Charlie's Diary

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Thu, 06 Oct 2005

Filling In

So, on Monday I finished the final presubmission draft of "The Jennifer Morgue" and mailed it to my editor. Then I got my teeth into some other administrivia that had been building up while I went over deadline (my own personal one, not the one in the book contract) on TJM. I'm off next Friday to an SF convention in Ireland, so I thought I'd get everything nailed down and ship-shape before departure -- TJM is the last novel I've actually got a signed contract for at present, so I could go away knowing I had actually finished everything.

Which is probably why I promptly came down with the cold from hell; nose auditioning for an SFX role in a low-budget Lovecraft movie (green ichor generator), occasional racking cough (caused by breathing through my mouth and getting dried out -- see nose, above), the usual. It's beginning to ease off now, but I'm basically in sick-day mode (slouch around in dressing gown, drink lots of orange juice, surf various web comics, read a non-challenging novel). And guess what? The minor bits of work probably won't be finished before I go away, and I'm expecting a couple of new book contracts to show up Real Soon Now (if not a bunch of copy edits to keep me company when I expected to be on vacation).

On the subject of previous ramblings: it looks like the worst-case outcome from this year's season of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico has been averted -- at least as far as the aftermath of Katrina and Rita is concerned -- but the consequences are going to be with us for years to come, echoing around the world. Governments have suddenly noticed that there's not enough elasticity in the oil supply chain; the move by the big US oil companies to shut excess oil refinery capacity in the 1990s and move to a just in time model has given us the first real large-scale demonstration that just-in-time logistic systems are very brittle and can be broken by relatively predictable spikes in demand or once-a-decade problems.

The reason I keep rambling around this isn't because I've got some kind of axe to grind over the petrochemical economy or global climate change (although I'm pretty sure that anybody who doesn't believe in the latter is axe-grinding at this stage), but because I'm fascinated by the behaviour of complex systems.

Our civilization runs on a much slimmer margin than most of us realize. As a cost-saving measure, the corporate policy of the past three decades has been to abolish warehouses and stockpiles wherever possible and to use information technology to streamline logistical processes. If you go to Apple or Dell's web site and order a computer (or if you go to your local Ford dealership for a car), you may think you've bought one and it's being delivered -- but in practice, the computer (or car) doesn't exist yet; what happens is, your order triggers a series of cascading requistions for parts, almost all the way down to the factory in Taiwan that makes the resin the chips are embedded in, and those parts are shipped to factories and assembled, and the assemblies are shipped to a final factory for final assembly and packaging, and the package is shipped to your door (or the car dealership) via a packet-switched network of considerable complexity.

Stockpiles represent capital that is locked up, not in motion generating wealth. If you minimize your stockpiles of parts (or oil, or pork bellies, or whatever) you can make your investment capital work more efficiently. But efficiency is the enemy of flexibility. If your computer factory works the old-fashioned way, building boxes on a production line and warehousing them until someone buys them, then a hiccup in the supply of some vital widget won't stop the company selling computers -- it'll just cause the stockpile to drop. In contrast, a just-in-time system stalls instantly if just one critical component becomes unavailable.

There's an added twist to consider: our high-tech consumer gadgets are deflationary. Their value drops rapidly from the moment they're manufactured. Two years ago, a 42" plasma TV would have set me back £3500-5000; today, I can buy one (if I want) for £1000-1800. If you do stockpile goods, the stockpile is not merely an inefficient use of capital -- it's a drain on your profits.

The consequence of this is that high-tech businesses mediated by the internet ( is the classic example) are far more brittle and vulnerable to external disruption than their old-fashioned predecessors.

Oil is the obvious choke-point. We need oil to power our transport infrastructure -- all the delivery vans that bring supplies to our neighbourhood shops, or our doorsteps. We also use oil to deliver oil -- to filling stations, to refineries via supertanker -- and if the pipeline stalls, not only does the oil become expensive but, by and by, the means of delivering the oil becomes inaccessible.

I need to go and read some more on the collapse of complex civilizations. But here's a parting thought: these brittle networks propagate the side-effects whenever a single node breaks down. It may be that some time in the future, the US economy is brought low not by a hurricane in the Gulf taking out domestic oil refinery capacity -- but by a typhoon in the Pacific damaging some unmapped critical dependency in the supply paths used by the world's largest companies to keep their pipelines moving. Simply making the USA -- or the EU -- self-sufficient in energy supplies isn't enough; to address the problem, we need to wean ourselves off the cult of efficiency at the expense of resilience.

[Discuss market anomalies]

posted at: 17:33 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Missile Gap
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The Jennifer Morgue
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The Clan Corporate
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The Hidden Family
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Iron Sunrise
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Singularity Sky
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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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