The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'charlie stross'
Charlie Stross speculates about the suggestion that, politically, Britain may be functionally a one-party state:
I'm nursing a pet theory. Which is that there are actually four main political parties in Westminster: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Ruling Party.
The Ruling Party is a meta-party; it has members in all of the three major parties, and probably the minority parties as well. It always wins every election, because whichever party wins (or participates in a coalition) is led in Parliament by members of the Ruling Party, who have more in common with each other than with the back bench dinosaurs who form the rump of their notional party. One does not rise to Front Bench rank in any of the major parties unless one is a paid-up Ruling Party member, who meets with the approval of the Ruling Party members one will have to work with. Outsiders are excluded or marginalized, as are followers of the ideology to which the nominal party adheres.The Ruling Party Stross posits has a few characteristics: it's comprised of people from a specific background (typically public-school, politics/economics at Oxbridge or LSE, often followed by a career as a barrister), and, as befits entities which have little to fear from public opinion, is not answerable to the general public (who can take their frustration out on whichever of the publicly visible parties nominally forms the government at the moment). The interests they serve are of multinational corporations (which Stross previously equated to a form of alien life which has taken over the Earth) and free-floating elites (i.e., those who stand to benefit from privatisation, the endless trough of contracts or the good old-fashioned Friedman Shock Doctrine). Of course, the problem is that, if democracy becomes increasingly a sham, sooner or later it will lose a crucial advantage it has over other systems, i.e., it offering a mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power:
Moreover, we are now discovering that we live in a panopticon, in houses of glass that are open to inspection and surveillance by the powers of the Deep State. Our only remaining form of privacy is privacy by obscurity, by keeping such a low profile that we are of no individual interest to anyone: and even that is only a tenuous comfort. Any attempt at organizing a transfer of power that does not ring the changes and usher in a new group of Ruling Party faces to replace the old risks being denounced as Terrorism.
My conclusion is that we are now entering a pre-revolutionary state, much as the nations of Europe did in 1849 with the suppression of the wave of revolutions that spurred, among other things, the writing of "The Communist Manifesto". It took more than a half-century for that pre-revolutionary situation to mature to the point of explosion, but explode it did, giving rise to the messy fallout of the 20th century. I don't know how long this pre-revolutionary situation will last — although I would be surprised if it persisted for less than two decades — but the whirlwind we reap will be ugly indeed: if you want to see how ugly, look to the Arab Spring and imagine it fought by finger-sized killer drones that know what you wrote on Facebook eighteen years ago when you were younger, foolish, and uncowed. And which is armed with dossiers the completeness of which the East German Stasi could only fantasize about.
The Olympics are nigh upon London, and their shadow falls heavily over the people of the capital. The stadiums are going up in the East End and the unsightly poor are being cleansed to make way for residents with more disposable income. Further afield, signs of the mass spectacle are appearing all over London, as if dropped from Mount Olympus itself by the gods to the grateful mortals below. (The mortals are grateful and in good cheer because that is the law, and the penalties, both civil and criminal, for being off-message have been subtly explained; these Olympics are, ultimately, a very understatedly British take on the totalitarian mass spectacle that the modern Olympics' Fascist originators had in mind—not so much the iron fist in the velvet glove, as the iron fist in a glove of brightly coloured, vaguely hip-hop-styled plastic foam, shipped by the containerload from China.)
Now, it has emerged that the Ministry of Defence will be billeting surface-to-air missiles on the roofs of apartment buildings in East London; one journalist who lives in the area received a leaflet notifying him of this; the Ministry of Defence has confirmed that it is considering missile deployments.
Having surface-to-air missiles deployed to defend an urban environment is a somewhat sketchy proposition at best; should the missiles be fired, whatever they shoot down will cause a lot of damage when it hits the ground (and if they miss, they themselves will cause some damage). The Whitehouse, famously, has a SAM battery on the roof (Dick Cheney reportedly ordered it as a red-meat-conservative replacement for Bill Clinton's unacceptably liberal solar cells); the implicit message being that the lives of those inside the Whitehouse are worth trading the lives of those around it for. Whether this reasoning transfers from the Commander-in-Chief of the Free World to a stadium full of spectators at a corporate promotional event is another question. (The Queen, the head of state of Britain, does not have a SAM battery defending Buckingham Palace and threatening to send any rogue aircraft down in flames onto the posh digs of Belgravia.) Meanwhile, Charlie Stross extrapolates on the possible unintended consequences:
Hmm. It's a good thing I'm a novelist who dabbles in technothrillers, not a terrorist. If I was a terrorist I'd be licking my lips, trying to work out how to trigger a missile launch. Using a motor-powered model aircraft, free flight design (no radio controls to jam) aimed vaguely towards the Olympic stadium, with a nice radio beacon or some sort of infra-red source (a flare, perhaps) on its tail to make it easy to track? These missiles will be the close-in option, because we know the RAF will already be flying combat air patrols over London; they won't have much time to evaluate threats or respond intelligently. So launch from the back of a panel van, like the IRA mortar attacks on places like Heathrow or 10 Downing Street. The twist in the scheme would be to aim past the missile launchers along a vector that would attract a hail of hypervelocity missile launches in the direction of, say, a DLR station at rush hour.Meanwhile, Stephen Graham (professor of cities and society at Newcastle University, and author of Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism) has an article on the security lockdown being imposed on London for the Olympics, much of it to protect the brand image of corporate sponsors:
Beyond these security spectaculars, more stealthy changes are underway. New, punitive and potentially invasive laws such as the London Olympic Games Act 2006 are in force. These legitimise the use of force, potentially by private security companies, to proscribe Occupy-style protests. They also allow Olympic security personnel to deal forcibly with the display of any commercial material that is deemed to challenge the complete management of London as a "clean city" to be branded for the global TV audience wholly by prime corporate sponsors (including McDonald's, Visa and Dow Chemical).
The final point is how the security operations of Olympics have major long-term legacies for their host cities and nations. The security preoccupations of Olympics present unprecedented opportunities to push through highly elitist, authoritarian and speculative urban planning efforts that otherwise would be much more heavily contested – especially in democracies. These often work to "purify" or "cleanse" diverse and messy realities of city life and portray existing places as "waste" or "derelict" spaces to be transformed by mysterious "trickle-down effects". The scale and nature of evictions and the clearance of streets of those deemed not to befit such events can seem like systematic ethnic or social cleansing. To make way for the Beijing Games, 1.5 million were evicted; clearances of local businesses and residents in London, though more stealthy, have been marked.
Looking at these various points together shows one thing: contemporary Olympics are society on steroids. They exaggerate wider trends. Far removed from their notional or founding ideals, these events dramatically embody changes in the wider world: fast-increasing inequality, growing corporate power, the rise of the homeland security complex, and the shift toward much more authoritarian styles of governance utterly obsessed by the global gaze and prestige of media spectacles.The permanent legacy of the authoritarian measures in the Olympic enabling laws mandated by the IOC cannot be emphasised enough; in Sydney, for example, restrictions on civil liberties passed for the 2000 Olympics were used, years later, to crack down on protests against the Catholic Church's “World Youth Day”, and remain on the books to this day.
And some are saying that the levels of brand policing, imposing criminal sanctions on the display of non-sponsor logos (to say nothing of political protests) within an Olympic zone and severely restricting the use of words such as “London” and “2012” by non-sponsors, will have an adverse effect on the alleged economic benefits of the Olympics, which are touted as much much of the rationale for putting up with all this in the first place.
Finally, Charlie Brooker weighs in:
Oral-B's official Olympic toothbrush exists because its parent company, Procter & Gamble, has a sponsorship deal enabling it to associate all its products with the Games. That's why if you look up Viakal limescale remover on a supermarket website, the famous five interlocking rings pop up alongside it. This in no way cheapens the Olympic emblem, which traditionally symbolises global unity, peaceful competition and gleaming stainless steel shower baskets.
In Charlie Stross's blog, a cheerful and fascinating discussion about speculated existential threats to civilisation, the human race, life on Earth, or the universe itself. These vary from plausible ones (ecological collapse, killer viruses, killer asteroids) to the far-fetched and surreal:
What would be the implications of trying to return from an iron age technology now given the amount of "low hanging fruit" in the way of natural resources we've mined in the last two hundred years or so? I'm particularly, but not solely, thinking that there aren't many places now where you just make a hole and oil bubbles out of the ground - you now need a sophisticated technologically adept mining operation just to get to the stuff. How are we doing for easily available iron ore that could be got at by an iron-age civilisation? Or is it so abundant that that will never be a problem.
[U]ploading is likely to start out being an experimental process which is destructive of the original brain and have a fairly high chance of failure. So who's going to be the first person uploaded? I'd say chances are good it'll be a condemned Chinese prisoner... so that process might result in a fairly hostile machine intelligence. If they escape? No rapture of the nerds for anyone.
[M]aybe a copper eating bacteria would be a better idea. They would first spread on the surface of cables across the world, not causing any massive consequences. Then they would start eating *into* the wires...
A simple party trick, maybe outgrown from all those neuropsych tests that disprove free will. Something easy to do and apparently harmless "Look when you do X you can't/have to do Y" but which unavoidably sinks in and leads to existential nihilism as the implications percolate.
A fad toy that expands in water goes down drains in such numbers that sewerage systems collapse on a scale never seen. The resulting public health debacle cascades due to massive shortfalls in public infrastructure spending during the 2010's and 2020's.
To paraphrase and build upon Arthur C Clarke's famous remark. "Any advanced technology [we no longer understand] is indistingushable from magic"... Going further, there may come a day when we forget we once built this stuff. Maybe theres a potential fictional work in this, a far far future fantasy story where the "magic" starts to break down across the kingdom andstop working, magic incantations no longer work predictably (voice commands throw errors or are ignored), creatures conjured up of dust disintegrate into powder (nanobots fail to hold form). Cauldrons no longer produce magic when ingredients added (Cornucopia nano-fabricators no longer accept feedstock matter). All because it's been a thousand years since anyone understood how these machines work. user-pic
Charlie Stross has written another piece about Japan, this time for a Japanese scifi magazine and inspired by his second visit:
The first time I visited Japan I thought I had a handle on what I was seeing: a microcosm of the human future, a densely-populated nation that has had centuries of cheek-by-jowl urban living, like the crew of a generation starship in flight towards the future, dragging the scars of ancient history behind them. A land of monorails and shopping malls and coin-operated ramen noodle stands and spas with twenty flavours of bathing feature. And all of this is true. But on further acquaintance, I find myself knowing less and less about Japan — or perhaps I'm just becoming increasingly aware of how little truth the tourist picture reveals.
If you take away the future, what makes Japan different? In a word, history. The present is a moving boundary, travelling from the past into the future — what lies behind it is history, and the further it goes, the more history we have. When we try to peer into the future to see where we're going, as often as not we're peering into a driver's mirror, watching the past unroll behind us. To understand a culture's future you must look at its history — for the history people have experienced defines the future they want.The essay continues and discusses a number of things, among them Edo Palace, a castle the size of a city which stood where Tokyo is now; a vast, imposing monument which took nigh-unimaginable labour to build and Charlie likens to the Death Star.
Charlie's 2007 account of his first visit to Japan (which starts with "They've got our future, damn it", and goes on in a similar spirit of wide-eyed awe) is here.
Charlie Stross posits a hypothesis about the sudden rise in apathy among voters, and the perception that all the options are virtually identical:
The rot set in back in the 19th century, when the US legal system began recognizing corporations as de facto people. Fast forward past the collapse of the ancien regime, and into modern second-wave colonialism: once the USA grabbed the mantle of global hegemon from the bankrupt British empire in 1945, they naturally exported their corporate model worldwide, as US diplomatic (and military) muscle was used to promote access to markets on behalf of US corporations.
We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.
In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.Also, on a similar note: an essay which asks are the American people obsolete? I.e., the American ruling class no longer need them as workers or soldiers, and their usefulness as consumers is threatened by the coming age of austerity (the deeply indebted and the working poor who are struggling to avoid foreclosure don't make very good consumers, and the Indians and Chinese are looking more promising these days).
Thanks to deindustrialization, which is caused both by productivity growth and by corporate offshoring, the overwhelming majority of Americans now work in the non-traded domestic service sector. The jobs that have the greatest growth in numbers are concentrated in sectors like medical care and childcare.
Even here, the rich have options other than hiring American citizens. Wealthy liberals and wealthy conservatives agree on one thing: the need for more unskilled immigration to the U.S. This is hardly surprising, as the rich are far more dependent on immigrant servants than middle-class and working-class Americans are.
If much of America's investor class no longer needs Americans either as workers or consumers, elite Americans might still depend on ordinary Americans to protect them, by serving in the military or police forces. Increasingly, however, America's professional army is being supplemented by contractors -- that is, mercenaries. And the elite press periodically publishes proposals to sell citizenship to foreigners who serve as soldiers in an American Foreign Legion. It is probably only a matter of time before some earnest pundit proposes to replace American police officers with foreign guest-worker mercenaries as well.So what is to be done? Well, one option is to bribe the poor to leave and bribe other countries, such as India and China, to accept them as a new underclass of guest workers without rights:
If most Americans are no longer needed by the American rich, then perhaps the United States should consider a policy adopted by the aristocracies and oligarchies of many countries with surplus populations in the past: the promotion of emigration. The rich might consent to a one-time tax to bribe middle-class and working-class Americans into departing the U.S. for other lands, and bribing foreign countries to accept them, in order to be alleviated from a high tax burden in the long run.
Once emptied of superfluous citizens, the U.S. could become a kind of giant Aspen for the small population of the super-rich and their non-voting immigrant retainers. Many environmentalists might approve of the depopulation of North America, because sprawling suburbs would soon be reclaimed by the wilderness. And deficit hawks would be pleased as well. The middle-class masses dependent on Social Security and Medicare would have departed the country, leaving only the self-sufficient rich and foreign guest workers without any benefits, other than the charity of their employers.
Charlie Stross is becoming annoyed by the glut of "steampunk" scifi, partly because of the surfeit of mediocre hangers-on that are jumping onto the hugely profitable gravy train, but mostly of the toxic political undertones romanticisations of the late 19th century carry when unexamined:
We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn't want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It's the world that bequeathed us the adjective "Dickensian", that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It's the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing (or the passing of that which came next).
Viewed as a fashion trend for corsets and top hats, steampunk is no more harmful than a fad for Che Guevara tee shirts, or burkas, or swastikas; just another fashion trend riffing thoughtlessly off stuff that went away for a reason (at least in the developed world).
Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans' Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn't bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King's shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers' fortunes. In other words, it's the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.
Charlie Stross posted to his blog the synopsis of an alternate history novel he almost started writing in 2002, set in an interesting timeline:
The year is 1950 -- but it's not our 1950. Things began to go off the rails, history-wise, in 1917-1918. Lawrence of Arabia was shot dead at the gates of Damascus, for example: the whole face of the middle east is utterly different. Trotsky had flu in October 1917 — the Bolshevik revolution happened in early 1918, and Stalin got himself killed in the process. Because of the late Russian collapse, World War One ended differently in this universe: the Kaisershlacht started in June (not April), the German high command collapsed in January 1919, and Germany was actually occupied by Allied forces (including the first large-scale deployment of what would later be called Blitzkrieg warfare — this was actually planned, but never used because of the German capitulation in November 1918). Germany was invaded, subjugated — no support for the "stab in the back" theory that Hitler used so effectively.In this world, Hitler never becomes dictator, and nor does Mussolini; fascism, however, is invented in Britain (with an Eric Blair becoming dictator of the Empire), and a standoff in Europe between the fascist republic of Britain and the Soviet Communists, with an isolationist America gradually taking an interest in the state of affairs, sending over two agents to investigate a curious trade of computers for heroin, and various real-world historical figures' alternate selves making appearances:
(This is all rooted in a vision I had, of William S. Burroughs as a CIA agent, and Philip K. Dick as his young henchman, going head-to-head with notorious gangster and pervert Adolf Hitler somewhere in Hamburg to find out where Hitler is shipping all the computers he can get his hands on.)It's a pity that this book will never get written. But one can console oneself with the outline posted in Charlie's blog:
And linked from the comments (on a tangent from Charlie's dislike of traditional high fantasy and its somewhat reactionary politics): Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky's (unused) audio commentary for Peter Jackson's Return of the King film, which exposes the colonialist-imperialist nature of the Elves and their lackeys:
ZINN: Self-hating, Elf-emulating Men invest so much in symbolic one-upmanship characteristic of capitalistic societies: Who has the nicer tunic? Whose dagger has more shiny gems on it? Who has the strongest pipe-weed? But the Orcish alliance seems to be a truly mutual, multicultural cooperative enterprise.
ZINN: You see the walls of Minas Tirith up close here. Albert Speer would have been proud. Notice the grand scale, the "great works" emphasis of Gondorian architecture. The fascist uniformity of their battle dress. Compare it to the folk artwork of Orcish armor—their improvisatory use of shrunken heads and Mannish skulls, for instance. There's something very beautiful about it to me.
CHOMSKY: A perfect example of what Ruskin valorizes as the Gothic aesthetic.
ZINN: It's nonstandardized, individual, homespun, bespoke. It's also imbued with a kind of nature worship that Elves merely play at.
Citing falling sales in science fiction and fantasy, Charlie Stross unveils his new direction: supernatural romance novels about sparkly unicorns:
Harlequin Romance will publish my first paranormal romance, "Unicorn School™: The Sparkling", in Q1/2012. US:TS is the first book of the projected series, and introduces Avril Poisson, who moves with her family from Phoenix, Arizona, to Forks, Washington with her divorced father, and finds her life in danger when she falls in love with a Sparkly Unicorn™ called Bob. Stalked by and in fear of a mysterious horse-mutilator, Avril must practice her dressage skills with Bob and qualify her steed for a scholarship to the elite Unicorn School™, where he will be safe to grow (and sparkle) without fear of the vampires who infest the senior's common room.Meanwhile, Transport For London is in talks with CERN about adapting the Circle Line into a hadron collider (which, thanks to miniaturisation, could be done without affecting existing services), and the embattled Labour Party takes an aggressive new direction in its campaign materials, hoping to turn Gordon Brown's reputation for bullying into a selling point, with slogans like "Step Outside, Posh Boy":
The Brown team has been buoyed by focus group results suggesting that an outbreak of physical fighting during the campaign, preferably involving bloodshed and broken limbs, could re-engage an electorate increasingly apathetic about politics. They also hope they can exploit the so-called "Putin effect", and are said to be exploring opportunities for Brown to be photographed killing a wild animal, though advisers have recommended that weather, and other considerations, mean Brown should not remove his shirt.
Scifi author and blogger Charlie Stross has written a five-part series on how the publishing industry actually works: The structure of the publishing industry, how books are made from manuscripts, a dissection of a book contract (with digressions on the implications of clauses, and why it's in an author's interests to get an agent), the logistics and economics of territories and translations, an exposition of the economic forces responsible for books being the length they are, with speculation on possible future trends, and a piece on who comes up with book titles, blurbs and cover artwork (hint: it's not the author). As with all of Charlie's writing, it's keenly insightful and highly readable.
Star Trek screenwriter Ron Moore reveals one of the long-running TV show's secret: it's not actually science fiction:
He described how the writers would just insert "tech" into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they'd have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.
"It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we'd just write 'tech' in the script. You know, Picard would say 'Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.' I'm serious. If you look at those scripts, you'll see that."What do you mean, you say; of course it's sci-fi; they have robots and laser guns and people in latex alien masks and shots of futuristic corridors, in a way that, say, The West Wing and BBC costume dramas don't. The problem is that, if you got rid of the latex masks and content-free technobabble and moved the plots to 20th-century America (or any period in history; the TV characters are all written as 20th-century Americans anyway), they'd work just as well. Which is why Star Trek (whose original working title, it should be remembered, was "Wagon Train In Space") and other TV shows of its ilk fail at the function of science fiction, which is to explore the effects of radical technological and social change on the human condition. Though science fiction author Charlie Stross puts it better:
I use a somewhat more complex process to develop SF. I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don't have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects — much as integrated circuits are useful and allow the mobile phone industry to exist and to add cheap camera chips to phones: and cheap camera chips in phones lead to happy slapping or sexting and other forms of behaviour that, thirty years ago, would have sounded science fictional. And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.
Star Trek and its ilk are approaching the dramatic stage from the opposite direction: the situation is irrelevant, it's background for a story which is all about the interpersonal relationships among the cast. You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech — make the Enterprise a man o'war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail — without changing the scripts significantly. (The only casualty would be the eyeball candy — big gunpowder explosions be damned, modern audiences want squids in space, with added lasers!)
The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating "tech" to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context; yes, there are some gestures in that direction, but if you scratch the protagonists of Star Trek you don't find anything truly different or alien under the latex face-sculptures: just the usual familiar — and, to me, boring — interpersonal neuroses of twenty-first century Americans, jumping through the hoops of standardized plot tropes and situations that were clichés in the 1950s.
Blogging has been sparse over the past few days, as Your Humble Correspondent has been away in Berlin.
Anyway, a round-up of things I've noticed from while I was away:
- After the European University in St. Petersburg, Russia, got involved in an EU-funded project to ensure the fairness of the election process, the Russian authorities shut down the university, claiming that it is a "fire hazard". Opposition figures accuse the Kremlin of moving Russia back towards totalitarianism (or is the goal a Singapore-style "managed democracy"?)
- While we're on the subject of democracy, Charlie Stross weighs in on why forms of democracy are becoming increasingly prevalent these days, with even otherwise illiberal regimes adopting aspects of democracy, rather than autocratic systems.
Anyway. Here we have three ways in which democracy is less bad than rival forms of government: it usually weeds out lunatics before they can get their hands on the levers of power, it provides a valuable pressure relief valve for dissent, and it handles succession crises way better than a civil war.
- Barack Obama, it seems, is doing well in the US primaries; so much so that someone in the Clinton campaign seemingly decided to resort to dog-whistle politics and took it upon themselves to circulate photos of him wearing scarily Middle-Eastern-looking attire, in the hope that enough Texans are sufficiently prejudiced to be unable to vote for someone whose name not only sounds like "Osama" but who once wore similar headgear.
- After writing a piece on the mainstreaming of neo-folk music, Momus has discovered Emmy The Great. His great revelation has little to do with her music, mind you, and much to do with her being young, (half-)Asian and fanciable.
- Apple have finally released a new MacBook Pro. It gets the Air's multi-touch trackpad, and the usual quantitative bump in specifications, alas, a higher-resolution screen isn't isn't among them, so if you want 1600 pixels across on something that doesn't look comically oversized, you'll have to buy a Windows machine.
- Meanwhile, Microsoft have been slapped with a US$1.4bn fine by the EU, as well as having made vague promises of being more open in future, and apparently they're working on a Windows Vista-based GNU rival named UNG ("just like GNU, only without all that pesky freedom").
Berlin, for what it's worth, was great; four days, though, is nowhere near enough time to see everything and enjoy the city. Though I was surprised that the attendants on the Deutsche Bahn sleeper train didn't seem to speak English. Hopefully they'll remedy this by the time they start running services through the Channel Tunnel.
For what it's worth, photos are being uploaded here.
Faced with the choice of a mobile phone plan to buy, Charlie Stross did the math and determined that the more "expensive" ones are often, in terms of total cost of ownership, cheaper:
The first obvious conclusion I reached is that if you look at the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a phone, including both the phone cost and the monthly tariff cost multiplied by the term of the contract, there's surprisingly little elasticity in the bottom line until you get into the eye-wateringly high usage tariffs. The TCO for a sample phone on 18 month contract varied by only £102 between the Talk 75 and Talk 500 tariffs (75 included minutes and 100 included texts per month, versus 500 minutes and 1000 texts per month). The same pattern held on 12 month contracts, with a £60 spread. Which is, frankly, ridiculous, because you get so few minutes and texts on Talk 75 that the actual cost per minute is nine times higher, and the cost per text is eight time higher than on Talk 500.
What I had discovered looked weirdly like a classic bathtub curve — only plotting price against contract time, rather than the more familiar failure rate against time. It's a familiar curve: airline seat price allocations often follow the same distribution. At one end of the curve, you've got the chancers who want a flashy phone but no commitment to use it. Typically they'll sign up for a short, cheap contract with an expensive phone. Fashion victims, in other words. The cellcos are set up to recognize and fleece them, however. At the other side of the curve you've got the gabby heavy users, and they're going to throw money at you whatever you do, so you might as well take it. In between, you've got a highly price sensitive market, which you want to encourage to use their phones more (and graduate into being heavy users), so you dangle some promising discounts in front of them, weighted towards the heavier tariffs.Charlie also has this revelation about airline pricing:
(Airline seats for long-haul flights: if someone books a flight six months ahead of departure, it is a Big Deal to them, so they value it, so you can price it high. If they book at two day's notice to go to Aunt Irma's Funeral in New Zealand, it's a coercion purchase, so you can price it high. In-between, there's a trough where people have time to pick and choose which carrier to use ... so seat prices are at their lowest in the period 8-12 weeks before departure. It's the same bathtub-shaped curve.)Interestingly, railway companies don't do this (they sell a small amount of cheap tickets first, then progressively more expensive ones as each price level sells out, culminating with walk-up fares; at least Eurostar and Britain's railway system do this). This is undoubtedly partly due to any railway route between two stations taking the same duration being a monopoly, though that doesn't explain everything. Why, for example, are air travellers booking early willing to pay over the odds, while rail travellers are not?
Though is the bathtub curve the whole story for air fares? As flying a jumbo jet from one airport to another has a rather large fixed cost, it would make sense for the airlines to make an effort to fill as many seats as they can, whilst taking as much per ticket as the market will bear. I imagine they may have worked out a way of, at the last minute, selling off the remaining empty seats to whoever will pay for them without disincentivising other passengers from, in future, paying as much as they would otherwise be willing to, perhaps by making last-minute discounts inconvenient or cumbersome to obtain.
Anyway, while we're on the subject of mobile phones: here is a piece on how unwanted mobile phones are recycled. (Some are sold to people further down the new-shiny-toy chain; ancient, obsolete bricks often end up in countries where their network technology is still in use; some are refurbished or used for parts in countries with lower labour costs (and lower gadget-buying power), and those at the end of their useful life can end up melted down for their precious metals (of which there is a lot). If they're lucky; if not, they may end up leaching toxins into the water table somewhere in Africa.
It’s hard to track ReCellular’s or Collective Good’s phones. But Jack Qiu, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has studied the movement of used computers and phones in China, describes one route phones take. In Kowloon, in Hong Kong, Pakistanis and other immigrants (often asylum seekers) import phones from Europe by the shipping container. These are fixed or cannibalized for parts in stalls at a local market. In the past, Nigerians and other African exporters swept in to buy tens of thousands of phones at a time, particularly so-called “14-day phones” — those that have been returned under warranty and used little. But recently, Qiu says, the markets for these phones have become saturated in African cities. So the Nigerians, needing to take their business to poorer African villages, have been leaving Hong Kong for Chinese cities like Guangzhou, where they can purchase cheaper, more heavily used phones from the larger refurbishing companies there. Many Nigerians have learned Mandarin in order to do business in Guangzhou, Qiu says, and the city now has an African-style coffee shop.
cellphones are not easily abandoned — and, when they are, someone somewhere is still likely to see some value in them. Jim Puckett, the coordinator of the Basel Action Network, a nongovernmental watchdog group that focuses on e-waste, visited Nigeria in 2005. He describes, at one Lagos electronics bazaar, repairmen sitting on dirt floors under shelves of scavenged parts, jury-rigging phones back together, over and over again, until the things are absolutely dead.And here is a discussion of what the signal strength bars on a phone actually mean. (The answer is: often not much.)
(via Boing Boing Gadgets)
Charlie Stross has published his list of Christmas wishes for 2007:
2) There is a disease pandemic that affects all of us. Its onset is slow but progressive and it inevitably gets worse once it is established. Symptoms include skin damage and inelasticity, loss of muscle tone with consequent lethardy, neurological degradation, bone damage, and at a cytological level damage to chromosomes and errors in mitochondrial DNA transcription that appear to drastically increase susceptibility to cancer. In extreme cases, it kills, although victims frequently die of other causes first. It may well be an acquired zoonosis or an endogenous retrovirus, because it is more or less universal among mammals but members of some other classes of animal (such as reptiles and fish) don't show obvious signs of it. This disease is senescence, and it would make me very happy indeed if people stopped treating it as inevitable and started treating it as a pathological condition that needs curing. I am myself feeling the early onset signs (I'm in my forties) and having to watch the decay of elderly relatives, who I remember from their vigorous middle age, fills me with a sense of helpless anger. (In fact, I'm not sure abolishing senescence shouldn't be in the #1 place, ahead of world peace: at least we have a chance of avoiding war.)
3) I was originally going to put a cure for AIDS and Cancer in at this level — as a bumper-pack, I guess -- but I've changed my mind. AIDS and cancer make life a misery for many and kill up to a third of us, but there's some hope that they can be abolished without invoking a magic wand. On the other hand, as a species, we suffer from a dismaying surfeit of, to put it bluntly, misogynistic old sacerdotal bigots. It's not simply a matter of being a member of the clergy; I have no beef with belief itself (although I frequently consider it misplaced, irrational, or just plain silly). Rather, it is with the expression of bigoted religious beliefs that punish or restrict the freedom of others, within a political or cultural framework that provides them with the force or actuality of law. In Saudi Arabia, a woman who was gang raped was subsequently sentenced to be lashed for adultery (yes, I know she was subsequently pardoned; that's not the point); in Africa, lying clergy assert that condoms spread AIDS and preach against their use: in Nicaragua a church-inspired ban on abortion is killing women with ectopic pregnancies: children are witch hunted in Nigeria, homosexuals around the world are routinely preached against and persecuted, as are religious minorities, such as Baha'i in Iran ... the list is endless. It's mostly women who are on the receiving end of this -- the "minority" that's a majority, constituting about 51% of the human population -- but when you add all the other out-groups up, I'd be surprised if less than two-thirds of humanity aren't suffering direct or indirect privation as a result of religious bigotry. I just want those who preach intolerance and hatred to stop.
7) Global climate change is clearly a big deal. It doesn't matter whether it's anthropogenic or a consequence of natural variation in insolation -- it's going to affect us either way, and the cause only affects us insofar as it might determine some of the things we've got to do to survive it. Similarly, it's fairly clear that we are not, contrary to orthodox Green ideology, going to deal with this by wailing, putting on hair shirts, and going back to being pre-industrial peasant subsistence farmers. Nor are we going to deal with it by reducing our carbon budget. (You want to reduce our species' carbon budget? Get a rifle and shoot someone. You don't get a lower carbon budget than a corpse. NB: please don't suggest this to some of our more excitable politicians who might be worrying about meeting their carbon trading limits in the near future. That would be Bad.) No; dealing with global climate change is going to take big business and big engineering projects. Lots of nuclear reactors, solar power farms, and plants pumping CO2 into the salt domes of evacuated oil and gas fields. All of which means it's going to cost big money, but in turn, it's going to make big profits for the companies that wise up first and realize that mitigating climate change can be a shiny new business proposition. Please, let's stop thinking negative-sum about climate change and start thinking positive-sum? Capitalism will clean up its own shit -- once it acquires a new set of taste buds and realizes it's delicious.
Charlie Stross visits London and devises a foolproof means of preventing terrorist suicide bombings in the capital:
The solution to protecting the London Underground from terrorist suicide bombers can be summed up in one word: Daleks. One Dalek per tube platform, behind a door at the end. Fit them with cameras and remote controls and run them from Ken Livingstone's office. Any sign of terrorism on the platform? Whoosh! The doors open and the Dalek comes out, shrieking "exterminate!" in a demented rasp reminiscent of Michael Howard during his tenure as Home Secretary, only less merciful.
The British are trained from birth to know the two tactics for surviving a Dalek attack; run up the stairs (or escalator), or hide behind the sofa. There are no sofas in the underground, but there are plenty of escalators. Switch them to run upwards when the Dalek is out, and you can clear a platform in seconds.
Suicide bombers are by definition Un-British, and will therefore be unable to pass a citizenship test, much less deal with the Menace from Skaro. And as for motivating the Daleks, one need only mention that the current crop of would-be British suicide bombers are doctors ...
Charlie Stross has written a travelogue about Japan. As with most, nay, all of his stuff, it is very much worth reading:
You can wander into a Japanese department store and lose an entire day, without even scraping the surface of the mall it's embedded in. My personal nemesis is Yodabashi Camera: a department store that has a clothing and houseware department embedded in it where most such shops would feature an electronics boutique department. Half of the sixth floor of its Yokohama branch is given over to capsule toy vending machines, where for 200 yen (about 80 pence) you can turn the knob and acquire a tennis ball sized bundle of mysterious plasticky goodness with a model kit of some complexity within. My favourite (which Feorag acquired from a capsule toy machine at Puroland, of which more later) is a capsule toy that contains a self-assembly model of a capsule toy machine, complete with tiny capsule toys ready to vend. Even the toys teach recursion ...
Tokyo is ... well dammit, I only spent four days there and you expect me to describe it? Tokyo left me feeling like an illiterate Albanian shepherd teleported without warning to the UK, staring slack-jawed in wonder at the vast, gleaming, powerful public works of metropolitan Huddersfield, reeking of wealth and efficiency and a goat-free future. From the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper I looked out across the high rise skyline, red lights blinking fretfully in the grip of a typhoon as winds strong enough to blow sheets of rain up the glass of the window rumbled around me, and I realized: this future has no place for goats.
Kyoto, the former imperial capital, looks like just another modern Japanese city at first. But then, as you're walking through a shopping arcade that specializes in commercial catering supply shops (such as the shop that sells nothing but cash registers, or the signage supplier), you spot a gap between two stalls — and plugging it, the courtyard of an ancient Buddhist temple, sharing a cigarette with the high wooden archway of a Shinto shrine. There's a sign in front, with an English translation, so you pause to read it. "Founded by the abbot ... around 768 ... burned down during the wars ... this is a modern reconstruction ..." And you're about to walk away, disappointed, when you read the final words: " ... created in 1633." It's just as much a modern replica as the Christopher Wren reconstruction of St Paul's Cathedral — and yet, the same language is used of reproduction castles cast in the concrete of 1930s modernism, or Buddhist temples from the fourteenth century.
These living conditions place a mold around the behaviour of the people who live with them. Take the wearing of uniforms, for example. In the UK, with a few exceptions — the uniformed services of government, police and military and fire services — we respond poorly to being placed in a uniform; it's a sign of depersonalization, stripping us of individuality. In Japan, however, uniforms are everywhere. Even people who don't have to wear them seem to gravitate towards workwear that's uniform in its appearance: taxi drivers in dark suits, peaked hats, and white gloves. Uniforms confer status — a uniform is a sign that you belong to some greater social context, to a corporation or a shop or a school or something important.(The last part makes a similar point to Momus' essay on "superlegitimacy".)
On a tangent: Earthquake sets Japan back to 2147.
Charlie Stross attempts to extrapolate the future from current trends in computing and storage technologies, and concludes that, eventually, everything that anyone ever does will be documented, stored and accessible for all time:
10Tb is an interesting number. That's a megabit for every second in a year -- there are roughly 10 million seconds per year. That's enough to store a live DivX video stream -- compressed a lot relative to a DVD, but the same overall resolution -- of everything I look at for a year, including time I spend sleeping, or in the bathroom. Realistically, with multiplexing, it puts three or four video channels and a sound channel and other telemetry -- a heart monitor, say, a running GPS/Galileo location signal, everything I type and every mouse event I send -- onto that chip, while I'm awake. All the time. It's a life log; replay it and you've got a journal file for my life. Ten euros a year in 2027, or maybe a thousand euros a year in 2017.
Our concept of privacy relies on the fact that it's hard to discover information about other people. Today, you've all got private lives that are not open to me. Even those of you with blogs, or even lifelogs. But we're already seeing some interesting tendencies in the area of attitudes to privacy on the internet among young people, under about 25; if they've grown up with the internet they have no expectation of being able to conceal information about themselves. They seem to work on the assumption that anything that is known about them will turn up on the net sooner or later, at which point it is trivially searchable.
The political hazards of lifelogging are, or should be, semi-obvious. In the short term, we're going to have to learn to do without a lot of bad laws. If it's an offense to pick your nose in public, someone, sooner or later, will write a 'bot to hunt down nose-pickers and refer them to the police. Or people who put the wrong type of rubbish in the recycling bags. Or cross the road without using a pedestrian crossing, when there's no traffic about. If you dig hard enough, everyone is a criminal. In the UK, today, there are only about four million public CCTV surveillance cameras; I'm asking myself, what is life going to be like when there are, say, four hundred million of them? And everything they see is recorded and retained forever, and can be searched retroactively for wrong-doing.
This century we're going to learn a lesson about what it means to be unable to forget anything. And it's going to go on, and on. Barring a catastrophic universal collapse of human civilization -- which I should note was widely predicted from August 1945 onward, and hasn't happened yet -- we're going to be laying down memories in diamond that will outlast our bones, and our civilizations, and our languages. Sixty kilograms will handily sum up the total history of the human species, up to the year 2000. From then on ... we still don't need much storage, in bulk or mass terms. There's no reason not to massively replicate it and ensure that it survives into the deep future.
And with ubiquitous lifelogs, and the internet, and attempts at providing a unified interface to all interesting information -- wikipedia, let's say -- we're going to give future historians a chance to build an annotated, comprehensive history of the entire human race. Charting the relationships and interactions between everyone who's ever lived since the dawn of history -- or at least, the dawn of the new kind of history that is about to be born this century.And as a footnote, we will soon have driverless cars, after which human-driven cars will be banned (after all, driver error causes most accidents), and a whole host of social changes as the nature of personal transport is changed.
Missile Gap, a new novella by Charlie Stross, and released on the internet for free, positing a world where someone or something stripped the continents off the Earth and transferred them to the surface of a vast disc in distant space, at the height of the Cold War. It's a cracking good read, filled with unsettling wonder:
"Okay." Gregor thinks for a minute. "Let us see. What everyone knows is that between zero three fifteen and twelve seconds and thirteen seconds Zulu time, on October second, sixty two, all the clocks stopped, the satellites went away, the star map changed, nineteen airliners and forty six ships in transit ended up in terminal trouble, and they found themselves transferred from a globe in the Milky Way galaxy to a disk which we figure is somewhere in the lesser Magellanic cloud. Meanwhile the Milky Way galaxy--we assume that's what it is--has changed visibly. Lots of metal-depleted stars, signs of macroscopic cosmic engineering, that sort of thing. The public explanation is that the visitors froze time, skinned the earth, and plated it over the disk. Luckily they’re still bickering over whether the explanation is Minsky’s copying, uh, hypothesis, or that guy Moravec with his digital simulation theory."
(via Boing Boing)
Charlie Stross has a characteristically sobering assessment of the Litvinenko assassination:
Anyway, to the point: this wasn't simply an assassination. There are any number of poisons out there that would do the job painfully well but much more rapidly, and without the same scope for a diplomatic incident. Likewise, a bullet to the back of the head would have worked just as well (as witness the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya).
What this is, is a warning: "we have the capability to detonate a dirty bomb in central London any time we feel like it, so don't fuck with us". (Just take Polonium and add a little TNT.)
Given that Litvinenko was promoting a book that asserted FSB agents blew up two apartment buildings in Moscow and pointed the finger at Chechen rebels in order to justify Putin's subsequent war on Chechnya, one possibility that must be considered is that elements of the FSB may be responsible — and willing to use radiological terrorism as a tool of foreign affairs. It may well not have been ordered by the Kremlin: all it takes is for Vladimir Putin to mutter "will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?" over his breakfast one morning, and Shit Happens in a foreign capital thousands of kilometres away. (Or it may be entirely deliberate, merely "plausibly deniable", to use the charming CIA-surplus weasel words for "we did it but you can't prove it".)
And what disturbs me most is that all the other possibilities I've been able to think of are worse ...And as a bonus, here is Charlie's analysis of the Iraq débâcle
Despite all that, despite the Abu Ghraib photographs and the evidence of mass murder of civilians by soldiers, and a thousand daily petty atrocities, it's not immediately obvious that bringing the troops home won't make everything a whole lot worse in the long run, up to a worst-case scenario in which the "failed state" of Iraq turns out to be not so much a "failed state" as a voracious cancer of social breakdown that spreads inexorably to its neighbours, until the entire region is effectively government-free. "Government-free" does not mean some libertarian pipe-dream of a night watchman state and respect for individual liberty: it means that eventually the whole region will come to resemble Afghanistan under the Taliban, with authority — any authority — welcomed as an antidote to blood feud and starvation.
More details are emerging on the terrorist attacks allegedly thwarted: they involved liquid explosives, carried by British-born terrorists (some with Pakistani connections), who allegedly planned to blow up airliners in waves of three at a time, for the glory of God the All-Merciful. The authorities claim the attack would have caused loss of life on an "unprecedented scale", which (after 9/11) makes one wonder how many aircraft they planned to blow up.
Anyway, until further notice, passengers on flights leaving the UK are prohibited from taking carry-on luggage or liquids into the cabin, except for a few small things (passport, sanitary items, and baby milk, which must be tasted by the passenger in question on check-in). Certainly no books, MP3 players, games, laptops or PDAs. Which makes me glad I'm not flying to Australia (about 21 hours each way) any time soon.
Of course, medicines with prescriptions are exempted from the rules. I hope no terrorist manages to forge a prescription and bring along some liquid explosive in a medicine bottle.
Until 2001, far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning, and almost none of those terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself. Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number ofAmericans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.
it would seem to be reasonable for those in charge of our safety to inform the public about how many airliners would have to crash before flying becomes as dangerous asdriving the same distance in an automobile. It turns out that someone has made that calculation: there would have to be one set of September 11 crashes a month for the risks to balance out. More generally, they calculate thatan American's chance of being killed in one nonstop airline flight is about one in 13 million (even taking the September 11 crashes into account). To reach that same level of risk when driving on America's safest roads -- rural interstate highways -- one would have to travel a mere 11.2 miles.
Accordingly, three key issues, set out by risk analyst Howard Kunreuther, require careful discussion but do not seem ever to get it:
- How much should we be willing to pay for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?
- How much should we be willing to pay for actions that are primarily reassuring but do little to change the actual risk?
- How can measures such as strengthening the public health system, which provide much broader benefits than those against terrorism, get the attention they deserve?
Charlie Stross has written up a future history of the British national identity card system, circa 2016:
The National ID Register has been implemented, and (as No2ID are currently predicting) it was a train-wreck. Large scale civil disobedience (accelerating from mid-2006, with the introduction of compulsory interviews for passports, then from 2008 with the opening of the first ID card processing centres) prevented the ID card itself from being made compulsory. Bluntly, people who are agnostic on the idea of carrying an ID card when interviewed in 2005, suddenly turn out to be rather against it when they receive a letter ordering them to show up for processing (and to fork over somewhere between £50 and £150 for the privilege). Even disguising it as a driving license or passport or proof of age in the boozer doesn't make them happy, and the proportion of goats in the population is high enough that beating the problem over the head with a stick is going to cause a crisis rather than making resistance trickle away.
The first law of British government IT contracts is "lowball the first five years", because five years is the event horizon of elected political office -- anything that happens five years and a day from now is some other guy's problem. And the contractors milk this egregiously -- you can read about it every couple of weeks in Private Eye. Unfortunately, the software development life cycle in the IT business is such that costs are always front-loaded (development is expensive, maintenance/support is cheap), and development of a large system is therefore always cash-starved just when it most needs investment. It therefore should come as no surprise to learn that the national identity register was delivered massively over-budget, several years late, and insufficiently flexible to do the jobs it was thought to be needed for.
By way of illustrating how totally bone-headed this is, here's an example. If they don't have time to interview you, they can create an entry for you from existing public sources: your driving licence might be merged with that DNA sample the police took when they arrested you three years ago, along with the money launding disclosure for your mortgage application that proves you're not a front for the Medelin cartel. Except that you were never arrested three years ago -- someone else gave your name in the cop shop. And because they accepted a caution, and your spam filter ate the email from the police, you don't even know you've got a criminal record and a DNA sample on the database.
There are other, more subtle, problems with the national identity register. Biometric identifiers change over time. People lose fingers and eyes. A lot of protesters discovered that atropine eye drops cause their iris to dilate, to the point where it's impossible to digitize. Middle-aged Filipino women have fingerprints that just plain don't work with the recognition software -- there's insufficient variation to tell them apart. 15% of the population have eczema, half of those have it on their hands, and their fingerprints are (in many cases) differently fucked from week to week. Post-operative transsexuals who have received hormone treatments have facial bone structures that mess up attempts at face recognition. Only DNA fingerprinting works, and even that is fallible, with multiple false positives (e.g. identical twins, and even random folks with identical matching sequences).
The Onion's 2056 issue, with stories like "Government May Restrict Use Of Genetically Modified Farmers", "Final Installment of Frogger Trilogy Poised To Sweep Oscars", "Halliburton Wins Bid To Rebuild Midwest" and "Could Jimi Hendrix Mk. IV's Disappointing Synth-Funk Output Spell The End Of The Vat-Grown Celebrity?":
"Our first objective is to suppress the Wisconsinite and Illini insurgents," Halliburton spokesman James Rothman told reporters. "Attacks on the area's megasilos and supermills have cut the region's grain production in half. Once the insurgents have been contained and the farmland has been adequately irradiated, we will build our own MechaSuperfarms, which we will manage for as long as is necessary to maintain stability in the area."
One thing seems clear: If vat-grown celebrities continue to follow their own muses, it may spell the end of the entertainment industry's latest and most expensive case of sequel-itis.
"It looks like the ancient curse of entertainment--the infamous 'mind of their own' problem--might keep everyone from taking a chance on bringing back anyone else," Miner-323 said.Meanwhile, Charles Stross's future-history of the Singularity, Accelerando, has been released under a Creative Commons licence; you can read it as straight HTML on the site, download it to your PDA, or, of course, buy a dead-tree copy. It covers time from the very near future (or perhaps the present) to the age of solar-system-wide matrioshka brains with incomprehensibly complex cultural/economic systems and wormhole-spanning colonies of posthumans (not to mention uploaded lobsters and Machiavellian robot cats).
(via bOING bOING)
Considering the virtual absence of American authors from this year's Hugo shortlist, Charlie Stross has an interesting piece on the state of science fiction writing today, and in particular the slump in US scifi.
Here's my speculation: American SF is going through a gloom-laden period induced by external social conditions, much as British SF did in the 1947-79 period (and differently, in the 1980-92 period). Extrapolative SF is often used by writers as a mirror for reflecting our concerns about the present on the silver screen of the future. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "The Puppet Masters" were artefacts of the late 1940's/early 1950's paranoia about communist infiltration. "Fugue for a Darkening Island" was a dismal if-this-goes-on dirge played to the tune of Enoch Powell. "Neuromancer" was 1980's corporate deracination hooked up to an overdose of MTV, mainlining on hidden assumptions of monetarism. When SF is at its most overtly predictive -- especially when it speaks of the impending future -- it is talking about the present, capturing the zeitgeist and projecting it forward.
n American SF today there is a huge surge in the proportion of alternate history counterfactuals: as James Nicoll notes, AH is often used as a consolatory literature that, at its worst, says "we go back in time and make history happen the way it should have happened! Yay, Us! In a completely contrived scenario, we can win!" The boom in fantasy probably needs no further explanation. Ditto the military-SF field, which at its worst reflects the self-indulgent imperialist excesses of the British penny dreadfuls of the early 20th century.
what's almost totally absent is convincing near-future SF about a future America that is anything other than a dystopic rubbish dump. Bleakness is the new optimism. Writers living in the USA today just don't seem enthusiastic about the near future in the way that they did as recently as the 1980's, where at least the cyberpunk future of cliche was a vaguely habitable pastiche of the globalized present. They are, in fact, exhibiting the same canary-in-a-sociological-coalmine malaise as British SF writers of the 1960's and 1970's.
Apparently British technogoth scifi author Charlie Stross has uploaded to a new Sony PSP:
"Charlie was teetering on the precipice of transhumanism for the whole last year," said his friend and collaborator Cory Doctorow. "His lifestyle and cerebral/neurological capabilities had been ramped up through intensive ideation and selective smart-drug use to an exquisite pitch just short of the Singularity. When he laid his hands on that sweet, sweet hunk of hardware, it provided the critical mass of complexification necessary to tip him over fully into the Extropian ideal condition."
(Stross himself has posted a correction, saying that it was a Palm Pilot he uploaded to. Which makes more sense; would anyone with Stross' copyfighter credentials really want to upload to a Sony PSP? I imagine that, with the DRM infrastructure, it would be too much like being trapped in a prison for all eternity (or, at least, until the batteries run out).
Anyway, he may not be the first to have done so; it is rumoured that Australian hard-scifi writer Greg Egan's absence from the publishing world is due to him having uploaded some years ago:
Aussie critic and potential "Spiker" himself, Damien Broderick, comments, "I tried to visit Egan years ago, and found myself stuck in a timelike infinity loop once I got too close to his nominal address. Only the concerted efforts of Stephen Baxter, Vernor Vinge and Greg Bear were able to free me. And even now, all my interior organs remain reversed. I subsist solely on amino acids of alternate chiriality."
Really? And I thought he was too busy fighting for asylum-seekers' human rights.
Out of work? Got a Top Secret clearance and a sadistic streak? US military contractors are looking for an Interrogator/Intel Analyst Team Lead in Baghdad, to assist in interrogating recalcitrant Iraqis, under minimal supervision. Since the applicant will not be a US military officer, military codes of conduct do not apply.
Meanwhile, how much do you want to bet that Arab-torturing good-ol'-girl Lynndie England will be getting lots of marriage proposals from Little Green Footballs readers and the like? Step aside Lara Croft and Sigourney Weaver; there's a butt-kicking heroine for the Bush Era.
"To the country boys here, if you're a different nationality, a different race, you're sub-human. That's the way girls like Lynndie are raised. Tormenting Iraqis, in her mind, would be no different from shooting a turkey. Every season here you're hunting something. Over there, they're hunting Iraqis."
And Charlie Stross has weighed in on the Iraqi torture controversy. (Sorry, did I say torture? I meant abuse. Torture, like terrorism, is something only the bad guys can do.) Apparently the British did similar things in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, and the results weren't pretty.
Which is to say: I think the torture is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise at the heart of the neoconservative program to restructure the Middle East. It's the same disease that enabled another cultured, well-educated western society two thirds of a century ago to efficiently and systematically brutalize half a continent: the conviction that the Other is backward, ill-educated, unworthy of tolerance, brutish, must needs be governed for their own good and punished for rebellion against the self-evidently correct policies of the superpower ... you can't justify the invasion and occupation of other nations these days without espousing a belief that their citizens are morally, intellectually, or ideologically inferior. To view someone as inferior in one of these ways is to dehumanize them. And, once dehumanized, they become fair game for the most odious of practices: collective punishment, suspension of civil rights, torture, and finally mass murder of civilians -- whether by gas chamber or cluster bomb makes no difference.
This is a wake-up call. We aren't just on the slippery slope, we're two-thirds of the way down it and trying on the jackboots for fit.
Gee, it's a lucky thing that the US isn't bound by the Geneva convention; otherwise they may be guilty of war crimes.
Charlie Stross has a characteristically right-on piece about the war on terrorism:
However, there are some issues I agree with him about. Item number one on the list is that Al Qaida blowing people up is Wrong, and should be stopped. Item number two on the list is that it is not acceptable to stop Al Qaida blowing things up by giving in to all their demands, which in maximalist form would amount to surrendering the whole of western civilization to a barbarous mediaevalist fundamentalism. And third on the list is that Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party was a vile and repugnant dictatorship (and North Korea doesn't look too good, either). So why did I go on an anti-George W. Bush march on Tuesday, and why do I want to put a foot through the TV screen whenever I see his face?
Declaring a war on terrorism in the wake of 9/11 was good politics for George W. Bush. But it's a misleading metaphor; because war is terrorism by other means, just as terrorism has become an extension of diplomacy by the weak against the strong, to fold, spindle and mutilate Von Clauswitz's famous dictum. If a war against terrorism is to be successful it must be fought in peoples' hearts and minds, with unusual weapons like trust and respect, and a willingness to negotiate with the moderates before our intransigence turns them into desperate extremists.
Insisting that a war on terrorism is a literal war, involving bombers and tanks, is foolish in the extreme. Handing them a victory on a plate -- by surrendering our civil liberties on the altar of security -- is insane. Killing terrorists generates more anger among the communities the terrorists are drawn from, and anger breeds more violence. But negotiation works. It worked in Northern Ireland, where the depths of religious bigotry rival anything to be found in the Middle East. And it can work in the Israel/Palestine mess, if negotiations can be arranged and both sides are willing to back down from their maximalist positions. I doubt negotiation has any chance of working with Osama bin Laden or his closest followers, but as the Ha'aretz interview above suggests, even suicide bombers aren't completely beyond hope.
Charlie Stross has a rant up titled "Ten reasons why I do not read HTML email".
While I don't take as hard a line on it as Mr. Stross, I pretty much agree with the sentiment; HTML email is wasteful, a nonstandard kludge mandated by the Microsoft/Netscape marketing departments and rarely if ever does it do anything text can't do. I also use Mutt as my mail client; reading my mail involves logging into a UNIX machine I have a shell account on and running mutt; this means I'm not tied to reading my mail where I keep my (hypothetical) copy of Outlook/Eudora/Apple Mail and don't have to depend on webmail systems (which are, at best, a compromise; they're good if you're backpacking through Outer Mongolia or something but not something you'd want to use from day to day).
I still don't read mail with JPEGs/Microsoft Word documents/&c. though. And when Microsoft Trusted DRM-Mail or whatever comes in, I won't read that.
After a lot of rehashing, the first draft of Unwirer, Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross' story about illegal wireless networking in a dystopian alternate America, is up. It's not bad, in a rather dark and paranoid sort of way. I suspect they'll have a hard time cutting 4,500 words from it.
Charlie Stross has posted an interesting essay about the process of writing novels:
Don't get silly and try to write a multi-threaded novel straight off, you'll tie your own shoelaces together and trip over them. If you must do multithreaded, a better way to do it is to write a novella -- say, 30,000 words long -- and then write a second novella of the same length showing the same story from a different angle. Then intercut them chapter by chapter, like chunks of salami. The trick here is to find a story that has enough different angles to be worth looking at repeatedly.
One of the easiest and commonest character development McGuffins is the romantic engagement or "boy meets girl" plot. The conventional rendering is "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl". With or without variations -- in the case of my most recent novel, "boy meets six-armed alien penguin, boy and six-armed alien penguin have great sex, boy turns into girl, girl loses six-armed alien penguin ..." -- it's a handy tool because it gives your protagonist a goal to aim for and a yardstick for character development. By the way, people have been running riffs on this since the 16th century (and earlier); Shakespeare's comedies are a good source of ideas, notably "As You Like It", "All's Well that Ends Well", "Much Ado About Nothing", and so on. As somebody or other said, "if you're going to steal, steal from the best" -- there's a full run of synopses at http://www.bardweb.net/plays/ that provide a suite of off-the-shelf romantic subplots if you're not imaginative enough to work out the details of six-armed alien penguin sex with hermaphrodites.
And more along those lines. One day, I might give something like that a try (writing a novel, I mean, not hermaphroditic alien penguin sex). I keep coming up with ideas, timelines and scenarios, though not quite enough for a novel.
Cory "bOING bOING" Doctorow and Charlie "Antipope" Stross are collaborating on another short story, The Unwirer, set in a world where Jack Valenti runs the FCC, all Internet transactions cost money, operating unlicensed network sites is criminal copyright infringement, and wireless networking is a sort of underground guerilla resistance. And they're posting it to a specially commissioned blog as it's written.
He'd lost his job and spent the best part of six months inside, though he'd originally been looking at a from a five year contributory infringement stretch -- compounded to twenty by the crypto running on the access-point under the "use a cypher, go to jail" statute -- to second degree tarriff evasion. His public defender had been worse than useless, but the ACLU had filed an amicus on his behalf, which led the judge to knock the beef down to criminal trespass and unlawful emission, six months and two years' probation, two years in which he wasn't allowed to program a goddamn microwave oven, let alone admin the networks that had been his trade.
Oh yes, the last part of Jury Service, Charlie and Cory's short story, is up, and it's quite good.
Oh yes, part 3 of Jury Service is up.
"But from traces of carapace scraped off the walls of the Bey residence nursery, we have obtained a partial genotype. Tell your guidebooks or familiars or whatever to download Exhibit B for you. As you can see, the genome of the said item is chimeric and shows signs of crude tampering, but it's largely derived from drosophila, mus musculus, and a twentieth-century situationist artist or politician or something called Dan Quayle. Large chunks of its genome appear to be wholly artificial though, written entirely in Arabic, and there's an aqueous phase Turing machine partially derived from octopus ribosomes to interpret them. It looks as if something has been trying to use the shari'a code as a platform for implementing a legal virtual machine. We're not sure why, unless it's an obscure joke."
Ah yes; the second part of Charlie and Cory's post-singularity story Jury Service is out, and it's a corker.
Jury Service, a (so far) pretty doovy post-singularity scifi story by Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow, with biotech, nanotech, Welsh and Islamic cultures, airships and more. Pretty nifty, but the following paragraph struck me as a bit incongruous:
"Monkeys! You think I'm worried about monkeys? Brother, I once spent a month in a Tasmanian work-camp for public drunkennessimagine, an Australian judge locking an Englishman up for drunkenness!"
Falling into the myth that Australians are more accomplished drinkers than the English, where in fact Australians drink their beer in wimpy little half-pint pots (or slightly larger glasses in Sydney), while in England you don't get through life (or university at least) without learning how to down the pints like nobody's business before the pub closes at 11pm and still manage to stagger home. (Or so a friend of mine with a hollow leg tells me.)
Caveat lector: The ever-lucid Charlie Stross deconstructs alleged Al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith's ghastly tirade, in which he claims the right to kill 4 million Americans. It appears the Middle East Media Research Institute, which found and translated the piece, is run by people connected with Israeli intelligence, and thus may not be as impartial and nonpartisan as it purports to be; and there's the suggestion that this Abu Ghaith chap may be just some random lunatic chosen for his scariness.
(Imagine a mirror-image Arab news organisation combing the US local newspapers for editorials demanding that we kill them all or forcibly convert them to Christianity. They wouldn't have to look far with the likes of Anne Coulter about, would they?)
Charlie Stross has a modest proposal: swap George W. Bush with Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, for the mutual benefit of Britain and America.
This was good enough to plagiarise in its entirety: Charlie Stross on copyright fascism:
- The key feature of the political system known as Fascism is that the State is more important than the individual -- your body does not belong to you, it belongs to the State.
- The key feature of the ideological system known as Copyright Fascism is that the Rights holder is more important than the consumer -- your experiences don't belong to you, they belong to the Distributor.
You can identify copyright fascists because they're the guys who say things like "skipping advertising breaks on TV is theft", and apply emotive words like "piracy" (armed robbery and murder on the high seas) to having an unauthorised copy of a piece of software (shoplifting).
There's an agenda at work here, folks. Learn to recognize it.
(NB:I'd use the term "creator" instead of Distributor, except that there are precious few musicians, programmers, authors or editors who'd take such an extremist position. As usual, the ones who are least creative are the ones who are most anxious to defend totalitarianism.)
Lobsters, a pretty doovy scifiesque short story by Charles Stross. Go read.
Charlie Stross' blog is very insightful and well worth reading, with philosophy, science, culture and miscellaneous geekery aplenty. (via Peter)