Charlie Stross: February 2009 Archives

Some tech jigsaw pieces that come out of a box labelled "open in 2010":

Toradex Robin — a 1.6GHz Atom CPU, 512Mb of RAM, 2Gb Flash SSD, and an intel video chipset on a PCB the size of a credit card, for €179.

If that's a bit hardcore for you, here's the Marvell SheevaPlug — a wall-wart with a gigabit-ethernet-enabled small Linux computer embedded in it, for US $49 when they start shipping in bulk. (Yes, you read that right: it's a pregnant mains plug that costs $49 and has about the same raw computing power as a Cray X-MP. Embryonic smart dust, anyone? With the admittedly weird property that the embryo shrinks as it gets closer to maturity ...)

Meanwhile, here's DARPA's Nano Air Vehicle Program (and new news of the Lockheed Katana program). (Betcha these are very popular with police and customs officers, in the not too distant future. When fitted with insect-sized high resolution video cameras streaming in real time via mesh networks supported by suspiciously smart mains plugs they'll really let the police see what's happening in your neighbourhood dealer's bedroom. Or in your bedroom, if they get the wrong address.)

Meanwhile, Open Pandora continues to lurch hopefully towards the light of day. The street, as they say, finds its own uses for technology.

Q: What can we expect?

A: Pretty much what you read about in New Scientist every week. Climate change, dust bowls caused by over-cultivation necessitated by over-population, resource depletion in obscure and irritatingly mission-critical sectors (never mind oil; we've only got 60 years of easily exploitable phosphates left — if we run out of phosphates, our agricultural fertilizer base goes away), the great population overshoot (as developing countries transition to the low population growth model of developed countries) leading to happy fun economic side-effects (deflation, house prices crash, stagnation in cutting-edge research sectors due to not enough workers, aging populations), and general bad-tempered overcrowded primate bickering.

Oh, and the unknown unknowns.

Q: Unknown unknowns? Are you talking about Donald Rumsfeld?

A: No, but I'm stealing his term for unprecedented and unpredictable events (sometimes also known as black swans). From the point of view of an observer in 1909, the modern consumer electronics industry (not to mention computing and internetworking) is a black swan, a radical departure from the then-predictable revolutionary enabling technologies (automobiles and aeroplanes). Planes, trains and automobiles were already present, and progressed remarkably well — and a smart mind in 1909 would have predicted this. But antibiotics, communication satellites, and nuclear weapons were another matter. Some of these items were mentioned, in very approximate form, by 1909-era futurists, but for the most part they took the world by surprise.

We're certainly going to see unknown unknowns in the 21st century. Possible sources of existential surprise include (but are not limited to) biotechnology, nanotechnology, AI, climate change, supply chain/logistics breakthroughs to rival the shipping container, fork lift pallet, bar code, and RFID chip — and politics. But there'll be other stuff so weird and strange I can't even guess at it.

Q: Eh? But what's the big picture?

A: The big picture is that since around 2005, the human species has — for the first time ever — become a predominantly urban species. Prior to that time, the majority of humans lived in rural/agricultural lifestyles. Since then, just over 50% of us now live in cities; the move to urbanization is accelerating. If it continues at the current pace, then some time after 2100 the human population will tend towards the condition of the UK — in which roughly 99% of the population live in cities or suburbia.

This is going to affect everything.

It's going to affect epidemiology. It's going to affect wealth production. It's going to affect agriculture (possibly for the better, if it means a global shift towards concentrated high-intensity food production, possibly in vertical farms, and a re-wilding/return to nature of depopulated and underutilized former rural areas). It's going to affect the design and layout of our power, transport, and information grids. It's going to affect our demographics (urban populations tend to grow by immigration, and tend to feature lower birth rates than agricultural communities).

There's a gigantic difference between the sustainability of a year 2109 with 6.5 billion humans living a first world standard of living in creative cities, and a year 2109 with 3.3 billion humans living in cities and 3.2 billion humans still practicing slash'n'burn subsistence farming all over the map.

Q: Space colonization?

A: Forget it.

Assuming we avoid a systemic collapse, there'll probably be a moon base, by and by. Whether it's American, Chinese, Indian, or Indonesian is anybody's guess, and probably doesn't matter as far as the 99.999% of the human species who will never get off the planet are concerned. There'll probably be a Mars expedition too. But barring fundamental biomedical breakthroughs, or physics/engineering breakthroughs that play hell with the laws of physics as currently understood, canned monkeys aren't going to Jupiter any time soon, never mind colonizing the universe. (See also Saturn's Children for a somewhat snarky look at this.)

Q: The Singularity?

A: Forget it.

The rapture of the nerds, like space colonization, is likely to be a non-participatory event for 99.999% of humanity — unless we're very unlucky. If it happens and it's interested in us, all our plans go out the window. If it doesn't happen, sitting around waiting for the AIs to save us from the rising sea level/oil shortage/intelligent bioengineered termites looks like being a Real Bad Idea. The best approach to the singularity is to apply Pascal's Wager — in reverse — and plan on the assumption that it ain't going to happen, much less save us from ourselves.

Q: Politics? Which of (Socialism | Capitalism | Libertarianism | Fascism | Democracy) is going to save us?

A: Probably none of the above.

These are all political ideologies that emerged out of the Westphalian settlement and the subsequent European Enlightenment. This settlement was typified by the ascendancy of the nation state as an atomic administrative entity with relatively non-porous boundaries and legal and trade systems. We seem (at present) to be moving towards a much more globalized, diffused model of sovereignty and legal systems. Currently 70% of primary legislation in the UK originates in the EU (via the European Parliament, European Commission, or Council of Ministers); even in the USA, a country noteworthy for its sense of exclusive legislative independence, a surprisingly high proportion of US federal law originates as a result of WTO treaty processes. Autarky is already difficult to achieve and maintain without extreme privation, as witness the state of North Korea (deliberately isolationist and self-sufficient) or Zimbabwe (wilting under international trade sanctions.

We're still waiting for the definitive ideological polarity of the internet era to emerge, although Bruce Schneier has opined that the key political hot potato of the 21st century will be the question, "how do we maintain the concept of privacy in an age of ubiquitous communications and surveillance", and some believe that privacy is already dead. Given the way Moore's Law is taking us towards an essentially unlimited ability to record everything, I'm not able to argue with the inevitability of surveillance: what I'd dispute is the morality of it.)

Q: What about religion?

A: Doctrinaire religious beliefs that prescribe a specific way of life and ban certain technologies may be a major threat to our ability to adapt to a changing world — but as long as they are confined to their practitioners the rest of us can probably survive them. However, if religious beliefs erupt onto the larger stage (for example, when believers acquire the levers of power and legislate their taboos into the code by which entire nations run) we may have problems. Example #1: The US federal ban on funding for embryonic stem cell research badly damaged the pursuit of medical treatments for a number of conditions (such as Parkinson's Disease). Example #2: a Saudi judge has issued a ruling banning the use of alcohol as a fuel: "the prophet has cursed not only who drinks it but also those who use it for other purposes". These are relatively minor examples of doctrine colliding with the modern technosphere; if nothing worse happens in the 21st century, we'll be lucky. Possible example of something worse: the Vatican has just muddled into the global debate on illegal drugs by denouncing harm reduction strategies — and risks making things that much worse, just as their principled anti-condom stance poured gasoline on the African AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s.

Q: Are we going to survive?

A: No — in the long run, we are all dead. That goes for us as individuals and as a species. On the other hand, I hope to have a comfortable, long and pleasant life first, and I wish you the same!

I am author: watch me goof off on the job!

Today I have done no writing of fiction whatsoever. Instead, shockingly, I went shopping with my wife. In a dastardly plot to deprive my fans of their rightful 0.5% of the next novel, we went to IKEA and bought a new bed. (Because the old one is pretty much broken.) And tomorrow, in a callous display of selfish work-shy negligence I shall assemble flat-pack furniture, break down the old bed — and then I shall go to sleep! And while I am sleeping, I will not be working at all!

In fact, over the next 24 hours I will be so lazy and uncaring for my fans' right to read my next novel that I really ought to fire myself. Except that I've declared Thursday and Friday to be an honorary weekend, and it's quite possible I'll be slaving over a hot keyboard all of Saturday and Sunday.

(Ahem.)

This is by way of adding a parenthetical footnote to my previous posting, namely to illustrate the fact that not only are novelists self-employed, but they work really weird hours. As another writer of my acquaintance explained it to me, many years ago: because writing is socially isolating — because we do it locked up alone in an office, as a solitary occupation, for months or years on end — we have to learn to fit our social lives in around that of our friends, who are far more likely to organize their time around institutions such as their employers and the schools their children attend. But by the same token, we don't need to work from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, except for public holidays — we can work whenever we're driven to it. Being able to hit IKEA off-peak at 3pm on a Thursday is one of the perks of an otherwise reclusive occupation: and I can spend the 3pm Sunday rush hour in front of a word processor instead.

Incidentally, if you were wondering why authors blog ...

Being a novelist is an intensely socially isolating job. In fact, if you haven't done it, you might have difficulty comprehending just how weird the lifestyle is compared to any other occupation. We lock ourselves in an office for several hours a day, every day, and we don't interact with other people while we're working. In almost any other job, you deal with co-workers or members of the public and chat around the coffee station: but not if you're a novelist.

Blogs and social networking have, in the past decade, come along and given us a vital sanity-oriented pressure release valve. They occupy a much more important role in the life of the working novelist than might at first be apparent to someone with a regular job. They operate in effect as a substitute for the normal workplace social interaction: without which we tend to go a little bit crazy from pure isolation. (There's a reason alcoholism is an occupational disease among writers ...)

Obviously, there's an element of marketing and self-promotion involved in any public figure who runs a blog. But I don't believe that my blogging entirely pays for itself in book sales. Rather, it pays for itself by keeping me in contact with other people, by providing the equivalent of the office coffee station or drinks cooler, and the casual contact with co-workers and members of the public that most of us take for granted.

... Which ought to go some way towards explaining why some authors (including GRRM) respond very negatively indeed to suggestions that they stop posting to their blog, or stop posting about stuff that interests or entertains them outside of work. As Jo Walton put it, if you see your surgeon down at the supermarket checkout, do you chide them for not being up to their elbows in someone's abdominal cavity? Writers are human beings too: they are unlikely to work for more than 25% of their time (which, if you think about it, is 42 hours a week), and like everyone else, they need the human socialization of a real life. Blogging has become an essential part of it over the past few years. And if you expect an author — who is, by profession and instinct a communicator — to stop communicating by venting at the coffee station, you can expect push-back.

A minor shit-storm has lately been brewing in the world of SF/F writing: George R. R. Martin, who is rather more famous than I am — and rather more overdue on his latest book, by a couple of years — finally issued a comprehensive response to the vocal and annoying fans who think he can pull a quarter of a million words out of his ass on demand. (And who get annoyed with him for being human enough to do other things, such as eating and sleeping and watching football, rather than spending 168 hours a week chained to a hot word processor.) John Scalzi adds commentary, and mostly calls it right. But nevertheless, lots of folks seem to be upset by the very thought that their favourite author might, heavens forbid, be late turning in installment n of a p-volume series. Why is it such a common problem? What's wrong with these authors?

Here's my take on it:

Firstly — and I only feel the need to emphasize this point because the peanut gallery seem to be comprehensively missing it — GRMM is not wilfully dragging his heels. If he doesn't turn in the next book in the series on time, he doesn't get paid.

We authors typically get paid in installments: first an advance against future earnings, then, once the book has earned out, royalties it has earned above and beyond the advance. The advance is typically divided into a number of tranches -- a chunk on signing the contract, a chunk on delivering the manuscript and the editor signing it off for production, and a chunk on publication. The point is, George won't get paid (at least, the last two chunks of his advance) until he hands the finished MS in. Given that the series in question is by far his best-selling work, I find it rather implausible that he's dragging his heels deliberately. So let me make it explicit: if he's way overdue on this book, it's because he's having real trouble with it.

So what might that trouble be?

Well, I haven't read "A Game of Thrones". Or rather, I got 150 pages in then bounced — it's not really my sort of thing, and there are a few thousand pages more of it before I could get to the coal face of an unfinished series — I'll probably try again when the series is complete.

But I do feel able to comment, insofar as I'm 80% of the way through writing book #6 of a series of my own that has some structural similarities, and I'm having difficulties of my own that resonate with things George has said in the past. So I'm not speaking specifically about George's problem here, but to the problems all authors writing this sort of series face ...

There are, to generalize wildly, two types of series novels. Let's call them type (a) and type (b).

The type (a) series consists of books that follow the same protagonist(s) through a series of adventures or incidents — but in which each book tells a self-contained story. Events in earlier books may be mentioned and may affect the background of subsequent books, but they don't actually continue — other than in the most generic manner (bad guy from book #3 re-appears in book #6 and has to be taken down again). Typically they follow a single viewpoint, or at any rate no more than two or three viewpoints. There is, in other words, a partial plot re-set after each book. It is possible for a new reader to dive into such a series in the middle and pick up the threads without too much difficulty. Examples of this sort of series? They're common enough; my own Laundry novels follow this model, and so do most series works.

The type (b) series consists of books that follow the same protagonist(s) through a continuous, developing story/world. While they may be structured as novels, they do not stand alone and a new reader who tries to jump in the middle will be lost. In effect, each book functions as a chapter in a larger work. There may be many viewpoints — in the case of GRRM's series I believe he mentioned counting 19 of them at one point — and the story unfolds on a mammoth scale. Examples of this sort of series: my own Merchant Princes books, GRRM's series, Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, lots of high fantasy series.

What I'd like to put to you is that writing a type (b) series is qualitatively harder than writing a type (a) series.

Reasons it is harder:

1. You can't go back and retcon problems in earlier parts of the series. Those books are already in print, and if you've set something up in book #3 that interferes with what you want to do in book #6 you have no alternative but to grimly push on and work with it, because it's part of the current story you're telling. Whereas in a type (a) series you can usually ignore earlier errors, or air-brush them out of the picture, because you hit the partial reset button at the end of each novel. (In "The Fuller Memorandum" I air-brush bits of "The Atrocity Archives" out of the picture, glibly pointing out that Bob is an unreliable narrator who was not privy to certain important information early in his career. Whereas in "The Revolution Business" I can't work around the nuclear theft subplot I introduced in "The Hidden Family", but have to engage with it directly.)

2. Viewpoints multiply. In a normal novel with three viewpoints, running to 120,000 words, each viewpoint character gets 40,000 words (about 120 pages) on screen. That's a great length, about equivalent to an old-time short novel; plenty of room to advance their story and show some action. But in a type (b) series with 8 viewpoints and a 120,000 word volume size limit, you've got 15,000 words per character — a mere novelette. Even if you bloat up to a 240,000 word volume (700-750 pages!) they only get 30,000 words. Telling each viewpoint character's story in parallel means that this 750 page book gets to advance the plot by the equivalent of 90 pages in a single-threaded narrative. This is why epic multi-viewpoint fantasy series seem to drag. My "The Clan Corporate" is 300 pages, 100,000 words. It was originally going to be a 300,000 word doorstep, before word came down that I had to work to a 300 page length factor. The subsequent book, "The Merchants' War" runs to 120,000 words but only pushes the action forward by the equivalent of 30,000 words due to this problem of viewpoint parallelism; indeed, books 3-6 should be read as a single novel, and if they were compressed down to a single viewpoint a mere 350-400 pages would suffice for the story. (Except that it wouldn't make sense because a lot of important stuff would be happening off-screen.)

3. Parallelism is hard for human minds to grasp. When you're telling a multi-viewpoint story, what you are doing in effect is equivalent to writing a whole bunch of short novels in parallel — one per viewpoint. And we are not good at doing this sort of thing. Humans generally don't multi-task well; we lose efficiency rapidly as we pay the price for switching context. I've found juggling eight viewpoints to be murderously hard, although in "The Trade of Queens" I've cut the problem back down to size by context-switching on alternate universes (of which there are only three of any plotworthy significance) rather than characters. GRRM doesn't have that luxury, but apparently must needs track over a dozen major characters at any time. I think it's a miracle he can make it work at all.

4. But the urge to multi-track your plot is a slippery slope. You don't realize what's going on at first. Minor plot threads are very more-ish; you want to illustrate some piece of the story that's happening away from your main protagonists' awareness, so you zoom in on a spear carrier. And the next thing you know? BAM — they're a protagonist in their own right, and you've got to keep following them! (If you don't follow them, your readers will want to know why.)

5. Closure is harder to achieve. Closure is what you get right before "and they all lived happily ever after" — it's the wind-down after the plot climax, the wrap-up that allows the readers to put the characters back in the toy box and walk away, satisfied with the way everything came together in the end. Do I need to explain why achieving closure to an entire squadron of novels flying in loose formation, at exactly the same time and in a manner that wraps everything up is harder than closing off a single stand-alone work? Lack of closure and/or messy endings is a perennial critique of Neal Stephenson's novels, but I'm inclined to say that his problems with closure actually arise from the length and structure of his works (which are structurally type (b) series works, even if they're sometimes shoe-horned into a single dust jacket). But without closure you can't end the series. (Not without your fans screaming at you.) The longer it goes on the harder it is to achieve closure, and without closure the harder it is to end: it's a trap and a snare. I attribute it to one of the strengths of the type (b) series: it is usually a vehicle for comprehensive world-building, but the real world that it strives to emulate doesn't give our life-stories closure — it just goes on and on until we die.

I can't say with any authority that these issues are the actual reason why George is late with his latest book — but they're besetting problems for authors of the class of series he's writing, and in his description of his own issues I recognize my own battle with these problems.

(As for the Merchant Princes books — #6 will close off the current series. There may be another series in this universe, but if so, I intend to write it as a self-contained trilogy, and deliver it in a single lump. I've learned my lesson and it's simple: finish the whole damn thing before you hand it in.)

Do you remember what it was like to live before the internet, or mobile phones, or compact discs, or walkmen?

I've been trying to bolt together a time-line of how old I was when I first owned various technologies — not when I first saw them, but when they first entered my life in a meaningful way. These are all emblematic technologies that changed the way I lived — that's why I'm not listing my first CD player (1986) or video recorder (1987) separately. (The CD player was a sideways format-shift from vinyl, but not life-changing; the VCR wasn't life-changing because, er, I don't watch TV or movies much.) Some of them are obsolescent, replaced by newer inventions: but I find it interesting to look back and wonder what my life would be like without them or, conversely, how different things would have been if they'd come along earlier or later in my life. There was nothing inevitable about me getting a typewriter at the age of 13. On the other hand, I'm startled that mobile phones arrived so late in the day ...

1. Wrist watch: age 9. A cheap wind-up Sekonda. I was about 14 before I first got a digital watch (they only showed up in the mid-1970s). These days I don't bother with one.

2. Record player: age 10. I inherited the family's old 1950s portable record player by default why my father bought a new stereo, around 1974 or 1975. Not only did it play 33s and 45s; it could play 78s and low-speed 16rpm disks too. That was my first personal musical appliance.

3. Cassette recorder: age 11, a Hitachi mono cassette recorder. A cast-off from my elder brother, it had exotic features such as a pause button and a counter. I used to make my own mix tapes (not that the term existed then), holding its microphone up to the record player's speaker.

4. Typewriter: aged 13. It was an Imperial Aristocrat (a reporter's portable manual typewriter), and it changed my life.

5. Stereo radio-cassette recorder: aged 16 I got my first ghetto blaster, a Grundig, and learned what stereo sound was like. (When you're music-mad and socially isolated — as I think I was back then — it's a life-changing thing to get your first stereo. Cassette taping of LPs was a significant way of expanding your horizons.)

6. Computer: aged 18, I bought a Sinclair ZX-81. It was not terribly useful — in fact, I became disillusioned with it rapidly and traded it for a Casio FX-702P, a BASIC-programmable calculator. So I missed out on the 1981-85 golden age of home computing. If I'd waited three months I might have bought a Spectrum instead, and things would have been very different ...

7. Cassette Walkman: aged 19, I bought an early Sanyo model in my first year at university. I'd first seen one a couple of years earlier, around 1979, but they were an exotic alien technology that didn't find its way into the white goods stores of Leeds until 1982 or thereabouts.

8. Colour TV: age 21. I didn't grow up with colour TV, but ended up buying a second-hand Sony during my final year at university. Suddenly snooker made sense!

9: Real computer: age 21. In my final year at university, I bought an Amstrad PCW8256 (eventually upgraded to dual floppy/512Kb RAM/10Mb hard disk, running CP/M). This changed my life as much as that typewriter — and it was on this machine that I wrote the first stories I managed to sell.

10. Laptop: age 26 (1990), a Zenith MiniSport with 2" (yes, 2", not 3.5") micro-floppy drive. 8086 processor, 2Mb of RAM, weighed 2.5Kg. It didn't do much, but it did it on battery power and away from a desk, and I've been addicted to laptops ever since. (I'm typing this on a Macbook ...)

11. Modem: aged 28 I acquired a US Robotics modem that could do of 2400 baud bidirectionally. This was 1992, and I used it for a while to email to and from the internet at home. (I'd been on the net since late 1989, give or take a nine month period without access in late 1990-early 1991, but this was my first home connection.)

12. First PDA: age 29, I bought a Psion Series 3a. Pocket computing led to reading ebooks by 1998, and then ...

13. Mobile Phone: I was 31 when I got my first mobile phone, an early Nokia GSM model (about the size of a half-brick, with an extending aerial, it provided voice and SMS service only). I carried it for a while on business. After the business went titsup.com, it was another 18 months before I bought a mobile phone of my own.

14. MP3 player: aged 38, I bought an Archos Jukebox Recorder 20. It was hideously ugly design and the line-out tended to hiss, but it was far more hackable than an iPod — you could record on it, install new firmware (Rockbox was originally written for the Archos machines), upgrade the hard disk, and swap the batteries (it took four AA-sized NiMH rechargables). It was eventually replaced by a succession of ipods. Really, MP3 players had existed since I was in my early 30s — I wasn't an early adopter here.

15. eBook reader: aged 42, I bought a Sony PRS-505. Despite the long habit reading ebooks on PDAs, I found my aging eyes were beginning to disagree with tiny backlit LCDs; the e-ink digital paper technology is easier to read, especially in daylight.

16. Brand new car: never. I've never owned one, and probably never will.

Question: What item of technology changed your life, and when did you first meet it?

The deadline looms for nominating works for the Hugo and Campbell awards.

If you're a voter from last year, or a member of this year's worldcon, you can nominate works here, either online or by post — but ballots must be received by March 1st.

I I've got two items which are eligible this year: a novelette, Down on the Farm (published online on Tor.com), and the novel Saturn's Children (extract here).

There are also a number of other recommended reading lists out there which might jog your memory or prompt you to read something worthwhile. Here's the Campbell eligibility list (the Campbell award is for the best new writer of SF/F). SF Awards watch have a list of recommended works; here's SFSite's editors' choice for best works of 2008; and here's the Locus magazine recommended reading list for 2008.

(Yes, this is a holding entry; I've still got a chesty cough and am more than a little under the weather right now. Flying while ill: just say no.)

Coming out first in mid-April is the fifth Merchant Princes novel, The Revolution Business:

The Revolution Business

And yes, that is a mushroom cloud on the cover (looks like the art director read the manuscript). This is a US hardcover release only — while "The Merchants' War" will show up in hardcover in the UK around the same time, book #5 won't be published in paperback in the UK until it hits paperback in the US as well, for contractual reasons.

Then, in early July, it's time for Wireless:


wireless

Unlike "The Revolution Business", "Wireless" will be
simultaneously published in the UK by Orbit. It's my first short story collection since 2001's "Toast (and other rusted futures)" (which, incidentally, I intend to release as a free Creative Commons download when the new book comes out). "Wireless" collects a bunch of my more recent short fiction, including "A Colder War", the Locus-award winning novella "Missile Gap", and a new novella, "Palimpsest", which you won't find anywhere else.

... And that's all I've got coming out this year. I'd like to be able to announce some short stories or pieces of journalism, but I've spent the past year frantically trying to keep up with my novel-writing schedule — and the short fiction markets aren't so much sick as on life support while the doctors give the bereaved family room to decide who's going to switch off the ventillator; these are apocalyptic times for publishing in general, and I strongly suspect that the last of the digest-format SF magazines will be dead by 2010.

Looking ahead, 2010 should see publication of the sixth (and final planned) Merchant Princes novel, "The Trade of Queens": and one of Laundry novel #3, "The Fuller Memorandum" or "Halting State" sequel "419" (under whatever title it eventually ends up with). But it's dangerous to second-guess the future that way; so, beyond noting that the first draft of "The Fuller Memorandum" is written, and "The Trade of Queens" is currently 80% complete, I'll leave it at that.

In Boston, flying home overnight, jetlagged tomorrow. If you're wondering why I've been so quiet, the travel experience is not enhanced by succumbing to tonsilitis and a low-grade fever, then having a small shoggoth take up residence in one's nasal sinuses. (In fact, I'd have to say the experience sucks mightily, and I'm not looking forward to a long-haul overnight flight with the usual dessicated cabin air and economy-class seating. Must stock up on bottled water after I clear airport security ...)

I'll try to come up with something more pleasant to talk about when I'm home. Like, oh, the forthcoming Japanese edition of "Accelerando", or the covers of this summer's books, or the impending collapse of the US magazine and mass-market distribution chain.

Tonight I'll be signing books at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA (at 4 Pleasant Street), from 6pm until, well, either 7pm or whenever things dry up or the proprietor chases me off the premises.

Almost certainly proceeding from there in the direction of The Cambridge Brewing Company on Kendal Square (which serves food and frequently has a cask ale on tap on Tuesdays).

Note: this is the Cambridge in Massachusetts, not the original one.

I'm travelling next week. To be precise, I'm flying out to Boston on Monday at zero dark o'clock, and getting home a week on Wednesday. Blogging may be somewhat sporadic during the intervening time.

While I'm there, I'll be signing books at Pandemonium Books and Games on Tuesday 10th at 6pm. I'm also on a number of program items at Boskone 46 (13th to 15th at the Westin Waterfront).

Finally: Locus magazine have their 2008 recommended reading list out, and Saturn's Children is on it! (They're also taking votes for the 2009 Locusreader's poll and reader awards.)

Dumpster-diving the zeitgeist, I bring to you:

* IEEE Spectrum discussing how much software goes into your new car — about 100 MLOC, and growing rapidly. Money shot: the radio and navigation system in the current S-class Mercedes-Benz requires over 20 million lines of code alone and the car contains nearly as many ECUs [Electronic Control Units] as the new Airbus A380.

* John Siracusa talks sense about ebooks — depressing but true. (More on why ebooks are the wave of the future — and always will be if the large publishers get their way — here.)

* Cloning Little Boy — one man's struggle to understand the atomic bomb. (Here starts the new discipline of nuclear archeology).

* Blogger fixing to dieI like bacon too, but a scanty sense of nutritional self-preservation tells me that this is not clever. (What else are people going to get up to in attempts to grab more than their share of click-throughs in the post-Web 2.0 Depression 2.0 world?)

* OpenPandora — the Linux Taliban, empowered by rapid prototyping, swarm development, and outsourced manufacturing, are developing the ultimate geek answer to the Nintendo DS, a positively Frankensteinian pocket computer and games console emulator. Remember, this thing is homebrewed by enthusiasts and is about fifty times as powerful as an old-time Cray X-MP. (More hot Linux boot sequence porn videos here.)

* Cornify.com — sparkly unicorn kitsch to add to your favourite apocalyptic website. More unicorn stuff (Do not click that link if you have small children present.) My work here is done ...

Englandshire is currently in the grip of the worst snow event in 13 years. Fifteen centimetres (six inches in old money!) has fallen on London, Heathrow's runways are shut, London Transport has shut down all bus and most tube services, South-East Trains have cancelled most services, there are lots of closed roads, there's huge economic disruption, and so on.

(Warning to readers on the other side of the Atlantic: yes, I can hear your sniggering from here! The thing is, London gets snow so rarely that most boroughs don't have snow ploughs — they'd be used at most once in their lifetime. Snow is an extreme weather event, down south. Forget all that Dickensian imagery about white Christmases and freezing orphans, or the Elizabethan Great Freeze in which they held fairs on the frozen Thames — these days they've got vineyards as far north as Yorkshire and climate change denialists are thin on the ground.)

Here in Edinburgh, 630 kilometres north of London, the thin dusting of snow managed to stick to the roofs of the parked cars. Mind you, it's another matter up in the highlands and on the hills of Fife, but Edinburgh is special; there can be blizzards and metre-deep drifting twenty kilometres inland but nothing more than a thin drizzle of sleet falling in Auld Reekie.

Specials

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