May 2008 Archives

It's a bright and sunny day; I've got the office window open, the cats are dozing on the sofa, and in between fitful bursts of writing I'm daydreaming about heading for one of Edinburgh's many public gardens with a book and a bottle of water.

Speaking of books, I haven't been reading enough lately. On the fiction front, stuff is piling up; I was meaning to read and review Cory Doctorow's Little Brother some weeks ago, and I've just been given advance copies of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains and Bruce Sterling's The Caryatids to review. Or blurb. (Or drool over incontinently while muttering "precioussss" — as one does to advance copies of books by authors whose work induces much fannish squeeing.)

But enough of that. What I have been reading is mostly research around some of my current writing preoccupations. That'd involve dictators, and secret police, and other twisted epiphenomena of politics gone bad. On the secret police front, to try and get a feel for what living in a police state actually means to the ordinary people on the receiving end of it, I can solidly recommend Stasiland by Anna Funde. The creepy sense it conveys — of how our existence as social organisms is mediated by the society around us, and how people who in other societies might have been drawn to the professions of plausibility (insurance sales, real-estate, advertising) instead ended up forming the serious-minded backbone of the East German secret police, the Stasi — feeds directly into other explorations of how social architecture controls human behaviour. For a more theoretical exploration of this problem, Philip Zimbardo should require no introduction; his The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how Good People turn Evil is a timely and relevant reminder of the Stanford Prison study, and an explanation of just what it tells us about the effects of inhumane social systems on the behaviour of the inmates (be they prisoners or guards) — in this case, with specific reference to Abu Ghraib.

Drawing the focus in from the wide picture of abusive societies, I've also been reading up on dictators — actual individuals who wield unrestrained executive power. Dictators never cease to fascinate; Hannah Arendt's thesis about the banality of evil notwithstanding, something about these men frequently transcends our expectations of brutality and petty malice, rising to the level of surrealism. They're frequently uneducated, frequently thuggish, and mostly use their position in the military to seize power in chaotic circumstances with a large measure of blind luck on their side; once in power they find themselves propelled onto the world stage, blinking and twitching under the bright lights like rabid groundhogs. Subsequently, they usually give the shocked audience an object lesson of what happens when the ultimate lottery drops an enormous pay-off on the head of a complete asshole — but do they have any insight into their own condition? Riccardo Orizio, in Talk of the Devil, tracked down and interviewed seven deposed dictators, from Idi Amin Dada and Jean-Bedel Bokassa (former NCOs in the old imperial powers' armies, made good in the wake of the western withdrawal from Africa) to the schoolmasterly and severe General Wojciech Jaruzelski, a former general in a rather different imperial power's service (made good in the chaos of the 1980s that marked the onset of the collapse of the Soviet empire) and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.

I'm probably not giving anything away if I mention that they don't come over well — although I'd have a devil of a job parodying a real dictator of their ilk in fiction. (Many of the antics of Idi Amin, for example, would have been perfect for an episode of Heil Honey, I'm Home! ... albeit slightly too blood-drenched to show on British network TV before the 9pm watershed.)

Finally, if that's not enough to demonstrate that the triumph of the will is no guarantor of good taste, I'd like to recommend the high weirdness of Dictator's Homes: Lifestyles of the World's Most Colourful Despots by Peter York and Douglas Coupland. A lush, photographic travelogue accompanied by an acerbic style commentary, it's as much a tour through the subconscious desires and longings of these little men, gifted with too much power and too little restraint; much as your (or my) furnishings and surroundings can tell you a lot about us, so, too, do the palaces of dictators expose their fears and neuroses. (Which goes double for Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu's bathroom habits; readers with a weak stomach probably ought to skip that section.)

Summary: this stuff isn't just banal, it's deeply strange, with a salad portion of evil on the side. Implications for the student of the human condition: significant.

The direct cost to the US government of the war and occupation of Iraq — counting only funds appropriated by Congress — so far runs to roughly $523Bn.

However, that's the direct cost — money directly spent on the project. There are indirect costs, too: Joseph Stiglitz estimates the true cost of the war to be $3Tn to the United States, and $3Tn to the rest of the global economy. These are indirect costs, and factor in the long-term additional expenses that the war has accrued — everything from caring for brain-damaged soldiers for the next 50 years through to loss of economic productivity attributable to instabilities in the supply of oil from Iraq.

We can tap-dance around the indirect costs, but the direct costs (that headline figure of $523Bn) are inarguable.

So. What fun boondoggles could we have bought with either $523Bn (at the low end) or $6Tn (at the high end)?

NASA have plans for a manned Mars expedition based on the Ares spacecraft they're developing as a replacement for the Space Shuttle. Price estimates vary from $20Bn (presumably for a single round-trip) to $450Bn (presumably for a single round trip plus all the externalities, like developing the spacecraft and equipment and conducting a thorough prior reconnaissance using unmanned landers).

Either way, the direct costs of the Iraq war exceed the maximum cost estimate for a manned Mars expedition, infrastructure and all, by 20%. If we take $20Bn as the cost per mission and $450Bn as the cost to develop the technology to go there, the direct cost of the Iraq war would be sufficient to develop a gold-plated Mars expeditionary capability and send six crews of astronauts to Mars (and bring them back afterwards).

Going by Stiglitz's indirect estimates, the picture is even more ludicrous; for $3Tn, assuming a crew of four per expedition, $20Bn per flight, and a basic $450 start-up price, you could send 510 astronauts to Mars. That's not a Mars exploration program, that's a battalion! It's a small colony! Regular readers will be familiar with my opinion of plans to colonize Mars ... but if you throw enough money at a scheme you can probably get something out of it, even if it's only another Darien Scheme.

Or perhaps we could tackle global warming by building nuclear reactors. Westinghouse AP1000 PWRs cost roughly $2Bn a pop and have a net output of 1117Mw (1.12Gw). For $513Bn we could probably negotiate a bulk discount of, say, 20%, in which case we're good for 320 reactors, or about 375Gw of output. Our entire planetary civilization consumes about 16Tw, but the USA accounts for about 40% of that, so we could buy, outright, the equivalent of 6% of the US's energy budget. But this stuff pays for itself (it's producing electricity, a fungible commodity) and in actual fact, 50% of the USA's energy budget is coal, burned for juice. So we could cut 12% of the USA's coal-sourced carbon emissions, enabling the USA to not only meet but exceed the Kyoto protocol requirements using a single, fiendishly expensive gambit (and treating it not as capital investment but as expenditure).

For $6Tn we could buy a lot of juice — a quarter of our global civilization's energy budget would go carbon-neutral at a stroke. (Yes, we just solved our carbon dioxide emissions problem by switching to a nuclear economy.) This probably isn't the ideal way of dealing with our environmental problems, and it's a naive treatment of the costs (has anyone done a proper treatment of the economic implications of shifting the planet over to a nuclear economy, say to the same extent as France?) but it's thought-provoking.

Finally, there's all the other little stuff we could solve by pointing $513Bn at it, never mind $6000Bn. Eliminating childhood diseases in South-East Asia? Piffle — Bill and Melinda Gates are trying to do that out of their pocket lint. Build first-world grade housing in shiny new cities for 600 million Chinese peasants, nearly a tenth of the planetary population? Yes, this budget will cover that. What else?

Yes, I'm asking you: what would you do with the cost of the Iraq war (take your pick: $513Bn or $6000Bn) in your budget? Colonise Mars? Solve our carbon emission problem and fix global warming? House half a billion people? Or something else ...?

(And what isn't going to happen now, because we pissed it all away on the desert sands?)

The oil shock of 1973-74, when the price of oil soared more than threefold over eighteen months, has subsequently been attributed to the collapse of the Bretton-Woods agreement and the revaluation of the dollar (post-gold standard). Oil didn't necessarily cost more; the devalued dollar merely bought less.

In May 2008, oil hit $135 a barrel. To what extent was this due to scarcity (the "peak oil" theory) and to what extent was this due to a revaluation of the dollar? Discuss. For added marks, examine the possible reasons why the Federal Reserve stopped publishing the M3 money supply figures in March 2006 and its relevance to the situation two years later. Take into account the rise of the Euro as an alternative planetary reserve currency.

Reported in The Guardian today: Teenager faces prosecution for calling Scientology 'cult':

A teenager is facing prosecution for using the word "cult" to describe the Church of Scientology. The unnamed youth was served the summons by City of London police when he took part in a peaceful demonstration opposite the London headquarters of the controversial religion.
Officers confiscated a placard with the word "cult" on it from the youth, who is under 18, and a case file has been sent to the Crown Prosecution Service.
The teenager refused to back down, quoting a 1984 high court ruling from Mr Justice Latey, in which he described the Church of Scientology as a "cult" which was "corrupt, sinister and dangerous". After the exchange, a policewoman handed him a court summons and removed his sign.
The City of London police came under fire two years ago when it emerged that more than 20 officers, ranging from constable to chief superintendent, had accepted gifts worth thousands of pounds from the Church of Scientology. The City of London Chief Superintendent, Kevin Hurley, praised Scientology for "raising the spiritual wealth of society" during the opening of its headquarters in 2006. Last year a video praising Scientology emerged featuring Ken Stewart, another of the City of London's chief superintendents, although he is not a member of the group.
Right, that's it.

I don't care whether Scientology is a "cult" or a "religion", however you slice or dice those terms. Personally, I think the two are interchangeable; your respectable religion is that other guy's cult, and vice versa.

But I am now officially fed up with this public bending-over-backwards to be respectful and sincere towards superstitionists of every stripe, to the point that religion trumps freedom of speech, as this case demonstrates so clearly. And the religious still aren't satisfied — they're out for more. I see no distinction between Christianity, Islam, and Scientology, in this respect: if you give them an inch they'll try and take a mile, as witness the ambush vote on lowering the age limit for abortion that the god botherers have tacked onto the current embryology bill.

We need to kick the bishops out of the House of Lords, ban the Police and judiciary from taking donations from religious organizations, and get religion out of politics by any means necessary.

(Meanwhile, I'm going to take my blood pressure meds, add a pain killer on top for the headache, and go and lie down somewhere dark for a while ... you'd think I'd have learned better than to read the newspapers first thing in the morning by now!)

UPDATE: The Crown Prosecution Service has told the City of London Police that there's no case to answer; the Police force in question issued a public statement that included the following gem: "The CPS review of the case includes advice on what action or behaviour at a demonstration might be considered to be 'threatening, abusive or insulting'. The force's policing of future demonstrations will reflect this advice."

The Fermi Paradox probably doesn't need much introduction; first proposed by Enrico Fermi, it's one of the big puzzlers in astrobiology. We exist, therefore intelligent life in this universe is possible. The universe is big; even if life is rare, it's very unlikely that we're alone out here. So where is everybody? Why can't we hear their radio transmissions or see gross physical evidence of all the galactic empires out there?

If you aren't familiar with the Fermi Paradox, click that Wikipedia link above. Truly, it's a fascinating philosophical conundrum — and an important one: because it raises questions such as "how common are technological civilizations" and "how long do they survive", and that latter one strikes too close to home for comfort. (Hint: we live in a technological civilization, so its life expectancy is a matter that should be of pressing personal interest to us.)

Anyway, here are a couple of interesting papers on the subject, to whet your appetite for the 21st century rationalist version of those old-time mediaeval arguments about angels, pin-heads, and the fire limit for the dance hall built thereon:

First off the block is Nick Bostrom, with a paper in MIT Technology Review titled Where are they? in which he expounds Robin Hanson's idea of the Great Filter:

The evolutionary path to life-forms capable of space colonization leads through a "Great Filter," which can be thought of as a probability barrier. (I borrow this term from Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University.) The filter consists of one or more evolutionary transitions or steps that must be traversed at great odds in order for an Earth-like planet to produce a civilization capable of exploring distant solar systems. You start with billions and billions of potential germination points for life, and you end up with a sum total of zero extraterrestrial civilizations that we can observe. The Great Filter must therefore be sufficiently powerful--which is to say, passing the critical points must be sufficiently improbable--that even with many billions of rolls of the dice, one ends up with nothing: no aliens, no spacecraft, no signals. At least, none that we can detect in our neck of the woods.
The nature of the Great Filter is somewhat important. If it exists at all, there are two possibilities; it could lie in our past, or in our future. If it's in our past, if it's something like (for example) the evolution of multicellular life — that is, if unicellular organisms are ubiquitous but the leap to multicellularity is vanishingly rare — then we're past it, and it doesn't directly threaten us. But if the Great Filter lies between the development of language and tool using creatures and the development of interstellar communication technology, then conceivably we're charging head-first forwards a cliff: we're going to run into it, and then ... we won't be around to worry any more.

But the Great Filter argument isn't the only answer to the Fermi Paradox. More recently, Milan M. Ćirković has written a paper, Against the Empire, in which he criticizes the empire-state model of posthuman civilization that is implicit in many Fermi Paradox treatments. As he points out, for a civilization to be visible at interstellar distances it needs to be expanding and utilizing resources in certain ways. There is a widespread implicit belief among people who look at the topic (exemplified by the space cadets infesting the comments on this essay of mine) in manifest destiny, expansion to fill all possible evolutionary niches, and the inevitability of any species that develops the technology to explore deep space using that technology to colonize it. As Ćirković points out, this model is based on a naive extrapolation of historical human models which may be utterly inapplicable to posthuman or postbiological societies. Moreover, an alternative "successful" model for a posthuman civilization exists in the form of the stable but non-expansive "city-state". Ćirković explores the implications of non-empire advanced civilizations for the Fermi paradox and proposes that such localized civilizations would actually be very difficult to detect with the tools at our disposal, and may be much more likely than aggressively expansionist civilizations.

Finally, for some extra fun, here's John Smart pinning a singularitarian twist on the donkey's tail with his paper Answering the Fermi Paradox: Exploring the Mechanisms of Universal Transcension:

I propose that humanity's descendants will not be colonizing outer space. As a careful look at cosmic history demonstrates, complex systems rapidly transition to inner space, and apparently soon thereafter to universal transcension. For sixty years answers have been attempted for the Fermi paradox, yet the vast majority neglect what may be the most parsimonious explanation—a process of constrained universal transcension. I propose that any species or von Neumann probe complex enough to improve its intelligence while traveling through interstellar space would transcend shortly after beginning its journey, and less complex probes would not be sent for information theoretic reasons. The discrete universe that creates multi-local computational complexity rapidly becomes an "informational desert" (a well simulated past) to the leading edge of each local emergent intelligence.
The jury is still out on the whole singularitarian hypothesis, and especially on the more speculative stuff about our posthuman descendants bootstrapping themselves all the way into "'intelligent' cosmological developmental singularities, highly compressed structures, censored from universal observation, which are very likely distantly related to the quasars and black holes" (ibid.), but it's certainly one possible answer; as Seth Lloyd demonstrates in his Nature paper on The Ultimate Limits to Computation, when you approach maximum utilization of matter and energy for computation what you end up with begins to look startlingly like a black hole. If we follow the posthumans by assuming that truly advanced civilizations will use computational systems rather than unorganized matter, then it's down the rabbit hole that we're heading, which fits neatly with the city-state model that Ćirković explores. (Although no discussion on the subject would be complete without mentioning the dissidents; so let's just say, Rudy Rucker disagrees.)

Finally, for a fun long-range perspective, here's John Baez on the end of the universe, and to take it one step beyond, a brief run-down on the perplexing topic of Boltzmann brains, a topic which may itself have further implications for the Fermi Paradox.

Here is a random-ish URL from, a not too unusual online magazine:

This HTML page contains the first chunk of a piece of journalism by Patrick Smith; the actual body copy runs to approximately 950 words of text. The average word in English is 5.5 characters long; add 1 character for punctuation or whitespace and we would reasonably expect this file to be on the close order of 6.5Kb in size.

(Patrick, if you're reading this, I am not picking on you; I just decided to do some digging when I got annoyed by how long my browser was taking to load your words.)

In actual fact, the web page my browser was downloading turned out to be 68.4Kb in size. The bulk of the extra content consists of HTML tags and links. It's difficult to say how much cruft there is — much of it is Javascript, and I used a non-Javascript web browser for some of this analysis — but a naive dump of the content reveals 128 URLs.

So, we now have an order of magnitude bloat, courtesy of the content management system adding in links and other cruft. But that's just the text, and as we all know, no web page is complete without an animated GIF image. So how big is this article, really?

I stared at it for some time while it loaded over a 10mbps cable modem connection. Then I switched off my browser anti-advertising plugins (AbBlock and NoScript), hit "reload", and then saved the web page. Inline in the page are: 4 JPEG images, 4 Shockwave FLASH animations, 4 PNG images, 8 GIF images (of which no less than five are single-pixel web bugs), 4 HTML sub-documents, 6 CSS (style sheet) files, 22 separate Javascript files ... and a bunch of other crap.

The grand total of extras comes to 860Kb by dry weight, meaning that in order to read 950 words by Patrick Smith my cable modem had to pull in 948Kb, of which 942Kb was in no way related to the stuff I wanted to actually read.

With AdBlock and Noscript switched back on, the cruft dropped off considerably, but not completely — the core HTML file squished down to 52Kb (after a bunch of Javascript extensions failed to load) and the hairball of advertising cruft dropped from 62 to 41 included files, for a grand total of 372Kb of crap (from 840Kb). Finally, I updated my /etc/hosts file to include this blacklist of advertising sites, redirecting all requests for objects hosted on them into the bit bucket: the final download came to 40Kb of HTML in the main file and 208Kb of unwanted crap.

Let me put this in perspective:

This is a novel in HTML, with three small image files (totaling about 10Kb). "Accelerando" runs to 145,000 words; it fits in about 400 pages, typeset as a book, using very small print. It is 949Kb in size, or about 10Kb larger than a feature containing 950-odd words.

Here's another novel, available for download in HTML. "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" runs to 328Kb in HTML; it's about 180 pages in book form, and it's still 40Kb smaller than the hairball you get from after you switch AdBlock and NoScript on.

If content is king, why is there so little of it on the web? And why are content providers like Salon always whining about their huge bandwidth costs, given that 99% of what they ship — and that is an exact measurement, not hyperbole — is spam?

(Note: these are rhetorical questions. Despite the burning certainty that someone on the internet is wrong, you don't need to try and explain how the advertising industry works to me. Really and truly. I'm just taking my sense of indignation for a Sunday walk.)

It's a truism of the writing business that short stories are not like novels. There are any number of novelists who simply can't work effectively in the cramped space of a short story; and there are many writers for whom the short form is their natural métier and the wide vistas of a novel seem impossible to fill, an invitation to agoraphobia.

At first sight, this shouldn't seem very odd. We slice and dice fiction into categories based on length. You, if you're a reasonably fast reader, can probably scan 300-400 words per minute; a page in a typical mass market paperback contains roughly 300-400 words. So now let me define some categories ...

A piece of flash fiction is under 1000 words — a two minute read. Real short stories are typically defined as 1000-7500 words; an experience that lasts three to thirty minutes. Above that end we segue into the novelette, which at 7,500-20,000 words can take anything up to an hour to read. Beyond the novelette we have the novella, the shortest form which is substantial enough to be printed and bound as a slim book, and that runs from 20,000 to 40,000 words in length — an hour or two of distraction. Anything over 40,000 words is described as a novel, although the length of a typical novel is subject to fashion; in the 1950s a typical SF novel was 50-70,000 words (70,000 being at the longer end of the scale), but today a typical SF novel is in the 100-110,000 word category, with an expected reading time of 5-6 hours. (If you've ever wondered why you seem to read fewer books these days, this may be why: the books are longer!)

Various different ingredients go into a work of fiction, and we expect to find them all in a novel — details of characterisation and background, description of the environment, matters of plot and theme, subtle allusions and symbolic references, depth and colour.

But as we go down the length scale towards flash fiction, we find we have to leave out more and more aspects of general fiction, and focus on that which is important. A novella doesn't have room for the complexities of plot and subplot that would fill a novel — not without leaving out something else, and it is a curious fact of fiction that it's difficult to hold a reader's interest for more than a double handful of minutes without some focus on character development. Novellas are the serialised, literary equivalent of a two hour feature movie script: the classic movie script run to 100 pages, with perhaps 100 words of dialogue to the page, and this isn't a bad recipe for a novella — just add framing narrative to taste. (This is one reason, incidentally, why SF novels don't adapt easily to the cinema; it's been said that the only really workable version of David Lynch's Dune was the nine-hour unedited cut which, alas, has apparently been lost: the exigencies of a 150 minute cinema slot butchered the novel almost beyond recognition.)

By the time we narrow the focus down to a novelette, the pretensions at plot or development that go into a novella or novel simply won't fit; we've got room for a character sketch and an incident but no expansive context to anchor it. And the short story itself is even harsher, flensed of all extraneous verbiage: there's room for a single big idea or emotional resonance, and all else must be subordinated to it.

But what happens if we move in the opposite direction?

The novel is an ill-defined form because it conceals a multitude of different forms. It's to some extent a marketing category, defined by the idea of a book which contains a single story. But we know better. Sometimes big books get chopped into two or more segments for commercial reasons relating to printing and production costs or marketing. And sometimes a work of literature won't fit neatly into a single novel — the author has to keep coming back to re-examine the same matter from different angles, or is telling a story in multiple natural segments.

I've just finished the first draft of a segment in a much larger work, the Merchant Princes series. "The Revolution Business" is book #5 in a sequence, and while it's indisputably a novel, it functions much as a chapter does — it picks up threads established earlier in a story, spins them out an embroiders or otherwise develops them, brings them together to a local climax — and leaves them trailing off into the future. (One of my next jobs — after I hand this one in — is to begin work on the sixth book in the sequence, which will hopefully close off a huge hank of these threads for good, concluding a major story line.) It's got me thinking. What is this: a chapter, or a novel in its own right? I'm not entirely sure, or even certain the question makes sense; in a very real way, this multi-book series is self-similar, with sub-elements sharing the same fine structure as the greater whole.

(Or maybe the mega-novel simply isn't my optimum form. It certainly feels like a grind right now, with 527,000 words written and about 100,000-110,000 to go: that's an estimated reading time of 30 hours, give or take, at 350 words per minute, and a length of roughly 1900-2000 pages.)

One thing's sure: our willingness to absorb fiction is geared to our attention span. A book in a series might structurally serve as a mere chapter, but it has to deliver as significant a cognitive reward to the readers as any other 300 page book; otherwise they'll feel cheated, after putting 5 hours of their life into reading the thing, and they won't pick up the next volume. If writing a novel that runs to more than about 120,000 words, it behooves you to put in a climax (be it emotional or conceptual) every 60,000 words that gives the reader some sense that the work is progressing towards a final, haze-shrouded summit in the distance from which they will be able to look back and grasp the distance they have trekked across the landscape of your imagination. Otherwise they're going to spend the last 500 pages of your series screaming "get to the bloody point!" inside the privacy of their own head, then throw the book at the wall when the vast revelation promised over the preceding volumes turns out to be a minor footnote. (As, I regret to say, happened to me, when I finally slogged my way through
The Baroque Cycle.) Indeed, not doing that thing is going to be my obsession for the rest of the year, as I try to nail down "The Trade of Queens". Because? If your novel is six times as long as normal, it needs to deliver six times as loud a climax.

Am about 24-48 hours away from having a complete draft of the novel I'm working on. Which means I'll be surfacing again shortly (once it's with my test readers and I can take a breather before doing the final revision pass before I send it in to the editor who's tapping his fingers and waiting for it).

Update: First draft now done. Normal blogging will resume in due course.



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