Wednesday, October 31, 2007 now closed for business

Posted by goatchurch at 4:43 PM
Friends, it is with great relief that the webservice is now closed. Over the past few months it has swept up hundreds of submissions with very little problems (other than a few #'s in the text now and then when people used funny characters). I have now typed the following three lines in the requisite place:

print "Status: 301 Moved Permanently"
print "Location:"
For anyone who's late, I recommend a quick trip over to to find another place to drop off your work. It's finally time to put a lid on this collection point.

If you need to make a comment, the best place to do it is through this blog because it's public enough that I can be shamed into monitoring it. The email is still there (and is the reply-to for all rejection notices), but it doesn't get checked as frequently as it should be.

So, that's it, aside from the backlog and my slower than expected reading speed. The writing so far seems pretty literate, which means I must read to the end of most of them. The most common niggle is that stories are not ambitious enough. It seems harder than expected for people to break away from every-day concerns and current affairs into the open territory I am looking for.

Rejections ought to start finding their way through the system during next week as we whittle it down. Thank you for your patience. Hopefully I'll have something to say on many of them. I am a writer too and I have always been deeply infuriated by empty form rejection letters over the years. Now that I have experienced the other side of the equation, I see why it happens, even with the best of intentions.

I've got two reasons for it so far. The first is the means of selection. If you scan through the submissions looking for the two or three winners you can use in the next issue, that doesn't mean you necessarily have anything to say for the ones which have fallen out. Even if you did have a comment, you've probably forgotten it by the time things get sent.

The second reason is that good writing takes a lot of time. Editors know that inevitably their rejection letters are going to be badly written; they don't have time to draft and redraft it; these artistic judgment thoughts can be pretty hard to put into words. This is unfortunate when writers (like myself) are going to hang on every word. Don't do that. Join for genuine feedback.

Hmm... I wonder if I should put a standard disclaimer at the bottom of each email, like you get from people in corporations telling you that you will be sued if you use any of the information against their boss's financial interests.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Last day now

Posted by goatchurch at 5:12 PM
It's October 31 in Liverpool where I live. I have foolishly promised to read everything submitted in this final week in time to go to Novacon. Geoff has been doing a sterling job keeping on top of it until now. I am concerned I have let myself in for a mad rush at the end as all the writers polish their work until the last minute before sending it in.

I am not very fast reading, but try to read to the end of most of stories, so it's taking a lot of time. Every story is a different world, and sometimes it's difficult to forget the world of one when I move on to the next. If I lose my focus I have to start again from the top when I realize that in this world the theme is over-population, because in the previous world everyone had been wiped out by a virus.

We're not sending out rejections till next week when we've had a chance to review each other's opinions. I haven't got a way of automating it. I have included some notes to send back to the authors in the comments. Maybe they'll make sense, maybe they won't when I paste them into the emails. Who knows? It's my first time.

The site will be going down sometime during tomorrow night. There might be a delay as I work out how to do the http# redirect codes, but hopefully nothing gets lost.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

11 days left

Posted by goatchurch at 12:41 PM
Mundane-SF submission (Interzone issue) webpage closes on midnight 31 October. If you miss that, you have to submit to Interzone where your story will be considered for ALL the other issues except this one.

Familiar malaise at Skepticality

Posted by goatchurch at 11:46 AM
Listen to this or read this. Op-ed and interview with Daniel Loxton. It all sounds so familiar:
In the summer of 2006, Martin Rundkvist (one of the editors of the Swedish skeptics magazine Folkvett) tackled this question in his blog. The entry’s title, "Stuffy Inquirer," captured his thesis: the Skeptical Inquirer "appears to be written by old men for old men." According to Rundkvist, "there’s something lacking" in both the
tone and the content. (Personally, I disagree — I love the Skeptical Inquirer.) He wrote, "A lot of the articles in S.I. seem to be about hoaxes and 'mysteries' current when I was a kid. Uri Geller is still very much an ongoing concern in S.I. And in the current issue they discuss Central American crystal skulls again!"


All this raises the question: what is the skeptical movement for? What are we trying to accomplish, exactly?


Regarding science literacy, we all know the stakes — yet, can we remind ourselves too often? In Sagan's (still spine-tingling) articulation,

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements ... profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.

That really says it all. The kids in schools today (and the adults reading magazines) are called upon to navigate unimaginably vast challenges, in which millions (even billions) of lives hang in the balance. Climate change, peak oil production, dwindling water supplies, the human population peak, unprecedented demographic trends, soaring antibiotic resistance in disease organisms, the AIDS-driven crippling of entire nations — my children will see all of it, and they’ll have tough choices to make. Those problems are all science problems, and every citizen desperately needs the factual background and cognitive tools required to help solve them.

Many skeptics, like Sagan, are explicit that this is the real point of what we do. CSICOP Fellow Bill Nye recently suggested that science advocacy "wouldn’t matter if we didn’t have global heating, if the world weren’t going to end for many, many humans unless we take a scientifically literate view, and take scientifically informed steps to save the planet for our own species."

It’s hard to argue with that. The stakes really are that high; science literacy and critical thinking, of the types promoted by skeptics, are that important.

Framing skeptical activism in terms of global challenges and vast human consequences certainly helps communicate the importance of our project. As I’ve often said myself, to family, to friends, or to the press, "If you can save a grieving widow from being taken advantage of by a callous con-man, that’s a good in itself. But really, the stakes are bigger than that. Really, it’s about the global science and technology issues facing our culture..."
Right. So, can anyone out there explain what genre of fiction is going to serve the need for preparing us for the actual future? Or is the only criterion that ever matters is that the book just makes you feel good and doesn't challenge you in any way about the inevitable changes in your life that is going to happen?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Why do Science Fiction writers make stuff up

Posted by goatchurch at 4:55 AM
when they can just look at the Science?

Last February there was a TV program called Five Ways To Save The World, which was profoundly depressing.

There's probably a feedback loop here because if you don't take the information from scientists, you won't believe that the world needs saving, and so their speculatory plans with all their boring numbers and calculations on what would actually need to be done to make a difference -- rather than to establish a plot point -- seem ridiculous.

If I see another carbon sequestration plan in any SF story that is not on the scale one of these proposals, I shall scream. Again. Science Fiction stories should not pale into insignificance in comparison to an equivalent Science story. They should stand up for themselves.

I leave you with part of the transcript. The BBC site has lots of pictures which are worth surfing.
Ian Curtis: November 2006, NASA are playing host to the world’s top scientists. They’re meeting in California to put forward radical solutions to the greatest threat humanity has ever faced – global warming. All believe we may not reduce carbon emissions by enough in time to stop the devastating effects of climate change.

Prof John Latham: We’re approaching a situation that could be absolutely catastrophic...

Stephen Salter: And we need an emergency panic button to stop the damage that it is doing.

Ian: So dramatic plans are now under serious discussion to engineer the world before it’s too late, and many of those whose livelihoods are at risk say it is time to listen.


Paul Crutzen: We cannot wait another generation doing what we are doing now, it will really get out of hand.

Ian: The first of five ways to save the world is the most expensive and ambitious. It’s aim? To cut the amount of sunshine which hits the earth.

For as long as the sun has been shining, man has been sheltering from it using sunshades of one sort or another to protect himself. Imagine if you could do this for the whole world. One man thinks he can do just that, by putting a giant sunshade consisting of 16 trillion glass disks a million miles from the earth, diverting the sun’s rays. British born astronomer, Roger Angel, has turned his attentions from looking out at space to looking back at the crisis here on planet earth.

Roger Angel: The issue of our own planet has become so acute, when I’m feeling depressed, I tell my astronomer friends that they’re like the band playing on the Titanic, like this is... you know, so I’m worried about the ship going down [laughs] now. The last thing we want to do is wait until we know that we’re in deep trouble.

Ian: Roger Angel is one of the world’s foremost minds on glass optics. He’s responsible for designing the mirrors on telescopes, like the large binocular telescope here in Arizona USA, the world’s most powerful. He believes glass could be the answer to solving global warming...

Roger Angel: The same laws of optics and mechanics that hold for these enormous mirrors of 20 tonnes, hold for the one gram optics that will make each piece of the sunshade.

Ian: Roger Angel has calculated that he would need to divert only 2% of the sun’s rays to reduce global warming. But even that would require a sunshade an incredible 100,000 kilometres wide. It would be positioned a million miles from the earth, and orbit the sun at what is known as the L1 point, the point of zero gravity between the sun and the earth.

Roger: The reason I went to very small pieces is that I can do all the building of these one gram little spacecraft on the earth, launch them to this L1 point where they’ll orbit in front of the sun, and then don’t have to build anything there.


Ian: Roger Angel is convinced the sunshade will work in principle, but he estimates it will cost $4 trillion and take 30 years to complete. He hopes, however, mankind will be wise enough to deal with the now widely accepted causes of global warming and cut carbon dioxide emissions, so his sunshade will remain just a dream.

Roger: We are not happy campers, right? We are not saying: Wow! This is a great idea! Let’s go do it right, that’s the... the feeling is.. you know, this may be a way that we hope will never be wanted, but which we have to think about in case the dire situation comes out.
Emphasis added.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

50 years at Windscale

Posted by goatchurch at 3:21 AM

In 1969 Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his book Slaughterhouse Five:
"I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.

"I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that."
Fifty years ago today people were playing with a huge nuclear reactor on the west coast of England attempting to manufacture atomic bombs. Records show that it had more to do with their desire to be just as good as the Americans than anything related to national defence.

If fiction has a point, it is to teach us about the morality of our tiny insignificant struggles for life within the greater context of the world. Unfortunately, Science Fiction usually white-washes the things that Government scientists and engineers generally get up to. They always seem to be investigating strange phenomena for the benefit of mankind, rarely demonstrating their amazing ability to transfer their consciences wholesale to organizations with a record for mass murderer.

The worst example for this is Gernot Zippe who -- after working as an engineer for the Nazis, spending 10 years building Uranium centrifuges for Stalin in Russia, and then recreating his work for the United States military, before finally returning home repeat his technological feats for the powers in Europe from where it proliferated throughout the rest of the world through the Pakistani government -- excused himself thus:
"With a kitchen knife you can peel a potato or kill your neighbour, it's up to governments to use the centrifuge for the benefit of mankind."
Everyone should have fallen over laughing. A more truthful summary of his life's work might have been:
"A cannister of VX gas can be used to exterminate a room full of human beings, or as an object to prop open a door. Take your pick which you think is going to happen."
The disaster that occurred fifty years ago today on the west coast of England has been described thus:
Because they were built hastily and during a time when little was known about reactor design, the reactors had a number of serious design flaws that contributed to the disaster. Graphite is flammable in air and air was being fed into the reactors constantly for cooling, so there was a constant fire hazard. During the accident the graphite in the reactor did not actually catch fire. However, the reactor's fuel, metallic uranium, burns if it becomes too hot, unlike the uranium dioxide used in modern reactors.

Early in the morning on October 10, it was suspected that something unusual was going on... One thermocouple indicated that core temperature was rising. In an effort to help cool the pile, more air was pumped through the core. This lifted radioactive materials up the chimney and into the filter galleries where the monitoring devices were housed. The radiation monitoring devices at the top of the discharge stack read full scale, then showed a gradual decrease in radiation. The full-scale reading caused the shift foreman to declare a site emergency... There was no doubt that the reactor was now on fire...

Operators were unsure what to do about the fire. First, they tried to blow the flames out by putting the blowers onto full power and increasing the cooling, but predictably this simply fanned the flames. The engineers had already ejected some undamaged fuel cartridges from around the blaze and suggested trying to eject some from the heart of the fire, by bludgeoning them through the reactor and into the cooling pond behind it with scaffolding poles. This proved impossible and the fuel rods refused to budge, no matter how much force was applied. The poles were withdrawn with their ends red hot and dripping with molten metal. The engineer knew this had to be molten irradiated uranium.

Next, the operators tried to extinguish the fire using carbon dioxide. The new gas-cooled reactors next door had just received a delivery of 25 tonnes of liquid carbon dioxide and this was rigged up to the charge face of Windscale Pile 1, but the heat generated by the fire was so extreme that the oxygen was stripped from the carbon atoms and added to the blaze.

On the morning of Friday October 11 and at its peak, 11 tonnes of uranium were ablaze. Faced with this crisis, the operators decided to use water. This was incredibly risky: molten metal oxidises in contact with water, stripping oxygen from the water molecules and leaving free hydrogen, which could mix with incoming air and explode, tearing open the weakened containment. But there was no other choice. About a dozen hoses were hauled to the charge face of the reactor; their nozzles were cut off and the lines themselves connected to scaffolding poles and fed into fuel channels about a meter above the heart of the fire.

All cooling and ventilating air entering the reactor was shut off before the water was turned on. The engineer hauled himself atop the reactor shielding and reported watching the flames leaping from the discharge face slowly dying away. During one of the inspections, he found that the inspection plates were stuck fast. This was the fire trying to suck air in from wherever it could. Water was kept flowing through the pile for a further 24 hours until it was completely cold.

No air-cooled reactors have been built since. The final removal of fuel from the damaged reactor is scheduled to begin in 2008 and continue for a further four years.
The BBC produced an excellent documentary of this accident, the political inevitability behind it, and the reason why the engineers who bravely risked their lives to put the fire out rather than run away screaming took the blame.

Britain continued to pursue and test Hydrogen bombs. Now fifty years later the Government retains a policy of deployment -- nearly twenty years after the official excuse evaporated. New generations of scientists and engineers are being recruited.

What is motivating them? Nuclear weapons are no longer cool. Their geo-political malignancy is well-understood.

Are they doing it just for the money?

It is possible to pay someone to stand on top of 11 tonnes of burning Uranium, but only if they don't know what they are doing. Under those circumstances it's more likely to end in tears.

Before anyone accuses me of having an ideological hatred of private capital, I do in fact know about The Nuclear Threat Initiative which helped move 48kgs of highly enriched Uranium from Serbia where it had been abandoned by all the Governments of the world, to a place where it could be safely dealt with. They paid $5million dollars to get it done. The US presidential candidates will spend that in a week running TV ads about how they're going to fight nuclear terrorism. Looks obvious, doesn't it? Maybe they lack an imagination.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Sputnik is 50

Posted by goatchurch at 3:11 PM
The fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1 passed me by yesterday, October 4. Those backward Commie rats with their totalitarian Soviet state and lack of free enterprise had beaten the United States into space. Being impossible to reconcile the proof that the phenomenon of twentieth century technology was independent of the American economic system, it's been quietly ignored. This important anniversary was only brought to my attention by Democracy Now in the following interview:
AMY GOODMAN: Fifty years ago tomorrow, Sputnik -- what does that have to do with today?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, the official storyline is that the US went from humiliation, with the Soviet launch of Sputnik fifty years ago, to triumph, man on the moon in '69, technological superlatives ever since.

But there's a shadowy side, a terribly damaging and destructive shadowy side, which many people in the United States and around the world have been subjected to, and that is the hijacking and the channeling of technological expertise and scientific research in billions of dollars for purposes of what Dwight Eisenhower called in '61 the "military-industrial complex" and, in a less well-known phrase in his farewell address in '61, a "scientific technological elite." That elite is sending 2,000-pound bombs into urban areas of Iraq. It is not only paying off outfits like Blackwater to, out of sight and often out of mind, slaughter Iraqi people in our names and with our tax dollars, but also pursuing missions that are very far from the official storyline.

And so, you could say, just as Sputnik was said to have launched a trajectory of US technological expertise, Silicon Valley and all the rest of it, we have the underside of what we could call a political culture of hoax that has counter-pointed all of the rhetoric about democracy and scientific progress with what Martin Luther King called in 1967 a dynamic of "guided missiles and misguided men," of using our talents of our country, our resources, our scientific brilliance, for purposes of enriching a few and building a warfare state, which is part of us every moment.
Is Science Fiction, as it has been practiced throughout this period, part of it? Maybe it's not harmless. Perhaps if it wasn't developed as it was, our highly expert engineers couldn't have devoted their entire lives spending Six Trillion Dollars just on atomic mechanisms to destroy cities on the other side of the globe? Just think if it had occurred to them that there were better things to do.

There seems to be a cultural expression going on today with posters all over London advertising a computer game Halo 3 If you went around the streets with your eyes open and you didn't know what was going on you'd be completely freaked out by these images. Maybe there is a small part of our mind that doesn't fully make the distinction between the all pervasive narrative of Science Fiction, and real life, and Believes. What would be the result?

Maybe it's time we insisted on reality getting back into Science Fiction before this story kills us.

I look forward to all the 50th anniversaries of American space technological triumphs being noted in the media soon. It should be interesting.