Charlie Stross: June 2008 Archives

I'm in Berlin, on vacation, and I've been off-net for three days. I'm probably going off-net for another three days after I post this update. Weather is hot, bratwurst and weissbier is good, and mail is piling up for me to deal with when I get home on Wednesday. Play nice!

One of the aspects of the present-day environmental movement that gets up my nose is the tendency towards magical thinking that many of its followers engage in; notably, the belief that because doing something about climate change (and environmental degradation and peak oil and the whole dismal litany) is better than doing nothing, any particular something they can point to clearly must be done, however irrelevant it might be to dealing with the underlying problem. It generates make-work, an annoying wheel-spinning tail-chasing pursuit of distractions, at the cost of grappling with the very real and very serious problems we face. And when it's not based on numbers, advice about how we ought to tackle our power problem can actually be counter-productive, as Professor David MacKay of Cambridge University's Department of Physics points out. (Long article, that, and well worth reading — and the draft book on energy policy that it links to.)

I'm particularly exercised right now by the suggestion that we all ought to be unplugging our domestic appliances that run on "standby" mode, waiting to be activated by remote control, rather than leaving them sucking electricity the whole time. Take these folks, for example:

So many electrical items around the home have little 'standby' LED lights these days. Indeed it's shocking how much energy they use as well (apparently around 90% of the power needed to run the appliance - so there's another 'saving money' issue for you!). Does everything in your house really need to be permanently on standby? Plugging and unplugging electrical items is the work of but a moment and can make a difference to the environemt and your bank balance!

Er, no. Just how much juice does a standby appliance consume, really, and how much would we save if everybody in the UK religiously turned off appliances they weren't using? Let's try and come up with some numbers.

The first point I'd like to note is that, contra the well-meaning assertions of Shropshire Green Party, devices in standby mode do not all consume 90% of their maximum power drain. Take the laser printer sitting on the other side of my office; it's rated power drain in standby is 11 watts, but when in operation, peak drain is around 700 watts. It's a few years old; modern appliances tend to be a lot more parsimonious with their standby draw. Ditto items like LCD televisions or VCRs and PVRs; newer ones tend to run on single-digit watts when in standby, primarily to keep the infrared receiver powered up (so that they can come fully to life when you hit the "go" button).

The next item on the green hit list is items like mobile phone, PDA, or iPod chargers — wall warts, those blocky transformers that everything seems to come with these days. They're often warm to the touch; doesn't this mean they're consuming lots of power? Well, no. You'd be surprised how little power it takes to keep a small transformer warm; a couple of watts will do it, over time, because they've got chunky lumps of metal inside that hold heat efficiently, and they don't get hot enough to dissipate it through air convection -- so contact with your hand is the most effective way of cooling them. Typically we're talking 2-5 watts. (If it was on the order of 100 watts, you'd know about it — you'd burn your hand as soon as you touched the thing, just like a halogen spotlight.)

Now. Let us consider that there are about 15 million households in the UK. Let us postulate that each household contains no less than twenty such wall-warts or gizmos with a standby mode that could stand to be unplugged. How much juice can we save?

Taking as a rough guestimate five watts of standby power consumption for each device, multiplied by twenty, we get roughly 100 watts per household. That's not insignificant; it's equivalent to 2.4 kilowatt-hours per day, or about £0.25 in electricity. The same as leaving a single incandescent light bulb glowing 24 hours a day. Multiply by 15 million houses and we have 1.5Gw, the output of a full-sized power station. Sounds like a lot, doesn't it?

Yes, but: the UK's total power generation capacity is 40-60Gw (it varies over time), with a base load of roughly 40Gw. The base load is the power it takes to keep the country running all the time — its permanent power draw, basically. The best case for everyone turning off all their standby-mode devices all the time is a saving of 3% of the nation's base load. But that's equivalent to us not using these devices at all!. In practice, some of these devices are going to be in use for quite a lot of the time; for example, it takes a few hours to charge up a mobile phone or a laptop and they need charging at least once a day if they're in use. Other devices simply won't be turned off; given the headache of reprogramming your VCR when you first switch it on, are you actually going to unplug it? The real saving from the 'disconnect your wall-warts" campaign will be considerably less.

Moreover, electricity generation accounts for about 30-40% of the country's energy budget — it has virtually no impact on transport (only about 33% of the railway network is currently electrically powered). So we've saved, at a maximum, by completely turning off these devices, maybe 1% of our total base load power consumption. The true figure is probably considerably lower.

Now for the human cost of the plugging/unplugging gizmos, which for some reason the proponents of power parsimony never seem to talk about ...

It's like spam. Deleting an individual spam email takes a second or two. But given how many millions there are per day, it soon adds up.

It takes me roughly 10 seconds to disconnect a wall wart. I include in this the time it takes me to walk to the room it's in, locate the socket, identify it, and unplug it. It takes me the same time to plug it in again. Assuming one switch off/switch on cycle per day per wall wart, it therefore should take a household with ten of the things (see the normative assumptions above) 200 seconds per day, or just over 3 minutes. Multiplying this figure by 15 million for the participating households, and the human effort of observing this quasi-religious ritual is 3 billion seconds per day, or about 90 man-years, spread across the nation!

Valuing each person-year at a notional £20,000, each day we do this it costs us £1.8M, or two entire productive working lives. Another way of looking at it; using this costing technique, we lose 700 productive working lives per year, or the equivalent of £1.4 Billion in worker-productivity for the time spent turning wall warts on and off.

In other words, it's a lot cheaper just to buy another nuclear power station.

You may think I'm being unfair. Why not put all the wall warts in a house on one power block with a single switch, making it easy to turn them on and off? Well, if we do that we can reduce the cost by an order of magnitude. But it's still the same as the cost of a new nuclear power station, amortized over 7-8 years (rather than the 40-50 year running life of the plant).

The "unplug your standby gizmos" movement is trying to get us to observe a superstitious ritual, rather than contributing a practical measure to reduce the nation's carbon emissions. It will in any case be obsolete in the next few years, as gizmos with really low energy standby modes are mandated by law — so you'd be saving milliwatts rather than whole watts.

Back during the second world war, there was a drive in the UK to strip out railings and send pots and pans to metal works to be melted down and turned into weapons. It was seen as a patriotic duty; if you had railings outside your home, you weren't doing your bit for the war effort. Did this actually help the war effort? No it didn't; the total weight of railings and pans melted down for scrap probably wouldn't have built a single cruiser. But they kept urging people to do it anyway, because it made the public feel as if they were contributing and helping deal with the national emergency. It was, in other words, good for morale.

Trying to defeat global warming by unplugging phone chargers and gizmos with a standby mode is in the same league as sending your kitchenware to be melted down to make tanks; it's silly.

Want to save energy? Have a shower instead of a bath; heating water consumes a huge amount of energy. (But don't use an electrically-heated shower — it's much more efficient to use gas or even oil fired water heating.) Work from home, or find work that's close enough to home that you can commute on foot or by bicycle or bus. Turn the thermostat down a couple of degrees in winter by all means. (The rate of heat loss through a wall is proportional to the temperature differential across the wall — in other words, the cooler your house in winter, the more slowly it'll lose what heat it retains.) Switch from driving an SUV or a truck to driving a small, light car, and go easy on the gas pedal.

But unplugging wall warts? That's just plain silly.

Thanks to the kind offices of my Italian publisher Delos Books, I'm going to be being interviewed in Second Life tomorrow (that's Saturday the 21st) at Sophrosyne's Special Salon, Saturday, June 21, from 1-2:30 pm SLT (that's 9-10:30pm in British Summer Time), in the Salon Room, Central Nexus at Extropia Core, Second Life (http://slurl.com/secondlife/Extropia%20Core/128/124/22). More details here.

(I also have a small signing tour of the south-west USA coming up in late July; I'll post the full details as soon as I can confirm the itinerary; for now let's say that it starts with Dragon*Con ComicCon International in San Diego, followed by appearances in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Phoenix — then I'm off to Denver for the Worldcon.)

Edit: And it completely slipped my mind — but the US mass market paperback of "Halting State" is officially published next week; if you order it from Amazon now (via this link) it should ship Tuesday.

I'm going to be scarce around here for a while.

First, my editor at Tor just poked me to say that THE REVOLUTION BUSINESS is going into copy edit next Monday. Which means I've got until then to do a complete edit pass on the novel. As I've managed to distill my list of changes down to just seventeen major bullet points ...

Second, I'm recording a story for a little side-project (hint: you'll be able to hear it as a podcast in a couple of months time) and I've got to get that finished by the end of the month.

Third, I'm being interviewed in Second Life on Saturday at 9pm (BST): the event's going to be held here http://slurl.com/secondlife/Extropia%20Core/128/124/22.

Fourthly, Ace want me as a guest blogger in the first week of July. (I'll link to that, too.) This wouldn't be a problem normally, but ...

Fifth and finally, I'm off for a week-long vacation next Wednesday. It's our fifth/fifteenth anniversary (we got married on the tenth anniversary of our first date), which apparently means I'm not allowed to hole up in the hotel room and work. (Oh, and it'll be my first completely non-work-related vacation in about two years.)

So: do not be surprised if my blogging is a little tardy for the next two or three weeks.

Some news items from the future:

Synthetic oil fermented from crop waste using genetically modified e. coli — looks like someone in Silicon Valley's decided that $140/barrel crude is a good enough reason to fund a dash for Oil 2.0. (Let's hope it's not snake oil or another long scam like the car that runs on water: carbon-neutral synthetic oil is exactly what we need right now.)

Meanwhile, here's a new spin on an old material: paper is the new cast iron, or so it seems; cellulose molecules extracted from wood pulp can be processed into a material (dubbed "nanopaper" by its inventors) with a tensile strength of 214 gPa (compared to 250 gPa for steel and 130 for cast iron). More here.

(Random thought: right now, most 3D printers, including reprap, manufacture items by extruding layers of plastics such as polycaprolactone or polylactic acid. These substances are useful but they're soft and they lack tensile strength. If it turns out to be possible to deposit nanopaper in layers, the future may turn out to be made of papier maché.)

Mind you, not everything that comes out of a rapid prototyper is good. Here's the Magpul FMG-9 prototype: and here's some more. Is it a flashlight? Is it a submachine gun? Who knows? Here's another baroque weapon that probably started life on a rapid prototyping machine. If reprap-like machines with strong materials turn out to be cheap and easy, then never mind licensing handguns — we're going to have a problem with home-made crew-served weapons. (Reminder: yr. hmbl. crspndnt. lives in a country where, for better or worse, possession of a pistol by anyone who's not in the police or military carries a mandatory 5-year minimum prison sentence. The implications of rapid prototyping machines for this sort of legislative environment probably parallel the effects of peer to peer networking on music industry cartels.)

What kind of society are we likely to get if it turns out that yes, we're hitting peak oil round about now, but that it's possible to process random junk biomass into crude oil for $100 a barrel, and $1000 will buy you a machine that you plug into your laptop and that can make, well, just about any small macroscopic structure you can design, out of feedstock derived from biosynthetic crude oil or woodchips, or paper?

Back in 1993, Vernor Vinge published a paper (first at a NASA seminar, then publicly in Whole Earth Review) on the subject of the Singularity.

I'm not going to re-hash Vinge's initial provocative thesis here. Let's just say it's one of the three most significant technical concepts to show up in science fiction in the past 30 years (the other two being nanotechnology — invented elsewhere — and cyberpunk — a literary, rather than a technical, conceit). If you're unfamiliar with it, go read the paper — follow the link in the previous paragraph. And if you're really intrigued by the idea, and want to see how it has developed since 1993, IEEE Spectrum did a Special issue on the Singularity which you can find on their website.

The trouble with big ideas like this is that they get misunderstood. And the singularity was massively misunderstood. Drexler's original speculation (about the potential for machine-phase fullerene technology to replace lipid/water phase boundary enzyme technology (that's biochemistry by any other name) for doing useful work at the molecular level) was rapidly converted into magic pixie-dust nanites — their pixie-dust aspect coming from the fact that they're expected to do everything from cure diseases to make the tea, with no actual consideration of how this might happen. (If you want to be disabused of your nanites, you need look no further than this article in IEEE Spectrum, which sets out the problems; it's not wholly new stuff, but it's sobering to see all the objections itemised in one place.)

And the Singularity has really been misunderstood.

Part of the problem, I think, was due to the vagueness of the initial concept of transhuman intelligence and its origins. The original Artificial Intelligence research program of the 1950s was expected to bear fruit within a couple of years, but has delivered paradoxical results; sub-problems which were expected to be difficult have proven much easier than expected, while some which were considered easy have proven to be chimerical ... indeed, by proposing such an ambitious goal, the original AI researchers only highlighted how little we actually understood about our own minds. This also comes out in attempts to evaluate the computational complexity of the human brain and critiques of reductionism in neurocomputing. We're still in the pre-Lilienthal era of AI, never mind the pre-Wright Brothers period.

Another and no less significant problem with the singularity arises from our own minds, and our evolutionary predisposition towards religious thinking. Vinge's formulation of the singularity concept in the 1990s may have been unfortunate, insofar as we've seen in recent years a huge outburst of millenarian religious hysteria: any concept that involves revolutionary, epochal change on the scale of the singularity makes it a candidate for religious adherents in search of a new superstition, and the singularity rapidly found its devotees; as Ken MacLeod pointed out, it was in danger of becoming "the rapture of the nerds".

Anyway, now the rapture-nerds have indeed begun to codify their beliefs. Allow me to introduce you to the Order of Cosmic Engineers. It is their intention to "joyfully set out to permeate our universe with benign intelligence, building and spreading it from inner space to outer space and beyond." And they explain:

The Order is, at the same time, a transhumanist association, a space advocacy group, a spiritual movement, a literary salon, a technology observatory, an idea factory, a virtual worlds development group, and a global community of persons willing to take an active role in building, in realizing a sunny future. As engineers, we aim to build what cannot be readily found. Adopting an engineering approach and attitude, we aim to turn this universe into a "magical" realm.
There's a lot more where this came from — indeed there's a whole huge prospectus, awaiting release next Sunday (which will be accessible here); Their formal launch event will be hosted by the Science Guild in World of Warcraft on June 14 at noon EST. I've seen an early draft of the prospectus, and it is indeed something special. Let's just say for now that I await its publication with interest: it's bad manners to critique an early draft of divine scripture before it's launched.

It's that time of year again: the galley proofs for paperbacks are coming in, and I'm looking for typos.

This time round, it's "The Merchants' War" that's due out in paperback in a couple of months. If you spotted any annoying typos in the hardback, please mention them in the comment thread below. (Please try and cite the page number in the hardback, and copy-type a short phrase — three or four words will do — that I can search on. When publishers prepare a paperback they usually take the DTP file for the hardback and reflow it to fit the smaller page size, so a typo on page 201 of the hardcover may move several pages in the paperback.) NB: the book's due in production on the 23rd, so you've got until the 20th to yell at me.

Also: if you spotted any typos in the US paperback edition of "The Clan Corporate", please tell me (the UK paperback should be showing up in about five months and so it's time for me to notify the publisher of any remaining bugs that weren't squashed in the US paperback).

I have an interview in The Guardian today.

And I just opened a parcel from New York via FedEx, which turned out to contain (a) a mass market paperback copy of Halting State and (b) a shiny hardcover of Saturn's Children.

(While they're officially due out on June 24th and July 1st respectively, what this means is that they've been printed and are on their way to the warehouses; they'll begin appearing in bookshops anything up to a week before the official pub dates.)

Oh, and it turns out that "Halting State" is available to Kindle owners for $9.99 (although I expect that'll drop when the paperback starts shipping).

Blogs like this one aren't just diaries; they're conversations. Behind every essay, rant, or quip, there's a comments thread where visitors like you are welcome to comment. And over the years, I've acquired quite a few regular visitors; sometimes this place feels like the inside of a public house. It's a web community, of sorts — and like all communities which grow large, sooner or later they acquire unruly elements.

Lately I've had some cause for concern over the way some people are using the comment threads on my blog. So I've decided to lay down the law.

(If you post here regularly, or are thinking of posting here, please hit the "Continue Reading" link below.)

Regular readers might recall I'm collecting examples of massive frauds as raw material — there's a book I'm due to write next year that has some, ahem, interesting observations on the subject — and today the comics fishwraps newspapers have got two beautiful ones.

First, the one everyone in the USA has already heard of: the Broadcom indictment has gone surreal. Not only have Federal prosecutors charged Broadcom's co-founder Henry T. Nicholas III with a huge stock-option backdating scam (which forced his company to write down $2.2Bn in profits last year), but they've served a second indictment, alleging that "the billionaire drugged his business cohorts, hired prostitutes and maintained a drug warehouse" as the Associated Press puts it.

Stock-option backdating is hum-drum, tedious fraud; the perp is an executive, and what happens is, they notice that their company stock is soaring and they think "why can't I get some of that action?" So they fake some paperwork granting themselves an option to buy shares today at whatever price they were trading at a couple of years ago, and they back-date it. Stock options: fine. Back-dated stock options with a forged dateline: not so hot. This is generally stupid and foolish and greedy, and it's what drags them into court — auditing and oversight regulations require corporations to keep an eye on what options their executives are being awared — but it's merely venal.

Henry transcended mere venality, though, "jetting around the world in his two private planes, building a secret lair under his house and hiring strippers to party at a private warehouse stocked with cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy." So let's get clear about what we're looking at: a billionaire master criminal with a secret bunker. And for Carl Hiaasen, or maybe Christopher Moore, twist on the tale: "In 2001, Nicholas smoked so much marijuana during a flight on a private jet between Orange County and Las Vegas that the pilot had to put on an oxygen mask, the indictment states."

I am shocked, shocked! That our upright captains of industry could spend their (alleged) ill-gotten gains on such a debauched and hedonistic lifestyle. (Where do I git me some of them Broadcom stock options ..?)

And now for the slightly more obscure fraud that proves that the Scriptwriter in the Sky has been trying to get into TV drama: "Viren Rastogi, the businessman behind a global metals trading fraud that duped 20 banks - including West LB, JP Morgan Chase and Dresdner Bank - out of $750m (£383m), has been jailed for nine and a half years."

This one is even more surreal, because it's a classic boiler room scam gone metastatic, and indeed multinational:

Rastogi and his family were using "boiler rooms" around the world to manufacture a bogus paper trail to support their metals trading scam. Unbeknown to the lending banks and auditors, Rastogi was in control of more than 200 supposed trading counterparties at "brassplate" addresses in more than 20 different countries.

Instead of shipping millions of tonnes of metals around the world, the web of bogus transactions simply churned cash lent from the banks - with a proportion being salted away in a maze of offshore trusts in the British Virgin Islands.

In 1996-97 they were showing an annual £1Bn turnover (US $2Bn or thereabouts in today's money; $1.75Bn back then) and Rastogi was paying himself a cool megabuck a year as CEO.

They were busted when they used the same fax machine to send paperwork from twenty of their fake companies to their auditors, PriceWaterhouseCooper, who (to their credit) noticed that something smelly was going on; once the investigation got under way it snowballed, with the Serious Fraud Office taking an interest. Oh, and the TV Screenwriter twist? Would you believe in a chief investigator (in a British crime thriller) called "Paige Rumble"? Not in the BBC Drama department, that's for sure ...

I'm bored with email interviews.

As I've sold more books, and attracted more attention, more and more magazines, blogs, websites, and who-knows-what have decided they want to interview me.

The first time you get a laundry list of questions via email, it's great — someone wants to know all this stuff about you! But by the time you've been getting them regularly for a few years, and by the time you're averaging two interviews a month, it's all a bit too much. For obvious reasons, most interviewers always ask certain questions ("where do you get your ideas from?" "Do you believe in the singularity?"). Worse, they always ask about stuff that's either been in print for some time, or that's just been published — which means, stuff I finished writing at least a year ago, and which I probably started thinking about a year or more before that. And finally, there's the problem that answering an email interview with original explanations isn't just chewing over the same old same old — it's extremely time-consuming; a properly conducted interview can easily run to somewhere in the 3000-4000 word range.

Over the course of a year, that means I spend as much time typing the answers to interview questions as I would take writing a whole extra novella.

(You think that's bad? I could go on; the business side of being a full-time novelist is so time-consuming that I could easily spend 25 hours a week working as a novelist, without actually writing any fiction.)

But that's not what this is about, right now.

Interviews, like I said, bore me. But I've never conducted an antiview. So here's your chance to participate:

Ask me questions (click the "Comments" link below). One question per caller, please, unless I hand you a cookie (good for one more question). (Update: Please make 'em reasonably factual — don't ask me about imaginary events.) I'll endeavor to answer as many questions as I can, although I reserve the right to pick and choose. And, more importantly, every answer will be a lie. How close to the truth the lie falls is, again, a matter for my whim; I might offer you something that's almost true, if I feel like it. But otherwise? Lies, all lies! Let the lies begin!

UPDATE: The antiview is now over. You may talk among yourselves.

(I don't normally carry advertising here, but I'm happy to blog about good causes from time to time.)

As some of you might have noticed, Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's last year. I'm not going to go into how horrible a disease Alzheimer's is, or how little gets spent on research into its causes, but I shall note that he donated £500,000 (US $1M) to the Alzheimer's Research Trust, and a bunch of UK-based fans are running the Match it for Pratchett campaign, to try to match his donation (in lots of smaller lumps, obviously).

Forbidden Planet (the largest SF bookstore in London) have acquired one of Frank Kozik's twisted toys — a 12-inch tall white vinyl MonQee, intended for the buyer to wreak technicolour havoc on — and have had it signed by a metric buttload of SF and fantasy authors. I personally inked in and signed the MonQee's ring-piece — now you, too, can have the truly unique opportunity to bid in a charity auction for a MonQee with a butthole by Charlie Stross.

Other folks who defaced the plastic primate include Neal Asher, Chris 'Fangorn' Baker, Tony Ballantyne, Chaz Brenchley, Holly Black, Ed Buckley, Paul Cornell, David Devereux, Brianna Flynt, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Hemingway, Tanith Lee, Tom Lloyd, Kari Maund, China Miéville, Andy Remic, Alastair Reynolds, Justina Robson, Mark Robson, Geoff Ryman , Sarah Singleton, James Swallow, Bryan Talbot, Freda Warrington, Liz Williams, and Frank Wu.

(Or you could go here to make a donation, if naughty monkeys aren't your cup of tea.)

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This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in June 2008.

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