November 2011 Archives

While I have your attention ...

Next summer sees the publication of the fourth Laundry novel, "The Apocalypse Codex". But it's never too soon to start annoying my readers with samples of stuff they can't buy, so I'm doing my very first proper interview/Q&A and reading from "The Apocalypse Codex" on Saturday December 17th, at 3pm in Pulp Fiction here in Edinburgh's old town (on Bread Street, just off Candlemaker Row). Editor, writer, and sometime co-conspirator Andrew J. Wilson has kindly agreed to give the introductory talk and interview; coffee and refreshments will be available.

Note that this is a free event, but space is limited — you'll need to get a ticket or reserve a seat. (Link to Facebook event.)

Traditional publishing is dominated by the Big Six publishing groups — folks like Hachette, Holtzbrinck, Penguin-Putnam, and so on. In general these publishers and their imprints refuse to publish ebooks without DRM. It's a major sticking point with them, in no small part dictated by the fact that they're subsidiaries of huge media conglomerates, which have had bad experiences with movies, TV and music leaking on the internet. In the past I've muttered and grumbled about the evils of DRM for a variety of reasons. But now, I've got a feeling that there's a more important reason for griping: the strategy of demanding DRM everywhere is going to boomerang, inflicting horrible damage on the very companies who want it. (Who just happen to be my publishers.)

The corporate drive for DRM is motivated by the fear of ebook piracy. But aside from piracy, the biggest ebook-related threat to the Big Six is called Amazon.com. Until 2008, ebooks were a tiny market segment, under 1% and easily overlooked; but in 2009 ebook sales began to rise exponentially, and ebooks now account for over 20% of all fiction sales. In some areas ebooks are up to 40% of the market and rising rapidly. (I am not making that last figure up: I'm speaking from my own sales figures.) And Amazon have got 80% of the ebook retail market.

For various reasons the major publishers don't sell direct to the public themselves — they go via external retail channels. Of these channels, Amazon is the 500kg gorilla of internet sales. Amazon has ruthlessly used its near monopoly of online sales to exert monopsony buying pressure against suppliers, forcing the likes of Holtzbrinck or Penguin or Hachette to give them a deep discount on ebooks. In the past they have de-listed publishers' paper editions during negotiations, chopping their sales off at the knees in an attempt to force them to grant favourable sales terms. When Amazon extract deeper discounts from their suppliers, they pass some of the discount on to the public — this expands their monopoly position on the retail side by undercutting their rivals. It's good for customers in the short term, but it's not good for anyone in the long run: they're sweating their suppliers, all the way back down the supply chain (read: to authors like me) and sooner or later they'll put their suppliers out of business.

Anyway, my point is that the Big Six's pig-headed insistence on DRM on ebooks is handing Amazon a stick with which to beat them harder.

DRM on ebooks gives Amazon a great tool for locking ebook customers into the Kindle platform. If you buy a book that you can only read on the Kindle, you're naturally going to be reluctant to move to other ebook platforms that can't read those locked Kindle ebooks — and even more reluctant to buy ebooks from rival stores that use incompatible DRM. Amazon acquired an early lead in the ebook field (by selling below cost in the early days, and subsidizing the Kindle hardware price to consumers), and customers are locked into the platform by their existing purchases. Which is pretty much how they gained their 80% market share.

An 80% share of a tiny market slice worth maybe 1% of the publishing sector was of no concern to the big six, back in 2008. But today, with it rising towards 40%, it's another matter entirely.

As ebook sales mushroom, the Big Six's insistence on DRM has proven to be a hideous mistake. Rather than reducing piracy[*], it has locked customers in Amazon's walled garden, which in turn increases Amazon's leverage over publishers. And unlike pirated copies (which don't automatically represent lost sales) Amazon is a direct revenue threat because Amazon are have no qualms about squeezing their suppliers — or trying to poach authors for their "direct" publishing channel by offering initially favourable terms. (Which will doubtless get a lot less favourable once the monopoly is secured ...)

If the big six began selling ebooks without DRM, readers would at least be able to buy from other retailers and read their ebooks on whatever platform they wanted, thus eroding Amazon's monopoly position. But it's not clear that the folks in the boardrooms are agile enough to recognize the tar pit they've fallen into ...

[*] It doesn't reduce piracy; if you poke around bittorrent you'll find plenty of DRM-cracked ebooks — including all of my titles. DRM is snake oil; ultimately the reader has to be able to read whatever they bought, which means shipping a decryption key along with the encrypted file. And once they've got the key, someone will figure out how to use it to unlock the book.

More thoughts on worldbuilding in fiction.

The first thing to note is that there's more than one way to do it. Which is to say: worldbuilding in SF and fantasy is by definition a divergent process, because no two people are going to come up with the same visualization even if you give them the same goal ("you're going to write a space opera in which our hero, raised by poor but honest folks on a small farming planet, goes forth to discover his destiny ...") — give me that brief and I'll come up with something utterly different from George Lucas, I promise!

So here are some rules of thumb I use, tending towards an increasingly narrow focus. (Sorry if you were expecting me to address the broader uses of confabulation as a fictional tool; this is very much a set of practical guidelines rather than an examination of the theory behind the activity.)

No, nothing to do with MSL's successful launch earlier today — the rover is now en route to Mars, and I wish it well.

Rather, harking back to my 2010 blog entry explaining that we have been invaded by martians driving fiscal war machines, I ran across an op-ed by Naomi Wolf in The Guardian that nails why the US political elite are terrified of Occupy Wall Street.

The mainstream media was declaring continually "OWS has no message". Frustrated, I simply asked them. I began soliciting online "What is it you want?" answers from Occupy. ... The No 1 agenda item: get the money out of politics. Most often cited was legislation to blunt the effect of the Citizens United ruling, which lets boundless sums enter the campaign process. No 2: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation, with the most frequent item being to restore the Glass-Steagall Act — the Depression-era law, done away with by President Clinton, that separates investment banks from commercial banks. ... No 3 was the most clarifying: draft laws against the little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors.
Let me unpack that for you.
The doctrine of corporate personhood combined with the Citizens United ruling establish as a baseline that corporations have constitutional rights associated with people (including the right to political speech) and no limit on their ability to spend money on political speech during elections. (This is profoundly alien to a British sensibility, where political election speech is strictly controlled.) So the outcome is that lawmakers are beholden to the corporations that pay for their electioneering. But it gets worse when you learn that Congressional representatives are immune from some insider trading regulations. And point #3 is the smoking gun. If running for election in the US Federal government requires vast expenditure, then attaining such office grants one access to a mechanism for earning vast amounts of money by means which are illegal for the rest of us.

It's no wonder that the DHS coordinated the Occupy camp clearances earlier this month: OWS had become a direct threat to the personal prosperity of the members of the House homeland security subcommittee (to whom DHS is answerable). If allowed to gather momentum and turn into an independent third party, why, OWS might actually put an end to the corruption. Certainly they're pointing at the right targets ...

In other news, Occupy Edinburgh received a vote of recognition and endorsement from the city council (except for the minority Conservative bloc). Brings a tear of pride to my civic minded eye, it does.

(Yes, I'm working today ...)

One of the unusual features of SF and fantasy genre literature is that they rely on worldbuilding to an unusual degree. (I note in passing that the SF Encyclopedia doesn't have an entry for worldbuilding yet, hence the wikipedia definition.)

Here's a rather vague list of where I'll be and what I'll be doing in public in the next three months.

December 12-17 [precise date TBA]: I'll be doing a reading and Q&A from the next Laundry novel, "The Apocalypse Codex", at Pulp Fiction in Edinburgh. [FB]

January 27-29: I'm Guest of Honor at COSine 2012 in Colorado Springs (at the Crowne Plaza).

January 31-3: I may (subject to arrangements) be putting in a public appearance somewhere in New York. Even if no bookstores ask for a reading, I'll probably announce a pub meet-up nearer the time.

February 5-16: I'll be in Boston. There will probably be at least one reading/signing. (Details TBA.)

February 17-19: I'll be attending Boskone 49 in Boston.

February 25-26: I'm Guest of Honour at Satellite III in Glasgow (in the Grand Central Hotel).

(As you may have noticed, that's 3 SF conventions in two different hemispheres in four weeks. I expect to be dead of exhaustion at the end of it. If not, I may try to set a world record or something by going to P-Con IX in Dublin the following weekend — March 3-4 — but I'm not sure that's entirely sane so I'm not going to commit to it in advance.)

Somehow while all this is going on I have to find time to write a book ...

(Note: firstly, we don't do Thanksgiving in my country. Secondly, I'm unwell right now and my participation in this thread may be limited. Having said that ...)

In light of the issues that came up here and there and elsewhere ...

Let us postulate that some time in the next 50 years, some astronauts from Earth set out for Mars. As they're going to be there for some years — possibly on a one-way mission: Mars is too expensive and hard to get home from for a quick dash and plant-the-flag excursion a la Apollo — they're going to be growing their own food and recycling everything. They're going to have very restricted weight allowances for what they can take with them, and possibly no or minimal artificial-gravity on the voyage out.

Let's also postulate that for reasons of morale they decide to have a shindig to mark 365 days on Mars.

In the absence of natives bearing turducken roast, what are they likely to be eating? (In addition to the couple of kilograms of precious delicacies from Earth they brought along for the purpose.)

So the Occupy Wall Street camp in Zucotti park has been "cleared" by the NYPD, in a spontaneous display of concern for the health and safety of the concerned citizens asking why the rich are getting richer and the — dirty druggy hippies, who the FBI and the Heimatslandsicherheitsdienst agreed had overstayed their welcome, made their point, and now needed to stop annoying the ruling oligarchy.

In other news, the US State Department continues to express outrage over the Syrian dictatorship's use of secret police and paramilitary forces to arrest, assault, and kill dirty druggy arab hippies concerned citizens asking why the rich are getting richer and the dictatorship is still in power.

And the Church of England can't make its mind up.

Me?

I just want a party to vote for whose three guiding principles are (a) maximize individual liberty, (b) minimize the Gini coefficient, and (c) protect the commons. Yes, I am aware that these three goals are orthogonal and often conflict with one another: that's why it requires an ongoing process of negotiation rather than an ideologically-driven damn-the-torpedoes race to the goal.

How about you?

I should just like to note that Rule 34 has made Kirkus' Reviews' list of the best SF and Fantasy novels of 2011. (Kirkus, for those of you who aren't familiar with it, is the premiere book reviews and news magazine for librarians in the USA.)

I am now going to engage in a three minute smugness before resuming work. (Yes, I'm back home from Novacon.)

Over the past quarter-million years of human cultural evolution, we have developed quite an extensive repertoire of techniques for preparing and cooking food at the bottom of a gravity well.

However, following a discussion last night, I'm wondering what cooking techniques are we going to need to develop if we ever end up flying long-duration space missions that grow their own food?

To clarify: space missions to date have almost entirely subsisted on processed rations shipped up from Earth — glorified airline meals, in effect. Cooking mostly consists of mixing, heating, and eating. But one of the standard recurring ideas that crops up in discussions of missions to Mars or beyond is the idea of growing food in a closed-circuit life support system. Even if it's just a supplement for canned rations, the ability to grow and harvest rice, soya beans, a handful of herbs, and possibly a tank full of tilapia, is going to introduce some interesting complications into a space mission. Raw food (fruit and some vegetables) is an obvious way to avoid confronting the question, but in the long run it's not going to be good for morale. So what can we do in the free fall kitchen?

Assume, for the sake of argument, that it is impractical to build a kitchen in a rotating artificial gravity section of a spacecraft; we then have the question of how to cook food in free fall. Certain technologies we take for granted are probably highly dangerous in that context — naked flames don't work the way we intuitively expect them to. Water and other liquids' behaviours are dominated by surface tension effects: the idea of sharing a kitchen with an uncontrolled floating multi-litre blob of boiling water or frying-hot oil (which can break up and drift apart if prodded too hard) doesn't bear thinking about. Knives won't cut properly if the knife-wielder and the target aren't braced.

It seems to me that it's possible that new types of food preparation tool or appliance will be needed, and some techniques will be seen as much easier and safer than others. Sous-vide requires food to be bagged and immersed in hot working fluid at temperatures up to 70 degrees celsius — it's inherently safer than trying to fry or boil. A pressure cooker should be safe to operate as long as the air pressure inside the kitchen doesn't fluctuate wildly. And heated drum mixers (think in terms of a tumble driver for food) may be workable for roasting. But I've got a feeling that there are a lot of other ideas out there that haven't been explored yet. Is interplanetary flight going to be the impetus for the next wave of pioneering cuisine?

Checking in on the road, en route to Novacon this weekend. As it's reasonably local I'm driving; as it's more than a few hours away, I'm pausing overnight with relatives. This is normally a straightforward journey, except when it turns out there's a bomb squad truck occupying my normal parking spot at the other end.

(Yes, I heard the explosion when they detonated the hand grenade. No, it wasn't very dramatic.)

Meanwhile, Welcome to Kitty City (by Cyriak Harris)!

(UPDATE: Greetings to our friends from Hacker News. If you want to join in the discussion and haven't posted here before, please read the moderation policy first. (This is a moderated forum.))


"If you're not paying for the product, you are the product."

In the past I've fulminated about various social networking systems. The basic gist is this: the utility of a social network to any given user is proportional to the number of users it has. So all social networks are designed to tweak that part of the primate brain that gets a dopamine reward from social activity — we are, after all, social animals. But providing a service to millions of customers is expensive, and your typical internet user is a cheapskate who has become accustomed to free services. So most social networks don't charge their users; they are funded indirectly, which means they've got to sell something, and what they've got to sell is data about your internet usage habits, which is of interest to advertisers.

So the ideal social network (from an investor's point of view) is one that presents itself as being free-to-use, is highly addictive, uses you as bait to trap your friends, tracks you everywhere you go on the internet, sells your personal information to the highest bidder, and is impossible to opt out of. Sounds like a cross between your friendly neighbourhood heroin pusher, Amway, and a really creepy stalker, doesn't it?

Meet Klout. (Yes, that's their wikipedia stub. No, I am not going to link to them.)

[ Klout ] ... provides social media analytics that measures a user's influence across their social network. The analysis is done on data taken from sites such as Twitter and Facebook and measures the size of a person's network, the content created, and how other people interact with that content. Klout recently added LinkedIn, Foursquare, and YouTube data to its algorithm.
Sounds harmless enough, at first read. Unfortunately, it isn't.

Klout operates under American privacy law, or rather, the lack of it. If you created a Klout account in the past, you were unable to delete it short of sending legal letters (until November 1st, when they kindly added an "opt out" mechanism). More to the point, Klout analyse your social graph and create accounts for all your contacts without asking them for prior consent. It also appears to use an unwitting user's Twitter or FB credentials to post updates on their Klout scores, prompting the curious-but-ignorant to click on a link to Klout, whereupon they will be offered a chance to log in with their Facebook or Twitter credentials. So it spreads like herpes and it's just as hard to get rid of. Is that all?

No, that isn't all. Let me fire up a sandboxed browser instance and cut'n'paste a little bit of Klout's terms and conditions:

By accessing the Klout website ("Site") or using the services offered by Klout ("Services") you agree and acknowledge to be bound by these Terms of Service ("Terms"). If you do not agree to these Terms, please do not access the Site or use the Services.
Got that? You don't need to open an account for Klout to assert that they own you; just looking at their T&Cs is enough. Now for the privacy policy:
... we may use your contact information to market to you, and provide you with information about, our products and services, including but not limited to our Service [ note that "not limited to" clause -- cs. ] ... When you visit the Site, our servers automatically record information that your browser sends whenever you visit a website ("Log Data" ). This Log Data may include information such as your IP address, browser type or the domain from which you are visiting, the web-pages you visit, the search terms you use, and any advertisements on which you click ... Klout may use both session cookies and persistent cookies to better understand how you interact with the Site and our Service, to monitor aggregate usage by our users and web traffic routing on the Site, and to improve the Site and our services [ services to who? Answer: the folks who pay Klout money ] ... We engage certain trusted third parties to perform functions and provide services to us, including ... direct marketing campaigns. We will share your personally identifiable information with these third parties ... [ there, they said it ] ... The Site is not directed to persons under 18 [ because that's about the only privacy-protected class in US law ].
Now let's look at something else.

Here in the civilized world we have a fundamental right to privacy. Klout, by its viral nature (and particularly by tracking people without their prior consent) is engaging in flat-out illegal practices. Don't believe me? Well, here in the UK activities relating to the processing of personal information are governed by the Data Protection Act (1998), a law enforced by the Information Commissioner's Office.

As we saw earlier, Klout assert that they have the right to collect information about you and conduct direct marketing campaigns if you visit their website. For those of us who are not lawyers, here is the ICO's conditions for processing personal data:

One of the conditions for processing is that the individual has consented to their personal data being collected and used in the manner and for the purposes in question.

...

Consent is not defined in the Data Protection Act. However, the European Data Protection Directive (to which the Act gives effect) defines an individual's consent as:

"... any freely given specific and informed indication of his wishes by which the data subject signifies his agreement to personal data relating to him being processed".

The fact that an individual must "signify" their agreement means that there must be some active communication between the parties. An individual may "signify" agreement other than in writing, but organisations should not infer consent if an individual does not respond to a communication — for example, from a customer's failure to return a form or respond to a leaflet.

...

Consent obtained under duress or on the basis of misleading information does not adequately satisfy the condition for processing.

Klout are flagrantly in violation of UK data protection law. Their terms and conditions, and their privacy policy, are riddled with loopholes that permit them to resell personal data. They violate Principle 1 of the Act ("the individual who the personal data is about has consented to the processing"). Arguably, they violate Principle 2 of the Act ("be clear from the outset about why you are collecting personal data and what you intend to do with it" — no prior notification to people they hold data on is made). The amount of personal data Klout collects is excessive (see Principle 3), they show no sign of complying with Principle 4 of the Act ("take reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of any personal data"), and they may well be in breach of Principle 5 (that personal data must be deleted after it is no longer required for the purpose for which it was collected). They violate Principle 6 of the Act ("right to prevent processing for direct marketing; right to object to decisions being taken by automated means"). They violate Principle 8 of the Act (personal data is exported from the EU without due compliance with EU privacy regulations). Shockingly, Klout might actually be in compliance with Principle 7 of the Act governing information security ("you must have appropriate security to prevent the personal data you hold being accidentally or deliberately compromised") but it's hard to tell.

It kind of puts my objections to Google+ into perspective, doesn't it?

Anyway: if you sign up for Klout you are coming down with the internet equivalent of herpes. Worse, you risk infecting all your friends. Klout's business model is flat-out illegal in the UK (and, I believe, throughout the EU) and if you have an account with them I would strongly advise you to delete it and opt out; if you're in the UK you could do worse than send them a cease-and-desist plus a request to delete all your data, then follow up a month later with a Freedom of Information Act request.

Ahem: I am informed that Goodreads are running a vote for the best SF/F novel of 2011, and Rule 34 is on their shortlist. If you have a Goodreads account and enjoyed "Rule 34", you know what to do ...

In other news, "Rule 34" has also been nominated for Romantic Times's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novel in 2011 award. Make of that what you will!

... but I think this means we're probably going to see room temperature quantum computing on integrated circuitry within the not-too-distant future. (For values of 5 years << NTDF << 20 years.)

So, what are the second-order implications[*] of being able to manufacture and deploy room temperature chips able to perform > 1 billion quantum operations per second on n >= 32 qubits per register and n >= 1 billion qubits of on-chip storage, for about the price of a present day high-end Intel server grade CPU? (i.e. US $100-1000 per unit and power consumption in the range 10-100W, suitable for embedding in commodity servers and high-end laptops?)

And thinking further, what are the implications of yadda for about the price of a present day ARM core (i.e. US $0.5 - $50 per unit, and power consumption in the range 10-500mW, suitable for embedding in cheap handheld devices like mobile phones)?

[*]Yes, yes, I know: public key crypto suddenly gets a lot harder. And we learn to live with much better, albeit non-deterministic, solutions to the travelling salesman problem and the blind knapsack packing problem, etc. And Roger Penrose has to come up with another argument to support his prejudice that consciousness is non-computable. What I want to know is, what else happens?

System D gets a feature in Foreign Policy:

System D is a slang phrase pirated from French-speaking Africa and the Caribbean. The French have a word that they often use to describe particularly effective and motivated people. They call them débrouillards. To say a man is a débrouillard is to tell people how resourceful and ingenious he is. The former French colonies have sculpted this word to their own social and economic reality. They say that inventive, self-starting, entrepreneurial merchants who are doing business on their own, without registering or being regulated by the bureaucracy and, for the most part, without paying taxes, are part of "l'economie de la débrouillardise." Or, sweetened for street use, "Systeme D." This essentially translates as the ingenuity economy, the economy of improvisation and self-reliance, the do-it-yourself, or DIY, economy.
System D is the planetary unregulated black market, concentrated in the developing world. Excluding traditional criminal activities (robbery, illegal narcotics, extortion) but including small-scale entrepreneurial activities that don't bother with red tape or taxes or safety regulations, it employs up to 50% of the planet's work force (1.8 billion workers) and is estimated to be worth $10 trillion a year.

Oh, and the internet has done rather a lot to potentiate its growth. As is the case in conventional markets, the internet makes communication easier; this in turn tends to disintermediate supply chains, choking off rent-seeking and arbitrage except where local monopolies emerge.

(I'm blogging this because I think it's a useful reminder that, globally, the WEIRD is not the only way; and as nominal world GDP is around $64Tn, System D is already huge and growing bigger all the time — if it was a national economy, it would be the world's second-largest, after that of the USA. Also: the Greek black economy accounts for 25.4% of GDP (as of 2010). What are the implications if Greece defaults ...?)

Okay, so who's doing what for NaNoWriMo?

(Confession: I'm not doing it by the rule book because I'm already working on a book, but I plan to use it as a pace car this month ...)

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