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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (vaporarium lente)

In Which Alan And Robin Widen Their Intertubes

In the old days connecting to the internet in our house was a laborious process. You had to put a shovel full of coal into the modem and turn up the heat on the boiler. After a while, when the steam pressure was sufficient to push the electrons down the pipes at just the right speed, you set the semaphore flags to the proper number, listened for the sound of frying bacon as the modem at the other end built up a head of steam, and then (lo and behold!) a connection was made and the world was available to you at 1200 bps. Oh the fun we had!

Over the years, great progress was made in modem technology. The pipes got a bit wider and the steam pressure increased. Ominous rumblings could be heard from the boiler and there were occasional sparks as the electrons found themselves in two places simultaneously. I upgraded to 9600 bps and then 14,400 bps and finally to the almost unheard of rapidity of 56,000 bps.

By now we were using coal at an alarming rate. The sound of steam hissing from the safety valve was a constant background noise. Furthermore, limitations endemic to the technology meant that only one of our many computers could connect to the intertubes at any one time. That in itself wasn't much of a problem since Robin and I tended to be on line at different times. However we both agreed that our connections were now running noticeably more slowly than once they had. Subtle giggling revealed that more and more people all over the world were producing more and more information at an exponentially increasing rate, and so the intertubes were getting very clogged up with junk data. The relevant bits that we were interested in were finding it harder and harder to struggle through the mess that was blocking the pipes. Faced with this, even our super-fast dial up connection found itself unable to cope. It seemed to take forever for me to get my daily lolcat fix, and Robin's genealogical documents could barely squeeze themselves down the gunged up pipes at all.

"We need broadband," declared Robin.

I rang TelstraClear.

"We'll send a technician around to install the modem immediately," said the nice lady. "There's a spare slot at 11.00am a week next Tuesday. Will that do?"

"Haven't you anything earlier than that?"

"No, sorry."

"Then that will do fine."

A week later, two sun tanned TelstraClear technicians arrived. They stared at the hideous mess of cables that dangled and twisted around the room and muttered to each other in Afrikaans.

"Have you been in New Zealand very long?" I asked.

"About 6 months," said the younger of the two. "The electron wells in South Africa were starting to run dry. So we came out here to make a new start." The second one said nothing at all. He only spoke Afrikaans, and he had no idea what I'd said to him.

They went outside and climbed up the telephone pole where they checked the connections and measured voltages. Then they climbed down and dug a huge trench across the lawn. They pulled out all the old, narrow, plastic dial up pipes and replaced them with enormously wide and shiny stainless steel broadband pipes.

"Soon have your data flowing rapidly down those, squire," said the one who spoke English, in tones of deepest satisfaction. Then they went inside and joined the hugely wide pipe to the computer with a modem.

"Where do I put the coal?" I asked.

The technician muttered some Afrikaans to his colleague and they both gave me a pitying glance. "You don't need coal for broadband," said the English speaking one. "They've done away with boilers and steam power. Up to date communication devices like broadband modems use nuclear powered robot hamsters to push the electrons really, really fast down the pipes."

"Gosh," I said, impressed. "That's good news. I wasn't looking forward to shovelling huge amounts of coal. The dust gets everywhere. It makes the cats all gritty. How does this new technology work?"

"There's a cobalt-60 radiation source deep inside the modem," said the technician. "It's housed in the tummy of a robot hamster and it makes the hamster run really, really fast in a treadmill which is joined to an electron pump. The pump shoots the electrons down the broadband pipes at twice the speed of light. If you look out of the window when you are uploading data, you'll see the hideous blue glow of Cerenkov radiation flashing over the grass above those hugely wide pipes we buried in the lawn.

"Don't look too closely though," he continued thoughtfully, "The blue radiation might turn you into a Star Trek special effect. And don't go poking around inside the modem hamster either. The cobalt-60 is likely to give you a severe case of Klingon Forehead."

"What sort of upload and download speeds will I get?" I asked.

"Infinitely fast!" declared the technician. "And if that proves to be too slow, just give us a call and we'll upgrade you to a gerbil. They give you infinity plus one!".

The technicians packed their tools away and left, pleased with a job well done. I tested out the new broadband connection. Bloodyhellitwasfast!

I've been reading a lot of non-fiction this month. John Scalzi has published two books made up of articles originally published on his blog, and Paul T. Riddell has published both a book of blog articles and a book of columns that originally appeared in various long defunct SF magazines. Perhaps the magazines died because he stopped writing for them. Or am I confusing cause with effect again?

John Scalzi can be quite an amusing writer when he wants to be. The first chapter of his novel The Android's Dream is the funniest sustained fart joke it has ever been my pleasure to read (I'm English; the law requires me to find fart jokes irresistible). His non-fiction tends to be written in a chattily intimate way and is sometimes light hearted and always informal even when he has a serious point to make; and many of these essays have very serious points indeed. Nevertheless, I found that when I was reading an article about a subject of no interest to me, I simply skipped to the next one. When he failed to hold my attention, I just moved on – no shame in that and judging by the things that he said in his articles about writing, I don't think John Scalzi would hold it against me. Quite the reverse, in fact.

John Scalzi is world famous in Ohio for sellotaping a rasher of bacon to his cat, photographing the result and publishing the photo on his blog. Having now read two collections of his essays, I still find the photo of his cat the most memorable thing about him. Compared to that, his essays are really quite ephemeral.

Paul Riddell has also written some essays whose subjects bored the pants off me. However, unlike John Scalzi's essays, I didn't skip a single one. Invariably I found myself reading all the way through to the end. The sheer joy of Paul Riddell's madcap prose kept me glued to the page. I didn't want to miss a single insane word of it. His writing style has been compared, not unfavourably, with that of Hunter S. Thompson. And in many ways, Paul Riddell can indeed be considered to be the very last of the gonzo journalists – Thompson himself is dead, Tom Wolfe gave up journalism long ago and took to writing insipid novels instead, and P. J. O'Rourke got old and conservative and began living on past glories by republishing his juvenilia with added editorial comments. When the gunsmoke cleared, Paul T. Riddell was the only one left standing.

Unfortunately he now claims to have given up writing as well. These days he cultivates carnivorous plants instead. Good news for the triffids; bad news for the rest of us. Bugger!

Paul Riddell has Strong Opinions about almost everything – politics, comics, books, films, science fiction, writing, publishing, and dinosaurs. However he is perhaps most famous for being the first person to define and document the activities of Cat Piss Man. You all know Cat Piss Man. Paul Riddell met him in a comics shop; I've met him in SF bookshops and gaming shops. Cat Piss Man is particularly commonly met with at SF conventions. Organising committees use him to scare Japanese tourists, but that seldom works. They just take photographs of him; from a distance, with big telephoto lenses.

Paul Riddell is also well acquainted with the Mad Shitter. Years ago Riddell worked for Texas Instruments, a company with a rather toxic management policy. The Mad Shitter was a colleague with a uniquely scatological style of constructive criticism.

Paul Riddell knows lots of interesting people; many of them so lavatorial that I can't help wondering if he too has an English heritage…

One particularly fascinating essay draws parallels between the two historical colonisations of New Zealand and the efforts that will be required for the terraforming and colonisation of Mars (although amusingly and annoyingly, throughout the discussion he invariably omits the definite article when talking about the North Island and the South Island which sometimes makes for some rather jerky reading).

But ultimately it is his prose style that holds the interest. He is caustic, sarcastic and ironic. He has a quirkily inventive way with metaphor and simile. For example, he describes someone as being so poor and destitute that he has to use both sides of the toilet paper. Once I stopped laughing at that, I had to admit that it fitted the situation perfectly. Mind you, having once invented a pithy saying, he finds himself unable to resist the temptation to use it again and again. The phrase was much less entertaining the tenth time I read it than it was the first time. On the other hand, if the only thing I can find to complain about in his writing is a minor stylistic tic, then the rest of the prose must really be rather good!

Paul Riddell and I have never met face to face, but we have a lot in common. He thinks that Terry Gilliam's film of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is a cinematic tour de force, and so do I. He thinks Bruce Sterling is a pompous windbag, and so do I. He thinks that far too many fans are walking personality defects who converge on the pedantically insane end of the fannish spectrum, and so do I. He is a close friend of Australian film critic Robin Pen, which I am not. I've never met Robin Pen. However my wife has known him for ever and a day. Indeed, my wife is the reason why Robin Pen could never have the email address that he desired above all other things. She got it first and went nyah, nyah, nyah at him! All of which probably says something quite profound about the degrees of separation between Paul Riddell and me, but I'm unclear as to exactly what.

Paul Riddell has had a varied life, well filled with acquaintances about whom he writes most entertainingly. He has interesting ideas about many diverse subjects and he argues his opinions most persuasively. As far as I know, the income from his various concerns keeps him well supplied with single sided toilet paper. I sincerely hope that the royalties from these two books will allow him to gild the edges of every sheet a little. And I hope that one day he can be persuaded to write another book. I for one would love to read some more of his uniquely twisted prose.

Jonathan Kellerman is a very prolific thriller writer (and so are his wife and his son as well; for once it really does run in the family). I've seen his books sprawling over the shelves for years but somehow they never attracted me. I would pick them up every so often and read the blurb, but I always put them back on the shelves again, vaguely unsatisfied with what I read. But this month I took the plunge and bought and read a couple.

Time Bomb begins with a sniper opening fire on a crowded Californian schoolyard. The school is being visited by two prominent politicians and the bodyguard of one of them shoots and kills the sniper before any children are harmed. It is not clear whether the children or the politicians were the targets. Alex Delaware, a psychologist, is brought in to help the children cope with the trauma of the events. He soon finds himself exploring the motives of the sniper and of the politicians who were visiting the school. He suspects some kind of unholy connection between them, a suspicion that is reinforced when both politicians try to persuade him to drop his investigations.

The Butcher's Theatre is set in Jerusalem. A serial killer is murdering young girls and carving their bodies up in gruesomely inventive ways. Chief Inspector Daniel Shalom Sharavi, a Yemenite Jew, is put in charge of the case. It isn't long before political and religious concerns start to complicate the case out of all proportions.

Both books have a similar structure – the first few hundred pages are absolutely fascinating as Kellerman explores the psychopathology of mania and obsession. In The Butcher's Theatre the added dimensions of Arab/Israeli relations and the deeply felt consequences of being a Jew in Palestine give the novel a depth and a passion that are utterly absorbing. However in both cases, as soon as the identity of the protagonist is known the books descend into melodrama with completely unnecessary chases, fights, narrow escapes and artificially induced tension, all in the name of "action". In my opinion, the books would have been much stronger if they had simply ended with the killer being identified and arrested. Gratuitous action is dull.

I strongly suspect, from the evidence before me, that the only way to read a Jonathan Kellerman book is to buy it, tear out the last 150 pages and then wallow gloriously in what's left.

The Language Of Bees is the latest of Laurie R. King's novels about Mary Russell, the wife of Sherlock Holmes. I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand it is a grippingly written story, on the other hand it is the first part of an open ended series which is, in the words of the author, to be continued. And the ending, while not quite a cliff hanger, is undeniably somewhat suspenseful.

It is revealed quite early on in the book that Sherlock Holmes had a son with his nemesis Irene Adler. She kept this a secret from him and it was not until Damian was a man full grown that Holmes learned of his existence under the most tragic of circumstances. Damian, a sorely wounded and highly decorated hero of the First World War, was accused of murder. Holmes and Mary Russell managed to clear him of the charges and, several years later, he comes to them for help when his wife and daughter disappear.

It soon becomes clear that Damian's wife Yolanda has been sucked into the rituals of a religious sect and it isn't long before Holmes and Russell discover that she has been murdered. Damian doesn't know that his wife is dead – he has vanished into the clutches of the sect that held his wife in thrall.

While the novel is firmly set in the 1920s, nevertheless there are exquisitely drawn parallels with modern religious cults (the psychology of mania doesn't change). Aleister Crowley is evoked (today it would probably L. Ron Hubbard).

It's a brilliantly written novel. I'm just annoyed that the resolution will be delayed until a later book.

Dog On It is the first novel by Spencer Quinn. It's a private eye novel narrated by a dog called Chet who belongs to a private eye called Bernie Little. It's a curious conceit that could all too easily turn unbearably twee. But as it happens, it's enthralling, funny, brilliantly written and not at all twee. There's no doubt that Spencer Quinn knows dogs intimately and right from the opening page I was absolutely convinced that Chet, the narrator, really was a dog and really had written this book. That's no mean feat; that's a very willing suspension of disbelief.

A potentially tricky problem soon became clear to me. The broadband modem was directly connected to one and only one computer. None of the rest of the computers in the house had any idea it was there at all. This was not a satisfactory situation. Robin and I needed to be able to sit in separate rooms with separate computers connected simultaneously to the intertubes so that we could have video conferences with each other. Surely that's the major reason for having broadband in the house? I consulted the yellow pages and rang Geeks On Wheels.

"Hello, Geeks On Wheels. You are speaking with Tina. How can I help you?"

"I think I need a geek," I said. I explained the situation.

"Aha!" said Tina. "We get this situation quite a lot. What you need is a wireless router." She began to sing a song: "The modem bone connects to the wireless bone. The wireless bone connects to the computer bone. Now hear the word of the lord!"

"Sounds good," I said. "You ought to give serious consideration to becoming a professional singer."

"I am a professional singer," said Tina. "I only do this job to earn money."

"Can't you make money as a singer?" I asked.

"No," she said. "The intertube pirates have stolen every penny."

"Damn those fifteen men and their dead man's chest," I sympathised. "Have a bottle of rum. The world will look better."

"I'll get a Geek onto his Wheel and send him round," promised Tina. And she was as good as her word. Not long afterwards, a unicycle wobbled up to my front door and a geek got off and rang the bell.

"Why have you only got one wheel?" I asked him.

"I've just started working with the company," he explained. "I'm their newest geek. I won't get a second wheel until after I install my hundredth wireless router. But I did ninety nine last week and so you are my lucky customer. I'm eager to get started."

He plugged the router in, then he sacrificed a goat and sprinkled the blood on to the antenna. The cats ate the rest of the goat – except for the horns and hoofs of course.

"Abracadabra!" intoned the geek. Then he turned to me with a big smile. "There you are," he said. "It should work perfectly now. Let's get a couple of computers and try it out."

My laptops connected wirelessly with no problems at all and were soon sending data up and down the new ultra-wide pipes with gay abandon. I was thrilled.

"What about the computers downstairs?" I asked the geek. "They don't have wireless cards. How can I attach them to the broadband pipes upstairs?"

"Well, you could drill a hole in the floor and run a cable through it," said the geek.

"Robin suggested that as well," I said. "But I am peculiarly reluctant to do that."

The geek nodded his head sagely. "It's an inelegant solution," he agreed. "And the sawdust is an enormous nuisance. It gets everywhere. It will probably make the robot hamster in your modem sneeze a lot. You wouldn't believe the data corruption that would cause."

"Is there anything else we could do?" I asked.

"Indeed there is," said the geek. "What you need is ethernet over power!"

"Ethernet over power?"

"Ethernet over power," confirmed the geek.

"What's that?"

"It's a device that sends network traffic up and down the power lines. You don't need real network cables at all when you've got ethernet over power."

"Let's do it!" I said.

The geek went out to his unicycle and returned with two small white boxes. He plugged one end of one box into the wireless router and the other end of the box into a power socket. Then we went downstairs and connected the second white box to the hub that joins all my downstairs computers together.

"I'm glad the boxes are white," I said. "I was afraid that they might be black."

"Indeed," agreed the geek. "White is the new black. Black itself is so infra dig."

He turned the white boxes on. Each box had a glowing blue light that flashed morse code messages as data travelled up and down the power lines between the upstairs and downstairs computers.

"What are the flashing blue lights for?" I asked. "Are they perchance holes in the boxes which let out the Cerenkov radiation caused by super-speed electrons zipping infinitely fast between the computers?"

"No," said the geek. "They are just flashing blue lights. They are really more of a fashion statement than a technological one. Although anyone who was a boy scout in their youth and who still remembers their leet morse code skills will be able to read the information that is being sent up and down the wires as the blue lights flash. I suggest that you keep the curtains drawn when you are using the connection. Spies equipped with binoculars may steal your data if you don't."

"Of course," I said, impressed all over again.

The geek began to pack away the boxes that all his gadgets had come in. He handed me a registration card.

"We've got a special offer on this month," he said. "If you register with us we'll send you a free tinfoil hat. That way your data is guaranteed to be safe no matter what the circumstances."

"Sounds good", I said and I filled it in.

John Scalzi You're Not Fooling Anyone When You take Your Laptop To A Coffee Shop Subterranean Press
John Scalzi Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded Subterranean Press
Paul T. Riddell Greasing The Pan Fantastic Books
Paul T. Riddell The Savage Pen Of Onan Fantastic Books
Jonathan Kellerman Time Bomb Headline
Jonathan Kellerman The Butcher's Theatre Headline
Laurie R. King The Language Of Bees Bantam
Spencer Quinn Dog On It Arena
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