revelations

Godless prophet PZ Myers has revealed that Lucy is actually married to her ostensible opponent in the cosmic struggle, Mr Deity. This explains a lot. PZ even has photographic evidence of his encounter with these two supernatural beings.

Elsewhere in the eternal conflict between good and evil, Tony Blair's chances of becoming President of the EU have increased. Thanks, Ireland! Don't say I didn't warn you.

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Friday, October 02, 2009

Socially mediated

The Genomics Network is now on Twitter. Give it some love. I've just made a couple of tweets to it myself, one of them about an upcoming event in Glasgow, held in association with listings mag The Skinny, with the intriguing title 'Is Monogamy Deviant?' Be there or be square.

Another of my tweets points out that the Human Genre Project has some new pieces on it, so please have a look. I'd be interested in comments not just on the content of the site but also on its layout and general user-friendliness. And, of course, links to the site and contributions are always welcome.

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