K.S. Augustin's Blog
May 16, 2013
Recently, I was having an interesting exchange regarding SF, SFR and space opera, and I pointed out that the one big genre love in my life is space opera. Earlier, when J (in a separate conversation) asked me to define space opera, I told him:
Space opera is where one person can change an entire universe
Thus far, I’ve written space opera, sf romance, erotic sf romance, and erotic hard sf but a few years ago, noting the similarity of largeness-of-canvas between historicals and sf, I wrote what I like to call a “future historical”. The story, A PIRATE’S PASSION, was set in the Republic and I deliberately wrote it to a Pygmalion theme with baroque overtones.
Recently, APP reverted back to me and I’ve been completely revising it. The content has been amped up in terms of the plot and surrounding politics, it is being re-edited as I speak, and is due for a June release.
As a tangent, Sandal Press is doing its own covers now, so when I sat down to design the cover for the revised book (now called THE PIRATE’S GRAND PLAN), I wanted to incorporate elements of that “future historical” mood. I looked at dozens of historical romance covers to find the common elements, and tried to fit what I liked about them to an era still centuries ahead of us. This was the toughest cover I’d attempted but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out:
Gilthen Ahn is captain of the Darck Banks cartel, a pirate band working deep in Republic space. He has six ships under his command and, unless he finds money to pay off his substantial debts, he’ll lose everything.
Tera d’Olzon is a privileged member of Republic high society, trying to make a difference by thumbing her nose at everything her family stands for. Unfortunately, things haven’t quite turned out the way she anticipated and, while running from Security Forces, she is “rescued” by Gil’s cartel.
The reasonable thing for the cartel to do is to ransom her. But that won’t bring in enough money. So Gil hatches a plan…
If that sounds like something that would interest you, stay tuned and I’ll let you know when it’s been released. Because the original story was a previous release, THE PIRATE’S GRAND PLAN (40,000+ words) will sell for a paltry US$2.99 rather than the usual US$4.99!
And I know I shouldn’t say this because I get caught out so many times, but there is definitely a sequel planned. In fact, I already have the cover done! It follows Fikora Carven, the young, sharp aristocrat who so nearly bested Tera d’Olzon in THE PIRATE’S GRAND PLAN. It will be novel-length.
— oOo —
To all SFR fans, Heather Massey — a wonderful supporter of all things SFR — has a terrific feature up at her fabulous The Galaxy Express blog. To whit, a page dedicated to Free/.99 cent SFR. I think this is a terrific way to introduce readers to SFR and I hope more authors chip in with their releases. I also hope more readers take advantage of this wonderful resource.
You will find COLLATERAL DAMAGE, my free Republic novelette, up there as well as a lovely review of it from Heather herself. It can get dispiriting launching books out into the vacuum, and Heather’s piece comes as much-appreciated motivation. Thanks heaps, Heather!
And thank YOU for being a blog reader. I’ll catch you next week!
May 9, 2013
There are two big projects consuming me at the moment: digitally typesetting the entire Check Your Luck series and (once more) editing what I like to call my “future historical”. What with the renovations at home ongoing, and me getting over a cold, I feel utterly swamped and completely depleted of energy.
I wanted to write an essay on expats living in Singapore but that will have to wait until I have a bit of spare time so I can get my thoughts in order.
So have a good weekend, stalwart reader, and I hope I’ll be in a position to have something to post next week.
May 2, 2013
It’s taken almost two years of my life, but the final part of the Check Your Luck urban fantasy is done, dusted and at various etailers! Whew.
Over at the Sandal Press blog, I said that it came to “227,000 words” but that, of course, is the total length of all five books, not that of the last part, Five Card Draw, Jinn Are High, which only clocks in at 49,200 words.
I think that the reason I was able to finish the series is because I’m an outliner (or planner, if you will). As a panster, I would have widdled and waddled and doubt I would have got very far at all. As a planner, I had the major plot points of all five books laid out before I even put finger to keyboard to begin the first book, so I knew where I was going. That’s the beauty of planning and a good way of avoiding Sagging Middle Syndrome. But there’s another thing that planning gives a writer and that’s motivation. I knew I had some pretty good stuff happening in future books, and knowledge of that spurred me on. “C’mon, let’s get through this! Remember that xxxx happens in Book Three/Four/Five and that’s going to be awesome to write, so let’s get going!”
This kind of motivation is particularly important when one is not surrounded by a writing group and one’s husband is fatalistic about when a book is going to be finished. (“It’s done when it’s done” may be good general advice but is no spur to get to 30,000 words when one is currently languishing at 17,500!)
Over the years, my style of planning has also changed. Five years ago, I would have set up character profiles then done a scene-by-scene summary of the book across two A4 notepad pages. Each summary would have run to no more than two sentences.
Three years ago, I would have set up character profiles then done an A5 breakdown of each scene and moved them around until I got a coherent book.
Now I set up character profiles then write a 2- to 3-page synopsis of each book. As I write, I refer to the synopsis and mark off the major plot points as I reach them. It’s incredibly satisfying seeing pen marks running through the text, leading finally to only a few pristine sentences dangling amid a sea of black ink. Those sentences belong to threads that didn’t quite work for one reason or another. I may also go through three iterations of synopses as other things occur to me regarding the character, motivation, plot or setting. Maybe grinding through three separate outlines after I’ve already begun writing a book only makes me a part-planner, but I know where I’m going and I know how I’m going to end, and I doubt I could be a productive writer without either of those certainties.
So that’s a little writer insight into the Check Your Luck books. Just to finish on the obligatory marketing note, here’s the blurb for the fifth book, Five Card Draw, Jinn Are High:
One by one, the people who would stand up against kingpin Adam Lau have been attacked and, while all have survived, they are no closer to finding out the identity of Lau’s mysterious magical partner. Meanwhile, Ursula’s life is changing in more ways than she could have imagined. The ghost, Simon Oakland, is becoming more a friend than an enemy, Shariff wants to take the relationship to another level, and bad news arrives from an unexpected quarter.
Ursula knows that she can run, if she wants to. She can flee across the world to a place where Lau won’t find her. But can she abandon her new friends? And, with time running out, will she have the skills to stand with them when the final showdown with Adam Lau takes place?
And feel free to go to the book page where you can see a list of major etailers.
I’m not resting. It’s back to my beloved space opera with an almost-mundane SF kicking around as well. I’m not sure what’s going to happen between now and the end of year, writing-wise (I know what I’ll be writing, but not the order), but it’s sure going to be fun finding out!
Have a great weekend and I’ll catch you next Friday.
April 26, 2013
[Apologies for the delay in posting, but a whole heap of work dropped on my desk yesterday.]
In Part 2, we decided to contact a trainer instead, someone we had previously done business with. As we start, the two dogs — Sausage and Husky — have been introduced.
We are at an open area, with two dogs getting to know each other. In the meantime, we’re sitting on benches or walking around, having a pretty friendly discussion actually.
Story #1 was that the husky’s owner imported the dog from the Ukraine, but lost the papers. Story #2 is that he bought it from a pet shop but saw the importation papers. Let’s continue.
Is the dog microchipped, I asked. That would be an easy thing to do, get the microchip number and try to trace it.
Er, no the dog’s not microchipped. Story #3: The owner said he saw the dog and fell in love with it and bought it on impulse.
J is not looking happy at this time. So it doesn’t really come from the Ukraine? You don’t have any papers?
See, Bill, I added, here’s the thing. We know Singaporeans, and we know how status-conscious they are. Hell, we’ve both worked with them with years. If a Singaporean imported a husky or bought an imported husky from the Ukraine, you bet your bottom dollar they’d demand the papers so they could show everybody what a special dog they have. (Cold-climate dogs like Samoyeds, Malamutes and Huskies are very high-status dogs here.)
Bill laughs. You’re right. Look, let me tell you something. Story #4: The owner doesn’t know very much English at all. In fact, he works at a local factory but has Singapore permanent residency. When I asked him why he bought the husky, he told me, “jaga rumah”.
A dog to guard the house? I repeat. But huskies aren’t guard dogs. They’re working pack animals.
Story #5: Right right, but what do you expect? He walked into a pet store, wanting a dog to guard his place and the person at the counter sold him a husky. Both people were ignorant about the nature of Siberian Huskies.
So this dog could’ve come from a puppy mill?
Bill is reluctant but eventually spits it out. Yes, I suppose so.
I know what J is thinking because I’m thinking the same thing. Shit! We look over at how our darling is doing and she is behaving impeccably. The husky is a bit nervous around her but Sausage is clear-headed and focused. She also appears to be completely in control of the situation, so that part’s going well at least.
You’ve trained him, I asked, desperately trying to find a silver lining. The puppy may have come from a mill and may have been inbred up the wazoo but all I can think is how nice it would be to have such a laid-back boy as part of our household, what a smile it would bring to the kids’ faces. I am ashamed to say that I am wanting — subconsciously pleading! — Bill to convince me to buy the dog, despite all the warning signs.
I’ve had him for 3 months and I’ve trained him, Bill replies. Story #6: When his owner brought him to me, he’d had him for six months. He said he wanted me to train the dog to be a guard dog. And I said that I wouldn’t do that because huskies are not guard dogs. I told him I would train the dog to be better behaved, but I could not train what wasn’t there to begin with.
I’m still desperately trying to get a handle on the situation. And did the dog have any problems with the training?
No, not at all! He is a beautiful dog, very eager to please, very intelligent. Story #7: But you should have seen him when I first went to pick him up. He was locked in a cage, lying in his own shit. I had to take him out and clean him up before I even left the guy’s house. But what can you expect? The owner wasn’t an educated man, he didn’t know how to handle the dog.
You can call me all sorts of a fool. And I deserve it. Because we bought the dog. The walk home was fine. I put Sausage in the kitchen so we could let the husky sniff his way around the house. And Sausage wasn’t happy. I suppose meeting a strange dog outside is one thing, but having that strange dog inside her territory is something else again.
We were still hopeful, thinking we could settle things down. Until the husky lunged at Sausage and tried to bite her.
We rang Bill immediately and told him to come and take the dog back. No more than fifteen minutes had passed since we first took possession of the husky.
This is too much, J told Bill. The husky is in a strange environment, and had already deferred to Sausage once. Now he tried to attack her. How is this a laid-back dog?
Bill tried to talk us into some “remedial” work but, by this stage, everything came crashing down — lie after lie after lie. It took a dog’s fangs to do it, but we finally had the sense scared into us.
We’ll pay you for your trouble, J said, for driving out here (Bill’s centre and home is a 20-minute drive away) and having to come back to pick up the dog.
And dammit if Bill didn’t ask for MY$250. We paid him the money, shook hands and waved good-bye to the husky.
Yes sure all’s well that ends well but, days later, I was still feeling devastated. Nobody, and I include myself in this, acquited themselves well in this episode. J and I were too eager to be taken in, and a person we trusted and had done business with before was too eager to take advantage of it.
In Malaysia/Singapore, it comes down to this. If we can’t trust the pet shops and we can’t trust the breeders and we can’t trust the trainers, whom can we trust? An expat family that gets the servant to walk the dog every day because they can’t be bothered? Owners who let their dogs run off-leash along the road?
When I walk Sausage now, I carry a sturdy walking stick with me. I am sick of being accosted by dogs off-leash who dare run up to us and begin posturing and even snapping at us while their Western owners stand back and do nothing. These people are the only other option for getting a second dog? Seriously?
So we know. As long as we live in Asia, we will not be getting a companion for Sausage. Actually, I can live with that now. We had been so caught up in the desire for another dog that we overlooked our existing one. And the truth of the matter is, Sausage is so loyal, so obedient (for a bull terrier), so gentle with us and yet fierce with perceived intruders, so funny and entertaining that it isn’t such a sacrifice after all. And if you’ve learnt anything from this series of posts, then I’m happy, and I wish the same happiness on you and your wonderful pets.
I’m going now to give my bully a big snuffle, and get some wet sloppy kisses in return. Catch you next week.
April 18, 2013
Click for Part 1 of our Tale of Woe regarding the dogs.
We loved Cookie (we still love Cookie and I wave to her when I see her even if I can’t actually touch her) and liked having two dogs in the house, but what to do? We didn’t want a puppy mill dog and, after Cookie’s experience, couldn’t trust a breeder to tell us the truth. We tried importing a dog but four attempts failed. You’d think we’d take away some lesson in that, wouldn’t you, but you’re underestimating our tenacity and stubbornness.
Anyway, as I said in the last blog post, a year passed and we thought it time to start again. And we thought of Bill the Trainer. Okay, he was a trainer not a breeder, but surely he would know breeders that he could trust (breeders that wouldn’t lie to him). We didn’t mind the breed as long as (a) the dog was utterly laid back, and (b) male. Those were our thoughts at the time.
As far as Sausage had progressed, we still knew she hadn’t lost her determination or natural suspicion. That’s actually what we like about her, because having a protection/guard dog around is the best deterrent to home crime in Malaysia. But we didn’t want such instincts for the second dog who, instead, would need to be completely non-aggressive. Furthermore, because Bill already had experience handling Sausage, we were confident that, with his knowledge, he would know what kind of dog we needed. We called him and outlined our requirements.
Have you thought of a husky?, he asked.
A husky? Really?
They are lovely dogs, very laid back, very relaxed. In fact, I have one here with me now. He’s a young dog by now, eleven months old, but he is intelligent, trainable and gets on extremely well with both people and other dogs.
Wow. Okay, where did he come from?
Story #1: The Ukraine. The owner had him imported from the Ukraine and paid SG$2,000 for him, but he was stuck in a cage in an air-conditioned room all day and was getting destructive. The owner knew it was no condition to keep the dog but couldn’t spend more time with him so he sent him to me for training and to see if the dog could find a better home. I have him here now.
Can we come and see him?
And so we went to see this Slavic imported dog. And he was wonderful. Curious, friendly, approachable.
He comes from Singapore via the Ukraine, you say.
Yes, I have no doubt he comes from overseas because there are no husky breeders in Singapore.
It doesn’t matter what we think, J says, the dog has to get on with Sausage. If he doesn’t, it’s no deal.
So we set up a meeting in a neutral area for the following day. We go home very excited and tell the kids. The Wast has always had a hankering for a husky. The kids agree to come with Sausage and me on daily walks but I tell them that they will probably have control of Sausage while I walk Husky, because he is a powerful dog. This is despite the fact that both J and I have already walked Husky. He has been an absolute angel, but you can never tell and we’re playing it safe.
At home, J remarks that the Ukraine is a strange place to import huskies from, considering the climate that, he says, is not too dissimilar to Malaysia in terms of humidity and, near Odesa, temperature. With this in mind, the next morning, I do an internet search on huskies and the Ukraine. I figure that if a breeder really exported one of his puppies to Singapore, he’d want to crow about it on his website. I enter the search terms, hit Enter….
Do you know how many people breed and sell huskies in Singapore? Go here and have a look. And most of them are pretty suspicious, with their low price tags, anonymous listings and communication style of you-email-us-we’ll-think-about-getting-back-to-you.
I was devastated. What did this mean? Well, for one, Bill was wrong. There are husky breeders in Singapore. They’re not reputable, but they’re there. Shit. Okay, there was a very simple way out of this. I texted Bill and asked him to bring along the dog’s papers when we met at the designated rendezvous point.
Story #2 came with the text reply: Dog was purchased from a pet shop in Singapore. According to owner, dog had papers, including import and export papers from Singapore. In the process of shifting from Spore and back again, he cannot recall where the papers are left.
I called Bill and we talked. He assured me that the dog came from the Ukraine and that we go ahead with the meeting. I know, I know, alarm bells are ringing for you as well, aren’t they? But we so wanted a second dog and knowing it was one that the kids would dote on made temptation that much more difficult to resist. Yes, we were stupid and should have called a halt right there and then. We didn’t.
We met Bill at the designated spot with Sausage. Unbelievably, except for one little snap when the husky attempted to approach Sausage head-on, both dogs appeared to get on well, basically ignoring each other except for a little bottom sniff every now and then. We asked about the dog’s background again.
You say the owner bought him in a pet shop but that he came from the Ukraine? How can we check this?
Well, there are no husky breeders in Singapore.
Yes there are. J handed over printings from the Singapore classifieds.
Bill looked genuinely embarrassed.
Did you see the dog’s papers with your own eyes, we asked. We don’t doubt your story but how well did you know the owner? Could he be lying to you about the dog’s background?
Next week, we find out how easily facts morph into other things.
April 11, 2013
Here is a cautionary tale about animals and Asia. Because of what happened to our family, I’m setting down our experiences in the hope that someone else may benefit from them.
Almost four years ago, settled in our new home, we decided to get a dog (something my mother-in-law considers essential to any family). My number one choice, the standard English Bull Terrier, was off the list because Malaysia has breed-specific legislation regarding importation of breeds. In Malaysia, it is illegal to import Akitas, American Bulldogs, Fila Brasileiros, Japanese Tosas, Neapolitan Mastiffs and any Pit Bull or Pit Bull mix (including both the English and American Staffordshire Bull Terrier). Furthermore, Rottweillers, Dobermans, German Shepherds, Bull Mastiffs, Bull Terriers and Perro de Presa Canarios are restricted and are not allowed to be sold in pet shops…although they are.
So if we couldn’t legally get our hands on a Bull Terrier, what was left? We decided on a Miniature Bull Terrier that we got from a “reputable” breeder. This means that the dog (Sausage) came with full papers and MKA (Malaysian Kennel Association) registration.
PROBLEM #1: Sausage’s papers only came a few months after we bought her, which was a surprise. In fact, in Malaysia, it is unusual for a breeder to show you a dog’s lineage upon request; we’ve been point-blank refused, being told we’d get a look at it after we bought the dog. Since Sausage & Cookie, we have always walked away from such deals, but when the vast majority of local breeders take this tack, it makes for a lot of heavy-hearted decisions.
When Sausage’s papers finally arrived and I got a look at it, I was appalled. Only three generations back, Sausage had the same dog on both sides of her family. Not only that, her mother was the result of a brother-sister mating that was, in itself, the result of another probable sibling mating. The story was no different on her sire’s side.
From my reading I know that, in the Western world, reputable breeders often make very little money from their dogs. Litters are produced only when there is need and genetic diversity is prized. This is not the case in Malaysia (and, I warrant, the rest of Asia). At the vet’s office (and I’ve visited a few), I see notices for breeders with massive kennels, breeding a bewildering array of dogs, from Shih Tzu to German Shepherd. The same person who will sell you a Beagle will also be able to sell you a Chihuahua or a Doberman.
PROBLEM #2: The breeders in Malaysia/Singapore are only in it for the money and protecting the bottom line means incestuous mating after incestuous mating, especially if both a sire and dam are already available within the same kennel. I have read that breeders say that there are few negative genetic ramifications from this for dogs. I call bullshit on this and so does Jemima Harrison, the courageous woman behind the documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed.
But, what can I say, until I got that stab of unease from reading Sausage’s lineage, I didn’t know any better.
Do you know what, though? It didn’t stop us from getting a second mini bully. Her name was Cookie. The promised papers never arrived but, by then, it was too late because we’d already bought her and breeders have a no-refund policy in these parts.
It’s very difficult for me to talk about Cookie. She was a lovely black, white and tan mini with the speed of a whippet. She was able to catch birds on the wing (I’ve seen her take out two birds in our front garden) and survived a snap-and-tumble battle with an adult cobra without a scratch. She was also extremely loving and, like every other bull terrier I have known, an absolute clown.
Unfortunately, at the age of 18 months, something in her snapped and she started picking fights with Sausage. We were forced to separate the house into zones while attempting remedial work. No dice. When The Wast got caught in the middle of one such fight, we knew we had to make the hard decision.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, our opposite neighbour snapped up Cookie, who she’d been eyeing appreciatively and asking questions about whenever we met. This meant that Cookie would now have a stable home but I would be forced to see her every day.
I’m part of the Raw 4 Bullies Yahoo group, a great and very supportive band of raw feeders and bully lovers, and they told me that it wasn’t so bad because I would be able to visit Cookie whenever I wanted. I didn’t say anything to the group at the time, but not in this case. While friendly, our neighbours keep to themselves and, when I paid two visits (the first time, with some of Cookie’s things; the second, with a gift of heartworm medication for all her dogs), it was made very clear that I was never to have any contact with the dog again. So I see Cookie every day, but I’m not allowed to ever visit or pet her.
It’s difficult to know now exactly what went wrong with the Sausage-Cookie dynamic, one that had started with such promise. Could it be as simple as Cookie not liking Sausage? It’s not the female-female thing because Cookie now spends most of her time with four other female dogs (a Jack Russell, a Poodle, a Mini Schnauzer and a Shih Tzu) and seems to get on well with all of them.
PROBLEM #3: A lot of MKA breeders (as opposed to backyard breeders) also own pet shops, which they use to sell their own litters and litters of other breeders. Despite the problem with Sausage (and yes, you may call me stupid), I went to such a breeder for our second bully, thinking that it would be a cut above the regular pet shops that are not owned by pedigree breeders. The fact that the promised papers didn’t arrive after Cookie makes me wonder whether such breeder/pet-shop owners also buy puppies from mills. He said not but, as you’ll realise as you read through my tale of woe, we’re used to being lied to. A lot.
In any case, the experience with Cookie taught us that even so-called reputable breeders could not be trusted.
At this point in the story, we’re back down to one dog, Sausage, and a son with five stitches in his arm (from Cookie, incidentally, but we don’t blame her for it. It was in the heat of the moment. And no, The Wast wasn’t silly enough to step into a fight. He was lifting Cookie into his arms when the fight broke out around him). We wanted to be responsible owners, so we contacted a trainer with 20+ years experience handling and training dogs. Let’s call him Bill. If she was going to remain with us, we wanted to make sure Sausage, who was aggressive with people, was toned down a bit.
Okay, a digression. Sausage has not had very good experiences with people. When we got her spayed, the vet’s office botched it up and infection set in. We had to re-admit her and she underwent an even worse operation to clean out the infected tissue. She’s hated vets ever since. When we kennelled her and Cookie for our trip to Poland, the kennel owners kept both dogs in filthy conditions and they both came back to us — even gregarious, human-loving Cookie — half-starved and fearful. When we kept Sausage in the yard while we were out grocery shopping, the security guards would ride to and fro in front of our front gate and taunt her with their walkie-talkies, then laugh at her when she barked at them.
To all this, we (a) found a new vet (actually, two new vets, one for minor and one for major work), (b) have never gone on holiday since, and (c) keep Sausage inside the house at all times unless she’s outside under our supervision.
But I hope you can see how experience with humans has taken its toll on our beloved Sausage. We wanted that reversed, so we paid for Bill the Trainer to take Sausage for an intensive six-week in-house “reconditioning”. She came back to us much better but I have to say that I believe we’ve built on that since. By enforcing absolutely consistent rules and behaviour from all of us, including the kids, Sausage has relaxed and proven herself to be unswervingly loyal and affectionate to all members of the family, although she does show preference for being with me. She’s still not used to strangers in the house and will bark at them, but it’s not with the same I-will-kill-you ferocity that she had before. She’s coming along just fine and, we all believe, will get better as time goes on.
A year passes.
Next week, I admit that we break down again and try for a second dog.
April 4, 2013
March 21, 2013
This week’s blog post is divided into two parts: one, the article itself, and two, the slant of the article.
Firstly, let’s talk about “Researchers Find 25 Countries Using Surveillance Software“, a blog post from the New York Times. I got to this post from Bruce Schneier’s excellent blog, Schneier on Security. Two researchers, Bill Marczak and Morgan Marquis-Boire, found evidence of surveillance software being used by governments to spy on their own citizens. To quote, “The list of countries with servers running FinSpy is”:
United Arab Emirates
United States of America
The software, FinSpy, is a British product that is sold “solely for criminal investigations”. FinSpy is owned by a company called Gamma Group and Martin J Muench, Gamma Group’s MD, said that the software is used
against pedophiles, terrorists, organized crime, kidnapping and human trafficking
The problem is, like the use of RICO legislation in the USA that has been expanded to catch criminals not usually involved in racketeering, FinSpy can also be used, not merely to monitor possible organised crime but, as researcher Marquis-Boire puts it, “for politically motivated surveillance”.
(I have to say that Gamma Group is quite open about its services, ranging from jamming solutions, fully customised surveillance vans, wireless audio survelliance recorders, “covert methods of entry”, vehicle tracking systems, passive detection, to SMS interception, “speech identifying tools”, satellite monitoring and “passive monitoring of telephone lines”, and if I was making an “Enemy of the State II”, I’d certainly consult with them. However, they appear to be less forthcoming about their “FinFisher IT Intrusion” product, of which I can only assume FinSpy is a part. One thing that does seem to stand out clearly, however, is that FinFisher is aimed directly at government agencies; specifically, the “intelligence community”.)
How does it work? In the case of FinSpy, there appear to be multiple options available to the Concerned Government. Quoting from the NY Times blog, Marquis-Boire and Marczak found, in one specific case:
e-mails lured targets to click on pictures of members of Ginbot 7, an Ethiopian opposition group. When they clicked on the pictures, FinSpy downloaded to their machines and their computers began communicating with a local server in Ethiopia.
But what exactly is being communicated?
e-mails contained surveillance software that could grab images off computer screens, record Skype chats, turn on cameras and microphones and log keystrokes
That’s the first troubling point. The second is this: the article made a point of singling out particular countries, such as Ethiopia, as mentioned above. Also mentioned is Turkmenistan where the “server running the software belonged to a range of I.P. addresses specifically assigned to the ministry of communications. Turkmenistan is the first clear-cut case of a government running the spyware off its own computer system.” Also mentioned is Vietnam, which “introduced censorship laws that prohibit bloggers from speaking out against the country’s ruling Communist party” and where the researchers found “one Android phone infected with FinSpy that was sending text messages back to a Vietnamese telephone number.”
My point is made obvious by what isn’t mentioned. No mention of the so-called “Western democracies” using FinSpy, such as Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Britain and the United States. And while Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle “called for an Europe-wide ban on the export of surveillance technology to repressive regimes”, you can bet your last currywurst that he didn’t mean those regimes of utter transparency and liberalism, such as Germany, Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and, er, the United States. None of those are repressive regimes at all, are they? Hmmmmm. Which begs the next question, if they are all such stalwarts of Western values (you known, freedom, privacy, rights of the individual, yadda yadda), why would they need software like FinSpy in the first place? Don’t liberal governments have massive infrastructure that can carry out investigations without the need for spyware? What possible justification could there possibly be for a government to download, by stealth and deception, a key-logger to the computer of one of its own citizens?
Even Marquis-Boire falls for this blindness of the superior Westerner:
I’m just not for commercial companies selling them to nondemocratic regimes with questionable human rights records. [my emphasis]
So then it’s okay to sell to democratic regimes with “good” human rights records because they are so transparent and law-abiding? We all know that modern democracy is not all its cracked up to be, particularly in those “democratic” countries where only two main political parties exist. Regardless of the Western country we live in, we’ve seen troubling circumstances where supposed political enemies have joined forces to push through unpopular or repressive legislation. The average citizen has no option but to ask herself the value of her voice and vote in such cases. If the citizens didn’t want more punitive measures against freedom of speech, their country to be involved in wars, money being given to external, repressive regimes, why does such legislation continue to get passed? Is this really democracy?
By not taking into account any of this, but merely making a blithe assumption about the superiority of “democratic” regimes with alleged “good human rights records”, I’m not sure whether Marquis-Boire is being foolish or naive. Maybe both.
March 14, 2013
[I'm on an Ancient Roman kick at the moment, so Happy Ides of March!]
Malaysians and Singaporeans are bad drivers. Oh boy, are they bad drivers. It’s like they found their licenses in packets of nasi lemak and have now taken to the roads to visit chaos upon the population. In terms of general traits, however, Malaysians are worse because they lack the one thing that should be part of any driver’s skill set…consideration for others on the road. Malaysians don’t have any. They will turn right from the emergency stopping lane of a 3-lane road, stop in a lane of speeding traffic when they’re lost and chuck U-turns wherever they want, regardless of the road rules and traffic behind them. The concept of pulling over in order to (a) answer a mobile, (b) text, (c) check the road atlas/GPS, (d) park, never occurs to them. And don’t get me started on the scooters! I describe all this to set the scene from the point of view of a person who’s driven on four continents, and hopes to drive on a couple more before she kicks the bucket.
The other thing I’ve seen in my years of driving are traffic lights that are out of commission. Which makes what I’m about to say that much more surprising. Regardless of the country in which I’ve driven, I’ve found that the behaviour of drivers at broken traffic lights is, at once, more courteous, rational and fast-moving than at working traffic lights. I’m sure you’ve noticed the same thing. Well, the thing I have to tell you is that it looks like it’s universal. Whether it’s JB or Dublin, London or Menlo Park, Singapore or Sydney, broken traffic lights actually seem to bring out the best in people.
I love it when the traffic lights along one particular nearby stretch of road break down. It means I don’t have to line up at the intersection for such a long time. There is no gridlock and, interestingly, nobody tries to “beat the traffic”. The behaviour of the cars becomes much more consensual, with drivers apparently depending on the behaviour of the drivers immediately around them before making a go/no-go decision.
This was driven home (forgive the pun) when we recently had to venture into a part of JB that has had roadworks at a particular intersection for well on 3 years now. The intersection is hell but, if we want to reach a particular destination, like the postal Customs office, all roads lead to it. And we never, ever, get through the intersection in less than three light changes, regardless of time of day or day of the week. The impetus is to just mark this one up as one of the Intersections of Satan and move on.
But an interesting thing happened a couple of Saturday afternoons ago. At our first altercation with the intersection, things were normal. People were creating, and then driving, down their own lanes just so they could cut in closer to the head of the traffic, cars were making u-turns against red lights, cars were even running red lights and weaving in between crossing traffic because they didn’t want to wait much longer. Insane but, unfortunately, true.
However, on the way back…. Well, the first thing we noticed was that, as we joined the queue, the line of traffic at the lights was much shorter than we’d ever seen it. The second thing we noticed was that the lights were out of commission. And then, through the gaps, I saw two workmen with flags running around the intersection directing traffic. You know, the old-fashioned way. And I swear we were through the Intersection of Satan in less than four minutes!
Now, isn’t that interesting?
We’ve all been conditioned to think that automation is a good thing. I’ve been at presentations lauding new “smart” systems of traffic management in one of my previous career incarnations. But mere observation of drivers tells me that there’s something we’re missing.
Put aside traffic flow for a moment and think about driver behaviour. Does anybody try to beat a red light if they know a human is watching? Would you find so many people doing illegal manoeuvres under such circumstances? Yes of course, you’ll always have those with out-of-control cars, but I’m wondering how many otherwise law-abiding citizens do something illegal because it’s convenient and they don’t think they’ll be caught? That’s a particularly important facet of what happens in Malaysia, which has a strongly compliant — and yet, in some cases, unbelievably disobedient — population. The contradiction appears to be down to whether a human being is present at the moment of decision or not.
When it comes to traffic control, what J and I experienced seems to indicate that there really isn’t any substitute for a human being’s presence and quick summing up of a situation. I doubt those two workers at the Intersection of Satan were trained in traffic management, and yet they did a terrific job judging when to stop one flow of traffic and when to give the go-ahead to another. Their intuitive management of the traffic, coupled with their physical presence, turned a dangerous, grid-locked snarl into a (dare I say it?) somewhat pleasant driving experience.
Personally, I think that, in some areas at least, this pell-mell dive into “smart” automation is actually a step backwards. The only people who benefit from such systems are those selling them. And I’m now of the opinion that humans directing other humans beats the pants off automated systems trying to do the same.
I wonder if there are any studies out on this issue of “smart” versus human traffic management?
POSTSCRIPT: Before any drivers from Singapore get smug, I’ll admit that you’re better (not great, just better) about indicating turns but, then again, I’ve seen too many S-plates chuck entire McDonalds meal trays out the window along the North-South Expressway. And as for your Mercedes/BMW/Audi drivers….snort! Don’t get me started!
March 8, 2013
I almost didn’t write this short update because it sounds an awful lot like crowing but, then again, business and economic analysts do it all the time, so why not?
If Carina Press is dropping prices (and so precipitously and with such flagrant disregard for the length of its released works) then all I can think is that they’ve been sent a message from upper management to increase the profits…or else.
And, wouldn’t you know it, Harlequin’s earnings were made public a week later, on 6 March, and it wasn’t good news. From Digital Book World:
“Declines in print revenue more than offsetting digital revenue growth,” wrote Harlequin parent Torstar’s management in a discussion of the company’s financial performance for 2012. The company blamed a “competitor’s best-seller” (see: Fifty Shades of Grey) and higher digital royalties for its performance.
So, there was a decline in revenue and profit. It was only a 4.2% drop this year, but illustrates a worrying trend for investors. You see, earnings were $2.74 a share in 2011, but dropped to $1.30 a share in 2012, which is quite substantial. (Earnings don’t exactly parallel the company’s overall spreadsheet, but are decided upon based on a spate of factors (of which profit is only one), which is why a 4.2% drop in overall profit can lead to a 52.6% drop in earnings.)
If I was an investor — and remember, most investors nowadays are institutions (not individuals, like you or I) who own significant blocks of shares and depend on the earnings for their own bottom lines — I would be screaming blue murder by now.
With this in mind, the blame is being thrown around gaily (“It’s the fault of Fifty Shades!”, “It’s the fault of those greedy authors with digital releases!”).
Now, isn’t that interesting? Let’s isolate that:
[Decline was blamed on]…higher digital royalties
That’s a kind of a bastard move, don’t you think, blaming your content producers for a lack of profit? We all know that Harlequin contracts are as close to non-negotiable as publishing contracts get, that the deck is stacked, that the rights grab is all-encompassing, that they use their Swiss company to halve potential royalties and yet, they still blame authors’ digital royalties for declining profit. (I also think it’s pretty weak blaming “Fifty Shades”. You’d think there were no other blockbuster romance books released over recent years.)
And it’s not as if Harlequin only moved into ebooks, say, last year. If there’s one thing I can say about the romance industry, it’s that it’s always been at the forefront of technological advance in publishing (even more so than the SF publishers, ironically). Carina Press was not the first attempt at digital publishing that Harlequin attempted although, to me, it appears the most coherent. Or, to put it in a nutshell, Harlequin has been in this game for a while.
So there you go. What prompted the pricing restructure? Is Carina Press being innovative? Is it taking the lessons of the self-publishers to heart? Or did it get a kick-down email from Harlequin management? Speculate to your heart’s content. I have.