September 2008 Archives

In Canada, as Cory Doctorow observes, the International Olympic Committee "has trademarked a line from the Canadian national anthem, "with glowing hearts," and is threatening to sue anyone who uses the line in Canada, as part of the Vancouver Games."

Lest you think that's just a bizarre one-off, here in the UK "The Olympics Act of 2006 bans the use of terms such as 2012, games, gold, silver and bronze in combination except by those who are official sponsors of the Olympic Games and allows the Games' authorities to control advertising around the venues used in the Games."

(That puts any jewelers who want to advertise the fact that they buy or sell gold and silver in breach of the law, doesn't it? Unless they pay protection money to the sports mafia.)

As Cory points out, "The Olympics cloak themselves in the rhetoric of international cooperation and development, but everything they touch turns to garbage: totalitarian surveillance camps where corporate greed rules all."

The London Olympics budget includes £1.5Bn for security and anti-terrorism (at an event originally intended, a century ago, to be a symbol of peace and goodwill to all humanity).

Meanwhile, the overall Olympic budget for 2012 is due to go over £10Bn (go on; that's US $18.5Bn — enough to rescue a medium-sized bank), a mere £168 for every human being in the UK, or about £500 per household. Excuse me, but speaking as a householder I didn't sign up for this exclusionary, discriminatory, offensive pig in a poke.

I am, in principle, in favour of exercise and sport and so on and so forth. But the idea that I'm being forced to cough up the thick end of £500 to subsidize the sport lobby's pet obsession and to subject myself to draconian anti-terrorist policing measures for the duration, while having my freedom of speech crapped on by a bunch of usurious "intellectual property" rent-seekers makes me want to spit. If the government seriously wants to encourage exercise and sport in the UK they'd do far better to spend the money giving everyone free municipal swimming and gym access for a couple of years instead of providing a junket for the elite — and it'd be cheaper!

Cancel the 2012 Olympic Games — cancel them now, before it's too late.

We are living in interesting times; in fact, they're so interesting that it is not currently possible to write near-future SF.

I don't believe this is an over-generalization. It takes time — weeks at a minimum, more usually months — for even a short story to work its way from your desktop to a magazine or a website. Novels are far worse, for book publishers run a production cycle that expects a novel to take roughly a year from acceptance to publication; if you then front-load it with the time it took the author to write the thing in the first place, and yet more time for their agent to haggle over the initial book proposal with their editor, it can take three years for a writer's idea to find its way onto the bookshelves.

Pity the authors responsible for the rash of cold war novels that came out in 1990-91 — novels in which a strong USSR typically reasserted its rivalry with a weak and fractured west by invading through the Fulda gap/building a Dr Evil grade super-weapon/hijacking a space shuttle/otherwise engaging in ideological chest-beating of a kind that had become forever impossible months before these obsolete futures landed on the bookstore shelves.

It wasn't their fault; these books had been commissioned years earlier, in the 1980s, in the backwash of late period Reaganism, the Evil Empire, and the futurist fantasies of Star Wars and ballistic missile defense (which I will note still haven't delivered much more than the ability to plink at short-range theatre missiles like the long-obsolescent Scud-B). None of them were paying attention to the real picture. As Yegor Gaidar explains it, the collapse of the USSR was down to a series of catastrophic grain harvests and the decision by Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani to open the stop-cocks on the Saudi oil wells. Hamstrung by heavy military spending and unrealistic foreign policy commitments, the USSR needed foreign exchange in order to buy grain and food to feed its people: it had become overly reliant on oil and gas exports, the "Spanish curse" of being resource-rich but poor in the means of production and over-extended abroad. The system badly needed reform, but as Gaidar put it:

Unable to realize any of the above solutions, the Soviet leadership decided to adopt a policy of effectively disregarding the problem in hopes that it would somehow wither away. Instead of implementing actual reforms, the Soviet Union started to borrow money from abroad while its international credit rating was still strong. It borrowed heavily from 1985 to 1988, but in 1989 the Soviet economy stalled completely.
Does this remind you of anyone? (If not: substitute "American" for "Soviet" and move the goal posts forward a decade or two ...)

The US government is currently hemorrhaging over 600Bn a year on military and security spending, against a domestic budget around the $350Bn mark. It's uniquely credit-worthy because of the dollar's status as a de facto planetary reserve currency, and because when you get down to it, the USA is still one of the most productive nations, with around 25-30% of planetary GDP and only 5% of planetary population.

But the US government has been spending money faster than its economy could earn it, while the hollowing-out of its financial infrastructure continued, and we're now seeing the biggest financial crisis since 1929. Even in August, about 9% of all mortgages in the USA were in arrears or in default, and that's before the latest round of ARM resets. It's the collapse of a gigantic credit bubble, and it's hard to see where the US government is going to turn for the money it needs to keep those overseas military commitments going.

As John Gray put it in The Guardian

Outside the US, most people have long accepted that the development of new economies that goes with globalisation will undermine America's central position in the world. They imagined that this would be a change in America's comparative standing, taking place incrementally over several decades or generations. Today, that looks an increasingly unrealistic assumption.
I suspect he's been reading Kennedy too (The Rise and Fall of the Great PowersWikiPedia digest, for the impatient). Normally empires decline slowly; it took nearly half a century for the British empire to descend from planetary hegemony to the edge of bankruptcy in 1945, for example. The USSR took a decade from the first serious worries about its balance of trade to the final abortive Putsch and Gorbachev's resignation. But the US Empire has developed a uniquely unstable financial system over the past two or three decades, and we may be witnessing a catastrophic collapse. (I hope not; this sort of event is deeply uncomfortable and unpleasant to live through, even when it doesn't coincide with major environmental crises, a power vacuum, and a disciplined cadre of apocalypse-obsessed religious fanatics waiting in the wings to seize power if they can.)

But anyway: that's a depressing prospect to contemplate (not least because, as an SF writer, I earn more than 50% of my income in US dollars: I really don't want to see a dollar collapse!). So let me retreat hastily back to the praxis of Science Fiction.

In 2005-06, I wrote a novel titled "Halting State". It's set circa 2017-18, in a future independent Scotland, and I knew going into the project that it would look horribly quaint only five or six years after publication. I'm no longer sure about the independent Scotland (paradoxically, largely because of the way the Scottish National Party — currently the Scottish government — is running things), but I'm having a quiet gloat over the reviewers who marked the book down for having the temerity to suggest that in 2017-18, the United States wouldn't be the sole planetary hegemonic power, but would be having major headaches rebuilding itself after an economic/infrastructure crisis. However, next year I'm supposed to write something approximating a sequel to "Halting State", set circa 2022-23, and right now I'm just glad that I don't have to start writing for another six months.

Put yourself in the shoes of an SF author trying to construct an accurate (or at least believable) scenario for the USA in 2019. Imagine you are constructing your future-USA in 2006, then again in 2007, and finally now, with talk of $700Bn bailouts and nationalization of banks in the background. Each of those projections is going to come out looking different. Back in 2006 the sub-prime crisis wasn't even on the horizon but the big scandal was FEMA's response (or lack thereof) to Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, the sub-prime ARM bubble began to burst and the markets were beginning to turn bearish. (Oh, and it looked as if the 2008 presidential election would probably be down to a fight between Hilary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.) Now, in late 2008 the fiscal sky is falling; things may not end as badly as they did for the USSR, but it's definitely an epochal, historic crisis.

Now extend the thought-experiment back to 1996 and 1986. Your future-USA in the 1986 scenario almost certainly faced a strong USSR in 2019, because the idea that a 70 year old Adversary could fall apart in a matter of months, like a paper tiger left out in a rain storm, simply boggles the mind. It's preposterous; it doesn't fit with our outlook on the way history works. (And besides, we SF writers are lazy and we find it convenient to rely on clichés — for example, good guys in white hats facing off against bad guys in black hats. Which is silly — in their own head, nobody is a bad guy — but it makes life easy for lazy writers.) The future-USA you dreamed up in 1996 probably had the internet (it had been around in 1986, in embryonic form, the stomping ground of academics and computer industry specialists, but few SF writers had even heard of it, much less used it) and no cold war; it would in many ways be more accurate than the future-USA predicted in 1986. But would it have a monumental fiscal collapse, on the same scale as 1929? Would it have Taikonauts space-walking overhead while the chairman of the Federal Reserve is on his knees? Would it have more mobile phones than people, a revenant remilitarized Russia, and global warming?

There's a graph I'd love to plot, but I don't have the tools for. The X-axis would plot years since, say, 1950. The Y-axis would be a scatter plot with error bars showing the deviation from observed outcomes of a series of rolling ten-year projections modeling the near future. Think of it as a meta-analysis of the accuracy of projections spanning a fixed period, to determine whether the future is becoming easier or harder to get right. I'm pretty sure that the error bars grow over time, so that the closer to our present you get, the wider the deviation from the projected future would be. Right now the error bars are gigantic. I am currently guardedly optimistic that the USA will still exist as a political entity in 2023, and that the EU (possibly under a different name; certainly with a different political infrastructure) will do so as well. But in planning the background for that novel set in 2023, I can't rely on the simple assumption that the USA and the EU still exist. We're living through interesting times; I just hope (purely selfishly, wearing my SF author cap, you understand) the earthquake is over bar the aftershocks by next March, or I'm going to have to go back to my editor and suggest she markets the new novel as fantasy.

Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov

On 26th September, 1983, at the nadir of the Cold War, this man — Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov — made a judgement call that saved my life. (I was then living five miles from the Vickers Tank Factory in Leeds and about ten miles from the M1/M62 intersection — both major strategic targets.) If you're over 25 years old and live in the UK, he saved your life, too. If you're over 25 years old and lived in the USA, there's about a 70% probability that he saved you. And so on. Iterate for everyone in every NATO and Warsaw Pact country, all 750 million of us.

He lost his job for it, and suffered a nervous breakdown. He doesn't consider himself to be a hero. Nevertheless, he bent the regulations and risked punishment to prevent a disaster from overwhelming us all.

I'm going to raise a glass to him tonight. How about you?

Straws in the wind: the US army's 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division will for 12 months be assigned to US Army North in the continental United States — "The 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team has spent 35 of the last 60 months in Iraq patrolling in full battle rattle, helping restore essential services and escorting supply convoys. Now they’re training for the same mission — with a twist — at home." (Army Times)

Excuse me, but haven't they heard of the Posse Comitatus Act? Evidently not.

In other not-news, oh-no, that-couldn't-be-true, here's Teresa Nielsen Hayden discussing John McCain's life expectancy and Naomi Wolf explaining what it all means (in case you didn't read Teresa's piece past the bit where she starts explaining why Sarah Palin would be a Very Bad Thing Indeed for America).

Putting the jigsaw pieces together, you get a remarkably ugly picture:

* Old guy with 1-3 years to live
* Charismatic Evita Peron figure fronting for Karl Rove and the old gang, ready to step into his boots
* Battle-hardened infantry units (recruited from politically conservative areas, natch) being moved into position in the homeland
* Opposition members being harassed, bugged, arrested, beaten — before the junta steps in
* A gathering fiscal crisis which will leave a lot of very angry people looking for scapegoats to blame

I really hope I'm putting these pieces together in the wrong order and it all falls apart on November 5th. But I'm not betting that way.

As James Bovard pointed out in The American Conservative:

The Defense Authorization Act of 2006, passed on Sept. 30, empowers President George W. Bush to impose martial law in the event of a terrorist "incident," if he or other federal officials perceive a shortfall of "public order," or even in response to antiwar protests that get unruly as a result of government provocations. . . .

What's wrong with this sentence: "give me $700Bn with no oversight and I'll keep your banking system from going down the tubes by buying up the bundles of sub-prime mortgages and other investments they're elbow deep in"?

(That's basically what Henry Paulson, George W. Bush's Treasury Secretary, is saying.)

Here's what's wrong: throwing money at banks will, at best, save the bankers' jobs — the folks who got their institutions into this mess in the first place by neglecting the first principle of their job, which is this: banking is the art and science of risk management. (You have a pot of money. You want to use it to get more money. Do you lend it to person A, who you figure has a 25% chance of defaulting on the loan but is willing to pay you 1% per month in interest, or person B, who has a 1% chance of defaulting but can only pay you 0.5% per month? If you picked person B, congratulations: you're a good banker. If you picked A, you'd better hope there's a government hand-out in your future.)

But the obsession with the middle men tends to blind us to what's actually going on.

Somewhere around 5% of mortgages in the USA are currently in default. Securitization didn't solve the problem — if anything, it spread it around among financial institutions who weren't aware (although they should have been) that the long-term investment bonds they were buying were backed by toxic sludge.

But this isn't just about banks. Bailing out banks will save the financial infrastructure, but won't do anything about the 10-30 million people who were living in those properties that aren't affordable or viable any more. Flushing up to 10% of the US population down the homeless toilet is the real screw-up, and of course the Bush administration isn't interested in dealing with it. (They're poor, and a disproportionate number of the sub-prime mortgage holders are black, and — want me to continue?) The Bush administration is fairly transparent in its devotion to principle: it's run by rich folks for rich folks, and that's an end to it.

Never mind bailing out the banks: what needs bailing out is the human beings behind the collateralized debt obligations. The money would be better spent keeping roofs over their heads (and servicing those currently-non-viable mortgages, which action would, incidentally, keep the banks liquid).

In my more cynical moments I look at the demands for money emanating from the White House and what I see is the Mafia hoods running up the lines of credit on a business they've taken over before they complete the bustout. Eight years of asset-stripping and looting, and finally the coup de grace: $700Bn in no-questions-asked, no-oversight slush money.

Best of all? Fratto insisted that the plan was not slapped together and had been drawn up as a contingency over previous months and weeks by administration officials. He acknowledged lawmakers were getting only days to peruse it, but he said this should be enough.

Draw your own conclusions.

New metal under the hood. Normal service is therefore being resumed ...

The time has come to move servers.

(This one is so ancient it's trying to figure out who to vote for.)

Some time in the next 24-48 hours I will switch off comments globally on this blog, so that we can mirror the database over onto the new machine. The blog will still be visible — just read-only for a few days.

I'm currently running on an old version of Movable Type. One of the benefits of the move is a chance to do some spring cleaning, and in due course I will be upgrading to a much newer MT installation (and merging the other MT installation hosted on the old server, so we've only got one piece of blogging software to maintain).

When it's all up and running again, comment posting will be re-enabled. (And it had better be sorted before October 5th, because that's when the old server goes away.)

(Our email set-up at will also be interrupted; nothing will be lost, but mail delivery may take a bit longer than usual while the DNS records are changed.)

We now return you to your regular but soon-to-be-interrupted discussion ...

... The right Palin, that is.

Is it reasonable to believe that the past week's instability in the financial markets — Lehman Brothers being sold for the value of their data centers plus 10%, AIG being bailed out (thus saving the US airline industry), the shockwaves taking down one of the UK's biggest banks and panicking the government into bending the rules to permit an otherwise-illegal merger, the Russian stock exchange closing to avoid cratering, and the $455Tn global derivatives market teetering on the edge — was anticipated, but happened too early?

Charlie's dark suspicion: it was expected to arrive in January; a nice welcome mat for the new proprietors, courtesy of the outgoing bustout crew.

I'm being quiet right now because I'm writing The Wrong Book. Hopefully this will not take too long and I'll be able to get back to writing The Right Book in time to make the deadline ...

Why is it that, having pretty much nailed down one project, the next thing I really want to work on is the next-but-two novel (rather than the one that's next in the publisher's schedule)?

I've pretty much finished work on "Wireless", the new short story collection that's coming out next August. All that remains for me to do is to fix the introduction (which currently feels a bit flat). Next in the work queue is "The Trade of Queens", the sixth Merchant Princes novel (and thefinal one in the current series, although there's scope for me to write a second series, picking up events ten years down the line). After that, I'm supposed to write "419", the sequel to "Halting State"; "The Fuller Memorandum" isn't due on my editor's desk until 2010. So how come that's the one I keep accidentally opening and adding bits to?

Damn it, some people are never satisfied!

In other news: I am trying desperately hard not to dive into the murky waters of US politics in this blog: not so much a case of putting lipstick on a pig, as one of trying to teach the pig calculus — all expressing my opinions would achieve would be to get all parties concerned covered in mud (and to annoy the pig). Nevertheless, a plea for those of you who get to vote in that election? Try and remember that it's not just the USA that gets to live with your choice of president (and, possibly, vice-president) for the next 4 or 8 years.

Finally, tomorrow is the RAF Leuchars annual air show, this time commemorating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Air Force. I shall be there, with sunblock and camera (and a waterproof, just in case). Hopefully, Vulcan XH558 will be there, too . Mmm, jet fumes!

We. Are. Not. Going. To. Die. On. Wednesday.

The maximum energy the particles generated by the LHC (7TeV) get up to is many orders of magnitude below the maximum energy of cosmic rays that hit the Earth's upper atmosphere from space every fricking day. None of them have created black holes and gobbled up the planet, or turned us all into strange matter. Nor have they done ditto to any cosmic bodies we can see, such as planets or stars. Therefore the world isn't going end when they switch on the LHC on Wednesday. QED.

Joking is all very well, but please, can we not be spreading the FUD and scaring people needlessly? The current climate of superstitious dread with respect to the sciences is bad enough as it is ...

Readers of a central-European persuasion may be pleased to hear that I've just mailed off the book contracts for "The Clan Corporate", "The Merchants War" and "The Jennifer Morgue" to Talpress in the Czech Republic. Where they will join my other books and hopefully earn me a — no, I'm not going to finish that pun.

Readers of a more Anglophonic persuasion will also hopefully be pleased to hear that I've mailed off the finalized contracts for the next three books: the short story collection "Wireless" (due out next August), and novels "419" (a sequel to "Halting State", due out August 2010) and "The Fuller Memorandum" (the third Laundry novel, probably for August 2011). I'm doing some final editing work on "Palimpsest" (an original time travel novella that's going to appear in print for the first time in "Wireless") , and it'll be with my publishers before the end of the month — hopefully before the end of next week.

Oh, on the upcoming events front: I've accepted invitations to be guest of honour at Balticon 43 (May next year — more information here in due course), and another European national SF convention (which I'll update this entry to reflect when I'm sure they're ready to announce it). I'll also be at Worldcon (in Montreal) and at the UK Eastercon (in Bradford), and at Novacon (in Walsall) this November. So many air miles to collect, so little time ...

More immediately: this blog and website are hosted on a colocated server in London's Docklands. They've been there since some time lost in the mists of prehistory (2000, I think), and it's time to move server again. It's also time for a thorough software and hardware overhaul. If things run according to plan my blog will be moving home within the next 3-4 weeks. I'll give some advance warning, but immediately before the move I'll be taking the blog comments offline and not reinstating them until I've migrated the database, merged it with a different Movable Type installation (we're running two separate copies of MT on this box, for no sane reason: the other one is the Prattle), and upgraded the whole shooting match to MT 4.x. Then maybe it'll be time for a more substantial overhaul to, oh, I dunno, raise the dust on the other sections of my website (which haven't been touched since roughly 2003). Wish me luck — I'm going to need it! Especially as I'll be working on "The Trade of Queens" (the sixth Merchant Princes book, and the climax of the current story-line) at the same time.

In three words, it's the EULA, stupid:

11. Content licence from you

11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights that you already hold in Content that you submit, post or display on or through the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying the content, you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free and non-exclusive licence to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content that you submit, post or display on or through the Services. This licence is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services.

In combination with Google Docs that'd be ... bad. Especially for any working writers who think Google Docs (or similar services, such as Writely) are a great idea for backing up their work against catastrophic hardware failure. Maybe they'll fix the EULA (and it doesn't much matter to me anyway, until the promised Mac/Linux/other platform releases of Chrome show up), but it's not a good start for what's already the fourth most popular web browser out there today, by some reports.

Thanks, guys. What was that about not being evil, again?

Update: Well that retraction didn't take long ...!



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