Charlie Stross: November 2007 Archives

This just isn't funny.

SFWA, the Science Fiction Writers of America, an organisation of which I am a member (on account of my having just a slight interest in writing and selling SF in that country) managed to get into a huge public relations mess back in August/September, when Dr. Andrew Burt, acting on his own initiative as a member of the SFWA e-piracy committee, caused a major screw-up in dealing with Scribd, a text file sharing website. (Details on the whole debacle start here; for SFWA's response see here: more here: if you really want to know everything, Google is your friend.)

One thing led to another in rapid order, including: the disbanding of the epiracy committee, the formation of a new internal committee to report back to the executive on what SFWA ought to be doing about copyright, and much internal politicking.

Confession of interest: I let myself be sweet-talked into participating in the copyright exploratory committee, along with various other members. Our remit was to focus on what SFWA should do in future about members' copyrights; we prepared a report in due course, and presented it to the executive.

The core of our report, in a nutshell, was this: SFWA should represent its members interests when asked to do so. (It should also poll the membership to figure out what they want to do.) In order to deal with members asking SFWA to act against copyright infringements, SFWA should establish a new copyright advisory committee to replace of the piracy committee, with set procedures (and a quorum of members required to implement them) to avoid anything like the earlier debacle recurring.

In addition, we made various other recommendations. (Mine included: avoid, at all costs, emulating the activities of the RIAA and MPAA. Rule #1 of being a professional writer should be: your fans are Not The Enemy. Unlike RIAA or MPAA, SFWA is actually a loose trade association of content producers — RIAA and MPAA are rather different organisms, funded by a cartel of major content distributors. Following their example would not only be disastrous and make enemies — I trust I don't have to explain why — but would rapidly bring individual writers into disrepute with their readers, something I think most SFWA members have enough brain cells to realize would be disastrous.)

A further recommendation was discussed, but the general feeling was that it would be inappropriate to put it in the committee's formal report. It was my understanding that it would be brought to the attention of the president of SFWA via a back channel. This recommendation was simple: that at all costs, Andrew Burt must be kept the hell away from the copyright committee. In view of his earlier activities, his appointment to it would automatically destroy any credibility the new body would have — not to mention sending out a clear signal that SFWA is a dysfunctional organization, institutionally incapable of learning from bad experiences.

Guess what's happened?

Yup. I am not privy to his thinking, but our dear president and executive have voted to reinstate the old piracy committee, with Andrew Burt to chair it, under the new name of the SFWA copyright committee.

To say that this is a fuckwitted decision is an understatement. Under Dr Burt, the new copyright committee will almost inevitably devolve into a reincarnation of the old piracy committee. If I thought it'd do any good I'd be resigning in protest right now; only the expense of a life membership purchased a couple of years ago is restraining me right now. Clearly the current executive of SFWA is making damaging decisions and ignoring input from committees it appointed, and and in view of this I call on SFWA president Mike Capobianco and the rest of the SFWA executive — including Andrew Burt — to resign immediately. Meanwhile, I'd like to call on all other SFWA members who don't want to see their organization commit public relations suicide to make their voices heard.

As for my own role in the affair, I consider this to be a betrayal of trust. I've been used as a stalking-horse to legitimize a process I absolutely despise; I've put in a fair amount of work on a project that was clearly intended as a distraction and which has now been set aside and ignored by the man who commissioned it. I will not forget this — and the current SFWA executive should consider that cozening and lying to their own members is not usually considered best practice for representing the members' best interests.

Finally, I should like to thank Cory Doctorow, who warned me that this was likely to be the outcome of the process: he was, of course, absolutely right.


I've just been made aware that there's an interesting anomaly in SFWA's by-laws. The vice-president of SFWA is officially the head of committees, and it's their job to appoint or remove people from committees. Andrew Burt is, interestingly, the vice-president, and there's no mechanism to remove someone from a committee without going through the vice-president: consequently the only person who could act on our call to prevent him from having anything to do with the SFWA copyright committee was ... Andrew Burt.

I'd like to apologize unreservedly to Mike Capobianco, and retract my call for him to resign. (He's in a very tough spot on this one: he appears to be the victim of a bug in SFWA's by-laws.) On the other hand, my call for Andrew Burt to resign is now doubled. As far as I can tell, he bears sole responsibility for this mess.

(Sorry I've been so quiet this week; a seasonal cold turned into bronchitis, and I'm not entirely over it yet ...)

I've spouted off previously in this blog about my lamentable poor saving throw versus shiny! — not to mention my irritation at the refusal of the consumer electronics industry to render me bankrupt by actually giving me what I want. Trouble is, at long last they've turned around and done it.

I have in my possession an Asus Eee subnotebook. It cost me an eye-watering £220 — as the top-selling laptop on right now, there's a certain scarcity value attached, and they haven't yet sunk to their real price, somewhere around thruppence ha'penny. But the process is becoming clear.

Back in 1998, I bought a notebook computer: a Hewlett-Packard Omnibook 800, with trimmings. It had a 166MHz processor, 80Mb of RAM, a 4Gb hard disk, an external CDROM drive (reader, not writer), and a docking station. It was being discontinued, which is why I was able to walk out of the store with it for under £1400, rather than paying the full-whack £1900 that bundle was going for a few months earlier.

Compare with the Eee. On processor and memory the Eee wipes out the 1998-vintage high-end subnotebook, with 900MHz and 512Mb respectively. The disk space is the same, except the Eee uses solid state memory rather than a spinning mechanical thingy. The screen resolution ... the Eee has a 800x480 pixel panel to the Omnibook's 800x600, so we'll chalk that one up as a win for HP, but both machines can cope with larger external dispays. For an extra £80, I bought the Eee 8Gb of additional storage media (an SDHC card), an upgrade to 1Gb of RAM, and an external CD/DVD rewriter. You don't need any of that stuff to make the Eee useful, but it's interesting to note that with it, the Eee is considerably more capable than the 1998-era high-end HP notebook, has triple the storage, double the battery life, and weighs less (with all its accessories, including the power supply) than the Omnibook on its own.

So, let me cut to the chase. Moore's Law suggests that every component of a PC halves in price on a roughly 18-month cycle. A desktop PC today should be roughly 100 times as powerful as a desktop PC of similar price 10 years ago, and 50 times as powerful as a PC of eight and a half years hence. A naive soul with no prior experience of consumer capitalism might ask why, instead of doubling in power, the manufacturers don't concentrate on cutting prices? But that's not how the industry worked. Until now.

A couple of years ago Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab launched the idea of a $100 laptop for education in the developing world. Well, the OLPC XO-1 is now out, costs $188 in bulk (a chunk of which is attributable to the dollar collapsing in the meantime), and hasn't exactly taken the world by storm — but succeeded in sticking the proverbial cattle prod up Microsoft and Intel's collective arse. For too long, the software and CPU giants had been treating the PC market as a cash cow, with a natural floor on the price of the product; the XO-1 proved that they were overcharging grossly. Intel's reaction was the Classmate reference design, their own purported rival to the XO-1; the Asus Eee is what you get when a large far eastern OEM thinks "hang on, can we commoditize this and sell it in bulk?" Microsoft, incidentally, failed to make it onto the Eee bandwagon because they wanted $40 for a Windows XP license — on a machine that starts at $250 for the stripped-down version. Mine runs Linux perfectly well, thank you, and comes with the basic stuff you need to be productive; OpenOffice, Thunderbird for email, Firefox as a web browser, and some other gadgets (like Skype and a webcam).

The Eee isn't an order of magnitude cheaper than a normal laptop but it is close to an order of magnitude cheaper than previous ultra-lightweight subnotebooks. And I think I'm going to use it as a pointer to a future trend in the computer business, at the low end. The Eee is about 8 times as powerful as that 1998 Omnibook, at a quarter the price. That's an improvement of half an order of magnitude in one direction and close to a full order in the other. And it's a tipping point, I think, showing that the price points that have defined the goal posts for the personal computer business aren't set in stone.

The dirty little fact everybody in the consumer computer trade have been trying to ignore — Dell, HP, Microsoft, Intel, AMD, Apple, all of them — is that the computer biz is overdue for commoditization. There is no intrinsic reason why a kilogram of plastic and metal with a couple of silicon chips in it should sell for more than its weight in silver. Nor do we need ever-more-powerful personal computers; the heavy duty processing is moving off our desktop and onto servers, and has been for years, and only idiocy of the finest water (such as Microsoft's attempt to turn Vista into a surveillance state in microcosm) can justify it. Moreover, there is enough competition in this business that prices should be falling, steadily. Apple have staked out a boutique territory for themselves, and more power to them for noticing that they needed to do that in order to survive: but that's a small lifeboat, and not everyone can market themselves on being cooler than everyone else.

The Eee isn't quite the disposable computing resource I've been wanting — they'll have to shave a zero off the price tag for that — but it's close enough for now. It does the basics I need, runs portable cross-platform applications and editing open file formats, and if I leave it on a train or sit on it or something my immediate reaction will be to swear, check my backups, and buy another one, rather than to whimper and go talk to my bank manager. Which is as it should be. We've been held to ransom by these bastards for too long. The only remaining questions are, how long will it take before they wake up and realize the 30-year binge at the expense of the public is over? And how deep will be the recession that follows once the personal computing industry deflates to its natural value (i.e. peanuts)?

From The Observer:

On Friday night, during what the participants thought were private talks, Venezuela's oil minister Venezuela Rafael Ramirez and his Iranian counterpart Gholamhossein Nozari, argued that pricing - and selling - oil using the crippled dollar was damaging the cartel.

They said Opec should formally express its concern about the weakness of the dollar when the cartel makes its official declaration at the close of the summit today. But the Saudis, the world's largest oil producers and de facto head of Opec, vetoed the proposal. Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, warned that even the mere mention to journalists of the fact that leaders were discussing the weak dollar would cause the US currency to plummet.

Unfortunately his words and those of everyone at the meeting were being broadcast via a live television feed to a group of astonished reporters. 'I couldn't believe it,' said one who was there. 'When I realised they didn't know they were being broadcast live, I frantically started taking notes.'

More here.

Got a car? Fill it's tank today — oil's going up again on Monday (and the dollar's going down).

(Disclaimer: I am not a Hollywood scriptwriter. Hollywood scriptwriters are unionized, work in someone else's office, and get paid on a collectively negotiated basis. I, in contrast, am a freelance novelist. I'm not a trades union member. And I don't write scripts. On the other hand ...)

Write Right now, the scriptwriters are on strike. They're not striking because they want more money, but because the big studios they work for want to cut off their residuals. That is: when you write a script you get paid some money, and when the TV program is eventually made and broadcast you get a bit more money, and when it's turned into a DVD you get some additional money (residuals) or when it's converted to some other medium and made available again. Forget "information wants to be free", this is how these folks make their living. Now Viacom and the other large studios are telling the authors that they don't deserve to get any money for internet rights to their work, because the internet rights are merely used to promote the TV shows and are of no commercial value. (Meanwhile, they're suing YouTube for a billion dollars for using their TV shows, and their CEO says the internet rights to their IP portfoilio are set to earn $500M this year.)

To quote SFWA's statement on the strike: "It's as if book publishers of the early twentieth century had told authors that movies would be made out of their books, but they shouldn't get any money because the movies wouldn't be profitable and were being made just to promote the sale of books."

Here, courtesy of the Daily Show's scriptwriters, is the best summary of the situation to date:

Finally, in case you were wondering what my position on this is, in view of my expressed preference for giving away content on the internet where possible: there's a big difference between choosing to give something away, and having it taken without your consent. I support the right of Writers Guild of America members to be paid for their work — or rather, I deplore the extremely ugly land-grab approach of the studios who are trying to bilk the very people they depend on for their viability. After all, nobody watches the Daily Show because of the company that broadcasts it. Right?

I'm going to be interviewed tomorrow in Second Life for Information Week's regular GridTalk session; full details here.

Few things get in the way of work like rebuilding your office space.

On the other hand, I'm installing bookcases for roughly a thousand books and increasing the available floor space, while making room for new bookcases to go in the dining room from whence these ones came.

My office space has a tendency to accumulate clutter, deteriorating over time until it resembles a dank hole with far too many trailing mains extension cables. Getting on top of it is probably going to be a net win in terms of productivity over the next year — it's just a pain while I'm doing it.

(More thoughts on something profound when I have something profound to think about, rather than how to wedge an extra filing cabinet between a bookcase and the window casement. You know how it goes ...)

(I wrote the following essay for the Novacon 37 convention book: I'm reposting it here as a belated write-up of what I did on my summer holiday ...)

They've got our future, damn it.

It's not the shiny future of jet packs and food pills — oh no, that's not what Japan is about. Nevertheless, they've got it and they're living in it, damn them. They've got express trains that run on time and accelerate so fast they push you back into your seat like an airliner on take-off. They've got skyscrapers with running lights, looming out of the sodium-lit evening haze — a skyline just like the famous nighttime scene from Blade Runner except for the shortage of giant pyramids (and they're building one of those out in Tokyo bay). And they shave their cats.

In the future we will all have shaved cats. And six story high pornography boutiques that sell Hello Kitty! novelty toys on the ground floor. And 200mph super-express trains blasting between arcologies through a landscape scorched by the waste heat of a hundred million air conditioning units. And beer vending machines on street corners. And skyscrapers cheek-by-jowl with temples that are modern reconstructions of buildings dating back to the eighth century (said reconstructions only slightly older than the Christopher Wren iteration of St Paul's Cathedral).

Welcome to Japan ...



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

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