Charlie Stross: April 2009 Archives

(The death march is over: the manuscript will be in my editor’s inbox on Monday morning. So I’ve got time to blog again ...)

One of the questions that every SF author gets asked sooner or later is “where do you get your ideas?” For better or worse, I seem to get a double dose of it; ideas are my particular speciality, or so it said in the last fortune cookie I opened. So I thought I’d give the game away by explaining just where they come from.

Continued here

Friday 1st, 1pm: I'm doing a public signing at Forbidden Planet in London.

Friday 1st, 6:30pm: I'm doing a benefit talk with Cory Doctorow, Resisting the All-Seeing Eye, at the Crypt on the Green in Clerkenwell (London): proceeds to the Open Rights Group.

Sunday 3rd, noon: As part of the Sci-Fi London festival I'm doing a kaffeeklatch (at the Apollo Piccadilly, 19 Regent Street). Free, but tickets are limited.

I'm also doing some other stuff while I'm in London, but strictly as a member of the audience!

(Finally: Saturn's Children is a finalist for the Locus Readers' Award.)

It looks like the latest flu pandemic may be coming down the pipeline right now.

It's not normal for me to turn to Bruce Sterling for a calm, quiet, unalarmist perspective at a time like this — but he's talking sense and you should read his take on it before you panic.

Oh, and if you want to know how to ride out a flu pandemic, Jim MacDonald explains how to tell flu from a cold, what you should have in your home in case you catch the flu, and how to wash your hands. Pay attention at the back: I don't want to be needlessly alarmist but knowing how to wash your hands properly might just save your life.

(Tomorrow I'm off to stock up on antiseptic hand-wash, sachets of pre-prepared rehydration fluid, face masks, and the other basics. Not because I expect to need them, but because I'll feel like a right Charlie if I need them and I don't have them. Better safe than sorry!)

I’m supposed to be blogging here regularly this month. So sorry: but I’m delinquent, and consequently my presence is likely to be a little erratic. The proximate cause of my delinquency is a deadline (long overshot) and a promise—to deliver a manuscript to my editor, David Hartwell, some time before the next ice age. I am, in short, embarked on the final death march to the end of the sixth Merchant Princes novel, The Trade of Queens, and on the off chance that some of you are curious—what does this mean?

Continued over on ...

I've just finished writing what I hope will be the final pre-delivery draft of "The Trade of Queens", book #6 of the Merchant Princes series (and the successor to "The Revolution Business").

I haven't delivered it to my editor yet — I'm running it past my usual focus group in the hope of spotting the most egregious errors before I hand it in — but unless they spot anything really wrong, it's substantially finished. Which means it should hit the shelves next April, a year after "The Revolution Business".

No cliff-hanger on this one: it has a genuine series-sized climax. There may be a subsequent series ("Merchant Princes: The Next Generation") but I'm taking a couple of years off before I even think about it.

As a point of reference, this novel ran to 98,500 words. The series as a whole runs to 628,800 words. That's roughly 40,000 words more than "War and Peace", or about 1900 pages in paperback. I've been writing it since late in 2001; I can't believe I finished it!

Anders Sandberg tackles mind uploading as a way of achieving sustainable environmental living.

Gary Shaffer on using carbon emissions to stave off the next ice age.

New Scientist asks, What is the most remote place on Earth? Surprisingly, roughly 90% of the Earth's surface area lies within 48 hours' ground travel of a major city.

(I am now going to go and lie down while my brain tries to recover from indigestion. Nothing to see here, carry on ...)

I'm going to be interviewed in Second Life by The Copper Robot at the Seaside Theater on World2Worlds Island on Sunday — 3:30pm Pacific time, 11:30pm UK time. Feel free to turn up! Live webcast here; iTunes podcast here: RSS feed here.

I'm going to be scarce(r) around these parts for a while. There's a limit to how many blog essays I can write in a given week; and for the next month I'll be guest blogging over at, the SF/writing community website run by the nice folks who just published "The Revolution Business".

(My first post there should show up on the front page in the next few hours. Feel free to follow me over and join in the conversation.)

I haz a new buk:
The Revolution Business - cover

"The Revolution Business" (aka Merchant Princes book 5) was published yesterday by Tor in hardcover. Yes, that's a mushroom cloud and an armoured knight on the cover. (Did I say this series straddles genre boundaries? No? Well I should have.) I'm aiming to get book 6, "The Trade of Queens", onto my editors desk Real Soon Now; it should be out this time next year.

If you don't want to go near Amazon right now, you can buy it from Powells. (British readers have to wait, I'm afraid — for contractual reasons, the MP books can't be published in the UK, where they're going direct to paperback, until they're also available in paperback in the USA. Which means twelve months after the hardback ships. Unless they want it enough to buy a grey-market import.)

In other news: it has come to my attention that my previous short story collection Toast, and other rusted futures is pretty much unavailable — there was going to be a deluxe, signed, "last edition" of TOAST last year, but I'm not sure what's happened to the small press who were supposed to be publishing it. And right now it's effectively out of print. Amazon marketplace are listing new copies from $70, which in my opinion is beyond fair, and verging on greedy exploitation.

Anyway, as July sees the publication of Wireless, my new short story collection (UK edition here). I'm going to mark it by setting TOAST free for download under a Creative Commons license.

Happy reading!

It is looking like a cock-up rather than a conspiracy, but too late for Amazon's rep, with news outlets such as The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal reporting on it, and political/lobbying fallout beyond the internet: "Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, says in a statement: “GLAAD has reached out to and they indicate this was an error, so we expect to start seeing evidence of its correction immediately, and any loss of visibility of gay-themed books as a result of this error will be made right by Amazon."

Meanwhile, according to one Amazon employee

Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as "adult," the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from 'false' to 'true.') "It's no big policy change, just some field that's been around forever filled out incorrectly," the source said.
And Amazon's PR folks have issued an apology:
“This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection. It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search. Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.”
Consider me not entirely happy.

That Amazon didn't intend to start a blue-nosed censorship campaign is fairly clear, and they've apologized and are taking steps to prevent a recurrence, which is good.

However, the fact that a de-ranking mechanism was in place in the first place is disturbing.

I appreciate that some customers (and some national governments with censorious legislation on the books) may require a net nanny service; Amazon sells a huge range of products, some of which are illegal in some jurisdictions. But this is the wrong way to do it. An adult content filter should be something customers can switch on from their personal profile, to block visibility of items bearing specified tags on a per-customer basis; it shouldn't be a general database-wide flag that suddenly de-ranks items and renders them invisible to everybody, world-wide. That either implies some disturbingly incompetent database design, or that someone may have wanted a global censorship capability — although that may not have been anything to do with Amazon per se.

I'm on the road and don't have a lot of time for researching postings.

However, I've just yanked the sidebar of links to Amazon where you could buy my books, because of this. It appears to be politically-motivated censorship of the ugliest kind — either that, or a huge and extremely ugly cock-up — and I'll not be a party to it. More here, there and everywhere.

For a contrary take on it, see this suggestion that it's an attack by Bantown, or a similar group of very effective trolls. "It's obvious Amazon has some sort of automatic mechanism that marks a book as "adult" after too many people have complained about it. It's also obvious that there aren't too many people using this feature, as indicated by the easy availability (and search ranking) of pornography and sex toys and other seemingly "objectionable" materials, otherwise almost all of those items would have been flagged by this point. So somebody is going around and very deliberately flagging only LGBT(QQI)/feminist/survivor content on Amazon until it is unranked and becomes much more difficult to find. To the outside world, this looks like deliberate censorship on the part of Amazon, since Amazon operates the web application in question."

If it's a screw-up and Amazon fixes it, I'll restore the links; if it's deliberate, I'll find other online retailers to recommend. But I can't, in all conscience, recommend people buy my books from a bookseller while they're censoring their search results to exclude LGBT authors, intentionally or otherwise. What's next: censoring People of Colour, or political writings, or history, just because some pressure group with a hate on starts inciting their members to jump on the tag button? There's a slippery slope here, greased with the fat of self-serving justifications masquerading as a twisted morality, and Amazon have just taken a prat-fall on it.

UPDATE: Simon Bisson on how Amazon's development methods may have contributed to a clusterfuck. Patrick Nielsen Hayden talks sense. Looks like the de-listing is being carried out automatically on the basis of books' user-assigned tags — stuff tagged as "gay erotica" is being de-listed. And guess what? These tags are assigned by Amazon readers.

It looks to me like a misfeature put in place by developers who were over-optimistic about their ability to automatically exploit the wisdom of crowds, being put to use by haters/griefers/lulzers to whack on the existential foe/fuck shit up/stir up amusing trouble. There's still time for Amazon to shoot themselves in both feet with a blunderbuss by mis-handling the cleanup/apology side of things, but hopefully it's not a deliberate example of Amazon being deliberately evil (or more evil than usual, at any rate). A detailed explanation of what went wrong and why it won't happen again, along with an apology (and of course a return to the status quo ante), would do a lot to calm things down. I hope.

I'll be away at Eastercon LX in Bradford this weekend, so scarce around here between Thursday and Wednesday. The good news is, I'm not doing a guest of honour slot this year; my schedule is limited to just two panel discussions (for which I am extremely grateful)! So — a weekend of curry, beer, and good company beckons.

In other news: still bogged down in the death march to complete "The Trade of Queens" (which is coming along nicely), still working on background for the sequel to "Halting State", and likely to be away from home for the whole of May (most of which I'll be spending in London, Seattle, Portland, and Baltimore). More on developments nearer the time ...

China is alleged to be developing a "kill weapon" designed to take out carriers. Based on the existing DF-21 land-mobile IRBM (itself the base for China's JL-1 SLBM), the weapon is a "high hypersonic land-based anti-ship ballistic missile based on the DF-21, with a range of up to 3,000 kilometres (1,900 mi). These would combine manoeuvrable reentry vehicles (MaRVs) with some kind of terminal guidance system. Such a missile may have been tested in 2005-6, and the launch of the Jianbing-5/YaoGan-1 and Jianbing-6/YaoGan-2 satellites would give the Chinese targetting information from SAR and visual imaging respectively."

As the US Naval Institute puts it, "Because the missile employs a complex guidance system, low radar signature and a maneuverability that makes its flight path unpredictable, the odds that it can evade tracking systems to reach its target are increased. It is estimated that the missile can travel at mach 10 and reach its maximum range of 2000km in less than 12 minutes." And it carries either a conventional warhead or a nuke of up to 600Kt yield.

This might be something the USN's ABM capability can be upgraded to block, but if you were responsible for a battle group, would you want to bet on it? These aren't the North Koreans plinking away with hacked SCUD-Bs, these are the folks who supply all our consumer electronics and who are planning on orbiting a manned space station all of their very own next year.

I can just see the twitter from the Chinese navy high command: "D00DZ I R IN UR CBG N00K1NG UR CVN!!! LOLZ!!!"

Leaving aside the essential pointless stupidity of yet another tit-for-tat technology-driven arms race (pointless insofar as economically speaking China and the USA are two pickpockets with their hands so deep in each others' pockets that if they start fighting they're both going to hurt themselves worse than they hurt the other party: this isn't Cold War 2.0), this looks like a winning move for the PLA: over-reliance on really big and definitively non-stealthy surface ships has been a bedeviling problem of the USN for decades. Every military force trains to win the last war, and the last time the US navy faced real opposition was the Battle of Midway; the route to the top runs through command of a carrier, so carriers are prioritized, much as battleships were in the Royal Navy before it. And any message to the effect that floating airports in the age of the nuclear missile (or even the precision-guided non-nuclear variety) might be hard-to-defend trouble magnets is going to get the Three Monkeys reception.

Finally to put a UK-specific spin on this: Our wonderful government are pursuing the post-1956 British foreign policy strategy of playing Mini-Me to the White House's Dr Evil by pushing ahead with plans for the Queen Elizabeth class carriersself-sucking lollipops at best, obsolete on arrival at worst.

Update: Ah, I see the War Nerd has already noticed.

'Nother update: Yes, it's probably possible to whomp up a defense against this sort of attack. But the cost of such a defense? Astronomical: it's the classic ABM problem, only without the luxury of a land-based platform unconstrained by sea state, dead weight, and weather. The problem with ABMs is that the enemy can always throw more missiles; which can be kind of embarrassing, when your ABM system is mounted on a ship with a finite number of vertical launch cells and there's a submarine stalking you at the same time.

But enough of this curmudgeonly disbelief in the permanent supremacy of the US Navy. At least let us congratulate PLA Industries, Inc. on finding something to spend their profits on that's just as pointless as US Treasury bonds. If they can start a new arms race, we might even be able to dig our way out of this depression before it really gets going again.

Party like it's 1936!

I don't do Myspace. I don't do LinkedIn. I don't do Facebook. (Although I'm told I've got a fan club there.) I don't do chat, as a rule. And I refuse to even think about Twitter.


Well, it's like this: I am easily distracted. I spend too much time reading my email, answering questions on this blog (okay, arguing with the readers), and bouncing off the assorted news websites that keep me reading for about three hours a day. (I call it research: you may beg to differ — but if you've come across some real cool bit of technology/science/tech policy news on Slashdot or Ycombinator or Ars Technica or The Guardian, the odds are good that I've already read it. So don't bother forwarding it to me unless you're really confident that it's obscure as hell.)

And what I've noticed is that all successful social network sites are structured to provide an attractive nuisance.

This isn't to say that they aren't sometimes useful, but in order to attract users, a social networking side like Facebook or LinkedIn has to keep folks coming back. It's not enough to get them to create a user ID in the first place; I've seen some estimates that around 90% of legitimate, human-derived accounts on social networking sites are inactive. (I qualify this as human-derived because a whole lot of them are bot-generated accounts used by spammers. I'm talking about the ones with a human brain behind the name.) So the successful sites need to get real humans to keep coming back — especially if they're going to raise the advertising revenue from click-throughs to pay their bandwidth bills — and the developers are therefore subjected to a ruthless Darwinian selection pressure: add attractive nuisances, or die.

We can see this on FaceBook with its endless games. (I sometimes wonder if I'm a Facebook widower.) We can see this on LJ with its endless rounds of emotional affirmation in comment threads. We used to see it on USENET back in the eighties and nineties, with the flamewar season. Social networks don't grow because they provide utility to their users: they grow because they keep pushing the social stimulus button. And any utility they provide is incidental to that function.

This doesn't mean that social networking and microblogging sites are useless: on the contrary, they're very useful. The trouble is, they're also very attractive. And I have enough trouble focussing at the best of time that they're pure poison to my productivity.

So: don't bother sending me Facebook or LinkedIn or similar network invites. It's not so much that I'm not interested, but that if I give in to temptation the next book or six will be a few years late. (And you wouldn't want that, would you?)



About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in April 2009.

Charlie Stross: March 2009 is the previous archive.

Charlie Stross: May 2009 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog