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Last time I did this, I lied ...

I'm keeping a low posting profile here at the moment because (a) I'm on the death-march to the end of "The Apocalypse Codex" (which is 90% done ...) and (b) I've been coping with fallout from the family medical crisis that blew up in January (prognosis: excellent, looks like a complete recovery is likely). One side-effect of (a) and (b) is that I'm being boring — when your life's focused on two priorities, you don't have a lot of time and energy left over for blogging.

So it's interview time again.

This is your chance to interview me. You get to ask a single question. I may decline to answer it if it's rude, silly, I think you're taking the piss, or I don't feel like it, so don't repeat unanswered questions. If I don't want to answer it but think you're interesting I'll give you a cookie valid for one more (different) question. I may answer truthfully — or with a creative lie, but this time I'll flag any lies thus: Lie. And because I'm still working on that novel, if I build up a backlog of unanswered questions I may suspend comments (i.e. further questions) until I've got time to tackle them.

Let the interview begin!


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In your opinion, what is the easiest way for the average person to spend a little bit of their time and/or money making the world a better place?


I read somewhere that you went to school in Leeds (like me). Do you still have ties/fondness for the place?

I've since moved away too but I do love the old place and have most of my family there


Do you think that Britain - government and private citizens - has become more or less corrupt over the last, say, thirty years? (And by "corrupt" I mean, well, more or less whatever you take it to mean.)


Being and Englishman born and bred, have you ever had any trouble from the Scots? I mean, we all know that Scotland has a long history of anti-English sentiment, though I harbour none myself. Have you had any scary experiences with the local neds?


Depends what you mean by average person. (The "average person" anyone who's got the tech to read this blog is probably thinking of is not the "average person" for the planet as a whole, much less the "average person" summed over the entire existence of our species to date.)

But assuming you mean "average WEIRD person" (that's Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) ...

Start spending a couple of hours a week reading serious business and foreign affairs reporting from opposing viewpoints and try to get a handle on what's really going on. (Examples might be: chowing down on The Economist and Mother Jones or maybe Matt Taibi's reporting in Rolling Stone.) Spend another hour a week reading history books to try and get a handle on how we got where we are today. (Again: try and work out what the ideological bias of the historian is, and don't take them as giving an authoritative account: look for the holes in their narrative that delineate the unpleasant facts they're tip-toeing around.)

Situational awareness precedes action. If you don't understand the situation, you can't act.


Aside from remaining family (my parents live there), no.


More corrupt. Vastly more corrupt. But a lot of it ties in with the globalization of capital: the whole of western civilization has been corrupted by large-scale regulatory capture by multinationals, their paid lobbyists, and the economics faculty who give them fan-service.


Not really, but I go out of my way to avoid trouble.


If you had to write a "patch" update for Accelerando what would it include?


A bit of a trivial question.

You have indicated a few times that you are a bit of a beer snob*. Have you ever been tempted to brew the stuff, and if so did you do it from scratch?

Only asking because I have resorted to making my own mead because the stuff in the shops is all sickly sweet.

*this is a GOOD thing!


Given the continued media coverage of various countries inability to cope with 'cyber warfare' do you think this is actually a concern; do you think we will ever see a real 'cyber war' and will it be relevant?


"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."

Obviously the singularity makes some enjoyable fiction.

Do you think it's actually likely to happen in the next 50 years?


I wouldn't do that. "Accelerando" is 1990s work -- at this point, it's old hat.


No, because I married a brewer :)


"Cyber war" is a red flag keyword indicating that the speaker has bought -- hook, line and sinker -- a FUD-laced sales pitch from Windows anti-virus vendors who are trying to get into the lucrative government market. Using the term indicates the speaker, or the people they're talking about, don't understand network security. It's FUD.

Which is not to say it's impossible to do huge damage to a nation's infrastructure if the pointy-haired idiots signing the cheques have, for example, specified a SCADA control system for their uranium enrichment plant that runs on unpatched Windows 98 (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, Iran).

A lot of our infrastructure is shit. As Professor Tannenbaum put it, if we built houses the way we build software, the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization.


Depends what you mean by "the singularity". Have a cookie.


What do you think (best guess, you won't be held to it) you'll be writing about in ten years? In other words, where would you like your writing career to go?


If I knew the answer to that question, I'd be writing it now, not in ten years.


I understand you wrote a bit of tie-in fiction for Games Workshop (now Black Library) back in its early days. Would you ever consider writing anything else for them, or for some other IP?


When I picked up Halting State, I almost gave it up again immediately because of the second-person perspective. I'm glad I didn't, but I never got the point of it either.

I guess my question is simply, *why*? What's with the second-person perspective?


If/when you utilise a Macguffin, to what extent do you find that it actually influences the plot development, either due to the need to maintain consistency, or just unintentionally?


When is your next book signing/speaking engagement in Edinburgh or Glasgow?


Ever thought about muscling in on Mr Iain M. Banks territory and writing some Utopian fiction?


Do your Laundry books sell better than your other fiction? If so, is there any difference at all in how much you enjoy writing a new Laundry book compared to a completely new thing?


An anticapitalist revolution sweeps the UK and the new regime guarantees you your current income as long as you write a minimum of one story, however short, per year. How much would you write?


Do you dry-swallow your headache pills? (so many of your characters seem to do it, I figured they must get from you :-)


Ever think about doing something in a different kind of media? Obviously, script-writing and graphic novels spring immediately to mind, but you could also do something completely insane.

I will admit that I am reading the original MS Paint Adventures thread ( and wondering what would happen if someone with a different approach did something along those lines; the new one (Homestuck) is pretty epic and has weird stuff like stable time loops and universe creation going on, so it doesn't have to be entirely silly!


Hey Charlie,

What do you think of the current state of documentary television in the UK?

For me Everything and Nothing contained some beautiful concepts, and Wonders of the Universe has been fascinating.

Oh and Thank You - I was stuck in a very deep reader's block for several years and Halting State jumped me right out of it. Love that book.


Second person is the natural voice of the computer game: "you are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike."


Have a cookie. (That's a hard question.)


I really enjoyed Saturn's Children and I'm eagerly awaiting "Neptune's Brood". In your opinion, what is it about robots-as-humans that you/we find so fascinating? (from the quest for immortality to the desire to have sex with a machine)


See the immediately previous blog entry!


You already had your question.


What was the last piece of self-published fiction (a piece put up on a website counts) you read and how did you like it?


Not sure: I don't track sales figures religiously. The Laundry are a bit unusual in that they started with a small press, then went large as they proved themselves commercially viable -- but three data points doesn't give you more than a hint at the underlying sales curve.


Do you wish you have Ms Rowling's life?


This question is isomorphic with "you win £50M on the national lottery: what do you do?"

The answer is, I carry on pretty much as I do right now. (No, I tell a lie: I buy a new car -- my current one's 15 years old and a little battered -- but it's the same make, a direct replacement for the old model.)

The only change I might make would be to write novels on spec and sort out selling them once they're finished, rather than on proposal and contract in advance, so I'm not under direct deadline pressure.


Is there a sub-genre that might accurately be described as "right-wing sci-fi"?


What writing project (if any) would you love to carry out, but are prevented from doing so by commercial considerations (it won't sell, it would take too long, etc)?


No, I use a glass of water. (And I try to avoid headache pills -- most NSAIDs are associated with an elevated risk of heart attack or stroke.)


How much longer do you think Moore's law has left?


Yes, I've thought about it. But. New art forms mean a learning curve as I pick up the tools. I need to earn a living, so it means significant extra work, or risk due to temporary loss of income.

I will confess to having turned down the offer of an entry into comic writing a few years ago -- Marvel offered me "Iron Man", but the closer I got to the coal face the more I realised I detested Tony Stark and everything he stood for. (And I had book contracts with deadlines attached. Life is too short for work you hate.)

As a matter of policy I don't comment on other projects until there's ink on a contract.


I don't really watch much TV, and what I do watch is mostly not British.


How much is your choice of what to write influenced by others? Do you get any pressure from your publishers to write in a certain genre/sub-genre. Obviously your fans have their favourites - do you take any notice?


I keep toying with the idea of actually taking all the book ideas in my head and actually writing some fiction. But I worry that the fact that I haven't done it thus far means that I'd be no good at it; I've seen many authors say that they can't stop themselves writing. Do you think that you need the worm of authorship to be biting you that hard all the time in order to be a good author?


Of course I get pressure! The first thing any author hears from their editor if a book sells well is "that was great, write me another just like it -- only different!"

It's taken me a very long time to train my publishers, but they've finally got the message that I do Lots Of Different Subgenres, and stuff I'm enthusiastic about at the time generally works better than forcing me to write interminable sequels. Although if a book can be pitched, framed and sold as a sequel it will be (because that makes it more predictable, which makes it an easier sell internally to Marketing, which in turn makes it easier to justify the advance).


Given your comments on corruption above, where do you stand in the spectrum of "cockup or conspiracy" or "malice versus thoughtlessness" when it comes to governments and foreign policy?

(Personally, I'm not sure that humans are any more corrupt than thirty years ago, I suspect we're just less tolerant of it as well as more able to detect and publicise it).



(I need to get some work done. I'll resume answering questions -- and enable leaving them -- in a couple of hours.)

Martin, I'm not ignoring you; I've just answered around 25 questions in 60 minutes!


Regarding the Fukushima accident, which (obviously necessary) changes would you want to/expect to see to the fundamental safety concept (or just the rules?) of nuclear power plants? Especially the technological constructs and social constructs surrounding those.


Most of our problems are of the cock-up variety: humans are too incompetent and bad at keeping secrets to do large-scale conspiracies properly. So any time you hear about a really big conspiracy it's worth first asking if it's actually plausible. (For example, take the Apollo Program: any Apollo conspiracy theory first has to explain how you make a third of a million people keep a secret for fifty years -- many of them badly paid technicians. I reckon it's easier to actually go to the moon than to fake it on such a scale.)

A couple of major problems also feed into our governmental failure modes. For one thing, most legislators, or other people at the top tier of policy makers, are in their forties or older: they're not focussed on making decisions for the long term because they probably won't be around in 50 years. Democracy makes the problem even worse by shortening the horizon: policy measures are regularly chosen to maximize short-term benefit at the expense of outcomes more than 5 years ahead because "5 years ahead" is some other schmuck's problem.


All the writer buzz on this side of the pond is about the awful terms traditional publishers are offering and how e-publishing is the salvation of the freelance writer. Even established writers with ongoing relationships with publishers are jumping on the e-pub bandwagon. In your viewpoint, is the situation any different in the UK/Europe?



In the wake of Fukushima, the UK decides to put dystopian SF writers in charge..

..ok, maybe not. But the question for which that is the hook is: given a free hand, how would you structure the UK budget if placed in charge today? What would be your primary changes to income and/or expenditure? For extra credit, feel free to tackle the US also..


Change #1: Require all new-build reactors to be capable of passive cooling in the absence of external and backup power, all the way from scram to cold shutdown. A similar requirement to apply to all plant handling spent fuel -- cooling ponds and reprocessing plants must also be capable of cooling passively in the absence of power.

Change #2: Stronger earthquake regs, obviously.

Change #3: no extension of operating life for reactors that fail criteria #1 or #2. The BWRs at Fukushima Daichii were pushing right up against their 40 year limit when the quake hit, and were indeed due to be re-licensed to run for another few years. We need to admit that reactors are not a mature technology yet (we've only been through three generations so far) and we mustn't prolong the lives of old and potentially hazardous plant just because it's fully amortized.

Change #4: Take responsibility for running the reactors away from commercial power companies and look at putting them in the hands of a uniformed government service with a duty to put safety first. Model their procedures on those of navies with nuclear ship propulsion, minus the fighting bit. (The surrounding plant -- from the turbine hall outwards -- can still be trusted to power companies; but the reactors themselves should not be under the control of people whose first duty is to maximize profit.)


I've been reading your blog for a few years now. I've also read your published Laundry works and Halting State.

I appear to have a strong association between your Writer's Voice and your blog, so much so that when recently reading your published works I was frequently yanked from the narrative immersion by niggling feeling that I was reading one of your blog/rants instead of a book.'s_voice

Is your Writer's Voice something you give any conscious thought to?


Which Modesty Blaise adventure (comic or book) is your favourite?


How much of what you write about in your novels do you believe in, and to what degree?
I assume its a bit on the low side for Laundry, and a bit higher for Singularity etc?


I'd drop Lansley's NHS reform agenda like a red-hot stone.

I'd reduce the cuts substantially. Aiming to pay down the UK's accumulated budget deficit in three years by cutting expenditure is folly because if you cut public sector expenditure you also hit the private sector economy very hard indeed. It still needs reducing, but I'd aim to promote industrial growth over a ten year period and use the increased revenue base from that to reduce the deficit.

Despite which, there's a bunch of obvious pork that the UK shouldn't be spending money on. We don't need to replace Trident; at most, we need about 40 nuclear warheads that can be loaded onto the Tomahawks our SSNs carry. Downsizing the nuclear deterrent will save around £30Bn over the next decade. Again, there's other stuff we can do without; a lot of government IT procurement is pork barrel idiocy that throws good money at foreign consulting multinationals.

... The UK needs an industrial policy. It hasn't had a coherent one since 1983 or thereabouts because Thatcher and her heirs hated making things, as opposed to pure finance. Nevertheless, the UK is still the world's #7 manufacturing economy. Put some muscle behind that, if necessary cribbing from Germany and France.

The UK also needs a transport infrastructure policy. Yes, we need high speed rail. We also need a working freight infrastructure, and many of our existing roads are in a deplorable state. A removal of VAT on railfreight, and some judicious spending on freight rail upgrades, will move a chunk of container traffic off our roads and allow the repairs from two savage winters to catch up.

The emphasis on promoting the south-east of England at the expense of the rest of the island has resulted in an unhealthy focus on London, sucking vitality and business out of the rest of the country. It'd be a good thing to focus on regional development. So I'd start building out a major high speed rail network by avoiding connecting it to London until the rest of the network was substantially complete.

Power ... we need renewables. We need gas. We need a mixture. And we need new reactors because the UK's existing fleet is aging. Unfortunately we probably don't have the engineering capability any more to do pioneering work in, say, molten salt thorium reactors, without educating an entire new generation of engineers. As it is, the new reactors are due to be built by the French. But there's probably room to fund at least one research reactor of a radically new type, and to start training new nuclear engineers.

Higher education: the idiocy of copying the US funding model just as it's visibly moving towards a peak inflation bubble stage should be obvious. We should be looking at major changes to higher education, and in particular a widening of distance learning access via the Open University, but a general move back to non-graduate trades and taxpayer funded tuition and a student grant for academic subjects would be a step back from the brink. As it is, successive governments since 1992 have led the UK's higher education infrastructure to stand on the edge of a precipice.


So, I spent last Saturday playing Arkham Horror, then watched "The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu," a cheesy but fun modern-day Cthulhu-based film, and I'm anxiously awaiting the next Laundry Files volume. Why is the Lovecraft mythos so popular and generative and/or what drew you to it?


Why do you think the navy is doing a better job as regards nuclear safety?


I deeply admire your wide-band education and academic roster of sources. Reading your books has sent me to Amazon quite a few times to do primary-source research, leading me down Tipler/Kurzweil road among many. Reading Accelerando got me immensely interested in post-scarcity and the abundant society. I recently wrote a short essay on the politics of abundance, and managed to reference Gilles de Rais, Hitler and Machiavelli.

I'd like to ask, do you have any reading tips on oddball macroeconomics that I'd miss out on if I limited my self to googling for "post-scarcity"? Interesting writers outside the mainstream, so to speak?

(Oh, the essay: )


The navy doesn't design and build reactors: they run reactors. It's like the difference between designing a safe car, and being a safe driver.


Sorry, no. Have a cookie.


What were the last three none sci-fi/fantasy works of fiction you read and would you recommend them?


If you could re-write one sci-fi (or fantasy) classic, which one would you choose, and why?


If you had a strong AI servant for a day what would you do with it?


If I wanted to do that, I wouldn't announce which one I was going to pick on in advance. But for what it's worth, I've already done it a couple of times, deliberately or accidentally. (I didn't re-read "The End of Eternity" before writing Palimpsest, for example, because Asimov's prose style back then was too painful to subject myself to voluntarily.)


I strongly suspect that a strong AI wouldn't remain a servant for very long. The question therefore has no meaning.


Regarding "High Frontier, Redux":

An interesting piece, to be sure. When I bring it up among my fanboi friends, it is derided as "naysaying", and then I get some pseudo-argument about how there were naysayers for Goddard, Wright brothers, et al, and so there. I can't get them to consider it as articulate critique, let alone address specific points.
My take on the space colonization thing is that it's foolish to attempt to develop space for the purpose of colonization, but that space operations are eventually better supported when expendables like bulk volatiles are sourced locally rather than from Earth's deep gravity well. Eventually, assuming continual increase in space activities, with expanding off-Earth industrial support, enough working capital would be in place that colonization would be, if not de facto, finally imaginable as an intentional project.

So, on to my question: Do you think that my naturalistic version of space colonization is absurdly naive? But even lending it credit, how long would it take for such a scenario to result in a situation whereby one might legitimately imagine establishing off-Earth colonies?

(Sorry if tl;dr. This probably puts me two cookies in arrears)


No; you've outlined one of the plausible routes to it. (Not one that the space cadets have any time for, though, because I suspect it would take centuries.) The other routes involve major advances in space medicine, or breakthroughs in AI. (I don't expect breakthroughs in propulsion based on new physics, unfortunately.)


You have three wishes but they can only be used for things which money can't buy. What would you wish for?


I forgot to ask when I was drinking with you in NYC...what D&D monster did you create the wound up getting published in White Dwarf and/or The Fiend Folio?


What can a first-world citizen do to strengthen the middle class, aside from getting involved in electoral politics?


There are too many desirable things that money can't buy: good health, long life (the two are not the same!), personal fulfillment, love (what kind of love are you thinking of?), happiness (not the same as love!) and so on.

And there are the really big things. (For example, I'm an atheist. But I think it would be interesting to live in the kind of universe where some entity after the even decides to run an ancestor simulation and send every mind in it to, well, whatever they consider to be heaven.)


Several: Githyanki, Slaads, Death Knights, and some others. (If you stumble on a 1st edition Fiend Folio you'll find my name is attached to roughly 10% of the contents, going by the end credits.)


Fuck knows. If I knew I'd be doing it myself.


Okay, here's the cookie back:

Why would/wouldn't you use the words "fan fiction" in a description of the Laundry books?


Do you think this whole technological civilization thing was worth it? What do you think the role of an engineer should be in today's society?


I have no idea.

(What's the dividing line between fan fiction and non-fan fiction? Do you have to hate your source material before what you write is allowed to be authentic art?)


From my own selfish viewpoint, yes, it's worth it: if I'd been born in any era prior to antibiotics I wouldn't have made it to my third birthday. Life without technological civilization is nasty, brutish and short -- even for the high-ups: for everyone else it's unpleasant in the extreme.

As for the role of an engineer? Rule #1 is: Make stuff that doesn't fail catastrophically, killing people. Everything after that is embellishment.


Do you think Scotland is still headed for independence? Why (not)?


Have a cookie. (Answering that question would take several hours.)


Charlie, I have a followup to Martin's "cockup or conspiracy" or "malice versus thoughtlessness" question.

You first said: "the whole of western civilization has been corrupted by large-scale regulatory capture by multinationals, their paid lobbyists, and the economics faculty who give them fan-service."

You then said: "humans are too incompetent and bad at keeping secrets to do large-scale conspiracies properly"

However, doesn't your first statement describe conspiracy, although systematic rather than cabalistic in terms of organization, but nonetheless, influential, tightly held and of benefit, and with special purpose (making money)?


When I read Iron Sunrise, and knowing when it was written, I couldn't help but see a response to issues at the time. How do you think it reads now, with nationalist parties getting seats everywhere, social darwinism underpinning actual policy, popular revolutions, and the inevitable interventions/meddling?


No, regulatory capture doesn't require a top-down conspiracy to organize; it just requires a bunch of selfish, greedy people acting to optimize their own operating environment.

(You are a civil servant tasked with regulating Industry X. What do you do if a company in Industry X offers you a board position with a big pay rise, in return for you bringing them your expertise in dealing with whoever gets your desk after you leave? Alternatively, you are an executive in Industry X: doesn't it make sense to hire former regulators so you can work out how best to work around the regulatory board? And doesn't it make sense for the Industry X regulatory board to hire former executives in Industry X, because -- after all -- they're experts on the subject?)


I don't know: I haven't read it for a decade (and I'm looking forward to getting far enough away from it that I can come at it fresh).


What is your preferred Scoville level in foods?


Under 1.6 million. Anything over 1.6 million? Whoa, that's too hot!

(More seriously? My days of torture-testing my stomach lining are over because I'm on medication that irritates it badly enough as it is. But I remain partial to a good Vindaloo -- the original Goan variety, which has been marinated overnight in wine vinegar, not the stuff you typically get in a British curry shop, where "Vindaloo" has become a synonym for "throw in another handful of Scotch Bonnets, we've got a macho idiot in the house".)


I've been reading some of the 'classics' recently so my question is this:

Which one of your books are people most likely to be found reading in 50-100 years?


(Since ISTR your SO is a vegan) What experience/circumstance/realisation would be required to turn you into a vegetarian? Or vegan?


Nom, cookies :)

Are you aware of the concept of a launch loop and what do you make of it? (Apart from the political can of worms of needing to establish a 2000km long no-fly zone somewhere...)

Gosh I wish someone would build a working model of this, demonstrating the principles.


Minor point of curiosity rather than a question: in the Laundry novels, employees are meant to use pseudonyms, and a sysadmin called Bob O.F. Howard who reads the Register seems likely to be complying with that. But Mo has been Mo as long as we've known her... Is that not her legal name, is her getting her own codeword a substitute for her picking new name, or is this just a convention because asking readers to mentally rename a character would be annoying?


(Spoiler warning: Atrocity Archives)

[ SPOILER DELETED -- have another cookie. -- Mods ]


Simple: affordable vat-grown meat.


The failure modes look ... entertaining!


See book #5. (It won't be written before 2012 or published before 2014.)


The endless pub conversation/argument starter...

If you were transported back in time to T, what knowledge or item from now would be most valuable in attaining X?


T={ 1700, 1920, 900, prehistory }
X={ Longevity, Power, A place in the history books }

(choose any values of X & T you like).


Any chance of writing for humor? The bits in The Atrocity Archives and Saturn's Children were great and I'd love to see more.


How plausible/useful/economically viable do you see any future scenarios involving:

1. Space elevators (on the moon, Mars, Earth, or other)


2. Mining asteroids for precious metals


3. Getting water from comets or the Moon


4. Mining H3 on the Moon?

Bonus question:

5. Best bet for alternative energy?


(not a question:)
As i understand it, naval reactors tend to have a lot less in the way of automatic safety systems than civilian reactors. Navies don't like the idea of a reactor that can SCRAM in the middle of an engagement because it's a bit unhappy about something and leave them sitting on the bottom unable to restart it until the xenon has decayed and a couple of days have passed.

Instead, their safety design relies on having skilled, vigilent people and giving them the tools to manage problems. Simple designs that make inefficient use of highly enriched fuel are another part of the picture.

(The above based on extrapolating from vague third-hand information.)


If someone like Warren Spector (System Shock, Thief: The Dark Project, Deus Ex) were to approach you about making a video game set in the Laundry universe, how would you most likely react?


I do write humour! (Note the English-spelling "u" in "humour". Humor need not apply.)


What major issue have you changed your mind about most recently and why?

[Where "major issue" here refers to any political/social/economic/legal/ethical/technological thing affecting lots of people.]


Have another cookie. (Not Interested in space colonization questions right now. There is another discussion thread for that.)


Never played any of those games, so my only question would be: "how much are you going to pay me for the rights?"


Have another cookie.


Then perhaps you've seen these?

I realize you can't be held to account for the artwork, and that's what they're primarily focused on, but can tell it comes from a place of love. And of course they do Rifts.


Thanks for that. It brings the memories flooding back. Not in a good way, you bastard!


What is your favourite whisky (if any)?


Do you think the mundane SF movement is dead/dying, and, if yes, why?


Too damn hard to say: I generally avoid blends and stick to single malts, but I'm by no means an expert (and anyway, a given malt of given age will very quite strongly from batch to batch, depending on a whole bunch of sensitive preconditions like the origin of the cask it was stored in).


If mundane SF is dying, so is my career: my next SF novel ("Rule 34") is mundane SF, as were "Halting State" and "Saturn's Children", and I'm planning to try and square the circle by writing a mundane SF space opera next year.


Parenthetically, I too am partial to the flavour of vindaloo without requiring it to be too hot. It's nice to see that The British Curry Company now does a vindaloo sauce that is specifically described as not being searingly hot.

(Though as with any sauce made curry, you'll not get the full effect of marination.)


Most forms of published fiction avoid mentioning brands except as product placement. I'm guessing you weren't paid for Bob using a Palm or iPhone in the Laundry Files books, so was their inclusion an issue with your publisher? Were you pushed to use generic terms instead?


Nope, not a problem. Incidentally, I'll refer you to an earlier author who went brand-name crazy in his fiction: Ian Fleming. I suspect the relative lack of product placement is a backlash against earlier excesses than anything relating to legal fears.

There's one fiction genre where use of branded products is universally rampant: the technothriller.


Favorite science fiction television show?

(I was partial to the Sarah Connor Chronicles, and am in mourning since its passing...)


I hate all [western] SF shown on TV since the early 1970s with a fiery burning passion -- with the exception of "Futurama".

I have never successfully sat through an entire episode of:

* Star Trek: TNG
* ST: Voyager
* Farscape
* Buffy the Interminably Preppy American
* Babylon 5

... And I'm not much of a Dr Who fan, either.


Dr. Farnsworth explains


UPDATE: It is now evening, and I want to kick back with a book and get away from the keyboard.

So I probably won't answer any more questions tonight.

If more than ten more questions show up, I'll suspend comments until I'm ready to start writing answers again.


Crap. I'm going to blow my question on gum-drops. Mr. Stross - and I'll call you Mr. Stross and not Charlie, because I've only posted once here before, and I don't think I'm ready to just lay down a Charles yet, much less a Charlie (and hey, this might be my "real" question - how familiar does someone need to be before they can call you "Chuck"?), but Mr. Stross, how the hell do you log on to your 'blog' properly and regularly?

Yes, obviously I'm a moron (so no need for folks to get started there). But I'd like to think I'm a nice moron. So when I click on Sign In, and I get the whole 'movabletype' thingy, WTF? Should I not be using Firefox or something?

Yep. Sorry Mr. Stross. I am indeed using your interview for troubleshooting! But in my defense, I have been drinking. And I was tempted to ramble on and on, but somehow, unbelievably, the great god of editing has jumped in and I'll quit while I'm ahead.

Crap, I'll stop now. I hardly know what I've wrote, and self-editing while drunk is super-difficult (can I have another cookie?-Mr. Stross, do you ever write/edit while drunk?).


Charlie, you've never done anything that I would call noir. Have you ever thought about writing a mystery in the mode of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, or maybe something like Chinatown? Or are you just not that dark?


Not a question: Argle. You're too quick for me.


OK this is a tough one: what's your best guess as to what our planet/local region of the universe will look like in, say, 5000 years? Will there still be anything recognizably human? Will it all be computronium? Perhaps we will be back to our historical default condition (stone age)? Care to speculate?


Have you ever privately performed for Gen. Muammar Gaddafi or for any members of his family?


Every considered writing in collaboration with someone else? Apparently Pratchett is doing a book with Stephen Baxter!


Look at Charlie's fiction page. You may find the terms 'co-written' and 'collaboration' on it.

I'll just also note that Pratchett has done collaborations of one form or another with a number of people.


If you could painlessly learn any language at native level fluency, what would it be?


Hi Charlie,

Has there been a technological innovation over the past 12 months that you've found particularly exciting ? If so, what was it ?


I know you hate near-term predictions, but here's my question: What do you guess will happen to SF publishing in the next 3-5 years?

On my bad days, I figure we'll be trawling the slush pile on Amazon for new authors and paying subscriptions to you to get your next novel finished. On the good days, I assume that there still will be books published (possibly by some of the existing publishers) and mid-list authors can earn a living writing SF. What are your tea leaves (or beer suds) saying?


You don't need to sign in to comment here; if you're looking at a Movable Type sign-in screen you've taken a wrong turning. Have another cookie.


Noir-meets-sf-with-a-taste-of-computer-science? I think I've heard of that somewhere before. No, wait, they called it cyber-something. Cyber-funk? No, cyber-jazz? Hmm, no, not quite there ... some kind of cyber-loud-popular-noise, wasn't it?

Have another cookie.


How do you cope with the ego-boost of fandom? Do you find yourself being sucked into self-worship?


There's a very good chance it'll look like it does now, only a bit ratty about the edges, with very bad weather and no naked apes in sight.

There's also a good chance we'll reach a climax civilization (by analogy with a climax ecosystem): very largely urban (>90% living in large cities), population down to 1-3 billion, relatively flat distribution of wealth (think Norway or Sweden today rather than USA or Brazil), very tightly networked, new political consensus-forming tools reliant on high speed networking and ubiquitous access to information that make today's democracies look like authoritarian tyrannies, and a culture that isn't driven by a devil-take-the-hindmost race to grab as many physical assets as possible. (Virtual assets, social status, and personal services are another matter.)

This society won't use automobiles -- as we know them -- for mass-transit, although personal powered vehicles (self-driving) will probably be available and may be ubiquitous depending on what energy economy they use. That civilization will be carbon-neutral, or it won't exist. I don't want to predict what national boundaries will look like, or what the state of play of diplomacy will be.

I will stick my neck out and suggest that the sciences will be radically different: Physics will be mostly over, barring hard problems that can't be solved experimentally but which might succumb to theoretical treatment combined with long-term astronomical observation. (Put it another way: they won't be building new particle accelerators because the energy demands don't scale linearly: to push back the frontiers after the generation after the LHC will require ... what, exactly?) Biology will be much better understood, and the 21st century explosion in genomics won't stop at mapping the mammalia; we'll have a library of everything, including the deep crustal biosphere, and not just the genome: the proteome too, and the connectome. Research chemistry will mostly have become a subsector of bioengineering, but will still be there -- though it'll resemble engineering rather than what we think of as chemistry today.

But in general scientific research will be largely over: the low-hanging fruit have already mostly been plucked, and by 2400 getting the answer to a scientific question will mean either looking it up in the equivalent of wikipedia, or organizing a gigantic and very difficult research program on an equivalent scale to the LHC or the ISS -- in otherwords, it won't happen very often. So most practicing scientists will be working in what we would today call library science.

Consequently the cultural social attitude to the sciences will be very different to what we see today, during the period of maximal change.

(Note: this is a no-singularity future. Or rather, it's a future in which we are living through their singularity right now and strong AI turns out not to be achievable. If strong AI happens, all bets are off.)


Can't remember. (I get excited about technological innovations several times a week. What makes me more excited than anything else? Well, read the earlier blog entries and see what tech I feel the need to blog about. Most recently: Falcon Heavy.)


Which undergrad experiment in your university days inspired The Atrocity Archives?


A (currently) popular theory has it that one needs to practice or perform an art/craft for 10,000 hours to become a master. Since your novels are full of mastery, you make a good statistical sample of one on whom to test this theory. How many hours of writing did you have under your belt before you wrote "The Atrocity Archives"? (And, as a point of interest, how many hours have you put in by now?)


Oh, that's easy.

We're out of the early-adopter phase for ebooks; sooner or later Kindle or Nook will hit the $99 price point (maybe ad-subsidized, as with the $113 Kindle that's just been announced) and we'll see sales of ebook readers peak. (Younger folks won't bother with e-ink, they'll just read e-books on their smartphones. If they read books. Eventually e-ink ebook readers will go away. Possibly within 5 years, if the rumour about Apple's recent display patent is correct.)

Ebook usage has grown from about 2% of book sales volume in 2009 to around 7-9% today. It's being held back by platform fragmentation (notably the epub/mobi file format split -- which itself is far less annoying than the mess of formats in 2005), partly by DRM (which pisses off readers) and partly by legacy legal boilerplate on contracts which prevents publishers developing a sane pricing model that isn't tied to the physical object. I therefore expect ebook sales growth to slow markedly through 2012-2014, topping off somewhere in the 15-30% range in fiction. (In some other areas -- notably specialist technical literature that has to be updated regularly -- I expect it to go much further, possibly as high as 85% penetration.)

However, 15-30% of the publishing market is big enough that publishers can't ignore it. I expect major changes in standard author/publisher contracts to be hammered out over the next five years as the big publishers look to develop new sales channels.

Developments in ebook sales are constrained by the ownership of the publishing houses: the film, TV and music components of the groups mandate DRM on everything. If the DRM log-jam breaks and they can negotiate new contract boilerplate, then the Big Six (folks like Holtzbrinck, Hachette, Penguin, et al) will be positioned to roll out their own ebook stores for direct sales to the public (buy a Tor title via Holtzbrinck Direct, and you can read it on your iPhone or Kindle -- and so on). But this would require them to develop a retail channel: do they have the will to do so? If they do, it will eventually mean much cheaper books for everyone (and more money for authors and publishers at the same time). If they don't, they're going to be paying rent to Apple or Amazon from here to eternity.

There is already an explosion in self-publishing. I expect it will mostly drown itself in a sea of self-produced shit, but there's no cost incentive for it to drain away and too many people who want to be authors, so it's here to stay. If you go dumpster-diving in it you might find something good; but the average quality is so poor that any halfway competent publisher who focuses on curating quality content will be able to stay ahead. There will be exceptions to the rule about bad quality and self-publishing going hand-in-hand, and they'll either work out deals with the big publishing houses or continue to self-publish but effectively become publishing houses, using freelance editors and marketing staff.

Looking more than five years into the future I expect the novel to be seen as a dying form: it only exists in its current form because of binding and distribution costs that apply to ink-on-paper. Once we can distribute fiction of effectively any length with free shipping, and sell subscriptions that work, there'll be no reason to stick to the 250-400 pages length constraint, and every reason to expect novellas (60-150 pages) and serial novels (300-3000 pages) to flourish.

Finally, there's copyright. A foetid stinking swamp that has overrun the limits of its earlier utility and is now getting in the consumers' faces (which it was never intended to do). But how we solve that problem is a real headache, because it's enshrined in international trade treaties and there are a lot of highly paid lobbyists whose careers have been devoted to spreading the muck around. I don't expect it to be solved by 2016 ...


None: it's a work of fiction.


For the love of dog, when will the comments to this blog be available in threaded format so I don't have to hurt my middle finger scrolling up and down like a madman to see which question you're answering?


Oh, 10,000 hours is a good bet. I wrote a "novel" (quote-marks intentional -- you really wouldn't want to read it) when I was 15. I then wrote about a dozen more between then and age 22. Tapered off for a year or two, wrote another 8-9. As my average production speed was 1000 words/hour in those days, and these works were around 80,000 words each, you can see at least 3000 hours of writing. Alternatively, I wrote for an hour a day every day for four years, then for about two hours a day on average every day for another five years ... then I got a job as a technical author. Again, 5000-hour ball-park before the TA job. At which point, you can then add another 2000 hours/year for a few years.

So I was already well past the 10,000 hour point before I wrote "The Atrocity Archives".


You see where it says "replied to this comment from Please" above? And you see that part of that sentence that looks like a hyperlink you can click on?...


Supplimentary. NB, I only have 4 limbs ;-) :-

How about Blake's 7 and the 1970s Survivors (I've never seen the remake either)?


Blake's 7: ghastly in retrospect, but I watched the first season when I was about 10-12. Survivors: never saw it.

I just generally hate television (and have no time for Hollywood movies, either).


Thank you Tony, yes, my eyes are working quite well this morning :-). However, after jumping up the page through HTML magic, I then need to scroll all the way down to where I read Charlie's last answer, jump up again, etc. It's perfectly doable of course, but not really very comfortable, and especially in discussions (which do tend to arise occasionally in these comments) it turns into a right pain to find out who has been saying what in response to whom. Hance my question.


Not gonna happen on this blogging platform.

(We've experimented with threading plugins on MT. The ones we've been able to get working at all suck. And I'm not moving to WordPress as long as it's implemented in PHP, which I distrust on sight because it seems to be insecure by design.)


@ 28, 44
Some of us DON'T WATCH TV.
And in my case, haven't had one in the house for over 30 years.....
The information-content of most TV programmes is negative. You are more ignorant and stupid, after you've seen the brainwashing.
Ther are exceptions, but you can get them from "i-player" type downloads.

Charlie @ 54
I regularly rant on about lack of guvmint policy, by any political party in three areas, and now four.
Since the end of the 1960's. if not before, successive UK administrations have collectively and severally abandoned any rational policy on:
Transport: - everyone mentions Beeching, but he was just a hired hatchetman. Look up the unbelievable (but true) crook Ernest Marples.
Defence: - we (unfortunately) need nukes, but, as Charlie says, we can load them onto sub-launched cruise misslies for a LOT less money. The OTHER defences are pathetically thin - the rot was started by the madwoman from Grantham, whose defence cuts got us the Falklands War - and every guvmint since has REPEATED the mistake. This level of blind, stupid incompetence is hard to understand.
Education: - The one thing we need is a properly educated population, and the one way to achieve that is by academic selection in schools (not necessarily, or even, "grammar" schools). What's the one thing guvmin't won't do?
That's right.
And, of course, dealing with religious fuckwits also comes under this heading, since well-educated people are MUCH less likely to swallow any collection of myths and lies.
Lastly, and recently, there seems to have been an alarming negelct of Food Security - which given the failings of all the above is extremely dangerous.

Which leads me to my Question.
Is there any hope/likelihood of this being sorted in the near future?
Either here, or for that matter in "W Europe" overall?

My own take is No.
Especially since the once-fair idea that became the EU has become rotten to the core, a giant bureaucratic monster swallowing money, with central unaccountable agencies, acting against the interests of everyone except its' own Apparat. Parallel to (and in cahoots with?) the multinationals' short-term greed referred to by our gracious host.


Ah, may I ask why you are scrolling back down? The Back functionality of your browser should take you back to the link.

(I'm not saying I wouldn't want threading, though there is some advantage to all new comments arriving at the bottom.)


Well, apparently my brain wasn't working as well as my eyes, thank you for explaining my browser back button to me (getting old is a terrible thing...)

Also thank you Charlie for the explanation. Not wanting to move to PHP horrordom is a perfectly good explanation and I shall complain no more.


Research has shown credible correlation between when lead was phased out from gasoline and various social ailments, such as youth criminality, dropping.

Do you think the current level of political lunacy could correlate with the environmental impact of the "fantastic plastic" period ?



One of these days, the lump of Pt90Ir10 that currently defines the kilogram will finally be replaced by an international agreement to define the unit of mass in terms of atomic standards and exact values for physical constants, much like the meter was redefined by setting the speed of light to exactly 299792458 m/s. Roughly speaking, physicists want the definition to make Planck's constant an exact constant, chemists want the definition to set Avogadro's number so that 1 mol is an integer number of molecules.
Personally, I sometimes think the quickest way to get some Americans to stop using their bastardized version of imperial units, is to let them skip MKSA altogether. Leading the way with a completely new set of units where the atomic standards are the units seems more their style than admitting that they should have switched ages ago.
What would be least disturbing to you? Having Avogadro's number show up in the ratio of a photon's energy to its wavelength; having a fractional part to Avogadro's number; or having large prefixes to macroscopic quantities?


While MT supports proper threaded comments, a workable implementation is proving to be a complete pain in the nether regions.


There has been one good development in television in the last 30 years - the Discovery Channel. Next time we meet, remind me to show you Mythbusters - I have some episodes on my phone. Television that is both spectacular (they do like their explosions) and educational in a "question everything you hear" manner.


Thanks Feorag.
Supplemantary Q:
How can ione get "Mythbusters" off a normal PC?
I assume its available on-line SOMEWHERE?


Of the very few things I have written I have found that the best of those are the ones for which I knew exactly what I wanted to write before I even sat down to write them; have you experienced this same phenomenon or, parenthetically speaking, am I just one of those people who exist to confuse their English professors? ;)

Being a pure mathematics major this is of relatively little concern academically but I have been writing a novel (I hope it will be, at least) in my off time and would like to get some external perspective on the above.


D'oh! Sorry about that Charlie, I don't know how I missed that earlier blog post.


What's your favorite punk song?


Supplemantary # 2
Looking elsewhere, I came across This interesting page if one then clicks on the link "History of Science Fiction" ...
One gets a VERY interesting diagram/map, which can then be enlaged.
Charlie: did you know you are honoured with a mention?


134: Preppy or Peppy? There are nuances there but they are admittedly pretty much the same thing.


Any thoughts on the where...

Programming is headed? The "the code just writes itself" application has never happened, and the seemingly eternal cycle of fat-client/thin-client is still pulsing strongly. Will fat-server win? How much incentive is there to have local processing given enough bandwidth (and a gazillion data centres full of 5c (or 5p) CPUs). Is the Code Warrior of 2400 different to that of today?

Pervasive portable personal computing is going? We all know iPhone x will be rubbish in x+1 years. What will iPhone 2061 look like? What will the equiv 600 GBP buy you?


No. Current political lunacy correlates well with the transition between mass media models -- television bought us the sound-bite and the importance of visual presentation (see the history of the Nixon v. Kennedy debates). Now we're well into the cable TV era, with fragmentation of mass audiences into micro-targetable demographics. And we have the internet, eating traditional newspapers' lunch, combined with ruthless cost-cutting by news organizations that have merged into large multinational groups driving trad journalism in the USA into a ditch -- and the USA emits noise far beyond the scale of its influence in world affairs.

How this plays out in the internet age is anybody's guess, but one thing's for sure: the transition won't be pretty.


Have a cookie. (None of those things would be remotely disturbing to me.)


No idea -- everything I write works differently! Sometimes I know exactly what needs to go together and in what order before I start, and sometimes it's a work of exploration, filling in a blank map starting from one corner.


"God Save the Queen".


Ta -- I hadn't noticed myself on there before!


No idea. Remember, it's a decade since anyone last paid me for programming -- I'm really out of date.

Here's a guess, though?

Multitouch is to the WIMP model of UI as the WIMP was to the command line. It won't replace it in all use cases, but it'll replace it in some domains and because it's easier to use, most ordinary users will adopt it.

Take an iPhone-sized computing device and add a microprojector and some other input/control method (eyeball tracking? Virtual keyboards on any available surface with finger-tracking?) and you don't need a desktop device. Or rather, the desktop or laptop is just a dock.

In a networked world where computers are small nodes floating in a sea of data, code signing and walled gardens makes much more sense than in a world where computers are powerful pieces kit communicating through thin pipes, purely for security reasons. (This is not to endorse the Apple walled garden App Store model, just to note that their App Store seems to have rather less of a problem with malware than the polycentric Android app distribution mechanism.)

Moore's Law will get us in the end. Although if we can get room temperature semiconductor-based quantum computing to work, there's a lot of headroom.

Once Moore's Law runs to completion, sloppy programmers will no longer be able to escape the consequences of their incompetence by demanding more hardware resources.

Large scale parallel distribution of data-driven tasks -- such as speech recognition -- is still in its infancy, Google notwithstanding; Google is only about 12 years old! The potential for revolutionizing everything is still there.

You can't consider the future of computing tech effectively without also considering how the tech is embodied -- inside boxes with screens? Or in robot bodies? What about in ubiquitous ambient-light-powered chips in the walls of your 3D-printed cardboard house?

But in 2061 computer hardware architecture will be about as interesting as locomotive design or automobile design in 2011. It'll be a mature engineering field, at least at the hardware level, with few surprises in store.


Greg, you could try a You-tube search, but I'm not optomistic, because Mythbusters is pretty much a Discovery Channel exclusive (in UK and USA anyway).

Their main schtick is to take $urban_legend or $film_stunt, and see what happens if you do it for real. For instance, what actually does happen when excrement hits a ventilation fan?


In light of the possibilities of terrorist attacks, the recurrence of leakages in permanent disposal sites that have to hold longer than the lifetime of any human institution who could monitor them and in case of emergency intervene, the emergence of cartels assuming power over society and politics due to their control of the after all finite natural resource of uranium and thorium (like in the case of oil and gas) and the unnoticeability/deliberate suppression by the operator corporations and their lobbyists of the number of cases of illness caused by low-level radiation emitted by nuclear plants, do you still view nuclear power as a not fatally flawed and dangerous technology and its expansion as not deleterious to the further existence of our species?


What were your favourite books as a child?


Once Moore's Law runs to completion, sloppy programmers will no longer be able to escape the consequences of their incompetence by demanding more hardware resources.

I disagree with this one. More CPU == less efficiency required. I've been a programmer for 2^5 years or so and I *know* how things work at the register/cache/assembler level, but my first thought is no longer performance/memory usage, it's "how can I solve this problem in the cheapest way for my employer", which generally means the least amount of my time possible. Which means a dumb "for" loop wins 90% over anything faster.

(also cheaper because 90%+ programmers understand for loops. Maintenance is the killer, which is why I (sorry) despise Perl, "there's more than 73 ways to do the same thing" just sucks if you only know 2 of them)

I think it will go exactly the other way: the more powerful hardware becomes the less skilled programmers can be.

Counterpoint: datasets will get more massive as time goes by, petabyte databases will become common. Even these days a terabyte DB isn't that unusual (they're not fun yet, either). There's a curve you could probably draw with database size on one axis and computing power on the other. Throw in SSD to mess that up, though. Hmmm. Probably should say grid/node. Lotta talk about wireless node computing.

You can't consider the future of computing tech effectively without also considering how the tech is embodied -- inside boxes with screens? Or in robot bodies? What about in ubiquitous ambient-light-powered chips in the walls of your 3D-printed cardboard house?

That thought excites me... but what will (effectively?) infinite CPU do for *me*? Immersive reality? Hmm. Having said that, if I was a teenager again and my house/suburb/city could become some sort of D&D dungeon crawl (AKA Niven/Pournelle/Barnes Dreampark, or King's or that story in Dragon magazine #84)... sexy over-bossomed demi-humans everywhere.

I forsee a back-to-reality movement being a real political (religous?) force in the future. Ever been at the pub with a table of uber-Tweeters? Boring as bat-pooh. Probably people said the same thing about print, radio and tv, so maybe I'm just getting old.

But in 2061 computer hardware architecture will be about as interesting as locomotive design or automobile design in 2011. It'll be a mature engineering field, at least at the hardware level, with few surprises in store.

Perhaps it's romanticism, we smile at a steam train the same way we smile at an early mobile phone/brick.

Are we making anything romanticable (eek!) today; an Atari 2600, Intellivision, ZX8[0|1], Spectrum, TRS-80, ZX80, 6502... things I personally view in some bizarre romantic way. Can't say I'll ever view an iPhone the same way.

Maybe that's the real question, is there any romance left in the future of computing hardware?

[apologies for unedited train-of-thought rambling]


(Talk about a wildly biased question ...!)

I view the nuclear power industry as currently constituted as badly flawed. The physics and engineering itself ... not so much.

Note that the reason for the high level waste problem is a combination of two factors: (a) military programs to produce weapons material as fast as possible during the 1940s and 1950s (without heed for environmental impact) and (b) the refusal of the USA -- and most developed nations -- to reprocess "burned" fuel (which, in fact, is only about 4% used) to produce new fuel rods containing MOX.

The existing "limited" 90-year supply of uranium is actually good for roughly 10 times that, with reprocessing, and around 500 times that if we adopt breeder technology. And that's without resuming uranium prospecting, or using thorium (which is many times more abundant in the Earth's crust).

It's also possible to break down non-actinide waste in a sufficiently high neutron flux environment -- such as that provided by a fusion reactor, whether or not it's producing a viable energy surplus for powering the grid. (Endothermic fusors are old hat at this point.) Nobody has gone down this route because it's more expensive than burying the stuff, but it's far from impractical and should provide a viable solution.

Stuff that is short-lived (viz. half life is less than 20 years -- meaning, ten half lives in 200 years) can be disposed of reasonably safely: just stick it in a pit under a concrete lid somewhere where it doesn't rain a lot, and build a brick wall around it with signs saying "radioactive waste, keep out".

I view the non-expansion of nuclear power as being most likely to be deleterious to the future survival of technological civilization.

Final note: coal, oil, gas, and other combustion technologies kill around 1.5 million people a year, world-wide. Even if you uncritically take on board Greenpeace's most pessimistic estimates of the death toll from Chernobyl and other nuclear accidents, and assume that the Fukuyama Daiichi accident will kill a million people on top, nuclear is still less lethal than coal per TW/hour of energy.


Well, I saved up all my pocket money for ten weeks when I was 9 to buy my own copy of "Lord of the Rings". I'd already read it a few times, I just needed my own ...


Maybe that's the real question, is there any romance left in the future of computing hardware?

Only if it has nipples that can go "spung"!


Do you find it's easier to come up with story ideas and scenes sitting in front of a keyboard, or while doing some other non-mentally challenging activity (i.e. cutting the grass or driving somewhere)? And speaking of keyboards, do you ever see a time where you would write primarily through voice recognition software like Dragon?


Ideas come at me whenever/whatever I'm doing. At the keyboard or walking around, in other words.

Dictation really doesn't work for me -- to get me to use it you'd either have to break both my wrists, or give me a task that requires spoken dialog. (Scriptwriting, maybe.)


Q: Is the idea that responsible, apparently sane* adults shall obtain the privilege of carrying concealed and even lethal*** weapons for self-defense purposes after proving they know how to handle them safely to state-appointed proctors sane??

The logic goes thusly: since most constitutions declare that citizens have the right to life, police forces are obviously limited and unable to respond quickly, criminals exist**, and mastering effective unarmed self defense is something like a part time job and only possible for those in great physical health and of the right sex.

*their doctor decides whether to send them for in-depth psychological testing

**there also is a subspecies of us which evolved to prey on us, by any means (how else do you explain the adaptations-no conscience, lack of empathy, proneness to violence, superficial charm ..)

***there are nations where you cannot legally own and carry pepper sprays.


I think the default American attitude to ownership of weapons is absolutely barking.

On the other hand? It's possible to go way too far the other way. There was a proposal by some doctors in the UK to ban the ownership of long kitchen knives with pointy ends, in order to reduce the risk of injury during household altercations. I'd characterise that level of precautionary restriction as equally barking.

Personally, I'd like to be able to go to a firing range, rent a pistol, and make holes in a paper target. Currently that's not really possible in the UK. On the other hand, I'd be deeply uneasy about the regulatory environment if I was allowed to keep a handgun and ammunition at home, or if my neighbours had access to fully automatic weapons.

NB: I think your assumptions about police forces being limited and unable to respond rapidly and about violent criminals being common are, for the most part, false.


You've written a lot about the business models and problems of fiction publishing. Any insight on the audio book side of things? I'm really curious about two aspects-- the royalty split for authors, and why, given digital distribution channels, they are still so much more expensive than their dead tree or ascii(ish) equivalents: An audible, your average book goes for somewhere around $25-$30, and upwards of $40-$50 is not that uncommon.



None. I know sod-all about audiobooks. (My agent handles rights sales for audiobook rights; I don't use the things and have very little interest in them.)


You don't like an character representing extreme capitalist wish-fulfillment about "Arms Dealer Makes Good While Showing Private Entity Vigilantism FTW!!" ??

I'm shocked! ;)


Tony Stark is Donald Rumsfeld's Mary Sue. Or maybe Dick Cheney's.

I'd have had to write him as some kind of cyborg Viktor Bout figure, a cigar-chomping kitten-eating villain hell-bent on magnifying his wealth by imposing disaster capitalism regimes on hapless foreign victims via his accomplices minions at the WTO: sort of a modernized version of 1920's Bolshevik anti-capitalist propaganda. I don't think Marvel's fan base would have been too happy with that, circa 2006 (before the wheels had clearly fallen off the Iraq occupation).

I prefer China Mieville's alternative version.


Futurama? Really? What is it about this particular show?


LOL! You great big sci-fi geek!


Your novels tend to have fairly complex (and generally consistent) counterfactual histories, especially when they fall into series. How much of this is planned before writing versus while writing (versus while editing for continuity, versus not planned at all, versus none of the above)? Does this make it more difficult to write sequels / impose an upper limit on number of sequels that you bump your head against?


You said a strong AI would likely wander off and not follow you're instructions, which is fair, (but I sometimes feed ants), but what would you ask a weakly superhuman AI to do if you had, say, the equivalent of ten lifetimes thinking in an hour?

(and only the one hour)


On my browser (FireFox 3.6, though most versions of FF do this), I right-click on a blank portion of the web page. The drop-down nmenu contains 'Back' and 'Forward', as well as 'Bookmark this page', etc.

On this blog, I typically click 'Replied to' link, read, then do Right-Click/'Back'.


Futurama is like every cliché in TVTropes rolled up and knowingly, ironically, deconstructed on screen by people who actually like the source material but are smart enough to see its flaws. (Not all the time, but when it's at its best.)


Are you planning on attending World Con in Chicago?


I don't usually do a huge amount of detailed planning before a book -- rather, I toss a bunch of ideas around in my head for a couple of years and see what sticks together, then start writing. Often new complications and second-order sideeffects reveal themselves to me as I go on.

When I'm at the end of book 1, I've got the luxury of editing it for internal consistency. But if I get multiple books into a series, there's a high probability that I'll have developed the background well enough to begin to see internal problems or stuff I should have done differently ... which is now frozen in print. So yes, it gets harder to write sequels. Much easier to drop the project and do a clean-sheet reboot.

(I'm not the only author who does this: I'm currently reading "Area 51" by John Barnes, which is badly mis-marketed as a technothriller -- rather, it's a complete 20-years-later rethink and reboot of his earlier "meme wars" stories, such as "Kaleidoscope Century" and "Candle".)


What do you think has been the biggest mistake of mankind in the last 100 years?


Ten lifetimes' thinking in an hour isn't a lot.

Approximate one lifetime to 70 working years. That's 700 person-years of work. Or a research team of 35 people working for 25 years.

Now, there's a big difference between the amount of conceptual heavy lifting your average person can do in a day and, say, Richard Feynman. 700 Richard Feynman years is not the same as 700 bus driver years, in other words. So let's assume we've got a virtual RF in a box.

There is a problem. Most research targets a human being like me would want to see tackled involve applied sciences: before you can come up with hypotheses and test them against data, you need to get the data from somewhere. So our 700 RF years of thinking aren't much use in, say, solving the tertiary protein folding problem or explaining how phenotype emerges from genotype. You might generate some interesting hypotheses, but the legwork to test whether they're true or not simply isn't there.

What the mind in a box is good for is algorithm work. An answer to the P = NP question would be neat, or a sorting algorithm faster than Quicksort. Or you could ask for a better-than-Rawls theory of justice (rooted in game theory with inputs from current cognitive psychology), or a formal solution to reasoning under conditions of prior uncertainty (the flip side of Bayes' theorem). And these would eventually have long term spin-off value. But they're not on quite the same level as discovering a generalizable cure for the complex of metabolic disorders known as old age, or detecting the Higgs Boson.

Also? Right now we're seeing more than 700 genius-years of research go into each of these topics every year. 700 genius-years is nothing against the scale of our contemporary engine of progress.


Factoid from the far side of the Atlantic:

Firearms laws in the US vary across the States and cities. Also, crime patterns inside the US don't directly correlate with either regional laws or regional distribution of firearms ownership and use. The strongest correlation is to population density.

But you are right if you say that all areas of the U.S. allow firearms to be kept in the home. (My understanding of gun ownership in England is that owners must keep them locked at a Police Station or a Sportsman's Club of some kind...I'm assuming Scotland is not far different.)

But I'll get off that hobby-horse and ask a question: can you name some part of U.S. culture that you think is preferable to its analog in British culture?

I'm kind of curious.


Developing nuclear weapons before the development of civil nuclear energy for power production.

Alternatively, allowing the widespread use of antibiotics for non-life-threatening conditions.

(Or maybe Trotsky's error of judgement in agreeing with Lenin that the time was right to mount a putsch in St Petersburg.

Or going back further, Wilhelm II's disastrous and short-sighted willingness to back Austria to the hilt in ganging up on Serbia in the aftermath of a certain assassination.

History is replete with such single-point failures.)


For any sufficiently large (>20M) nation today, do you think it is possible/viable/responsible/necessary not to participate in military conflict that is NOT territorial defense?


Do you like your characters? Which one most?


Your understanding of the UK's firearms law is not correct.

Handguns are flat-out illegal for civilians, with a mandatory 5 year prison sentence for possession. (It's a strict-liability offense, like ownership of kiddie porn; there's currently a granny in prison on a five year stretch because when her husband died she found he had a WW2 era revolver in the attic and reported it to the police.)

Tasers are handguns, for purposes of the law.

Rifles and shotguns are legal to own, subject to having a license (the police have discretion in granting these to some extent), but only single-shot-per-trigger-pull: IIRC pump-action shotguns or semi-auto rifles are illegal. Muzzle-loaders are classified as shotguns, so ownership of black-powder muzzle-loading pistols is relatively straightforward. And airguns are mostly legal (except for some high power models).

Police and military are allowed access to weapons that are illegal for civilians, but most police are "unarmed" (read: side-arm batons, anti-stab vests, pepper spray, and in some forces, tasers) except for specialist firearms teams.

As for your question ...

There tends to be an openness, generosity, and optimism ingrained in American culture that we could do with some of over here. (But don't get me started about the birthers and teabaggers.)


One of the things I like about your writing is that you have a wide variety of fully realised female characters, who exist as people in their own right rather than as love interests or as plot coupons for the men to 'win'.

You also seem to have thought deeply about how women are affected by our gender roles in society (Miriam/Helge, Robin and Rachel all have to deal with going from a society with relative freedom and equality to one without).

Sadly, this is rather unusual among male sci-fi writers, or among male writers in general (and, yes, many female writers...) You pass the Bechdel Test more often than many.

So anyway, the question is: why? What leads you to think about this question repeatedly? Do you have any tips for other male writers?

[Or, more broadly, I'd be interested in any thoughts you may have about gender in fiction.]


Yes. About 80% of the military "interventions" the west is prone to these days are basically colonial hold-overs or wars fought under false pretenses to shore up economic hegemony.

If it's not a civil war or a natural disaster, we probably shouldn't be sending troops there. (And natural disasters could be better tackled by an international rescue organization with proper equipment for the job. You could envisage something like a marine helicopter carrier, only without the weapons and opposed-landing capability, with the equivalent of a large trauma hospital and lots of emergency medical, food, and shelter supplies instead. Betcha it'd be cheaper than sending the marines -- and better at the job, too.)


I try not to get too attached to any particular characters, because we have to part ways eventually.


Will our current notions of privacy seem hopelessly ridiculous and naive in 10, 20 or 50 years?


"...can you name some part of U.S. culture that you think is preferable to its analog in British culture? "

Hell Yes!
Optimism and the US "can do" attitude.


So anyway, the question is: why? What leads you to think about this question repeatedly? Do you have any tips for other male writers?

Well, purely from a cold-bloodedly commercial perspective, around 60% of fiction readers are women. Even in the most testosterone-drenched mil-SF ghetto, the readership is around 40% female. So not giving them characters they can identify with, or being misogynistic, is career-limiting stupidity.

More generally: if racism is unacceptable, why should sexism be any different? A lot of written SF is deeply reactionary in its political outlook -- something that goes hand in hand with romantic adventure, but it's deeply disturbing all the same. I don't think it's particularly healthy for escapist literature to want to escape into a feudal hell-hole or a galactic empire where, presumably, there's a secret police officer lurking behind every droid. And the endemic sexism in so much SF is the moral equivalent of rooting for the gender Gestapo.

(At around the age when most SF readers encounter Heinlein and, in the US, Ayn Rand, I encountered Heinlein -- and Joanna Russ, and I also read "The Female Eunuch" and "The Feminine Mystique". So my writing is partially informed by second wave feminism. Not very well informed -- I have the usual middle aged male's cognitive blind spots -- but I'd like to think I can aspire to do better.)



(I just typed a lot, on what was meant to be a day off. Back later.)

(( Did I say I typed a lot? I typed over 7000 words on this interview today! I may not be back until tomorrow ... ))



... I shut it down yesterday when I realized I'd written roughly 7000 words of answers in one day. Which is most of a weeks' regular writing work, in novel terms. I can't keep up with the firehose, so if comments are switched off, you'll know it's because I've hit overload again.


Our current notions of privacy are already out of step with reality. There are two problems: firstly, our capacity to capture, store and process immense quantities of data, and secondly our motivations for doing so. We have an unfortunate confluence of interests right now between corporations who seek to acquire huge amounts of data in the pursuit of profit (often mediated via the advertising industry), and government security bureaucracies, who find the allure of information irresistible. The latter is nothing new -- just read up on the East German Stasi for a classic pre-computer example -- but our new technologies facilitate pervasive surveillance to an extent never seen before.


There is nothing inevitable about the erosion of privacy. Data retention is a policy decision, not a law of nature: being mesmerized by the emergence of new technologies is no excuse. The problem actually has its roots in archaic political imperatives born of an information-poor age, where more was automatically considered to be better. The defining problem of politics in the 21st century will be how we learn to deal with too much information, and privacy is just one angle on this particular prism.


@dirk bruere: Unfortunately the "can do" attitude sometime brutally clashes with the necessities of "no, actually, you can't"...

@Charly: how can we best remove the divide between environmental consciousness and technological optimism?


In a Charlie Stross dictatorship, what would copyrights look like?


@Charly: how can we best remove the divide between environmental consciousness and technological optimism?

I think it's already happening. There are two distinct strands to environmentalism. One is a quasi-mystical view of nature as religion, which holds human modifications of our environment to be sinful; the other is a (in my opinion more grounded) view of human beings as organisms that have co-evolved with their environment, and which are at risk of being damaged if the environment they depend on is damaged (whether by pollution, mass extinction, or by climate change).

The second viewpoint (Bruce Sterling was calling it "Viridian" in the late 90s, and he's always a decade or so ahead of the curve) seems to me to be entirely compatible with technological society and scientific progress: it's not compatible with unlimited resource consumption, but it's not intrinsically pessimistic. Whereas in the eschatological, mystical gaia-worship version of environmentalism everything we do is sinful until we "go back to living in harmony with nature" (which I read as a synonym for "98% of us die; the rest go back to the stone age" -- with a misreading of the environmental impact of neolithic hunter-gatherers laid on top).


To the end user, the problem would Not Exist.

There'd be a compulsory licensing charge applied to bandwidth, instead -- much like the BBC Television License Tax, it would apply to any internet connection: if you own any such widget (including mobile phones or devices capable of leeching off public wifi hotspots) you must pay an annual license fee -- usually bundled in with the cost of the broadband connection, capped at one license fee per person (so you don't pay half a dozen times if you have six devices: you just pay once).

Money from the license fee would go into a pot and be divvied up along the lines of PLR payments, to the rights holders (not distributors: it goes to authors or publishers or musicians, not book wholesalers or music studios).

In return, the end users would be indemnified against any legal liability incurred from file-sharing or downloading of [material covered by the licensing scheme].

Because there's no incentive to hide what you're downloading if you're immune from prosecution, the incentive to hide file-sharing goes away. Meaning it's possible to audit anonymized traffic and see how much of what is being consumed, and use the traffic data to equitably allocate the payments.

Copyright would still exist; it's just that the public at large wouldn't have to worry about it any more -- it'd be something for publishers, authors, or movie studio lawyers to deal with.

As for software, I see no reason why software should be covered by an intellectual property regime that evolved to deal with books and music. It's insane, and it needs to be replaced with something else.

Note that implicit in this system is the idea that support for the arts is a public common good that should come out of government spending, and also that copyright -- being a component of international trade treaty laws today -- is virtually impossible to dislodge, but should be taken out of the consumers' faces (where it never belonged in the first place).


Since you and someone else said the same thing, I'll accept it as true.

And now to find an American whose traveled extensively in England/Scotland/Wales/Ireland to tell me what is better in that culture than on this side of the Atlantic...

Thanks for the correction, I decided to do some research on Wikipedia. (Generally, you're right...but there are always details to niggle over, and I mis-rememberd a special rule as a general rule.)


On second thoughts, if it's a Charlie Stross world dictatorship, I'd have the luxury of rewriting international trade treaties to my own content. So copyright as we know it would cease to exist. But then, so would a large chunk of late-period capitalism as currently practiced (notably: I'd criminalize almost all forms of currency and commodity speculation and work on the principle that if a given policy contributes to putting Goldman Sachs and Harvard Business School out of business, then I'm probably on the right trail).


OK, a second question in the absence of a cookie. Can I buy you a beer this evening?

Meanwhile, your comment about firearms law is largely correct, but of course the 1997 Firearms Act has the typical daft loopholes that come from rapid "something must be done" legislation...

Demand: "handguns are dangerous, all must be banned".

Query: "but what about the Olympic sports, which use firarms that are heavily optimised for putting holes in paper, not people?"
Response: "Tough".

Query: "what of historic firearms?"
Response: "well, you can't really run amok with a black-powder muzzle-loader, so those aren't banned".

The end result was legislation that banned the rather fragile single-shot 0.22 target pistols as used at the Olympics, but allowed six-shooter 0.45 as seen in all those Westerns...

...amusingly, some bright spark tried to manufacture a black-powder pistol that was of a high enough quality to be competitive in Olympic Rapid-Fire pistol events (and after much hassle, the GB Olympic hopefuls are allowed to train in the UK with their firearms).

Others managed to get certain single-shot 0.22 pistols classed as "long arms" so that you can now legally shoot the Olympic Free Pistol event in the UK.


Do you think a Charlie Stross world dictatorship would be a good idea?


My wife and I have recently given birth (she did the hard work) to a healthy baby boy. We're both teachers, on a decent wage (by quirk of fate in China at the moment, but that's not strictly relevant).

The question is - should I be overall optimistic or pessimistic about little Edmund's future?

(even assuming the absence of CASE GREEN NIGHTMARE)


I assume you're already familiar with your colleague Dr.Brin ideas about a transparent society (if by chance not: here).
Do you think his ideas are good at least in principle, and have a chance in hell of being implemented if that's so?


No, because I don't think any dictatorship is a good idea, and world dictatorships in particular are a really bad idea.

(In this respect I diverge strongly from the default politics of traditional hard SF which seems to be: "got a social problem? A brisk return to feudalism will probably solve it!")


"Or you could ask for a better-than-Rawls theory of justice (rooted in game theory with inputs from current cognitive psychology)"

Hm, I think the outlines of neuro-existentialist ethics (aware of the human tendency towards self-deception) are clear.
When it comes to formulating it, though, we run into the inherent weaknesses of linear algorithms coded in human language. Especially, if this theory is supposed to be communicable to people, who fail to understand what entropy is and who are unwilling to view themselves as anything but beings of pure magic.

So, my question:
For this theory to be useful, who would need to be able to understand it? The majority of voters, politicians in general, some politicians or a mere handful of scientists and opinion-leaders?


While I do have a lot of questions, I hope you'll indulge something a little different. I'm new here, and I'm working hard to get caught up...but being a guy, I have been known to miss things, so forgive me if my remarks are out of date:

I'm genuinely sorry to hear (read?) about the family medical issues your family is facing. I sympathize, and I sincerely hope everything turns out to be okay.


Hi Charlie,

following from the LOTR as favourite childhood book question and tying in with 'hating hollywood blockbuster'.. did you watch the LOTR Trilogy and what did you think?


Charlie @ 202
"Single-point failures.
Here's two classics:
The Edict of Fontainbleu, 15th October 1685.
Handed the Planet, on a plate to the English-speakers, by evicting the Huguenots
Antony Eden British PM 1955-7
Every single thing he touched turned to shit - later

& @ 207 - re. Assistance as opposed to military intervention.
Harry Harrison wrote along those lines in a short about 25 years ago(I think) ...
What do you do about N. Korea?
My suggestion is something like the HH story coupled with John Brunner's "Who Steals my Purse" - you have to get the PRC to fly fighter-cover though!
OTOH, what does one do about Piracy, esp. Somlia? I'm told that the idiot EU redefined Piracy as a simple crime, rather than an Act of War.
Which means (apparently) that you can't just blow the bastards away - which is the only solution that has ever worked for this problem (so far)

@ 221
And Charlie's comment earlier.
Can someone give me a link for the Granny in jail for having an inherited firearm?
And, what do you do if you find one on your property?
I was under the impression that you were SUPPOSED to tell the police to come and take it away.
but, if they then send you to the slammer, the incentive is to HIDE it - erm ...
Which leads to supplementry Q # 3
"Strict Liability " legislation - seems to be a total disaster. Is ity?
And, in the case referred to, why was she prosecuted, if she was trying to dispose of the weapon safely and legally?


Who needs to understand it? As many people as possible. (If you go with "secret doctrine" mechanisms you end up with abominations such as Straussianism. Also: single points of failure are bad.) On the other hand, it needs an accessible and "common sense" explanation as well as a more formal definition. (See, for example, the way electron orbitals are simplified in chemistry classes targeting students who aren't yet up to grappling with quantum electrodynamics.)


I sat through the first LOTR movie but didn't bother with the other two.

Current fashions in camerawork in Hollywood don't dwell on a given scene for long enough for my rather damaged retinas to synthesize a meaingful picture: it was nearly three hours of annoying motion blur. Unwatchable, for purely technical reasons.


What do you do about N. Korea?

North Korea is an embarrassment to China, who in theory have "good" relations with them. I suspect leaving the NK problem to the Chinese politburo to sort out is the least likely approach to result in a war, and as a war in the Korean peninsula is likely to result in deaths on a huge scale and massive suffering, that would be a good thing to avoid.

And, in the case referred to, why was she prosecuted, if she was trying to dispose of the weapon safely and legally?

See this BBC report. Turns out it has a less unhappy ending.

She appealed and got the 5 year sentence commuted to 240 hours of community service on appeal. (The appeals court judges were initially divided over whether exceptional mitigating circumstances applied, but came down on the side of relative sanity in the end.)

This is a perfect example of why mandatory sentencing is a Bad Idea.

(NB: It turns out she wasn't trying to dispose of the piece -- she'd kept her dad's wartime souvenir on the mantlepiece for 29 years. The police spotted it when they paid the premises a visit ... I suspect if she'd been calling to dispose of it and swore blind she hadn't known it was in that box in the attic she wouldn't have been charged.)


Do you consider laws mandating the use of seatbelts by car passangers an example of nanny statism?


What do you make of the recent burqa ban in France?


No, I consider it a good idea.

The USA loses the equivalent of a 9/11's worth of lives every four weeks to automobile accidents. The UK (with a smaller population and safer roads) has about that many deaths per year, and carnage that cripples thousands more for life. Worldwide, the annual death toll from motor vehicles operated by human beings is on the same order as a major war. During the 20th century motor vehicles killed more people worldwide than the First World War. And over 90% of those deaths and injuries are caused by human operator error or impairment.

This is a very dangerous technology -- much more so than civil nuclear power! -- and our ability to assess the risks surrounding it is impaired by familiarity.

Seat belt laws caused a noticeable, sharp drop in the death and injury toll on the roads without significantly affecting anyone's ability to drive: I'd call that a win. The sooner we have self-driving vehicles as reliable as a sober, alert professional human driver, the sooner we can ban human-operated vehicles from our public highways for good.

(Accidents almost always affect non-consenting third parties. So even from a libertarian perspective there'd be a strong argument for regulating and controlling vehicle use in public.)


The ban on wearing burqas in public is another example of authoritarian alpha males imposing a dress code on women: morally it's exactly as indefensible as that which it seeks to ban.

(The associated criminalization of men forcing or compelling women to wear burqas is another matter entirely. I think a law outlawing enforcement of all dress codes and uniforms, regardless of gender -- except the wearing of safety equipment in hazardous environments -- would be an even better idea.)


Right click on the phrase "this comment from ______" and choose "Open in New Tab." This will open the comment you want to read in a new tab. Try it! It's easy and fun.


Charlie, Are you paranoid? If so, are you paranoid enough?

For the record, I am paranoid, but I don't know if I'm paranoid enough.

BTW, as scared as you are of your neighbors being allowed to keep handguns in their homes, that's about how scared I am that my right to do so would be taken away. Yes, I live in the U.S. in an area where owning and keeping a handgun is permitted. One can actually wear them in public as long as: 1) They are not concealed, unless you have a CWP. & 2) You don't take them into certain restricted areas, schools, etc.


Another statistical oddity: the total number of deaths in road travel in the U.S. remains fairly constant over the period 1980-2010. (High values in the vicinity of 50000/yr, low values in the vicinity of 40000/yr. Two high points in the early '80s, and a general value in the vicinity of 42000 over the '90s and the '00s.)

While it is declining in per-capita terms, it may not be declining in terms of per-personal-mile-traveled per year.

This is a perennial topic of discussion in the business I work in, which supplies parts to Automobile manufacturers. While the idea of autonomous cars is still firmly in the hands of research Universities, limited driver-assist technology is being experimented with by automotive OEM's and suppliers.

(To bring up firearms again, death rates in automobiles is approximately 2.75x the number of homicides by firearm in the U.S. on a yearly basis, approximately 60x the number of accidental deaths by firearm on a yearly basis, at least during the '00s. Cars are dangerous things.)


Charlie, if a tech. singularity will make our economic and social systems obsolete, can we get out in front of that problem now so it's not so traumatic when it happens? How?


I just re-read Accelerando, and didn't think it needed much patching. The two obvious problems which stuck out at me were:

1.) That nineties idea that video goggles would save us all is looking a little dated. This may be a personal perception rather than a shared perception.

2.) Aineko was a Sony product. Sony's default behavior is to sue unto death those who attempt to modify their products (I've been following the George Hotz case on Groklaw) so the idea of that Manfred could have a heavily modified Sony cat without having Sony sue him unto death is clearly fictional. "We claim the right to physically destroy any reputation server that mentions the defendant."

Neither issue was more than a "hmmm" before I dived back into the book, and I will doubtless read it many more times - it's way too good a read to leave on the shelf.


I'm tempted to modify that slightly: special legal privileges only apply when wearing the appropriate uniform. So, most obviously, soldiers in uniform carry weapons, and policemen have special law enforcement powers. The flip side is that a uniform can make a guy a bit big-headed.

Maybe the guy on the council who can take you to court over a vermin infestation should wear a hat with Mickey Mouse ears?


You're a man who knows his gadgets, you've written about e-readers in the past, and I'm about ready to buy one.

Specifically, I'm looking at the Kindle and the Sony 650 (the newish not-glare-ridden touchscreen one). I'm not particularly bothered about the price difference, it's lost in the noise compared to my book spending. I'm not particularly bothered about being able to buy books wirelessly from the unit, I spend a lot of time at the computer anyway. Ability to deal with PDFs (exam past papers, formula books, academic papers etc) matters.

Possibly-relevant things about me: Geeky, linux-flavoured (Ubuntu at home but has windows available in a vbox), not generally a gadgets guy (I don't have a tablet and my phone is a razr v3...), reads a LOT. I expect to buy a lot of books on this thing as well as reading things that are long out of copyright, and to use it for a long time. I often read one-handed (not, I hasten to add, any sort of euphemism).

The Sony looks much prettier and more solid, and that may be a factor - but not if there are good reasons to prefer the kindle.

What should I buy and why? ("Both" is fine if there's a good reason!)


Have a cookie. (I don't know.)


Sony have become progressively More Evil with every decade that has passed since Akio Morita's death.

("Lobsters", aka Accelerando Chapter One, was written in 1998-99. At that point there was a well-established community of Aibo hackers modding and programming their Sony robot dogs.)


Rural British background here, so shotguns have been common enough in my life that I don't get a memetic allergic reaction to guns.

I've also seen some pretty stupid behaviour.

It must be close to twenty years ago that a missile battery was deployed, on exercise, to protect a local oil refinery. By the end of the day, the local police had sent down a team of firearms officers, because somebody had seen one of the soldiers "wandering around with a gun".



Guess I should not have combined my 2 comments into 1 post.

I'm a bit paranoid, not at an abnormal level, I think, just an aware one, but not about guns.


P.S. Shotguns are probably the best home defense weapon.

I heard a story from a Brit friend of mine about an elderly British gentleman who kept getting robbed. Hoodlums went out of their way to drive out to his rural residence to burgle him. Finally, he got a shotgun, and used it the next time he was robbed. Supposedly, he was arrested, and there was a big public outcry.


... which might also parenthetically answer Dr Rick's question, of course.

(Dr Rick, I'm currently waiting for a new phone: I deliberately excluded Sony products from any comparisons I made.)


This'll be interesting: what's your take on Anthony Daniels M.D. , alias Theodore Dalrymple?


Firstly, Sony Are Evil. I mean, really evil. We whine about Apple. But? Apple don't sue jailbreakers into a smoking hole in the ground.

Amazon are evil too -- if you're a content producer. But they make nice kit.

Anyway ...

Touch and e-ink just don't work together, period. The latency in the e-ink display kills any utility of the touchscreen for making annotations -- there's a half-second wait for visual feedback after you move your finger.

Sony's software is pish. You will need an external ebook management tool and Sony expect you to use Adobe Digital Editions to buy DRM'd epub books. Good luck getting that to play nice with Linux. Luckily there's Calibre, but that won't help you with DRM'd content.

The Kindle ... I hate to say it, but it's a lot user-friendlier. If you want to read fiction, a Kindle 3 is damn near perfect. Also plays nice with Calibre if you want to sideload Mobipocket format files onto it.

Both the Kindle and the Sony talk USB mass storage, so backups and sideloading of non-DRM'd files from other sources (epub for the Sony, mobi for the Kindle) is feasible.

Now for the killer bad news: they're both shit at displaying PDFs. In fact, the only decent PDF reader I've found is the iPad. Which rocks (and there should be a jailbreak for the iPad2 imminently if you really want to run Python and an SSH server on it). Once you have initialized the iPad -- using iTunes -- and created an iTunes Store account, you can provision the iPad via wifi or 3G without plugging it into the desktop again; the only reason to do that is for OS upgrades and backups (iTunes as a backup manager? It sucks, but it's there). It's a Kindle -- the Kindle app works fine on it -- and an epub reader (via Stanza or the iBook app), and it's a PDF reader (GoodReader is really good at this) and it's fast and responsive in a way that the e-ink devices just aren't.

Oh, and once the supply chain of iPad2's gets cranking, the second-hand price of an iPad 1 will drop -- I reckon you should be able to find an iPad 16GB/wifi for under $250 within six months.


I hope the dip in popularity of video goggles is just a fad. I love mine.

It's too bad that Apple will sue the pants off of anyone who uses Gibson's term for them on an actual product: "eyephones".


A little earlier, you were considering a new better-than-rawls theory of justice, including elements of game theory and cognitive psychology. I would have thought it was possible for changes in understanding to make it easier for one individual or a group or cult of individuals to control another individual or group of individuals. Would it be a duty of such a moral code to abrade that effect, and what if anything could you say on the subject of testing whether it was occouring?


Thanks for the reply. For my eyes, I think e-ink is going to make a big difference to my quality of life; if I did all my book-reading on conventional screens like an ipad's it would break me pretty quickly, so that's not going to be my first recourse. I could see me buying an ipad 2 in a while, though, just because (for the first time in a long time) I'm feeling the lure of TEH SHINY. Not sure what I'd actually USE it for, though...

Looks like "kindle" is the answer, then. Much appreciated.


Given some of the behaviour I've seen from squaddies on exercise, maybe not so unreasonable?

Do you actually think there's any excuse for pointing a rifle at passing traffic, with a finger covering the trigger? I can think of 3 ways that breaks good fire and trigger dicipline.


A general note, by the way, as someone who has the Sony PRS-350 (the older touch screen reader) - it's a pain trying to read it in bed unless you have a suitable light. This can be a real problem in hotel rooms, as bed-side lights are often badly positioned for this, and you need better illumination to make up for the poorer contrast of current e-Ink. This will not be a problem with a backlit tablet screen.


I got a kindle for Christmas, and really like it. I've been reading a lot more, just because it's cool to use.

But be warned, you'll be buying a lot more books - it's so darn easy. Almost too easy!


Have a cookie. (My brain just crashed: it's one of those afternoons.)


The gentleman in question was someone called Tony Martin. He used to own shotguns legally but that right was taken away from him when he fired at children tresspassing on his land and at cars passing on the road beside his farm. He then obtained shotguns and held them illegally after losing his licence.

A robbery then took place at his remote farmhouse. He shot one of the thieves, a sixteen-year-old in the back at close range while, according to the other thief and the only other witness, he was on his knees and crying for his mother. The other thief was hit as he tried to get out of a window, but escaped.

At this point Mr. Martin had a dead person lying in a pool of blood in his living-room. He did not report this fact to the police and it was only after the other thief who escaped with minor wounds reported the incident that the police found out, turning up at the farm later that afternoon to investigate.

Since he had killed a gippo (what you in the US would regard as a nigger) he was lauded as a hero by the press. Prosecuting him for anything was regarded as beyond belief and the manslaughter charge he eventually faced was a sop to public sentiment rather than the murder charge he should have faced. He served his sentence and is now at large and probably armed again.


Let me add two more things that came out in the trial:

1) Tony Martin had been boasting down the local boozer the week before about how he planned to bag him a gypsy. (It probably helps to add that he was a member of the BNP -- the local fascists -- who do not like travellers.)

2) He was in the habit of lying awake on his bed, fully dressed, with a loaded shotgun, with the lights off and the ground floor windows left ajar, evidently in the hope that someone would be stupid enough to burgle the empty-looking house. The technical term for this is "entrapment" and the law generally takes a dim view of it, the theory being that if one doesn't wish to be burgled, one should shut the windows and lock the door rather than installing booby traps that might take out the postman, an ambulance crew, or a fire brigade (i.e. legitimate visitors with a reason to be on the premises).


Thanks for filling in info, to Robert Sneddon as well. Not quite the kind of thing that I'd be rooting for. As oft happens I got only a snippet of the real story.

That's a bit different then defending yourself and your family when your home gets broken into.



Sounds like you are talking about the Tony Martin case.

personally I wouldn't describe someone who shot a fleeing person in the back, leaving them to bleed to death, as a "British gentleman".



Neither would I.



We get the "Have-a-go hero prosecuted by Evil Police" from the fishwrap press here every now and again, and some of the riper fictions make their way across the Atlantic to rile up the white-wingers there as proof of what happens when you let Liberals drive.

Someone, a sitting magistrate I think, once did a roundup of the actual cases where people were prosecuted for fighting back against muggers etc. Of the half-dozen such cases he found going back over a few years, the stories actually turned out like "He caught a burglar in his home, beat him unconscious, tied him up, dragged him outside, dropped him into a pit in the garden, poured petrol over him and set him alight." This was regarded, and rightly in my opinion, by the courts as not kosher.

British law (Scotland is a law unto itself but it cleaves to the same sorts of principles) allows reasonable force to be used to defend oneself from a perceived imminent threat and that can include firearms and other forms of lethal force in some cases. Armed police, for example have shot people but not unless they are a direct perceived threat. They may be wrong in some cases (Menezes affair and others) but the rule is there. The threat does have to be imminent though. Another have-a-go hero case hit the headlines about a year ago, when someone's house was burgled. Relatives of the family involved saw the presumed burglar in the street some days later, chased him and beat him with a cricket bat so severely he sustained permanent brain damage, enough that he couldn't be prosecuted for the burglary afterwards as he was now so mentally incompetent that any punishment would be incomprehensible to him. His attackers got away with it, not being accused of attempted murder or even grevious bodily harm due to public opinion and the fishwrap press being on their side, instead they got what said fishwraps would otherwise call "a slap on the wrist" if it had been a gippo or other non-Aryan doing the same thing.


The way I see it, evil manipulation is only half the picture. The truth is closer to malevolent facilitation of other people's self-deception.
Self-deception in itself can be a harmless shortcut to happiness. Religion evolved for a reason, it works in a way. And Mother Theresa did some meaningful work.

But I think the duty of doubt is essential. I may personally feel that some strange woman is a witch, as long I'm aware of the possibility of being wrong and the shadow of possible consequences, there will be no burning at the stake.

I may doubt global warming exists, but then I should still weigh the risks of a higher electricity bill against the risk of global extinction and have the humility to not actively stand in the way, just in case.

These are over-drawn cases, in real life self-deception tends to be more sneaky. (Granted, global warming sceptics do exist in real life.) But doubt always requires determination and effort - cognitive load. You have to push for it. And you have to push back against malevolent facilitators. But the "victims" of manipulation are mostly also culpable of either cognitive laziness or -worse- of active self-aggrandization. You have to hold them up to the duty of doubt as well.


While I am firmly in the no-firearms-camp and have a healthy contempt reserved for Mr.Martin, there are quite a few things in the comments by Robert Sneddon and Our Gracious Host that do not appear to be true.

- Mr.Martin did not have "a dead person lying in a pool of blood in his living-room", rather the burglar made it through the window and outside the house after having been shot and died on the (if I understand correctly) rather large grounds of his farm. The body was found the next day by a neighbour.
- I have seen nothing to indicate that Mr.Martins victim was "kneeling on the ground crying for his mother" when he was hit, indeed the court documents paint the quite different picture of the shot having been fired without warning, and without the two burglars knowing that someone would shoot at them in a confused night-lit-by-handheld-torch scenario.
- The court records speak of the burglars breaking a window to get in, so the "habit of leaving windows ajar" seems wrong.
- I never heard the "bragging at the pub" bit, and can't find any reference to it now. Also, from all I could gather, Mr.Martin was and is not a member of the BNP, only endorsed them after he got out of prison (presumably because they would be the types of idiots to laud him for his actions)
See the appeal judgment for more details.

As I said, I don't condone TM's actions all and am pretty horrified that he got out of prison after only three years for purposefully killing someone. But stating sensationalist untruths (which people are accusing the media of in this thread after all) doesn't help.


What do you reckon is the best way to end a novel/work of fiction? I've always thought that killing off the main character adds a nice memorable twist to it. Have you ever thought of killing off your own protagonist as a way to end a series?


It was a hard question. Okay, what do you think is out there?


I've killed off my own first-person-present-tense narrator two thirds of the way through a book -- not even at the end! -- just to telegraph that they're unreliable.

Srsly., in fiction it's not so much that there are no rules as that you get to make your own rules. Making up a good set of rules and then sticking to them is, of course, harder than making up a crap set ...


You said Accelerando was "so 90's".

I think its quite astonishing, myself, and still very topical. What in the heck would you consider to be whatever the opposite of "so 90's" is?

Kindest Regards,






Hans, the Singularity was common currency among a whole bunch of very interesting people in the late 80s/early 90s. By the second decade of the 21st century, as material for SF, it's 20-30 years old! One might as well write a novel about the first expedition to the moon in the mid-1960s.

(You may find "Rule 34", forthcoming in July, interesting if you read it as an elliptical critique of the whole idea of strong AI that Vernor was pioneering as subject matter for SF in the 80s and 90s.)


As someone intimately affected by it, I'm curious about your reaction to recent rejection by the court of the Google Books vs. APA++ settlement? I just heard a talk by my colleague Pam Samuelson on it. It was supposedly a win-win-win for Google, publishers, and authors (in approximately that order on a inverse logarithmic scale), but had some rather far-reaching implications for anyone who wanted to access out of print or "orphaned" works (where the publishers and authors can't be found) - in effect Google could sell them.


I am going to the Science in science fiction talk now, and won't be back at the keyboard tonight, so no more answers.

For a better-informed-than-me analysis of the Google Books business, poke around this blog.


Charlie @ 236
NOTE You are safer in a Train than you are in your own house.
Ther is a reason for this, the highly-evolved railway "rule book" which cover safety procedures, and is only too aware of avoiding single-point errors, to tie in to an earlier discussion.

Strong AI
Even weak AI - almost-as-intelligent as a cat/dog/other ape?
Any suggestions.


I'll accept that.


Well then let me ask it a different way: a couple decades after cellphones started falling out of the sky, would there be anything left on Rochard's World we would call a "society?"


Charlie Stross,

I'm pretty sure that writing about the Singularity is not the same thing as writing about a trip to the moon, since we have, in fact, been to the moon and back. Stories about an expedition to Mars would be more apropos.

That said, I'd find it a bit depressing to think the state of the art in sf is critiques of decades old ideas :) which is what my question was about.

I will eagerly await "Rule 34" then. (Yikes! I should *not* have Googled that from work!)

Which points up another way in which our former colonialistic masters best us culturally (basically, healthier attitudes about boobs).




(I don't know if your last comment indicates that your interview is over or simply delayed whilst you're AFK - oh well, worst that happens is I get no answer. Apologies if in my read of the thread this question has come up, also.)

One of the things that worries me about ebooks and readers and so on is that I quite like sharing my books with my partner. I read things, and I recommend things to her. I've avoided an ebook reader because I don't want to take my entire book collection -with- me whenever I travel somewhere, because she might be reading something. Hmm, not sure how to phrase the question I want to ask. Is a future where I'm increasingly coerced into being unable to share my books with friends and partners a likely one, and will it be possible to -legally- overcome that, electronically, or do publishers universally see restricting content sharing as a good thing? Apologies if that's a bit mangled (or again, if it's been asked, I know that electronic distribution certainly has been touched on several times in the comments.)


I noted that earlier in the interview you mentioned that you detested Tony Stark. As such I would like to bring your attention to this:

Now for my question: You have such a varied body of work and worlds, how do you organize it all? Specifically, how do you sort out the good stories from the bad?


Why are you scared that your handguns will be taken away?

I'm really genuinely curious, as I can't get any of my fellow Americans who are gun enthusiasts to explain to me why they are afraid Obama will take their guns away in a coherent manner (despite no politician having proposed any gun legislation in almost 20 years).

Every explanation I've heard always comes down to either a Dirty Harry Fantasy (shooting a home invader) or a Red Dawn fantasy, (shooting lots and lots of country invaders--the same thing on a larger scale) neither of which really justifies gun ownership, but rather explains away a gun fetish.


That was a famous case, and as I was an NFU member at that time, I got a pretty full briefing on the incident and it's legal implications.

The key legal point was that he shot the burglars in the back, while they were running away. This, and a lot else, didn't get mentioned by the newspapers pumping the public outrage.

I think Charlie would frown on further discussion.


Thanks for your detailed reply. I'm not sure whether to consider this an optimistic or pessimistic vision of the future. I guess a stable civilization is better than none at all, but a world in which there are no frontiers, no scientific progress, where everyone has roughly equal status and we get all our knowledge from encyclopedias sounds very stagnant and uncreative! I guess people who need excitement and status will escape into virtual worlds, sort of like in the Matrix?

I agree that if strong AI happens all bets are off. Would you bet against that? What could prevent a Singularity from happening?


On the subject of Tony Stark, are you seriously claiming that you wouldn't want to be a billionaire playboy scientific genius superhero who saves the world on a regular basis? If not, why not??


(With apologies to Charlie if he considers this too much thread-wander.)

I beg to differ. In the film, Dirty Harry was a policeman, not a private citizen.

I also beg to differ on the idea of using force to protect life or property as being rare in the U.S. While it is not common on an individual level, it occurs regularly on a nationwide basis.

Several bloggers in the U.S. make a habit of collecting such stories from local news sources.

For example,


Charles Stross: How likely do you believe it is that radical improvements in the maximum human life span will occur in the next 40 years?

Some fascinating work has been done with mice and simpler organisms, but right now, the only way to slow human aging is radical calorie restriction (something that most of the population finds impossible/undesirable).

Plenty of futurists (Ray Kurzweil certainly comes to mind), predict massive increases in human life span, but at present, our understanding of human aging is in its infancy...


Is there a book you would love to write but real world constraints (time, potential sales, etc.) prevent you from writing?


this whole thing about bearing arms as a militia to defend your country against invaders is utter bobbins.
for one the US is the strongest military power on the planet and it is quite unlikely that north Korea is going to invade you
Red Dawn couldnt ever have haver happened, its this 'defenceless victim 'complex, bonkers.
and as for an armed populace defending itself against 'tyranny'
look how well Iraq's people did before and after the invasion


I'm mystified by that myself. I'm a gun-owning American (two mil-surp bolt-action rifles) and I really don't think that in the foreseeable future the gummint's going to come and take them away, or make it appreciably harder or more expensive to get them.

Indeed, I was annoyed by the post-election hysteria because the price of all things firearm suddenly jumped way up, and there was no rational basis for it.


I've no agenda with this but my ex-gf knew one of the 2 shot.
From what she said he wasn't exactly the model "you got me bang to rights" type of criminal (an evil fucking shit I think were her verbatim words). She did Law at Uni and it apparently came up at some point - the discussion turned very long and fairly heated.
In this case both sides were wrong, it seemed, to me at least,to be a case of persistent burglary and one of progressively excessive aggression by Martin (whatever his views were before this started, this won't help them after).

I have to say I wonder what would happen if I found a burglar in my place - I own a longbow - certainly sufficient to kill at a distance of 100 yds (with sharp 'live' arrows), happily I don't have any lives in the house but a flu-flu ("slow" safe ones used for re-enactment) would do significant damage at close range in the wrong place.

Hmm straying from the Question I wanted to ask ....

You've had a pretty good record in you near future novel with predicting the future - ever get worried that someone will turn up a mathematical equation that unleashes gibbering horrors on us all ?


"if a given policy contributes to putting Goldman Sachs and Harvard Business School out of business, then I'm probably on the right trail."

Hey! You mean except for me, right?




Shee-it. Don't answer that if it counts as a question. Not that I'm likely to come up with one before comments close, but why not keep the option?

Unless you did include me.


It's one of those totemic issues that gets dragged out for tribal reaffirmation purposes.

"So, we're all agreed then: the evil liberals are coming to steel our guns. Now, let's get back to watching Nascar."

Completely ignoring the fact that, for better or worse, the Right Wingers won the gun debate. They also like to ignore the fact that they lost the abortion debate. The unfortunate confluence of these two facts is the frequency with which abortion providers are shot in the country.


I'd like to nominate German Social Democratic Party leader Karl Kautsky going into the Germany Parliament at the outbreak of WW1 and announcing that the German working class would participate in the war rather than sit it out, as they had said.
That gets us WW1, WW2, the Holocaust and also cut out the heart of the left, leaving capitalism and communism as the only alternatives.


What technology developments excite you?



I'm not scared that my handguns will be taken away, and I'm not scared of Obama taking them away, (specifically).

It's more that I do not want to lose that liberty

For one thing, I am not scared of guns. I would hate to have the right to have a gun taken away and have Americans develop a fear of them.

I also really do enjoy going to the shooting range, quite difficult to do with out a shooter...

Owning a handgun can be a positive experience, both individually, and for society.



Late to the party because I've been doing my tax return for a year when my retirement funds manager got fired by the company that runs the accounts, and left the new guy with a mess of improperly filed paperwork. Oh, what fun.

So, question, Charlie: if you could wish for one magical technology (for instance, strong AI, teleportation, FTL drive, universal nano-assemblers) what would it be, and what social, economic, or political problems would you want it to solve?


@ 298
GOT TO BE FTL Drive ...
All the others can wait and be solved LATER
Though Universal NanoAsseblers Real Sonn After that would be nice.....


I'm positively terrified of guns and I think that's a good thing. If somebody fails to obey the safety rules at the range I think they should be thrown out immediately.

I also think safe gun handling ought to be compulsory subject in high schools and if more people with proper appreciation of the dangers of firearms owned one the world would be a safer place.

The dramatic increase of gun crime both in the UK (13,874 in 1998/99 -> 24,070 in 2002/03 !!1!) and in Australia after their respective bans on privately owned guns goes a long way to demonstrate the dangers of governments that ignore the safety concerns of their populations. Criminals will have guns regardless.


A small correction: that figure is for England and Wales, not the UK. And last year, with just the same gun regime in the UK and many more years of near-total prohibition, the figures were down to 12,995 instances. In fact, '02/03 and '03/04 were peak years, with offences rising steadily up to that point and decreasing equally steadily afterwards.

I hate to get involved in gun control arguments, because they are unlikely to convince anybody of anything and likely to annoy Our Gracious Host, but...

40 people died from being shot in England and Wales last year. If countries that have not "ignored the safety concerns of their populations" by banning guns can better that sort of figure, please let us know. In particular, even taking that 2002 number, there were more than 26 times as many gun homicides per unit population in the USA as there were here. (And before you mention Switzerland, still thrice as many.)

I do not wish to make any judgements here as to whether gun control is a good thing or not, but any suggestion that increased gun control is a bad thing for public *safety* is ludicrous.


I know sod-all about audiobooks. (My agent handles rights sales for audiobook rights; I don't use the things and have very little interest in them.)

I didn't read your Laundry series, not really liking horror, until I listened to the audio Christmas story. Something about the reading hooked me enough to buy the books, give them as gifts, and even get the RPG (which I enjoyed despite not having gamed in years).

As a marketing tool, that short story earned you sales you'd not have made otherwise.

(Comment, not question. No reply expected.)


Murder rate in Switzerland is lower than in the UK. Pointing out that they have *gasp* more gun homicides and claiming that those are somehow worse than the British alternative of being kicked to death by drunken louts or stabbed to death or whatever else is the preferred method is something that deserves a Monty Python skit.

So, what exactly is the point of banning guns if the impact on murder rate-people dead hasn't been positively established? (I checked, nothing firm, and nothing provable). To make suicides more painful for those who no longer wish to live (if guns are not available, people go hang themselves, and mostly they do so in a manner that ensures a protracted and painful struggle. Not everyone has the sense to look up the drop table for hanging)


So in the Stross view of the future of copyright there is a significant incentive to publish content, such that you could then claim from this writer slush fund? Any survey of the volume of download could be skewed via fake downloads etc., same as now.

And since the money goes directly to the artists, the distributors at al go out of business and it's the free for all that you have claimed means people wouldn't be able to tell quality from crap (which is your justification for the continued existence of publishers in an eBook world).

In essence, you publish everything, your shopping list, your views on Arsenal's chances in the cup, your rendition of "Long and Winding Road", in order that you can push up your earnings from this fund.

Nah, sounds like it's just trying to keep authors/artists funded via a tax - if people really want to buy or not. I'm no fan of the Beeb having a direct line into our pockets, let alone everyone who considers themselves to have created worthwhile content.

With copyrights increasingly becoming a jackbooted joke and the path between creator and consumer becoming flat and free - I think a different approach is needed, or the acceptance that content creators do it for the love, not money.

The sooner we have self-driving vehicles as reliable as a sober, alert professional human driver, the sooner we can ban human-operated vehicles from our public highways for good.

I don't know, I suspect it'd work better without a ban. A ban will inspire protest, whereas without one, most people will probably switch to self-driving cars for their own reasons. Some because they never enjoyed driving in the first place, some for the extra hour or two of time (read a book or catch up on e-mail / blogs / friendface), some for the convenience of a car you don't have to park and which drives itself back and forth when needed (and which can take the child to school by itself). Professionals, of course, because it slashes the cost of car travel by half or more (do office work or make phone calls while travelling). Cheaper insurance.

At most, I'd go for a slight tightening of licensing — medical, training and suspension — but not too much.

Truckies will probably stage the biggest transport strike ever, but there's not much anyone can do about that.


We already HAVE "self-driving" cars and freight transport.

They are called RAILWAYS.


You will never have a choice between a car that is self driving and one that isn't.

What you will get, over the next 20-50 years are cars that are step by step better at preventing their operators from making mistakes.

Rear parking sensors were the start of this, now there is anti-collision tech starting to appear on high end vehicles - that will soon trickle down to all vehicles, then maybe the lane assist features for motorway driving will appear, eventually we will get cars that enforce the speed limits, then ones that can drive on the motorway while you sit and relax - only taking over when exiting.

So the path to self driving cars is a matter of constant refinement, not one of a distinct switch from one to the other.


Your comments about the LotR films and why their unwatchable to you coupled with tossing one of my latest Blu-Ray purchases in to watch finally gave me a solid question to ask you. What is your opinion of the film version of 2001?


My question to OGH Charlie Stross:

While people today are talking about how things such as peak oil and climate change may affect our day to day living in say 40 or 50 years. What do you suspect may also have a big impact and is not being discussed so much, if at all ? Thanks.


The AI question -- that's part of what "Rule 34" is about. Suffice to say, I think it's a cognitive error to even contemplate it in those terms (much as I think the question "is there a God?" is a cognitive error, because it almost invariably presupposes a whole bunch of freight attached to the word "God" that makes no sense).


Yes, because human beings are social organisms and we also tend to run on habit; the folks left standing in the aftermath will try to organize themselves, and they will do so using the toolkit of behaviours they're already comfortable with. (That's what the wind-down at the end of the book was about.)


DRM doesn't work.

In the worst case, all you have to do to crack the DRM on an ebook protected by unbreakable woo-woo encryption is to stick a digital camera in front of it and photograph the screen repeatedly, then hand the resulting pics to an OCR package.

(Or you could swap kindles with your partner.)

I'm more worried about draconian legal regimes for dealing with "pirates" that are backed up by legislation to permit ubiquitous surveillance, because the civil liberties implications are far worse than the ailment: it's like responding to an ingrowing toenail by trying to amputate your leg at the hip with a chainsaw and no anaesthesia.

To the extent that casual piracy of copyrighted material might be deemed to be a social problem, the appropriate response should be on the same level as the response to petty shoplifting, not armed gangs of roving narcoterrorists holding gun battles in the streets. Which is to say: we don't tear down our entire framework of civil liberties and institute a police state just to deter shoplifters.

(I have a different opinion of companies and individuals that deliberately pirate copyrighted works and sell them for real money -- here's an interesting essay and blog comment thread on the topic -- but that's a radically different proposition to casual file sharing.)


You'll notice that I linked to China's jape.

I'm not sure I understand the rest of your question.


I've already answered the singularity question several different ways.


are you seriously claiming that you wouldn't want to be a billionaire playboy scientific genius superhero who saves the world on a regular basis? If not, why not??

How about this?

Tony Stark is a dry drunk, and mean with it, prone to outbursts of violent behaviour. He has used his gift for invention to build a large corporate entity to keep him in the style he wants to become accustomed to, rather than, for example, productizing and distributing the power source in his suit in order to give everybody in the world energy too cheap to meter and an easy route to a carbon-neutral future. His idea of "saving the world" generally involves breaking things and beating people up or killing them -- generally people who are members of groups that do not share his elite insider status or who are trying to carve out a niche for themselves outside the framework of capitalist imperialism that he is a beneficiary of. In other words, he's a greedy bully who'd be a lot less objectionable if he did with his wealth what Bill Gates is doing. (It's kind of hard to object to funding the development of an arsenal of vaccines to eliminate childhood diseases in the developing world that kill roughly 70 million people per decade.)

More to the point, the whole superhero shtick? Leaves me somewhat cold.


It would make me very happy indeed if Aubrey de Grey's model of aging and how to deal with it turned out to be true. I'm 46: I would like to think I'm not halfway through my life already. But, oh, the horrendous cultural and social crises we'll encounter if and when a cure for the collection of progressive endogenous metabolic disorders known as "old age" turns up!

There's scope for a novel on that topic. (Not saying what or when, though, because I haven't written it yet. Let's just say, it's a long time since Wyndham's "Trouble with Lichen" and Brunner's "The Shockwave Rider", and nobody seems to have re-visited their themes thoroughly since then ...)


A bunch of them. But I'd rather not comment on abortive book proposals that still have some life in them here. (You might want to look back through the archives for the "Novels I will not write" series of blog entries.)


Isn't Red Dawn and it's ilk just a rerun of the stuff like War of the Worlds (more accurately the stuff that War of the Worlds was taking the mickey out of) from the 19th Century though?

There isn't much difference, it's just that the biggest beast on the planet's changed.


You've had a pretty good record in you near future novel with predicting the future - ever get worried that someone will turn up a mathematical equation that unleashes gibbering horrors on us all ?

I like to think I can tell fantasy from science fiction.


Sorry if you've answered this sort of thing before Charlie, but can I ask how you go about the writing process when you're writing a novel?

Do you edit as you go along or wait until you've got the first draft done and then start on that side of things?


Hey, I'm pretty sure you aren't part of the pernicious output of MBA clones the Business School relies on for its revenue stream. (The idea that all you need to run a business is a standard set of administrative tools, because awareness of what the business does is irrelevant technical stuff -- and the associated axiom that the only yardstick for success in life is to maximize your collection of universally-substitutable-barter-tokens -- is what I'm wanting to stamp down on. Not stamp out because some ideas just aren't going to go away; but they've been allowed to run rampant for too damn long, and they've damaged our culture as a result.)


Hated both. (What I've seen of them.)


The Mars Trilogy covered quite a bit. More on the topic would certainly be appreciated, though.


The War of the Worlds was itself just one of the more popular books of the then-current somebody-is-going-to-invade-Britain (usually Germans) literature.


Yeah, that's a pretty good candidate for worst disaster of the 20th century.

There are also some military ones: Rear Admiral Troutbridge's unwillingness to engage the German battlecruiser Goeben on the 7th of August, 1914, for example, had cascading consequences for the First World War and we're still dealing with the fallout from that event today in the Middle East. But yes, the Social Democrat's choosing nationalism over internationalism at the outbreak of hostilities was the great tragedy of the era.


I already answered that one.


No they're not.

The essence of the car is the ability to where you like, when you like. Railway trains run to a schedule, on fixed routes.

Yes, there are lots of upsides to trains, including much higher speed over long distances, no requirement to find parking spaces, no need to have to concentrate on driving, much better safety, and so on. But the train is not the self driving car.

The taxi is.


Magical technologies don't generally solve social problems, they create new ones.

But. One magic technology? I'd go for a simple, compact device for converting mass into electromotive force, with the proviso that the smallest version can put out on the order of 1kW of power, and the weight/bulk/cost of manufacturing one scales in proportion to the power output raised to, say, the power of 1.1 (so larger/more powerful devices are disproportionately heavier or more expensive; to put a brake on high energy applications).

The idea is: if you want to power your house or your car you can have a 20-100kW Mr Power Pack. If you want to scale it up to power industrial processes (like synthetic fuel manufacturing plants) or high speed trains, that works, but you get something that's big and non-portable. You don't get the ACME Backpack Orbit-Capable Railgun or Home H-Bomb Kit, and a tech that works more efficiently at a small scale promotes distributed power production rather than centralized utilities which make it easy for rent-seeking monopolies to arise.


You missed an event that coincided with the rise of handgun crime in the UK, namely vastly increased traffic between the UK and Eastern Europe, and reduced border controls. (The UK isn't part of the Schengen Area and passport inspection is required to enter or leave, but when you have mass immigration/emigration sooner or later someone is going to work out that they can buy handguns really cheap in Poland or Romania and sell them for lots of cash in the UK: compact, relatively easy to smuggle, and the likely customers are the same folks who'd buy drugs if you were wholesaling them. Oh, and the penalty for being caught in possession of a couple of handguns is probably no worse than that for being caught smuggling cocaine.)


A tiny typographical correction - the admiral was Troubridge. Troutbridge was the ship in The Navy Lark.

(I wonder whether it was named for Troubridge.)


In general you are a good storyteller in a genre whose core attraction is novel ideas. Do you have any literary pretensions ie do you want to try to write a "good" novel at some point. That is, something akin to (say) the first Anne Rice Vampire book (which took years of polishing, rather than the potboiler knockoffs that followed).


a different approach is needed, or the acceptance that content creators do it for the love, not money.

Fine. If you can come up with one that keeps paying me, you can have more of my books and stories. I'm not attached to copyright; if, say, Google offered to pay me a decent salary in return for me continuing to write at my current pace and placing everything in the public domain I'd go for that.

But if we end up in a race to the bottom, you're going to get bored by and by. Because I'll have to get a day job, so my writing output will drop by around 70-80% (based on experience from when I had to support myself via a day job while writing as a mostly-unpaid hobbyist). The same goes for most other professional authors. Worse: authors are, on average, middle aged or elderly -- few publish a novel worth reading before they're 30, so the median age is somewhere in the 50's. People in that position who haven't held a day job for years or decades are pretty much unemployable, by definition, so they'll be working multiple McJobs on minimum wage. Good luck grinding out the Great English Novel in your spare time ...


Erm, Charlie, what will prevent me from building a large magic power plant out of the smaller ones?

Also, you just created a world where every light stays forever on and vast factories pump anti-greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to fight heat pollution. 8-)


I more meant that it's the same theme - big power being invaded by more or less non existent threat. As far as I know War of the Worlds is a p*ss take of the whole genre.


I edit as I go along. Frequently, I edit yesterday's output before I start work on today's. And I make repeated passes through the unfinished MS to remind myself of where I've been.


One acronym: MTBF.

If the mean time between failures for a device is, say, 100,000 hours and it puts out 10kW, then that's fine -- it'll run for years without maintenance.

If you then build a 1GW plant from them, you have 100,000 of the buggers. So there's around 24 of them failing every day, on average -- but there will be some good days and some bad ones. You also have the issue of centralized power distribution, running a grid, and so on.

Obviously you'll need a 1GW plant if you want to run, say, a large aluminium smelter. But grid inefficiencies combined with MTBF make it more economical to distribute power generation nodes close to where power is applied, rather than to centralize everything (as we mostly do today).


The taxi is ... a car driven by someone else. Not necessarily someone who is as good and/or safe and/or responsible a driver as you are.


There were seven questions that the Buddha wouldn't answer because dealing with them would confuse not enlighten. Is there a God was the top of the list.



Off topic, but have you seen this:

Augmented reality glasses for police that search a mugshot database, supposedly in realtime.


Just to formulate this clearly, to run an economy centered on knowledge production (in the broad sense) requires turning that knowledge loose and compensating/motivating the producers.
No one yet knows how to do both at once well.
For lack of that, the advanced economies have stagnated and degenerated into rent seeking. This is the core driving force of the last few decades.


A taxi is, as far as the passenger is concerned, self-driven. That it uses a human being who may be fallible on occasion is an implementation detail.

It's certainly a lot closer to the ideal than Greg's train is.


Weren't that fourteen questions? Well, who cares.

The bottom line as I take it is that any questions of highly speculative nature are not worth answering. It appears that "I don't know" or more to the point "I don't care" seemed too pedestrian an answer to him.


Since Charlie's vision was to remove human failty (is that a word?) from the control loop, that is not a detail.

No-one has yet made an automated car that works in city traffic, but automatic trains exist, and seem to work about as well as human-driven ones do.


The problem with piracy is it's not so clean a line between the bad guys who sell your stuff and the nice people who just want to share with their 10.000 friends, in that the former have mostly realized it's easier to provide a venue for the latter and monetize indirectly.

Thanks to early antipiracy legislation like the 2000 digital millenium act they are even in the clear as long as the deed is done by users. So you have huge piracy enablers like rapidshare, mediafire, megaupload and another dozen clones who provide an alleged service (Which I have seen legitimately used maybe a half dozen times) while raking in the advertising and direct revenue models (They don't charge for your stuff directly, just for premium access, no delays, etc) and as long as they remove infringements expeditiously (It's probably automated at this point) they can go on pretending their service has legitimate applications that couldn't be equally served by a gmail attachment.


Given your stated views in that comment, would you describve yourself as a theological noncognitivist, ignostic, or both?


"That's what the wind-down at the end of [Singularity Sky] was about."

Which means I interpreted it incorrectly. Sorry...we Yanks can be dense sometimes. (Okay, most of the time.)

automatic trains exist, and seem to work about as well as human-driven ones do

Yes, that's about it, isn't it? Those manually driven trains have professional drivers on them. Those taxis also have professional drivers. Both still have problems, but the use of full time, focused individuals ameliorates much of the frailty.

Anyway, I wasn't denying the desirability of Charlie's vision, I was pointing out that Greg's substitution of trains was erroneous. I apologise if my final, flippant remark suggesting a somewhat closer substitute has derailed that.


In the United States, part of the military's advanced-research agency hosted something called the Urban Challenge.

Tthe Urban Challenge vehicles successfully navigated a small city with some level of (human driven) traffic intermixed.

It's still far from practicable, but a proof-of-concept has been shown.


Evangelical Atheist, First Reformed Church of St Dawkins of the Selfish DNA.


Just small biology nitpick: connectome means a map of all neuronal connections in the brain. It is different for every creature and don`t apply to those who don`t have a brain (like deep crustal thingies).


Yes, that's what I'm getting at. I know specific synaptic connections will differ between individuals -- at the very least in terms of the density of post-synaptic receptors and the degree to which a given connection is weighted -- but the overall map should be well-understood ... and I'm willing to bet that there will be some interesting patterns discovered in the taxonomy of connectomes of different species.


BTW, do you know Blue Brain Project? They can already simulate rat cortical column, and I heard from my sources that they want to simulate the entire human brain by 2030 (asssuming Moore Law still applies).


Even operating within DRM constraints, you can have six Kindles or devices with Kindle applications registered to a single Amazon Kindle account, all able to access the same set of purchased books.

My primary reading device is a Nook, and my husband and daughter use Kindles. The Kindle account has my husband's Kindle DX, my daughter's Kindle, my Archos 70 Android tablet, my Android phone and my netbook registered.

Nook is a little more complicated, because they use more than one authentication format - but six is a pretty good number for them too. I currently have two PCs, my Nook, my backflip and my Android tablet accessing the Nook account. Somebody wanted PDF support - the Nook supports PDF - sort of. Because of the small form factor, it isn't necessarily ideal.


For me DRM schemes that are slightly forgiving are a greater threat than strict schemes.

Eventually the service _will_ be turned off, the fact that they lull people into a false sense of security by being lenient about the number of devices and the way they're used just means more people will suffer down the line.

At least with draconian DRM people will have a stark choice, accept that they no longer own their data or shop elsewhere (and really, while I might not be a DRM fan, my biggest issue is that people are buying into it without understanding the pitfalls and, once they do, it will likely be too late - and companies are taking advantage of this fact to lock people in).


Will we have to wait for world-wide labor costs to go to zero before we have the necessary conditions for a sustainable and compassionate Marxist social order?


Bellinghame @
Pertwee served on HMS Troubridge, and altered the name, slightly ....
& 343
Train safety compared to road safety - is, erm IMPORTANT
... AND the railwy "rule-book" and O/S which is delieberately designed to avoid single-point failures, human error, etc

@ 336
"War of the Worlds" was H. G. Wells' take on an Out-of-Context Problem.
We ("Europeans") were doing it to other societies all over the globe.
Wells turned it round.


There's a series (Emortality) by Brian Stableford which looks at these issues over a wide timespan - both short stories and novels, from around 5-10 years ago. see


Movies and/or TV shows, regardless of your personal dislike of them, could represent an important revenue stream for an author. If one of your books would be made into a movie, would you want to be involved in the process at a decisional level, or you'd rather keep on writing new books and leave the film people to their own devices?


The latter. I'm not a very good team player, and movies are not works of individual ego (unless the director is someone like Stanley Kubrick).


I just ran across a new book on amazon by you that isn't on your pubs list. Is "scratch monkey" really yours (or have I missed a discussion someplace here).


Hmm.. In your judgement, which of your works would survive the transition to the big screen the best?

Assuming competence and a reasonable budget.


Yes. It's a trunk novel, finally in print in hardcover. See here.


Probably the Laundry series, especially "The Jennifer Morgue" (which strongly references **n Fl*m*ng's most famous character, who has now run to somewhere north of 20 immensely popular movies).


OK got it, Tony Stark is an evil capitalist. Next I suppose you're going to tell us James Bond is an agent of evil imperialists. Charlie, were you raised by communists? ;)


It's OK - James Bond only shoots people the Queen would not like.


Actually the gun may (or may not) have been on the mantlepiece for 29 years, but when the police came calling, they found it under her mattress, according to the BBC, which must have made the CPS a bit more hard-nosed about prosecuting.

"The case began after police arrived at the 53-year-old's home on 17 June 2009 with an arrest warrant for her son who had failed to turn up for a court appearance.
He was not at the flat, but the 80-year-old pistol was found underneath a mattress in her bedroom.
When interviewed, Cochrane told police that the gun had previously belonged to her father and that she had kept it when he died."


> @ 336
"War of the Worlds" was H. G. Wells' take on an Out-of-Context Problem. We ("Europeans") were doing it to other societies all over the globe. Wells turned it round.

Now that book makes a whole lot more sense. Maybe I should re-read it one of those days ...


No, I'm British.

I am also a liberal left-winger by British standards.

I try not to preach politics because I know a lot of my readers come from alien cultures with radically different yardsticks, and I don't want to offend them inadvertently: and also, I'm open to the possibility that my opinions may be incorrect or parochial.


I believe unbridled capitalism is frequently a very bad thing, and any value system that treats greed as an unquestionable virtue is flat-out immoral. There is a point at which it behooves one to say, "my plate is full -- you go and help yourself, now," to the starving, even if your plate isn't completely full. (See also, "do unto others as you would be done by".)

And because that's my moral foundation, I would find it difficult to write an enthusiastic hagiography for a character who is, by my yardstick, behaving immorally. (Well. I could do it ironically. But somehow I don't think Marvel would be too happy with that ...)


"I believe unbridled capitalism is frequently a very bad thing"

The trick is to figure out the size and model of bridle that works. And get something close to a majority to agree to said decision. The British, German, French, Chinese, Japanese, and US bridles are all very different designs but tend to follow some general patterns. Which tends to make the races a bit uneven and hard to handicap. Not to mention all the horses that show up at the race with new concepts of bridles and don't understand why the big boys in the race don't agree with their interpretation (or ignorance) of the rules.


I think it is something different from being too speculative. The Buddha wouldn't feel that he was speculating on the Is there a God question. He thought he knew. Or at least so I speculate.
It is more that some questions are so malformed in the question that to try to answer them reinforces ignorance.


The very beauty of his insight is not only, that the idea of Dharma works, whatever number of Gods or Deities or other strange things may be there or not be there.

It doesn't even stop by the realization that true religious belief is something grown and old and organic and part of the fabric of sentiments and arguing about it in a way not deeply conscious of this only will reinforce this belief.

He truly understands in my eyes, that the motivation of the question itself - the demand for clarification of a passive consumer longing for absolute truth - is sheer and utter egoism.


A society that could self-organise to defend against an invader might well class a large corporation as hostile.

The example of self-organising which comes to my mind is the anarchist movement in Spain. It did not fare well when war came to the country. And both fascists and communists set out to extirpate anarchism at a political philosophy in Spain.

It's possible that the corporate mindset doesn't care for anarchism, but sees the ideas as useful tools to erode support for powerful government. A weak government allows strong corporations, and an armed, self-organised, people isn't going to succeed against corporate-style organisation.

So, maybe a general question, not just for Charlie. Are guns a security blanket for a society, of no real value in maintaining liberty?


Speaking as someone who grew up during the 1980s about a mile away from a Strategic Air Command base, I'd say that "someone will turn up a mathematical equation that unleashes gibbering horrors on us all" is closer to SF than Fantasy.


My cheap digital camera has face detection and recognition.

I'm not convinced the Brazilian idea is workable, but I can see how how you could convince a politician to pay you to set it up.


Who "Tony Stark"?


I stopped being educated about history in year 9 at age 13. Subsequently 6 years have gone by and now I realise my knowledge is seriously lacking. My experience of the UK's history curriculum was horrendous, I found it boring, forgettable and irrelevant (I did not see how the peasants' revolt affected the situations I was living through, such as the Iraq war and terrorism)

Pursuant to your answer to the first question

Spend another hour a week reading history books to try and get a handle on how we got where we are today.
if I were to read "A brief history of the World/Europe/Britain, from X to the present day" what would you recommend for date X?


Ian Fleming himself described James Bond as a brutal thug with a thin veneer of civilisation. Another take on the idea of Licence To Kill for Queen and Country was the British TV series, "Callan" which was much grittier and generally nastier than the shiny Bond stories as portrayed on the cinema screen.


What are your favourite rock bands? Um, no, er, I really meant to ask if you prefer Mozart to Mendelssohn.

See also, "do unto others as you would be done by".

As opposed to the current political wisdom in the US (and in the UK too, apparently):

I've got mine, Jack ... and I've got yours, too.


General histories are best avoided because as histories expand in scale they spiral away from the realm of the considered, researched approach, and being to indulge in generalization, speculation and inaccuracy. Instead, you're better off finding histories that cover discrete topics. Fill your knowledge in patchwork, that is, instead of trying to swallow the past all at once.

But as far as dates go, I would set a soft floor of 1848. Most of the modern conflicts are the legacy of imperialism or the Cold War, and 1848 was the year after which imperialism, capitalism and socialism really began collecting momentum.

If you want to go back a little further, I would recommend CA Bayly's Birth of the Modern World, which covers 1789-1914 (known as the Long Nineteenth Century, with 1914-1990 being the Short Twentieth Century). It's not a bad place to get a general overview.

Just to formulate this clearly, to run an economy centered on knowledge production (in the broad sense) requires turning that knowledge loose and compensating/motivating the producers. No one yet knows how to do both at once well.

I'm not convinced that's true. I worked in Silicon Valley in the 1970's, both in startups and in established high-tech companies; I think there was a much better understanding of these issues than there is now. The difference, I think, is that the companies in general are no longer run by people who understand the technologies and who care about their development, but by the MBA zombies that Charlie was talking about. And the startups of the dotcom era weren't about technology at all, they were about making lots of money by doing some sort of commerce on the internet that hadn't been done before.


Thank you for this. Interesting.
I think we are pointing to different levels.
What I meant by turn "the information loose" would be, for example, that all technological knowledge existing in Silicon Valley would be freely available to anyone and everyone through the Silicon Valley and outside it. Anything less than that constrains our ability to benefit from that knowledge. What makes a knowledge-centered economy capable of so much greater wealth than a thing-centered economy is that replicating things is usually fairly difficult but replicating knowledge is ridiculously easy (nowadays).
But clearly, in societies as we know them know, what I am describing would be commercial suicide (and probably an illegal violation of fiduciary responsibility) for any company.
I am taking what you wrote to mean "within the current form of social organization, in which the spread of knowledge must be deliberately damped down to ensure proper compensation of knowledge producers, corporate organization of knowledge creation and knowledge-intensive production has deteriorated."
I think we develop the kind of MBA zombie-ocracy (zombocracy?) you describe because the lack of social rules for moving forward with a knowledge-centered economy sends the energy of profit seeking pouring into rent-seeking behaviors, which grow naturally out of monopoly capitalism. In other words, rather than make money by making a better widget (or better widget technology), it is better to create some kind of (often artificial) gateway, a "gotcha", where you can force people to pay you money for nothing. A good example is bank overdraft fees.



My personal opinion is: the big game changer was the printing press.(Gutenberg bible around 1450)

It took a while after that, but nearly 200 years later you have massive religious wars all over Europe, an English king with a chopped head, a devastated Germany, the French fearing the same fate inventing Absolutism and ultimately kicking out Protestants preventively.

At the same time (also connectable to the printing press) you have trade going in hyperdrive,the Dutch inventing the stock company (1602), the stock market, naked short selling and even push options before 1640.

In this craziness of blood and ideas you also have people scrambling for reason: Hobbes and his ilk (the theoretical philosophers) and the other ones, the "practical philosophers", the founders of the Royal Society, the first scientists.

350 years later, Puritans are still Puritans, practical philosophers are still practical philosophers and stock markets are still stock markets. Not so much has changed.

You might be interested to read Neal Stephenson's "Barock Cycle", if you want to delve deeper into the birth of the modern world.


@ 383
Dates to start?
1668? ("Glorious Revolution")
Geordie Stephenson's birth year (1781) ?
DON'T under-estimate the influence of technology, or climate on History: - almost all the historians make this mistake ....

Well, these people are the opposite of the people who ran and made manufacturing industry in the 19th/early 20th C. (Not that they didn't have their faults)

And they are served by a particularly vile underclass, the "Straw Bosses" we discussed in an eariler thread.
It starts to look like a particulaly vile form of Oligarchy, doesn't it?


I'm struggling to find the reference, but James Lovelock imagines such clean portable power-packs in one of his books, but for him they are a nightmare. A technology that completely takes the brakes off human displacement of the biosphere.

Is your wish a dig at him, or does your fantasy come with some implicit caveats i've missed? Is Lovelock's fear of such democratic power just another aspect of the same irrationality that you see in SF authors reaching for feudalism?


So, maybe a general question, not just for Charlie. Are guns a security blanket for a society, of no real value in maintaining liberty?

Very much so.

They make the gun owner feel better, but they're fuck-all use at defending against a lawsuit, and the folks paying the lawyers with the briefs can also pay bailiffs; and if the gun comes out, well, the police always have more (and bigger) guns.

Come to think of it, that's probably why the Tories are so keen on cutting away at the Legal Aid budget ...


I never lived more than 10 miles from a first class Soviet nuclear target until the end of the Cold War.

I grew up 5 miles down the road from the biggest tank factory in Europe, then went to university in London, then did pre-registration work within 5 miles of the M1/M62 interchange (the biggest strategic motorway junction in the UK), then worked in Halifax (army base) while living in Leeds (near the aforementioned tank factory again) before going back to university in Bradford, which had no notable nuclear targets ... a month before the Wall came down.

Where did you think "A Colder War" came from?


Greg, Google is your friend.


A good starting point is close to the present (so you've got a handle on it), then work backwards.

You might find Tony Judt's "Postwar: A history of europe since 1945" a good starting point (abject admission: my copy has been sitting on a bookshelf awaiting attention for too damn long -- I think I know what I'm reading this next month).

If it leaves you with questions about how Europe got into such a monumental mess, it's then worth pushing the boat back a bit, to the period from about 1860 to 1914 (WW2 was merely the second act of a tragedy that kicked off in 1914, the seeds for which were laid earlier). One option, if you like narrative history, might be "Dreadnought" by Allan Massie, which examines the roots of the UK/German arms race that ran from about 1880 through 1914 -- but it's a bit of a narrow focus: also "The Guns of August" by Barbara Tuchman, for how the whole mess kicked off in 1914. Other issues worth visiting include the race for empire between the European great powers, Franco-German rivalry (including the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, of which WW1 was meant to be a re-run -- only it went disastrously wrong), the Cold War on the North West Frontier between Britain and Russia ("The Great Game" by Peter Hopkirk), and something or other that happened in North America in 1860-65.

That'll give you an idea of how the shape of modern Europe was formed from the older empires. (Except the US Civil War, which was strictly a side-show.) For a broader picture, Joseph Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" frames imperial succession (and gives an idea of why we're currently living through the dog days of the American hegemony). And then ... where do you want to go yesterday?


So you see atheism as a belief in itself, and not the standard atheist reply that it is a "lack of a belief"?

That is refreshingly honest.


I'm currently listening to The Birthday Massacre quite a bit; also to remixes of Nitzer Ebb and Front 242, and early Chicks on Speed. (With some classic Banshees, Bauhaus and Sex Pistols thrown in.)


Nit-pick: he's British. So the soft floor could probably be pushed back to 1832, corn law riots, great reform bill, and so on: arguably the birth of the modern British state. Otherwise? 1848 is fine.


When your game-changer doesn't take effect for two-hundred years it's not a very effective game-changer, and instead you might want to consider other factors. Benedict Anderson's _Imagined Communities_ is generally accepted to hold the definitive analysis of how the vernacular press worked with other factors to promote the modern nation-sate paradigm (Charlie posted recently on how humans can't have communities larger than 150 or so people, and Anderson's labours under a similar understanding).

Further, it's disingenuous to find analogues with modern institutions in the past and extrapolate from this that "not so much has changed" in the last three-hundred and fifty years. Likewise, you're not going to get an understanding of "what's really going on" if your reading is only concerned with Europe. Instead you'll end up with a Whiggish interpretation of the past which effectively reads like a Western self-congratulatory masturbation session.

@387, has somebody been reading _Guns, Germs & Steel_? I think you'll find most historians do no such thing, and to suggest they do is of the order of arrogance as suggesting that climate scientists don't take the heat island effect into consideration when compiling their measurements. There are non-historians who have shaken up the history discipline, but Diamond is not one of them.


I wasn't aware of Lovelock's antipathy to democratized power generation, but: I'll note he's recently become an advocate of wide-scale nuclear fission power as a solution to carbon emissions, which implies centralization and control. I wouldn't be too surprised to learn he has a technocratic/managerialist outlook, i.e. that people must be managed for their own good. (Caveat: I haven't read his books.)


"For a broader picture, Joseph Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" frames imperial succession (and gives an idea of why we're currently living through the dog days of the American hegemony)."

I'm afraid I must disagree. We spent a much, much larger share of GDP on defense during the Cold War, reaching a peak under Kennedy. If we were suffering from "imperial over stretch" it would have already occurred. And America would have retired from the world stage like the Hapsburgs, the British and the Soviets.

Our current financial woes are demographic, not geopolitical, in nature. Like every other industrial country we have experienced a birth dearth (though to a much lesser extent then say, Japan or Italy) and our population is becoming top heavy with pensioners. Other nations (including Hispanic and Muslim nations) have also seen drops in birth rates coinciding with urbanization and new socio-economic opportunities for women (France, for example, has a higher birth rate than Iran).

These retirees will consume huge amounts of Social Security and Medicaid resources, placing a huge burden on younger tax payers. Not to put too fine a point on it, but to keep from gong broke America will have to increase the retirement age to 70, apply means tests to Medicaid recipients, etc.

In effect, to survive financially, America will have to cheat Baby Boomers (including me) out of our promised retirements.

So how about a SF novel set in a near future gerontocracy?


"My personal opinion is: the big game changer was the printing press."

That AND the invention of sail rigging that allowed galleons to tack into the wind - giving Europeans command of the oceans and world dominance for half a millenia.

It seems to me that "game changers" come in pairs, like teams of horses, one for communication/information and another for transportation/energy.

It seems that they have to occur together or there is no real advancement.

Prior to the printing press and the sail rigging, the first team would be the invention of writing and the wheel. These made civilization possible by allowing the creation of despotic governments ruled by god-kings and chariot warfare.

After the printing press and sail rigging would be wire communication (telegraph followed by telephone) and the steam engine (locomotives and steamer ships).

After that came wireless communication (radio and TV) and the internal combustion engine (automobile and airplane).

The came the computer and the jet engine (and its derivative, the rocket engine that carries its own supply of oxygen) .

And since then the internet, but no matching improvement in transportation?


Fair point: Britain was often ahead of the curve when it came to Modernization, so it's not particularly offensive to breech the soft floor on their account. But I thought you meant a worldly understanding of the past (to compensate, somewhat, for our WEIRD-coloured goggles), rather than trying to understand how the political structure of your particular country emerged. My point being that it shouldn't matter whether the person asking the question is British, Pakistani, Chilean or what-have-you, because a solid recommendation should be a universal one.

On another note, do you have an opinion on pseudonyms? On the bookshelf I'm staring at are a number of novels under the name Lian Hearn, which the children's author Gillian Rubinstein used to write her historical series, Tales of the Otori, set in feudal Japan. It strikes me as a funny indulgence, and probably a necessary one given how much we place on authenticity. Is it a legitimate tool in the box for an author wanting to make a living? (I expect you'll answer 'yes', but I'm interested in what else you have to say.)


A hard question, but usually an illuminating one!

Okay then, different question.

I am, like you, currently time poor and falling behind on my reading, sooooo. What would be your current top 5 books to recommend for someone to read AND what would be your top 5 beers to be drinking whilst reading them? Feel free to match beer against book if you have any strong feelings on the matter :)



Yeah. Centralized power generation through nuclear fission is mighty bad. That's why France(80%), or Slovakia(53%) or Belgium(51%) are such un-democratic, oppressive Nork like gulags, and the only way their governments prevent massive escapes is by machinegunning escapeees on the border.

Meanwhile solar energy, which has recently driven up energy prices in Czech Republic by 25% and which is busy destroying electric appliances every time sun peeks out from behind the clouds is just dandy.
(I wonder about compensation...) Doesn't matter that most solar installations are owned by big companies that don't care one iota about democracy but only about the bottom line. For which nothing is better than senseless subsidies.

BTW, if every city quarter had it's own integral fast 100MWe reactor(breeder, lasts twenty years, passively safe) buried under it's municipal power plant, would that be democratic? Or the only democratic power generation is miniature rooftop wind turbines and such?


I think you're just lumping two developments together and claiming they caused general periods of advancement, and placing emphasis where it has little meaning. Steam engines, for example, were employed commercially from 1712 (with major advancements in the 1760's and 1800), while telegraphs weren't anything more than a proof of concept until the 1830's. The two didn't exist together for "real development" to occur, and the same applies across all your examples. You're getting there, though.


This Anderson is interesting and indeed unknown to me, I will read him.

Hopefully, I am also permitted a little bit of irony. Life is so boring without.

Where I seem to differ from Anderson at a first glance, is the biological/neurological underlying world view.

I do not think humans are motivated by assumptions or deliberations, except for the minority where those assumptions and deliberations tie in with dopaminerg pathways.

And when I see parallels between America's religious right and English 17th century puritans it is not in an institutional or outwardly organizational sense, it is a bet on similarities in the connectome and therefore the way the reward system interacts with outward stimuli.

It would not be unreasonable in my eyes to describe Democrat-voting, atheistic scientists a la Dawkins as a successful K-selected species and evangelical Christians as r-selected competition for ressources/ control of institutions.

And while I indeed see the differences between a 17th century Whig and a 21st century post-structuralist (something I view as an evolved increase in complexity/reflexivity being forced by and forcing an increase in the complexity of institutions), I believe many members of the Tea Party would not feel too lonely or disoriented in a past century.

Sorry for being so wordy.


I disagree with you. US power peaked in the 1960s and has been in decline as a percentage of global GDP ever since; US hegemony has persisted because, as with other empires, they're perceived as strong long after the muscle has begun turning to flab. There are now plenty of signs of the slow decline; things like the USA's failure to pitch in with France and the UK and the rest of NATO in going after Gadaffi (public enemy #1 for most of the 1980s and 1990s), inability to gain traction in Afghanistan, skyrocketing unemployment (youth unemployment in the US is beginning to look like the middle east, never mind the southern underbelly of the EU), decaying infrastructure, baroque status projects, and political decadence and introspection (the late imperial power's politics typically being a squabble over who gets the biggest share of the cake).

Only the interlocking, global scale of the financial crisis and our global fossil energy dependency conceals the decline: everyone else is in a recession, too, so it's a bit harder to see.

(As for demographics -- if things continue, by 2100 the USA will be a Spanish-speaking nation. While Germany and France and the EU as a whole will be English-speaking. Which just goes to show that straight-line extrapolation is a fool's game.)


Pseudonyms: you use them to make an end-run around retail stock control software that discounts forthcoming titles by authors whose last book sold badly, leading to a death spiral -- low forward orders mean smaller print runs, the next book doesn't sell well, so it becomes a vicious spiral around the drain.

Yes, this is insane. No, unfortunately it's the way the publishing business works. It's happened to friends of mine.

They're also useful if you want to draw a line between radically different works -- for example, my Merchant Princes books were originally going to be pseudonymous. (We made a last minute decision not to do that because if they succeeded, or if the SF track succeeded, it would have made it very hard to piggy-back the sales curve.)


I'm the wrong person to ask for book recs. Also: I don't generally drink while I'm reading. (I go cross-eyed.)


That's quite a bold stance. I take it you follow a memetic interpretation of the past, which would explain why you put so much importance on the printing press, because it was a mechanism that allowed for memes to penetrate and interact quickly, fluidly, and across great distance? Thus, modern academics are just the result of an intellectual arms race that began with, say, Locke? It also seems you subscribe to the thesis behind Idiocracy, that the non-academic types breed earlier and more often and, thus, radically outnumber the intelligent types (because that's the only reason to explain why anyone would disagree with Dawkins).

What can I say? Your compound fallacies are compounding your compound fallacies, and your views disregard scientific and historical nuances in almost equal measure. Or, to rephrase, if you're going to negate human agency from your view of the past why pretend to recommend history texts when you could just recommend outdated pop science books?


Don't suppose you're willing to share what that pseudonym would have been? :)


I liked "The Guns of August" by Barbara Tuchman. "The Lunatic Express" was also fun.


"...strictly a sideshow?"

Could you be any more parochial? Charlie, I'm living in an America that's trying really hard to re-fight the Civil War, with every spoiled capitalist/Rethuglican trying recruit the Southern fundamentalists/racists as voters against anything that's resembled progress since The Great Depression, and right now the bad guys are winning. If you think that won't have consequences for Europe, you badly need to reconsider.


I'm afraid we'll have to agree to disagree. The thing about "relative decline" is that it isn't decline at all. America, despite our current burdens and troubles, is wealthier and more powerful than ever before. As for challenges from emerging BRIC economies, no mature economy like ours can hope to match the growth rates of an emerging economy like China's. Such comparison's are apples to oranges.

China will never reach our position as #1 world hegemon, for the same reason Japan failed to grab the brass ring. Remember when Japan was going to take over the world and we should all emulate them? Didn't happen, for the same reason China will never be #1 - demographics, low birth rates creating a population top heavy with retirees and an adverse dependency ration dragging down economic growth. China's "one baby" policy will add a gender imbalance to graying demographics.

China will get old and gray long before it becomes rich and powerful.

As for America, if you want to see our future take a look at the current state of Israel. As a result of Orthodox Jews out breeding secular Jews and everyone else, Israel has been morphed into a hard right wing theocratic state that doesn't give a damn about what the rest of the world thinks about how it treats Palestinians.


"Ultra-Orthodox Jews, however, do have plenty of offspring. This fact is changing the face of Israel, where such families have three times more children than other Israelis. As a result, at least a quarter of Israel’s population of under-17s is expected to be ultra-Orthodox by 2025, according to Eric Kaufmann at Harvard. A similar but more gradual increase in the religious right has been taking place in America for decades, and not just because of Mormons. Conservative Protestant denominations as a whole grew much faster than liberal ones in 20th-century America, and it has been estimated that three-quarters of this growth is due simply to higher birth rates. Were it not for the fact that Evangelical Christians reproduce faster than other Protestants, George Bush--who attracted most of the Evangelical votes--probably could not have made it back to the White House in 2004."

Israel as a fascist state: the ultimate historical irony.

And as the article makes clear, America's future belongs to Mormons, conservative Catholics and Evangelicals. With Mexican birth rates also collapsing, there won't be enough Mexicans trying to cross the Rio Grande to make it an issue a generation from now. So we won't be Spanish, but a hybrid Spanglish culture.


Yup, I meant the US civil war was a side-show. If not for the annoying consequences of it being a sideshow inside a nation that inconveniently turned out to be one of the next century's giants, nobody outside the USA would give a rat's ass about it.

(Who now, outside the continent it occurred on, remembers the War of the Triple Aliance? Vastly more catastrophic than the contemporaneous war in North America, but virtually zero non-local consequences.)

It wasn't even a particularly bloody civil war; the British civil wars of the 17th century killed more than twice the proportion of the population, and they were trivial compared to the stuff going on in continental Europe -- stuff like the Thirty Years' War.

I'll concede the point that the failure of the victorious union to hang all the rebellious slaveowners and apply their boots to the throats of the treasonous rebels may have long-term consequences for the future of sane governance in the USA, but it is strictly an internal matter.


@ 399
Game-changer in pairs...
The Steam Horse/Iron Road, AND the electric telegraph.
Plus steam-ships, of course.

The ultra-right's attempt to re-take the USA could still have very bad consequences. I was really afraid of this in the final Bush/Blair years, with the Shrub rejecting international Law (Guantanamo) and Blair grovelling away.
I thopught I was watching a re-run of 1908-14, the the US a Prussia, and us as Austria. Uggggg...


I've been voicing-off enough tonight that it's well time I took a backseat, but this sentences deserved a response:

"Israel as a fascist state: the ultimate historical irony."

Ugh. It's only ironic if you consider a single-minded militarily-endowed nation to be the antithesis of Zionism, which it isn't. It might be ironic if Israel employed their military in a campaign to dominate Eurasia and, in the attempt, surgically exterminated every Arab within Israel or any occupied territories. At that point, we might be in a position to draw literary parallels, although why that's a thing you'd do in such a situation is beyond me.



I'm really sorry, I didn't want to lead this thread astray, but I feel i must explain this in the face of ongoing misunderstandings.

Agency: that's the crucible.
Who or what within a human is the agent?
The thalamo-cortical loop? Hardly so. The prime suspect is the reward system: hypothalamus, amygdala and especially nucleus accumbens.

Granted, the view of the mindless dopamine junkie (or ß-endorphine junkie) is another simplification, but not half as bad as the rational agent.

Yes, real life decisions are decentralised in the appropiate specialised substructures and most of them do have afferent input from the neural correlates of higher cognitive functions. But we're not talking about a machine here, we're talking about an evolved organism. And the reward system is older, tied in with learning, with the encoding going on in the orbito-frontal PFC (an important part of personality) and with lower level executive structures.

All this has nothing to do with genetics nor with intelligence - no "Idiocracy". But I do hold, that there are learning effects in the connectivity of the nucleus accumbens. Which means in effect the existence of a preferred drug. Which comes down to a specific reward seeking behaviour, specific forms of emotional preference that are effectively learned.

This is not set in stone, of course, but addictions that run deep (when ß-endorphine is involved) can be pretty resistant.
And again, pure emotional preference does not yet determine behaviour. Not directly. We're not machines.

The "free won't" is a beautiful explanation. It also implies, that overruling emotional preference involves energy input. And there is indeed experimental data for exhaustion effects involving rational choices.

The systemic effects arising from the interactions of semi-rational agents with differing emotional preferences now become pretty complicated and I can understand, if people are happy with an approach that focuses on external structures and institutions. But it may not be enough to fully account for encountered complexity in real life.

Even beyond that, a focus on external structures and the assumption of rational agents may be partially and unknowingly motivated by learned and potentially self-reinforcing emotional preferences shared by individuals attracted to the same academic discourse.


Fatty reserves that make the child-bearing sex top-heavy to the extent they may incur spinal injury does not make sense in the energy-efficiency scheme of things, so I fail to see why taxing rational thought processes would be selected against by virtue of requiring more energy. Plenty of evolutionary processes are more complicated than an efficient-inefficient model would suggest. Further, you presume quite a lot to state the Dawkins-side is the rational side. Dawkins, I've found, can be as infuriatingly arrogant as anyone you'd care to name on the Creationist side. I simply question the division you've created: rationalists are only rational by metrics they've deemed to be rational (which is where you'll encounter such confusions of thought as, "Of course climate change is happening: the Maldives are sinking" as much as you'll find "of course Christ walked on water: it's in the Bible").

Either way, semi-rational individuals are still subject to circumstantial changes, and if your understanding does not involve a familiarity with those circumstances (i.e., conventional history) then you're unlikely to understand the movements of these semi-rational individuals.

And for the record, I'm talking of the agency of humans - not the agent within a human. The soul doesn't factor.


What "agent within a human"? Mind/body dualism must be discarded as bunk, unless you can show me a soul on an MRI scan (or some equivalent repeatable diagnostic tool).


I was referring to this comment from jboss (416):

"Agency: that's the crucible.
Who or what within a human is the agent?
The thalamo-cortical loop? Hardly so. The prime suspect is the reward system: hypothalamus, amygdala and especially nucleus accumbens."

I wasn't describing mind/body dualism, but the ability of humans to influence affairs.


I find the idea of demographics translating to ideology really fucking depressing, and I like to think that memetics trump that particular scenario (i.e. not even all of Fred Phelps kids are on board his personal crusade)

However I have no actual data to reinforce my preference, and I'm aware of the fallacy of appeal to consequences.


Memes absolutely trump genetics. It's much commoner for the children of fundamentalists to become atheists, agnostics or otherwise secularized than it is for the children of secular atheists to become god-botherers.

To some extent that's why the fundamentalist sects exert such strict controls over their followers' lifestyles: it's much harder to defect to the mass culture if you don't have the knowledge you need to make a decent attempt at independent living. (And being cut off from all contact with your friends and relatives if you defect is another control mechanism.)

One should take heart from this, if one is a secular liberal: the other side have to work hard to keep 'em down on the farm.


Fascism is not defined by foreign policy.

Franco's Spain was fascist, and never tried to conquer anyone.


"It's much commoner for the children of fundamentalists to become atheists, agnostics or otherwise secularized than it is for the children of secular atheists to become god-botherers."

Not according to recent studies on religious conversion.

Religious conservatives breed, see "Survival of the Godliest":

From the article:

"When confronted with the fact that they are being outbred, secularists often respond that many if not most children born into highly religious families will grow up to reject the faith of their fathers — such is the assumed allure of freedom and individuality. This thought comports with the life experience of the many members of the Baby Boom generation, who shook off the bonds of traditional authority in the 1960s and 1970s, and who cannot imagine why the rest of humanity will not eventually catch on and catch up.

Arguing against this proposition, however, are some stubborn demographic facts. Among fundamentalist families, it turns out, the apple does not fall far from the tree. And the more demanding the faith, the more this rule applies.

Only five percent of children born to the most conservative Amish, for example, move on to other faiths or lifestyles. The defection rate is higher among New Order Amish, Mormons and other comparatively less demanding fundamentalist communities, yet they still hold on to the majority of their children. Moreover, what defections they may experience are more than offset by converts, with the net flow favoring conservative faiths, according to poll data gathered by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Thus we see 21 percent of converts leaving liberal and moderate denominations for more fundamentalist ones, and only 15 percent going the other way.

There are many swirls and currents that affect us all as individuals, but between higher fertility and more successful indoctrination, the main demographic tide of history is clearly flowing in favor of fundamentalism."

As Charles Darwin's grandson stated, "the future belongs to religious conservatives".

Fundamentalism is the future, not atheism.


I thought I was watching a re-run of 1908-14, with the US as Prussia, and us as Austria

This. I remember Robert Farley writing something about "Wilhelmine China" and responding that I was more worried about Wilhelmine America.


Fundamentalism is the future, not atheism.

I doubt it. Most fundamentalisms seem to hinge on axiomatic denial of a scientific world-view. Which in turn means they're incapable of sustaining a science-based economy in the long term. Which means, collapse.

Put it this way: if the future is fundamentalism, the future looks a lot like the middle east, only without the imported high-tech toys and the oil money and the educated middle classes.


Uh, Franco literally conquered Republican Spain, some argue he deliberately slowed the pace of his armies in order to be able to more efficiently and completely crush resistance, but even nowadays people talk about "The two Spains" divided along civil war lines.

After WWII being a suspect former ally of Hitler, Fascist Spain was under embargo and close surveillance and had no means or opportunity for adventurism, that doesn't mean it didn't have the desire. You might as well say North Korea isn't expansionist.

Memes absolutely trump genetics

Yeah, probably, at least I hope so. The true contest is probably between early indoctrination memes and free floating rationalist ones, the childhood suscepbility to parental dictat being the main advantage of the former.


Oh, you could still see tech-fundamentalism as in *cough* Germany *cough*.

It will be interesting to see how long the Greens will take to realize that destroying the planet in order to save it is a rather dumb idea. Nature is not a power-plant, but the fundamentalist greens think it should be.

They are burning crops from fields drenched in pesticides, insecticides and fungicides(*), take litter from woods (which is needed for sustainable forestry) to turn it into wood pellets, they want to blanket thousands of square kilometres with silicon wafers in metal frames and flood mountain valleys for energy storage - preferably in Austria and Norway, not Germany ... and they are calling *that* environmentalism.

(*) Though actually they want to have even more, less productive, fields without those toxins - and blanket yet another few million hectares with maize, rapeseed and so forth for their green energy needs. Don't you dare to talk about giving nature a chance.

Today, I saw a proposal by the government that Germany should get some 18GW of its future electricity demand from geothermal. Well, bad news, Germany is not Iceland.

In the areas where the rock is hot enough (about a quarter of Germany), the average heat-flux is on the order of 50-80 mW per square metre. Which will get you on the order of 5-8 GW of sustainable thermal energy at a temperature of around 150-180C - if you manage to use *all* of it - which you could then to turn into electricity with at best 25% efficiency, due to the low temperature - resulting in 2GW of electricity at most.

No doubt, you could get 18GW of geothermal electricity in Germany - but you would take at least nine times as much heat out of the earth than could be regenerated. In other words, it is an extremely expensive way of cooling rocks down to unusable temperatures and perfectly unsustainable. - Just as so many of the oversized "green energy" bullshit projects.

At the right scale, they are great, but push it too far and you're running into diseconomies of scale. You need more than you ever thought and you're destroying the planet you wanted to save.

21st century fundamentalism has no need for religion.


Did you originally plan for antibodies to be a longer work?

I am taking what you wrote to mean "within the current form of social organization, in which the spread of knowledge must be deliberately damped down to ensure proper compensation of knowledge producers, corporate organization of knowledge creation and knowledge-intensive production has deteriorated."

I should have been more explicit: what I was talking about was that the ideology behind the current wave of Open Source philosophy came from the working engineers (and some managers) of the 1970's. Many of the people who created the personal computer technologies had a strong sense of communitarianism that led them to share software and hardware designs freely; I think without that initial impetus we would have had a much harder time getting commercial entities to accept the notion of sharing software. But it's been interesting to see how those same commercial entities have tried hard to sabotage Open Source, or to assimilate it, and how it's bidding fair to cripple itself by fragmentation and unwillingness to listen to the requirements of users.

it is better to create some kind of (often artificial) gateway, a "gotcha", where you can force people to pay you money for nothing.

I agree that this idea is the core of the MBA problem, but I think it's more general than just filling the vacuum created by a lack of social rules. It's essentially the same attitude that the 19th Century Robber Barons had, resulting, I think, from a positive feedback cycle of accumulating power that was able to remove the rules that might otherwise control it. I'm having my friend the Marxist economist over for dinner tonight; I think I'll ask him his view on this.


If you can go back in time to any point in your writing career and tell yourself to do something differently, when and what would this be?


Charlie, this statement really isn't true. Confederate independence could have easily led to very strong consequences for the rest of the world. This is not true for the War of the Triple Alliance.

Believe you me, I understand the desire to knock Americans off their Americo-centric perch, but denying the significance of the Civil War is a mightily strange way to do it.


Where are we supposed to draw the line when realistic VR toys allow people to indulge in their more despicable fantasies? (Despicable for the moral majority of their particular time). I'm thinking along the lines of today's lolicon or the so-called torture porn.

Where do we draw the line between a moral compass and the Thought Police?


Charlie @ 421
Which is why N. Korea, the ultimate theocracy, is so desperate to keep knowledege of the outside at bay ....

And, perhaps, why in a lesser way Tea-Party loopies want to keep things "simple" (Because their brains can't cope)


Taking that as Charlie's intent in replying to my comment, I'll simply say that I try very hard not to be US-centric. Further, I'm very well-traveled, having spent more than a year outside the United States. I've also raised a child who is a history buff, and at 12 years old he complains frequently about the US-Centric nature of the historical information which is available to him. In other words, I definitely do not deserve being treated as an ugly American.

All that being said, and given the very obvious facts about America's influence (wanted or otherwise) on the entire world, what Charlie correctly describes as our failure to manage the post Civil War reconstruction properly is one of the world's major turning points - and not in a good way. (Killing Nathan Bedford Forrest in 1865 would have been a very good start!)

Republican/Fundamentalist efforts to create/win a second Civil War (and also to re-fight the Vietnam War) have brought the world Iraq, Afghanistan, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Ronald Reagan, Donald Rumsfeld, Rush Limbaugh, and a whole host of "leaders" who shouldn't be allowed out without a nanny. The negative impact these simpletons have had on our entire world in the last 30 years is simply catastrophic. (Not to mention that Barrack Obama and Bill Clinton were both to the right of Richard Nixon, and they're both considered American Moderates, which in itself is scary as hell.)

I didn't call Charlie parochial because I'm some kind of US-Centric idiot. I called Charlie parochial because he's so mentally so involved in European affairs that he doesn't notice the connection between America's unfinished business and the very bad things that happen in places which are thousands of miles away from our shores.


To late 2002, when I was about to start the Merchant Princes series -- tell myself "no, plan them as 100K word short novels, or you will be in a world of hurt".

Or to late-2001, when I was about to sign my first contract with Ace: whisper in my ear, "do not let them insist on Iron Sunrise being a direct sequel to Singularity Sky. The world-building in SS is flawed and you won't be able to do anything more with that universe after book #2: a clean break is much better."

Tweak #1 would have saved me about 6-12 months of work, $15,000, and possibly have enabled the series to thrive rather than flatlining. Tweak #2 ... well, people wouldn't keep emailing me to ask if I was going to write a sequel to "Iron Sunrise", because I'd already have done so.


Was Confederate independence ever plausible? My understanding is that they didn't have the industrial infrastructure to defeat the Union. (Now, it was still possible for the Union to fuck things up royally on the battlefield or the supply chain, and it might have been possible for the slaveowners to blackmail their way into being allowed to secede peacefully if things had gone differently prior to 1860, but that's another question.)


It seems to me that a paedophile who is masturbating to fantasies of raping virtual children in VR is a paedophile who is not raping real children at the same time. The two activities are rivalrous.

Raise the opportunity cost of engaging in sex offenses, while providing counseling combined with outlets for their urges that don't involve harm to third parties, and you've got one possible partial solution to that problem ("distract and deter").

(Oh, and as for child pornography? If there's a real child involved, then it's prima facie evidence of a crime and should be treated as such. If not ... well, I'm deeply uncomfortable with the whole idea of thoughtcrime. I began hearing the "grooming" argument in the mid-1990s, and although it occasionally gets cited in court cases, I'm skeptical.)

I think our real problem is that the internet makes it very easy to get hold of what was formerly very obscure material, and for geographically dispersed networks of people to get in touch, where their behaviour is "normalized" via group consensus. Paedophilia has historically been something that gets passed down families linearly (something like 90% of child abusers are relatives of the victim who share the same dwelling), but now we have the potential for horizontal transfer.

(I've heard of chatrooms where the paranoid schizophrenics compare notes on the Global Conspiracy and exchange designs for tinfoil hat liners. More worryingly, I know of at least one blog/chatroom for sociopaths. Right now it's mostly about coping and survival strategies to allow borderline sociopaths to pass among the neurotypical: but it's the kind of thing that could easily tip over into manipulation and exploitation strategies.)


In my experience, when talking to Americans, a rough rule of thumb is to assume that they are not well-traveled outside North America. Also, the media environment they live with day-to-day is, from an outsider's point of view, very self-obsessed -- more so than the media environment in most other countries. Consequently, assuming a global perspective on their part is probably a mistake -- although I'm glad to be proven wrong.

Having said that, I'm not convinced that the rightward lurch of American politics in the past 30 years has led to a net increase in American military adventurism overseas: rather, the removal of a brake on such adventurism (provided by a rival superpower) has made the drawbacks of such activities less obvious. If you look back to the 1940s through 1960s, the State Department and the CIA were enthusiastically and aggressively playing the Great Game (if somewhat cack-handedly) -- despite a political environment far to the "left" of what currently prevails.

The right-wing drift is, I will grant you, very bad news indeed for ordinary Americans (although obviously a whole bunch of them don't see it that way). But whether it's bad news for the world depends on whether it is contained domestically or leads to a whole bunch of military adventures when the debt cesspool hits the fan.


I still remember the explosion online when Randall Milholland of the webcomic "Something*Positive" ran into a LiveJournal that people with Anorexia Nervosa had set up to support A.N. behavior because their families and doctors kept trying to get them to be too fat. It brought to mind the time a friend tossed a pound of sodium into a large fountain to get the geese to leave--neither was a permanent solution, but both featured feathers flying everywhere. That LJ was bad news, and I can agree with you that the one for sociopaths could become even worse news.

Memes absolutely trump genetics. It's much commoner for the children of fundamentalists to become atheists, agnostics or otherwise secularized than it is for the children of secular atheists to become god-botherers.

I'm one of those people who turned away from the Old Faith (Dad's a member of the the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord)to become a Transcendentalist ;-)

But I'm not sure what you mean here; that as a proportion, those leaving the faith are a higher proportion than those entering it from the ranks of unbelievers? That might be true, but that's orthogonal to whether or not those fundamentalist faiths are shrinking, growing, or maintaining their membership. That's just numbers.

I agree that this idea is the core of the MBA problem, but I think it's more general than just filling the vacuum created by a lack of social rules.

I'd say the 'MBA problem' is the result of professional envy. Somewhere back in the last century, the myth that The Boss was The Boss by virtue of his superior expertise and his superior superiorness became unsustainable. Hence the credentialization of "business expertise" and the resulting collateral damage.


I'm thinking that fundamentalist religions are doomed, their young must notice that everyone else is having way more fun than they are.
its only by keeping them separate from the rest of the world that they can hope to remain in existence.


Confederate independence was quite conceivable if the North had wearied of the fight or if Britain had intervened to at least break the Northern blockade.
In 1864, the North was wearying considerably and the main candidate who ran against Lincoln advocated pulling the plug on the war.
As I understand it, British intervention was a very real possibility.
On the other hand, I am not so convinced that the Triple Alliance War was a sideshow either. As I understand it, Paraguay was attempting genuinely autonomous development and it had achieved that, that would have definitely changed history at least for Latin America.
For those not familiar with that war, it may be hard to imagine Paraguay as mattering much, but that is because we only know the rump state that was left after that war and after the death of a quite large proportion of its population.


I'm not convinced that the rightward lurch of American politics in the past 30 years has led to a net increase in American military adventurism overseas: rather, the removal of a brake on such adventurism (provided by a rival superpower) has made the drawbacks of such activities less obvious.

I'm not sure that's the case. On one hand, there's no reason to have a proxy war. On the other hand, there is nobody to finance/arm a small country that's fighting against US aggression, so I suspect that two issues cancel each other out (more or less.)

The main policy driver of the War In Iraq was the Project For A New American Century, which is a right wing think tank that's been calling for war with Iraq since the mid-1990s. They believe that General Sykes-Picot did a lousy job of drawing the map of the Middle East after WWI, (probably true) and that we need to conquer the entire Middle East in order to redraw the map. This second idea is every bit as dumb as the idea that water fluoridation is a plot to "sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids." That invading Iraq was a bad idea should have been recognized as such by anyone to the right of Genghis Khan.

My recollection of this time was of attempting to convince people that invading Iraq was a bad idea, and being met with a barrage of rightwing propaganda lifted more-or-less directly from Rush Limbaugh. When it turned out that the left was correct in every particular, we were still ignored, so yeah, the rightward drift of the US is directly tied into our military aggressiveness, at least from where I sit. (The propaganda for "why we should invade Iraq" was frighteningly similar to German propaganda about "why we should invade France" prior to WWI.)

IMHO, the major effect of communism's collapse is that there is no longer a worker-friendly major power. Obviously the USSR was "worker friendly" in name alone, but the possibility of a "people's revolution" in the US and other industrial nations was enough to make even the most clueless right-wing business man think twice about attacking worker's rights. That's no longer the case, and all the other right wing shibboleths are being dragged along with it. The lack of a common enemy has given Europe Berlusconi and Sarkozy, and it is the fertile ground in which the Second US Civil War is growing.

If you look back to the 1940s through 1960s, the State Department and the CIA were enthusiastically and aggressively playing the Great Game (if somewhat cack-handedly) -- despite a political environment far to the "left" of what currently prevails.

Absolutely. The concessions to the left were entirely for internal consumption. Roosevelt's very liberal "New Deal" had both a good side and a bad side. The good side involved such items as American unions being legal, Medicare, and Social Security. The bad side involved the (unspoken) idea that the people of the United States would participate in the looting of the rest of the world as partners instead of serfs. People born in the US before 1940 or so got this implicitly, thus the "generation gap" of the sixties.

The right-wing drift is, I will grant you, very bad news indeed for ordinary Americans (although obviously a whole bunch of them don't see it that way). But whether it's bad news for the world depends on whether it is contained domestically or leads to a whole bunch of military adventures when the debt cesspool hits the fan.

I'm betting on the military adventures, plus attempts to control even "friendly" governments in ugly ways. Sorry guys.


This brings back an easily-surpressed twinge of nostalgia, Charlie!

Confederate independence was unlikely, but there are three caveats. The first is that the war could have come about earlier --- the earlier it happens, the more likely a Confederate victory. The war could have also come about later, in which case a northern victory is even more likely --- but that, perversely, makes abolition a less likely outcome.

The second is that a victory wasn't impossible, even with an 1861 starting point. The best treatment is in Roger Ransom, The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been.

The third is that it matters how the North wins. A quick victory greatly changes the nature of the country that emerged. (I'm not sure that I agree, but serious scholars have argued that the crusading tradition in America's approach to foreign wars was born in the Civil War.) So does a more prolonged war. Similarly, much depends on how Reconstruction proceeds --- which in turn is a function of the duration of the conflict and the outcome of the 1864 election. A U.S. that retains slavery for a few more decades after a short Civil War is a U.S. just storing up explosive problems, and one that would have very different internal politics. (Simple example: no Spanish-American War, and it gets that much harder to drag the U.S. into any sort of Pacific conflict.)


I just finished a book manuscript that may have some minor relevance. Maybe. Perhaps.

The short version of the argument is that before the 1970s an inordinate amount of foreign policy oxygen (dating all the way back to 1893) was taken up in defense of the property rights of American direct investors abroad.

That changed because the costs of such policy rose too high in the context of the Cold War --- but no U.S. government could take a Solomonic view and tell investors that they were on their own. In order to reduce the domestic political costs of nonintervention to an acceptable level, a series of international institutions were created to effectively "judicialize" investor-state disputes. The process was ad hoc and confused, but it ended with a bunch of powerful ways for investors to protect their privileges against hostile governments short of dragging Washington into yet another foreign adventure. (These include the most powerful international institution that you've probably never heard of: the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes. Ultimate enforcement lies with domestic courts and the multilateral lenders.)

Obviously, U.S. intervention didn't go away --- but its nature was very different from what it would have been in the absence of these quasi-judicial institutions. (One example: before 1973, expropriations always attracted CIA interest; afterwards, they did not. Ditto: beforehand share values of companies involved in various countries moved with NSC discussions; afterwards they did not.)

It is unlikely in the extreme that Congress would have acceeded to the creation of institutions like ICSID or signed the Washington Convention in today's political climate. In that sense, although the more-left environment didn't stop the U.S. from playing around in other countries on behalf of American private interests (even remarkably small interests), it did allow for the creation of an institutional solution that has, perhaps, helped take one sort of foreign intervention off the table.

For an idea of how a democracy behaves without judicial recourse, at least once it gets enough power, see Brazil. Even under Lula, its disputes with the neighbors have a very 19th-century feel. (Thus the attempts by that government to create such institutions --- although it remains reluctant to sign on to ICSID, viewing it as an imperial imposition.)

Which brings me to a question for Charlie. What's the most important belief about the way the world works that facts have forced you to abandon? (Ideas you abandoned before age 25 probably aren't that interesting.)


Thank you for the insights on where Open Source came from and the broader impacts on the development of software.
By "social rules", I mean something quite broad that I don't know the correct term for (if one exists). I mean all the social practices, customs, understandings, laws, etc. that make it possible to have a farflung impersonal economy run on money, as opposed to a local economy run on personal connections. In Europe, these "social rules" were created in the transition from feudalism to modern capitalism. I think that a knowledge-centered economy will require creation of another set of such "social rules" and that until we do, much of the economy and society will continue to have its current "how many angels can dance on the end of a pin" quality.
I also have a more specific hypothesis that the 60s is the point in time when the economy had developed to the point where a new set of social rules became necessary for the first time. We had developed a work force for a radically different economy and society and many of its members rebelled at being kept in the boxes of the old one. What you say about the sources of Open Source fits in well with that theory.
Shifting topics slightly, the attitudes of our current financial robber barons may be like those of the 19th century robber baron, but their context is very different. Much of the power of the robber barons came from the fact that for all the inefficiency and brutality, a great deal actually got done. Powerful industrial infrastructures were put into place. Our current financial robber barons ultimately derive their power not from any social accomplishment but from the dreary sense that no such social accomplishment is possible anymore by anyone. (By the way, I think the current Chinese Communist Party economic bosses and probably their analogs in India are robber barons in the true 19th century sense.)


@ 444
"Comfederate Independance"
VERY unlikely. The British were nowhere near as pro-Confed as is usually portrayed in US history. The great majority here realised it was about SLAVERY, and not the lie of "States Rights". What nearly screwed the North were the activities of some idiot blowhards who WANTED a war with the UK, so they could seize Canada. The "Trent" incident didn't help. either.

@ 445
"I'm betting on the military adventures, plus attempts to control even "friendly" governments in ugly ways."
And HOW many times has the US ivaded Panama / Cuba / $Central_American_State in the past 100 years?

@ 447 and others.
One thing people seem to have missed is the paranoid reluctance of the US to sign international binding treaties. "Because that makes the US subservient to other nations".
It doesn't, and even after the 160-year old example of the Alabama the US STILL doesn't seem to have learnt this one.
Very strange.

@ 448
Important change in 15th/16th C Europe.
The Church's complete ban on lending-with-interest broke down. Gentiles became bankers. And in spite of our current crises, this was a good thing. Capital and industry expanded. And as long as those who currently still cling to Dark-Ages cameleherders' myths still refuse to accept interest AT ALL, their economies are stuffed.


I've written a few snippets in an alternate version of the inter-war years, and it's almost too easy to turn the USA into the bogey-man of the setting. When a lot of the characters in the setting are anarcho-syndicalist in their approach to organisation, somebody such as Henry Ford is hard for them to be polite about.

Sometimes, when you've been digging into military history, and early armoured cars, it's a bit shocking. If it's an American design, it may well have been built to deal with striking workers, rather than to be used in war.


What's the most important belief about the way the world works that facts have forced you to abandon?

Ooh, that's a hard one. By limiting the scope for abandoned beliefs to "about the way the world works", you're implicitly limiting it to historical and present-day circumstances, and I'm probably a bit too future-oriented for my own good. Also there's the implicit assumption of youthful idealism being abandoned as one runs head-first into middle-aged pragmatism that underpins one common apologia for the reactionism of the elderly.

Well, let's see: there was my big steaming misconception that the internet had the potential to change everything in our political discourse, and for the better. I came up with that one circa 1992-94 -- age 28-30 -- and by 1998 I knew it wasn't going to be so. Call it a cognitive blunder rooted in the radically different culture of the early internet, before widespread popular adoption.

Then there was the hope that just electing a different bunch of legislators might fix the corruption and decay of civil rights that was visible in the UK during the last Major government. (That one survived May 1997 by approximately 12 months.) I'm beginning to think that Zimbardo's research into how institutions and situations shape individual behaviour and can legitimize brutality may have much more general applications to our civil institutions, and not in a good way.

But I'd find it a lot easier to answer this question if you allowed me to talk about abandoned ideas about the future.


But I'd find it a lot easier to answer this question if you allowed me to talk about abandoned ideas about the future.

I've already had a question but please please answer this for us fans!


Regarding 'Dreadnought' and its sequel 'Castles of Steel' both are great books indeed but the author's name is Robert K. Massie, not Allan; I thought I should mention it because both are historians...


"I've already had a question but please please answer this for us fans!"

Here Ryan, take my question.



That's very kind, thank you Luke :)


Yes I'm guessing a cooling off about the singularity is one of those abandoned ideas of the future, I admit I share this but again I don't know if it's so much a valid reassessment of the scenario or simple boredom with the idea, in my case.


I second the request: what ideas about the future or anything else have facts forced you to abandon?


OK, we have a proposer and a seconder. Time for the vote.

Oh, wait, this isn't a democracy ...


I would take abandoned ideas about the future as ideas concerning how the world works. Please!


Busy grinding out the climax to a novel: will be back when I have time to think clearly. Might be in a separate blog entry, once "The Apocalypse Codex" is nailed down. (97,750 words down, 9 scenes averaging 600-1000 words each to go.)


I was folding laundry over the weekend and watching TV (that's it's primary purpose, to facilitate folding laundry) and watching an old cartoon when it hit me: the Singularity, Accelerando, all that other 90's jazz? That's so Cowboy Bebop ;-)

Don't get me wrong, it's all good stuff - some of it very good. But the Singularity is definitely starting to smell like a period piece.

Sort of like all those stories from the 40's up through maybe the mid-60's about "mechanical educators" that fit over your head like a hair-dryer and give you an encylcopediac knowledge of chemistry as it was understood up to the day before yesterday. Don't see much use of that idea any more either. Though it would be nice to see what someone could do with the meme where as good Capitalists we're supposed to "work smarter, not harder."


The basic flaw in the notion of The Singularity is that it did not see how our increasingly outdated society warps and stifles the expansion of knowledge that might have become The Singularity.

Thought Experiment:
Suppose that instead of using education as another form of competition and exclusion, all the societies that already have the wherewithal (general production level) to do were to educate everyone as much as they were willing and able to learn. Then suppose that all these more educated people were given jobs that fully utilized their developed capacities. Finally suppose that the knowledge they created was fully shared.
Granted all three suppositions require societies that do not exist yet, but they require nothing else. Given these three suppositions, what happens to the rate of expansion of knowledge and technology. If it increased it by 10 times, then we would have "22nd century technology" in about 9 years. That would be pretty close to The Singularity. Especially if increase in the rate of new knowledge was not a one-off (3x or 10x or whatever) but accelerating.
All that's missing is new, higher forms of society.
But "The Singularity" missed that (minor roadblock :) ).


Part of the problem with these societies would be the amount of jobs that would not be done. If everyone was given a job to the best of their capability we may not fill every job required.

I always thought the biggest problem with the singularity is that technological development is neither exponential nor definite. By the former I mean that just because computers have doubled transistors every few years does not mean that everything else is getting twice as good. By the latter I'm referring to how Kurzweil et al seem to think that it is definitive that mind uploading, strong AI, molecular nanofactories will naturally fall out of Moore's law.


If the only way to get a job done is to hold someone to less than their full capacity, then we need to change the job. Recombination of jobs, automation

Many, although not all jobs that require less than most people's full capacity were designed for that purpose.

For example, a lot of fast food restaurant work could be automated and running those automation systems would be a challenging interesting job.

And of course, I mean whatever people's capacities are. Some have more capacity than others and we would need democratic mechanisms for finding the right balance. This is not something to be decided by the Committee of the Very Very High Capacity Brighter People. That was the delusion that brought down many forms of socialism and still plagues much of the left. (It exists on the right, too, but there it is a feature, not a bug.)


@422 that was mainly beacuse franco wasnt in a position to attack anything. He was happy to mantain control on post civil war spain and trying to stall completely becoming hitler´s puppet (mainly by claiming incompetence)


For example, a lot of fast food restaurant work could be automated and running those automation systems would be a challenging interesting job.

... That would employ far fewer people.

... Resulting in unemployment for the folks who formerly worked in the [admittedly shitty and badly paid] McJobs.

The trouble with automation is that you end up with either massive social unrest and unemployment and privation, and a recession driven by the drop in consumer demand, or the need for a welfare state. See also the Luddites.

Another problem is that most people in our society are trained to dislike and resent learning and skill acquisition and to fear change. Our entire school system from primary school on is modeled on an industrial/disciplinary model with uniforms, arbitrary rules, punishments for violations, forced attendance at unpleasant times of day, and confinement with people you wouldn't voluntarily associate with by choice -- leading to a culture from which endemic bullying emerges, along with cliques and social politics that generates pushback against the avowed goals of the institution (i.e. learning). Result: people go to higher ed to get the piece of paper that they think will give them access to a job where they'll earn more money, not because they want to educate themselves.


The stated assumption was that we could provide jobs to match our new, much better educated population.
Yes, in the world as we know it now, such automation would be cruel, also pointless as long as we have plenty of people crippled down to that kind of work.
Your description of the powerful anti-learning is one of the ways the crippling happens.
Of course, to reach the society as I postulated it would of course mean overcoming many obstacles, including the ones you correctly pointed out.
My main point was to show that most of the obstacles we face are basically social and The Singularity is what one saw looking forward from the 90s if one extrapolated accelerating technological development and ignored the social obstacles.
By the way, in any society where we use technological progress as an opportunity to play "let's throw you under the bus", fear of change is an unfortunately rational response.


So whats the best a BA can do for society?

Om asking since im currently unemployed and thinking about downgrading my resume so i can actually get a mcjob (that i wont get with my current one since "its obvious you will leave as soon as a better opportunity arises", which actually was very true...)


Strong AI, who knows? Skynet, robot overlords, Sarah Connor, whatever. Figure it out if it ever happens, which I guess I don't really think it will.

But weak AI? (Assuming, of course, that I'm using the phrase correctly.) The better it gets, the more it scares the crap out of me, because the social consequences are very very bad.

Feel free to talk me down.


No AI can stand against our superstrong NS.


"if I were to read "A brief history of the World/Europe/Britain, from X to the present day" what would you recommend for date X? "

Not sure what I'd recommend but see if it has either of these items in it.

The US Army had 45,000 troops in Siberia to, in very general terms, support the anti-Bolsheviks from 1918 to 1920. There were also British, French, and Japanese forces there at the time. Puts an entire new spin on US / USSR relations during the cold war and how the USSR viewed the US.

Also Herbert Hoover was a leader in Western famine relief to the USSR starting in 1921. Several western organizations basically fed the USSR for a few years.

I never heard of either of these until long after my days of learning history in a class.


andyet@#412 said:

As a result of Orthodox Jews out breeding secular Jews and everyone else, Israel has been morphed into a hard right wing theocratic state that doesn't give a damn about what the rest of the world thinks about how it treats Palestinians.
Ah yes. Intelligence is perfectly heritable. Religion is perfectly heritable: nobody is ever of a different religion than their parents (thus, France is still a Catholic dictatorship and everyone in the UK is very strongly Christian, just as we were in the 16th century). Let me guess, you know no biologists or ecologists? They'd have blown this little cluster of fallacies completely out of the water.

Hint: The Marching Morons was fiction. Not only was it fiction, it is wrong. The real world does not work like that. Worries about the religious outbreeding the secular, or the stupid outbreeding the intelligent, can be discarded: it will not happen. Children are not the same as their parents, and often choose to breed with children of very different parents. Gene flow conquers all.


"well, I'm deeply uncomfortable with the whole idea of thoughtcrime."

Do you include what the US calls "hate crimes" in your thoughtcrime category?


Speech != Thought.


Hate crimes aren't thoughtcrime. When a bunch of fag-bashers picks on a 23-year-old man coming out of a gay pub in Liverpool and kick the living shit out of him, they're not silently thinking "we hate gays", they're kicking the living shit out of a gay person because the hate gays. That's the crime, elevated to the level of a hate crime because a bunch of blithering idiots thought it would be really neat to kick the living shit out of a gay person and proceeded to do so.

I did mention "blithering idiots", didn't I? I'm referring to an actual assault in this case, and the description of the hate-filled homophobic bigots as "blithering idiots" is spot on in that they chose an off-duty probationary police officer to kick the living shit out of, not your usual gay person terrified their friends and employers would find out they were gay. The Liverpool police issued a statement explaining that they were perfectly aware that the officer in question was gay and that he was highly regarded by the force and they would be sparing no efforts to track down his assailants. Oops.


I have no idea about the specific situation you're describing. Sorry.

But if "Speech != Thought" can you convict someone of a hate crime in the absence of "speech" by the accused? I ask because over here in the US certain crimes are deem to be hate crimes due to the personal attributes of the accused and victim.

Also why should adding hate to a crime add more punishment? If you beat someone to a jelly like pulp you need to be locked up for a long time no matter why you did it other than personal defense. But the pulp makes even that a hard argument to make.

I'm sorry but from my point of view if you have to "read the mind" of the accused you are already way past where I want any judicial system to be located. IMO.


'For example, a lot of fast food restaurant work could be automated and running those automation systems would be a challenging interesting job'

You can't have done much work in a fast food restaurant. They're already automated as much as possible. Building size and economies of scale means that you can't have fully automated production lines in such a small space. The human beings working there are vital to keeping the costs down.

It's also a situation where humans are much more useful at coping with the stop and go nature of the business. When five customers come in at the same time then the staff move to taking orders and preparing food, when there's no customers the staff switch to cleaning and maintenance.

Fast food is serious business.

p.s. There's quite a difference between Bond Movies and Ian Fleming's books. If you haven't read them I recommend trying them.


I would suggest 1914. The Great War really changed everything, and I truly mean everything in big capital letters. 1939-45 was a direct consequence, and 1945-1989 a long epilogue. And sometimes I think 1990-2011 could be described in many fields as a return to the years before 1914... and not only in the economy.

We have had a few Balkan wars, instability in Russia, serious unrest in the Muslim world and the old Ottoman Empire, worries about an alleged Yellow Peril... even piracy and international expeditionary forces are back!


Whilst I concur with the overall thrust of Justin's point about general history, there is a case to be made for some kind of high level survey if your principal exposure to history thus far has been hyper-focused on a handful of unrelated periods widely separated in time and space (which is a criticism that has been levelled at history-as-she-is-taught-in-schools).

As such I'd like to recommend E. H. Gombrich's "A Little History of the World" - it's a book intended for children but that is one of it's virtues as it is beautifully written, in simple prose and structured as sequence of short, thematic chapters.

By no means should you stop with Gombrich, but he's an excellent place to start for an overview of the big picture.



Hate crimes, at least in the UK, require a physical crime to be committed and proved in court. Note that in the UK speech can be a crime; this is regarded as an affront to most Americans but they didn't live next and through the period in Europe before 1939 when free speech was not an unalloyed good. Instead they had the Klan and Jim Crow and they are still dealing with the results of that mess because they couldn't or wouldn't stamp down on it hard enough.

A punch-up outside a pub is a crime. A group of idiots who get together and rile themselves up, talking up an enemy they must unite against and destroy before said enemy destroys their virtuous selves and go out and kick in a homo or a Jew or whitey or whoever is on the shitlist of the week, that's a hate crime.

It's one of the few hard markers of fascism although it can be seen in many other political streams of thought, the concept of the insiduous "other" within society -- Jews in Germany before the 1940s, for example. It helps if they are obviously different to upstanding citizens like me and thee; skin colouration (Mexican immigrants in Arizona), behaviour (flaming poofters), ethnic dress (burkas and hijabs), all things to be viewed with alarm by the press and, if not discouraged by the law, attacked under the excuse "they were asking for it". The hate crime tarriff makes it more expensive for the would-be defenders of Civilisation to excuse their actions, if not to themselves at least to the rest of the folks they claim to be defending.


I'm not interested in any heated discussions, but I might just as well drop of one more thing.

Let's just say, I have these weird ideas and these weird ideas have a few implications that would be interesting to look at.

So, I maintain that culture exists. (I hate the term meme by now. It comes with a lot of preconceived baggage, that I simply can't endorse.)

If it exists, there needs to be a neural correlate. I propose learning effects in connectivity patterns in amygdala and nucleus accumbens. That makes it a combination of learned fears and a learned addiction.

A pattern that replicates (presumably by education and social pressure, but channels don't matter for this here) implies an out-of-equlibrium situation with evolutionary pressures.

In this case, the main constraints selected for would be happiness (we're talking about an addiction, nucleus accumbens, remember?) and social functionality.

In simple words: People maintain preconceived ideas, mainly because it makes them happy to do so and it doesn't negatively effect their fundamental functioning to the point where it creates cognitive dissonance.

A research biologist will have a hard time believing in Creationism and maintaining functionality, but an Amish master carpenter will experience true happiness, social acceptance and a full life maintaining beliefs other people would frown upon.

Being right or listening to arguments are not criteria selected for, if this holds true. And I deeply suspect, that the power of rational arguments are overvalued in the modernist culture dominating a lot of "conventional approaches" to science.

In fact, I maintain that "free will" and a few other ideas are prominent only, because of the feelgood factor involved. But that's a side issue.

My main hypothesis implies, that there are discrete openings in a personal biography, where one is especially likely to "leave the faith".

Single, unmarried and going to attain University in a different city while looking for a romantic relationship would be a classic.

On the other hand, if you're married to a person with the same attitudes, have kids and are the respected member of a functioning community, why on earth would you throw that away? For being right? That's close to masochism.

Being right doesn't pay you in dopamine, if you're not one of those perverted intellectuals misers.


I'm more than familiar with Xymox; Covenant I'll look into.


Hah! just finally thought of a question!

Given your stated musical preferences (kindof an overlap there with mine) I was wondering whether there's a chance of ever meeting you not as an author at a con but rather as a concert-goer at the Wave-Gotik-Treffen in Leipzig, which is kinda the most important festival in this genre that I know of.

List of bands here:

(Note: given the last few blogposts: yeah, probably not this year I guess ..)


Just to add: when people target an individual for their traits, they're not merely attacking the immediate victim - they're attempting to intimidate the entire community of people who share those traits.


Adding further, hate crimes are no different than any other crime that is judged by intent. Take killing a person, for example. Common law has recognized for centuries that intent is a key factor in determining what the crime was and how severely it gets punished. Premeditated murder is treated much more harshly than murder in the heat of passion, they're both more severe than negligent manslaughter, and a complete uncontrollable accident isn't even a crime. (Your mileage may vary with locality.)

The same applies to a hate crime. Setting out with a plan to assault someone is different than beating them up because they ran over your dog. The same applies with beating someone because they're gay or some other group (including, it should be pointed out, for being straight or white, but they tend to be less targeted). In most cases it's not just premeditated assault, but an attempt to terrorize an entire community. Think of the difference between setting up a bonfire in violation of a fire code and setting a cross alight on someone's yard. The message and intent is very different, and in the eyes of the law that matters.

Finally, it's hard to have sympathy for people who cry about being punished more for this sort of thing. If you don't want to go to jail, then maybe you stay home instead of setting out with a plan to beat up some queers/jews/whatever.


I'll simplify my question. If someone who's gay gets beat to a pulp outside of a gay bar by someone who's not gay and the guy doing the beating looks like a member of a biker gang or maybe a skinhead but otherwise has no history of gay bashing, is it a hate crime?

No history of spoken or written words against gays. No attendance at anti-gay rallies. Not a member of anti-gay groups. But maybe a regular church attender who's having a really bad day. Oh and the church/denomination that you can't be a member if you are openly gay.

In the US many feel it is and the legal system works under this premise.


Whatever happened to M'era Luna...

Hm, let me just say one thing: VNV Nation

I'll simplify my question. If someone who's gay gets beat to a pulp outside of a gay bar by someone who's not gay and the guy doing the beating looks like a member of a biker gang or maybe a skinhead but otherwise has no history of gay bashing, is it a hate crime?

. . .

In the US many feel it is and the legal system works under this premise.

Could you please tell me precisely what you find illogical or silly or objectionable about this? Is it the act of taking intent into account when charging someone with a crime? Is it because intent standard is different when victim merely happens to an average schmoe?



weeeelll you know .. some of my best friends go to M'era Luna but .. it's not the same thing. It may be bigger than WGT (not sure) but WGT just is the best. For lots of reasons that can't be quickly explained.

Main point for me personally is that afaik M'era Luna is a typical festival-type festival. Big field, tents, stage. That kind of thing. WGT on the other hand is distributed over the whole city of Leipzig, lots of venues and you can rent some appartment for sleeping. Much nicer at my age ;)

(also, my wife likes to dress up for the occasion. Preferrable not to be in a tent for that)


Check out Chris Mooney's recent article about Motivated Reasoning in Mother Jones ( for another take on this phenomenon, he mostly focuses on description and how denialism operates, but there is some discussion on why being anti-rational might be adaptive for the practitioners.



From my follow up comment:

'Only five percent of children born to the most conservative Amish, for example, move on to other faiths or lifestyles. The defection rate is higher among New Order Amish, Mormons and other comparatively less demanding fundamentalist communities, yet they still hold on to the majority of their children. Moreover, what defections they may experience are more than offset by converts, with the net flow favoring conservative faiths, according to poll data gathered by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Thus we see 21 percent of converts leaving liberal and moderate denominations for more fundamentalist ones, and only 15 percent going the other way."

Not only do conservative religions out breed seculars, they also have a positive net conversion rate in their favor. The vast majority of Fundy kids stay Fundy their entire lives. For every apostate that leaves, there are many more that convert that join Fundamentalism. Do the math.

The future is Fundy.

Not only do conservative religions out breed seculars, they also have a positive net conversion rate in their favor. The vast majority of Fundy kids stay Fundy their entire lives. For every apostate that leaves, there are many more that convert that join Fundamentalism. Do the math.

If you do the math, you realize that this is more like a chemical reaction that's run to completion. Let's use some hard numbers to demonstrate: say in a town of 10,000 people, 100 of them belong to Wacky Cult and they've been around long enough that there are children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren etc.

Let's say that in these parlous times, Wacky Cult parents are alarmed at the defection rate of the younger cohorts, say it's five percent at every iteration. Otoh, in Undifferentiated Populace, the joining rate (which counters the defections) is only one percent. What happens over time? Well, Wacky Cult loses five of their Chosen (0.05*100=5) each generation. But they gain 0.01*9900=99 members each iteration. They thus have a net gain of 99-5=94 members, which almost doubles their membership! Note that from the numbers this trend will continue until Wacky Cult grows to 1/5 the town's population (asymptotically), or until they have 2,000 associates, at which point gains equals losses.

It's easy to see then that simple rates aren't enough to answer the question about memberships increasing or declining and in fact, this is exactly like a chemical reaction that has run to completion and has an equilibrium point that can be changed by altering temperature, pressure, etc. You also need to know the initial relative concentrations :-)


I haven't thought of a question worth asking.
Still waiting for a Lie


In the U.S. (and I think in other common law systems), if the prosecutor wants to convict the defendant of a hate crime, then they have to convince the jury that it was a hate crime, while the defense attorney tries to convince them that it wasn't, and it's up to the jury to decide whether it really was or not. Just like for any other crime, or any other aggravating factor of a crime.

The *execution* of justice may be flawed in many cases, but the theory of it (whether any particular act happened or not, or was or wasn't a crime) isn't any different for a hate crime than for anything else.


Hate crimes are not the only crimes where "thought" matters -- there are a lot of things for which intent matters. Homicide, for example -- accidental, crime of passion, malice aforethought, reckless, etc.


I was reared in Wacky Cult, as was my brother and eight of our cousins. My brother is the only one in now and his Wack is a bit less than it was, although he's added some of his own rules. His wife and two kids are in his version of Wacky Cult.


Same here, Marilee. We left Missouri to live in rural Oregon because my Dad was following the fundy goose; later on we moved back to Missouri so he could join The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. Inspired in large part by Hal Lindsey and his merry brand of Dispensationalism.

One thing I'll note about these Fundamentalist groups, they tend to be extremely hard on the children. I don't know whether this is deliberate or just a byproduct, but I do know that it results in a lot of damaged kids who often times don't have the skills or the options to make a full break with the tribe.

I don't know about your own situation, but these early experiences left me with an extreme respect for the more rational modes of inquiry (such as basic deductive reasoning and the scientific method), a healthy appreciation for high technology like indoor plumbing and electricity, and a very skeptical if not outright cynical outlook when it comes to the self-serving rationalizations the powerful use to justify takings from the powerless.

Iow, Fundamentalism is not conducive to good mental health.


Charlie, if you're still taking questions...

re:in the eschatological, mystical gaia-worship version of environmentalism everything we do is sinful until we "go back to living in harmony with nature" (which I read as a synonym for "98% of us die; the rest go back to the stone age" -- with a misreading of the environmental impact of neolithic hunter-gatherers laid on top).

Do you care to expand on what that misreading is? Or at least point to some sources that do? There seems to have been a kind of popular resurgence in recent years of idealizing stone-age/pre-civilized human existence (Evolutionary Psychology -- note caps -- and "Paleo-diets" being the most obvious pop-culture examples), and I'm very interested in the "harmony with nature" trope and how much water it holds in light of what we currently understand about pre-agricultural/pre-domestication societies.


"Let's say that in these parlous times, Wacky Cult parents are alarmed at the defection rate of the younger cohorts,"

They needn't worry. All available data indicates that converts outnumber apostates for conservative and fundametnalist religions. The rest of the numbers chosen for your example are arbitrary and meaningless. You have no evidence to back up you rather weak analogy.

If a group has both higher birth rates and a net positive conversion ratio it will in time come to dominate its society. That is how early Christianity overwhelmed paganism in the late Roman Empire. Early Christians avoided birth control, condemned abortion, and conducted effective proselytizing efforts.

In short, early Christianity was superior in a Darwinian sense to its pagan competitiors. Today, Fundamental and Conservative religions are superior to contemporary seculars. Seculars will die out and be replaced in the same manner as pagans.

"Fundamentalism is not conducive to good mental health."

Irrelevant, Darwin doesn't care about mental health or for that matter, personal happiness. If any other species had a characteristic that would cause its birth rate to plummet, biologists would certainly define this characteristic as a defect.

If rationalism results in lower birth rates, then rationalism is (in a Darwinian sense) a defect.


If fundamentalism's success or failure is simply a matter of biology, how do you explain the existence of a secularized world for the fundies to aspire to conquering? Piety should have never waned in the first place. I think this fundamentalism-as-biological-destiny model needs work.


My grandparents lived in rural Washington, but their religion was called Free Methodist. That's because they thought Methodism was too worldly. I understand there aren't many followers that still exist, and the college I went to for a year -- Seattle Pacific -- is no longer so fundamentalist. (My father required me to go there because it had the largest batch of acceptable husbands.)


I guess you knew most of the people there not before the age of six, but he wasn't aware of the Westermarck effect, was he?

My grandparents lived in rural Washington, but their religion was called Free Methodist. That's because they thought Methodism was too worldly.

That's something of the same pattern my Dad followed: he was a lapsed Catholic before he became a Baptist before he became something called a Berean Baptist before he joined the CSA. But anyway - yeah, the rural Northwest seemed to attract a lot of this sort of weirdness back then (we moved out there in the mid-60's). Our property abutted that held by - I kid you not - the clan Pommedeterre, a tribe of Hillbillies who had apparently lived there for time out of mind but were generally held to be of no account the locals. On the other side, we had what I later learned to be a genuine for-real commune of Hippies (maybe three permanent couples plus kids and transients who would stay for a month or three, all in their twenties. In the same age range as my parents back then, come to think of it.) Being quite young at the time and newly arrived to country life, I just thought that they were regular country people, albeit young and cool and outgoing, not the nasty kind of country person who looked really scary-old and who often bore the marks of hideous farm-type accidents and resented us as newcomers.

Of course, looking back on it, the explanation seems fairly obvious: Sure the great Northwest was touted in the media as the place to get away from it all. But it was also suffering a local but very serious and long term depression as the timber industry was well into it's forty-year decline. The residents who were smart and not afraid to move got out while the getting was good, and the lack of jobs meant that property could be had quite cheaply. Something the new owners, young and traveling a fair distance, were often not entirely aware of.

They needn't worry. All available data indicates that converts outnumber apostates for conservative and fundametnalist religions. The rest of the numbers chosen for your example are arbitrary and meaningless. You have no evidence to back up you rather weak analogy.

I'm not following you here. I used those numbers to demonstrate the fact that rates of defection and joining aren't enough to determine what's going on. So that the competing assertions are both true, that is, there is both a high rate of defection by members along with a low rate of joining by nonmembers and that the group is also growing.

If a group has both higher birth rates and a net positive conversion ratio it will in time come to dominate its society. That is how early Christianity overwhelmed paganism in the late Roman Empire. Early Christians avoided birth control, condemned abortion, and conducted effective proselytizing efforts.

Well no, that's not how it works, mathematically speaking. That's why I compared the process to a chemical reaction. They go in both directions, and just as the reactants form products, the products also break down into reactants. And when the amount of products turning into reactants equals the amount of reactants turning into products, chemists say the reaction has "run to completion." It's just that the rates are so lopsided that the amount of reactants in the the mix are vanishingly small, the proportion of products in the mix higher than 99%.

Try another example: say that a cult starts out small, 100 members, and the defection rate is huge, on the order of 90% every year. The outside groups numbers a round one million, and the rate of joining for nonmembers is 0.01%. How many members will the cult ultimately contain?

Well, every year it loses 100*0.9=90 members. At the same time, it will gain 1,000,000*0.0001=100 new recruits. Despite the fact that this cult has a terrible retention rate, it nevertheless has a net gain of 10 new members every year!

Now suppose the rates of defection and joining are the same, but the cult initially starts off with 50,000 adherents. What happens in this case? Well, now it loses 50,000*0.9=45,000 people every year, but with the initial outsider group still being one million strong, it gains just 100 new recruits, for a net loss every year of 44,900.

See how that works? We can also ask what size the cult will be when reaches it's equilibrium membership. Well, it can only gain 100 new recruits every year, so it can lose at most 100 members annually before it starts shrinking. So then X*0.9=100, and solving for X gives us 112 cultists (rounding up, since anything much less than this of a person will almost surely be a dead person.)

Notice that this is just mathematics, not cult psychology or biology or even physics. And very well understood applied mathematics at that. If you're really interested in this sort of thing, you might want to look up the Lotka–Volterra equations. In the general setting, they can be used to model populations of two distinct groups, each of whose size is determined in part by the size of the other group. Fascinating stuff. Oh, one final comment about your scenario:

If a group has both higher birth rates and a net positive conversion ratio it will in time come to dominate its society.

This might happen, but only if (like every other population) the replacements from the birthrates alone is greater than number of defectors, i.e., the cult doesn't need an outside population to sustain itself, and the net number of replacements from births minus the number of defecting cult members is greater than net number of births in the outside population. Otherwise - and this is just from numbers, nothing else - an equilibrium will be reached with members of both groups being represented (all other things being equal, of course.)

So the real-world question then is, do you have any evidence that this is the case?


I have no data on this, but some personal experience with traditionalist catholics.

(The non-integralist, non-sedevacantist variety, generally nice people, BTW; let's not talk about the other ones. Funny thing talking to them about pious muslims, totally different, of course...)

The problem is liberal denominations (or sub-groups) loose members both ways, into irreligiousity (not necessary agnosticism or atheism) and into the more, err, conservative groups.

Trying to get to the people for whom the denomination is too demanding tends to alienate the conservatives; trying to appease the conservatives tends to disturb the liberals, especially if you're badly informed[1] and do it to wingnuts like Richard Williamson.

[1] I assume for once it was incompetence on the part
of the Ratz and not malice[2].
[2] But then, maybe the Ratz was thinking along the
lines of plausible deniability[3].
[3] And the church maintains it's above petty


Reading the articles about Williamson, there is a nice line by the guy from SSPX:

Bishop Bernard Fellay, the superior general of the SSPX, likens Williamson to uranium: "It's dangerous when you have it," he says, but you can't "simply leave it by the side of the road."

Personally, I think those guys are more along the lines of highly enriched U-235 or Pu-239, but I digress; let's just say they should be kept apart or concentrated in a remote weapon test area...

Problem is, AFAIK according to canon law (yeah, I know the joke, Eric Flint already did it), any ordained bishop stays a bishop. So when you loose control about this guy, he could go about and consecrate other bishops. In other words, in a world where Roman Catholicism worked he'd become something of the live spiritual weapon our gracious host talked about with books he would never write.

Problem is, getting the minutae is going to involve lots of canon law, so one had to be a scholar of the dark arts, aka juriprudence or at least know some appropiate worlock.

Or you could get John Grisham and Tim Powers to do a collaboration. The horror...


"do you have any evidence that this is the case?"

In addition to my previously sited sources, repeated below:


... which you are free to actually read. I'd like to also include this reference to a mathematical model of religious growth:

"They go in both directions, and just as the reactants form products, the products also break down into reactants."

Again, your analogy is false, not to mention silly. People do not act like molecules in a flask. And though there is both conversion to and apostasy from conservative religions, the directions are NOT EQUAL. Far more people convert to conservative religions then leave them. (Kindly take the time to read through my sources before responding).

Furthermore, you continue to ignore the effects of much higher birth rates, and much lower birth rates below replacement level on the two population groups. A total fertility rate TFR of 2.1 (2.1 children on average per woman during her child bearing years) is required to maintain a steady population where just as many graves as cribs are filled each year - a 100% replacement rate.

Secular societies and individuals have TFRs below 2.1, which means their absolute numbers are falling each generation. For example, a secular TFR of 1.25 wold represent a replacement rate of only about 60%.

It would be, using your chemical analogy, as if there were less of the secular chemical and more of the religious chemical added to the mix with each reaction cycle.

So take a secular starting population of 100,000 with a replacement rate of 60% and in 4 generations its numbers have dwindled to 12,960 (not counting the effects of longer lifespans of previous generations).

Now take a religious starting population of 100,000 with a replacement rate of 150% (a not unreasonable TFR of 3.15) and in 4 generations its numbers have exploded to 506,250 (again, not counting the effects of longer lifespans of previous generations). after a mere century, the religious have gone from be equal to be almost 40 times greater than seculars.

You could also set up a spread sheet where a certain proportion of each new religious generation become apostates, but with more converts from secularism (in the real world, the son of Madelyn Murray O'Hare would be a perfect example). Eventually you reach a steady state where some tiny minority of seculars is maintained almost exclusively by apostasy from conservative religions - but that is all it will ever be, a tiny minority.

The magic of compound interest works both ways. So its not a chemical analogy that you should by applying to this problem, but simple mathematics.


"Darwin doesn't care about mental health or for that matter, personal happiness"

Just to give you an introduction into Biology 101:
Information that replicates needs to be coded somewhere. Some information is hardcoded in the genes, some is epigenetic.
A lot of human behaviour is coded genetically (albeit indirectly as a natural feature of the physical design). That are typically emotions like mortal fright, sexual arousal or parent-child bonding.

A rule of thumb: If other apes do it the same way, it's genetical.

Religion is definitely not coded in the genes and evolution is not a factory churning out preprogrammed clones.

That means for a knowledgeable "Darwinian" (which we might simply substitute with "biologist"), the sheer persistence of religions is indeed a mystery on first sight.

The true insight here is, that real behaviour is something that directly builds on the coded part, the core emotions. And we are defined by these core emotions as well as our implementation of these in the real world.

To repeat this in other words: Our behaviour is neither coded, nor free of constraints.

The need for happiness on the most fundamental level is coded and physical. The underlying principle is that of an active entropy-guidance: all complex life forms, when not dealing with an active emergency are preparing for future ones. The reward system is a design trying to implement this in making you happy when you increase your preparedness (or that of the species).

We're social animals, so we're not only dependent on physical fitness, we also have a physical need for friends and family - our best protection in evolutionary history. Back to the rule of thumb: yes, other apes have this as well (mourning, depression, you name it...), so it seems to be hardcoded.

But why religion? And why beliefs that would be absolutely hilarious, if not for our being used to it?

Back to biology 101: It only needs to be good enough to beat the competition. Perfection strictly not required.

So quite simply, the reward system and our most basic emotions (and that's basically us) are not perfect. You can easily hack the system to get some extra happiness.
(Did you know by the way, that agriculture is a byproduct of yearly beer-drinking orgies in what is today southern Turkey?)

If you understand that and understand we're talking low level here - not genetically hardcoded, but right on top of that - then it becomes obvious that derivative stuff (like consciousness) will mostly yield to it. Not always, we're not machines, but often enough.

And while this may be interesting in itself and especially for people, who have close relatives, totally intelligent adults (at least in the case of my family) holding a few crazy, weirdo beliefs mixed with an otherwise sophisticated and rationally reflected worldview, what I'm really interested in is :

What does that tell us about us, about how we work?

How much more likely are we to hold cherished beliefs, if they're not outrageously stupid, but only a little bit?

And before I get inundated with "anger"-stage slander here (a natural reaction as this touches the domain of pretty intimate stuff), there is data to back my monologues up.

Prediction and nucleus accumbens:
Predictability Modulates Human Brain Response to Reward

But belief alone might work just as well as prediction from former experience:
Scott et al.: “Individual Differences in Reward Responding Explain Placebo-Induced Expectations and Effects.” Publishing in Neuron 55, 325–336, July 19, 2007. DOI 10.1016/j.neuron.2007.06.028

Or the fear/amygdala side:
"Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults"

The problem is liberal denominations (or sub-groups) loose members both ways, into irreligiousity (not necessary agnosticism or atheism) and into the more, err, conservative groups.

This is called speciation. ( )
One of the clearest possible proofs of some kind of evolutionary pressure. (Just to be clear: there is some kind of evolution going on, but it's not genetic evolution. Genetics work way slower.)


Sympatric or allopatric speciation? ;)

I think biologically informed models might lead us astray here, for starters, concerning the outbreeding the infidels, I'm sceptical about the link between fertility and religiousity, that might hold true for Protestant Christian and some Jewish denominations, problem is even for Roman Catholicism the picture gets complicated:

And as always, correlation doesn't imply causation; it might just be that certain sociological features correlate quite well with religiousity and number of children, e.g. education of women, lack of. In this case, just wait some years, even the most reactionary political regimes had to learn it's a bad idea to leave more than half of the population unskilled workers in a modern industrial society. Never mind the antics of some male educated whites from 68, the real reason for emancipation were Ford and some Mexican going for the pill.

Concerning the hedonistic aspects of faith, especially Christianity reminds me of the fun of some long-term drug addicts, where the fun of the drug is just the alleviation of withdrawl. To get the soothing of being saved, you have to believe you're damned; qewl.

There is some research that shows religiosity, measured with frequent church visits, negatively correlates with depression, problem is the correlation vanishes when looking at religious people that cease going to church.


Anecdotal single sample, yet I found this to be encouraging.

Homeschooling former fundamentalist mother of five thanks Christopher Hitchens


This is nonsense, a logically-and-historically blind extrapolation of the sort that projects Earth will be converted to yottagrams of yeast by next month based on what's happened in my petri dish over the last 2 hours. Why aren't conservative Amish already one of the largest population groups in the United States? They should be if they double in numbers every 20 years; they first arrived in the USA in the early 1700s, after all. If there were 1000 conservative Amish in 1720, today there should about as many conservative Amish as Texans.

In historical reality, the Amish community has split several times throughout its history and the most conservative factions were not the largest, post-split. The defection rate model for conservative religious orders must include large scale splits and reform movements, not just the uncoordinated falling away of individuals.

This is nonsense, a logically-and-historically blind extrapolation of the sort that projects Earth will be converted to yottagrams of yeast by next month based on what's happened in my petri dish over the last 2 hours. Why aren't conservative Amish already one of the largest population groups in the United States? They should be if they double in numbers every 20 years; they first arrived in the USA in the early 1700s, after all. If there were 1000 conservative Amish in 1720, today there should about as many conservative Amish as Texans.

Ironically, I set up a spreadsheet last night after I posted my comments.[1] Andy should take his own advice and do the same. It's quite easy. I started out with two populations, C and N, and four fixed rates, C_d, C_b, N_d, N_b. C_d is the rate of cult defections, C_b is cult birthrate, and N_d, N_b play the same role for the general outgroup. Crucially, the defections from the general population are the same as cult joiners from the general population, and vice versa.

So at each iteration:

C=C+C_b*C-C_d*C+N_d*N and N=N+N_b*N-N_d*N+C_d*C

That is the new values are just the old values plus births minus defections plus joiners. Now copy paste. Took me maybe two minutes to set up and run, five minutes more before I was happy with the formatting :-) Now you can play around and see what happens in the end state. For example, I start with 1,000 cult members, 4,000 members, and rates of defections and births four percent annually for the cults, and rates of defections and births in the non-cult population of just half that.

Guess what? The cult percentage rises from twenty percent to 41 percent and remains stable thereafter. You can play with the rates and initial populations and see what happens quite easily from there to see that, no, one population doesn't crowd out the other. Again - as Any agrees - that's just the math. And the power of e, which crops up whenever population growth is dependent upon the size of the population.

[1]I'm a math guy . . . but the only functions I can integrate now are polynomials :-) But it's all logical and we've got the technology anyway, so I just did those thousand iterations Excel and it took only minutes. This would have been much harder to do in 1979, btw, and was frequently cited as a justification for knowing calc and diffeq. Which is why I went the Excel route on this problem ;-)


No, it was just that they were all the religion I was reared in, and I was required to marry someone in the same religion. Of course, I wouldn't have if I ever got married -- once I was out of the house I stopped pretending I was religious at all -- but my father told me I was a minor and legally had to do what he said as well as do what he wanted because of the religion. When I became emancipated, the judge said I could have done it earlier. I wish I'd known that.


We lived on bases until I was eight, and then in more traditional suburbs, so it wasn't nearly that exciting.


There is an interesting parallel between fundamentalist religious sects in the US and rock bands. Rock bands start out biting off the heads of live chickens and eventually reach the point of doing charity golf tournaments and Frank Sinatra covers. At that point, some new genre rises up for the new generation of youth, perhaps starting out biting off the heads of live ferrets.


Well, I was just thinking along the lines that if the W. effect is for real (it seems better backed than most of the other Ev(o|i)lPsych, though), keeping your little bastards, err, children in the company of the suitable (for you) mates from early childhood is a recipe for them NOT marrying any suitable (for you) mates later; seems to have worked in your case, SCNR. *g*

In reality though, most people seem to practice some form of endogamy though...