Currently Reading: The Labyrinth Index (Laundry Files) by Charles Stross

The narrator is Mhari Murphy this time, the corporate vampire recruited into the Laundry several books ago. Things, as they say, have already spiralled out of control before the book starts with many of the kinds of things the Laundry had tried to prevent in earlier books now well under way — notably a charismatic Lovecraftian demonic being safely ensconced as Prime Minister.

Also, still listenining to Jo Walton’s Thessaly series in audiobook format. I’ve nearly finished Neccesity and I’ll write some thoughts about all of them later.

Looks like cess-pool social media site Gab is finished

Gab was established as an alternative social media site to Twitter in 2016 but really only took off last year when it opened registrations. While it now has a reputation primarily as a safe-haven for overt neo-Nazis, many conservatives joined optimistically because of Gab’s claims to support ‘free-speech’. The term ‘free-speech’ here meaning something like ‘unmoderated comments on an internet platform’: there were rules and limitations but they were thin and difficult to enforce.

The consequences were predictable. The loudest, nastiest voices crowded out the less loud, less nasty. The idea that being able to mute comments or give-as-good-as-you-get would make a social network self-policing was already obviously nonsense but the right had convinced itself with misapplied rhetoric about ‘free-speech’ that somehow it would despite years of evidence from other internet forums, comment sections etc that it wouldn’t. Rapidly Gab became a haven for the most overtly extreme.

The mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh by a far-right antisemite brought added attention to Gab when it was revealed that the alleged shooter had essentially announced their intent on the platform. However, the site had been banned by both the Apple Store and Google play some time ago and was forced to remove two anti-semitic messages in August when Microsoft threatened to cut its services. Now GoDaddy has told Gad to seek a different domain registrar on the grounds that Gab had broken GoDaddy’s terms of service This isn’t the first time Gab has lost its domain registrar: in September last year Asia Registry dumped the network because of anti-Semitic comments promoting genocide: However, this time this is just one of multiple pressures on Gab including payment options and webhosting services withdrawing cooperation

Regulars will remember that I covered Gab last September when there was a spectacular falling out between Gab and alt-right publisher Vox Day As far as I can tell the threats of legal action went nowhere but the fallout is instructive. Less than five months after opening publicly for business, the culture at Gab had become so toxic that it was too unpleasant for even Vox Day.

With had at least a decade (arguably multiple decades) of an apparently sincere argument from conservatives that being moderated in chat rooms, forums, comment sections or social media platforms is an attack on free-speech. In that time the right has been unable to put forward a workable alternative. Experiments in unmoderated platforms have followed the same spiral into obnoxious-extremity without even a civil veneer over the hate and actual speech, with even conservative ideas being rapidly crowded out. Gab’s ‘free-speech’ model didn’t create a pleasant sanctuary from ‘political correctness’ but instead just let the very worst people shout down everybody else (even other anti-Semites and cryptofascists!).

I hope this is the end for Gab but I suspect the spiral down the plug hole will drag on for awhile yet.

Review: Doctor Who -Arachnids in the UK

Chris Chibnall does not have a stellar reputation for writing Doctor Who episodes. The ones prior to his elevation as current showrunner have not been appallingly bad but not particularly remarkable either. So far, judged only as science fiction short stories, the plots of the season 11 of Doctor Who has been equally unremarkable, even if they have had other remarkable qualities. In this sense Arachnids in the UK isn’t any different. The story is reminiscent of the Pertwee-era story ‘The Green Death’ with corporate greed, pollution and mutated creepy-crawlies.

Yet, I think this really sparkled. The stripped down plots are letting other qualities come to the fore, not least of which is Jodie Whittaker’s take on the Doctor. She has really managed to pull the multiple strands of the character together to create a plausible new version that’s become convincing much quicker than some (e.g. Matt Smith who took a while to move from being a young man pretending to be old and become convincingly an old man who appeared young).

Obviously not an episode to recommend to anybody with a fear of spiders and I’m not sure how my Australian friends will react to the Doctor’s pro-spider pacifism^. The genuinely creepy (in multiple senses) and gross horror of the Sheffield spider infestation required no additional level of more subtle horror. Arguably it is a cheap trick to freak out your audience with murderous spiders but a cheap trick played well is a good trick.

Yas finally got a more Yas centric episode (although still somewhat crowded out by family and events). Chris Noth was a surprise and seemed to be having a huge amount of fun as a not-entirely Trump-like* property mogul playing up to American stereotypes.

Seriously good fun. The crisp banter and humour of the Doctor worked much better here than it did along side the more serious subject matter of last week’s episode about Rosa Parks. Some of my favourite Doctor Who episodes in the past have been Moffat’s clever-clever puzzle-box stories but Chibnall’s stripped down approach is proving to be very likable. Sooner or later I’ll be hungry for something more timey-wimey paradox inducing story with some high-concept monster that can onlybeseenwhenyouaren’tthinkingaboutit or livesinthegapinbetweenwords or some other such delicious nonsense but for the time being Sheffield** being eaten by spiders is plenty good enough.

^(Huntsman are flipping dinner-plate sized and funnel web spiders are a notable exception to the ‘their more afraid of us than we are of them’ rule and definitely want to fight you for sport. An episode of Peppa Pig was literally banned in Australia for being too nice about spiders – I kid you not.)

*(Although overtly not Trump in that he is described as specifically not liking Trump and hoping to run against him for President.)

**(I like Sheffield and I don’t want it to be eaten by spiders, which is why it makes for a good story.)


In Pittsburgh, eleven people have been murdered in what is obviously an anti-Semitic attack.

This follows a week of bombs disguised as packages sent to a variety of targets, each of which being people regarded as enemies by the US right.

Almost overlooked among that violence was a third incident: in which two people were murdered in a racially motivated shooting.

I’m not going to link to the crap being posted on some of the right-wing sites I still track. It is the mix you will expect: deflection, denial, jokes and conspiracy theories about the first two incidents I listed above and blankly ignoring the shooting in Kentucky. The difference between the more extreme people (let’s call them ‘Rabids’) and the less extreme (let’s call them ‘Sads’) is that the Rabids are more overtly pushing a conspiracy theory of false-flags and paid provocateurs, whereas the Sads are either joking about how the bombs look fake or rhetorically asking what the odds are that two such events (actually three) would occur around the same time.

The sad truth is that an attempted mass shooting is quite likely in a given week in the US. Data from the Global Terrorism Database shows that the total number of armed assaults with features of terrorism have been increasing over the last decade in America.

This graph from the GTD data shows the frequency of armed assaults and bombing incidents in the US 2007-2017. The increase is due to shootings.


The high frequency of such cases makes it easy to appear to ‘predict’ them. Far-right websites claiming that this week’s parcel bombs were a hoax or a false flag, made a big deal of ‘predicting’ that a mass shooting would be the next thing. In truth, it would be hard for such a ‘prediction’ to go wrong, particularly with an open-ended time period.

Murderers motivated by right-wing ideology are not new in the US but the frequency of such attacks is growing. As the frequncy grows, the lies about such attacks intensify on the right as well.

Review: The Centenal Cycle by Malka Older

Comprising three books (Infomocracy, Null States and State Tectonics), the Centenal Cycle examines a near future world with a radical form of global democracy. With most of the globe carved up into roughly equal population sized mini-states, Older’s thought-experiment novels takes the ‘marketplace of ideas’ seriously with a world where people might move a few blocks in a big city to change their government. The grout in the tiles of worldwide micro-democracy is information and Information. The latter is an organisation that is a cross between a nationalised Google, a surveillance state, a non-partisan civil service, the ‘deep state’ and a benevolent version of a Wikipedia of everything.

The premise of Information feels like a set-up for a dystopian novel: aside from poorer nations and the opt-out ‘null states”, people live in a state of near constant surveillance. However, Older shows people who have made the same kind of Faustian bargain we all make with our current technology: paying for information about others with information about ourselves. The books are not a deep dive into the ethics of surveillance but rather address a different question: who controls truth?

Calling a writer’s technique a ‘trick’ might sound dismissive but I note that I do it a lot. When I say ‘trick’ I usually mean that it is something simple but not immediately obvious. Older’s trick is to focus on characters who work for Information but not at the very top. By doing so the inherently sinister aspects of Information are undermined by revealing its more mundane aspects as a workplace, with workplace intrigues, romances and frustrations. Instead of a dystopian novel, the books present a cracked-Utopia. Information as an organisation represents less the fear of being constantly watched and more the desire in confusing times to have a single source of truth — somebody to take away our burden of having to sift through competing claims ourselves, a fact-checkocracy.

That the system can’t survive is clear from the first novel (Infomocracy) but by having sympathetic characters struggling against conspiracies and violence creates sympathetic stakes. Of course, many (all?) the best spy thrillers involve agents who work for morally ambiguous governments and Older neatly ensures that it is ambiguous the degree to which espionage and sabotage aimed at the global system is part of a coup or part of a revolution (or both or neither). Rather than didactically outline clear villains, even in the climax of book 3, there is a sense of multiple strands of thought in those working against the status quo with both progressive and regressive forces acting in similar ways for different reasons.

In an earlier post, I compared Infomocracy with Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota books. There’s also a comparison to be made with Neal Stephenson’s brand of science-fiction. Older’s series doesn’t flesh out the detail that Stephenson would (which depending on your tolerance of infodumps can be good or bad) but they share the same capacity to be speculative fiction about domains of human activity beyond technology. Older invites us to consider alternatives to the nation-state without endorsing the model she explores. The deeper question of who fact-checks the fact-checkers is not resolved but by presenting the most benevolent-but-realistic version she can of Information, she shows that even in the best of circumstance a single-source of truth is also a concentration of power.

I suspect this might just be me because the connection is not obvious but the books also reminded me of Iain Bank’s Culture novels. Obviously, the settings are very different but there is a common current of optimism amid the acceptance that political power is corrupting. Progress is a maze of twisty turns paths, full of dead-ends and the potential for wrong turns. People acting in good faith make poor choices and are prone to manipulation by people acting in bad faith or deceptively.

I found that each of the books worked best for me when I could read them in longer sessions — better suited for my weekends than commuting. In part, this was due to the chapter structure which would move rapidly between different point-of-view characters (approximately three per book). That style cleverly mimicked the competing demands for attention in an information rich society but didn’t always work well when I was trying to read it against the actual competing demands of our actual information rich society.

The other aspect of the books that I appreciated but which made me prefer reading them in long stretches, was the way they provoke you into thinking. Everything from how the centenal borders would work, to how the ‘lumpers’ might function, to voting systems. Older is parsimonious with details and I think that is the right choice. She sketches enough to make the society feel credible without getting stuck in infodumpy details. It is hard to imagine how the status-quo in the novels came about but it is also not a particularly interesting question. The novels explore the possibility of a more-or-less benevolent source of reliable facts and a near-criminalisation of ‘fake news’ and how that ultimately doesn’t really work out.

I’m always going to enjoy clever, competent characters who have to navigate life, loved-ones, colleagues and science-fictional problems but I also enjoyed these novels beyond that.

A Helpful Guide to the Wonderful World of Mammals

A Helpful Guide to the Wonderful World of Mammals

by Timothy the Talking Cat

Mammals! They are furry and you can pat them. I’m a mammal and you’re a mammal (not you Susan) but deep down what are mammals? Let me guide you through the wonderful world of mammals!

  1. Bat: Bats are pathological liars and are known for spreading weird stories. They like to prank biologists. Most of them pull stupid faces at photographers and are actually quite cute looking.
  2. Dog: What would happen if a dog got bitten by a werewolf so that it got werewolf germs and every month it turned into a half-wolf/half-dog? I asked a dog that question and it just licked my face like a drooling monster.
  3. Hedgehog: Each spine tends to an infinitely thin & infinitely long surface that defies normal geometry. Ask yourself: are there any hedgehogs in those freaky H.P.Lovercraft stories? There aren’t. Ask yourself why. Every hedgehog is a crime against sanity.
  4. Vole: don’t exist.
  5. Squirrel: Sinister bastards who crave power and control and off-season nuts. You know they are whispering about you in the trees with their clever little hands and distracting tails.
  6. Giant Panda: The giant panda evolved to fill a key evolutionary niche otherwise unoccupied, that of the giant pillow cushion monster. Their distinctive colouring is disruptive camouflage that allows them to hide on giant novelty chessboards without being seen.
  7. Red Panda: 22% of pastry chefs in Alaska are red pandas in disguise. Red pandas are naturally attracted to the oil industry but purely in service roles. In the harsh conditions of the North Sea, they specialise as canteen workers on oil rigs. If you have ever bought a croissant in Texas there is a reasonable chance it was baked by a red panda.
  8. Sloth: Sloths are the only remaining species in a whole phylum devoted to the seven deadly sins. Lusts, greeds, envies, gluttonies, and wraths once all inhabited the jungles but deforestation and outbreaks of puritans removed their habitat. Prides ended up living with lions but naturally got eaten.
  9. Bear: Galumphing fools.
  10. Giraffes: Giraffes were once named after two different animals: giras and affes. I don’t know what a gira was but an affe was a very tame and placid animal from which we get the term “affable” as in “behave like an affe”.
  11. Bilby: This cute endangered Australian marsupial is under threat due to redundancy. A worldwide survey of mammals found that the market for small cute insectivorous little balls of fur with sparkly eyes and nimble paws is just completely saturated. If you speak to a bilby these days you’ll hear a lot of talk about them rebranding as “charismatic megafauna”. They hope to achieve this using forced perspective shots and clever camera angles.
  12. Possum: Possums come in two varieties: American and Australian. This should worry everybody. I stay up at night worrying about it. “You stay up at night because you are a cat,” says Camestros but that doesn’t mean I’m not worrying about stuff in the dark. You would. You know a possum can fit through a cat flap right? They could sneak into your house and sit on your bed while you are sleeping.
  13. Ibex: The mighty ibex! Are they real or just a myth? Medieval monks speculated on the nature of the ibex but could settle on no answer. Half animal and half beast, the ibex is a mystery even today that challenges modern biology.
  14. Water buffalo: Their name is truly ironic as they are one of the few animals that contain no water at all. Instead, their bodily fluids are mineral oil based. Traditional water buffalo were highly flammable and were nearly farmed to extinction during the petroleum jelly boom of 1922. Modern water buffalo now use a base of hexamethyldisiloxane, which is non-flammable and also stops their hair tangling. With improved safety features, the water buffalo is returning from the brink of extinction.
  15. Weasel: Most mammals are one kind of weasel or another leading to the huge pyramid scheme that runs throughout the Mustela genus. The scheme was established by Little Sally Weasel of Little Brockington, Surrey who was inspired by a stockbroker who owned a delightful little cottage near a mill-stream. The stockbroker sadly fell on hard times due to over-investment in the dot-com boom of the 1990s and it seemed like his plans to renovate the cottage into a charming home with a traditional exterior and a modern interior would never come to pass – a situation further compounded by his cocaine habit. Christmas eve was truly a dark time for the stockbroker, his dreams of being featured in glossy home-renovation magazines seemingly thwarted. Outside the snow fell gently onto the tarpaulin that covered a section of the cottage roof that the builders had left unfinished when the stockbroker’s line of credit had collapsed. Then, he heard a tiny tapping at the cottage door. Bewildered, he made his way through the darkened house casting aside his normal paranoia about urban gangs somehow catching commuter trains out to commit home invasions. He opened the door and there was the tiny form of Little Sally Weasel who chirruped to him weasel “Gawd bless you sir, here is a little Christmas gift to tide you over!” Unfortunately, the stockbroker could not speak weasel but kindly patted Little Sally Weasel on the head and gave her a tiny saucer of egg-nog. It was only after she gambolled away into the night that he saw the sack that she had left behind. Opening it he found a treasure trove of pre-paid Visa cards! It was a Christmas Miracle! With the new found wealth the stockbroker could finish his cottage and pay off his drug dealer! He lived a very happy life from then on but never forgot the little weasel who helped him out on that dark night.
  16. Otter: Aresholes.
  17. Beaver: The beaver (genus Castor) is a large, primarily nocturnal, semiaquatic rodent. Castor includes two extant species, the South American beaver (Castor canadensis) (confusingly native to North America) and Eurasian beaver (Pollux fibre) (Eurasia). Beavers are known for building dams, canals, and suburban railway lines. They are the second-largest rodent in the world after the elephant.
  18. Echidna: Rumoured to be a natural cure for the common cold, the echidna is a common sight in Australian homes. The jolly people of Sydney will frequently rub a tame echidna across their noses at the first sign of a sniffle! Unfortunately, whole echidnas may be efficacious against the cold virus they exacerbate the symptoms of hay-fever and other allergies. It is very important to establish FIRST what the cause of your symptoms is before the topical application of an echidna. A common saying in Sydney is “When the wattle’s in bloom, give the echidna room. When it’s a rhinovirus, keep the echidna beside us.”
  19. Capuchin monkey: This delightful New World monkey is a pleasure to have around. Named after the cappuccino because of their famous barista skills, there are few primates quite as adept with an espresso machine. True, some claim the lemur can make a better cup of coffee and others swear by the macchiatos brewed by a slow loris but in independent taste tests by “What Coffee” magazine, the capuchin has always come top.
  20. Humans: Bred mainly by cats for food, the human is quite tasty but a little on the sweet side for some palates.

HTML that I’d like to see

I’m busy getting some data off a web page and it is the not untypical situation where I’ve got to do some legwork to get it into a spreadsheet. If I then wanted to put the data onto a webpage of my own, I’d have to put into an HTML table.

Now I don’t know a lot about HTML standards or non-standard ways people deal with this but it does feel to me like there’s a big thing missing that would make lots of people’s lives easier and the web more useful.

Here’s what I’d propose.

A csv tag for comma separated files i.e:


The .csv  format is a fairly universal way of saving spreadsheet-like data files in a basic format that has a simple predictable structure. Having browsers be able to read a CSV file and display it with appropriate styles would make life easier for everybody. For a start, think how much easier it would be to update the data on a website. The tag would usually connect to a URL in a similar way the image tag does:

<csv src="data/2018Numbers.csv">

That would plonk the data straight into a web page with minimal formatting but by adding normal width and height proper (again, like an image) the amount of data shown would be cropped. Other properties would allow for scroll bars or page navigation.

Taking the idea a bit further would be a table data type in Javascript that would be not unlike the R statistical programming language approach of attaching a table of values (but without the full capability of R obviously). A CSV file with defined headers could be declared by pointing to the CSV file and then each column would be effectively an array that you could access. That would make it easier to provide summary stats and draw graphs straight in a web page without third-party software.

I’m sure others must have suggested it before and I’m puzzled why web pages are so clunky around data.