October 2011 Archives

You get three wishes, hedged about as in the previous trick question (i.e. you can't ask for more wishes and you should be very careful what you wish for).

This time there is one additional constraint:

Whatever you wish for, your worst enemy — let's assume if you don't have enemies that there is someone you hate, loathe, and would happily see dead that is walking this planet — gets it doubled. So: if you wish for $1M, your worst enemy gets $2M, and so on.

What are your three wishes?

(No, I didn't invent this one; there are a couple of different solutions. Let's hear what you can come up with first, before I pull back the curtain ...)

(I'm away from home for a long weekend, and may have limited internet connectivity.)

The French magazine Galaxies SF has just interviewed me at length for a forthcoming issue, and I thought I'd share their last interview question with you and ask how you would answer it:

A magician/god/witch offers you three wishes. What do you wish for?

(No, you do not get to wish for further wishes.)

Pause for a moment and think about the implications before you answer, m'kay? I'll tell you what I came up with later.

"The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." William Gibson wrote that bon mot, and if he never wrote another word, that insight would be sufficient to guarantee him immortality.

Which got me wondering whether the future that is already here might include a class for whom space travel is not merely an interesting idea, but one that is affordable.

It seems I'm not the only skeptic: Professor Tom Murphy at UCSD also figures that near term visions of space colonization are implausible:

I want to caution against harboring illusions of space as the answer to our collision course of growth on a finite planet. We live at a special time. We have enjoyed spending our inheritance of fossil fuels, and are feeling rather heady about our technological prowess. For many generations now, we have ridden an exponential growth track, conditioning ourselves to believe that our upward trajectory is an eternal constant of our existence. We'll see. When we cross to the down-slope of fossil fuel availability--beginning with oil--we'll see how timeless the growth phase seems to be, and whether we can afford a continued presence in space. We should be mature enough to admit that we have no context in which to evaluate how successfully the human race will navigate this unprecedented transition.
There's a lot more in his essay beside that — regular readers of this blog will find most of his arguments familiar from various blog posts of mine over the past 2-3 years — but it looks as if we've independently reached similar conclusions. And now he's been slashdotted, so his email inbox is probably full of stuff that is semantically indistinguishable from "WHY YOU SAY SANTA NOT EXIST?!?? YOU LIAR!! DO YOU WANT TO MAKE BABY JESUS CRY?!!11!!ELEVENTY!!"

(Evidence: read the comment thread here.)

What is it about the whole space colonization meme that causes its followers to personally identify with it so vehemently, despite the lack of scope for near-term actualization? (NB: this is a question about the cultural and sociological attachment aspects of space colonization as an idea, not about the idea itself.)

Joan Slonczewski now has a blog: Ultraphyte. If you enjoyed her thought-provoking guest postings here, why not go there and bookmark it for future reading?

If you want to follow me on titter or witter or whatever it's called, glom onto @cstross.

That is all.

Over the coming several weeks, here at Antipope Central we're planning some design changes for Charlie's Diary.

Some of them will be invisible to you (unless you use Titter or ArseBook, you probably don't need to worry about blog postings being auto-broadcast to those social networks; and unless you're a spammer you don't care about the spam filtering being beefier). Others are feature requests ("can we have a list of guest bloggers in the sidebar, with links to their articles?"). Some are bare-faced marketing — my Fiction FAQ is tripping over its own beard (it started out in 1993 and has just grown since then), and the "buy my books" links badly need to be easier to find and navigate. And some are experimental.

We're discussing switching to nested hierarchical comments. Instead of the current layout (with basic back-references) comments would look something like this:
example of threaded comments
Note that there's a usability trade-off here. Deeply nested discussions end up in thin, narrow columns that leave a lot of white space — this is liable to be deeply annoying if you read my blog on a handheld device. Nested discussions also make it harder to track the chronology of new comments — comments are added within the discussion thread they're replying to, not at the end of the long scroll, so new comments in an early thread might get overlooked if folks are simply following the tail of the discussion. (Unfortunately we don't have off-the-shelf code to do collapsible threaded commenting, a la usenet readers of yore, and I certainly don't have the spare time to try and implement it myself.)

If you're a regular reader of the comments here, do you think it would improve your reading experience if we add hierarchical threading to the discussions? I'm asking because we've had lots of requests for it — but that could be a false positive signal: because it hasn't been on the front page before, there's been no reason for people who don't want to see this change to speak out against it.

Spam: we hates it.

Most folks have gotten used to — resigned to — finding a steaming pile of the pink stuff in their email inbox. It's all over the place because the barrier to entry is low — the recipient (me, or you) bears the cost, not the sender. Anti-spam measures help some (if you use GMail you could probably be excused for boggling on being told that around 90% of all email sent is spam); ISPs fight a valiant battle to keep it under control. A less well-known problem is blog spam.

This blog has extensive spam-filtering features, and I've been beefing them up recently because of a new wave of attackers. Hitherto I've mostly been seeing spam posted by keyboard monkeys: cheap labour paid to post early and often, with keywords and/or links intended to boost the pagerank of whatever dubious website they're pushing in the search engines. (This blog has a Google pagerank of 5, which is respectable and makes it a fat target for spammers.) The spam bin autoempties after 30 days, and has typically had 200 quivering pink slices in it at any time.

Not any more. As of two weeks ago the spam load began climbing. If the trend continues, later today the 30-day spam bin should pass a thousand chunks of ... well, you don't want to see it; it's mostly random word salad (some of it Chinese) with keywords for various expensive designer products embedded in it. And the word salad chunks are large. If I could impose a 300 word limit on comments before auto-holding them for moderation, it'd trap 95% of the spam. Again, if I could be arsed to write a Movable Type plugin to ban comment posts with an empty name field, that'd work. Annoyingly, these jerks appear to be using a botnet; blocking by IP address is next to useless.

I just resorted to renaming the comment-posting script, just in case the spammers have got it hardwired. (I don't think so, but ...) Next step might be to begin permuting the fieldnames in the comment form. I don't hold with CAPTCHAs — from personal experience, they really suck if you don't have excellent visual acuity, and spammers have been known to pay people to break them.

The battle is unending. Just thought I'd let you know that it's not been lost ... yet.

It took me until this morning to get it onto my iPad; Apple's authentication server crumbled under the load of the thundering horde, so I had to wait until America had gone to bed.

Huh. All of a sudden the iPad feels like a real computer. Untethered system updates, ability to configure Airport routers, lots of little tweaks. Albeit a very cloud-y real computer: it really, really wants you to like iCloud.

As it happens, I do like the way Pages syncs with iCloud. If only the desktop OS/X version of Pages had iCloud sync too ...

What is this "Newsstand" thing and how can I get rid of it or banish it to a folder? DO NOT WANT (on my desktop). At least "Game Center" had the good grace to get out of my way.

Background syncing: excellent. Not keen on the speed of syncing over wifi, though, or the effects on battery life — or my phone bill, if it kicks off in the background while I'm connected via my mifi. How to force sync-over-USB is non-obvious. I've got the "Sync with this iPad over wifi" checkbox in iTunes unchecked but it still goes to wifi. I think this may be a bug ... (EDIT: unplugging the USB cable helps resolve this PEBKAC. D'oh!) in the meantime "Back up to iCloud" is switched off (and "Back up to this computer" is on).

Mm. Have just discovered the Settings & General & Storage pane. Excellent! I can delete unwanted files in any given app manually if I need to reclaim space.

Gosh, they really want me to have a Twitter account, don't they? Oh all right, then: go hunt for charlie.stross, or follow @cstross. Won't be anything there for a while, though.

Summary: Feels like going from System 6.0.4 to System 7.0, back in the day. Highly recommended if you've got an iOS device. Once I get the iPad nailed down it will be time to back up my iPhone and upgrade that, too ...

Got any iOS 5 related tips? Feel free to share them here.

The Guardian has just broken a new story about News International: Wall Street Journal circulation scam claims senior Murdoch executive: Andrew Langhoff resigns as European publishing chief after exposure of secret channels of cash to help boost sales figures.

To quote a little bit of the extensive — and hair-raising — article:

One of Rupert Murdoch's most senior European executives has resigned following Guardian inquiries about a circulation scam at News Corporation's flagship newspaper, the Wall Street Journal.

The Guardian found evidence that the Journal had been channelling money through European companies in order to secretly buy thousands of copies of its own paper at a knock-down rate, misleading readers and advertisers about the Journal's true circulation.

(Go read the rest.) To put this in perspective: it's dynamite — not as emotionally loaded as the Milly Dowler phone bugging horror, but from a business standpoint it may be considerably more damaging.)

What does it mean?

For those without a background in publishing, the reason they might want to do this is that audited circulation figures are the bedrock on which advertising revenue is based — the higher the ABC figures, the more the publisher can charge advertisers per inch of paper. Note that for many newspapers or periodicals, advertising accounts for up to 80-90% of revenue; you, the reader, are merely there as a draw for the real customers, the advertisers, who will pay more for pages that are seen by more eyeballs.

This kind of circulation ramping looks like bare-faced fraud.

What's significant about this revelation it that it comes from the opposite end of the organization — advertising and circulation — from the previous allegations — of journalistic and editorial corrupt practices — that shut down the News of the World and got Rupe up in front of a Commons Committee. Previously, NewsCo could maintain that it was just the misdeeds of a few bad apples in the news side of the business. With this latest revelation it looks as if the whole organisation has out of control, to the point of committing what looks very like circulation fraud.

And while the large corporate advertisers might be willing to put up with dirty tricks aimed at the readers, this is something else. (I expect a collapse in NewsCo's advertising revenue, not to mention an imminent FBI investigation ...)

Personal interest note: this may eventually afflict HarperCollins, a rather large book publisher that publishes these imprints and which just happens to be owned by News Corporation. My sympathy to any of the (innocent) novelists who may find themselves in the firing line ...

I see we had a slight influx of visitors yesterday, via Daring Fireball. (The drive-by grammar nazis in my email inbox would have tipped me off, even if I hadn't spotted the comments on this thread referring to me as "the author".) Hello everybody, and for those of you who stuck around for more than a brief drive-by, welcome to my blog. I'm Charlie Stross. I'm a British science fiction author. I also run this website and pay its bills. Look: no advertising! (Unless you count the Amazon affiliate links to my books.)

This is not a tech blog in any normal sense of the term, although I occasionally get annoyed enough to emit a rant on the subject. (I did too much of that stuff back in the early noughties, during my five years as Computer Shopper's Linux/free software columnist; I'm better now, except for the occasional relapse.)

You might have noticed that my blog entries get comment threads. That's because over the past few years it has grown into an SF/geek community hub. It pleases me to maintain it as such, and I'm happy to host discussions that veer off-topic — some of the time. Things I am not happy to host include spam, trolls, flame wars, racists, and folks who think they can come into my living room and take a shit on the sofa. (There is a difference between argument and abuse. Argument is usually fine, abuse isn't.) Certain types of conduct will get you a yellow card (a referee's warning) or a red card (a ban, and your comments deleted). If you want to know what not to do, here's the moderation policy.

Note that I am not the government; I can ban you from commenting here, but I can't stop you running your own blog elsewhere on the internet. I can, however, point and mock.

Anyway ...

Having gotten that out of the way, let me repeat the welcome: just remember there's a regular community here and you'll get on fine.

An infrequent series of gadget blogging posts ...

(Moderator update: Welcome to everyone who's come here from HN or Daring Fireball or wherever. Please refer to the moderation policy before posting a comment. Also note that we're having a storm of spam from "anonymous" at present — not the /b/ folks, but spambots who aren't polite enough to use a name. If you leave your name blank or use "anonymous" as a handle your comment may be deleted.)

There's an argument going on on the internet right now about the merits of larger screen sizes on smartphones. Proponents argue that gizmos like the new Samsung Galaxy S II (with a 109.22mm screen diagonal) are somehow better than the iPhone 4S (with its wearyingly 2009-vintage 88.9mm screen) purely because of the bigger screen.

Interestingly, the food fight has moved on from absolute number of pixels on screen — with 800 x 480 pixels on the Galaxy SII versus the iPhone's eye-bleeding 960 x 640, most adults can't see any sign of the jaggies when holding their phone at arm's length.

Rather, this fight is all about ergonomics ... and the iPhone boosters are wrong this time.

The proponents of the iPhone size screen point out that, holding the phone in one hand, with a 3.5 inch/90mm screen you can reach all the icons on the screen with your thumb; whereas around 40-50% of the screen real estate is out of reach on the larger phones. The larger screen actually makes the phone more cumbersome and less useful as a phone. Bigger screens, they argue, are like tail fins on 50's automobiles, and if the vendors want to make them functional they need to invest design chops in a user interface that allows one-handed use.

The pushers proponents of the bigger screens point out (rightly) that the iPhone's 90mm screen is visually cramped and a 110mm screen is nicer to look at.

I'm going to side with the big screen folks this time; while those who accuse them of being badly designed for one-handed use are absolutely correct, they're wrong about the shape of the overall argument.

Commenter Heteromeles suggested, with respect to the design of closed-circuit biospheres for long-duration starships:

[This] isn't a design for a livable formerly-known-as-starship. Rather, it's a test to see if the design will work.

Here's the test: the closed ecosystem within the ship has to be able to produce enough beer to satisfy all the beer consumers within the system.

The reason? Beer's pretty central to culture (see How Beer saved the World for a humorous and fairly accurate take on the role of beer in history). If things are so tight that there's not enough acreage to produce alcohol (beer or equivalent), then there's probably not enough surplus capacity within the system to withstand the inevitable problems they'll face. Ditto if everyone has to be sober all the time just to keep the ship running. In the later case, people will distill alcohol anyway, and it will be a problem, rather than a central part of the ecosystem.

Something to think about. If they can't drink, it probably won't fly.

Okay, let's take this test seriously:

What is the minimum number of species necessary in order to produce beer aboard a generation ship?

Note 1: An absolute minimum is compliance with the Reinheitsgebot; however, I'd also like to see analyses for a British bitter, a Belgian Lambic, and (even though I wouldn't be seen dead drinking it) a mass-produced American rice-based 'lager' style beer.

Note 2: This is a trick question; it's not about the specific ingredients that go into the beer, but about the food webs that sustain those crops.

Suggested additional reading: The Makeshift Rocket by Poul Anderson. (Probably not a useful reference, but amusing.)

Due to a combination of jet lag and the untimely death of Steve Jobs, I forgot to mention another piece of work-related news: Cory Doctorow and I have just handed in our novel, The Rapture of the Nerds, to Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Tor. And if all goes to plan, it'll be published next September.

It's been an odd project. Writers of fiction, by their nature, tend to be solitary; you have to be somewhat introspective if not introverted, and have a strong creative vision. But because the conditions of the job (holed up for hours each day in an office with no human companionship) are not exactly stimulating, sometimes you have to look for a way to vary your routine. Some successful writers hold down part-time jobs just for the human contact (as opposed to the money; many more writers have day jobs because the pay for fiction typically sucks). Others travel a lot. We tend to spend a lot of time on email and social networks. And sometimes we look at someone else's work and think, "hmm, I wonder what it'd be like to work with them?"

The Apocalypse Codex

Just thought I'd share Ace's cover concept for the book that's due out in the first week of July next year. Orbit have signed off on it too — it should show up the same week in the UK/rest of commonwealth.

(Yes, this is Laundry novel #4.)

Elevator pitch:

In the world of the Laundry, there is One True Religion — and we know how to deal with cultists when we find them. When a prominent televangelist with connections to 10 Downing Street shows disturbing signs of being able to work miracles, it's only natural for the Laundry, the secret service for dealing with occult threats, to take an interest. But there's a fly in the ointment: the first rule of the secret services is, spying on the Prime Minister and their associates is forbidden. It's time to send in the freelancers — except in the world of the Laundry, officially there's no such thing ...
Oh, and if you're going to send in the freelancers, you probably want to send a junior case officer along to keep an eye on them. Which is where Bob Howard comes in.

Steve Jobs is dead.

The combination of pancreatic cancer and a liver transplant meant the odds were inevitably stacked against him. (The immunosuppressants needed to prevent organ rejection would impair his immune system's ability to respond to a recurrence of the cancer, making a relapse much more likely.) In medicine, even great wealth can't buy miracles. There are no exotic magic bullets than can be yours for just a few million dollars more — just increasingly desperate experimental treatments that fail more often than not. In general, either we can treat a condition, and do so relatively cheaply, or we can't: the grim reaper is the ultimate equal opportunity employer.

He was by all accounts a driven man — not merely a workaholic, but a visionary with a touch of megalomania. Once his illness became public knowledge his level of activity, already frenetic, became that of a man desperate to complete his life's work. People like that don't go gently into the dark night. They don't leave the office unless they're dragged away on a stretcher. When he resigned as CEO of Apple in August, I expected him to be dead within a week; I'm surprised he lasted this long.

I'm typing this blog entry on a keyboard plugged into an Apple 23" Cinema Display fronting a late 2010 Macbook Air. On the desk to my left is an iPad 2: to my right, an iPhone 4. That alone should tell you what I think of the quality of the products he nurtured.

Even if you're not an Apple customer, the computer you're reading this on probably has a mouse attached to it, or is a tablet. In which case, you've benefited indirectly from the ideas he ruthlessly championed. Steve Jobs didn't invent the graphical user interface, or even manage the product development of the first computer Apple brought to market that had a GUI: but he pushed it forward, dragging it out of the lab and making personal computers accessible to hundreds of millions of ordinary people. He didn't invent the smartphone or the multi-touch interface either: but again, he saw potential and drove them in a direction that in hindsight should have been obvious to everyone, but that for some reason wasn't. Oh, and he bought a film studio and made some Oscar-winning movies along the way.

I will be very happy indeed if, when it's my time to go, I can do so in the knowledge that I've brightened the lives of even a thousandth as many people as Steve Jobs.

Will be resumed when I get over the jet lag.

Meanwhile, I'm back home from attending the DARPA-organized 100 Year Starship symposium. Which was fascinating, but required the ability to drink from five simultaneous fire-hoses if you wanted to get a grip on what was going on, as a quick look at the list of tracks should indicate:

* Time/Distance solutions (propulsion, mostly)

* Habitats and Environmental Science

* Biology and Space Medicine

* Education, Social, Economic and Legal Considerations

* Destinations

* Philosophical and Religious Considerations

* Communication of the Vision

The impression I got was that a lot of people have been thinking about this stuff — how to lay the ground-work for launching at least an interstellar precursor mission in about a century's time — but with certain exceptions there's no really detailed joined-up thinking going on yet. In particular, much of the necessary preparatory research on habitats, environmental set-up, and biology is still in the embryonic stages. On the other hand, an interstellar precursor mission — an unmanned probe with a high-performance propulsion system, able to reach the Oort cloud (550-10,000 AU out) — may well be possible within the 21st century, and there are lots of encouraging developments in propulsion technology: ranging from new, improved ion rockets (with Isp around 10,000) actually due to fly in the near future to reliable nuclear-thermal rocket motors that have undergone extensive static test firing, and of course a variety of more speculative designs.

One thing I really noticed is that my gut feeling that the term "starship" poisons the discourse on interstellar travel seems to be born out by the symposium. In general, attendees were discussing two classes of vehicle: a high-speed long-range robot probe (think Galileo, Cassini, or Voyager on steroids), or generation ships functionally indistinguishable from a space colony with a motor on one end. (There was some, but relatively little, discussion of what we might do if the strong-AI proponents deliver, or if it turns out to be possible to build a warp drive. But as Vernor Vinge put it [paraphrasing from memory], "if we have a singularity, we don't get a say in how interstellar exploration is run.") If you've hung out here during the ongoing threads on space colonization you'll already have noticed that I think the generation-ship model would require a huge population and very complex systems of life support and social organization, more akin to a city state in space than a "ship"; the term "ship" tends to suggest a vessel with a relatively small crew who are journeying between inhabited locations, whereas a generation ship (or a fast robot probe) are going somewhere where there's no human-inhabitable "there" yet. My contribution, to the extent that I've got one, is simply to suggest that we should stop talking about "starships" and select another term that doesn't come with a lot of preconceptive baggage: "interstellar autonomous probe", or maybe "interstellar colony vehicle". (But preferably something a bit snappier!)

I gather a lot of the powerpoints and papers presented at the conference will become available online over the next days and weeks. I'll try and link to them when they do. Meanwhile, if you have any questions, feel free to prod me. (Finally, I'd like to thank DARPA for inviting me to the conference and facilitating my attendance.)

It's been a great ride, the past week; thanks so much to Charlie for letting me visit. Thanks also to those of you who still feel professors deserve our pensions.

For my final post I'll give you the chance to say: What should I write next? At this point I have no commitment, but every book I've written has sold. No idea is too bizarre, and if I use it I'll acknowledge your help.

Thanks for the good thoughts you've shared already. Sensing magnetic field lines--that will be a great trick for one evolving branch of my alien quasispecies. And echolocation will help people catch all those mosquitoes escaped in my spacehab.

The crustacean space ship has real possibilities. Any more thoughts on that?

And closer to home, can we put solar in space and run all the factories there too? What will it take to do that?

Feel free to keep in touch, either email or Facebook. According to Clarkesworld, I have my own blog; that's news to me, but I can start one. Would anyone care to help run it?

One last thought: The most complex fermentation product, even more so than wine, is chocolate. Cocoa requires three stages of fermentation by a thousand different microbes. It works only in environments like Madagascar and Côte d'Ivoire, with slave labor unless it's fair trade. The last time I checked, chocolate still doesn't print out from the web, nor has any neural probe found the "chocolate spot" in the brain. So if you find yourself strolling past a Patisserie Valerie, please send me a treatbox (just kidding.)

Today we have a change of pace, as two of Charlie's superfans from Kenyon visit, Jeanne Griggs and our IT director Ron Griggs. Jeanne and Ron say:

"Educational institutions are under stress worldwide both from economic and technological factors. The bloated university structure is--literally--medieval. The online education boom is producing the usual mix of stunning innovation and snake-oil charlatans. Some predict the demise of the university itself, and for people who use Wikipedia today, Charlie's lifelogs tomorrow, and soon (galactic civilization willing) the Hitchhiker's Guide, all facts, knowledge, and experiences are retrievable instantly without mediation. What does science fiction have to say about the future of education?

"In Joan's The Highest Frontier, much of the story takes place in a college on a space habitat, a college remarkably similar to a private liberal arts college in the United States today. She is not alone in suggesting that the basic concept of people coming together to learn will endure. Consider Battle School in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, the concents in Neal Stephenson's Anathem, or the many ways that Robert Heinlein portrayed education: advances in learning techniques including high speed video combined with drugs, or being Renshaw-trained, or the orbiting military academy in Space Cadet with its Oxford-model tutorial. Readers of this blog can probably think of many other examples (and are invited to list them).

"Star Fleet academy is both a little disappointing and a bit reassuring; it doesn't seem much different from current military service academies (the Kobayashi Maru simulation notwithstanding.) And River Tam's school in Firefly already exists, if one assumes that River is avoiding the lecture by playing with her iPad 3.

"So let's postulate a near future like the one in Accelerando, where the brain-Internet interface is much better. Why do we need content memorization? Or is it important to have some data in RAM, so to speak, and not just available on the hard drive?

"People working in education have always wrestled with the "skills vs. content" problem. But the way we make connections and approach subject matter has changed since the time of Aristotle. The human species needs to develop ways to learn conceptual and analytic thinking other than in a classroom with other human beings. Does science fiction offer plausible alternatives?"

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