Monday, August 21, 2006

The Origin of a Novel

I published my first novel—Harald, from Baen Books—a few months ago. It occurred to me that some of you might be interested in how it came to be written.

It started, oddly enough, as an insomnia cure. I found that when I had trouble falling asleep, daydreaming didn't work—because I am the hero of my own daydreams, and so too closely involved with them. It occurred to me that if instead I plotted out a novel, I would have sufficient distance from my characters to be able to drift off.

It worked. Over a period of many months I plotted out parts of several novels and, eventually, all of one. House rules at the time required me, when putting one of our children to bed, to make up and tell three stories. I mentioned to my daughter that I had written a novel in my head and she suggested I tell her that instead.

The problem with telling my daughter stories is that she remembers them better than I do. The result in the past, when I was doing a long series of linked fantasy stories, was that just when I thought I had the characters in an almost impossible situation she would point out that the magic item they obtained three months earlier was precisely the thing to get them out of it. So this time, every evening after putting her to bed, I wrote an outline of what I had told her. As I got near the end I started thinking seriously of turning it into a novel. I wrote the final scene, liked it, and went back and wrote the whole first draft in a month or two. It was so much fun that, during that time, I played almost no computer games.

Illegal vs Unconstitutional: NSA, FISA, and all that

As many of you know, a federal judge has found the NSA warrantless surveillance program to be both illegal—in violation of FISA and various other things—and unconstitutional.

The discussions I have seen so far ignore the important distinction between those two conclusions. The fact that the surveillance violates FISA means that what has so far been done is illegal—and, incidentally, that Bush is a felon, as are lots of people at NSA. But FISA is legislation; Congress can repeal or alter it, and presumably will do so if the appeals court supports the ruling and a majority in both houses believe the current surveillance program is desirable.

Congress cannot so easily repeal or alter the Constitution. So if the surveillance is unconstitutional, that means the surveillance will have to stop.

I should add that, in my view, the illegality of the surveillance has been obvious from the beginning, as I said some time back. FISA was written to control precisely the sort of activity NSA has been engaged in—intercepting communications between suspected terrorists abroad and people in the U.S. It set up procedures for doing so and made it a felony to intercept without following those procedures, or to knowingly use information obtained by such warrantless interceptions.

The only arguments I have seen on the other side are either that Congress repealed FISA without knowing it was doing so when it authorized the use of force or that the President is entitled to break the law in matters of national security. Neither strikes me as plausible. The constitutionality, on the other hand, is a more complicated question, and one that I don't think I have sufficient expertise to answer.

Oddly enough, if Bush believed that what he was doing was unconstitutional that may explain why he did it. FISA provides a two week window after the beginning of a war during which its provisions are suspended—presumably to permit Congress to amend its provisions if necessary. Under the circumstances of the 9/11 attack, it is hard to believe that Congress would have refused to go along with an administration request to make legal the sort of interceptions NSA has been engaged in. But one likely consequence of such an amendment would be a lawsuit claiming that the activity it was authorising was unconstitutional—and if the courts agreed, that would leave Bush unable to engage in surveillance that he, presumably, saw as an important tool for preventing another attack.

I'm back

As you can see, I'm posting again. In part that is because I am back home after a month of travelling, in part because I have solved the problem that was keeping me from posting--although I still don't entirely understand it.

Drug Delivery

Nicotine patches are currently marketed as a cure for smoking. What they actually are, so far as I can tell, is an alternative delivery system for the same drug. Insofar as what smokers really want is the effect of nicotine the patches may well succeed in getting smokers to quit, but they cure an addiction to cigarettes only in the sense that whiskey cures for an addiction to wine.

Considered as a substitute, they have two big advantages over cigarettes. Since they get nicotine to the blood stream without going through the lungs, they should have fewer adverse health effects; there is no obvious reason why the use of nicotine patches would cause lung cancer. And they eliminate both the (somewhat controversial) medical effect of second hand smoke and the unpleasantness that nonsmokers experience from the smell of tobacco. The user of a nicotine patch may perhaps harm his own health, but he should have very little effect on those around him.

This may be an early and interesting example of an alternative approach to the problems associated with both legal and illegal drugs. The conventional solution is to stop people from using drugs. The alternative is to find ways of providing the effects drug users want while minimizing undesirable side effects, on themselves and others.