Charlie Stross: October 2009 Archives

Judging from the reader responses to my last essay, if Erwin Schroedinger published his thought experiment on the EPR Paradox today, he'd have had the Cat Protection League breaking down his office door within minutes.

Am I just on the receiving end of a massive selection bias effect, or are people today really that incapable of handling metaphor, let alone the idea of a thought experiment?

(Pay attention at the back: this is a trick question.)

We H. Sapiens Sapiens appear to be an infestation on this planet. After the slow-burning evolution of hominins in Africa, our ancestral populations erupted out into Eurasia in a geological eye-blink, spread into the Americas by way of the Bering land bridge (sea levels being somewhat lower during the ice ages) and finally reaching even the remotest islands of oceania around twelve thousand years ago. Today we're ubiquitous. Even our pre-industrial ancestral cultures, from those resembling the inuit to the antecedents of the tuareg, occupied a slew of geographical environments that put cockroaches to shame.

So you'd think that, to a first approximation, the Earth is inhabitable by human beings. And this tends to colour our approach the prospects of finding extrasolar planets that might be hospitable to human life (if we could ever get there from here).

Actually, I think this is not quite the case. In fact, to a first approximation, from the perspective of prospective interstellar colonists, the Earth is uninhabitable. That we could imagine otherwise bespeaks a profound cognitive bias on our part (and a degree of relativism: because when all's said and done, the Earth is a lot less hostile than, say, the surface of Venus or the cloud base of Jupiter).

Why is the Earth uninhabitable?

Let's play a thought-experiment ...

... But I'm not sure I want to know it. It's probably either ridiculously banal or so screamingly surreal I couldn't put it in a work of fiction and preserve plausibility.

Either way, this is one for the Darwin Awards:

Am J Gastroenterol. 1993 Jan;88(1):122-6.

Fulminant acute colitis following a self-administered hydrofluoric acid enema.

Cappell MS, Simon T.

Department of Medicine, UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson (Rutgers) Medical School, New Brunswick.

A 33-yr-old white male presented with bloody diarrhea, leukocytosis, and left lower quadrant direct and rebound tenderness after a self-administered concentrated hydrofluoric acid enema while intoxicated from intranasal cocaine administration. Intraoperative flexible sigmoidoscopy and a gastrografin enema revealed severe mucosal ulceration and edema in the rectum and sigmoid colon. Laparotomy revealed an ulcerated, necrotic, and purulent sigmoid colon and intraperitoneal pus. The patient underwent a limited sigmoid resection and a Hartman procedure. Five months later, the patient presented with a rectal stricture which was resected. This case demonstrates that a hydrofluoric acid enema can cause fulminant acute colitis and chronic colonic strictures.

I like that laconic summary: "a hydrofluoric acid enema can cause fulminant acute colitis". No shit!

(Yes, I still have a residual medical sense of humour. Why do you ask?)

More to the point: why is self-inflicted damage funny, and third-party inflicted damage not?

I'm back from my travels, and it occurs to me that there's something I need to say here.

People regularly send me links to interesting news items via the "Talk to me" link on the front page. That's okay, although if you're going to do it you should be aware that I track the online tech news sources voraciously — if you've seen it, the odds are good that I have too. If it interests me you may prod me into writing something about my thoughts on the matter — but that doesn't happen often.

Slightly less frequently (a couple of times a week) people write to me and ask me to talk about their pet hobby-horse or news item. And I almost never do that, because this isn't that kind of blog.

What kind of blog is it, then?

It's a nine-year-old blog, is what it is. It's a blog I originally started because I'm a compulsive communicator, and usenet was even then going down the proverbial shitter, and it seemed like a good idea to have somewhere else to thump my tub.

Over the years I've talked about this and that, gotten wildly enthusiastic about some topics and bored with others. I make no apology for being inconsistent in my interests over a period of nearly a decade: I'd be a close-minded fanatic if I didn't change. You shouldn't necessarily assume that what I say is what I believe (unless I explicitly say so) — I'm quite capable of playing devil's advocate in order to refine my beliefs by getting people to try to knock them down. And I use the blog to field-test intellectual frameworks I'm working on for the books I write. (Random examples: the previous blog entry, on technical trends in policing, is feeding into my current work-in-progress, a sequel to "Halting State". And The High Frontier, Redux — ostensibly about the implausibility of space colonization — was my adopting a devil's advocate position for the framework I rolled out in the space opera, "Saturn's Children".)

I'm quite happy to use my blog to talk about gizmos I'm playing with, politics, food, the phase of the moon, books and media, and anything else that catches my eye and makes me go shiny!

What this blog isn't: it's not a personal lifestyle striptease. You'd be ill-advised to use it as a source of news, rather than opinions. (And on the subject of opinions, I tend to march to a different drum from the mainstream.) It isn't a tech news site, even if I talk about weird technologies from time to time. It's certainly not part of the online science fiction community in any way, shape, or form (even though I write SF novels for a living and much of the stuff I say here speaks from a science-fictional outlook). I almost never pass on chain letters or random off-topic charitable appeals, regardless of whether or not they're worthy: they're noise in the information channels and make it harder for my readers to identify a genuine signal. (Also, if I started making exceptions to this rule, I'd be doing so on a many-times-daily basis: there are a lot of good causes out there.)

Finally, I don't take payola from the likes of Outersports dot com, who offer website owners bits of cheap garish jewellery in return for inbound links. (They're playing search engine optimization games — one step removed from spamming, and I'm only mentioning their name here so that you know who the marketing sleazebags of the week are who motivated this posting).

To recap: this blog is a soapbox where I bloviate about whatever interests me today. Nothing more and nothing less. You're welcome to hang out here and discuss things, or kvetch at me (but note: while I'm fine with disagreement based on differing evidence or opinions, I view this as my personal space and feel no compunction about deleting flames or abuse directed at me and lacking in actual informational content — see the moderation policy for further details).

I'm going to be on the road again this week (same time, same place, same errand — more or less).

In the meantime, though, here's this month's Halting State moment; the BBC report that the police are on course to adopt smartphones wholesale by 2010.

Bedfordshire's force piloted the scheme. For a cost of £270 per officer per year, they managed to cut the time their constables spend in the station from 46% to 36% of their time on shift. (It's a hugely cost-effective measure, considering that pay for a trainee constable begins at £22,000, and goes up to around £36,000 with experience — never mind higher ranks).

Here's another prediction: Police aerial surveillance will switch largely (but not entirely) from choppers to UAVs over the next decade, once the government gets past the pilot stage and beats the home office into handing over some bandwidth for the robot eyes-in-the-sky. Choppers won't go away completely because they can provide direct intervention, dropping officers on the ground — but remotely piloted drones are an order of magnitude cheaper to buy and operate (and less annoying to those trying to sleep under the police helicopter's flight path).

But, pace this police sergeant's plaint, will they get single sign-on by 2020? Betcha they don't ... which leads me to wonder: given how far behind the curve public bodies generally run when it comes to picking up the tools created by the dotcom 2.0 boom, are they on course to catch up with, say, 2012's tech by 2022? Are they ever going to be able to catch up? If so, what are the administrative institutions that are going to have to change to make it possible?

Hint: yes, I am familiar with the existence of UK government IT procurement policy. That's the starting point for this discussion. If you want to rant about the natural incompetence of government or lecture me about how your IT department are evil because they won't let you play Myst on your work PC, please do so somewhere else.

(PS: This entry brought to you by the go-away-I'm-working-on-the-sequel-to-Halting-State department.)

It's morning here. I'm about to get on a train with no wifi and crap phone service and go visit elderly relatives for a couple of days. Your chances of getting me to rise to the bait are thereby diminished.

When I get back I have a bunch more blog postings queued up. They include:

* I hate (c)rap music

* Michael Jackson: dead white guy?

* Capitalism sucks: Communism will save us

and

* Yes, your ass looks fat in that. (And you need to shower more often.)

Live long and prosper.

Apropos my previous blog posting, I am simultaneously amused and perplexed by the number of people who, being afficionados of [X], read a statement of the form "I do not like [X]" and parse it as "[X] is bad".

(Tag with: collective logic FAIL, what are they teaching them these days, death of western civilization, film at 11, etcetera.)

Mind you, it's given me some food for thought. In particular, I'm trying to figure out precisely what it is about the structure of small-screen entertainment that is inimical to the production of high-quality space opera; and why SF on TV is so generally identified with that form.

I suspect, after sleeping on it, that in large part it boils down to the cost structure of network TV: to the obligation on the producers to deliver captive eyeballs to advertisers. This is guaranteed to fuck with dramatic structure, world-building, and characterization — especially when they mess with the plot to reduce audience leakage due to channel-hopping during intermissions — and it has long-term implications for written fiction too, as the uptake of ebooks and alternative delivery models based on the internet progresses.

Consider a script. A script consists of pages each of which represents one minute of on-screen action. It typically runs to 250 words, most of which are dialog. A 42 minute TV show is 10,500 words (a novelette, in fiction-not-script terms), but breaks down into four scenes, each of which needs a near cliff-hanger ending (prior to the advertising break, to keep the viewers wanting to see more), and a restart at the beginning (to drag in new viewers who have channel-hopped over from a less compelling production). Of each roughly 2,500 word scene, then, about 250-500 words will be wasted (dramatically speaking) on reestablishing the action, and the last 500-1,000 words goes on setting up a mini-climax (except in the first and final scenes, where you need a setup and a climax for dramatic, not advertising, purposes). Thus, the 10,500 word script actually contains about 7,000-8,000 words of meat, or 28-32 minutes of non-repetitive on-screen action to propel the story forward. (As a reference point, a 8000 word short story, to an average reading speed of 350 words per minute, takes 22 minutes to plough through. I'm ignoring, of course, the need for additional background description in the short story — stuff that doesn't belong in a script.)

Here's the rub: the ideational density of a TV or film production, to a viewer experiencing it in real time, is lower than that of a work of written fiction is to a reader — an hour of TV with ads (and spurious scene-based setup/teardown) is equivalent to 20-25 minutes of written fiction. To keep the viewers from getting bored, it needs to add eyeball candy of some kind. What pushes primate attention buttons? Sex (hot actors) and bright colours and loud noises (explosions in spaaaaace!). These are low-level hard-wired stimuli that we can't easily ignore: if we could, we wouldn't be human. So in it goes. But there's an arms race going on: every other series on TV is doing the same thing, so our series has to be sexier and flashier than theirs if we're not going to bleed audience share.

Sooner or later there comes a point where the audience can no longer ignore the fact that their buttons being pushed — not stroked lightly, but mashed hard by an insensitive thumb driven by advertising sales — and that's when they'll start leaving in droves. But most people have been trained to accept lots of advertising and the classic four-part structure of the ongoing TV drama episode from an early age. (Not me. Due to an accident of childhood, I watched virtually no commercial TV, and didn't have access to a colour TV or a video recorder until I was in my 20s. Yes, I am an alien.)

Two questions arise:

Firstly. Is it possible to do space opera on the small screen properly, if the constraints imposed by the necessity of slotting in with the network advertising model are replaced by some other revenue structure? (I'm purposely ignoring the BBC drama department in this context because (a) their programming schedule isn't too dissimilar to commercial network TV, and (b) they're not notably into space opera.)

Secondly. If written commercial fiction succeeds in moving online, are we going to see a breakdown of the 80-year-old contractual boilerplate that bans in-novel advertising: and if so, what are the literary consequences going to be? We know what they look like in dead tree form, and it ain't pretty — what I'm interested in is the electronic remix, because it sure as hell won't stop at static ads: we could see targeted audience demographic product placement in novels, tailored to the advertising profile of the particular reader (so that the product in question changes depending on who's reading the ebook).

I have a confession to make: I hate Star Trek.

Let me clarify: when I was young — I'm dating myself here — I quite liked the original TV series. But when the movie-length trailer for ST:TNG first aired in the UK in the late eighties? It was hate on first sight. And since then, it's also been hate on sight between me and just about every space operatic show on television. ST:Voyager and whatever the space station opera; check. Babylon Five? Ditto. Battlestar Galactica? Didn't even bother turning on the TV. I hate them all.

I finally found out why:

At his recent keynote speech at the New York Television Festival, former Star Trek writer and creator of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ron Moore revealed the secret formula to writing for Trek.

He described how the writers would just insert "tech" into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they'd have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.

"It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we'd just write 'tech' in the script. You know, Picard would say 'Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.' I'm serious. If you look at those scripts, you'll see that."

Moore then went on to describe how a typical script might read before the science consultants did their thing:

La Forge: "Captain, the tech is overteching."

Picard: "Well, route the auxiliary tech to the tech, Mr. La Forge."

La Forge: "No, Captain. Captain, I've tried to tech the tech, and it won't work."

Picard: "Well, then we're doomed."

"And then Data pops up and says, 'Captain, there is a theory that if you tech the other tech ... '" Moore said. "It's a rhythm and it's a structure, and the words are meaningless. It's not about anything except just sort of going through this dance of how they tech their way out of it."

As you probably guessed, this is not how I write SF — in fact, it's the antithesis of everything I enjoy in an SF novel.

SF, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist (either because the technology doesn't exist, or there are gaps in our scientific model of the universe, or just because we're short of big meteoroids on a collision course with the Sea of Japan — the situation is improbable but not implausible).

There's an implicit feedback between such a situation and the characters who are floundering around in it, trying to survive. For example: You want to deflect that civilization-killing asteroid? You need to find some way of getting there. It's going to be expensive and difficult, and there's plenty of scope for human drama arising from it. Lo: that's one possible movie in a nutshell. You've got the drama — just add protagonists.

I use a somewhat more complex process to develop SF. I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don't have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects — much as integrated circuits are useful and allow the mobile phone industry to exist and to add cheap camera chips to phones: and cheap camera chips in phones lead to happy slapping or sexting and other forms of behaviour that, thirty years ago, would have sounded science fictional. And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.

Star Trek and its ilk are approaching the dramatic stage from the opposite direction: the situation is irrelevant, it's background for a story which is all about the interpersonal relationships among the cast. You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech — make the Enterprise a man o'war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail — without changing the scripts significantly. (The only casualty would be the eyeball candy — big gunpowder explosions be damned, modern audiences want squids in space, with added lasers!)

I can just about forgive the tendency of these programs to hit the reset switch at the end of every episode, returning the universe to pristine un-played-with shape in time for the next dramatic interlude; even though it's the opposite of real SF (a disruptive literature that focusses intently on revolutionary change), I recognize the limits of the TV series as a medium. Sometimes they make at least a token gesture towards a developing story arc — but it's frequently pathetic. I'm told that Battlestar Galactica, for example, ends with a twist ... the nature of which has been collecting rejection slips ever since Aesop (it's one of the oldest clichés in the book). But I can even forgive that. At least they were trying.

The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating "tech" to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context; yes, there are some gestures in that direction, but if you scratch the protagonists of Star Trek you don't find anything truly different or alien under the latex face-sculptures: just the usual familiar — and, to me, boring — interpersonal neuroses of twenty-first century Americans, jumping through the hoops of standardized plot tropes and situations that were clichés in the 1950s.

PS: Don't get me started on Doctor Who ...

My one consolation when contemplating British politics is that we're not Italy (yet):

As Silvio Berlusconi yesterday tried to shore up his position by declaring himself irreplaceable as Italy's head of government, a court in Milan was told it had been "amply demonstrated" that he was guilty of bribery.

"I am, and not only in my own opinion, the best prime minister who could be found today," he told a press conference. "I believe there is no one in history to whom I should feel inferior. Quite the opposite."

The problem, he explained, was that "In absolute terms, I am the most legally persecuted man of all times, in the whole history of mankind, worldwide, because I have been subjected to more than 2,500 court hearings and I have the good luck — having worked well in the past and having accumulated an important wealth — to have been able to spend more than €200m in consultants and judges ... I mean in consultants and lawyers."

In other news from Italy, his personal friend and close business associate Marcello Dell'Utri, who hails from Palermo, said on a talk-show:
"You're all against me only because I'm a mafioso — I mean Sicilian, you're all against me only because I'm Sicilian."
(NB: I am assured by my Italian translator friend that neither of these quotes are the result of mistranslation into English.)

Cheap jokes aside, I can't help noticing that Silvio Berlusconi was a member of a certain secret organization back in the 1970s and early 1980s.

I wonder ... if it existed, what would a British equivalent of Propaganda 2 look like? And where would one look, if one was searching for its fingerprints?

Foreigners reading this blog might be interested to learn that one of the UK's quaint political customs is to hold general elections at random intervals of no more than five years. That is to say: the Prime Minister can seek the royal assent to dissolve parliament and go to the country at any time, but must do so in any event no more than 60 months after the previous election.

It is probably no secret that Labour are going down in flames. (More here, not to mention "there" and "everywhere" — google is your friend.) The upcoming general election is the Conservatives to lose — and it'd pretty much take something like the shadow cabinet being found in bed with a dead goat and a live boy to turn the tide at this point.

(NB: I am not planning on voting Conservative. I am not planning on voting Labour. Being a Volvo-driving granola-munching Guardian-reading liberal media beardie weirdie, I am voting for the Other Lot, aka the Third Party, the Forlorn Hope: the Liberal Democrats. They don't stand a hope in hell of winning, but I will take great pleasure if their candidate in my constituency kicks out the lying apparatchik who's currently occupying a seat in the Commons, and it's still possible, just barely, to daydream about a hung parliament.)

Anyway, this is a digression. The point is: unless they rig the election as shamelessly as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Labour are going to be out on their ear and we're going to have a Conservative government. What are the consequences for Scotland?

Today's big news is that Amazon are going to start selling Kindle ebook readers world-wide.

Let me explain why I think this is very bad news for writers.

As regular readers will be aware, I go through portable computing gizmos rapidly. In part, it's a nervous tic: I've been trying for years to find an adequate replacement for the Psion 5MX — the One True PDA — with no success ever since Psion left the field. I might as well make an intermittent feature of it on my blog, so from now on posts prefixed Gadget Patrol: will be about, well, Gadgets.

Here's my verdict on the Sharp PC-Z1 Netwalker, which is currently only available in Japan (and my office) but which is about the nearest thing to the Second Coming of the Psion Series 5 yet ...

It is now October.

Last month I went to two SF conventions overseas (in Denmark and Germany), contracted a nasty chest infection (better now, thanks), checked the page proofs on three (count 'em) novels, and wrote a novelette.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm about to take a few days off to recharge. See you next week ...

PS: Feel free to use this as an excuse to talk among yourselves!

Specials

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

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