Charlie Stross: June 2007 Archives

Just a brief update ...

Glasshouse is finally out in paperback in the US, and picking up notice elsewhere; lately it's been reviewed in The Times (the British newspaper of that name, which does not bear the name of any particular city). Meanwhile, The Atrocity Archives is out in paperback in the UK; here's me talking about it on Bookzone.TV. Finally, I'm pleased to be able to say that the Atrocity Archive's sequel, "The Jennifer Morgue", is due out in the UK on September 6th!

Gonzo technology, past and present illustrates that some, if not all, of our ideas about the future are possible — at least at the prototype stage.

The M-497 jet-powered commuter train of 1966 hit 183 miles per hour in trials, a perfectly credible 300 kilometres per hour, and while it didn't go anywhere in service — quite simply, the North American railway network isn't up to scratch (and the noise abatement issues would have been somewhat problematic) — other nations routinely run steel wheel trains at that kind of speed (and I am so going on a Series 500 Shinkansen if I get the chance, this September!).

M-497 jet train

Meanwhile, the Kawada Industries' HRP-2 Promet Mk II humanoid robot weighs 58 kilograms, stands about 1.5 metres tall, can walk on slippery and uneven surfaces, use a screwdriver, and they're planning (software permitting!) to put them into production in 2010 as the HRP-3, a construction site labourer — the cost per unit translates to about US $120,000/£60,000. I think this might be just a little optimistic (and the idea of these things running around a building site on NiMH batteries gives me some cause for concern, too) but there is going to be a huge market for humanoid robots in Japan if they can crack the power management and control software problems. Most amusing of all, the HRP-2 was styled by Yutaka Izubuchi, designer of PATLABOR (among other classic animé about honking great humanoid industrial robots). Which shows that someone is working hard at making science fictional clichés come true, rather than just assuming that the invisible hand of market forces will wave a magic wand if we wait long enough.

HRP-2 humanoid robot

I don't know whether to be depressed that it's necessary or encouraged that it's happening:
Sara Wajid writes in The Guardian on why Muslim women are taking up martial arts:

... Uzma Naseem, a solicitor and mother who has been attending the classes, says: "It's not a question of being a Muslim woman, it's a question of being a woman and of self-protection generally ... It's hard for people to acknowledge that Muslim women need to go out and about in the city and be able to defend themselves. My mum's generation might think, 'Muslim women just go out with their men so they'll be protected.' But my generation is just so much more independent. It's not about being vulnerable women - it's just a good qualification to have." She plans to enrol her four-year-old daughter in martial arts classes as soon as possible.
Lots more interesting stuff via the link that's likely to dispel some social misconceptions.

My novella Missile Gap has just won the Locus award for best novella of 2006. (The entire thing is online here if you want to read it.)

I wasn't able to make it to Seattle for the award ceremony, so I asked Gardner Dozois to accept it on my behalf. Without him, this novella wouldn't have been written. He commissioned it for the anthology One Million AD. He's the one who kept badgering me to produce it when I was ready to throw in the towel; it wasn't an easy birth, and without his encouragement it wouldn't have made it out into the world. I'd also like to thank Bill Schaeffer of Subterranean Press for publishing it as a stand-alone novella. Finally, mad props to long-term fan and critic James Nicoll, who came up with the original insane setting — then kindly gave me permission to take his idea and run with it.

(I am currently suffering from a bad cold, and it's screwing with my ability to think straight. So rather than risk damaging my real work in progress, I decided to tidy up some thoughts I've been kicking around for a while, and bolt together this essay. Which will, I hope, begin to highlight the problems I face in trying to write believable science fiction about space colonization.)

I write SF for a living. Possibly because of this, folks seem to think I ought to be an enthusiastic proponent of space exploration and space colonization. Space exploration? Yep, that's a fair cop — I'm all in favour of advancing the scientific enterprise. But actual space colonisation is another matter entirely, and those of a sensitive (or optimistic) disposition might want to stop reading right now ...

I'm not dead; I'm just busy with Saturns Children and suffering from a summer cold. The combination of trying to batter a novel-length plot into submission (I'm about halfway through nailing a stake through its heart writing it, and it's still fighting back) and trying not to die of a runny nose tends to be profoundly demotivational vis-a-vis blog writing.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Yegor Gaidar, Prime Minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin, has an interesting paper out, in which he gives a Kremlin's eye view of the real reason the Warsaw Pact, and then the USSR, collapsed. Surprise — the Reagan era arms build-up, while a contributory factor (it deterred the Politburo from trying to balance their books by reducing military spending), was less important than the Saudi royal family, and Deutsche Bank. Gaidar's theory may not be the whole truth, but it gets us usefully away from the "man on a white horse" theory advanced by western conservatives, and gives us an economic explanation; it also raises the spectre of what's going to happen next, now that the Russian economy has begun to substantially restructure and recover, and the price of oil has risen sharply.

(A secondary, somewhat ironic, possibility is that we may owe the collapse of the USSR to Saddam Hussein. If he hadn't invaded Iran in 1981, leading to the Iran-Iraq war of attrition, it's possible that both Iraq and Iran would have held their oil production to 1970s levels for much longer, in turn maintaining prices at a high enough level that the Soviet oil exports would have covered their deficit. But that's another matter ...)

The USSR isn't the only superpower to have problems squaring the circle of high military spending, a mushrooming deficit due to imports exceeding exports, and — oh, what's the use? Unlike the USSR, the USA runs one of the two most solid currencies on the planet, and that buys a lot of credit that wouldn't be available if, for example, raw materials were priced in Euros instead of dollars. And I suspect it may be thinking along these lines that explains why Vladimir Putin is trying to channel the ghost of Leonid Brezhnev these days. He's not looking for a new cold war so much as he's betting that the US is close to the limits of imperial — and fiscal — overstretch, and if he just pushes a little bit harder, sooner or later something's going to break.

Personally, I find this whole topic depressing ... not to mention difficult to reach any definite conclusions on. That's the trouble with abandoning the Great Man theory of history: the underlying economic forces aren't necessarily obvious at the time. So as a footnote, I'd just like to leave you with VivOleum, the real future of the oil energy.

I have, in my hot sweaty hands, my first author copy of the British paperback edition of "The Atrocity Archives". It's taken its own sweet time coming — I wrote the short novel that's at the core of that book right after "Singularity Sky", in 1999-2000, and it first crept into public view as a serial in the now-defunct Scottish SF magazine Spectrum SF in 2002-03. Anyway. Just saying, it's finally come home, and it should be in the shops in another couple of weeks.

(Meanwhile, I've decided the "buy my books" links on the right are getting a bit gnarly and out of control. Not to say messy ... and that's without listing non-English language editions! I'm going to have to bite the bullet soon and set up a separate section of my website just to make access to information about where to buy the books easer. Just, not when I'm grappling with an uncooperative novel and a laptop whose letter "i" has decided to absent itself about 10% of the time ...)

(Warning: IT pundit on the loose!)

Earlier this week, Palm announced a widely-trailed project that they've been working on for three or four years, to widespread puzzlement: the Foleo. Priced at £250-300, it resembles an underpowered diskless notebook computer, running a stripped-down version of Linux and some apps familiar to Palm users (Documents to Go, Versamail) and the Opera web browser.

There's been much puzzlement over what's going on, with many Palm devotees turning their nose up at it and opining that Palm are committing corporate suicide with a machine that's overpriced and specced like a 2000 laptop at 2007 laptop prices.

I think the critics are off track (although they may not be entirely wrong: it's a huge gamble).

Firstly, those of us who already use laptops as our main computer are not the target audience for this box.

Secondly, those of us who like to tinker or play games or do lots of weird shit with our computers are not the target audience either.

There might be a customer base among folks who already have a desktop PC, and who need to work away from their desk some of the time, but who can't afford/don't want a full laptop. It covers the basics, for that role. But to be competitive in that niche, it really needs to cost half as much, and it needs a much better battery life. I'm typing this on a Sony Vaio TX3 that weighs the same, has an 8 hour battery life and an 80Gb hard drive, and runs full-blown desktop Linux or Windows XP pro. The only thing the Foleo has over the Vaio for my purposes is the "ouch" factor if I sit on it or drop it or someone steals it. But I'm not the target market either. (Are we getting the picture yet?)

My analysis, for what it's worth, is that Jeff Hawkins is really after business users, and has said so all along. So how's he planning on hooking them?

My gut feeling is that Palm has another shoe to drop, in the shape of a Web 2.0 system that the Foleo plugs into. If Palm have invested in the server-side software to push out a huge, powerful integrated web application suite, then the Foleo is really just a thin terminal; what will sell it is the back-end service, not the hardware. (And indeed, six months to a year ago, Palm were advertising for software engineers with a background in Linux server-side application programming.) As was ever the case with Palm in the old days, when the relatively feeble Pilot went head-to-head with the much more sophisticated Apple Newton and ate its lunch, it's not the hardware that matters, but what you do with it.

I have a 3G mobile phone with a flat-rate all-I-can-eat data tariff, thanks to T-Mobile's web'n'walk package. All-you-can-eat data over 3G is the coming thing, probably with wifi hotspot access thrown in, as a standard cellphone contract option; I expect it's going to be nearly universal within a couple of years. Behind it, 4G is aiming for peak bandwidth of 100Mbps, within ten years. This is a really important point. The initial launch puffery aout the Foleo letting you sync with your mobile phone grossly understates the potential: what it's really about is that the Foleo lets you plug into Web 2.0 applications at near broadband speeds, and gives you the screen and keyboard to do useful things with them.

This is Palm's play for the corporate network. Docs to Go and Versamail aren't the real office apps intended for this platform; they're just the local offline editing tools for when you're not plugged in. If I'm right, expect to see Palm announce a service not unlike Apple's .Mac, only with added business services and more storage. Dot Mac is aimed at home users who want email, webspace, and easy synchronisation; I'd expect Palm to be preparing to deploy CRM applications, relational databases, and possibly office tools like Thinkfree Online. It's possible that they're going to try to negotiate uncapped access to this service via some of the bigger cellcos' business accounts. If they go this route, they're also likely to offer toolkits and SDKs to help corporate customers plug their business software straight into Palm's service and push it out to their employees' Foleos. A clear sign of this thinking would be the appearance of VNC, Citrix, or other thin client software on the platform.

The Foleo is light, simple, cheap to replace, and doesn't store any critical data if it's stolen, unlike an employee laptop. It lets a company keep critical data under lock and key, but makes accessing it relatively straightforward using existing Web 2.0 tech. If Palm manage to fill in the dotted line at the web services level, they can offer big clients something that PC laptops don't — simplicity and security, combined with lower cost.

It's not the only tech competing for this prize, of course. The hypervisor wars are under way, and everyone and their dog is talking about virtualization and downloading sandboxed operating system images to client computers. (As if this was something new; the IBM mainframe world has been doing it since the early 1970s). The VM scene is clearly workable (those mainframe guys weren't stupid), but it relies on having lots and lots of bandwidth, and powerful CPUs that support virtualization. The Foleo as web terminal strategy doesn't have any such requirements: all it needs is a gadget as powerful as a circa-1997 laptop (albeit prettier and cheaper), and some smarts on the server side ... and a 3G mobile phone in between.

Now: is this going to work? I'd have to say "maybe" if you held my feet to the fire — this isn't the first time this particular idea's been let out of the lab, and the precedents aren't promising. Sun tried to sell us on the idea of thin client computing back in the 1990s; Java is the big left-over legacy of that particular excursion. Earlier, diskless workstations were the wave of the future in 1992 — such a shame that hard disk drive prices crashed in 1994. What makes this time different is that it's a webby world out there, and we've got the wireless bandwidth to make using AJAX/Web 2.0 apps over the air feel no slower than wading through treacle wearing diving flippers.

I think the prospects for the Foleo (and Palm) depend on whether we really are in the middle of the 30-years-overdue shift to network mediated client-server applications that everyone's expecting. And the recent sighting of a 13 year old CEO suggests that if nothing else, the Web 2.0 bubble is at hand.

Meanwhile, I just hope someone ports OpenOffice to it. At the sort of price point it's heading for, it'd be a cracking writer's tool if it had an office suite a bit more feature-rich than Documents to Go. But of course, I'm not the target market ...



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This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in June 2007.

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