March 2008 Archives

I'm going to be in Washington DC tomorrow, with jet-lag, not to mention my wife (also jet-lagged). In an attempt to stave off the jet-lag by staying awake until local time 10:30pm, we'll be drinking in The Brickskeller at 1523 22nd St NW from about 7pm onwards. If you're in Washington DC and good beer and extremely jet-lagged authors interest you, that's the place to be on Tuesday 1st.

(No, this is not an April Fool.)

Encore: I'll be in the Brickskeller again on Tuesday 8th, around 8pm. Oh, my aching liver ...

I am currently investigating 419 (advance fee) scams, with an eye to finding out just how large they can get.

Amaka Anajemba helped extract $242m from Brazilian bank Banco Noroeste, according to Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission; the initial trial collapsed when the judge in Abuja stated that he lacked jurisdiction, but they were subsequently tried in Lagos instead, and after various alarums and excursions (including attempts to bribe everyone in the courthouse) she and her associates were found guilty.

$242 million. That's the biggest 419 scam I've heard of. Anyone got anything larger to point me at? Ideally in the billion-plus range?

(NB: More on advance fee fraud here and, enlighteningly, here.)

Must remember (for 2010, the next time the Eastercon is due to be held in that particular hotel) that driving from Edinburgh to Heathrow and back again — even with two relief drivers — is nuts. Especially if one is cramming four consecutive fourteen hour work-days in between the 430 mile motorway runs.

Orbital was great; it was also the biggest British easter SF convention ever. Much as Neil Gaiman observed, I have a feeling that there was a really excellent SF convention going on in the hotel I happened to be staying in; I was just too damned busy to enjoy it. (Well, next year the eastercon is going to be held in Bradford, a city with which I am not unacquainted, and I'm really looking forward to not going to be one of the guests of honour!)

I'm off to Dublin on Friday; will write more when I recover from the past weekend. Meanwhile, in lieu of editorializing, here's an article on futurology masquerading as SF from the New York Times, and here's the latest review of Halting State (from the Sydney Morning Herald).

I'd like to congratulate everyone on the shortlist for the 2008 Hugo awards — including myself. (Off to die of a surfeit of smugness now.)

NB: blog postings will be sparse this weekend; I'm at Orbital 2008, the British eastercon, where (as you can imagine) a number of last-minute panels and talks about Sir Arthur C. Clarke are hastily being arranged.

According to Associated Press, Arthur C. Clarke has died. He celebrated his 90th birthday not so long ago; I'd have to characterise him as one of the writers who stimulated by interest in SF, and who I really wanted to meet and thank one day.


Take two news items about the same subject:

Firstly: MI5 want to data mine the Transport for London Oyster card database: "The Observer said this weekend that the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has confirmed that the clandestine services have requested full Oyster access, and would target other cities' smartcard travel schemes as they come online. At present they can request details of an Oyster user's transactions - and hence, time-slugged locations - on an individual basis only, rather than having free rein to search the system as they please. This could include mining the entire database to look for suspicious patterns, and tracking named individuals."

Secondly: Wireless subway cards cracked: "Karsten Nohl, a computer science researcher at the University of Virginia, claims to have broken the encryption used by the RFID (radio frequency identification) chip found in the Charlie Card on the Boston T subway system and in the Oyster Card on the London Underground." This should be no surprise — Bruce Schneier flagged it as highly likely a couple of months ago; more here from Ed Felten.

Here are two possible consequences:

Hypothesis (a): the card infrastructure for a major metropolis or small country can't easily be replaced. The Dutch government spent $2Bn on OV-chipkaart, which for a nation of 20 million people is $BIGNUM. If you're American, it's equivalent to your government dropping thirty big ones on something. You'd probably notice it if they said "oops, it's broken". There is huge institutional resistance to scrapping and replacing a system like this, and upgrading it in situ is going to be very difficult. The UK did it a couple of years ago when APACS members ripped out and completely replaced the credit/debit card payment infrastructure with Chip and Pin, but they only did so because ATM fraud inside a bank nearly brought down the entire high street banking system. There will be huge institutional pressure inside TfL and the Dutch transport authorities to play ostrich, stick their collective heads in the sand, and deny that there is a skeleton in their security closet until a conga line of dancing skeletons holds a Pride march through Trafalgar Square — because organizations like that find it difficult to deal with the consequences of institutional failure.

Hypothesis (b): the security services will get what they want (at least until the next general election) because our current government largely consists of scientifically illiterate managerialists who believe that all problems can be solved by a technical fix (and who have consequently attracted a swarm of lobbyists and technology vendors who have a strong incentive to reinforce to this peculiar belief because, to paraphrase Sid Vicious, "terrorism means money"). Therefore the Grand Oyster Database Trawl will happen.

Now. If you were a pissed-off anti-authoritarian prankster — and you knew the Thought Police would be looking for suspicious patterns of travel in a database, and if the data going into the database was amenable to hacking (if, for example, you could run off fake Oyster cards in the name of, say, Sir Ian Blair), wouldn't it be fun to see if you could make the Security Elephant dance? Mark Thomas fans, I'm looking at you.

Alternatively, if you were a really smart terrorist* you'd never use the same (fake) Oyster card twice.

Anyway, I think I maybe obscured my point in all that, so let me highlight it: institutional measures aimed at tracking people are prone to being hijacked by proponents of the universal security agenda, but at the same time, if there are any hidden flaws in their design, it's ridiculously hard to fix once the system goes live, so the security nazis end up drinking from a well of poisoned data. Welcome to the future, welcome to Brazil. (And, hey, didn't I write a novel about this?)

*( Luckily the current generation of terrorists don't seem to be terribly smart; in fact they're mostly good for keeping the police and security services in donut money and toys, generating tabloid headlines, and setting themselves on fire. Where are the Provisional IRA when you need them? We had a better class of terrorist in the old days, you mark my words ...)

Next Friday through Monday, I'm going to be one of the guests of honour at the 2008 British Eastercon, Orbital '08, at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow. (That's just inside the M25, London's orbital motorway, hence the name — I assume.) If you're planning on going there, you can find the program grid here (warning: PDF); I'm on too many panels and other items to itemize here. (By Tuesday I am going to be fried.)

The following weekend (March 29th-30th) I'm going to be one of the guests at P-Con IV in Dublin. (No, I'm not a guest of honour this time; the job goes to Catie "C. E." Murphy. As I said, I'm going to be fried; doing two GoH appearances on successive weekends is a really bad idea, even if you're a shameless publicity whore like me. On the other hand, I'm pleased to have been asked to be GoH at Mecon 11 in Belfast this August. It's nearly three whole weeks after the worldcon in Denver and I hope to be over the jet lag by then ...)

Finally, in the first week of April I'm going to be on a research trip and seeing folks around Washington DC. No scheduled signings or SF conventions, but I plan to spend a while here and here among other things.

Yes, I will try to blog from time to time. Yes, I intend to obey Rule #1 during this spasm of travel to three different countries in as many weeks (Rule #1 is "Don't Die"). Yes, I'm planning on getting the book finished on time. (78,000 words written, 22,000 words to go ...)

I was going to say something substantive today, but 48 hours ago my editor emailed me the galley proof of SATURN'S CHILDREN. Emailed? Yes: it's a PDF, this time around, and in recognition of the fact that they've dragged their company kicking and screaming into the 1990s, they've helpfully shaved two weeks off the time allocated for the author (that's me) to grovel over the 330-odd pages in search of the typos they've helpfully concealed in it.

At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it (in more senses than one).

The great folks at Subterranean Press have put together a spoken-word version of my novelette Trunk and Disorderly (originally published in Asimov's SF Magazine last January). Follow this link if you like listening to your Wodehouseian SF ....

"I want you to know, darling, that I'm leaving you for another sex robot — and she's twice the man you'll ever be," Laura explained as she flounced over to the front door, wafting an alluring aroma of mineral oil behind her.

Our arguments always began like that: this one was following the script perfectly. I followed her into the hall, unsure precisely what cue I'd missed this time. "Laura --"

She stopped abruptly, a faint whine coming from her ornately sculpted left knee. "I'm leaving," she told me, deliberately pitching her voice in a modish mechanical monotone. "You can't stop me. You're not paying my maintenance. I'm a free woman, and I don't have to put up with your moods!"

The recent death of Gary Gygax, who together with Dave Arneson invented Dungeons and Dragons, coincides with a most interesting period in the American Presidential primary season, as three hopeful monsters slouch towards an appointment with the polls in October or November or sometime around then. (You can tell how much attention I pay to US politics.) Anyway, in an attempt to correct my woeful ignorance of the state of play, I decided to turn to AD&D as the analysis tool du jour, and consulted my battered copy of the Monster Manual in hope of shedding some light on the crypt. After all, as Douglas Adams remarked, the whole point of voting for flesh-eating lizards in any election is that if you don't vote, the wrong lizard might get in. (Never mind the fact that, as one of those furrin people, I don't get a vote.)

Here's what my Monster Manual had to say on the matter: (NB: it's a 1st edition AD&D Monster Manual; I never could get the hang of those new-fangled 2nd edition rules.)

John McCain (Demon Prince of Republicans.) (Lesser God.)

FREQUENCY: Very rare
MOVE: 3" (72" per flight sector on the campaign jet)
HIT DICE: 200 hit points (But first you have to defeat 4d8 Secret Service Agents)
% IN LAIR: 0%
TREASURE TYPE: All your NATO base are belong to us!
DAMAGE/ATTACK: Invades Iran. Takes 100d20 casualties in first strike while inflicting 20 x 100d20 civilian casualties. Followed by war of attrition, economic collapse, recrimination.
SPECIAL ATTACKS: 5% chance of 30,000 Megaton nuclear first strike on Upper Volta.
SPECIAL DEFENSES: +3 or better weapon to hit. In event of combat, 20% chance of heart attack per round, followed by the swearing in of President Santorum. You wouldn't want that, would you?)
MAGIC RESISTANCE: 80% (10% vs. mind control spells by Cheney.)
CHARISMA: 12 (16 to neocons)
ALIGNMENT: Chaotic evil if under control of Cheney; otherwise Chaotic neutral.
LEVEL/X.P. VALUE: X/29,950* (* for impeachment)

A huge, ancient, carnivorous dinosaur from the swamps at the heart of Republican country, not unlike Godzilla in appearance and wrinkled integument, McCain has seen better years. Nevertheless he can breathe fire and threaten to stomp flat the capital city of any country that Fox News disapproves of with the best of them.

The biggest danger in facing off against a McCain is that he might be under the mind control of the Svengali-like Cheney, Prince of Darkness. In this case, he is likely to be lethally aggressive and even more unpredictable than usual.

Hilary Clinton (Demon Queen of Pork Belly Futures.) (Lesser Goddess.)

FREQUENCY: Very rare
ARMOUR CLASS: -7 (But -4 if encountered in the same campaign as a Bill Clinton)
MOVE: 3" (72" per flight sector on the campaign jet)
HIT DICE: 200 hit points (But first you have to defeat 4d8 Secret Service Agents)
% IN LAIR: 0%
TREASURE TYPE: The future is ... Pork!
DAMAGE/ATTACK: captures 2-16 superdelegates; 20% chance to cast Slime per round
SPECIAL ATTACKS: If sustaining damage, 33% chance per round of invoking Bill Clinton to fight alongside her. See also Big Dog.)
SPECIAL DEFENSES: +4 Fundraising, Regeneration, +3 or better weapon to hit.
CHARISMA: 17 (Democrats)/ -1 (Republicans)
ALIGNMENT: Lawful Neutral (Will steal anything that's not nailed down, especially if she can construe it as lawful appropriation. Depending on the meaning of the word "it".)
SIZE: 14
LEVEL/X.P. VALUE: X/12,250* (* for impeachment)

As with all Clintons, Hillary exudes negative charisma towards Republicans. Otherwise, she's a classic machine reptile.

Barack Obama (Demon Prince of Upsetting Applecarts.) (Lesser God.)

FREQUENCY: Very rare
MOVE: 3" (72" per flight sector on the campaign jet)
HIT DICE: 200 hit points (But first you have to defeat 4d8 Secret Service Agents — unless attacking in Texas, Florida, or other Republican-held states)
% IN LAIR: 0%
TREASURE TYPE: Budget Deficit: -500,000 million G.P. plus compound interest
NO. OF ATTACKS: 0 (He runs a clean campaign).
DAMAGE/ATTACK: Makes his opponents look foolish: -1 Charisma per round engaged in combat polite debate.
SPECIAL ATTACKS: Casts Mass Charm 1 per round engaged in combat polite debate.
SPECIAL DEFENSES: +5 Fundraising, Regeneration, +3 or better weapon to hit.
CHARISMA: 18(100) (Democrats) / 12 (Republicans)
ALIGNMENT: Law Professor
LEVEL/X.P. VALUE: X/89,950* (* for impeachment)

Handsome, intelligent, charismatic, and he manages to sound absolutely wonderful ... but how do you know what else is lurking under that sleek exterior? The Obama's main advantage in combat is that he makes everyone else in the melee look absurdly aggressive or foolishly short-sighted, sapping their Charisma. Probably the lesser evil, so once you elect him you'll have the luxury of knowing you've been eaten by the right lizard god.

A combination of: not much to say, being busy working on "The Revolution Business" (book #5 of the Merchant Princes, the first draft of which is now two-thirds complete), and having lost the first half of the week to an overnight trip to see Siouxsie on tour in Glasgow. (Yes, it was a good gig. Yes, she can still sing. Yes, she can still bounce around the stage like a teenager. (But she needs a cordless mike, and she needs it before she rips the shit out of any more harmless cables that were minding their own business until she attacked them with a microphone stand. Ah, the old school punks never move on ...)

In other news, earlier this week the unelected legislator of our virtual worlds died. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the design of our embryonic next-generation virtual reality networks owe a lot more to Dungeons and Dragons than it does to anything serious researchers came up with, and the requirement for running a really cool dungeon crawl is right up there in lights above the need to support more conventional business-centric services. Gary Gygax, we salute you! And the final word goes to xkcd.

Attention: if, by some chance, you surf the web from an institution which has such a hair up its ass that it has wildcard-blocked all URLs containing the character string "blog" (hint: USAF Cyber Command, I'm talking about you), you can still read this particular blog bog. Just point your browser at my bog instead of my blog. That's:

Got that?

As you were.

(In other news: thousands of America-hating hackers terrorists all around the world hastily insert "blog" into their domain names, to avoid the unwanted attention of the USAF Cyber Command tasked with tackling threats to national security on the high stoned cyber frontier. Blog: it's the new Stealth!)

Trying to second-guess the near future is increasingly impossible, and a recent article in The Economist raised an interesting possible explanation in my mind. In discussing the uptake of technologies in developing countries, they mentioned a World Bank study. To quote:

The World Bank looked at how much time elapsed between the invention of something and its widespread adoption (defined as when 80% of countries that use a technology first report it; see chart). For 19th-century technologies the gap was long: 120 years for trains and open-hearth steel furnaces, 100 years for the telephone. For aviation and radio, invented in the early 20th century, the lag was 60 years. But for the PC and CAT scans the gap was around 20 years and for mobile phones just 16. In most countries, most technologies are available in some degree.

But the degree varies widely. In almost all industrialised countries, once a technology is adopted it goes on to achieve mass-market scale, reaching 25% of the market for that particular device. Usually it hits 50%. In the World Bank's (admittedly incomplete) database, there are 28 examples of a new technology reaching 5% of the market in a rich country; of those, 23 went on to achieve over 50%. In other words, if something gets a foothold in a rich country, it usually spreads widely.

This is, as they say a very interesting graph, outwith the context of technology uptake in developing countries. Here, in a nutshell, is why writing near-future SF has become so difficult. Say you want to set a story 30 years out, and as part of your world-building exercise you want to work out what technologies will be in widespread use by the time of the story. Back in 1900 to 1950 you could do so with a fair degree of accuracy; pick a couple of embryonic technologies and assume they'll be widespread (automobiles, aircraft, television): maybe throw in a couple of wildcards for good measure (wrist-watch telephones), and you're there. But today, that 30-year window is inaccessible. Even a 15-year horizon is pushing it. Something new could come along tomorrow and overrun the entire developed world before 2023.

Speed up this uptake curve a little bit by pushing it 20 years out, and you begin to see the outline of an onrushing singularity ... from the pages of The Economist.

(This post was prompted by the discovery that what I thought was a new and imaginative candidate for a not-here-today everywhere-by-2023 technology to stick in my next SF novel is, in fact, already here in concept form and will doubtless be around by 2013 and as unremarkable as wallpaper by 2023 ...)


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