November 2009 Archives

The Digital Economy Bill gets stinkier the longer it sits unflushed in the toilet of the parliamentary process.

Last week I was angry, but now it's personal:

The Digital Economy Bill, published on Friday, will bring in unexpected registration requirements and government control over authors' agents and some publishers, according to copyright experts at national law firm Beachcroft LLP. Such agents — along with certain picture libraries, software resellers, record companies, film distributors and publishers — may need to register with the government, pay annual registration fees and be subject to codes of practice, backed up by criminal sanctions, if provisions regarding the control of 'licensing bodies' are brought in.

This unexpected impact relates to any 'organisation' which licences any copyright material created by more than one different individual — or acts as agent for any such owners. Although the intent of the Bill was to exercise greater control over Britain's major collecting societies, it is likely to catch thousands of agencies which negotiate licences of copyright works in all industries.

Bloody typical.

This ill-conceived bill, with its extrajudicial three-strikes' sanctions against people merely accused of copyright violation, already looked more like an exercise in licking the arse of rent-seeking media studios than any kind of attempt at enhancing the UK's creative industries. Now it's adding injury to insult. I rely on my literary agent to extract the best terms possible from my publishers. So do the majority of working authors. Agents are paid a commission of the author's take, so the cost of this licensing and registration bureaucracy is going to be passed directly to the authors.

Oh, and to add to the fun: I'm in a legal grey area if this shit goes through. My agent is American, based in the USA. She's part of a partnership and represents more than one British author. If she was in the UK, she'd definitely be in the firing line at this point; as she isn't ... where do we stand? Are foreign agents going to be barred from representing British authors to British publishers if they don't register but conduct their business from overseas? What about foreign agents representing British authors to other foreign publishers? Hello? Has anyone thought this through?


(NB: As starships do not in fact exist, no starships were harmed in the production of this essay. Also, this is just words. If they upset you, go lie down in a dark room for half an hour then drink a glass of water; you'll feel better.)

Actually, I tell a lie. There are five starships that we know of; Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, and New Horizons. But they're a far cry from the gleaming interstellar transports of science fiction. New Horizons is the most recent of them. Launched in late 2006, it is the fastest human-launched vehicle so far. It raced past Lunar orbit within nine hours of take-off: nevertheless, it will take around 10 years to reach Pluto (its proximate target — for a three-hour flyby). It weighs around 478 Kg, and is currently travelling outwards from the sun at around 17km/sec — about fifty times as fast as a rifle bullet.

We are 4.37 light years, or 140 million light-seconds, from Alpha Centauri, give or take. One light second is 300,000 km; it takes New Horizons about five hours to travel one light second. So: in very roughly 30 million days, or on the order of 300,000 years (if it was going in the right direction, which it isn't), New Horizons could reach Alpha Centauri.

And that's the best we've done to date, admittedly without really trying ...

Various folks are getting upset for one reason or another about the hacking and redistribution of internal emails from the University of East Anglia's climate research unit.

Frankly, I can't be arsed commenting on it — because marine biologist and SF writer Peter Watts has already said it for me:

The fact is, we are all humans; and humans come with dogma as standard equipment. We can no more shake off our biases than Liz Cheney could pay a compliment to Barack Obama. The best we can do-- the best science can do-- is make sure that at least, we get to choose among competing biases.

That's how science works. It's not a hippie love-in; it's rugby. ... Science is so powerful that it drags us kicking and screaming towards the truth despite our best efforts to avoid it. And it does that at least partly fueled by our pettiness and our rivalries. Science is alchemy: it turns shit into gold. Keep that in mind the next time some blogger decries the ill manners of a bunch of climate scientists under continual siege by forces with vastly deeper pockets and much louder megaphones.

No comments on this bully-pulpit effusion, folks; it's going to attract trolls, and I simply can't be arsed dealing with them. (Going to a Gary Numan gig this evening, then the pub, then bed, then back to work on the novel. And when I get through it, the planet's still not going to be statistically significantly colder. OK?)

If you're wondering what this week's excuse for scanty blog updates could possibly be, it might have something to do with me being 40,000 words into the (projected) 100,000 word first draft of 2011's novel, "Rule 34". It's a sequel to "Halting State", set some five years after the earlier novel, and focusing on the way our definitions of crime and morality (not to mention the practice of policing) change over time. (Yes, the title is an explicit call-out to you-know-what. The term "Hitler Yaoi" has been used with intent ... but only after I googled, rubbed my eyes, and concluded that rule 34 was in effect.)

So it's with some interest that I spotted this news item on the web today. Nutshell version: Dennis O'Connor, HM Chief Inspector of Police, has issued a report on the conduct of public order policing (commissioned in the aftermath of the G20 protests in April). It's damning in its condemnation of heavy-handed tactics adopted primarily by the London Metropolitan Police, in emulation of crowd-control techniques used on the continent and in the United States: "The report, published today, called for a softening of the approach and urged a return to the "British model" of policing, first defined by 19th-century Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel. O'Connor advocated an 'approachable, impartial, accountable style of policing based on minimal force and anchored in public consent'."

All I can say is: it's overdue. The Americanization of British policing has visibly been in train for a decade now — and not in a good way. The culture of Britain's police forces sprang from very different roots, and the increasing emphasis on bureaucratization, pre-emption through the threat of massive force, and alienation from the public that has characterised the current government's tinkering with the machinery of law and order is a radical and unwelcome departure. It's given us such travesties as the RIPA Act, with its implicit abolition of the right to silence (the first victim of whose anti-terrorism provisions appears to be a harmless schizophrenic), the practice of police routinely arresting people in order to justify collecting DNA samples, and the use of police intelligence apparatus to help corporations snoop on protestors. The creeping expansion of police surveillance and suspicion of legitimate political dissent — I'm not talking about bomb-makers here, but simply people who want to demonstrate in public their disagreement with government policies — is deeply worrying. Let's hope that the O'Connor report marks the beginning of a sea change in the relationship between the British police forces and the public, away from the American/European paramilitary model and back towards "the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence."

Just in case you thought I'd given up writing novels for good to switch to blogging full time, a little bit of news: FedEx just delivered a box this morning, and it contains my author copies of the Ace mass market edition of The Jennifer Morgue. Which, according to Amazon, is officially published on January 9th ... but if I'm getting the copies it's already printed and in the publisher's warehouse, which means it'll be arriving in regular bookstores in the next two weeks.

I've pretty much finished the copy-edits on book #3 in the Laundry series, "The Fuller Memorandum", which is due out in hardcover from Ace around July 1st next year (and in paperback in the UK from Orbit).

And I'm finally free to announce that an option on the TV and film rights to "The Atrocity Archives" have been sold to an outfit with an address in Beverley Hills.

(Disclaimer: This does not mean that a film or TV series is going to be made — it merely means that a production outfit likes the idea enough to pay a relatively small amount of money to hang onto the rights while they try to raise finance and work on a script and generally put the wheels in motion. In case you were wondering, a three year film and TV option pays about as much as a midlist paperback deal: you don't get to give up the day job at this point. But: at least it's a start. As they say: money talks.)

I was trying to think of something coherent to say about the Digital Economy Bill published this week, but I'm too damned angry right now.

I'm a self-employed media professional working in the entertainment industry, who earns his living by creating intellectual property and licensing it to publishers. You might think I'd be one of the beneficiaries of this proposed law: but you'd be dead wrong. This is going to cripple the long tail of the creative sector — it plays entirely to the interests of large corporate media organizations and shits on the plate of us ordinary working artists.

Want to write a casual game for the iPhone and sell it for 99 pence? Good luck with that — first you'll have to cough up £50,000 to get it certified as child-friendly by the BBFC. (It's not clear whether this applies to Open Source games projects, but I'm not optimistic that it doesn't.)

Want to publish a piece of shareware over BitTorrent? You're fucked, mate: all it takes is a malicious accusation and your ISP (who are required to snitch on p2p users on pain of heavy fines) will be ordered to cut off the internet connection to you and everyone else in your household. (A really draconian punishment in an age where it's increasingly normal to conduct business correspondence via email and to manage bank accounts and gas or electricity bills or tax returns via the web.) Oh, you don't get the right to confront your accuser in court, either: this is merely an administrative process, no lawyers involved. It's unlikely that p2p access will survive this bill in any form — even for innocent purposes (distributing Linux .iso images, for example).

I've had problems in the past with idiots at Elsevier issuing DMCA takedown notices against legitimately-posted copies of Accelerando, on the basis of a web search conducted by spider. If this bill goes through, it's going to make it difficult for me to distribute fiction for free (encouraging readers to try my work); I don't want to see folks having their connectivity axed just because a filename they downloaded matches something with an ISBN in Amazon's database.

This bill isn't about securing our creative industries. It's about fucking the little guys, depriving them of channels to reach their public, and about protecting the cartel of big media organizations who are threatened by the development of the public internet. And it stinks from the head down.

I don't like to do incandescent anger (I have blood pressure issues). So I don't usually focus on issues like this on my blog (you want me to live long enough to finish the current book before I stroke out, right?). So I'm going to hand you over to Cory Doctorow, who has the goods, and to the Open Rights Group, who need your support.

That's all for now.

UPDATE: There's a petition on the Number 10 Downing Street website, "to abolish the proposed law that will see alleged illegal filesharers disconnected from their broadband connections, without a fair trial". If you live in the UK, I strongly urge you to sign it. While these petitions are in no way binding, large sign-ups send a warning sign to the government and have, in the past, provoked a re-think on controversial legislation. And this is especially likely in the run-up to a general election (which must be held within the next six months).

I spent most of Tuesday driving home. Checked my email before I left; there seemed to be a network issue with my server, but I didn't bother checking until the evening, when I got home.

Bad mistake.

The box this blog runs on threw a kernel panic some time late on Monday night/early on Tuesday, and panicked repeatedly on reboot. Diagnostics demonstrated that (a) the RAID array was hosed, and (b) the machine's memory had gone bad ... right as it was handling probably 30-50,000 emails and 50-100,000 http requests a day.

After a brisk disk transplant into a new machine, we spent the whole of Wednesday fscking the hell out of the main filesystem, which showed worrying signs of bit rot. This morning, the filesystem was recovered, so I spent another few hours pulling the contents down my home ADSL line (all 39Gb of them; it took about four hours). If you can read this blog entry, it means I've finally succeeded in un-gunking the MySQL database enough to post via Movable Type, which is a Good Thing. Hopefully we haven't lost anything (but cloud backups are going to start happening in the near future, i.e. just as soon as the new machine gets a clean bill of health).

We're not out of the woods yet. The mail transport daemon is squatting in a corner and gibbering to itself (metaphorically, I hope). If you use a mailing list hosted on my machine, it won't be back until we've got exim sorted out. (This means you.) There's probably other stuff I've forgotten about. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that there's hidden damage to some subsystem or other and we're going to have to rebuild from scratch on a new Debian system.

But if you can see this, we're on the way back.

(Continuing from the comments/discussion following an earlier post ...)

Generation starships: they're not fast.

If you can crank yourself up to 1% of light-speed, alpha centauri is more than four and a half centuries away at cruising speed. To put it in perspective, that's the same span of time that separates us from the Conquistadores and the Reformation; it's twice the lifespan of the United States of America.

We humans are really bad at designing institutions that outlast the life expectancy of a single human being. The average democratically elected administration lasts 3-8 years; public corporations last 30 years; the Leninist project lasted 70 years (and went off the rails after a decade). The Catholic Church, the Japanese monarchy, and a few other institutions have lasted more than a millennium, but they're all almost unrecognizably different.

Consumer capitalism along our current model simply won't work as a way of running a long-duration generation ship (the failure modes are lethal and non-recoverable). Communism (or rather, Leninism) has a slightly better prospect, but is still a long way from optimal. Monarchism is just a pretty word for "hereditary dictatorship supported by military caste". What are the alternatives? And what do we need to consider when designing a society that can survive for a 500-1000 year voyage in a bottle without exploding? (I'm assuming, for the sake of argument, that suspended animation or life extension technologies don't change the picture out of all recognition; after all, even if you can expect to be alive in a thousand year's time when you reach Barnard's Star, you're not going to get on the ship in the first place if the living conditions are intolerable.)

Designing a space habitat/generation ship with the implicit parameter that the crew are expected to work 40-60 hours a week is a really bad idea; efficiency is the enemy of redundancy, and multiple redundancy (in life support and propulsion) is absolutely vital to any such project (because it provides resiliency that is essential to have any hope of recovering from a disaster). What if the population crashes? If you've designed your ship to require a 40-hour work week by 1000 maintenance crew and you're down to 250 crew, you're going to die. A 10-hour work week, in contrast, gives them a fighting chance of survival in event of a major die-off.

A sensibly designed long-duration hab would require the crew to do just enough work to maintain the necessary skill set (you don't want them to go rusty), but leave lots of time available for education, recreation, and socialisation. You can't build a stable hab culture on material acquisition because it has to function in a resource-bounded environment (although soft goods/intellectual property is another matter, if you want to provide an escape valve for acquisitive urges, or a "training wheels" environment for the market-mediated culture that you might need to revive after arriving in another solar system).

I've been (inconclusively) batting around some ideas with Karl Schroeder — how do you design a society for the really long term? There are a couple of levels to consider: notably, decision-making and economics. And it doesn't look as if we've got any good solutions to either.

Administration first: Democracy is prone to mutation into some other form (kakistocracy, oligarchy, populist dictatorship). Monarchy has a single point of failure and historically only worked when there was a draconian enforcement regime backed up by Malthusian pressure (whenever the lid came off — e.g. with the opening of a new frontier for emigration — the oppressed tended to vote with their feet: aboard a generation ship, their only option would be to vote with the knife). We were somewhat intrigued by the idea of a society with multiple designed-in local attractors, so that over time it can oscillate between different modes of governance (but returning eventually to previous patterns); but nobody's tried it yet.

Another issue to consider is the need for designed-in escape valves. The social pressure on a generation ship is going to be fierce; but if there's a designed-in expectation that, say, 20-50% of the inhabitants at any given time will be preoccupied by non-functional distractions such as the arts or sports, that might go some way to defusing social stresses. Arts and sports can act as vectors for social competition and status-seeking, while being channeled easily in directions that don't consume excessive physical resources.

One thing I'm pretty certain of is that the protestant work ethic underlying American-style capitalism, with its added dog-eat-dog ethos, would be a recipe for disaster aboard a generation ship — regardless of whether it's run as a democracy or a dictatorship. American (or British) working hours are a bizarre cultural aberration — and a very local one. More to the point, competitive capitalism tends to reward increases in operational efficiency, but efficiency is most easily optimized by paring away at the margins — a long-term lethal threat to life in this situation. The "tragedy of the commons" has got to be engineered out aboard a generation ship, otherwise the residents will wake up one [virtual] morning to discover someone's acquired a monopoly on the oxygen supply. And that's just for starters.

(Finally, don't get me started on libertarianism. Economic libertarianism -- in the contemporary American sense -- aboard a generation ship would be just plain suicidal. It's dog-eat-dog capitalism with the brakes off; I'm of the opinion that libertarian ideology is based on a falacious theory of mind, and would in practice degenerate rapidly into a rather nasty form of industrial feudalism. The end point of which is monarchism, and bloody handed revolution. Not the kind of metastable multiple-attractor society I have in mind at all ...!)

So. You, and a quarter of a million other folks, have embarked on a 1000-year voyage aboard a hollowed-out asteroid. What sort of governance and society do you think would be most comfortable, not to mention likely to survive the trip without civil war, famine, and reigns of terror? (NB: communication with the home world is assumed, as is the ability to implement any innovations they come up with that don't require a work force greater than 10% of your people.)

I'm back home today and tomorrow, but off again on Thursday to Novacon 39 in Nottingham. Oslo was about as cold as Edinburgh, and about as dark; although a good time was had by all, all this rushing around in the dark is leaving me somewhat tired, and even a portable battery-powered daylight lamp for dealing with SAD (which has begun hitting me earlier and harder with each passing year since I turned 40) isn't helping much. (No surprise, if you bear in mind that I live 50 miles or so north of Moscow, some way north of every significant city in North America except Anchorage).

In the meantime, I have little to say except that I'm still thinking about the long haul in extra-planetary travel. Running a biosphere (as the past couple of discussions suggest) looks to be a lot harder than most people imagine — we don't even know where all the critical paths lie, and the longer it has to operate the more complex it gets (with failure modes that mostly appear to be ghastly variations on dying painfully and slowly of exotic trace element and micronutrient deficiency diseases). But there's another question that occurs to me. What are the other problems with building and running a biosphere in space?

Here's one: waste heat dissipation.

Vacuum is, as has been noted in the past, a good insulator. At the same time, it looks likely that any long-term human space habitat is going to need shielding from high-energy cosmic radiation (which is probably going to be physical, rather than electromagnetic, given the multi-GeV energy spectrum of the radiation in question). And for long-duration habitability, biospheres are going to need to be complex, multiply-redundant, and to include pathways to recycling micronutrients and exotica (not just for cycling carbon dioxide and water back into oxygen and glucose).

Approximating a space-based biosphere to a sphere would seem sensible — you can maximize the inhabitable volume per unit of external surface area, and the mass of the radiation shielding goes up in proportion to the external surface, not the interior. But radiation shielding works in both directions: biospheres take short-frequency light and down-convert it into long-wavelength thermal energy (the second law of thermodynamics is in play, here). Don't underestimate the amount of heat we need to dump. Per kilogram, mammalian muscle tissue ("us") puts out more watts of waste heat than an equivalent mass of the sun generates through fusion reactions! The waste heat a biosphere produces ought to be proportional to the mass of metabolizing organisms; and that is going to scale with the volume of the biosphere.

So, while it might make sense to make our spherical biosphere as voluminous as possible (to make best use of the dead mass we're hauling around as shielding), it's going to need radiators to dump the waste heat into space (background temperature: 2.725 degrees Kelvin). Their area is going to go up in proportion to the volume of the biosphere, not its external surface area. And they're not going to be a useful contributory part of the biosphere — they have to be outside the cosmic radiation shielding.

What other gotchas associated with the mechanical supports for an in-space biosphere can we expect to run into? (NB: I'm deliberately ignoring propulsion, political/profit motivation, and crew. If you want to talk about the requirements of running a biosphere, that's the previous topic.)

This Thursday (the day after tomorrow) I'm off to sunny Oslo, Norway, for The Oslo SF Festival, where I'm one of the guests of honour over the weekend.

I'm back Monday night, but off again on Thursday (that's next Thursday) to Novacon 39 in Nottingham for the following weekend. Back mid-week.

When I'm not bouncing around Europe like a demented flea, I'll be working on the next novel ("Rule 34") and hopefully on the copy edits to "The Fuller Memorandum".

So that's two conventions, a CEM to check, and I'm writing a novel. If you want a reason why I'm not going to be strangling kittens in public posting provocative essays on my blog for the next couple of weeks, those should be sufficient.

Meanwhile, though, a question arises from the previous two discussions, and it is this: what is the minimum number of organisms one would need to create a biosphere capable of sustaining human life (for example, aboard a deep space mission too prolonged to subsist solely on canned goods)? Just to scope it out a bit further: I'm assuming you want a stable minimal ecosystem drive by sunlight-equivalent illumination. I'm not concerned with its size, so much as its complexity. What aspects do we need to consider? (For the sake of simplification, let's hand-wave cosmic radiation and solar flares out of the picture for now.)



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