Simon’s Backup Weblog


The Monday Evening “The First Cold Of The Winter Review”: Redemption Ark

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on September 30, 2002

Alastair Reynolds’ universe is a dark and lonely place. The only aliens we’ve come across in half a millennium of interstellar exploration and colonisation are either long dead or just too strange to understand. We’ve seen glimpses of its past and future in previous novels and shorter works, but it’s in Redemption Ark that Reynolds takes us to a pivotal moment in time: the return of the Inhibitors.

Factional wars and strange plagues have ended a golden age. In the dark around the world of Yellowstone a freighter pilot, working the edge between legal and criminal, is going to find herself caught up in the plans of the most powerful of the human factions: the cognitively enhanced Conjoiners. It’s a net that’s going to take her light years from home, to the Resurgam system, on a journey to retrieve some lost weapons – weapons that just may give humanity a chance in the real struggle that is to come. The struggle against a universe full of machines designed to stop intelligent life filling the stars.

Billions of years ago, there was a war. Archaeologists call it the “Dawn War”. Civilisations were destroyed, and whole areas of the galaxy sterilised before one species decided to end the curse of bickering intelligence. Seeding the stars with machines intended to destroy intelligent life, they left traps that have kept the galaxy a quiet and empty place. Unfortunately for humanity the events of Reynolds’ first novel, Revelation Space, have woken the Inhibitors, and humanity is right at the top of their “to exterminate” list. And the Resurgam system looks like it’s going to be the first to go…

Reynolds tells a dramatic story on the wide screen of classic space opera. There’s a 21st century edge to his writing though, a universe that’s grubby and lived in, where universe-shattering events don’t come from moral certainties, instead being born in the fumbling decisions of individuals caught up in the tidal wave of history. This is a big book, with several plot strands that twine around each other as they race each other across the interstellar void. It’s a dark place out there, and Reynolds is ready to show us just how dark it can be.

Redemption Ark is classic modern SF, powerfully written, with a feel for excitement that keeps you on the edge of your chair. Reynolds’ best book to date. Highly recommended.

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New Lord Of The Rings Trailer

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on September 30, 2002

Found here, via the BBC. A lot of extra scenes and dialogue, including a glimpses of an Ent and Nazgul and much more Gollum. Looking good for December 18!

Displacement activities

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on September 29, 2002

It’s a column weekend. So I have done the following:

And researched and written all the body copy for the column…

Go me.

Zzzzz.

Fun with the Amazon API

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on September 29, 2002

The XML column I’m in the middle of writing is the first of two on working with the Amazon web services API.

Looking at it in more detail as I research and write the piece I’ve found the API an extremely interesting piece of work. The query URI structures used in the XML/HTTP version of the API are very interesting, as it’s clear that they’ve been designed to be both relatively easy to design and use and to map relatively easily to the backend SQL queries that Amazon will be using on its databases. A query URI for a search that’s exploring just one area of the Amazon site looks like this:

http://xml.amazon.com/onca/xml?v=1.0&t=webservices-20&dev-t=%5BDeveloper's ID goes here]&BrowseNodeSearch=[browse node goes here]&mode=[product line goes here]&type=[lite or heavy] &page=[page # goes here]&f=xml

You can see just how the resulting code on the Amazon side will operate. It will first authenticate using the Developer’s ID, place restrictions on the search scope using the browse node information, and finally chooses the type of document returned (along with the page number in the query response). This type of request will allow you to see the most popular items in a product class – so you could use it to deliver a regularly updated list of top selling books or CDs for a web site.

It’s an interesting piece of work, and something I’m going to need to keep in mind as a design pattern for future KM work.

More delights from Finder

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on September 29, 2002

Carla Speed McNeil, creator of the wonderful comic Finder, has recently published an online special, a five page story from the Finder universe entitled “Fetch”.

Enjoy. I certainly did. It’s got a bookshop in it…

(And then you should all rush out and buy King Of The Cats to learn more about the Nyima)

The Sunday Morning “Really Should Be Writing A Column” Review: DeathDay

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on September 29, 2002

You can’t really read a big book like Redemption Ark in the bath. It’s a place for lighter fiction, for novels hot on action and low on characterisation. It’s where I tend to read the modern equivalents of pulp spce operas: military SF. It’s where I read William C. Dietz’s DeathDay.

Dietz is not a great writer. But then, I don’t think he wants to be a great writer. What he does do (reasonably well) is put together tight thrillers that focus on one social ill, wrapped up into a SF setting. And he usually can spin a decent yarn. Probably his best novel is Where The Ships Die, which mixes an espionage thriller with an image of the great Indian ship breakers working on starships. DeathDay is not that novel. If anything, it’s Dietz’s worst piece to date.

It’s 2020 and in a scene straight from Independence Day, the Earth has been invaded. Billions are dead, and the scattered remnants of humanity have been enslaved, to build enormous temples by hand. It doesn’t look good, and Will Smith doesn’t seem to be on the scene. Set around Dietz’s home in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, DeathDay chronicles the first struggles of a resistance movement, and humanity’s discovery of the real reason behind the invasion. We see the broken world through the eyes of slaves and rebels – including the doctor in a slave camp, a history teacher who finds himslef at the head of a resistance movement, and the head of the security team protecting a quisling leader.

Dietz struggles to wrap a message about racism into his story, with a look at colour-based slavery (with a reversal of history as an ironic twist to drive a point home) on the invaders’ part, and as neo-Nazi survivalists try to control the resistance – one thing’s for sure here, Dietz is not subtle. It’s a fair attempt, but it’s one that’s been done far better by other writers. Dietz has ambition, but his reach far exceeds his grasp. His characters are 2D cutouts, who are pushed through the plot by editorial fiat.

There is a sequel, which surprisingly seems to be in hardcover…

A reasonable Clancyesque pulp, with some interesting ideas. But I’d suggest reading William Barton’s superb When Heaven Fell instead for a much better treatment of an Earth under the yoke of unfeeling alien masters.

New build of Feedreader 2.3

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on September 28, 2002

I’ve been having problems with the 2.3 build of Feedreader that I’d downloaded a while back – it kept hanging when trying to do scheduled scans of RSS feeds and it had difficulty in formatting the output from Live Journal’s RSS feeds. Today, I noticed that the web site had been redesigned, and that while the current build was still labeled as 2.3, it was a different size (470KB as opposed to the previous 363KB download).

It’s quite definitely a major bug fix – everything is now working just the way I want again! So back it goes onto my recommended downloads as an important blogging tool.

The author’s hard at work now on version 2.4.

More thinking on web services…

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on September 28, 2002

…seeing as it’s a weekend I have to spend writing my XML column!

Looking at the Amazon web services API, it’s interesting to note that they provide a simpler access method than SOAP. While SOAP is a useful tool for delivering responses at a method level, it’s not always appropriate for query style calls – especially where you’re dealing with database data. There’s just a little too much overhead there – especially if you’re wanting to go straight to the display layer, rather than use the response as input to business logic.

Amazon’s XML over HTTP approach is a nice balance here, as it allows you to include results direclty in web pages without needing to process information – especially as Amazon will host XSLT style sheets for you, and handle the transformations… And all you need to do is submit them the appropriate URIs in your initial HTTP query.

With regards to by interests in XML and XML application development, I’m aiming to get a bit more active on appropriate mailing lists and blogs – if I’m spending time thinking about XML in knowledge management, then I really need to share my thinking on a wider basis. It’s a tack that’s paying off a little, too – in a recent thread, Dave Winer agreed with me about what I consider to be the future role of RSS and RSS-like tools, as a mechanism for managing publish-and-subscribe web services.

As I wrote:

“In my XML columns for PC Plus and Application Development Advisor I’ve been looking at RSS as the basis for the missing half of the web services model – where we don’t need dynamic generation of information, just authenticated pointers to regularly updated data.

A lot of what people are doing with web services could be more efficiently handled by using RSS or an RSS derivative as a publish and subscribe solution. RSS doesn’t need to point to HTML URIs – it can point to any URI.

Once we get over the HTML hurdle, there’s a whole wide world of really interesting applications out there.”

What I really want to be doing right now is helping people come up with real business solutions that can be built around this model. I know that it can be done, and I have some ideas on possible scenarios – but that’s not really enough.

Favourite web comics: a virtual anthology

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on September 26, 2002

The web is a great place to find interesting work in the often under-rated world of serial graphic storytelling. Scott McCloud has dabbled with the web comic form, but it’s the long running sites that really have the form down. This list is a selection of my favourite comic sites, most of which update daily. Four of them are also newspaper strips, and one publishes a print comic (with another just about to appear in this form). Several also have physical collections available, so you don’t have to get carpal tunnel clicking through four or five years worth of strips…

Bruno – Chris Baldwin’s one pane slice of life stories.
Cat and Girl – The acceptable face of post-modern irony.
Dilbert Zone – A life in the cubes…
Dork Tower – Gamers are people, too!
For Better Or For Worse – The everyday story of Canadian suburban folk.
Freefall – An anthromoporphic wolf in a world she never made…
General Protection Fault – Geek humour with a twist
Helen – Helen, the Sweetheart of the Internet
Kevin & Kell – A wolf married a rabbit and lived happily ever after. With complications…
Over the Hedge – The animals of suburbia take after their home
Sinfest – God, the devil and the pimp…
Sluggy Freelance – Err. Impossible to describe. Just read.
Unicorn Jelly – Large scale science fantasy epic
User Friendly – Life at a small ISP
Joy Of Tech – See, Mac users can be funny!
Red Meat – Surreal humour from the heartland
Megatokyo – Gamers loose in Tokyo.

Steve Bell at his best…

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on September 26, 2002

Click here for one of the best editorial cartoons I’ve seen for ages!

One for and I think!

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