Charlie Stross: July 2009 Archives

I am currently in Leeds, city of my birth, visiting relatives. When I get home I'll have about 36 hours to run the washing machine and re-pack, then I'm off to Montreal for the worldcon.

I'll try to find something interesting to blog about, but I may be a bit quiet for the next few days due to too many trains, planes, and automobiles.

SF author Pat Cadigan has finally figured out the cause of the obesity epidemic: it's a well-known fact that TV cameras add ten pounds to your weight, and with the emergence of the surveillance society we're all under the gaze of at least four CCTV cameras whenever we step outside our front door!

The solution to the obesity epidemic is left as an exercise to the student. (Hint: more privacy.)

(I'm back — been away for a weekend at local SF convention Satellite 2 in Glasgow.)

Over on Hacker News, GraffitiTim points out something interesting: "The first civilization started in Mesopotamia around 5000 BCE (more or less), which is 7,000 years ago. If you live until age 80, that's more than 1% of the history of civilization." So you can expect to live for more than 1% of the life span of human civilization to this date.

Of course, human permanent settlements have existed for at least 9,500 years. Evidence for human cultural activities appears around 75,000 to 80,000 years ago in the archaeological record; our species of hominid appears to have originated around 200,000 years ago. So the "1% of the history of civilization" idea depends intimately on the assumption that civilization is the only interesting thing about humanity.

But it has me thinking about permanence. We are very bad at building institutions that outlive us. A few have lasted for over a millenium — the Catholic church, Japanese royal family, Roman empire, Pharaonic system in Egypt ... probably a handful of banks, businesses, and universities. But I feel reasonably confident in saying that there's no direct continuity between early Mesopotamian civilization and our contemporary cultures, other than the most abstract idea of a rule of law, hierarchical authority structures, society based on class divisions, and government abstracted from the individual by bureacratic institutions.

Now: what happens if, in the next 50 years, we learn how to control the human aging process so that we can live long, healthy lives? What sort of institutions are required for a society with indefinite prolongation of physical (possibly also mental) youth?

Senescence is a ghastly illness which, even in the absence of secondary ailments (such as coronary heart disease or cancer) amounts to a sentence of death by torture over a 30-50 year period. Interestingly, it doesn't appear to have one single cause; rather, it's the emergent consequence of a bunch of metabolic malfunctions that emerge slowly, only after the carrier has passed reproductive age (and presumably passed the faulty genes on down the line to subsequent generations).

I'll note in passing that control of the bunch of biological malfunctions collectively known as "aging" doesn't imply immortality; accidents, violence, and suicide suggest that a median life expectancy of around 600 years would emerge, and that presupposes that other processes don't kill us first. (For example, we have no idea how human cognitive processes would change if life was prolonged beyond the current extreme of around 125 years.)

But consider this: democratic societies are made tolerable by the generational change of political incumbents — even without term limits, sooner or later the old guard bows out, to be replaced by fresh blood. So too are unelected institutions; public intellectuals, tenured professors, and judges all eventually retire from the public sphere.

Some people believe (or appear to believe) that the abolition of ageing would be an unalloyed blight on the human condition; I disagree strongly. However, it's very clear that our social and political structures aren't suited to life on a longer time-span.Try to imagine any cultural activity you are indifferent or hostile to but which is unaccountably popular, persisting deathless down the centuries because its supporters are also long-lived.

What is to be done?

Obligatory background reading: Back to Methuselah by George Bernard Shaw.

Last updated: October 2013

TL:DR; If you're thinking of inviting me to an event, please be aware that I'm usually booked up a year in advance, and I don't usually accept invitations to events outside Edinburgh or Glasgow at less than three months' notice—because such invitations almost invariably mean international travel, which is disruptive at short notice.

If you still want to invite me to your event, read on.

(I used to earn my crust writing features for computer magazines. The urge still occasionally bites me. YMMV.)

"We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk" — Steve Jobs, October 2008, on the netbook market.

I'm a member of the cult of Mac by way of the UNIX lineage; back in the day I'd have given my left nut for a NeXT workstation, and the way Apple's platform (if not their consumer app lock-in) has evolved over the past decade has given me a much nicer alternative to the PC/Linux route. Apple are the BMW of the personal computing field; they've not only got snob and designer brand cachet, but they make well-engineered, solid machines that don't make you tear your hair out. (As long as you obey rule #1: never buy release 1.0 of a new model — the return rate will be crazy as they iron out the hardware snags.)

And so I'm rather interested in the rumours of a forthcoming Apple netbook or tablet device. And the rumours are coming in thick and fast right now. Apple are pathologically secretive about new releases — Steve Jobs has been in the business long enough to understand the Osborne Effect at a gut level — but it's hard to conceal a bulk order for display panels from an OEM, placed in March, with deliveries to commence in Q3/2009. Rumours of an Apple Tablet have been circulating for a couple of years. Very recently, reports of an Apple/Verizon tablet hook-up have begun to surface. Finally, there's the tragic case of Foxconn engineer Sun Danyong who committed suicide earlier this week after being accused of stealing or losing one of a batch of sixteen prototype "fourth generation iphones" that had been sent to Foxconn by Apple. Consider: the iPhone 3GS, announced about two months ago, was the third generation iPhone. This may be a new iPhone (the rumoured iPhone nano, or the rumoured no-GPS Chinese market iPhone), but ... sending lots of prototypes to the manufacturing subcontractor implies that production is due to start within a few months. Rather than a phone, could the missing prototype be a 3G-enabled Apple netbook or tablet?

Anyway, the rumour mill is grinding frantic and furious, and the rumours mesh with what I'm expecting, which is ...

We're not going to see a Mac Netbook. There are two reasons for this. First (and most important, from Apple's point of view) it would slaughter their profit margin by cannibalizing Macbook and iMac sales from underneath. Second, Steve Jobs was right: running OS/X on a $500 computer is a ghastly experience. I've done it. I've taken an Asus Eee 1000 (with a 40Gb SSD and 2Gb of RAM) and squished OS/X 10.5.5 onto it. It worked, after a fashion. Two minute boot times are not going to go down well in the consumer marketplace; nor are dialog boxes chopped off at the bottom by the netbook-standard 1024x600 pixel screen. (Yes, they could in principle push out a compact laptop with a higher resolution screen — but that's going to drive the price up.) The real problem is that netbooks are built around a low-power CPU and cheap embedded video chipset that simply aren't up to providing the user experience Apple customers have gotten used to. OS/X on a netbook crawls like Vista.

On the other hand, there are Signs and Portents. In the past couple of years, Apple has purchased chip design house P. A. Semi, presumably for their ARM architecture expertise. Apple is serious about ARM development, and use the Cortex A8 in the new iPhone 3GS; they've also bootstrapped a huge developer community and application store for the new OSX-on-ARM platform that is the iPhone and the iPod Touch.

My bet is that what we're going to see is what you might call an iPod Touch HD. It'll have a 10" multi-touch screen, probably 1280x800 pixels (a standard Apple resolution, rather than the Netbook spec 1024x600). It will run a version of the iPhone OS — OSX ported to run on ARM hardware rather than Intel, with a different user interface. There may well be haptic feedback for the on-screen keyboard (as featured on MIDs like the Viliv S5) , or some species of "real" keyboard — either a clamshell like a netbook, or a slider like a high-end mobile phone. (My money is on the on-screen keyboard with haptic feedback — it makes for a cleaner design.) It'll almost certainly have a 3G data connection, and some sources have been touting an $800 price point; others suggest it'll be subsidized to $300 when sold with a monthly mobile data contract.

What you can do with it: surf the web. Check your email. All the stuff you currently do on your iPhone, except use it as a mobile phone for voice calls. Hopefully if it doesn't have a built-in keyboard it'll come with a USB master controller so you can plug in a keyboard and mouse; and hopefully the iPhone app developers will take it to their heart and port everything in the store to run on it soon.

Rumour suggests that it may come with an ebook reader application and Apple are going to go into the ebook market in a big way, rivaling the Amazon Kindle. I think this is unlikely. Firstly, any epaper device on the market will slaughter a colour touchscreen tablet on battery life and outdoor visibility — which are more important in an ebook reader than the ability to watch movies or surf the web. Secondly, the ebook market is immature, short on revenue stream, and notoriously gnarly when you get down to the contract level; Apple's legal department would have all the fun of dealing with an industry even more stick-in-the-mud than the film biz, for an order of magnitude less reward. However, I can see the existing ebook apps for the iPhone platform (notably Ereader, Stanza, and Kindle) piling on board the new tablet in a split second. And? If you don't read out-doors, this will be the ebook reader to kill for.

But here's the killer app: gaming.

Gaming platforms are currently segregated into three categories. We have PCs (or Macs), we have dedicated consoles (Xbox 360/Playstation 3/Wii), and we have handhelds (Nintendo DSi/PSP family/iPhone). iPhone? Yes: the iPhone OS is seen as a major gaming platform, especially with the iPhone 3GS's improved positioning sensors and beefed-up graphics system. Games sell like hot cakes on the iTunes store; and it's not surprising, because on paper the iPhone/iTouch are on a par with, it not superior to, the high end offerings from Sony and Nintendo.

What we don't have is something that combines the portability of the handheld gaming platforms with the large, high-res screens supported by the consoles or PC world games. A 10" multitouch Apple tablet would probably be powerful enough and have a sufficiently large display to make a plausible client for MMOs such as EVE Online or World of Warcraft. It'll be portable as all hell — this thing will be about the size and weight of a trade paperback — and probably more powerful than any current handheld gaming platform. Forget the obvious market niche everyone expects it to fit in — that of Mobile Internet Devices such as the Nokia web tablets — this one could well carve out a niche of its own in a quite unexpected direction.

(UPDATED: see below)

Early next month I'm going to be in Montreal for Anticipation, the 67th world science fiction convention. Here's my more-or-less final schedule. (Yes, there's a missing item: my book signing slot clashed with another event, so it's being rearranged. I'll post an update here when I know what time and day it's been moved to.)

Thursday August 6th, 9:00pm (Location: PENDING)
Title: In Conversation: Paul Krugman and Charles Stross
Description: 90 minutes of Charles Stross discussing SF, economics, and other topics with Paul Krugman.
NOTE: This item was previously scheduled for 5pm. Now updated. (I'm also trying to arrange for it to be recorded for subsequent podcasting/YouTube hosting.)

Friday August 7th, 12:30pm (Location: P-511CF)
Title: Legal Systems, Past and Future
Participants: Bradford Lyau, James Morrow, Kate Nepveu, Charles Stross
Description: A place's legal system tells us a lot about its values. Laws are made by culture and make culture. A discussion ...

Friday August 7th, 3:30pm (Location: P-512AE)
Title: Author Reading
Description: I'll be reading a selection of my work. So will Cory Doctorow and Connie Willis; it's a 90 minute session so I think we're going to have half an hour each.

Saturday August 8th, 10:00am (Location: P-511BE)
Title: Alternate Power: Its Political Implications
Participants: Tom Doherty, Bruce Lindsley Rockwood, Nina Munteanu, Peter Cohen, Charles Stross
Description: Power and Energy are political and economic issues. They have social implications. What new technologies are available and what are their political social and economic consequences?

Saturday August 8th, 2pm (Location TBA)
Title: Kaffeklatch
Participants: Charles Stross
Description: Sign up in advance (seats are limited) for a chance to have an hour-long chat with Stross over a cup of coffee.

Sunday August 9th, 3:30pm (Location: P-513B)
Title: SF and Economics
Participants: Dani Kollin, Eytan Kollin, Hayden Trenholm, Karl Schroeder, S.C. Butler, Charles Stross
Description: How does a writer incorporate events like the past 12 months into their future society? How does a writer extrapolate economic theory into far future societies?

Monday August 10th, 11am (Location: unknown)
Title: Book signing
Participants: Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow, Julie Czerneda
Description: bring us books, we'll sign them until our hands fall off!

In addition to these discussions, panels, and readings I'll probably be assigned a signing slot and I'll be around the venue for the entire duration of the convention. Oh, and I'll be poking my nose in at the Prometheus and Hugo award ceremonies ...

Or: more accurately, in strictly economic terms — what has the space program done for us?

Well, for starters: without the space program we'd probably be dead. Spy satellites are the very keystone of arms verification; without spysats the cold war would quite possibly have turned hot by the early 1960s, due to misinformation and fear permeating the chain of command on either side. Subsequently, gamma-ray detector satellites such as the American Vela constellation and its Soviet equivalents gave some reassurance to the superpowers by giving them the ability to know with a degree of confidence in whether or not nuclear explosions were taking place anywhere on the planet — a prerequisite for nuclear deterrence without a launch-on-warning policy.

But the cold war's over. So what else?

* Weather satellites. We tend to forget how primitive weather forecasting was before we could look down on developing weather systems from above; the evidence is on your TV set every day.

* Communications. The first live trans-Atlantic TV transmission took place as recently as July 23rd, 1963; go back even a few years before that, and intercontinental TV was an element of science fiction. Today, you can buy a premium-priced mobile phone that gives you coverage from the middle of the ocean, by way of satellite services such as Inmarsat and Iridium, and see news from the far side of the world in real time. It has quite literally shrunk the world.

* Positioning. Say goodbye to satellites and you can give up your in-car satnav right away; without GPS (or the alternative Glonass and Galileo positioning satellite networks) we're back in the navigational dark ages. Today, most new cars come fitted as standard with moving map navigation systems that would have been the envy of Cold War strategic bomber pilots.

* Map/location services like Google Maps are in turn dependent on GPS and also on Earth Resources satellites (the civilian counterparts of the military's big eyes in the sky).

* Environmental resources: without Earth Resources and meteorological satellites we wouldhn't have learned about the ozone hole over the Antarctic in time to discountinue the use of fluorocholorcarbons before we all fried ourselves with short wavelength ultraviolet. That's a bullet dodged — already. Our ability to track environmental and meteorological change on a planetary scale is also feeding evidence into the climate change issue. We can see continent-sized changes in precipitation and surface temperature from above, at last.

* Better models of planetography: if nothing else, being able to look at our neighbouring rocky planets in detail has given us an immense and valuable perspective on the structure of our own planet, and the extent to which it's unusual. We now have an object lesson in what a runaway greenhouse effect looks like — Venus. In future, we can expect to learn much more about the processes of planetary evolution and, more importantly, how a working biosphere changes a planet's geophysical make-up.

Can you add anything to this list?

There is, in the UK (as elsewhere) a prevailing climate of paranoia about adults interacting with children.

In an attempt to be seen to Do Something, in the wake of a particularly gruesome multiple murder, the British government established a new agency, the Independent Safeguarding Authority, "to help prevent unsuitable people from working with children and vulnerable adults." Working with the Criminal Records Bureau, the ISA "will assess every person who wants to work or volunteer with vulnerable people. Potential employees and volunteers will need to apply to register with the ISA." For a fee of £64 you apply to the ISA for a background check. They then certify that you're not an evil paedophile and a threat to society, and issue you with a piece of paper that says you're allowed to interact with children in a specific role. Want multiple roles — driving kids to school in your taxi, and teaching them karate in the evening? — get multiple certificates.

Authors need to get a certificate before they can visit schools to deliver readings. MPs need a background check, it seems, before they can visit schools. (Usually the employer is responsible for getting the certificate; hilarity ensues when it transpires that MPs aren't actually employed by Parliament ...)

As you can imagine, the authors are upset. As Philip Pullman puts it, "It seems to be fuelled by the same combination of prurience, sexual fear and cold political calculation," the author of the bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy said today. "When you go into a school as an author or an illustrator you talk to a class at a time or else to the whole school. How on earth — how on earth — how in the world is anybody going to rape or assault a child in those circumstances? It's preposterous."

He's completely right, in my opinion. But the situation is worse than he imagines. I'm not going to apply for a CRB check &mdash ever. And not because I'm a criminal. (My sum total of negative interaction with the law over the past 44 years has amounted to two speeding tickets, most recently six years ago.)

Nor am I outraged at the privacy thing. (I'm used to the idea that we live in a panopticon.)

What I'm worried about is the problem of false positives.

Even the simplest of databases have been found to contain error rates of 10%. (The HMRC database in this study contains merely first, second and surname, title, sex, data of birth, address and National Insurance number — nevertheless 10% of the records contain errors.) Other agencies are even more prone to mistakes. For example: my wife recently discovered that our GP's medical records showed her as having been born outside the UK rather than in an NHS hospital in Manchester. We don't know why that error's in the system, and we've got the birth certificate and witnesses to prove that it is an error, but imagine the fun that might ensue if the control freaks in Whitehall decided to enforce record sharing between the NHS and the Immigration Agency ...! (Hopefully they're not that stupid, but who can tell?)

The point is, if 10% of government database records contain an error, than the probability of a sweep of databases coming up with an error rises as you consult more sources. And there are a whole bundle of wonderful ways for errors to show up. If your name and date of birth are the same as someone with heavy criminal record, a CRB check could label you as a bad guy. If your social security number is one digit transposition away from $BAD_GUY, see above. If the previous owner of your house was a child abuser, see above. If your street address is one letter/digit away from a street address occupied by a criminal and some bored clerk mis-typed it, you can end up being conflated with somebody else. And the more sources the CRB checks, the higher the probability of a false positive result — that is, of them obtaining a positive result (subject is a criminal) when in fact the subject is a negative.

This is not a hypothetical worry. As of last November, the CRB had falsely identified more than 12,000 people as criminals, according to the Home Office. (Raw parliamentary answer here.) These are the disputes that were upheld, that is, ones where the falsely mis-identified were able to convince the CRB that their record was incorrect. These are false positives which have been conclusively identified as such. While the identified false positive rate is around 0.1%, the true figure is certainly much higher: because there will be a proportion of individuals identified as false positives who are in the unfortunate position of lacking the documentation to prove their innocence.

I expect the ISA will be returning many false positives, because they're looking in multiple places for evidence of misbehaviour, and the more places they look in, the more likely they are to stumble across corrupt database records that are superficially incriminating. The harder they look for evidence of misdeeds, the likelier they are to find them (even if no such misdeeds took place).

I'm not going near that thing with a barge-pole. The nature of the precautionary bureaucracy we're establishing in the UK is such that flags raised by the ISA will almost inevitably be propagated elsewhere through the police and social security system, sooner or later. I'm probably as safe as ISA background check applicant can be, because I've got a unique name, no criminal record (beyond the aforementioned speeding tickets), and the previous owners of everywhere I've lived in the past 20 years have been pillars of respectability. However, even an 0.1% chance of being branded as Evil™ is too damn high, because the personal cost if you fail an ISA check is potentially enormous going forward. I assume that in the near future, failing an ISA check will itself be something that people are required to disclose on job applications — not to mention ending up in current police intelligence databases. To put it in perspective, that 0.1% probability of being on the receiving end of a false positive is of the same order as the risk of being seriously injured in a road traffic accident at some time in one's life.

So I won't be doing any readings in schools, or work with youth groups, in the forseeable future. Sorry — but it's too dangerous.

Later today I'm going to try and update all the blogs on this server to a newer version of Movable Type. I've been running on 3.33 for a couple of years; my wife's blog was running on a separate MT 3.2 install on the same server. We've now successfully moved all the blogs to the same instance of the content management system, and that makes the years-overdue upgrade a lot easier.

What this means: some time in the next few hours, I'm going to disable comments on all blog entries, on all our blogs. This is to permit me to take a backup snapshot of the current system (and the underlying database) before I start the upgrade. Once the upgrade is complete and tested, I'll re-enable comments. If it fails ... restore from backup.

Why am I doing this? Three reasons. First, MT 4.x has better anti-spam facilities. We get a fair amount of drive-by spamming, and keeping it out of your eyes is a regular maintenance chore; the more automated the process, the better. Secondly: MT 4.x has a whole bunch of whizzy community features, including (optionally) threaded discussions and support for OpenID. Being able to know who I'm talking to will allow me to use my blog for hosting stuff only specific readers are supposed to see (call it a focus group enabler, if you will). Finally, once we're stable on the new software I'll be starting in on a long-overdue overhaul of the look and feel of my website.

My overall web philosophy can be summed up as: serve your readers. In the old days, that meant keeping the site simple, standards-compliant, and blazingly fast to load (no graphics). I used to test on a Palm Pilot to make sure that it was still usable — and designed it so that blind folks with text-to-speech software could navigate it easily.

These days broadband has caught fire, Microsoft is no longer a browser near-monopoly (which makes it easier to argue designers out of designing for a single browser), and 50% of mobile hits come from iphones. So I'm considering relaxing my per-page size constraint (set in the days of 56kbps dialup) by an order of magnitude, and using JavaScript in some places (as long as it's still navigable by the blind or folks with obsolete or non-standard browsers). On the other hand, I'm getting north of a million HTTP requests a month, 30-70,000 full page downloads per day, and serving up a gigabyte of outgoing bandwidth per day — even with the austere, low-graphics version of my website. So I've got to be careful about this rich content stuff ...

UPDATE: And we're baaaack!

Amazon sell some really weird stuff; for example, tins of uranium ore.

No, that's not the scary bit.

The scary bit is that customers who bought this item (the aforementioned uranium ore) also bought copies of Halting State and Volume Four of Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming (insofar as extracts are available for purchase). I seem to recall writing about that here.

I think I'm going to go and hide under the bed now. (Yes, the bedroom is circular; not a right angle in it!)

I was thinking I ought to be looking for something creative to say here — blogging gets old, after the first eight years — when a bright young thing at $PUBLISHING_COMPANY emailed me to say: "on the 20th, it's going to be the 40th anniversary of moon landing day, wanna blog about where you were and what it means to you on our corporate soapbox?"

To which I said "sure, but I was only four years old at the time ..."

I hope to live long enough to be four years old that way all over again, some day.

Why didn't Apollo stick?

Well, for one thing, it was a stunt.

Wernher von Braun and his colleagues didn't see it as a stunt, of course. They saw it as a stepping-stone, a valuable intermediate step in establishing a metaphorical beachhead in space. And rightly so (given the state of knowledge of how biological organisms handle zero gravity and high radiation environments at that time).

Unfortunately, the real goal of the rocketry pioneers called for something a bit bigger than an ICBM. Funding their requirements ... not easy. The price of a launch to orbit scales roughly in proportion to the cube of the payload. A modern, miniaturized H-bomb weighs about 200-400Kg (more for the really big stuff, but they're not terribly effective militarily). An ICBM that can lob 3 warheads around the world is actually only lifting about one ton of payload, and it doesn't even reach orbital velocity: it's around the bottom end of a viable space launcher. Von Braun and his Soviet counterparts like Sergein Korolyov knew this well. Korolyov had the relative luxury of the USSR's plutonium shortage and lack of proficiency in guidance technology to help him justify building big rockets: these factors forced the Soviet ballistic missile forces to use single multi-megaton H-bombs (weighing several tons), which in turn needed a 300 ton monster like the R-7 Semyorka to achieve their military goals. The R-7 was big enough to throw a small satellite into orbit without upgrades; with incremental improvements, it has continued to evolve (long after its military obsolescence) into the R-7 family of space launchers, one of the safest and most reliable multi-stage liquid fuel rockets ever.

But the United States had much better guidance technology, and more plutonium (and could therefore use numerous small, efficient, accurately-targeted warheads to do the job for which the Soviets had to rely on a few cumbersome city-busters). While the early US ICBMs were reconfigurable as space launchers, the really big job of going to the moon required something new — the Saturn series of boosters. And the Saturn V configurations that eventually flew to the moon and launched Skylab were far from the largest variants planned.

Let me put it this way: the goal of going to the moon by 1970 forced design compromises on NASA. The objective of putting a man on the moon and bringing him back would be achieved using the lightest lunar lander conceivable — one so flimsily built that, on one occasion, an engineer working in the cabin of one of the LEMs dropped a screwdriver point-down and it punched right through the spacecraft's skin. The LEM weighed under 15 tons, fully fuelled; the ascent stage, in which the crew were to live until they returned to dock with the command module, weighed barely 2000 kilograms (plus crew and 2350Kg of fuel).

Not only does the cost of putting a payload into orbit increase with the cube of the payload weight — this rule holds true in the opposite direction, too. Stick a LEM on the moon and bring the contents back? Easy. Increase the mass that the LEM brings back? Very expensive — the price goes up as the sixth power of the weight you're returning from the lunar surface (because you have to loft the heavier LEM into Earth orbit to begin with).

Think about it. The real mission wasn't to go to the moon; it was to bring two astronauts and 100Kg of moon rocks back from the lunar surface and into lunar orbit (to rendezvous with the CSM stack for the journey home) — and it took a 3000 ton behemoth to accomplish this. Launching a bigger, more useful LEM (one that could carry 3 or 4 astronauts to the lunar surface, along with a decent-sized rover and supplies for a couple of weeks) would have added tonnes to the LEM payload ... and hundreds, if not thousands of tons to the launch stack. With cost scaling as the cube of the vehicle mass, you don't need to be an accountant to realize that the US government, stuck fighting a war in South East Asia, wasn't going to give NASA the money to build in even one kilogram more of payload than was strictly necessary. Indeed, the mushrooming weight of the LEM (it gained about 15-20% during development) threatened to jeopardize the whole mission profile — except that the Saturn V performance exceeded expectations. The per-launch cost of even a minimal Apollo moon shot was $431M, in 1967 dollars — call that $5-10Bn today.

So: the original Apollo moon shots couldn't have easily scaled up to achieve more — not without throwing a lot more money at the program in 1968-70, at a point when NASA was already consuming 0.5% of US GDP. For comparison, NASA's budget in FY 2008 was $17.3Bn; if NASA was funded at 1967 levels today, its budget would be closer to $75Bn.

Is NASA capable of going back to the moon?

I want to believe. But ...

First the argument in favour. The Soviet manned lunar program (cancelled in 1969) were running on less than a tenth of NASA's budget; they nevertheless got four flights into the test program for the N1 before it was cancelled, and may have been on the edge of solving its engine problems. Today, with better simulation and modelling techniques, new materials science, and much better electronics — not to mention 30 years more experience in space exploration — we ought to be able to design and build better (and importantly, cheaper) spacecraft.

Moreover, on the basis of the current estimates, a lunar round trip in Orion/Altair will represent a huge bargain compared to Apollo — delivering 60% of the lunar astronaut surface duration of the entire Apollo program, for a tenth to a fifth the price of a single 1960s moon shot. Even if it undergoes a 100% cost overrun, it'd be cheap compared to Apollo.

But there are problems. Today we lack a vital resource that both Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev took for granted: thousands of engineers with the experience of designing, building, and launching new types of rocket in a matter of years or even months. We used to have them, but some time in the past 40 years they all retired. We've got the institutions and the data and the better technology, but we don't have the experience those early pioneers had. And I'm betting that the process of rebuilding all that institutional competence is going to run over budget. While NASA's Constellation program might work, and while it could deliver far more valuable lunar science than Apollo ever did, it will inevitably cost much more than NASA's official estimates suggest, because it's too big a project for today's NASA — NASA, and indeed the entire space industrial sector in the USA, would have to grow, structurally, to make it work.

Constellation won't survive a 100% cost overrun — or even a 25% one. Instead, it will almost certainly be cancelled. The fiscal realities of the second decade of the 21st century are horrendously worse than those of the sixth decade of the 20th. The sixties were a boom decade; a better comparison would be the stagflation era of the seventies (never mind the Great Depression). The Shuttle program survived the 1970s but only just — its budget scraped through by a single senate vote at one point. And the Shuttle's specifications were mutilated by the political need for it to support an Air Force mission (one that it never flew, but which nevertheless ultimately doomed the Columbia). Project Constellation has no such USAF mission to cling on to for dear life when the budget axe is swinging.

And so I very much fear that I'm going to have to stay fit and aim to live for a very long time if I want to feel four years old all over again.

If you're wondering where I've gotten to since finishing the autobiography series, I'm back from a long weekend in London and getting back to grips with work: in this case, checking the copy-edits to the sixth Merchant Princes book, "The Trade of Queens" (due out next April in the US). (As an aside: if you're in the UK and waiting for #4, "The Merchants' War", to come out over here in paperback, I'm afraid I've got bad news: things seem to have vanished down a black hole. I don't know what's happening at PanMacmillan, but at a minimum there's going to be a big delay, and if you want to read the complete series some time before the next ice age you might want to consider importing US copies of the later books.)

Copies of my new short story collection "Wireless" should be showing up in book stores on both sides of the Atlantic by now. And it's summer. Which means, my schedule for the next couple of months consists essentially of: (a) going to Anticipation, the 67th World Science Fiction Convention (where I expect to learn that someone else has won the Hugo award for best novel), and (b) getting down to work on next year's big SF novel, which was going to be this year's big SF novel before Bernie Madoff stole my plot.

(NB: when I say "this" year I mean "the novel I'm working on this year", not "the novel that hits the book stores this year". By the time you see the paperback, it's at least two years since I handed the finished manuscript to my editor, and probably three years since I began writing it and four or five years since I had the idea for it in the first place. If you ever run into me at a public event and ask me about my latest paperback and I seem bored by the question, this is because I finished work on it years ago — wrung my brain dry, and moved on to obsess over new ideas. This is particularly problematic at SF conventions, where the programming committee almost invariably sticks me on a panel about the singularity; I finished writing "Accelerando" in early 2004 and haven't really been thinking about that stuff since then. But I digress ...)

The book I was supposed to hand in last month (and didn't) was, according to a schedule agreed to in late 2007, provisionally titled "419". A sequel to 2007's "Halting State, it was going to be the story of the biggest advance fee fraud (aka Nigerian Scam) in history; a couple of orders of magnitude bigger than the Banco Noroeste scam: a tale of augmented reality hijinks and a bunch of crooks creating an entire fake central Asian republic, to bilk the EU, the US, and the World Bank out of billions. Only I was about to get going in June 2008 when some odd news items began to crop up. Lehman Brothers were in trouble; the banking infrastructure of the western world was crumbling. And then this guy crawled out of the woodwork, with a scam so bare-faced and huge that my attempt at defining a biggest-possible-crime made me look like a piker.

Cue much grumbling on my part. Luckily I had a spare novel up my sleeve, "The Fuller Memorandum" (the third Laundry book, long-delayed), and it's now heading for publication in the summer of 2010. But it's now time to go back to work on "419". And what do you think happened?

I come up with a nefarious plot — this time about a bunch of scammers who are trying to get themselves an information channel with lower latency than anyone else has access to, in order to run the mother of all forex front-running scams. (It's the same fake-Asian-Republic scam, but in this remix it's a shell game; what they're after are the rights-of-way to the played-out trans-continental gas pipelines that terminate in the 'stan in question, through which they intend to run dark fibre that will allow them to front-run the big currency transfers that daily travel between Europe and the Pacific Rim by way of undersea cables, which add precious milliseconds of latency as they skirt the edges of continents.)

And then this shows up in my blog-hoovering. Goldman-Sachs, the FBI, and a gigantic can of worms. Possibly there's nothing to it, but some of the more alarming speculation is treading so close to my plot that it's looking like Madoff 2.0. (Specifically: Goldman-Sachs run large chunks of the network backbone for the NYSE. Goldman-Sachs have an automated low-latency trading system. If they were Very Naughty People, which of course they aren't, they could conceivably do deep packet inspection on traffic over the NYSE backbone, look for big trades, throttle the IP packets while the trade was in progress, and get their own trades in a few milliseconds in advance — front-running, in other words, but on an heroic scale. But they wouldn't do that because they are investment bankers and as we all know all investment bankers are utterly trustworthy models of law-abiding probity at all times, even when offered the opportunity to clean up $100M in profits per day with no come-back. NB: Sergei Aleynikov is not, to the best of my knowledge, an investment banker: but all I know about him is hearsay and should be discounted accordingly.)


I have now come up with a third, improved, hopefully banker-proof plot for the novel currently provisionally retitled Rule 34. The largest crime in it is comfortably small — small enough that you're unlikely to read about it in the Wall Street Journal, anyway. Which means I have a slightly greater chance of actually getting to finish the bloody thing without it being rendered obsolete by the creative accounting singularity ...

(Hey, didn't I write a novel about that once?)

For the last twelve major blog entries I've been writing up my non-writing work autobiography: the truth about what one writer had to do for a living before he finally switched to writing full-time. If you want to read them all laid out end-to-end in one convenient place, you can find the whole story here. (Warning: 25,000 words — about 80-90 pages.) Alternatively, here are the blog entries (and comment threads) in sequence:

Part One: How I got here in the end

Part Two: catching the bug

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

Part Eight: the third startup death march begins

Part Nine: the little startup that could

Part Ten: head first into the singularity

Part Eleven: the music stops

Part Twelve: the end of the beginning

The cyberpunk lifestyle reads a whole lot better in fiction than as a lifestyle manifesto. Take it from someone who's lived through it.

Picture this: you're a former drug dealer who has turned to hacking for a living. You're crashing in an apartment a bit older than Texas, surrounded by about seventeen computers, sleeping on a futon with a girlfriend with metre-long purple dreadlocks, and planning your defection from one net-based futuristic corporation to another over Korean take-away food. It sounds like something out of an early story by William Gibson, but the reality is a whole lot less glamorous. I've been there; I speak from experience. Cyberpunk is so nineteen-nineties: as a lifestyle statement it leaves something to be desired. Given that the late seventies and early eighties are the height of fashion right now, I reckon we're about fifteen years away from the inevitable revival — I'll be there, doddering around on a Zimmer frame and waving my fist at those young punks who've never used a command line interface.

But I digress ...

I don't remember very much about 1999; it was all a bit of a blur.

I know I was there, physically: I remember 1998, and I wouldn't be here today if I hadn't lived through 1999. But 1999 itself is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle enrobed in a chocolate coating of darkest mystery. Lots of things happened in 1999 and I remember some of those things but I don't remember much about being there, probably because it was so intense ...

We human beings are not used to rapid change.

Let me qualify that remark. We may think we're used to rapid change, but for the most part we never see it, up close and personal. We're easily overwhelmed by events if they don't progress in a linear manner. As they spin out of control we find ourselves watching, feeling as if we're moving in slow motion — it's a commonplace in accidents such as car crashes, and what it betrays is a cognitive malfunction as we spend precious moments observing rather than acting.

Some time in late 1998, DataCash, the start-up I was working for, began to go exponential. This is what happened ...



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

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