Charlie Stross: August 2007 Archives

News flash:

"Ken MacLeod regrets to announce that he was unable to attend the World Science Fiction Convention in Yokohama to receive an award for the novel he did not publish in 2006.

"Instead, this year's Prometheus Award by the Libertarian Futurist Society for the best Ken MacLeod Scottish Socialist Libertarian SF novel goes to 'Glasshouse' by Charles Stross."

(Normal service will be resumed next year, when my money's on Ken's "The Execution Channel".)

I'm in Yokohama. It's foggy, the daytime temperature hits 30 degrees with 60% humidity so it's like walking around in a sauna, and while the trains are great, I wouldn't recommend Ferris wheels as a tool for overcoming jet lag. More later, when I'm fully acclimatized and have something to say.

I hate to go on flogging a dead horse, but nothing drives the message home quite like a real world example.

Mobipocket, a French company, produce ebook reader software. The software's quite good, as such things go; cross-platform, freely redistributable, and it supports a file format which is a subset of Open Ebook Format. (They also sell publishing tools for producing ebooks compatible with their platform.) Mobipocket are good enough that they were bought by Amazon.com in 2005, as the primary platform for Amazon's ebook sales.

Mobipocket, alas, support DRM on ebooks. As such things go it's not too onerous; you can add device IDs for up to five readers at a time, and ask them to reset your device IDs so you can change them as often as you want. It's an annoying impediment, but it's less annoying than, say, iTunes — you can deregister a device that's no longer in your possession, for example. And their platform supports DRM-free ebooks — indeed, it's one of the formats offered by Webscription, the most widely used DRM-free commercial ebook publisher.

Only something's gone horribly wrong.

A notice published on ebook store Fictionwise explains as follows:

NOTICE: A major problem occurred with the Mobipocket DRM server at about 6:30 PM Eastern Time, Wednesday, August 15. Engineers at Mobipocket.com have informed us that they hope to be back online sometime this weekend, August 18 or 19. We have switched, where possible, all Secure Mobipocket files purchased during the downtime to an alternative DRM provider, Content Reserve. We have also taken all titles that could not be switched offline in Mobipocket format until the problem is resolved.

So, at this point in time, any Secure Mobipocket title you see onsale can be downloaded immediately. Titles that cannot be downloaded immediately have been temporarily taken offsale in the Secure Mobipocket format.

We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused, and we will post a new message when the problem is resolved.

At the time of writing, Mobipocket's website — and DRM server — has been offline for over a week and counting. The company is not out of business (unless Amazon.com has gone bust without anyone noticing!), but they seem to be having software trouble.

Customers who bought DRM-infested Mobipocket books can no longer read them using the Mobipocket Desktop for Windows PCs; it phones home to verify the DRM, and nobody's answering the call.

Customers with DRM-free ebooks (from, for example, Webscription) have no such problem.

The moral of this story is left as an exercise for the reader.

UPDATE: Mobipocket are finally back up again. Today is the 25th. They've been down for ten days ...

There's a fun little novelty news item that's been doing the rounds recently; here's Newsweek's take on it:

Aug. 20-27, 2007 issue - In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation." But beyond the irony lies China's true motive: to cut off the influence of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual and political leader, and to quell the region's Buddhist religious establishment more than 50 years after China invaded the small Himalayan country. By barring any Buddhist monk living outside China from seeking reincarnation, the law effectively gives Chinese authorities the power to choose the next Dalai Lama, whose soul, by tradition, is reborn as a new human to continue the work of relieving suffering.
While at first glance this sounds like an amusing novelty item, and at second glance seems like an amusing novelty item designed to ding the bell of outrage against those nasty Communist occupiers of wonderful, idyllic, pre-invasion Tibet (see also: theocracy, mediaeval), there's a much less palatable subtext running through this article: an unthinking and implicit endorsement of really silly superstitious beliefs and the right of those who hold them to use them to manipulate political opinion. As the author of the piece goes on to add, "According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 20 percent of all U.S. adults believe in reincarnation. Recent surveys by the Barna Group, a Christian research nonprofit, have found that a quarter of U.S. Christians, including 10 percent of all born-again Christians, embrace it as their favored end-of-life view."

Here's the rub: reincarnation is a load of rubbish. There's a slight problem of there being a striking lack of supporting evidence for it. I'm not going to go into the whole false memory syndrome controversy here; but for proponents we've got on the one hand cranks, and and on the other hand, clergy in a system where reincarnation is professed and used in practice as a means of transferring wealth and temporal power. Unlike other pernicious superstitions this one asserts there's a miracle that is supposed to be happening in the here-and-now and is in principle observable; moreover, it's supposed to happen to everyone. What do you recall of your previous lives? Nothing much? Gotcha. It's tosh — but it's a superstition that retains political clout.

Those who pick the poor kid who gets to wear the monk's robes — in this case, the anointed successor to the Dalai Lama. The divinely detected reincarnation (in the body of a young boy) is trained and steered by the elders who identify him, and effectively becomes their mouthpiece. Whereupon, Ignatius of Loyola's aphorism about brainwashing comes into play: "give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man" (paraphrased). And guess what? Those trainers — high ranking priests themselves — were promoted by — surprise — the current Dalai Lama. So, just in case the dynastic implications of the process weren't obvious enough, belief in reincarnation is used to legitimate the propagation of a complex of political beliefs from beyond the grave ...

While one might question the Chinese government's motives, it's hard to call this anything other than a very non-supernatural — and in the context of Tibet a political — activity.

So here's my beef:

Why is this being reported in terms of religion? Is it because for some reason Newsweek and their siblings in the American press have been trained to give a free pass to anyone who declares that the motives for their behaviour is belief in religion?

Pick a religion — any religion — and collect your free pass from criticism!

The knee-jerk instinct to bend the neck before expressions of faith is one of the more distasteful aspects of the modern media circus. It doesn't get remarked on enough, because usually the religions being knelt before are the locally privileged belief systems; but it becomes impossible to ignore when the same privilege is extended to random superstitions that we haven't been conditioned from infancy to respect.

To call this decree by the Chinese government "absurd" is to dismiss the legitimacy of any political or social objection to religious activities, however bizarre or just plain batshit insane they may be. Which leads me to conclude that Newsweek's editors have, quite simply, lost their grip on reality.

It's no bloody wonder we seem to be descending into a dark age of superstition — having beliefs is the next best thing to holding a diplomatic passport.

The British Army is gearing up to pull out of Iraq, specifically from the southern area around Basra where they've been unsuccessfully trying to contain the local Shi'ite militias.

Leaving aside the pros and cons of a decision to quit Basra, one of the more disturbing aspects of the withdrawal will be what happens to the interpreters who have been working with the British. The Foreign Office, it seems, is unwilling to grant asylum to the 91-odd interpreters (and their families) who have been working for the British Army, and who can expect to be treated as collaborators and traitors by the militias once the army pulls out. It's a high risk job in the first place; meanwhile Defense Secretary Des Brown is saying that up to 20,000 Iraqis have been working for the British since the invasion in 2003, and that trying to help them is "impractical".

I have to admit that I'm conflicted over calls to cry "shame!" at our ministers for this wonderfully spineless display of pandering to the worst instincts of the Daily Mail.

On the one hand, a reasonable and impartial observer might think that the British government owes a debt of honour to the civilians who have, at great risk to their own lives, assisted them in their mission to pacify Iraq.

On the other hand, let's play devil's advocate: what if the British government, in a craven fit of short-term electoral calculation panders to the instincts of the pull-up-the-drawbridge little-Englanders, sticks up two fingers at the wogs, and says "thanks, now fuck off"?

Doubtless the sight of collaborators' heads on sticks will provide much food for thought to any residents of failed states who are asked to throw in their lot with the next brutal and illegal imperialist invasion. And insofar as making it harder for the bastards to rape and pillage other countries is a good thing, might not the lives of 91 translators — hung out to dry by their soi-disant employers — actually be a cheap down-payment?

Here's my considered advice to the British government: if you think there's even the remotest shadow of a chance that at some future time you'll need to send troops overseas, let all 20,000 of your collaborators (and their families) in. Full right of residence and/or British citizenship, plus a golden handshake sufficient to buy a crappy little Barratt box in a new town somewhere in the midlands: nothing less will do. Because if you don't, you're going to find it a hell of a lot harder to buy quislings and spies eyes and ears on the ground the next time your Dear Leader decides to play Sancho Panza to some doomed quixotic adventure.

Or, if you want to go all-out to win that October surprise election you can sacrifice them on the altar of Paul Dacre's immigrant obsession. That's okay; what's another 91 lives on top of the hundreds of thousands you've killed and the millions you've exiled already? Accept that you're not going to be able to dance the force projection fandango in future, write off the Neocon invasion fantasies as a bad wet-dream, and get back to the serious business of corrupt PFI deals and running your own little banana republic. That's my advice, incidentally. You don't even have to worry that anybody will think any the worse of you for it — we already know you're a bunch of hypocritical little shits with about as much moral sense as your cousins from Enron, and a tasteless habit of masturbating over recon photographs of cluster bomb attacks on wedding parties.

Do I sound angry? You bet I'm angry. So that's enough for now ...

I'm going to Japan in 8 days time for the World Science Fiction convention, which is being held in Yokohama this year. As I'm one of the program participants, I'm listing my program schedule behind the continuation link.

(As you can probably imagine, I'm taking a couple of weeks after the convention for a vacation — I've never been to Japan before, so this is a first for me. And I'm as excited as you would expect!)

(An occasional series in which I'm going to try and provide brain dumps about some of the more obscure aspects of the writing business.)

A friend, who recently sold her first novel, wrote to me (paraphrased): "help! I'm supposed to be giving a reading from my work at a science fiction convention! What do I do?"

Readings, like signings, are one of the epiphenomena of writing: not a central part of the business, but people give you funny looks if your first reaction on being invited to do one is to shriek and hide up a tree. Unfortunately, although there are plenty of books with advice wise and otherwise on other aspects of writing, I've yet to run across any advice about readings. So here's what I've learned about reading in front of strangers.

Rule #1 is that the audience is not your enemy.

Odd though this may sound, a certain subset of writers never quite get their heads around this concept. Writers are, almost by definition, unaccustomed to public performance: writing a novel isn't something you do live in front of an audience. (If it was, the audience would have to be so laid-back they'd make the spectators at a five day test match look as if they were in a mosh pit frenzy; writing books is slow.) So most of us, have no idea about how to behave in front of an audience.

To start with, people who turn up to your reading will be either friends, fans, or the randomly curious, in descending order of probability. (If it's your first reading and you're obscure, your friends will come along to give moral support, and that's about it. Once the fans and random passers-by who you don't recognize by name outnumber your friends, you're famous — but by then you should be used to the game.) They've come along because they expect you to entertain them for half an hour or an hour or however long you've got. And they are not your enemy. Unless you've been scheduled to give a reading on-stage during an interlude between stand-up comedians in a docker's club down in Leith — or something similar — you've got them all to yourself. At an SF convention, you've probably got a table and a jug of water in front of several rows of chairs, in a room with a door. Ask someone to close the door when you're ready to start, and you've got their undivided attention. Believe me, compared to the lot of a stand-up comedian, this is paradise. These people have turned up because they want to hear you. All you have to do is avoid letting them down and you'll be a hit.

I usually arrive five minutes early simply because there are things to take note of before giving a reading: are you expected to stand for the duration, or is there a chair and a table for you? If you're standing, is there a lectern or somewhere to balance your notes? Is there a microphone and sound system, or are you expected to fill the room with your lungs? And is there a jug of water and a glass so you can cool your throat?

Standing for an hour in the same spot is surprisingly tiring, although if there's a lectern and it's stable you can lean on it. Likewise, while it's usually possible to speak loudly enough to be heard clearly at the back of a room that seats fifty people, it can be quite exhausting to shout for an entire hour. (If you've got laryngitis and have warned the organizers in advance, I'd say that turning up to an event only to discover there's no amplification is grounds for canceling.) The water jug isn't an optional extra. I usually take the precaution of bringing along a drink of some sort, simply because my throat dries out after ten or fifteen minutes of speaking and if I'm scheduled late in a day of readings, the folks providing supporting facilities such as jugs of water tend to be getting a bit erratic themselves.

You probably want to start your reading by introducing yourself. At this point, there's no need to overdo things; for the most part your audience wouldn't be here if they didn't know who you are. But give them thirty seconds — someone will probably have come to the wrong reading, and may not realize it until you tell them your name. Give them time to clear out before you get started.

And here's the #1 novice mistake: to expect that what you're going to do is turn up with a book and read a passage from it.

Your audience are here to be entertained. Works of fiction are entertainment — but reading verbatim from a work of fiction can be as entertaining as copying it out longhand. Why?

When we write fiction, we're actually producing a work of art that conforms to certain stylistic conventions. We intersperse dialog with description and introspection (otherwise what we've got is a movie script), we construct long compound sentences -- like this one -- and we indulge in artifice that our audience is complicit in (narrative voice, tense, scene changes, and so on). These conventions are in some cases not conducive to a live reading. At a phrase structure level, sentences that run for more than about twenty syllables, or which are compounded from more than three clauses, are generally too long to read comfortably on a single breath. And at a broader level, we speak aloud rather more slowly than we can read. A fast reading speed is anything over about 350 words per minute, but if you heard me speaking at that rate you'd think I was babbling — speech falls in the 150-250 word per minute range.

Consider a nice piece of description that runs for about three pages in your book — one in which your protagonists are going on a day trip through a forest, and you're describing what they can see. Three pages is about 1100-1200 words. On the page, a reasonably fast reader zips through such a passage in 3-4 minutes. A reader who isn't interested in sylvanian scenery can simply flip forward a page and skip the boring bit: thirty seconds. In constrast, when you're reading to an audience, those long descriptive passages tend to slow you down. At 200 words per minute, it's going to take you 5-7 minutes to plough through the section, while your readers are actually wondering what's going to happen to your characters at the other side of the wild woods. And the members of the audience who don't dig digitalis can't simply skip forward — you've cornered them, and they're trapped for five minutes that are going to feel like five hours.

I try to pre-select the passages I'm going to read. I aim for a thousand words per ten minutes, and no piece should be much over 30 minutes long — by the time I get to the end of it, I'll be tired and the audience will want a change. I abridge for reading: long descriptive passages get removed completely or cut back to a couple of sentences. Long sentences are shortened or split up. Difficult words and replaced with something easier to get my mouth around. And I make sure to put a pay-off at the end, either emotional or plot-based. The audience have listened to me droning on for half an hour: they want to get something out of it. Ending on "continued in chapter four" is not a climax.

And then there's the matter of how to select material for a reading. I tend to assume that (a) nobody wants to listen to a piece of fiction that takes more than 30 minutes to read unless it's absolutely captivating, and (b) nobody wants to sit and listen for more than 45 minutes, tops. So what I tend to do is pick a couple of pieces, mixed and matched for length to fit in the slot that's open to me. For a one-hour session I'd typically start with something I haven't read before, and a running time of 20-30 minutes. That means about 3000-3500 words, in practice. A good choice for this slot would be a self-contained short story that's newly published but that will be unfamiliar to most of the audience. Short stories have to pay off in a short period; it comes to a conclusion, which is more than can be said for most extracts from the interior of a novel.

Having got halfway into the session, it's a good idea to pause for long enough to drink a glass of water; by this point you'll probably be needing it. Then it's time to switch to a second, shorter piece, lasting for 15-20 minutes (or about 1500 words). Having given your audience a self-contained story, you've got a bit more freedom at this point; it's probably safe to try a chapter from that novel that's just out (as long as you've edited it for brevity and made sure that there's some kind of pay-off at the end). By the time you finish this second item, your audience are going to be restive, however much they've enjoyed the reading: it's time to relax a bit, and give the ones with weak bladders or short attention spans a chance to escape without making themselves look boorish by walking out on you while you're reading. (Remember, if they have to embarrass themselves they'll blame you. This is not a good thing.)

A good mechanism for lightening up a reading is to take questions from the audience — and they will have questions if they've been enjoying the show. Alternatively, if you can talk off the cuff about how you work or how you wrote the work you've just read, that's a good choice of filler. Finally, if it's a long reading slot (and an hour on-stage reading your own work is long, if you're not used to it), I try and bring out a 5 minute extract from something that's not yet published. Reading audiences love teasers and love the sense that they're getting something nobody else has heard before: if you do it right, you can work up to a climax just as your slot ends and you're asked to vacate your room.

As to technology ...

I tend to read off a laptop screen. This is long-standing habit; I've got sharp eyes for text and it lets me bring along a variety of work and call them up quickly. However, it works best at a table or lectern, with a small laptop with a shallow screen that doesn't block your face from the audience. Nothing's quite as unpreposessing as an author with their face hidden by a lump of plastic or washed out by a lurid LED backlight glow. And there's nothing quite as pathetic as a writer whose laptop's battery has died halfway through a talk!

I would not recommend reading from a PDA or smartphone on stage. Been there, done that, got the eyestrain to prove it. It's generally safest to read off paper. Reading from a book is not generally advisable because the typeface tends to be tiny, the margins justified, and it's not abridged for spoken-word delivery. Reading from a printed manuscript gives you a bigger page, clearer type, your own edits, and no battery problems or eyestrain. However, even this least-worst choice has its own pitfalls.

When printing a story for a reading, you need to use a larger than normal typeface, so you can read it at arm's length. Remember, a sheaf of A4 pages is just as good at hiding your face from your audience as a laptop. On the same note: ragged right margins and plenty of whitespace on the page help the eyeballs track smoothly, and when you're concentrating on not mumbling or mispronouncing your hero's name, anything that helps is good. It's also important to number the pages prominently — you wouldn't believe how often I've seen authors fumble and drop their material when reading on-stage. (It's a combination of performance anxiety and inexperience — as I said, authors aren't performance artists.) Use a fastener to hold the pages together that doesn't obscure the text or page number, doesn't get in the way when you flip pages, and doesn't fall out. (In my experience, staples are best.) Don't print on both sides of the paper. (I've known authors to do this. It doesn't work well when they're trying to figure out which side of the page to read from.)

If you're nervous or inexperienced, at this point it helps to hole up in your working environment with a pet cat, or a mirror, or whatever it takes, and read through your script aloud from start to finish. Ideally, time it — this will help you fine-tune the event for length. Once you've done it once in private you'll find it a lot easier to do it in front of an audience. Thespians have a technical term for this activity: they call it a "rehearsal", and there's a jolly good reason why they do it.

Finally, a word on personal presentation. In a nutshell, it depends on your audience. Most people are aware that novelists don't go to work in a suit and tie: this is good (because I don't believe I actually own a tie). Conversely, turning up in either rags or riches will tend to distract your audience from what you're saying. My rule of thumb for readings, with a baseline set for science fiction conventions, is smart casual: emphasis on casual, modulating towards smart at more upscale events. (SF conventions are casual, believe me.) Let the choice of venue guide your choice of presentation and you won't look out of place.

I think that covers it. Anyone with other opinions can feel free to offer them in the comment thread.

Which reminds me: got to sort out the running order and editing for my worldcon reading! Just as soon as I finish this novel ...

Xfire run a honking great chat system for gamers, with several million sign-ups and upwards of a million regular users.

Next week they're running a virtual SF convention (or "Sci-Fi Week" to use their quaint gamer argot), with Q&A chat sessions with SF authors, including Yours Truly.

Details here — I'm on the Monday slot with fellow Hugo nominees Peter Watts and Vernor Vinge, plus artist Michael Whelan. The chat session begins at 9pm, UK time (1pm PDT / 4pm EDT).

An Optical Solution For The Traveling Salesman Problem

They're claiming an O(NN) solution to a problem that is NP-complete. According to the abstract:

We introduce an optical method based on white light interferometry in order to solve the well-known NP–complete traveling salesman problem. To our knowledge it is the first time that a method for the reduction of non–polynomial time to quadratic time has been proposed. We will show that this achievement is limited by the number of available photons for solving the problem. It will turn out that this number of photons is proportional to NN for a traveling salesman problem with N cities and that for large numbers of cities the method in practice therefore is limited by the signal–to–noise ratio. The proposed method is meant purely as a gedankenexperiment.

This is either wrong, or (as Ken MacLeod put it) "we're all doomed". Anyone want to give it a read-through and tell me if it's plausible but impractical, implausible, or plausible and probably capable of being implemented?

I am informed that the first three books of my Merchant Princes series (that is: The Family Trade, The Hidden Family and The Clan Corporate) have collectively won the 2007 Sidewise award for alternate history (long form — i.e. novel or series).

This is the first time I'd been shortlisted for the Sidewise, and follows a rule change that opens the long form up to include multi-volume works. I'd just like to say that I really wasn't expecting to win this one — not with Paul Park, Harry Turtledove, and Jo Walton all on the ballot — and it's come as a complete by surprise.

I'd like to offer my congratulations to everyone else who was on the shortlist, and say better luck next time. (And because I won the long form award for a series work, they can now cross me off the competition for the next few years — it's my only alternate history in the pipeline.)

A couple of months back, I vented here about how the cost structure of the commercial ebook market is fundamentally broken.

Well, it turns out that some of my publishers read my weblog, and notes were taken, and now something's come of it — in the shape of an experiment.

One of my points was that, from a reader's point of view, ebooks are worth somewhat less than paper books — and ebooks with Digital Rights Management are worth even less than that.

However, the big publishers continue to publish ebooks with DRM at a price that's typically the same as, or at most 15% lower than, the most expensive dead tree edition of the book that's currently on sale. (This leads to the amusing situation that if you are so inclined, you can pay $24.95 for a DRM'd ebook of Accelerando. Or not.)

However, Orbit listened to me, and they decided that if their paperback edition of The Atrocity Archives retails for £6.99, they'd like to find out how many people would be willing to buy an ebook of The Atrocity Archives for £3.00 — half the price.

Amazon.co.uk are discounting the paperback, but the ebook is still cheaper — especially if you're paying Amazon for postage. In fact, you can buy a discount paperback from Amazon and an ebook from W. H. Smiths for the same price as the paperback in most of the high street stores. And if you do so, you'll help demonstrate to at least one major publisher that ebooks can sell — if they get the price structure right.

What do you think?

A couple of FAQs follow, below the link.

From The Australian, on July 31st:

Virtual terrorists

Hunted in reality, jihadists are turning to artificial online worlds such as Second Life to train and recruit members, writes Natalie O'Brien

THE bomb hit the ABC's headquarters, destroying everything except one digital transmission tower. The force of the blast left Aunty's site a cratered mess. Just weeks before, a group of terrorists flew a helicopter into the Nissan building, creating an inferno that left two dead. Then a group of armed militants forced their way into an American Apparel clothing store and shot several customers before planting a bomb outside a Reebok store.

This terror campaign, which has been waged during the past six months, has left a trail of dead and injured, and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars' damage. The terrorists belong to a militant group bent on overthrowing the government. But they will never be arrested or charged for their crimes because they have committed them away from the reach of the world's law enforcement agencies, in the virtual world known as Second Life.

(Nice one, guys, making your poor newspaper readers plough through three paragraphs — nearly 150 words — before admitting that you're describing events in an imaginary world.)

Meanwhile, back in March, I wrote:

Some time in the next year or so, I expect to wake up one morning and see a newspaper headline in my RSS reader: "TERRORIST TRAINING CELL RAIDED IN SECOND LIFE".

This doesn't mean that Osama bin Laden is a gamer, or indeed that there are any terrorists in SL. (Au contraire, real terrorists are more interested in blowing shit up than playing games.) Worst case: some whack jobs will figure out that SL — or it could be WoW or EO — is a cheap tool for multi-user chat that isn't currently being monitored by the feds. (Expect this window of opportunity to close about ten seconds after this article is published.) What such an article will really signify is that the mainstream press have finally discovered MMOs.

I called that one in print on March 27th, and you can find the whole article at Guildcafe.

It's a bit soon to call full house, and realistically speaking it's trivial, but I felt the need to share; there's nothing as heartening to a jobbing SF author as actually having one of their concrete predictions come true, on schedule (especially when you're engaged in the final death march to finish off a book).

Specials

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

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