Charlie Stross: November 2008 Archives

Over on The Yorkshire Ranter Alex has some interesting insights into last week's events in Mumbai. Notably: it wasn't a suicide mission (high risk, yes: suicidal, no — the attackers were carrying credit cards, money, and false passports), the claim that the attackers came from Deccan is wrong (else they could have simply caught the train rather than messing around in boats), and, surreally, they appear to have lifted their tactics from The Dogs of War (hat tip to Ajay: read Alex's explanation before you cry foul).

So: someone from outside the area organized a commando raid (with at least a nod towards enabling the raiders to disperse and exfiltrate after achieving their objectives) using the sort of tactics that folks with connections into the likes of Sandline International might go for.

I have no idea what this means, but here's a random question: were any wealthy business tycoons (with enemies with deep pockets, natch) killed in the attack? What peripheral events took place while attention was focussed on the Taj hotel and the orthodox Jewish centre (assuming these were distractions)? What else was going on, beside the obvious?

Alternatively, some interesting reportage on where the terrorists come from ...

If I was a 20th century super-villain, obviously I'd want to live here, in a data center with 40 centimetre thick blast doors, designed to withstand a nuclear strike.

I'd also want one of these as my run-around (with a shark pool under the conference table for under-performing executives, of course).

But these concepts of super-villaindom are ever so slightly passé and non-virtual — hypertrophied visions of pre-21st century luxury. What would a true 21st century supervillain lifestyle look like? A very slim aluminium briefcase containing an iPhone and a Coutts platinum Visa card, perhaps? (After all, if you're that rich, everything is effectively disposable except information ...)

Like most of you, I'm glued to the news from Mumbai right now. Not a huge amount to say, except this: it has all the hallmarks of a huge operation with lots of planning and resources behind it. Just looking at the men and material involved is daunting: twenty-plus organized gunmen with bombs and weapons, apparently delivered from a passing freighter by Zodiac, attacking very specific targets and taking prisoners: that's not a routine terrorist incident, that's a full-dress commando raid. Organizationally it's on a wholly different level from anything we've seen in the west, with the possible exception of 9/11. Who are these people? And where have they been building up the capability to organize attacks on this scale?

Don't mind me, I'm just minding a hot scanner — 263 pages scanned, 272 to go — and woolgathering. You're probably reading this because you're hoping for something profound and insightful; a discussion of the likely consequences of the 2.5% cut in the headline rate of VAT lately announced by the chancellor, perhaps, or prognostication about the heat death of the universe. Sorry, my brain's not up to that sort of thing right now. I've just ploughed through the copy edits to my next book from Ace and Orbit, "Wireless" (due out next July/August), and I'm feeling a little bit fried.

See, when you finish writing a book and send it to your editor, that's not the end of the matter. Even if your editor says "that's great!" it's not the end of the affair — because the next step is that they send it to a copy editor. A copy editor is a pedant with a red pencil. It's their job to spot all your grammatical and spelling mistakes, and to bring you up on consistency issues too (if they spot any). It's a lot like being back in high school, reading your teacher's notes on a particularly long English essay — if your teacher typed fifty-page single-spaced memoranda, and spent a whole week focussing on you, you, and nobody but you.

They also scribble all over the manuscript in red pencil, using a curious notation evolved over the centuries to tell typesetters precisely how to take your typescript and lay it out as a book. (There are, of course, different dialects of typesetter's marks on both sides of the Atlantic.) Luckily for me, my British publisher is happy to leave the heavy lifting to my American publisher, so I only have to do this once — but it's my job to go over the copy editor's work, answer any queries they leave for me, approve or cancel any changes they make to the text (they're allowed to rewrite it if necessary), and double-check that there's nothing else to fix.

"Wireless" isn't a novel, it's a short story collection, consisting almost entirely of stories and novellas that I've published since 2003. (For reason of pure nostalgia I found space for "A Colder War", from 1998, but that's by far the oldest story in it.) The reason my next annual SF novel is a collection? I can just about write two short (by modern standards) novels in a year. For a few years now I've been writing one Merchant Princes novel for Tor, and one SF novel for Ace. But the exigencies of scheduling are such that I really needed to write two Merchant Princes novels this year, and I simply didn't think I had the energy to write three novels in twelve months — not ones worth reading, anyway. So I went cap in hand to my editors at Ace and Orbit and they graciously agreed that yes, a short story collection might work as a stand-in. In order that "Wireless" would have just a little extra zing to it, I wrote an original novella for it: a short story so long it's trying to fill a novel's boots. And what do you know? "Palimpsest" (the novella) really wants to grow up to be a novel one of these days. Then things got really weird. In September/October I accidentally farted out another novel in a mad fit of enthusiasm, this one utterly out of schedule — this is really embarrassing to admit to: professionals just don't do stuff like that: it's not due on an editor's desk until 2010 — and I'm now running a month late, working on what turns out to be my third novel of the year (plus a novella).

Which is by way of explaining why I haven't been updating my blog often enough, and why I don't have enough spare brain cells to be witty and erudite right now.


Yesterday, The Open Rights Group turned three. I'd like to wish a happy birthday and much success over the next year to this campaigning civil rights group, of which I am (needless to say) a member.

As ORG's website explains:

Politicians and the media don’t always understand new technologies, but comment and legislate anyway. The result can be ill-informed journalism and dangerous laws.

The Open Rights Group is a grassroots technology organisation which exists to protect civil liberties wherever they are threatened by the poor implementation and regulation of digital technology. We call these rights our “digital rights”.

I'm disgusted by the Daily Mail and other newspapers attempting to legislate for the nation by whipping up media panics, in order to boost their sales by pandering to their curtain-twitching readership. I'm sick and tired of instinctively authoritarian ministers promoting far-reaching and restrictive laws, that are ill-conceived and have obvious and undesirable side effects. I have no desire to have my ability to communicate and publish for adults restricted, on the pretext of protecting some abstract Victorian ideal of childhood from exposure to information that might corrupt and deprave them. And I don't see why the availability of new technologies that permit intrusive surveillance should be taken by government as a license to deploy such tools.

For these, and other reasons, I support the Open Rights Group, and it would make me happy if you would support them too.

One of the perennial questions that I (and every other SF writer) get asked is, "where do you get your ideas?" Harlan Ellison once famously replied, "Poughkeepsie", but the truth is a bit harder to swallow: ideas are all around us, ripe for the plucking, and usually all it takes to come up with something wild and new is a magpie's eye for the bright and shiny, and a willingness to bang concepts together until they stick in a new, unfamiliar, agglomeration.

Unless, of course, you're a visionary like Bruce Sterling.

I've just been reading a slim, non-fiction book by Sterling, titled Shaping Things. This book is not like his other books. For one thing, most of them are novels; for another thing, this one is serious. You can tell it's serious because it was published by the MIT Press, and, for another thing, because it made my headmeat explode. In fact, I am deeply annoyed that it took me so long to get around to reading it (it came out in 2005, around the time I was writing Halting State, a novel that might have been subtly different had I been up to date on my to-read bookcase).

To summarize: designers are the unacknowledged legislators of the human condition insofar as they design the objects that populate our environment, and we are tool-using, object-wielding, primates. The history of human-made objects has evolved through a series of epochs: artifacts, machines, products, gizmos, and spimes. To provide examples: flint hand-axes and carpenter-made rocking chair are artefacts. Rifles and reciprocating engines are machines. Model-T Fords and Coca-Cola bottles are products — of a mechanised culture. The iMac I am typing this on is a gizmo, or perhaps an embryonic spime. Each step represents an increment of complexity, and each category of designed object embodies and encapsulates the functionality of its predecessors while adding more stuff.

Spimes move beyond gizmos like today's smartphones and laptops because they primarily exist as a software representation; when you want one, you request (or buy) a physical instantiation of the design. Spimes rely on improvements in distribution chain management technology (such as computationally active — not passive — RFID chips with GPS positioning and time-binding capability) to monitor their own progress, order supplies and maintenance work, notify their owner when action is required, and, at the end of their life, arrange for their own collection and despatch to a suitable recycling point. Spimes are the logical ouput of a logistics infrastructure based on fabbers (primitive versions of which are just now dropping through the price threshold defined by the first primitive consumer laser printers in the mid-1980s). They can be anything from a passive object like a chair (but a chair that knows who it belongs to and where it is and how to disassemble and recycle its parts) to a jumbo jet, by way of an iphone — the iphone is dangerously close to spime-hood already — but the key insight is that they represent a whole new way of thinking about the not-entirely-post-industrial society we live in.

Around this concept, Sterling has built a gigantic, beautifully articulated vision of the role of design in shaping our environment in the near-term future — one that makes sense. There is clearly something old and dangerously creaky about a supply chain, in the age of expensive energy, which relies on shipping raw materials to factories, processing them centrally, then shipping finished products to consumers — rather than relying on consumers gathering raw material locally and zapping them into the finished product via a fabber.

This book is only about 150 pages long. And I only finished it 48 hours ago. And I was already familiar with many of the ideas in it. But it has already injected the fertilized eggs of at least two kick-ass short story ideas into my neocortex, where they are already incubating, and I can already feel it warping my sense of where my next novel (after the current one I'm writing) is going, because of the sheer visionary drive of Sterling's cognitive engine which is fine-tuned to ingest any and all design-related raw material and build weird new mental structures from it.

<irony>Please don't buy this book, especially if you're an aspiring science fiction author, and especially if you're trying to wrap your head around the near future. Because I'm a selfish old fart who can only watch Sterling's output with mixed awe and envy, and I don't need even more competition.</irony>

Been on the road; on the way home: normal service will be resumed in the next day or two.

(Touching base at home for 48 hours; off again for another 5 day trip on Thursday. Blogging's going to be light for a bit.)

A reader (thanks, Bill) informs me that a key part of Accelerando has just begun to come true: they've passed Bill H.0888, Miscellaneous Tax Documents, which permits the formation of software-only virtual companies:

A board meeting may be conducted “in person or through the use of [an] electronic or telecommunications medium.” A “‘virtual company’ will be, as a legal matter, a Vermont limited liability company,” said Johnson. And other states are required to recognize the corporation as a legitimate LLC.
Oh, and some of the rules governing the company can be implemented in software. It's all part of an idea developed by the Virtual Company Project.

In related news, here's a fascinating piece of investigative blogging about the lawnsign empire — how a guy in New Jersey built a sprawling corporate structure with 500 employees in 80 affiliates to plant micro-targeted lawn sign ads in 50 US states to sell ... online dating websites. I bet he's going to be looking at Vermont's new law with great interest.

Meanwhile, a report by Arup suggests the UK will face a peak-oil-induced energy crunch within five years, (that link goes to treehugger.com; click through to see the original report commissioned from an engineering consultancy by a bunch o' folks who run coal-fired power stations and railways).

With all of this coming in the same month as a fiscal crisis so bad that George Soros is saying it exceeds his worst fears, I am getting a horrible sense of deja vu.

And finally, much to my irritation, Scott Adams beat me into print with one of the key ideas in my next SF novel (419, which I'm not due to begin writing until next year).

(Reposted from a comment thread because I think it doesn't deserve to languish in obscurity)

Playing fantasy politics — as opposed to fantasy football — is a mug's game.

However, for what it's worth (not much), and speaking for those of us who aren't Americans, here's my top ten list of things I'd like see from the Obama administration in the first 100 days, and consider to be not-totally-impossible:

1. Shut down Gitmo. Try any of the inmates who face outstanding changes in front of a civilian court. Release (and if necessary, pay compensation to) those who are categorically not guilty of anything and who were swept up by mistake. Grant political asylum to the Chinese muslims and any others who are (a) not accused of anything and (b) can't return to their homes for fear of persecution.

2. The whole torture thing? You know what needs to be done, and there's a lot of it — from reverting US interrogation practices to pre-2000 norms, to identifying those who ordered harsh measures and determining whether grounds exist for prosecution, to seeking and compensating the victims of torture. Oh, and end extraordinary rendition and wiretapping without warrants.

3. Dismantle the DHS — it is an out of control bureaucratic Frankenstein's monster. Separate divisions can go back to doing what they did before they were stitched together. Leave in place communications channels between such divisions so they can share data, but destroy the unitary chain of command. You don't need a Gestapo.

4. Ratify the Kyoto Treaty, and/or put the wheels in motion to participate in international talks aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

5. Start a public Congressional enquiry into the systematic injection of politically partisan appointees in the civil service and judiciary over the past 8 years, with specific reference to politically biased prosecutors and judges, administrators in scientific agencies (NASA, NIH, Environment, and others), and election officers.

6. Find three young, energetic, liberal supreme court justices to replace the elderly, terminally ill supreme court justices who are going to retire as soon as they can do so without handing the supreme court to Scalia on a plate.

7. Start a public Congressional enquiry into election practices, with the objective of moving towards a bill (or if necessary draft constitutional amendment) setting out acceptable standards for the conduct of elections.

8. Start a public enquiry into the misuse of intelligence agency resources in the run-up to 9/11 and the conduct of the war on terrorism since 9/11. Remit to include the allegations of collusion between Saddam's regime and Al Qaida, and the embarrassing question of why the USA has been unable to find Osama bin Laden for the past seven years.

9. Start talking to the Russians about (a) gas and oil security (this includes South Ossetia), (b) Ballistic Missile Defense (and their allergy to it), (c) NATO expansion, and (d) any other grievances that must be aired in order to stop Cold War 2.0 from escalating. One cold war was quite enough, thank you (I still remember the nightmares).

10. Start talking to the whole of the G11 — no, leaving Spain (the world's 8th largest economy) out in the cold because Dubya is having a snit at the socialist PM is not acceptable — about a global plan for rebooting the planetary economy without overheating the money markets or triggering further energy spikes. An exercise in multilateralism and soft power that will (a) achieve something useful and (b) start to convince the rest of the world that sanity has resumed.

This is just the top of the list, and reflects stuff I would hope to see in the first hundred days of a new administration. Other jobs (healthcare reform, for example) will take years, so I've left them out. Frankly, if Obama does all ten of these things I will be overjoyed. If he does just three or four of them, I'll be nodding along and satisfied. But they all need doing, and they're merely the start of an awfully big job.

PS: This is, I hope, my last posting on the topic of American politics for a long while, unless something extraordinary (good or bad) happens in the next couple of months. Just blowing off steam here after several years of bottling stuff up, nothing to see ...

I'm writing this as a timed posting; assuming I did the setup right, you won't be reading this until polling has closed. I'm not American, and it's not really for me to tell those of you who are how you should vote.

However ...

If I was an American voter, I would have cast my vote for Barack Obama. Here's why.

I expect President Obama to disappoint me. He's center-right by American standards, and I'm not — I'm mostly off the American political map in a socially liberal/economically socialist direction that doesn't really compute.

However, he's intelligent, highly organized, and gives every indication of being extremely competent. He's run a campaign that, astonishingly, has not left him beholden to large corporate interests for funding — the vast majority of his campaign was funded by small individual donations. And if there's one thing the USA has been short of for the past eight years, it's competent governance administered by people who believe the system can be made to work in the public interest and who are not beholden to lobbyists.

I don't think John McCain will be a very good president. He tends to be hot-headed, during the campaign he's shown a worrying tendency to seek patronage wherever he can get it (resulting in his platform being held hostage to special interests), and I think many of his espoused policies are half-baked or counter-productive. There are also lingering questions over his health (and age). I don't think he would automatically be a bad or disastrous president, especially in comparison to his predecessor, but ...

The one thing that terrifies me about McCain's candidacy is his choice of running-mate.

John McCain's presidency not only places him in the oval office; it threatens to place Sarah Palin at the heart of the unitary executive welded together by Dick Cheney. The office of the vice-president has become swollen and excessively powerful in its own right under the Bush administration, and the incumbent vice-president wields unprecedented power. Cheney's constitutional theories make it neither fish nor fowl, a weird hybrid of executive and legislature that is subject to the rules of neither, but makes its own authority up as it goes along.

Sarah Palin frightens me because her grasp of US constitutional structures is worse than mine — and I'm a foreigner. She frightens me because she thinks her first amendment right to freedom of political speech is threatened by the existence of an independent media. She frightens me because she thinks the vice president runs the senate. She frightens me because she's a member of the New Apostolic Reformation who believe in spiritual warfare, casting out of demons, witch hunts, and the imposition of her brand of Christianity on unbelievers, if necessary by force. She frightens me because she fears and ridicules the findings of science and the scientific method, and holds it in disdain where it contradicts the elements of her faith. And she frightens me because I don't think she's entirely sane.

It doesn't matter whether John McCain lives to retire at the end of his presidency — letting a loose cannon like Sarah Palin anywhere near the spiderweb of special executive powers accumulated by Dick Cheney would be a disaster for the entire world.

And that is why, were I an American voter, I would have felt morally obliged to vote for Barack Obama.

PS: Okay, so my deferred-posting scheduler broke when I moved servers. No matter; better late than never.

PPS: I am going to sleep easier tonight, in view of the outcome.

Tomorrow, voters in the United States of America go to the polls to elect a new president, a bunch of representatives, and to answer a bunch of questions on local state ballots.

I'm not going to say anything about the presidential election. You can probably guess who I'd vote for if I was a US citizen, but I'm not, so my opinion on that subject is strictly irrelevant. Anyway, I predict that whoever wins — I'm sticking my neck out here — is going to be a conservative male career politician, with a net personal worth in excess of $1M. (On my planet — which is not the Planet America — Barack Obama is a conservative. Why are you looking at me like that? Just because John McCain is a conservative, it does not automatically follow that his opponent is a liberal.)

There is, however, one particular item on the ballot in California that I have an opinion about. And because it's a well-defined legislative change (rather than a mushy question about which politician or party is better), and because the outcome of this item is potentially going to have international consequences, I'm going to haul out my soap-box and megaphone.

I'm talking about Proposition 8 (2008), an initiative state constitutional amendment on the ballot. If passed, Proposition 8 would amend the state constitution to state: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

Proposition 8 is intended to inject anti-gay religious discrimination into the California constitution by depriving same-sex couples of a basic civil right; it's an expression of bigotry so blatant that its backers felt the need to mis-title it the 'California Marriage Protection Act' when circulating it, to divert attention from what it really said.

Speaking as a man who happens to be married to a woman, I'm mystified as to how banning someone else from marrying can in any way protect my marriage; but this kind of Orwellian misuse of language is typical of witch hunters. When challenged, supporters of the act often bring up irrelevancies: "marriage is for the purpose of having children," they say, conveniently side-stepping the question of why they aren't in favour of mandatory divorce for childless or elderly couples, or why they oppose allowing gay couples to adopt. Or, "marriage is a holy sacrament," which kind of assumes that everybody shares their definition of "holy".

A quick search for organizations supporting this proposition throws up the usual suspects: the Roman Catholic Church, American Family Association, Focus on the Family — basically the usual sleazy mess of hard-line Christian groups — with the Church of Latter-Day Saints and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America along for the ecumenical pogrom.

Here's a good diagnostic test for whether a proposed law is bigoted: if it applies to a group of people, replace the subject group in question with "Jews" or "Blacks", and see how it reads. If Adolf Hitler or the Grand Cyclops would approve, then it's a fair bet that there's something fishy about it. In the case of Proposition 8, how would you vote if it read, "Only marriage between Christians is recognized in California"? Or "Only marriage between white-skinned people is recognized in California"?

If you are a Californian voter and you vote for Proposition 8, then I'm afraid it means you're a bigot. You favour depriving a subset of the population of their civil rights, you are willing to vote for a measure that will destroy existing marriages, and you will refuse to honour marriage contracts acknowledged elsewhere in the world. And you've tacitly admitted that your own marriage does need protecting (which is kind of pathetic).

You're also providing aid and comfort to bigots and intolerant, murderous fundamentalists elsewhere on the planet, for which the rest of us (who have to deal with our own local nutjobs) will not thank you. When one state or nation passes a law like this one, it encourages activists elsewhere to campaign for their own equivalent. The organizations backing of Proposition 8 aren't Californian — they're mostly national or international, and they will take a victory in the polls in California and push it for all it's worth elsewhere. So if you vote for Proposition 8 and it passes, you can rest assured that you've done your bit for bigotry not only at home, but in the rest of the world.

Anyway, I've had my say. I'm not going to tell you how to vote: making up your mind is your privilege. But if you're voting in California tomorrow and haven't already made your mind up, I hope you'll have a think about what I've said.

Specials

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

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