Fashion Technology

Jennifer Ouellette has yet another wonderful post up. This one starts from the basic idea of trying to persuade Lady Gaga to write a physics-inspired rock opera and goes from there on a lovely romp through the fashion and music industries. A lot of time gets spent on fashion designer Hussein Chalayan and his ideas about self-modifying clothing. There are also digressions into such fun bands as ArcAttack and OK Go.

I’m all in favor of interesting clothing. If it can modify itself in useful or entertaining ways, so much the better. But I can’t help thinking that fannish costumers have been doing this for a long time.

Jen, if you are reading this, these pictures come from the Best in Show entry at the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow. I know some of the folks involved.

The Tanu group

Single Tanu lit up

(As I recall, Maggie Percival was the prime mover for the project.)

#ALD10 Wrap

Well done folks. Over 2000 pledges this year, and hopefully most of those turned into posts.

One post that caught my eye was at the official WordPress blog. The folks at Automattic wanted to celebrate the works of the girl geeks on the WordPress team. Given that I use WordPress just about every day, I too am very grateful to these ladies.

On the other hand, the BBC managed to get completely the wrong end of the stick, somehow coming away with the idea that people were voting for their favorite woman geek. If that was the idea, we’d see much less variety, which would defeat the whole object of ALD. Ah well, all publicity is good publicity, I guess. Sad that the media has to turn everything into some sort of American Idol style popularity contest, though.

And finally, those of you who missed the live webcast of the London event can see the whole thing here, including presentations by Maggie Philbin, Suw Charman-Anderson and Sue Black.

(I am, by the way, very impressed with the quality. Either UStream has upped their act significantly since last year or the ALD event had a really good connection.)

Mary Anning – #ALD10

Mary AnningFor this year’s Ada Lovelace Day I’d like to focus a little closer to home. Like many young proto-fans, I was very fond of dinosaurs while I was a kid. That may have been in part because I also happened to have an aunt who lived near Lyme Regis, one of the most famous fossil-hunting sites in the world. Why is it famous? Because it was in this little Dorset seaside town that the whole dinosaur story started.

Mary Anning was one of two surviving children from a poor Dorset family. Her father made a meager living by collecting interesting shells and other curiosities from the local beach and selling them to tourists. Mary and her brother, Joseph, were trained in the family business, and when Richard Anning died of consumption in 1810 Mary and Joseph had to take over. Mary was just 11 years old at the time.

The following year Joseph found what appeared to be the skull of a crocodile protruding from a cliff by the beach. Mary was fascinated and began the painstaking work of excavating it. When she had finished she became the owner of the first known fossil of an ichthyosaurus.

Further discoveries followed: a plesiosaurus, a pterodactylus. The scientific world began to take notice, and young Mary was obliged to defend herself from accusations of fraud. Despite having little formal education, Mary was able to hold her own and establish herself as a world expert in the new science of fossil hunting. But, as a woman of working class origins, she was unable to join the scientific establishment. Instead she continued her work at Lyme, interacting with scientists and wealthy patrons when they came to visit.

As a woman, Mary was unable to attend the Geological Society meetings where her discoveries were presented to the scientific world. Indeed, according to her Wikipedia article (which appears well researched and is heavily footnoted) she was not even mentioned when her discoveries were announced. As the Natural History Museum puts it: “William Buckland, Henry de la Beche and William Conybeare were some of the many scientists who owe their achievements to her.” (My emphasis). And because ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs are only distantly related to the giant land-dwelling creatures of the time, you will still see Buckland credited as the discoverer of the first dinosaur, because his later find was of a land animal, Megalosaurus.

The picture accompanying this article is a portrait of Mary and her dog, Tray. As you can see, she has a bag to collect her fossils, and a hammer to extract them. As this BBC article reveals, that hammer can still be seen in the little town museum at Lyme Regis.

And to finish, here is a charming, if somewhat fanciful, animated film about Mary that I found on YouTube.

Hello, #ALD10

Yes, today is the second annual Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating women in technology. It looks like being a busy one. According to the ALD Twitter feed (hi Suw!) the #ALD10 hashtag is trending in the UK and the official web site has had over 7,000 visitors already today. If you can’t raise it, don’t worry, try again later; it is creaking a bit under the strain. (A case of #notneilsfaultwebfail).

My post will be up shortly, but first I wanted to point people at something I’ve discovered today: Girl Geek Dinners. These are basically social get-togethers for women in technology. They started in London, but have since spread all around the world. They have them in Bristol, and I shall try to get along to one soon, though tomorrow night is liable to be a bust given the chaos my life is in right now. Bay Area folks should check here for their local events.

Hey, if we can change the world with bake sales, whole dinners should be pretty darn spectacular.

Ada Time Once More

OK folks, it is that time of year again. Ada Lovelace Day will be upon us again on March 24th. It is time for people to take the pledge and promise to write about women in technology. It’s not hard. You can find what I and some others did last year at these posts:

If anyone has any suggestions as to women I might write about this year, please let me know.

Guitar Hero

Well, that was an unproductive day, blog-wise. On this site anyway. Then again, good things have happened elsewhere, including my mother getting a brand new front door that will leak much less heat in the winter.

However, you good folks do expect some blogging, so here’s a quick one. Over at Crooked Timber it appears that political analysts have finally discovered that civilian contractors in the US and UK are being used to pilot drone aircraft in Afghanistan remotely from their offices, and kill suspected enemy fighters. It is an ugly business. Chris Bertram notes:

if the Taliban contrived a way to blow up one of these operators on their daily commute in Nevada or Surrey, would it be a terrorist murder of a non-combatant or a legitimate act of war?

There may well be a lot said on this topic, but actually I think that Amanda Palmer has said most of it already. Lyrics here.

Our Friends Electric

Yes, it is scary robot time again. Not all of them are scary, however. has an interesting video interview with Professor Noel Sharkey who studies artificial intelligence and robot ethics at Sheffield University. The accompanying article talks to other UK specialists and covers areas such as robot cars, robot soldiers and robot sex. Would you want to marry a robot?

It’s A Wrap

I don’t normally go for “end of year” posts, let alone “end of decade”, but thinking back over 2009 I have realized that it was fairly interesting in many ways and therefore probably deserves a retrospective.

The year began in a very worrying way with a real possibility that I might never be allowed back into the USA. Having been advised that I ought to get a visa, and having spent around $2000 on an immigration lawyer, I took myself off to the US embassy in London only to be laughed at and told that I had no chance. The only good thing about it was that my application was apparently so risible that they didn’t bother to turn it down (which would definitely have meant no further travel); they just said they’d forget they ever saw it. As it turns out, I didn’t actually need a visa at all. It is all very strange.

Had things gone according to plan, I might have been spending more time in New Zealand and Australia, but what originally appeared to be a very promising business opportunity turned to dust thanks to the credit crunch and I was left holding some rather expensive plane tickets. I went anyway, and enjoyed a couple of conventions (here and here).

Talking of which, if you are ever in need of a hard working guest for a convention, try Julie Czerneda. I had the pleasure of watching her at three different cons this year and I can’t remember seeing anyone, not even Neil, put more energy into being a guest.

On the subject of Mr. Gaiman, I went to see him do a reading in Dublin, and to see a gig by someone called Amanda Palmer whom Neil seemed to think was rather talented. They did seem very friendly at the time, but I had no idea quite how things would blossom over the coming year.

I started working with Clarkesworld from the first of January and had my first involvement in the February issue. I think we’ve published some interesting non-fiction through the year, but I have been very disappointed at the low level of submissions. I need to start nagging you folks.

Being nervous about my prospects for US travel, I made a point of going to more events in Europe. In particular I attended my first convention in France. Imaginales was a lot of fun and I intend to go back again next year. Finland was awesome as always. It was great to see Finncon have space to expand into.

Of course I’m still very much interested in Worldcon, which led me to write this. And as just talking doesn’t generally get you anywhere I produced As a piece of software it wasn’t really up to much. Had I had time, and more skill with PHP, I could have produced something much better. But it got a lot of interest, and a lot of help from famous people, as a result of which over the 5 days of Worldcon it was visited by 1,950 people from 59 different countries. I call that a win. That’s more than half the number of people who attended the convention. Next year hopefully we can do even better, and start to make Worldcon a truly international event.

At Worldcon I won a Hugo, which was very nice indeed. I also beat Dave Langford in a straight contest, which still hasn’t really sunk in. Thank you, again, everyone.

On a very much smaller scale I helped found BristolCon. Huge thanks are due to our GoHs, Al Reynolds and Charlie Butler, and to people like Paul Cornell and Juliet McKenna who came along to support us. We only got just over 50 people, but it was a solid start and we hope to do better in 2010. Congratulations are due to Jo Hall and her team for a job well done.

The last big event on my convention calendar was World Fantasy, in which I was closely involved as I’m a director of SFSFC, the fan group that staged the event. As far as I have heard from most of the attendees it was a huge success (and apologies once again for the art show, which we know was well below par). The World Fantasy Board appears to think the convention was a total disaster run by a bunch of greedy incompetents, but apparently they say that about almost every year. They were sufficiently rude that I, for one, won’t be attending World Fantasy again. And if you happen to be a member of a fan group that is thinking of bidding to stage the event I have one word for you: don’t.

It was at World Fantasy that I helped launch something that is going to be taking up most of my time during 2010. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards are long overdue and will hopefully help bring many talented writers to the attention of English language fandom. I’ll be writing a lot more about them in the New Year.

2009 has, of course, been the year of Twitter. I happen to find it enormously useful. I appreciate that’s not the case for everyone. If it is not for you, don’t use it. It is just a communication platform, after all.

And finally, a decade into the 21st Century, technology has started to come good. Obviously there is broadband internet, without which my life would be very different indeed. But 2009 also saw my discovery of the iPhone and Wii – two bits of technology that have rapidly become indispensable to me. Yes, of course life is possible without them, but in their different ways I find them both very valuable. Being someone who is well versed in the concept of superfluous technology, I find that rather remarkable.

Santa Has Been

And he has given me an order of magnitude speed increase in my DSL service. Many thanks to him, Zen and BT for the improved technology. I now have a good enough connection to watch steaming HD TV. Unfortunately it is Christmas and most of what is available on the iPlayer is pretty awful.

How Technology Should Work

A few months ago one of my laptops suffered a terminal dysfunction of its screen – it looked like the backlighting had failed. As I don’t have an external monitor here in Darkest Somerset I wasn’t able to test that theory immediately, and I decided not to buy a monitor until I was sure I had diagnosed the problem.

Then I went to Calfornia for a few weeks, bought Kevin a Wii for Christmas, and fell in love. There was no way I was going to be able to wait until my next planned US trip in March 2010 before my next Wii fix. So I bought one. And because there is only one functional TV in the house, which is my mother’s primary source of entertainment when it is too cold to go into the garden, I needed a screen.

Of course I only needed a really cheap screen, but these days it is hard to find anything other than an HD-ready flat screen TV. It looked like I was stuck with buying one. So I looked at a small one and noticed, to my delight, a VGA socket. One cable purchase later I had not only a functional Wii but also a functional laptop, provided that I don’t want to use them at the same time. What’s more, as there’s an indoor aerial in the house, I also have a semi-functional television (reception on an indoor aerial here is not that great, but not a disaster either).

I note also that because I have the BBC iPlayer on both the laptop and the Wii I can actually have rather better TV should I want it. My DSL connection isn’t quite fast enough for streaming TV at the moment, but there’s an upgrade available from my ISP at no extra cost. My only concern there is that the new deal has a download limit and I need to check how likely it is I’ll get hit with overage charges, given how much time I spend online, and how bandwidth heavy streaming TV is.

So this is how technology ought to work. One screen, many different purposes. It is nice to see something working properly for once.

We Fit?

As I’m not able to stay in the US too long, Christmas has come early here. I have bought Kevin a Wii, and the Wii Fit package to go with it. We could both do with the exercise. Of course this probably means that we’ll soon both be laid up with exercise-related injuries.

The cunning people at Target were also running a promotion on Wii games. Given how bad I am at Rock Band on the iPhone, I decided not to waste any money on a grown up version of the game, even though they did have Lego Rock Band on offer, which seemed kind of cool. We got sports-related stuff instead. Not that we are any good at sport either, but we might possibly be equally as bad as each other.

Rained Out

Yesterday was a relatively Internet free day. My DSL was out for the whole day. Because my business is dependent on the Internet I do have a mobile broadband account as backup, so I was able to answer email and the like. I was also able to keep up with Twitter and Facebook via the iPhone, but I wasn’t online all day like I usually am.

Why did this happen? Well, I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure it was because it rained. After all, this happens a lot just after a heavy rain storm. It suggests to me that there’s a fault with the wiring somewhere. And given that it started happening (a couple of years ago) just after some work was done on the telephone pole outside the house I’m pretty sure I know where to look.

The trouble is I can’t get anything done about it. I use Zen for my DSL service because they are very reliable and don’t try to con you with stupid cheap deals that come with lousy uptime and tight limits. However, I know from past experience what will happen if I call their tech support about this. It is an intermittent problem, so I won’t be able to demonstrate it happening. And worse, the tech support man (and I do mean male person here) will detect the stench of girl cooties all over the problem. So he will insist on subjecting me to days of patronizing tests, including insisting that I buy a new router, before he will believe anything I say. And then he will say that it is BT’s problem and he’ll have to pass it over to them.

Why don’t I just go straight to BT? Because the idiots of OfCom have allowed BT to compete in the market for DSL services, so if you have a problem with your DSL and you are not buying from them they will just blame your DSL provider and do nothing.

So instead I use the mobile broadband when I have to, and wait for the wires to dry out. It may be a pain, but it is much less frustrating than trying to get it fixed.

Custom Car Tunes

Modern cars are getting so quiet that people are starting to complain that they can’t hear them coming. That’s dangerous. We are used to the noise of cars. Folk might start getting run over because they didn’t hear any cars coming and forgot to look. So law makers are starting to think about requiring manufacturers to make their cars noisier. The question is, what noise should they make?

According to Michael Giberson (who got it from the LA Times), Nissan thinks they should make nice, futuristic noises as if they were the flying vehicles in Blade Runner. But of course any decent car manufacturer will allow you to download your very own custom car tune. Mike has some ideas.

Being a sad aging biker, I would probably have my car sounding like a Harley in heat. It might not be very original, but it is a lovely noise.

Robot Bats

Yes, really. Because it turns out that for really small flying machines (such as are now increasingly being used as spy planes and remote assassination devices) flapping is more efficient than a fixed wing or rotor design.

I note, however, that fixed wing aircraft are much cheaper and easier to build. See The Carayatids.

Economist on Internet TV

Today’s issue of The Economist includes a fascinating article about Internet television. Economists love talking about disruptive technologies, and this one seems to be a classic. According to the article, cable TV companies are doing everything they can to resist the adoption on Internet TV because they are terrified that it will destroy their business model.

Having said that, once of the things that opening up the market will do is emphasize the power law nature of the market. Right now minority taste TV companies make money because they get packaged with more popular channels by cable and satellite companies. In the ultra-competitive world of Internet TV, consumers will eventually only pay for the programs they want, they won’t even have to subscribe to a channel. And that means huge viewing figures for whatever is popular, and a very tiny share of the market for everyone else. Just like trying to sell a book on Amazon. This will doubtless be good and bad in varying quantities.

Personally I won’t care too much as long as I can get baseball on TV when I’m in the UK, and cricket and rugby on TV when I’m in the US.

Meanwhile I’d be interested to hear from anyone who is using Boxee. The only Linux machine I have with me is the Asus, which is not ideal for TV-watching.

Guardian on Espresso

One of the things that stood out for me at the London Book Fair was the Espresso book vending machine. Alison Flood of The Guardian‘s book blog was also fascinated, and has written this article about the machine’s move to its new home in Blackwell’s bookstore in Charing Cross Road.

It cost Blackwell some $175,000, but the bookseller believes it will make this back in a year.

Assuming the reliability is good, I guess.

Return of the Paper Fanzine?

At P-Con over the weekend we spent two whole panels discussing small press issues. One of the panels was mainly about books, the other mainly about magazines, but both covered much of the same ground. Part of that discussion involved the rapidly changing nature of printing and distribution. Print-on-Demand no longer means badly printed books made at vast cost for people who can’t get published any other way. These days it means well printed books that make economic sense for people with short print runs (that is, not in the thousands). Perhaps crucially it also means avoiding international shipping.

In the short fiction magazines panel someone said that it would not be long before there would be services around the world that you could just send a PDF to and they’d print and ship your magazine to local customers. “Not long” in this case turned out to be around 48 hours. Or indeed rather less than that, because the service must have been available for some time for the NYT to find out about it.

MagCloud is a service provided by Hewlett Packard that bills itself as the YouTube of magazines. You send them a PDF, they list your magazine as in stock. It costs you nothing. Anyone can then order a copy of the magazine from MagCloud. Right now the base cost of 20c/page plus shipping is a little steep, and I suspect (the details are not clear if you don’t sign up) that publishers have to charge more than that to make a profit. But you know the cost will come down as the service becomes more popular.

I joked in the title that it could mean the return of paper fanzines. I don’t actually think the service is cheap enough for that yet, though someone like Bruce Gillespie may find it attractive. Where I do think that there is a potential business case is with small press magazines. The sales pitch would go something like this: yes, you can read it for free on the web; yes, you can download a PDF and print it yourself, but if you really want something glossy and physical then order it from MagCloud. And it doesn’t matter if the magazine is produced in Ireland, or Australia, if the customer is near a MagCloud print shop in the USA.

Did I say glossy? This is what the MagCloud web site has to say about production quality:

MagCloud uses HP Indigo technology, so every issue is custom-printed when it’s ordered. Printing on demand means no big print runs, which means no pre-publishing expense. Magazines are brilliant full color on 80lb paper with saddle-stitched covers. They look awesome.

You know, it is almost tempting to go back end produce illustrated and nicely laid out PDFs of every issue of Emerald City just because I can.

Thanks to Anne Harris for the tip.