February 2014 Archives

There's nothing terribly new about the Picturephone; video telephony goes back to the 1960s, and was a very long time catching on. I myself remember one excruciating intercontinental video conference from 1994. (The problem with using it for work is that you can't look away from the camera, relax, or otherwise show any sign of weakness or humanity. And it doesn't get you much extra, over a regular phone call. But I digress.)

Over the past decade, webcams have become ubiquitous and we've gotten used to the occasional skype or other video call. And there communications go, the spooks follow ...

"Magic the Gathering: Online Exchange" has magically gathered all your online bitcoins and exchanged them for ... something or other. More here. For once, do read the comments—it's hysterically funny, in a sad way, to watch the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

C'mon, folks. Mt. Gox was a trading card swap mart set up by an amateur coder and implemented in PHP! And you expected NSA-levels of trusted computing security, so you trusted your money to it? (Oops. Let's make that better than NSA levels of security.) I've written software that handled financial transactions for a dot-com startup—a payment service provider, now a subsidiary of Mastercard. Been there, got the scars. (Do not ask me about the time our main production server got hacked three months before we went public: I still have PTSD. (Intrusion detected within 15 minutes; hacker targeted by law enforcement and corporate lawyers within 24 hours: nevertheless.))

You can't do this shit on an amateur basis and not get burned. Handling money makes you a target: the more money, the bigger the bullseye: and you can't write secure software on the run or patch up a proof of concept to production quality on a shoestring budget. Datacash grew from a tiny seed (about 30 credit card transactions in our first three months) to something that was handling around 20,000 transactions per server per day when I left in early 2000, following 30% compound growth per month for an extended period; the early codebase was retired as rapidly as was feasible, the company had penetration testers, an in-house crypto specialist, and coding standards with test harnesses and QA well before it was handling 10% of MtGox's turnover ... and still shit happened. From what I've read, I'm not convinced that MtGox ever understood what financial security entails. But the fault isn't theirs alone. The real fault lies with Bitcoin itself.

A real currency with a fiscal policy and the backing of a state that could raise loans would be able to ride out this insult. It'd be extraordinarily painful, but it wouldn't devastate the currency in perpetuity. But Bitcoin doesn't have a fiscal policy: it wears a gimp suit and a ball gag, padlocked into permanent deflation and with the rate of issue of new "notes" governed by the law of algorithmic complexity.

Someone please take my bottomless bowl of popcorn? I've eaten so much I think I'm going to be sick.

I'm back home after nearly 4 weeks on the road. I'd like to extend a big thank you to my guest bloggers: Kameron Hurley, Hugh Hancock, and Ramez Naam. Of course I am still playing catch-up with the mail mountain and the dirty clothing midden, so normal service will perforce resume gradually. So in the meantime, here's some news:

I have delivered the first chunk of the new Merchant Princes trilogy to my editor at Tor (along with a first draft of the second chunk): plan is to start work on the third chunk in a week or two, then spend summer revising it. The publication plan isn't fixed in stone yet, but we're hoping that after the omnibus doorstep editions come out in the USA on paper in October/December/February, the first chunk of the new trilogy, "Dark State", will show up some time from April 2015 onwards.

(I'm calling these "chunks" rather than "novels" because they're not stand-alone novels so much as one-third-sized instalments of a thousand-page novel. Which is near future SF set circa 2020, in the universe of the Merchant Princes. And yes, 2020 there is about as grimly paranoid as you would expect in light of the Snowden leaks and the war on terror, if the war on terror had been upgraded to "war on every threat from every time-line in the multiverse", handed over to the Department of Homeland Security, and outsourced to the company formerly known as Blackwater.)

I was hoping to be able to announce a new book deal with Ace and Orbit this week; however, things have been complicated by the news that my editor at Ace is retiring at the end of March. I sell the non-Merchant Princes books to my US and UK publishers in parallel (they each get their respective territorial rights), so new deals require a lot of back-and-forth discussions: nothing can be finalised until I have a new editor at Ace. However, I think I can say at this point that Orbit want to acquire two new Laundry Files novels, and my agent and I were discussing the details with Ace when the retirement news broke.

The first of these books, "The Armageddon Score", already exists in first draft and will hopefully be published in summer 2015 (following 2014's "The Rhesus Chart"); it's told by Mo, not Bob, and concerns matters of law enforcement, would-be superheroes, and the stolen score for a violin operetta called "The King in Yellow". The second has no title yet and won't be written before 2015. The plan is for it to be narrated by a new character (you'll get to meet Alex in "The Rhesus Chart"): who gets the happy fun job of dealing with Elves. Elves in the Laundry Files universe are about as friendly as unicorns: only they're more numerous, better organized, and they drive tanks ...

NSA Headquarters Yes. Yes we can. The last year has brought with it the revelations of massive government-run domestic spying machineries in the US and UK. On the horizon is more technology that will make it even easier for governments to monitor and track everything that citizens do. Yet I'm convinced that, if we're sufficiently motivated and sufficiently clever, the future can be one of more freedom rather than less.

Tomorrow, the 22nd of February 2014, the 31st Picocon will be taking place in London, at Imperial College, and your host Charlie is one of the guests.

Picocon is a one day SF convention organised for the past three decades by the Imperial College SF Society. As a student-run convention, it has certain traditions which make it different from the more residential conventions such as Eastercon and the like. It has a light — and light-hearted — program, with a single thread. The social part of the convention takes place around Beit Quadrangle where the College Union bar is, and the sessions usually occur in Lecture Room 1 across the road.

There are two guests apart from Charlie. The factual part of the program is being underpinned by Professor David Southwood, a space scientist associated with the University. As a former director of science at the European Space Agency, he knows a lot about launching spacecraft and, in the case of the Huygens probe, landing them (on Saturn's moon Titan).

The third guest is Sarah Pinborough, a writer from West London who works in the Crime and (usually Dark) Fantasy fields. She's particularly interested in the intersection of the occult and crime, and her Dog-Faced Gods trilogy landed in the same arena as Paul Cornell's London Falling and Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London novels, with a London policeman protagonist coming to terms with the world being not as he thought. She has also reworked the world of fairy tales, with her books Poison, Charm and Beauty, a triptych riffing off Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty but with a somewhat more adult treatment than usual. In the pure Crime area, she was the script writer for an episode of New Tricks.

For more details, including where, when and how much (full membership is £10 on the door), see their site here.

There's a lot of talk about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing right now, and some of it gets a bit heated.

I posted some thoughts on this, to the extent that both traditional and self-publishing have strengths, and that as authors, we're all on the same side, over on my own blog. I'm going to leave the post there, so no one can mistakenly ascribe my words to Charlie.

And I'll be back tomorrow with a more substantial post.

Read: Publishing - We're All On the Same Side

(Writing in a hotel room in Boston because it beats staring out the window at a blizzard as I wait for online check-in to open for my flight home tomorrow: Ramez will be back with one more blog entry on Thursday, and I'll resume blogging as usual next week.)

So, it all started because Chuck Wendig has a low opinion of the rhetoric that surrounds self-publishing. (Clue: if you thought the Bitcoin libertarian invasion was bad, you ain't seen nuthin' until you've seen the self-publishing cultists in action. I use the word advisedly: there's a role for self-publishing, but the cultists invest it with the unholy radiance of a multi-level marketing scam that will make them rich. And any denial of the FACT that you, too, could be richer than J. K. Rowling with just a little bit of work on the SEO side of your Amazon pitch will be met with ... well, you'll see. Just wait for the comment thread to get rolling!)

Unca Chuck wrote a blog entry about publishing and inadvertently suggested an experiment:

I'll be drinking in the Cambridge Brewing Company on Kendall Square, Cambridge (the version of Cambridge that merges with Boston, Mass., not Cambridge UK), on Tuesday evening from about 7:30pm. Map here. Yes, if you can read this you're welcome to drop in and say "hi". It's my last appearance in the US: I fly home on Wednesday.

In my science fiction novels, Nexus and Crux, I write about technology ('Nexus') that makes it possible to send information in and out of human brains, making it possible for humans to share what they're seeing, hearing, feeling, and even thinking with one another; and also for human minds to exchange data with computers.

The early versions of that sort of technology are real. We've sent video signals into the brains of blind people, audio into the brains of the deaf, touch into the brains of the paralyzed. We've pulled what people are seeing, their desired movements, and more out of the brains of others. In animals we've gone farther, boosting memory and pattern matching skills, and linking the minds of two animals even thousands of miles apart.

I gave a recent TEDx talk on linking human brains about the science in this area, and where I see it going. You can watch the video below.

My friend and fellow science fiction author William Hertling disagrees with me that the Singularity is further than it appears.

Will has spent some time thinking about this, since he's written three fantastic near-future novels about a world going through an AI Singularity.

He's written a rebuttal to my The Singularity is Further Than it Appears post.

Here's his rebuttal: The Singularity is Still Closer Than It Appears.

If you've seen other thoughtful rebuttals or responses out there, please leave links to them in the comments.

Ramez Naam is the author of Nexus and Crux. You can follow him at @ramez.

In my previous post on why the Singularity is Further Than it Appears, I argued that creating more advanced minds is very likely a problem of non-linear complexity. That is to say, creating a mind of intelligence 2 is probably more than twice as hard as creating a mind of intelligence 1.

The difficulty might go up exponentially. Or it might go up 'merely' with the cube or the square of the intelligence level you're trying to reach.

Blog reader Paul Baumbart took it upon himself to graph out how the intelligence of our AI changes over time, depending on the computational complexity of increasing intelligence. And I thought it was worth sharing with you.

AI Self Improvement Curves

Time The Year We Become Immortal.jpgAre we headed for a Singularity? Is it imminent?

I write relatively near-future science fiction that features neural implants, brain-to-brain communication, and uploaded brains. I also teach at a place called Singularity University. So people naturally assume that I believe in the notion of a Singularity and that one is on the horizon, perhaps in my lifetime.

I think it's more complex than that, however, and depends in part on one's definition of the word. The word Singularity has gone through something of a shift in definition over the last few years, weakening its meaning. But regardless of which definition you use, there are good reasons to think that it's not on the immediate horizon.

Charlie is still away. But in the meantime, I'd like to introduce our latest guest blogger: Ramez Naam.

Ramez Naam is a computer scientist, futurist, and an H.G. Wells Award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. His two science fiction novels, Nexus and Crux, explore the power of near future technologies to link human minds, and the consequences of a War-on-Drugs and War-on-Terror-style backlash against such technologies. *Nexus* was named one of NPR's Best Books of 2013 and optioned by Paramount and Director Darren Aronofsky for a feature film.

His first non-fiction book was More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, which gives a guided tour of human enhancement technologies, and argues that society should cautiously embrace them. His most recent is The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, a look at the challenges of climate change, energy, water, food, and other resources and environmental issues on Earth, and our best prospects for overcoming them through innovation in science, technology, and the rules of our economies.

Ramez spent most of his adult life working in software. He founded and ran a nanonetech simulation startup. He's a fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and serves as Adjunct Faculty at Singularity University, where he teaches on energy, environment, and innovation. He lives in Seattle. You can find him at rameznaam.com or on Twitter as @ramez.

Charlie here, checking in. I'll be drinking in Stoddard's Food and Ale in downtown Boston (Massachusetts, USA, not the Boston in England) tomorrow evening from about 7pm. Map here; nearest T stops are Downtown Crossing or Park Street.

(I don't have a table reserved, so in case of upsets check here for an update, or see my twitter feed: @cstross.)

So, just in case you hadn't heard: Virtual Reality is here.

The Oculus Rift does indeed deliver on the promise of Virtual Reality, a mere 20 years later than promised. I've got two in the studio at the moment, and they are absolutely not over-hyped: the Rift is the first technology in 20 years that has made me consider moving from producing straight-up CGI animated movies to a new artform. The sense of immersion is incredible, the technology's workable, and the reaction videos are very amusing.

Naturally, people have immediately asked three questions: "Is this going to cause kids to kill people?", "Will there be porn in VR?", and "Does this mean that movies will be VR from now on?" The answers to the first two are, respectively, "probably not" and "oh, hell yes." But the answer to the third question is more complicated.

Film critic Roger Ebert was one of many movie fans fascinated with the possibility of VR:

"Virtual reality is still more theory than practice, but for a movie critic, it holds out fascinating possibilities. What is a movie, after all, but a crude form of VR, in which we see and hear what the filmmaker desires? Anyone who has ever laughed or cried at the movies has experienced a form of VR."

So, are all our blockbusters going to end up in VR?

No. What we'll end up with is altogether stranger than that.

What does the future hold for movies?

That's a topic that has eaten more column inches than Scottish Independence, the Kardashians and Bitcoin combined. But whenever I hear it, I can't help but think that the writer is asking the wrong question.

A better, more illuminating question is "What does the future hold for movie-making?"

Our Gracious Host has written a number of articles explaining how the mechanics of the publishing industry shape the kinds of books that come out of it, from the length of novel that is published to their covers. Film bends in the wind of its production process even more than written fiction. CGI technology opened up entirely new genres to the industry, "video nasties" appeared in the wake of a censorship gap and various distribution and strategy changes led to the rise of the blockbuster.

If you want to predict the shape of the sausage that is film, you've got to look at the mincing machine. And right now, there's something very interesting happening.

People pontificate a lot about computer games rendering film obselete. That's clearly rubbish. Movies aren't going to spontaneously turn into games. They're different experiences.

But movie-making might become a game.

Lo, Neptune's Brood is coming out in paperback in a few months. And so, I am looking for typos in the first (hardcover, US) edition so that I can get them fixed in the page proofs. Did you stub your eyeball on something that shouldn't have been there? If so, please post a comment, citing the page and line number and some context. (This needs to be a page number in the US hardcover edition only: the British edition is paginated differently.) Thanks!

One of the Hot Topics in the big media / tech crossover world recently has been data-driven storytelling. Wired breathlessly reported that Hollywood gurus have reverse-engineered a "formula for success" from audience data. Netflix has revealed its ability to data-mine genres that they already know their audience will like.

The most common reaction to all this Big Data Story stuff is horror. Even less spontaneity. Even more focus group driven cookie-cutter movies. Artists straitjacketed by polling data.

Cats and dogs living together. It's the end of the world as we know it.

And yet, I feel fine.

Because it was so much fun and I'm a glutton for punishment, I'll be hoisting a beer again this Thursday the 6th in d.b.a. Brooklyn (113 North 7th Street Brooklyn, NY 11249): Twitter @dbabrooklyn. It's close to Bedford Av. station on the L line and the East River Ferry. (Recycled) Arsebook event here. I'll arrive about 5:30pm-6pm, and if the cask ales on tap are as good as last week's ...



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