Francis’s news feed

This combines together some blogs which I like to read. It’s updated once a week.

February 09, 2019

Cambridge University deserves to sink below the rising seas by Goatchurch

This is just awful. It makes things worse. We need someone to speak truth to these elites, like Rutger Bregman just did at Davos where he said: “Enough with the philanthropy bullshit, just pay your taxes, and then we can improve society.”

Cambridge University provides an intellectually stunted education. Why else would one of their graduates, who made a lot of money on financial speculation, donate a stupendous sum of money for:

  • £79m toward funding PhD scholarships
  • £21m will help fund undergraduate study
  • £1m will go towards funding access efforts for applicants from underrepresented backgrounds.

The most basic due diligence would have revealed that Cambridge (and Oxford) were put into special measures last July 2018 for not fulfilling their obligations of their Access and Participation Plan, which they are required to do in order to charge inflated fees.

The Office For Students, which authorises Cambridge’s fee hike, believes that, while they are spending tens of millions on bursaries for students from low-income households, there is no evidence that the money is actually attracting young people from such backgrounds.

In other words, they already have too much money for this, and they are wasting it.

Exactly the sort of institution a lazy billionaire would look to give his money to — ie not one mile beyond the one place he encountered during his youthful formative years.

Is this evidence he has broadened his horizons during his career? Nope!

Just remember kids, earning a billion dollars does not make you smart.

If it does anything, it makes you stupid.

I mean, if I were surrounded by people telling me I was smart, not needing to concern myself with problematic details where the devil lies, and rarely getting challenged on any of my stupid ideas, my head would be more chock full of dumb stuff than ever. No room for intelligent life.

I don’t blame billionaires for letting their minds go blunt. Staying smart is bloody hard work. What’s the point of being rich if you are going to endure that kind of pain?

No brain can function clearly under the burden of wealth, any more than it can respond to events when it is on alcohol. But unfortunately, while most drunk people now know they are unfit to drive, even when they feel confident, no one has come to terms with the fact that the super-rich are unfit to decide how to allocate wealth. It’s an inevitable a car crash.

I mean, listen to this wooden fence-post of a Vice-Chancellor:

I’m immensely grateful to David and Claudia Harding to for this extraordinary gift to the student support initiative of Cambridge University.

It will transform Cambridge’s ability to attract and retain the very best post-graduate students from across Britain and around the world.

It will also encourage greater philanthropy and support of our undergraduate students…

In October 2018, without blinking, this same Professor Toope announced a £500million target for the Student Support Initiative. So he’s got about another £400million to raise from brainless rich people and then to squander on already ineffective bursaries to fulfill overdue obligations.

At some point I’m going to get phone-banked by these clowns, because they have my address, and this is the university I graduated from. I intend to arrange to meet a representative in person, rather than vent my spleen at the hired call-centre operative they’ll have procured, because this has gone too far.

If the university had one inkling of their problem, they could attempt to convene a panel of randomly selected students from across the country from their target audience and give them the resources to probe the institution about its failings in a way that would make them squirm and then possibly do something.

But that’s not going to happen. This institution, which knows about science, and political corruption, and the future, can’t even wean itself off fossil fuel donations and investments in the face of overwhelming opinion.

Meanwhile, the same rich benefactor, who made his money with algorithmic trading, has also in the past sponsored the Winston Program for the Physics of Sustainability, whose program is notable by the complete absence of anything to do with the very near-future threat to the sustainability of organized human life on this planet.

Just take a look at titles from their Symposium last November 2018:

  • Gravitational wave detectors : precision measurement technologies and their applications
  • Atom Interferometry for Geodesy and Fundamental Physics
  • Taking inspiration from biomechanics to engineering, dragonfly drones and other bio-inspired vehicles
  • Electrical machines: from Microwatts to Gigawatts – the future challenges
  • Implantable Biomedical Microelectromechanical Systems
  • Power at the Nanoscale: Speed, Strength and Efficiency in Biological Motors

Here’s that institute’s inspiring logo, the recycled atom:

According to the institute’s description, “There will be a strong emphasis upon fundamental research that will have importance for the sustainability agenda in the long-term.”

Guess what? After eight years of this crap, the problems we face are now short-term. These guys are from the Island of Laputa without their clappers.

Another thing Mr Harding’s Winton Foundation has donated money for in Cambridge (and presumably found wholly satisfactory) is the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication in which he says:

David Harding: Statistics is an immensely powerful subject, but unfortunately it’s counter-intuitive. (Laughs.) So the normal ordinary human brain trying to do statistical analysis will come firmly and to the wrong and often the opposite conclusion to that which is the right conclusion.

And this is dangerous, tragic, and leads to a very strong shortfall in terms of optimal public policy outcomes, and often outcomes for ourselves in our own lives.

Harding, of course, has an extra-ordinary human brain, and he can see through to the really pressing issues of “Risk, Evidence, and Communication”, such as:

  • The risks of alcohol
  • Predict breast cancer tool release
  • Coffee and cancer
  • Can nine lifestyle changes change dementia risk?
  • The dangers of insecticides, poor statistics and over-enthusiastic press offices
  • Does air pollution kill 40,000 people each year in the UK?
  • How dangerous is burnt toast?

We are totally screwed.

For different reasons, the historian Malcolm Gladwell had also had it with this philanthropy universities crap going on in America and tweeted four years ago:

He followed up with a very fine podcast episode about the phenomenon, where he exposed just how utterly insatiable these institutions are, when there are just so many other places you could make a thousand times more of a difference if you thought about it.

In his interview (minute 25:00) with John Hennessy, the President of Standford University, who was just then ushering in a $750million endowment for the hundred most elite graduates chosen by a panel of wealthy professors from a set of high-flying graduate applicants, Gladwell asked:

Gladwell: How much is enough for an institution like Stanford?

Hennessy: How much is enough? Um. I think if our ambitions don’t grow, then I think you do reach a point where you have enough money, and I would hope that our ambitions for what we would want to do as an institution, both in our teaching and our research, grow

Gladwell: Hypothetically, if Bill Gates or Larry Ellison came to you and said, “I’m giving you ten billion dollars. I’m retiring and my will says everything goes to Stanford.” Would you say, “We don’t know, we don’t need it.” Or would you say, “We can put that money to good use.”

Hennessy: Well, first of all I don’t think either Gates of Ellison is going to give me ten billion dollars, unless I tell them exactly what I’m going to do with it, and how I’m going to make it a good investment. And since I know both of them I can tell you they won’t do it.

Gladwell: Could you make an argument to Ellison that if he gave you ten billion you could put it to good use?

Gladwell (narrating): Ten billion, just to put us in the ball-park, because I worry sometimes that Americans get a little jaded about big numbers. Ten billion is a few billion more than the GDP of Barbados and four billion shy of the GDP of Jamaica. Basically I’m asking what would happen if someone gave you, Stanford, the average economic output of an entire Caribbean country for a year. Tax-free, by the way. The guy who gives the ten billion gets to write it off, and every dollar Stanford earns on that ten billion, they get to keep.

Hennessy: Ten billion. I’d have to do something really dramatic for ten billion dollars. Really dramatic.

Gladwell (narrating): He thinks about it for a moment. Actually I counted. For about two seconds. Then he comes up with something really dramatic.

Hennessy: The one area where I think there is an opportunity for significant incremental funding is in the biomedical sciences. If that were an endowment, for example, so you’re throwing out about a half a billion dollars a year, I could find a way to spend half a billion dollars a year in biomedical research.

Gladwell (narrating): Ten billion! He could totally use another ten billion! At this point, I’m just curious… So I keep posing more and more far-fetched scenarios.

Gladwell: Do ever imagine that a president of Stanford might go to a funder and say, “At this point in our history the best use of your money is to give to the UC System , not Stanford?

Gladwell (narrating): The UC System is the University of California System. Ten schools: Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis, Santa Barbra, etc. Maybe the finest group of public universities in the world… In the previous episode I talked about the NYT Access index which is a ranking of the 180 universities in the US according to how good a job they do in finding, educating, and financially supporting low income students. Right now… six of the first seven spots on that list are University of California schools. Stanford has 16,000 students, the UC System has 238,000 students.

So I’m asking John Hennessy, might there ever, ever, be an instance where he might tell a would-be super-philanthropist, “Look, we’ve already got £22billion in the bank, higher than two Caribbean countries combined, and it’s earning us a couple of tax-free billions every year. Your dollar would go further at the public institutions down the street, since they educate 222,000 more students than we do, with a fraction of the endowment.

I’m not holding Hennessy to his answer. I’m not looking for him to make a solemn pledge. I’m just asking.

Hennessy: Well that would be a hard thing to do, obviously, to turn them away. And I think the other question we’d be asked is, “How can I have confidence that they’ll use my money well?” which obviously the president of Stanford is not in a position to vouch for I think.

Gladwell (narrating): Now I realize he has institutional loyalties. He’s the head of Stanford. And I must say, I liked him. But I must say, am I the only the only one who finds his answer ridiculous? Even offensive?

He’s suggesting that he can’t guarantee that the UC System, perhaps the most successful and socially progressive public university system in the world, he can’t guarantee they would use that money well?

As opposed to what? As opposed to spending $800million on a boutique graduate program for a hundred elite students a year: that kind of using money well?

Looking Back at MU69 by The Planetary Society

A crescent view of MU69 reveals its bizarre shape. Let's look at lots of other fun-shaped space crescents.

Stunning new images show what the Chang'e-4 mission has been up to by The Planetary Society

Chang’e-4 is sending home brilliant footage from its various spacecraft, while also being snapped by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Curiosity Update, Sols 2257-2312: Drilling at Rock Hall and Arrival at the Valley of Clay by The Planetary Society

Curiosity completed work at Vera Rubin Ridge with an easy drilling activity at Rock Hall. Now it has finally driven on to mineral-rick rocks that were seen from orbit, long before Curiosity arrived. The team plans a lengthy traverse of the clay-bearing unit.

So long, MarCO, and thanks for the radio transmissions by The Planetary Society

NASA says it does not expect to receive any more transmissions from the MarCO CubeSats that accompanied Insight to Mars last year.

Pretty Pictures of the Cosmos: Sensational Spirals by The Planetary Society

Award-winning astrophotographer Adam Block shares some of his latest galactic treasures.

InSight Milestone: Wind and Thermal Shield Placed Sol 66 by The Planetary Society

InSight mission has successfully placed the wind and thermal shield over the seismometer. The seismometer will now be shielded from winds and kept warm over the cold Martian nights, so the quality of its data should dramatically increase.

The Mars Exploration Rovers Update: Opportunity Logs 15th Year in Silence, Team Begins ‘Hail Mary’ Efforts by The Planetary Society

As a string of dust storms moved through Meridiani Planum and over Endeavour Crater in January, Opportunity silently wrapped her fifteenth year on the surface of Mars.

February 08, 2019

Managing Retirement Drawdown by Retirement Investment Today

As a 46 year old now in Early Retirement it seems worthwhile to now share more detail on how I have as tax efficiently as possible tried to build my wealth so that I run out of life before I run out of wealth.  For some time now at a high level I’ve used the following approach, which of shared on a number of occasions, to know when to pull the trigger.  Track my spending religiously then adjust

February 06, 2019

Deaths and Deadlines by Charlie Stross

Things have been a little quiet around here lately, so by way of an apology, let me explain why this is so. And also why "Invisible Sun" is so late.

Back in late 2013 my editor at Tor, David Hartwell, somehow charmed me into writing a follow-up trilogy to the Merchant Princes series.

"Empire Games", the trilogy, was originally due to come out starting in 2015. Indeed, David was gung-ho to push out all three novels at three month intervals, like Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Wake trilogy. Unfortunately, what David hadn't reckoned with was that I was already committed to publishing a novel a year via my other publishers, and my natural output rate is about 1.5 books/year. Also, David was that rare bird in these modern times, an editor who liked to edit. Indeed, he just about edited me to death. The first two novels, "Empire Games" and "Dark State", were undoubtedly improved by his diligence, but it served me as a crash course reminder in why I had resolved never to work with David again after the first series. (If you've ever had a charming but intensely annoying micromanager: it was like that.)

So we were just getting to grips with "Invisible Sun", a couple of years late (that kind of delay happens when your editor edits the first two books three times) ... when a bookcase fell on him and he died.

(It gets worse.)

Luckily David wasn't my only editor on this project. David was 75-ish; at that age, sudden involuntary retirement is a risk publishers plan for. My British publisher, Tor UK, was in the loop: my US publisher on the project, Tor, already had a fallback editor assigned. So my UK editor picked up the pieces and carried on.

Only, then my father died.

Losing a parent cannot be recommended as a positive experience. In my case, it killed a year of work I'd just put in on a new space opera, "Ghost Engine" (which is now going to be even later than a very late thing indeed). GE will still, I hope, see the light of day: it's just that it was indellibly associated in my skull with my father's terminal illness, and I needed to get some distance. So, after some hasty editorial conferences, we agreed that I'd bring "The Labyrinth Index" forward a year—I already had it planned, so writing it would be straightforward. And indeed, I squeezed it out and it was handed in only about three months after the original deadline for "Ghost Engine".

Then I burned out.

It's normal for authors to take multiple years off after the death of a parent. I was so busy patting myself on the back for being only three months behind schedule that I hadn't even noticed that the due date for the final redraft of "Invisible Sun" was a month after the delivery date for "The Labyrinth Index". (I wrote the first draft of "Invisible Sun" in 2014, but in the process of finalizing "Dark State" David hacked the first two chapers off "Invisible Sun" and turned them into the ending of the middle book, so it needed a total re-write to turn it back into a novel.) Anyway, I sat down to work on "Invisible Sun" in January 2018 ... and the words just didn't come.

I got there eventually. I turned in something vaguely book-shaped in late June, just six months late. Reader, I always hit deadlines. I spent years as a corporate technical author and then as a freelance journalist. Deadlines are holy. I do not miss deadlines: if I think I might need extra time I raise it with editorial/management so far ahead that they can reschedule things comfortably—and then I try not to use it. So, six months late? Is not business as usual in my world: in fact, it's a first, in just under 20 years of selling books.

With a six month delay, my editors at Tor (UK and US) agreed to delay the book by 12 months, providing lots of extra time to catch up. With on-going burnout, my agent and I agreed I'd take the last six months of 2018 as a sabbatical from writing. Travel, read, lie on a beach, whatever. I don't generally do holidays: when I travel there's usually a work engagement or three along the way. I last took a sabbatical in 2007: I'd been aiming to take one in 2017, but dad's illness came up instead.

So, that relaxing sabbatical in the second half of 2018? About two weeks into it, my mother was taken into hospital in an ambulance and spent the next three months on a succession of stroke/neurology wards in a city about 200 miles away from my home. She didn't die, but she's now in a nursing facility with no prospect of recovery. If she makes it to April she'll turn 90: to be honest, I didn't expect her to come out of hospital alive. Every week is a bonus, and I'm making weekly round trips to visit her. (If you've wondered why my public appearances have dropped through the floor since last autumn, it's because I don't want to be too far from the bedside.)

However, at some point during the last eight months, the period of burn out ended. I was allowed—my sabbatical rules—to work on a side-project: no contract, no deadline, no requirement that it even be publishable: just writing for the hell of it, anything I wanted, the way I did before the hobby turned into a day job. The side-project in question has the working title of "Lost Boys" (it almost certainly can't be published under that name, because the movie dominates the Google search ranking and SEO is important to book titles these days). I can't really say too much about it yet because it's not finished, much less sold to a publisher, and it certainly won't be published before 2020 at this point, but it's set in the Laundry universe but has nothing to do with the existing Laundry Files series, and it aims to do for "Peter Pan" what "Equoid" did for unicorns. I'm now about 70% of the way through writing a first draft, and I'd be aiming to finish it this month (February) except—

I mentioned "Invisible Sun" getting a one year delay, didn't I? Well, that means it's now due out in December 2019/January 2020. Which means that the publishers' production pipeline expects inputs at a specific point, and I need to do a final edit pass on it once my editor at Tor UK sends me an edit letter.

Which would have come in late December, but my editor's mother died right before Christmas.

Which brings me back to the present. I'm working on "Lost Boys", with the goal of having a Laundry spin-off novel ready for next year. "Ghost Engine" exists in first draft (I was halfway through the second draft when dad died) and it's not unlikely that it, too, will be completed in time for publication in 2020. I'm expecting the edits on "Invisible Sun" to arrive this week, and it should, I hope, come out at the end of 2019.

Just as long as nobody else dies.

What I published in 2018 by Charlie Stross

(Pinned to top because the Hugo/Nebula/other award nominations are currently open)

It's that time of year again, when some authors remind everyone that they're eligible for various awards for fiction published in 2018.

My total publications for 2018 consisted of: two novels and one novelette.

You probably haven't read the novelette because it's published in an anthology— Knaves over Queens, the first British-set collection in the Wild Cards series, a sequence of shared-universe stories edited by George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. My story, "Police on my Back", is published in Knaves over Queens, which is currently only available in the UK (first US publication isn't until next year). ( link.)

As for the novels, these are Dark State (Tor, UK and USA: January 2018), the second Empire Games book (or eighth Merchant Princes novel, depending on how you count them), and "The Labyrinth Index" (US Amazon link, UK Amazon link), published by Publishing (in the USA) and Orbit (in the UK). And that's the ninth book in the Laundry Files, or maybe the tenth (if you count "Equoid" as a really short novel rather than a novella) or eleventh (if you also factor in the really short short story collection published as an ebook).

As for awards eligibility ...

I would like to note that in addition to the aforementioned stories, I'm eligible for the Hugo award for Best Series, both the Merchant Princes and the Laundry Files.

Now, I am not here to tout for your nominations.

However, if you are planning to nominate me for a best series Hugo award, please bear in mind the following...

* If you nominate more than one item in a category, the value of your nomination is reduced. (See the World Science Fiction Society Constitution, section 3.9.1, wherein the process for counting nominations is described.)

  • "Invisible Sun" (Merchant Princes #9/Empire Games #3) will be published in fall 2019. But there will almost certainly be no Laundry Files book in 2019.

  • It follows that both series are eligible for the 2019 Hugo award for best series, but the Merchant Princes will also be eligible in 2020, and the Laundry files will not be eligible in 2020. (See WSFS constitution 3.3.5.)

So: if you want to nominate both these series for a Hugo award for best series, go right ahead. rather than voting for them both in 2019, please consider nominating the Laundry Files in 2019 (i.e. for the Dublin worldcon), and the Merchant Princes in 2020.

Postscript: if you're a writer and you've published something in 2018 that is eligible for the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Clarke, or other awards in the SF/F field, and you want to get the word out, you're very welcome to post a comment here (preferably including links to the work in question).


February 05, 2019

Resolutions: Update. by Feeling Listless

Life About a month ago, I posted a list of my new year's resolutions. Let's see how guilty I should be feeling.

I want to be healthier and lose weight.

- No chocolate
- No sweets
- No biscuits
- No cake
- No bread
- No cheese
- In fact as little dairy as possible
- Eat more fruit and veg
- Eat smaller portions
- More exercise

Yes, broken them all. Last a week or two and then the temptation was too great and the hunger became to interfere with my anxiety. This stuff is hard, especially with my lifestyle. That said, I've only been having a can of soup each day which has to be a good thing, right?

I want to be more respectful to food.

- No sauces or condiments unless they're integral to the dish.

Kept to this, oddly, even to the point of not having gravy on roasted meat. All sorts of flavours suddenly revealed for better or worse.

I want to keep my film collection static.

- Do not buy any new or second hand region 2/B dvds or blu-rays this year unless they're MCU, Doctor Who, Star Wars or Network releases or Shakespeare.

Kept to this too.

I want to reduce my Big Finish backlog to zero.

- Listen to Big Finish during the walk to and from work.

And this. Almost at the end of my backlog of Tom related audios.

I want to keep my book collection static.

- No more new books unless they're Doctor Who TARGET novelisations or on audio.

I have bought the Kindle version of All The President's Men, but since I already had the paperback waiting to be read, I decided that was allowed especially for 99p.

Embrace the whole of the Sugababes.

- Listen through the albums and re-appraise Sweet 7.

Not yet. But I look forward to the day.

Subscriptions (feed of everything)

Updated using Planet on 9 February 2019, 05:48 AM