Charlie Stross: September 2009 Archives

Okay, in the past month that's three (count 'em) sets of page proofs processed; that, and I'm halfway through a secret writing project™ (don't worry, I'll explain all when it's finished) while twiddling the plot wheels on "Rule 34", the "Halting State" sequel (and my main bread-and-butter work for the year ahead). I did a guest of honour slot in Copenhagen, and a long weekend at a convention in Dresden, and was sandbagged by a lovely chest infection (probably some species of con crud picked up during all the travel). And you know what else? I'm exhausted.

Luckily I have no travel commitments for the next six weeks, then two brief trips, then nothing unavoidable until February. (Among the theoretically avoidable stuff is a routine Christmas shopping/friend-visiting excursion to London, and one or more visits to family who don't live on my doorstep — but those aren't in the same league as a GoH appearance in another time zone.) So I've got time to catch my breath, do some serious relaxing, and hole up in my office to write.

However, when I'm this tired I run low on creativity. Blogging becomes a chore, and the rate at which I spontaneously generate essays drops through the floor — especially challenging stuff like What is the sensory bandwidth of Scotland? or Gary Gygax, World Dictator.

On the other hand, this blog's been going for a while. In it's current incarnation (running on Movable Type) it's hitting 414 postings and just shy of 25,000 reader comments — and that's after a five year run on top of Blosxom. I've got plenty of material ... enough that I've even been tempted to whack a bunch of the more interesting stuff together and turn it into a book. And if I continue to run short on blogging ideas over the next couple of months, I'm probably going to revisit some of those earlier essays, bring them up to date, and have an argument with my earlier self.

Apparently there's more ice on Mars than we realized. Lots more ice. In fact, Viking 2 came within eight centimetres of uncovering ice on Mars in 1977:

Meteorites that crashed into the Martian surface last year exposed buried ice to the digital eyes of NASA spacecraft. Scientists have used those images to deduce that there is a lot more ice on Mars — and that it's closer to the equator — than previously thought. In fact, subterranean Martian ice should extend all the way down beyond 48 degrees of latitude, according to the model, which was published in Science Thursday. That happens to be where the Viking Lander 2 was in operation from 1976 to 1980. As part of its science program, the Lander dug a trench about 6 inches deep. The new model predicts that if it had gone an extra 3.5 inches — a bit longer than a credit card — it would have hit ice.
The only thing I can say is: wow. The whole focus of space exploration during the 1980s and 1990s would have shifted dramatically if the Viking landers had uncovered ice. I don't think we'd have seen an Apollo-style rush to send astronauts there, but there was a hiatus of nearly 20 years after Viking during with the American space science academy mostly ignored Mars, focusing instead on the grand outer planets missions (Galileo and Cassini) and the Hubble space telescope. And the decision to build the international space station in the late 1980s might have gone somewhat differently if there'd been serious competition from a manned Mars mission lobby.

Two sets of page proofs checked, one to go.

When not grovelling over a hot galley proof, I've been upgrading Macs — I've just installed Snow Leopard on all the members of the herd that would run it, and replaced my other half's DTP workstation — the only current member of the herd that wouldn't. (Memo to self: write another book to pay for the Mac Pro.) A handful of minor annoyances have come to light, but nothing earth-shattering (scanner drivers that crash under repeatable and avoidable circumstances; an external hard drive's power supply that decided to go on strike just when it was really needed: that sort of thing).

I should have the storm of page proofs nailed down by the end of the week, in time to actually take a couple of days off before I get back down to writing. (And the ongoing project to drag the look and feel of my website kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.)

Meanwhile — to continue the IT theme of this entry — Microsoft have startled me by demoing something that actually looks well-designed and potentially useful. (As I'm definitely not a fan of Microsoft, you should take this statement to be extremely unusual.) The smartest comment I've seen on the subject of the Courier project is that it looks like it started out as a spoiler for the XO-2 but has turned into Microsoft's answer to Apple's Tablet. This could be very interesting; with the exception of Netbooks (basically cheap laptops cannibalizing the industry's margins from below) and smartphones (basically your old-fashioned PDA mashed up with a mobile phone) we haven't seen a new form factor really take off in ages — tablet PCs and swivel-screen laptops have failed to be more than a tiny niche market since the late 1990s. However, we seem to finally be seeing a lot of noise about ebooks; Dan Brown's latest apparently shifted a dizzying, huge 5% of total sales in ebook formats, and everyone and their dog are launching dedicated readers. Something like Courier or the iTablet, however, look far more useful to me: general purpose computing platforms that also kick sand in the face of the ebook readers on overal functionality. If both major OS vendors are now taking them seriously ... who knows?

(Edit: For a contarian viewpoint, here's a salutary reminder of how Microsoft do spoilers whenever it looks like someone else is threatening their cash cows. Is Courier real? Who knows? What we do know is that it means they're staying up late in Redmond, worrying about the iTablet ...)

In a nutshell: India is getting ready to start exporting nuclear reactors.

But not just any old reactor. These ones are designed to run on the thorium fuel cycle.

As wikipedia puts it, "A thorium fuel cycle offers several potential advantages over a uranium fuel cycle, including greater resource abundance, superior physical and nuclear properties of fuel, enhanced proliferation resistance, and reduced plutonium and actinide production."

The Indian Atomic Energy Authority are proposing to sell 300Mw units with a 100-year design life, that produce one-third the high level waste of conventional designs "and has a 'next generation' level of safety that grants operators three days' grace in the event of a serious incident and requires no emergency planning beyond the site boundary under any circumstances."

The first AHWR is due to begin construction in 2012, using low-enriched uranium (not suitable for weapons use) and thorium fuel.

Okay, so what do you say to a new nuclear power technology that comes with reduced waste, improved safety, reduced risk of weapons proliferation (because it's bad at manufacturing Pu239), and that partly runs on a different fuel that's much more abundant than uranium ore?

(Before shouting "nuclear power is eeeeevil!" I suggest reading Without Hot Air and then thinking hard about the alternatives. We aren't going to get to a carbon-neutral energy ecosystem purely on the back of renewables — at least, not within the next fifty years — which means we're either going to get a bit toasty by and by, or we're on a one-way trip back to a pre-20th century energy economy, with all the poverty and starvation that implies.)

I'd also like to add: the public perception that nuclear power is inextricably linked to nuclear weapons is one of those tragedies of the history of science: if James Chadwick had discovered the neutron in 1922 or 1942, rather than in 1932, we'd have had peaceful applications of nuclear energy for power production long before anybody tried to weaponize it. It's just our bad luck that neutrons, and then fission, were puzzled out in the run-up to a world war. Our current nuclear infrastructure is badly adapted for civilian use; the first generation reactor designs were optimized for weapons production — plutonium from the UK's Magnox plants being one of those dirty little secrets nobody likes to mention — or adapted from naval submarine propulsion plants. What we desperately need is a new nuclear power cycle that is resistant to weapons proliferation, runs on cheaper fuel, produces less waste, and has inherent safety features (that is: reactors engineered to shut down automatically if they go out of envelope — the opposite of Chernobyl, with its prompt criticality mode). And with commercial fusion still thirty years in the future, this is probably the best we're going to see for a while.

It's 3pm on a Saturday afternoon and I'm taking a break from work for a few hours.

Writing fiction for a living is an odd occupation. Before you get around to hitting the keyboard, you spend a lot of time staring out of the window, playing Solitaire (well, not me: but it's the principle that counts), and daydreaming. This is, in actual fact, an essential part of the job — letting your introspection off the leash with the fruit of your imagination. If you don't get your random daydreaming time in, the product is poor.

But that's only part of the story. Elsewhere in the process, after you do the keyboard thing, there's a chunk of office admin work, and the drudgery of proofreading. Proofreading is this: you have a chunk of dead tree, imprinted with laser toner in the exact pattern that will (in a couple of months) be replicated by offset-litho press several thousand times over in book format. Your job is to scour the page proofs for errors — typos and layout problems at this stage, not infelicities of grammar and phrasing or holes in the plot — and mark them up for the typesetters. It's pretty difficult to spot spelling errors in your own writing: by definition, you thought you'd spelled it right the first time round. But you have to try, because no matter how many times you read over the proofs you'll spot something new. It's also boring: you've already read this book several times — you wrote the thing!

Now picture this: you've got a stack of books to proofread. In fact, you've got three of the things, totalling just under 1000 pages between them. Because your two major US publishers decided they wanted the proofs checking in time for the same deadline. (Never mind that the books are being published over a 3 month time span — just don't go there, okay?)

Back when I worked in a software company's technical publications arm, we used to work on the principle that you could proofread fifty pages a day properly. I've got two weeks to do a thousand pages and ship them back to New York. And while I've gotten off to a good start (one book down in four days!) I've got a load more work to do, going forward.

Which should explain why I'm working over the weekend, and this may be my last blog posting for a little while ...

It never rains, but it pours: I've had a third set of page proofs turn up for checking at the same time! Normally I'd speculate that my editors have been ganging up behind my back and are trying to gaslight me, but as they don't talk to one another (much) I guess it's just a coincidence. Still, the kind of coincidence that drops a month's work on your desk with a two-week deadline is no fun.

This one is the forthcoming (January 2010) paperback edition of "The Jennifer Morgue" from Ace. Luckily they've just taken the DTP files for the trade edition and re-flowed them to fit the smaller page size of the mass market format. This means that if (and only if) there's a blooper in the trade edition, it'll be replicated in the paperback — unless you tell me about it.

If you have a copy of "The Jennifer Morgue" in trade paperback (not the British mass-market paperback, or the hardcover from Golden Gryphon), and spotted any annoying typos or errata, please post them in the comments on this blog entry. That's typos or errata only, not suggestions for how to re-write the novel, or requests for the moon on a stick.

(Format: please type in the line of text with the error in it, and a page number in the hardback — that way I can figure out where to look for it in the paperback page proofs, which have been repaginated and therefore don't have the same page numbers. If you don't give me some text to search on, and a page number, I probably can't find the bug. Also: read through any earlier comments before posting, just in case you're the 56th person to report a given error.)

Deadline: this time next week.

It's that time of year again: I'm checking the galley proofs on two books — the mass-market edition of "The Revolution Business" (Tor, due out around March 2010) and the hardcover of "The Trade of Queens" (Tor, due out on March 16th, 2010).

If you have a copy of "The Revolution Business" in hardcover, and spotted any annoying typos or errata, please post them in the comments on this blog entry. Deadline: this time next week.

(Format: please type in the line of text with the error in it, and a page number in the hardback — that way I can figure out where to look for it in the paperback page proofs, which have been repaginated and therefore don't have the same page numbers. If you don't give me some text to search on, and a page number, I probably can't find the bug. Also: read through any earlier comments before posting, just in case you're the 56th person to report a given error.)

(Yes, I'm bug-hunting too. But authors are notoriously bad at spotting their own typos, and anything that's wrong in the MMPB proofs will by definition be something that escaped my attention in the hardcover proofs when I checked them last year.)

The reason I was away from home over the previous weekend (hence the venting about IT and travel) is that I was in Dresden, for Penta-Con 2009, an annual convention run by the Stanislaw-Lem Klub, a local SF group that's been running for forty years. (Yes, it was started back when Dresden was part of the GDR.)

Why was I at Penta-Con? Well, aside from it being a really good excuse for tourism/research into the former East Germany, I was there to receive the Kurd Laßwitz Preis for best foreign work [translated into German and published in] 2008, for Glasshouse. Which really calls for a round of applause for my translator at Heyne, Usch Kiausch! (And if you want to get a handle on how well I speak German, there's a YouTube blooper reel video here.)

Incidental note: SF was extremely popular in the GDR, and SF novels saw large print runs — but relatively few were published. So fans began to meet up and form clubs to swap books. This fell foul of the Party, who aspired to run every aspect of public life, and had a big problem with students spontaneously organizing societies with memberships in three digits, especially to discuss literature that party officials found difficult to understand. Consequently the SF clubs were broken up in the early 1970s, and fandom in the former East Germany to this day exists in scattered, small, ad-hoc local groups. Whereas in the former West Germany, there's a huge, national level top-down organization with local chapters and branches ...

I am a writer and I travel a lot. I also suffer from the laughable delusion that I can work on the road. I live surrounded by a chaotic miasma of weird and semi-functional mobile computing devices, some of which have strange habits; I've sometimes been tempted to turn this into a tech/gadget blog, but I'm not rich/mad enough to buy the gizmos out of my own pocket, and I'm not really interested in going back into journalism and doing it as a business. So you can take this posting as one in an occasional series of twitches from my not-quite-dead magazine pundit reflexes.

I've just spent three out of the past six weeks away from home, and I am annoyed. Nothing quite works right for me; moreover, it's probably not a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it. The sad fact is, mobile computing is trapped in a local minimum — a sub-optimal point in the phase space of cheaper/lighter/faster from which it cannot escape without some corporate entity somewhere taking a gamble and launching a new hopeful monster of mobile computing upon the world ... frankly, the situation has barely improved since 1999, when I was happily toting around a Psion 5MX. It had its drawbacks (it, in turn, had stepped back from the omnicompetent brilliance of the Psion Series 3, which was basically a real computer that did just about everything you expected of a desktop in those days and which you could stick in your pocket), but within those limits it kicked sand in the face of today's mobile gadgets. (And it's the direct ancestor of many of them; it's operating system, EPOC/32, is today better known as Symbian.) Bluntly, mobile computing devices today are crap. Here's why ...

I'm off to Dresden tomorrow, for a long weekend; mostly being a tourist, hanging out in bierkellers, and maybe poking my nose through the door of the convention where the Kurd Lasswitz Prizes for SF are being awarded. I don't expect to be online until I get home on Monday evening.

In other news, I am pleased to announce that Ace have officially accepted the third Laundry novel, "The Fuller Memorandum", and it's now on course for publication next July.

Question: how do MBA courses teach their students to handle Goodwill? And specifically, customer goodwill?

I was prompted to wonder about this last Friday when, due to an ill-advised sequence of use, my Visa card was frozen. (A three-digit purchase from a German online store followed immediately by an attempt to re-up my car insurance apparently caused the bank's mainframe to flag my card as stolen or something.) Unfreezing the card was a simple but annoyingly long-drawn-out sequence, involving fifteen minutes on the phone, an interminable voice menu tree, and then a call centre where they speak English with a non-British accent.

Call-centre outsourcing is of course one of those familiar nuisances of modern life, as is the voice mail menu system from hell. We're familiar with the justifications for it: Indian call centre workers are cheap, voice mail menus save money (robots are cheaper than humans) and so on and so forth. But we're also familiar with tales of family and friends reduced to incoherent piles of quivering rage by failed interactions with systems that don't work and people who are unable to communicate (because there's more to effective communication than simply sharing a language). What do the corporations who go in for these systems think they're achieving, if the cost savings are counterbalanced by loss of customer goodwill ... and an eventual loss of custom as the terminally pissed-off turn elsewhere? (There's at least one major bank in the UK that makes a selling point of not having call centres, but putting calls made during office hours through to the account holder's local branch office. The way it used to be, in other words.)

Here's a secondary loss of goodwill scenario: I am informed that the menu at Cheesecake Factory — a chain of American diners — now carries advertising. Not advertising for the restaurant chain in question, or their schwag, but advertising for designer jeans and other random products. I can almost see the marketing conference in my imagination, the guy in the boardroom saying, "hey, we've got a captive audience for the fifteen minutes between them placing the order and getting their meal — how can we monetize this?"

Well, the answer is that you can monetize it right up until the moment you piss off the customers, at which point they stop being a captive market and become someone else's market instead. Some people find advertising annoying, and piggybacking ads on a restaurant menu is a new level of intrusion into what was formerly a social space: it won't piss most people off enough to walk out the first time they see it, but it may deter some fraction of them from coming back.

But here's the rub. Goodwill is only significant in iterated small-scale transactions. Retail stores live or die by it: consider the damage John Mackey did to Whole Foods Market's brand by using it as a springboard for a controversial political intervention on healthcare; or if that's too ambiguous, how a single misplaced sentence by Gerald Ratner wiped £500M off his company's market cap. Consumers notice when a retailer starts taking the piss, and they don't like it. From a different angle: Circuit City's suicide by downsizing. They fired their highest-paid retail staff and replaced them with entry level employees, to save costs, not realizing that the highest paid staff were highly paid precisely because they were the ones who generated the lion's share of sales.

On the other hand, customer goodwill counts for zip when (a) there are no repeat transactions, or (b) the price is so steep that the customer needs accountants and lawyers to ride herd on the stack of zeroes. Estate agents don't need to worry about goodwill as much as, say, a grocer, because most folks don't do repeat business with them on a weekly basis. And Boeing or Lockheed or BAe Systems don't worry about goodwill when tendering for multi-billion military procurement contracts because governments don't run on goodwill, they run on oversight and accounting. (This glibly tap-dances around some more questionable issues — wining and dining key committee members, for example — but at that point, cultivating goodwill begins to fade into bribery and corrupt practices.)

Anyway, back to the original question: how do MBA courses treat goodwill? Because it seems to me that many of the annoyances of everyday life (outsourced call centres, intrusive ads in inappropriate places, and so on) spring from a fundamental failure to understand the importance of goodwill in businesses that live or die by repeat custom. Patterns of customer interaction that are appropriate to large enterprises are a very poor fit for daily life, but that's what seems to be filtering down from above. And I'm wondering how much of the stress of contemporary life is the result of this — of the routine imposition of management practices that damage goodwill.

What are the political threats of the 21st century going to be?

Politics changes over time, so it's fair to say they're going to be different from those of the past. However, history has a habit of being self-similar, so to start with I'm going to take a look back at the past century.

The big political change of the 20th century was the triumph of democracy. At the start of that period, the overwhelming majority of nations were ruled by hereditary monarchies, where your eligibility for a position of power was dictated by an accident of birth (and the loyalty of the army and secret police). Most of the monarchies were totalitarian, and lest you think of them as somehow glamorous, I'd like to remind you that we have another name for absolute monarchism these days: hereditary dictatorship (and the poster child for that system is currently North Korea, where a third Kim appears likely to ascend to the throne chair of the central committee in the next few months). Nevertheless, we've somehow fumbled our way through to a world where in an outright majority of nations, your birth is not a barrier to holding high office, and even more importantly, the high officers of state are in principle directly accountable to the public.

This change was not inevitable. The collapse of the western monarchies between 1917 and 1919 was largely a consequence of a war that need not have happened. And it left a power vacuum, and warring modernist ideologies sought to occupy the vacuum. One of these, Communism in its Leninist form, was initially idealist and utopian — but made the fatal twin mistakes of adopting an elitist, authoritarian leadership structure, and of hewing to ideology over pragmatic reality when the piles of skulls began building up. (The road to hell, good intentions, you know the drill.) The other big contender, Fascism, made no bones about its purpose: it was going to replace the tired, old hereditary dictatorship monarchy with a thrusting, dynamic, air-minded new dictatorship wearing shiny jackboots and reinvigorating the national spirit, which had grown tired and decadent in the fifty-something years since Italy was reuinted. Nazism stole Fascism's uniform and took it to a logical, horrible conclusion, and today Nazism is so thoroughly discredited that nobody takes its politics seriously (only its xenophobia and hatred): but Fascism in the broader sense is worth understanding, because it's still out there (especially in Italy). If you haven't read it already, Umberto Eco's essay Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt is absolutely vital to understanding the Fascist mind-set. (Obligatory troll-bait: John Scalzi was absolutely correct when he gave Jonah Goldberg a wedgie for trying to redefine the author of the Fascist Manifesto as a Socialist. If your ideological reality tunnel is so narrow that you don't get that Mussolini was a Fascist and that Aneurin Bevan was not a Fascist, you're not going to get much out of the rest of this essay.)

But enough about the 20th century. We know what happened to the two big modernist contenders for the power vacuum left behind after the fall of the monarchies (although many books have been filled scratching the surface of their history). We even know about the also-ran contenders that never quite reached take-off speed: Technocracy, Libertarianism, and so on.

And now, the future ...

I'm back from Copenhagen with sunburn on the top of my head and something that is either a ferocious head-cold or mild flu. (Scratch flu: I've had flu — it was like being hit by a bus. This is more like being run over by a bicycle ridden by a morbidly obese clown.) Either way, it's no fun and you should therefore make allowances for diminished cognitive horsepower in the remainder of this article.

While I was away, my newspaper of choice launched the publicity stunt 10:10 Campaign, with the goal of getting everyone in the UK (alright: all bien pensant Guardian readers, like me) to cut their carbon emissions by 10% in 2010.

I find this sort of thing just as annoying as Brendan O'Neill (Wearing thermals won't save the planet), and for exactly the same reasons he espouses (to be fair, in the pages of The Guardian): "... reveals something profound about environmentalism: it is not really a campaign to find solutions to the practical problem of climate change, but rather has become a semi-religious, almost medieval demonisation of human behaviour as dirty and destructive. This is really a priestly, ideological effort to lower people's horizons and expectations, rather than a focused attempt to create a less polluted planet."

However, holding my nose and mucking in, I have to admit that I don't like to be part of the problem if I can avoid it. It's like turning off light bulbs when you leave the room: not just because it saves the polar bears, but because it saves the electricity bill. So with a somewhat utilitarian approach, I turned to the Gruaniad's helpful advice ("How to reduce your carbon emissions by 10%) and started checking boxes to see whether I could be doing something more.

(Click the link below to follow the Fisking.)


About this Archive

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

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