Charlie's Diary

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Wed, 23 Nov 2005

Stupid authorial mistakes, #965

How hard is it to break open a padlock by shooting it?

This hard.

On the one hand, I'm glad someone's actually done the research and demonstrated that your hoary old fiction trope is, ahem, rubbish. On the other hand, as it's a trope I've used myself ... groan.

[Link] [Discuss Writing (2)]

posted at: 11:12 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 15 Nov 2005

Looking under the lamp post

There is an apocryphal story told as a metaphor for the process of scientific discovery, of a man who comes out of his house one night to find his neighbour crawling around on his hands and knees, searching the ground around a street lamp. "What's the matter?" Asks our protagonist. "I've lost my house keys!" Replies the neighbour. Our protagonist promptly joins in the search, but after a few minutes he realizes that he can't see any sign of the keys. "Are you sure this is where you dropped them?" He asks. "Of course not! I dropped them way over there, in the woods!" "Then why are you searching under the lamp post instead of in the woods?" "Because there's more light here!"

Meanwhile, it's probably no exaggeration to say that one item that is seldom out of the news is the possibility that terrorists of one kind or another -- insert your pet nightmare here -- might seek to get hold of chemical weapons, or other so-called weapons of mass destruction. We are, in fact, constantly exhorted to be on the lookout for suspicious signs, and the alleged stockpiling of chemical weapons was cited extensively in the propaganda build-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Well, we didn't find any chemical weapons plants in Iraq; and meanwhile, terrorists are doing it the old way, blowing themselves up with explosive belts. But the science fiction writer in me keeps prompting me to ask, what if ...?

To date, we have one actual terrorist use of chemical weapons: March 20th, 1995, when members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult carried out a sarin attack on the Tokyo underground. There are two surprising aspects to the Aum group's use of sarin; firstly, that they bothered with the stuff at all, and secondly, that they had any measure of success with it. Sarin is notorious for having a poor shelf-life, and certain impurities that can be introduced in the manufacturing process can increase the decomposition rate, rendering it useless in a matter of days to weeks. Moreover, because Sarin is horrendously toxic, it is difficult to handle: while it's possible to make quantities of a few hundred grams in a reasonably well-equipped organic chemistry lab with suitable protective equipment, making large quantities requires large, purpose-built (and very well sealed!) reaction vessels.

A tenth of a miligram may be enough to kill a human being, but before it can do so, it must be delivered to the target -- and this is a difficult task that has brought many chemical weapons programs to grief over the years. A few hundred grams might notionally be enough to kill everyone in a city ... but if you vapourize it in a city street it is likely to disperse long before anyone even notices it. For their Sarin attacks to succeed, the Aum group had to build a large chemical factory and use large quantities (in their June 27th, 1994 attack on an apartment building) or enclosed space (the March 20th, 1995 attack on the Tokyo underground trains) to amplify their attacks -- a single suicide vest would have achieved a greater death toll at far lower cost.

If the Aum Shinrikyo attacks (they also tried to use botulinum toxin and anthrax spores) failed, I suspect the real cause is that Aum were obsessed with following a movie-plot model of what a terrorist CBW attack should look like. As security expert Bruce Schneier explains:

Sometimes it seems like the people in charge of homeland security spend too much time watching action movies. They defend against specific movie plots instead of against the broad threats of terrorism.

We all do it. Our imaginations run wild with detailed and specific threats. We imagine anthrax spread from crop dusters. Or a contaminated milk supply. Or terrorist scuba divers armed with almanacs. Before long, we're envisioning an entire movie plot, without Bruce Willis saving the day. And we're scared.

Psychologically, this all makes sense. Humans have good imaginations. Box cutters and shoe bombs conjure vivid mental images. "We must protect the Super Bowl" packs more emotional punch than the vague "we should defend ourselves against terrorism."

The 9/11 terrorists used small pointy things to take over airplanes, so we ban small pointy things from airplanes. Richard Reid tried to hide a bomb in his shoes, so now we all have to take off our shoes.

Schneier's explanation attempts to make sense of the peculiar measures that are so widespread and inconvenience us in our day to day lives -- security measures that protect against a single specific threat type, the "Bruce Willis movie" model of a terrorist attack.

Terrorists are themselves generally following a movie script in their heads. 9/11 was conceived by Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta as a vast cinema verité spectacular, an imagination-catching extravaganza to motivate their base. Aum Shinrikyo's leader Shoko Ashahara frequently preached about a coming Armageddon, a global conflict that would destroy Japan with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons (except for his followers). In light of this, it's hardly surprising that they, too, are hypnotised by the conventional wisdom about the terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons -- that it must be with conventional militarily-weaponizable substances, or diseases such as Q-fever, smallpox, and ebola.

The action-movie model for security threats cuts both ways, it seems.

Which brings me to my immediate concern: that in addressing the threat of CBW terrorism, our erstwhile guardians are looking under the street light. Because the actual requirements for a terrorist CBW weapon are different from those for a military CBW weapon. And the first group to not only recognize this but to act on it is capable of causing horrific damage.

The military uses of chemical weapons broadly encompass three goals:

  • Area denial
  • Incapacitating or killing enemy troops
  • Terrorising civilians

Dousing an area with nerve gas makes it difficult for infantry (and to a lesser extent, vehicles) to move through the area safely, while the substance persists -- as with Sarin, they all break down eventually. Incapacitating or directly killing enemy soldiers is a secondary goal these days, as well-equipped armies have excellent protective equipment. Finally, terrorising civilians should require no explanation, other than to add that civilian populations are at their most vulnerable to chemical weapons when they live in high density towns or cities. Gas attacks are area weapons, and to saturate a built-up area with poison gas requires quantities best measured in tons.

To achieve these goals, military chemical weapons require certain characteristics: typically they are liquids at ambient temperature but have very high vapour pressure, break down within days (you don't want them lingering in territory you've occupied), and extremely rapid toxicity (to be of use on the battlefield they must incapacitate enemy troops immediately, within seconds to at most a few minutes of contact).

In contrast, the requirements for a terrorist CB weapon are almost the opposite of those for a military one. It does not need to be immediately effective; there's nothing to be gained by killing a victim in seconds as opposed to weeks. Persistence long after the attack is a positive virtue. A high vapour pressure makes handling the substance hazardous -- far better if it's a stable liquid, or even a solid. The only common factor a properly designed terrorist chemical weapon would have with a military one is toxicity.

If this sounds like a fairly abstract set of requirements, rest assured: there are plenty of compounds out there that fit the bill of goods. An example would be dimethyl mercury. Note that I'm only discussing this because (CH3)2Hg is so incredibly toxic that any soi-disant terrorists reading my blog who decide to experiment with the stuff are going to succumb to a lingering, painful death -- this stuff is nasty. It's one of the most potent neurotoxins known; it's also easier to synthesize than sarin or most other comparable agents, from relatively innocent precursors. (Note that when I say "easier to synthesize" I mean "easier for someone with a background in organic chemistry to kill themselves with". This isn't something you can knock up by accident in your kitchen using a jar of table salt and an old thermometer.)

Dimethylmercury is completely useless as a military chemical weapon for several reasons -- it is highly persistent, there is no way to reverse the damage it causes (which is cumulative), it is insoluble in water, it has a significantly lower vapour pressure than, e.g., Sarin, it can penetrate rubber and plastics used in protective clothing, and so on. But these same drawbacks may be assets to a terrorist weapon, especially if it were to be deployed by an organization with a supply of willing martyrs, including educated willing martyrs with chemistry degrees to synthesize the stuff and maybe apply it to the washroom door handles in a dozen shopping malls.

And there is worse stuff out there, I'm sure of it. Stuff that fits the terrorist bill of requirements for a CBW agent much better than sarin and similar, and that nobody is keeping track of.

To circle back to my original point: in looking for known military CBW threats, police and intelligence agencies are looking under the lamp post. Luckily for us, the bad guys are also in the habit of looking under lamp posts -- in no small part because that's where we're searching. But our luck won't hold indefinitely. And if we don't figure out a better way of dealing with terrorist threats than panicking over the latest Hollywood movie plot, we're going to be in trouble.

[Discuss 9/11]

posted at: 21:12 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 09 Nov 2005

Copywrongs is currently running an article on the controversy surrounding Googles plans to index books on paper, as well as on the web. It's a deeply annoying article, because whoever wrote it seems unaware that the argument is being misrepresented by two of the three sides:

Google insists that its project is legal, as it would only offer snippets -- one or two sentences -- of copyrighted works that publishers had not given the company permission to scan. It also argues that its plan would boost, not reduce, book sales, and would be a boon to the book industry. But its quest to bring books to the Web now looks certain to spark a major courtroom battle,

I'm generally in favour of making books available on the net, both as a reader and as a writer. But it seems to me that The Authors Guild are absolutely right to bring a lawsuit against Google over this project -- because a critical aspect of the publishing world is being damaged by Google's ignorance.

Which is this:

Publishers do not generally own copyright over the books they publish -- authors own copyright, and license publishers to make certain uses of their work, with strings attached.

I can't emphasize this strongly enough; in talking about getting permission to index the books from publishers, Google is talking to the wrong people.

Let me give you a concrete example. I'm a relatively recently published author, and my book contracts all discuss electronic reproduction rights. However, none of my book contracts discuss the issue of the rights to index the book and publish the index for use by third parties. Arguably, this is a separate contractual right and one that is not implicitly granted to any publishers simply by their having obtained a license to publish the work in its entirety as an ebook.

But that's not all. I'm published in the USA and the UK (and in translation in a whole lot of other countries). The English language ebook rights to my novels are split, by territory; before I could release Accelerando as a free download I had to obtain permission from both my US publisher (Ace, an imprint of Penguin) and my UK publisher (Orbit, an imprint of Time Warner). Without the consent of one of these publishers, it would be illegal to make the ebook available in their territories (as enumerated at mind-numbing length in the book contract -- if you've never seen one of these, it's like the deed of sale for a house).

Moreover, the rights to publish an authors' books may well revert to the author if the publisher stops using them to make money. If, for example, a book goes out of print (that is, the publisher runs out of copies and decides not to reprint it), or if sales fall below a certain number, the author can notify the publisher that they are terminating the contract, at which point the publisher stops being allowed to publish the book and the author can take it to another publisher or publish it for themself.

By asking publishers to grant them a right that the publisher is not entitled to grant Google is laying itself open to lawsuits for copyright violation by authors. Google is also systematically undermining the rights of authors to exercise control over how their copyrighted works are published.

I, personally, think the Google print index is a great idea, and I'd really like it to succeed. However, it would be counter-productive to say the least were Google to contribute to the reduction of authors -- the folks who write the books -- to the status of producers of work for hire.

Andrew Burt, of the University of Denver Department of Computer Science, has suggested one possible way out of the impasse; the adoption of a standard called COCOA, the Copyright Owners' Control of Access standard. The idea is that a database can be established which will permit publishers to specify their default preferences for online republication services such as Google print, or Amazon's search inside, and which will also allow authors to issue overriding instructions for all, or some, of their works.

I think COCOA has considerable merit, although there are some technical shortcomings in the proposal that need to be addressed before implementation. For example, identification of copyrighted works can sometimes be difficult -- a book may be published in two or more countries with different ISBNs (they're granted on a per-publisher basis) and even with different titles. And COCOA needs to be able to handle access control sensibly in different countries. (For example, if a book is published in the UK and the USA, it makes no sense to forbid searching of the UK edition by users in the US, while permitting them to search the US edition -- and vice versa. Which is possible in the current draft of the scheme if the books are identified by different ISBNs.)

Unfortunately, while I believe something like this is needed, I'm not sure how likely it is to be adopted in practice. Firstly, the large multinationals who are capable of indexing libraries -- Google, Microsoft, Amazon and the like -- have a vested interest in each presenting themselves as being the most comprehensive indexing service; thus, there is commercial pressure to ignore COCOA and index everything. Secondly, the potential loss of earnings at stake in any single work is small enough to make lawsuits look financially unattractive. A class action lawsuit against any one of the corporations will take years to settle, generate acrimony and ill-will, and probably fail; the Authors Guild, with 8000 members (most of them not terribly well paid) is a poor match for Microsoft or Amazon in court.

Still, if you're involved in publishing or writing in any manner, I'd recommend you go and read the COCOA proposal and then, if you think it's a good idea, to sign the petition.

And whenever you hear someone say that it's between Google and the publishers, correct them: because the people who really stand to lose -- to lose the rights to their own work -- are the authors.

(As for me, I'm signing the petition -- and granting Google blanket permission to index my works and make them available to readers. Because, y'know, I'm happy for people to be able to find my work in the library; but it'd be nice if they asked for permission first.)

[Link (Salon)] [Link (Cocoa)] [Discuss copyright-censorship]

posted at: 17:41 | path: /copyright | 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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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
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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
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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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