Charlie Stross: June 2009 Archives

There are a couple more chunks of the tech sector autobiography still to come. However, writing it is turning out to be a time-consuming process (17,000 words so far — about a fifth of a novel), and I'm off for an extended weekend in London on Thursday. (If I'd known about the ghastly heat wave when I booked the trip I'd have picked another week; as it is, I'm just glad I picked a hotel with air conditioning.) To add to the fun, when I get home I'm expecting to trip over the copy-edits to "The Trade of Queens", which will need turning around ASAP (they're already overdue, having been held up in production). Oh, and some time this year I've got to write the sequel to "Halting State", and doubtless I'm going to be interrupted during that process by the copy edits to the third Laundry novel, "The Fuller Memorandum", which I delivered to Ace and Orbit a few days ago, to say nothing of going to the Worldcon in Montreal and the Danish national SF convention Fantasticon in Copenhagen, where I'm guest of honour this year.

Which is by way of saying: I'm going to try to squeeze out one more article before I head off, but then there'll be a bit of a gap, and I expect to be too busy to blog at this kind of length and frequency in July and August.

Meanwhile, from the HALTING STATE department:

* China bans Gold Farming

* What a 2009 13-year-old makes of a Sony Walkman

* How badly can you get it wrong? Forbes magazine, circa 2000, took this stab at predicting where computers would be by 2010: it's so full of fail that it's funny, but the reason why it's full of fail is a fertile field for meditation.

The Red Queen's Race: "you've got to run just as fast as you can to stand still," as the Red Queen told Alice. That's what it's like all the time when you're working inside a startup venture that's actually going somewhere, or so it seems to me.

In late 1997, I signed on as a contractor for Gavin and Dave's new venture. Little did I know just where it was going ...


I have a new book! Readers (in the UK) report that copies of WIRELESS, my first new short story collection in eight years, are showing up in bookstores and being mailed out from Amazon; the US edition is due out on July 7th, but is probably leaking into shops by now.

Contents include the Locus-award winning novella "Missile Gap", a bunch of other stories including "A Colder War", "Trunk and Disorderly", and "Down on the Farm", a collaborative novelette with Cory Doctorow called "Unwirer" (published in unabridged form for the first time in a hunk o'dead tree), and a wholly new novella I wrote for this collection (and which you won't find anywhere else), "Palimpsest".

(I was also hoping to be able to announce the publication date of the final, limited, signed edition of TOAST, my previous short story collection — to coincide with which I'm going to be giving away the full text under a Creative Commons license — but I gather it's coming along slowly.)

The life of an IT industry contractor is an unstable one. There are approximately 250 working days in the 365 day business year, once you subtract weekends, public holidays, 20 vacation days, and allow a couple of weeks for time off being sick. If you're a contractor, the general rule of thumb (in a regular business climate — not a recession) is that you can expect to work for 100 days a year (and you're going to spend those days working like a dog, not slacking or polishing your skills). So you price your daily rate accordingly. To paraphrase Dickens: definition of happiness: 101 or more paid days of work. Definition of unhappiness: 99 or fewer paid days of work. It follows that the ideal job is a steady contract that runs for consecutive months. And hitting the jackpot is getting a job that runs for five months or more in any given financial year.

Or so you might think ...

This bio thing is running on longer than I expected (and there are at least two episodes to go), so here are some handy links to the story so far:

How I got here in the end: Part One

How I got here in the end: Part Two

Part Three: But we upgrade to COBOL next year!

Part Four: my first startup death march

Part Five: Things can only get better

Part Six: my second startup death march

Part Seven: bubbling freelance

It's going to take me a while to write up the next installment, because that's the one about the little startup that could (and did) IPO in the end.

In general, having your employer go tits-up at the end of the month without a pay packet in sight is a Bad Experience. I couldn't, in all honesty recommend it ... but if it's going to happen, it's best that it happens in the middle of a tech bubble that you're part of.

Here's what happened to me between the collapse of FMA Ltd and the formation of Datacash Ltd ...

... Or: how usenet got me a job.

The world wide web is not the internet. The internet actually predates the web by more than two decades; I've been online with a connection to the net pretty much continuously since late 1989, except for a nine-month outage between university and the job at SCO. And since late 1991 I've had access to usenet. Usenet — the vast distributed discussion system — is but a shadow of its former self, largely killed by spam and ignorance ... but back in the day it was where folks networked on a one-to-many level, and it's probably where I first ran into Fearghas.

I spent nearly three and a half years working on technical documentation for a UNIX vendor during the early 90s. Along the way, I learned Perl (against orders), accidentally provoked the invention of the robots.txt file, was the token Departmental Hippie, and finally jumped ship when the company ran aground on the jagged rocky reefs of the Dilbert Continent. At one time, that particular company was an extremely cool place to work. But today, it lingers on in popular memories only because of the hideous legacy of it's initials ... SCO.

I did not take the job with the three-piece suits and the mainframe farm. Instead, I had a stroke of luck and found something much more interesting daaahn sarf, just outside the M25. As a side-effect, it launched me on a four to five year diversion into a career as a technical author and showed me what real programmers are capable of. Here's what I remember ...

In early 1988 I bought a small apartment. I sold it in early 1989, for a big enough profit to put myself back into university in order to escape a Fate Worse Than Death — the kind of career Leonard Cohen was singing about in "First we take Manhattan."

There was colateral damage, of course. As you can imagine, the kind of property bubble that funds career breaks for some breaks careers for others. I just barely hung on to my mortgage repayments during Nigel Lawson's infamous inflationary "blip"; but the bubble's abrupt bursting in mid-1989 plunged the UK into a recession. I'd strongly recommend being a student during a recession ... but looking for a job afterwards is not so much fun.

And so ...

Okay, because some of you asked for them, here's one of my holiday snaps:

charlie goes flying

(Previously: Part One)

I taught myself to type on a manual portable typewriter, aged 12. By age 16, the typewriter died — the keys began snapping from metal fatigue. (I am not making this up.) After much whining and kvetching, my parents bought me ... a new manual typewriter. This was in 1980. Home computers were showing up in shop windows and magazine adverts, but at home we had a black and white TV and a record player.

This is the story of how I missed the first wave of the home computing revolution but caught the second, and where it took me.

I'm still grappling with "The Fuller Memorandum" — or not, right now, because I'm recovering from the previously-mentioned head cold and in my experience, editing with a cold results in dumb mistakes — and the dilemma of what to write in this blog. I mean, I could draw your attention to the fact that I've just received my author copies of the hardcover edition(s) of "Wireless" and the UK paperback of "Saturn's Children", which means both of 'em are on their way from the publisher's warehouse to the bookstores, but that's just infomercial padding; I want to do something more in my copious spare time.

On the other hand, this isn't a political blog (at least, not primarily), a book review blog (if I say anything negative about someone else's books in public, conspiracy theorists will be lining up six deep for the cage-match: sorry folks, but I don't do feuds), or a travel blog (hey! Want to see my photographs of aviation museums and pubs?). And over the past nine years of blogging I've talked about a lot of the stuff that interests me, and I don't like repeating myself ...

But it occured to me a couple of days ago that I've been a full-time self-employed writer for over eight years now; and with a couple of exceptions, every company I ever worked for before then has gone bust (and as far as those exceptions go, I believe a statute of limitations probably applies by now). If you've looked at the potted biography on the back flap of most of my books, you'll have noticed weird references to my previous occupations — pharmacist, freelance journalist, dot-com startup monkey — none of which seem to have much in common with novelist. So over the next few days and weeks I'm going to try and describe how I ended up in this freelance writing job, and the weird and winding path I took to get there.

Halfway through the redraft of "The Fuller Memorandum" and coming down with a head-cold, hence the silence — I'm low on energy right now and reserving what stamina I've got for shoveling another manuscript into the gaping firebox maw of the publishing industry.

I suppose I ought to say something about the current high political drama here in the UK, or the disgusting and negative outcome of the Euro-elections (hint for non-UK readers: the BNP are basically the UK's resident neo-Nazi party) but if you've been hanging out here for long enough you can probably read my mind, and if not, do you really want to listen to J. Random Novelist moaning about local politics?

At least the Pirate Party in Sweden matched the BNP by winning two seats in Brussels. Where are the Monster Raving Loony Party when you need them?

Oh, and in other news my first author copies of "Wireless" have arrived. Which means, it should be on its way from the warehouse to the wholesalers (and then the shops) later this week, although the official publication date is July 1st.

Right now I'm up to my elbows in the guts of "The Fuller Memorandum", doing a final draft (with editorial feedback) and writing the afterword. It's due on my editor's desk at the end of the month, and so takes priority over, er, blogging. When I start posting here frequently again you can probably take it as a sign that I've broken the back of the job.

In other news: given that we're beginning to see in-flight internet access trailed on airliners, how long it is going to be until we get real-time streaming of airliner telemetry data to save us from this sort of wild goose chase?

(Yes, I know there's some hope of pulling the flight data recorders out of the mid-Atlantic. Yes, I know in-flight internet via satcom is still a new area and global coverage won't be available for a while. Yes, I know that losing airliners over open water is relatively rare. Nevertheless, if that A330-200 had real-time streaming telemetry, the air accident investigators could well be on the way to issuing interim findings by now. And if you've got passengers willing to pay for in-flight internet access to stave off the boredom, why not tunnel the telemetry over the link?)



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

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