April 2012 Archives

The security theatre is getting surreal:

The Ministry of Defence is considering placing surface-to-air missiles on residential flats during the Olympics.

An east London estate, where 700 people live, has received leaflets saying a "Higher Velocity Missile system" could be placed on a water tower.

But estate resident Brian Whelan said firing the missiles "would shower debris across the east end of London".

"It [the leaflet] says there will be 10 officers plus police present 24/7."

Lunacy on stilts. (Oh, and let me add, the residents don't get any choice over having missiles billeted on top of their homes.)

If one of those things is ever fired, either in anger or by accident, it'll shower white-hot supersonic shrapnel across the extremely crowded residential heart of a city.

Hmm. It's a good thing I'm a novelist who dabbles in technothrillers, not a terrorist. If I was a terrorist I'd be licking my lips, trying to work out how to trigger a missile launch. Using a motor-powered model aircraft, free flight design (no radio controls to jam) aimed vaguely towards the Olympic stadium, with a nice radio beacon or some sort of infra-red source (a flare, perhaps) on its tail to make it easy to track? These missiles will be the close-in option, because we know the RAF will already be flying combat air patrols over London; they won't have much time to evaluate threats or respond intelligently. So launch from the back of a panel van, like the IRA mortar attacks on places like Heathrow or 10 Downing Street. The twist in the scheme would be to aim past the missile launchers along a vector that would attract a hail of hypervelocity missile launches in the direction of, say, a DLR station at rush hour.

Olympic security is out of control and irrational; the best solution would be to designate a permanent Olympic venue somewhere isolated — Diego Garcia would be a prime candidate — and hold the games there permanently so that they don't endanger life, limb and civil liberties. Alas, that would reduce the corruption corporate sponsorship opportunities, and the games are entirely about milking the host nation for money these days.

Fuck the Olympics in 2012.

(Oh, and incidentally it would be illegal for me to say this if I happened to live in London or my blog was hosted in England—the enabling laws for the Olympics override our basic civil rights, including free speech. Luckily I'm north of the border in a country that remains semi-free. But if a future independent Scotland even thinks about bidding to host the Olympics, you bet I'll be organizing street marches in opposition ...)

Last week's blog entry on Amazon's ebook strategy went around the net like a dose of rotavirus. And, as we can now see from Tor's ground-breaking announcement I was only just ahead of the curve: people at executive level inside Macmillan were already asking whether dropping DRM would be a good move. Last week they asked me to explain, in detail, just why I thought abandoning DRM on ebooks was a sensible strategy for a publisher. Turns out my blog entry on Amazon's business strategy didn't actually explain my full reasoning on DRM, so here it is.

Note that I am not responsible for Macmillan's change of policy. An internal debate was already in progress; this move was already on the cards. I caught their attention and was given a chance to offer some input: that's all. The final decision to drop DRM on ebooks from Tor/Forge was taken by John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, who ultimately has to account for his actions to the shareholders.

Also note that when trying to argue for a strategy, you need to frame it in terms of the concerns of the people you're addressing. Therefore what's below the fold is my response to the question of why I thought abandoning DRM would be good for Macmillan's business, framed to address the concerns of publishing executives. I thought I'd post it here as an historical footnote to the end of blanket DRM restrictions in the book trade, and because it features a line of reasoning about DRM which may be of interest to other publishers who are, as yet, undecided.

I'm doing the travel thing again this week, to sunny Zagreb, Croatia, where I'll be appearing at Kontakt, the 2012 Eurocon. Blogging will be patchy; for one thing I expect to be busy, and for another, international roaming data on my phone and iPad costs £10/Mb in Croatia (if I can't find a local SIM or free wifi).

It occurs to me that I haven't blogged about travel much recently. So here's a run-down of how and what I pack for a 6 day overseas trip ...

We've picked up another spammer botnet again. Blog spam is now coming in at around one every ten seconds. I am therefore switching off comments on all threads for a while until the scumbags stop tormenting my server and go away.

(The spam is being detected and binned. Unfortunately the process of doing so is machine-intensive — it involves running a CGI script that polls the Akismet servers over the internet, does regular expression matches for spam keywords, executes a SQL database insert, and a bunch of other stuff. There's no way around this bottleneck: it's a side-effect of the blog being designed to support many orders of magnitudes more people reading it than actively posting comments, and it works okay until a botnet with thousands of hosts starts firing spam at it every couple of seconds.)

Based on past experience the spammers were attracted by my essay on what Amazon's ebook strategy means, and they'll go away after a few hours if I block all inbound comments.

Normal service will be resumed presently ... meanwhile I can be found at @cstross on Twitter.

Update: re-enabling comments. Will switch them off again if the spammers are still hammering on the front door.

Just a reminder that I'm one of the guests of honour at Kontakt, the 2012 Eurocon (European SF Convention) next weekend in Zagreb, Croatia. I'll therefore be disappearing on Wednesday, and not coming home until late on the evening of Monday 30th.

(For those of you who care, this is also why I won't be at the Arthur C. Clarke award ceremony in London on Wednesday 2nd; London is an international flight away from where I live, or an unpleasant five hour train journey, or an even less pleasant nine hour drive, and I'm simply not geared up for routine back-to-back trips like that.)

We need teleportation booths. Of course, if we had them we'd then get to find out exactly what the security-industrial complex could do to really make a misery of international travel ...

Actually, there's a thought-experiment there.

Let's postulate a new technology. To the end user it consists of a transmitter and a receiver that you can step into and out of like an elevator car, it can transport you from A to B at the speed of light, without physically intersecting with anything in-between. It's a switched network, like the old-fashioned phone system, i.e. any transmitter can talk to any other receiver (if the receiver is willing—"unfriendly" transmitters can be blocked). The transmitter/receiver units are not cheap—let's make them comparable to a Boeing 737 or an Airbus 320, around the US $30-40M mark—so you don't typically find them in private dwellings and there is an incentive for the owners to charge for access and to manage traffic flow through them.

Limits: maximum size of a gate is about 27 cubic metres (3 x 3 x 3) so forget moving tanks or APCs through them in order to invade your neighbour. Oh, and conservation of energy applies: if you want to move around the earth you have to pump in enough juice to equal the change in kinetic energy and gravitational potential energy of the cargo (remember, the earth is a spinning sphere: standing still at the equator you're moving at 1000 nautical miles/hour, while at the poles you're stationary). And I'm going to disallow the movement of radioisotopes through the gates by declaring that it just Doesn't Work™. (No nuclear terrorism here.)

You can ship the components of such a gate through another pair of gates, but there's a minimum size of, say, sixteen cubic metres of machinery weighing around 10 tonnes. No maximum range is known, and you can't conveniently use them for refuelling rockets in flight, so no, it's not going to magically open up the solar system.

What are the immediate consequences? (Beyond "international travel gets faster".)

And what are the security consequences?

It seems to me that a lot of folks in the previous discussion don't really understand quite what makes Amazon so interesting—and threatening, for that matter—to the publishing industry.

So I'm going to take a stab at explaining.

Amazon was founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos. And today it's the world's largest online retailer.

I submit that, as with all other large corporations, you cannot judge Amazon by the public statements of its executives; they are at best uttered with an eye for strategic propaganda effects, and at worst they're deeply self-serving and deceptive. Rather, you need to examine their underlying ideology and then the steps they take—and the actions they consider legitimate—in order to achieve their goals.

Now, first, I'd like to introduce three keywords that need defining before you can understand Amazon:

Been away; back home now, dealing with a week's backlog of non-writing work (and collating the annual tax paperwork; the UK's tax year runs April 6th to April 5th, which fell neatly during my trip).

As you probably guessed, I have some things to say about the news that the US Department of Justice is bringing a suit against Apple and three major publishers (three others settled out of court) over alleged price-fixing. While I'm not a publishing executive or a DoJ lawyer, I probably know a little more about this than the average person on the Number 19 bus.

However, before I foam at the mouth in public I thought it would be interesting to ask what you think is really going on here ...

(I'm at the eastercon in London, hence the lack of recent activity here.)

One of the things that happen at SF conventions if you're me is that you get drafted onto panel discussions as a stand-in when somebody else fails to show up. This morning I had the thought-provoking experience of finding myself on a panel titled "Meet the new King (same as the old King)" — why do so many fantasies assume the problem is the monarch, not the monarchy? How do you write against this expectation and tackle realistic, broad social change in your fantasy setting?

(Guess why I was the last minute substitute ...)

The panel went ... interestingly. More to the point, it provoked some thoughts. Monarchism isn't a monolithic ideology but it's a mode of government that has been with us as the default structure for organizing human societies since, quite probably, the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies. Until relatively recently (the revolutions of 1916-19) it was the predominant form of political organization. It comes in a variety of forms, but in general they share the common principle of a unitary executive vested in an individual (and this is usually a hereditary post, subject to some restrictions — it may be limited by gender, religion, physical fitness, and so on). It has a common failure mode, which is the lack of a mechanism for handling transfer of power triggered by political dissent: in event of a change you get the next monarch in line, you don't get someone who actually addresses the problem that triggered the change. And we seem, to this day, to be inordinately fascinated by monarchy as an organizational paradigm.

Well, there's monarchism. And there are various republican forms of government. There's classical tyranny and more recently the dictatorship, with or without an ideology or a cult of personality (Leninism, the Fuhrer principle). There's theocracy, but due to the lack of manifest deities on Earth this is usually derogated to the priesthood who in turn run temporal affairs using an existing administrative model (monarchy-by-priesthood, such as the Papacy in the Vatican; a republic under priestly curation, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran).

What haven't we tried?

Underlying all debate on the future of the internet are a constellation of unspoken assumptions. These include:

a) Advertising is socially neutral or good,

b) Internet content provision on the internet is therefore best funded by selling eyeballs to advertisers,

c) Most people just want to consume content the way they used to consume TV or movies, and it's socially acceptable to orient the internet around this model (call it the broadcasting fallacy),

d) We can be trusted; it's Big Government/Big Corporations/Foreign Governments/Weird Religious Nutters/Those crazy guys with the opposite politics to me who can't be trusted.

Reality check:

a) All advertising tends towards the state of spam (which is merely free-as-in-dirt-cheap-and-unregulated advertising),

b) Funding content via ad sales holds our public arts hostage to a boom/bust bubble economy. Furthermore, there is an incentive for web publishers to prioritize paid ads over editorial content, and to censor editorial content that threatens advertizing revenue,

c) The idea that "most people only want to consume" is profoundly offensive and serves the interests of abusive "producers" who tend towards rent-seeking (see the MPAA for a worked example—most notably in how they run the film classification system in the USA),

d) Nobody can be trusted. (See also when Google turned evil.)



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