Charlie Stross: December 2009 Archives

78% of new year's resolutions are doomed to failure, say psychologists who've conducted a large scale study of the matter; so you might think it's pretty useless to even bother with the things. And you'd be right. But that isn't going to stop me making a new year's resolution, even though I know it probably won't work.

I have a gadget habit, and it's a bit out of control. So, subject to five exceptions (below), my proposed New Year's Resolution for 2010 is: buy no computers. A computer, for the purposes of this resolution, is a general purpose computing device with a human user interface that I run apps on. (A wifi router or a car engine management system or a radio might contain a microprocessor, but I'm not classing it as a computer for purposes of this resolution.)

I'm allowing certain exceptions because (a) they're sensible, and (b) if I make no exceptions I'm much more likely to fail completely — this way, if I fall from grace I can climb back on the wagon (to mix a metaphor).

Here's the small print:

  1. I may still buy computers for other people (e.g. parents, spouse, siblings).
  2. I reserve the right to replace machines that are stolen, irreparably damaged, or need replacement due to unforseen emergencies.
  3. Peripherals and consumables are allowed: no limits, as long as they're not general purpose computing devices in their own right.
  4. I reserve the right to upgrade my mobile phone when I get to the end of my contract. (It's due up in May, after 18 months.)
  5. Special exception: I'd be an idiot to tie my hands so tightly that I can't acquire and mess with new platforms that may impact my ongoing/future business. So I am leaving a loophole for category-busting devices that don't resemble anything I already have, can't be emulated by a combination of things I already have, and have major business implications. (For example: rumours surrounding the Apple tablet device suggest that it's going to be announced on January 27th and that Apple are positioning it as a Kindle-killer. If this is the case, I probably can't afford to ignore it. If, on the other hand, it turns out to be a Macbook that's shrunk in the wash, well — I don't need another Macbook.)

What are your new year's resolutions?

More highlights from the past year of blogging:

The future, Indian style — you know you're living in the 21st century when you read about India setting up a new export industry ... Thorium cycle nuclear reactors.

Jeff Bezos eats kittens — in case you hadn't guessed, I really don't like Amazon.com. Here's why.

Why I hate Star Trek — in other news: Santa Claus doesn't exist.

News from the future front — an attempt to triangulate on near future technological trends in policing the UK.

How habitable is the Earth? — a thought experiment in which we look at the probability of a probe, arriving in orbit around our planet at some time in its past, determining that the Earth is in fact habitable by human beings. (Short answer: extremely low. Long answer: we suffer from an interesting cognitive bias in assuming that because we evolved here we're generally suited to live here ...)

What is the minimum number of organisms one needs to create a stable biosphere — on a space colony or generation ship? (Hint: the action is all in the comments, and the answer is a lot more complex than most of the early commenters seem to realize.)

Mechanical problems associated with space habitats/generation ships — ditto on those comments.

Designing society for posterity — never mind the propulsion, engineering, or life support side of a generation ship: what kind of society would make it to the other end of a multi-thousand year journey intact? (Again: the comments are enlightening, in a gruesome kind of way. It's amazing how many space colonization enthusiasts love the idea of (a) nautical-military hierarchies or (b) theocracy.)

The myth of the starship — when we stick the -ship suffix on a piece of machinery, we are also bringing a whole bunch of inappropriate assumptions to the party. Given what we now understand about the prospects for interstellar travel, has the compound word "starship" outlived its usefulness?

It's a crime — on writing the intersection of SF and police procedural.

21st century phone — is Google planning on destroying the mobile phone companies' business model?

Aaaaand ... that's it for 2009!

More highlights from 2009's blogging:

Retrograde — rail travel in different centuries.

How I got here in the end — my pre-writing work autobiography (in a dozen parts). Caution: includes memoirs of the computing industry in the early to mid 1990s.

Back to the Moon? — short answer: not with NASA.

False positives and the database state — more Jack Straw than George Orwell, unfortunately.

What have the romans done for us? — or, more accurately, what are the real civilian technological spin-offs of the space program?

Guesswork — what I thought the Apple tablet would look like in late July. (Bookmark this for January 26th if you want a good laugh, m'kay?)

Doing it wrong — on the misapplication of DNA databases for policing.

Merciless — on mercy (and the lack of it) in contemporary political discourse.

Doing our bit — what's wrong with environmental rhetoric? A personal perspective.

Chrome plated jackboots — on the political threats of the 21st century.

Goodwill — goodwill in business, and it's absence.

(I'll finish this off on by the end of the year, I hope.)

So. I finally got Win7 working on the Vaio P11Z. Next up: Ubuntu 9.10.

My first stop was an external hard disk and a freeware disk image backup utility, just in case. Having thus secured my ass, I downloaded and burned an Ubuntu 9.10 install CD image, plugged in the DVD drive, and rebooted (having first mashed my finger on the F2 key and brainwashed the BIOS into booting off an external USB device before spinning th hard disk).

The Ubuntu 9.10 install is very anticlimactic. My only deviation from the default setting was to customize my partition layout — in this case, deleting the 9Gb Vista restore partition, and creating a 2Gb swap space and 7Gb ext4 partition for the Ubuntu root in its place. Forty minutes later, Ubuntu is up and running ... and everything works except the accelerated graphics system (which, being an Intel GMA500 I already knew would be a headache). A quick reboot into Windows 7, just to ensure it's still working —

— Oops. Make that a two hour excursion into Windows 7, with triple reboot: Sony's Vaio updater chose that moment to kick off, upgrade a bunch of device drivers, and generally make a nuisance of itself —

— And I'm back in Ubuntu again.

Getting the GMA500 working seemed challenging, so I went to the pub instead, leaving Ubuntu to download 250Mb of updates over the air. Came home mildly drunk at 2am, followed the recipe here (no, I wasn't that drunk), and lo: forty minutes later I had 2D acceleration working. The only challenge is now to squish down the annoying windows cruft that's occupying 80% of the disk.

Today I fired up the Ubuntu install DVD once more, and ran GParted to mess with the partitions on the Vaio. First, I shrank the Windows 7 partition from around 48Gb to 24Gb, resulting in a bunch of free space. Next, I formatted the free space as ext4. Then I quit GParted, mounted the Ubuntu root filesystem and the new free space filesystem, and moved my /home contents onto it (updating /etc/fstab to know about the new location). One permissions whoopsie later — I'm rusty — I was up and running again, and able to pull my work universe across onto the Ubuntu setup.

The one thing I can note so far is that even though a modern Linux distro is pretty heavyweight compared to the Old Skool stuff I started out on (anyone else remember Redhat 2.02 or thereabouts? Slackware 7?), it's far more nimble than Windows 7. Startup time for my admittedly-humongous Thunderbird profile (around 4Gb of mail folders) was about half what it was under Windows; ditto OpenOffice without the quickstarter.

But then, in a spirit of completeness, I tried to fire up Windows 7. And (who knew?) discovered it doesn't like having its partition resized and moved. Not to worry: there are instructions on the web for rendering a resized Windows partition bootable again. Only having done this (at last the Vaio Windows 7 upgrade DVD comes in handy for something), the Windows system is now twiddling its hard disk at high speed — and has been doing so for a good half hour or more. Something has gotten classpnp.sys's knickers in a twist, and it's letting me know about it the hard way.

I'm beginning to question the merit of retaining the Redmond bloatware, but what the hell: I can give it a day or two to get over the trauma of being shoved aside to make space for a newcomer.

The good news is that I've got a working Ubuntu system (and despite some snags, got there in about a tenth the time it took to upgrade the Vaio from Vista to Windows 7). Software suspend and hibernate work; the memory card readers work; it can see the 3G HSPA modem; the graphics chipset is all there. I haven't tried the GPS system — don't know anything about Linux software for doing GPS related stuff — but I'm fairly sure that's going to work, too, if I ever need it. The only snags right now are that the existing GMA500 driver isn't terribly good (although I suspect that'll be fixed in the new year), and I've had a couple of wifi dropouts — I need to look into that, once Windows 7 stops sulking and lets me get back into Linux.

But my overall verdict is that I'll be using the Vaio P a lot as a lightweight travel machine — and I'll be using it under Ubuntu, which is a much better match for its capabilities than Windows 7, never mind Vista.

Speaking of SF on television, while round at $FRIEND's place for the traditional December 25th protein'n'booze overdose, someone insisted on switching on the telly for the Queen's speech Dr Who Christmas Special.

I do not normally watch Dr Who for much the same reason that I don't habitually dig up my grandmother: I have fond but distant memories of her and don't want to spoil them by renewing our acquaintance (aside from some casual necrophilia when the rebooted series was just getting under way). But it's hard to say "no" over a glass of port when everyone else wants to watch, so watch it I did.

And very picturesque it was, too, with lots of good actors over-emoting, plenty of SFX, and a chunk of anime/fanfic service ... if you could switch your brain off and ignore the giant plot holes stalking the land that cliches forgot.

I mean, WTF? We are deep in the grip of attention-deficit plotting here, veering wildly between disjointed lectures, Ancient Prophesies (always a bad sign), and bad dreams foreshadowing the return of respawning enemies. Our narrative viewpoint is all over the road, round the bend, and driving with one foot floored on the accelerator while guzzling a bottle of Bucky. I headcrashed painfully during the seamless chase (on foot) from a scrapyard to a shipyard (paging Continuity, Continuity to the white courtesy phone): but the coup de grace was the re-invention of The Master as a bizarre cross between Sauron, a Bond villain (of the more psychotic variety) and I. R. Baboon in the Disease Fiesta episode of I Am Weasel. (Which is not on YouTube, and the Cartoon Network ain't running repeats right now. Why is I Am Weasel not on YouTube? Bring me my Cow and my Chicken! Now!!)

Ahem. There is also the small matter of fifteen minutes of infodump in a forty-two minute slot, narrated by Timothy Dalton as, er, [SPOILER], and a spavined nag of a pantomime horse of a plot (that sagged in the middle) to consider. SPANK.

The resurrected, rebooted, Frankensteinian stitch-up that is the new Dr Who was never going to be a particularly sane construct, but in the hands of RTD it has clearly hit depths of self-referential up-its-own-arse-dom that I — in my televisually impaired state — could barely imagine existed: then it donned a helium-oxygen technical diving rig and merrily proceeded in the general direction of the floor of the Marianas Trench, there to pull out the magical plot-shovel of self-immuration and attempt to dig itsself a Mohole to hide in. It's eyeball candy, but it rots your critical teeth — not to mention making you go blind and putting hairs on the palm of your hand or something from all the fan-wank. I mean, with Dr Who, extreme silliness is part of the package: but to take on the Bond canon while stealing a plot McGuffin from Maxwell Atoms is beyond barking.

I need to go pour myself a stiff drink now, to burn out the relevant neurons before they lay down permanent synapses and I'm stuck with the resulting memories.

Meanwhile, in another corner of the multiverse, a million fanfic writers' keyboards begin to smoke as they get to grips with the logical consequences of the Master and the Doctor's smooch.

The horror, the horror ...

Working today. (What, you thought I took Christmas off work? Hardly — but I've been lying on my back panting for the past week, having finished the first half third of "Rule 34", and you've got to go back to work sooner or later ...)

Meanwhile, unearthed from the archives for your delectation, here are some of the more significant of 2009's 147 blog entries for you to marvel at (or mock). Feel free to poke me via the comments ...

Actually, that's just the first half of 2009. I'll get around to the back end of the year tomorrow. Really must see about bolting that non-fiction book together ...

I confess: I'm 45, and running low on flexibility. I need to limber up and try new things.

What do you think I should try in 2010?

(Note: I have no desire to get myself arrested/sent to gaol. Nor would extreme sports/serious adrenaline surges be a good idea, health-wise. I'm monolingual — in English — and do not have access to a bottomless purse with which to buy a ticket to the space station/a yacht/a medium-sized or larger heroin habit. In short, I'm a boringly average middle-class British media luvvie, subtype: overweight, bad eyesight, married, no kids, two elderly cats, writes books for a living and travels a bit.)

UPDATE:

Stuff folks have suggested which are contraindicated (for medical reasons or due to general health) include:

* Martial arts, fencing, running, anything requiring good eyesight, serious aerobic exercise, learning to fly

Stuff folks have suggested which are impractical include:

* learning foreign languages (I'm seriously rubbish at them), woodwork/metalshop/crafts (no space in a top-floor apartment), going to Burning Man (wrong side of planet), cycling (if I didn't live on the side of an extinct volcano, maybe ...), photography (see "good eyesight" above)

Stuff folks have suggested which I'm already doing include:

* foreign travel, walking, swimming

By the way, those of you who like my Laundry books might want to keep an eye on Tor.com over the next week.

(This isn't a product review, it's a big-picture overview brought to you from the universe of "Halting State".)

It shouldn't be news to anyone that smartphones — as a category — really took off in the second half of the noughties. Before 2005, few people bothered with PDAs, and fewer still with phones that had keyboards and could browse the web or send email. Current projections, however, show 25% of all phones sold in 2010 being smartphones — and today's smartphone is a somewhat more powerful computer than 2002's laptop.

At the same time, the winners in 2005's smartphone market (Palm, Windows Mobile, Symbian Series 60, 80, and UIQ) are losing ground rapidly (PalmOS is already dead, modulo the Hail Mary pass that is WebOS on the Pré) while strange new mutants slouch towards market dominance — Android, Mac OS X, and maybe Maemo.

What's happening?

Here's my hypothesis ...

Pre-2005, digital mobile phones typically ran on GSM, with GPRS data limited to 56kbssec, or Verizon's CDMA. This badly choked their ability to do anything useful and internet-worthy. By 2005, the first 3G networks based on WCDMA (aka UMTS) began to open up. By 2009, 3G HSDPA networks can carry up to 7.2mbps. The modem-grade data throughput of the mid-noughties smartphone experience has been replaced by late-noughties broadband grade thorughput, at least in the densely networked cities where most of us live. (I am not including the rural boondocks in this analysis. Different rules apply.)

To the mobile phone companies, 3G presented a headache. They typically offered each government billions for the right to run services over the frequencies freed up by the demise of old analog mobile phone services and early TV and other broadcast systems; how were they to monetise this investment?

They couldn't do it by charging extra for the handsets or access, because they'd trained their customers to think of mobile telephony as, well, telephony. But you can do voice or SMS perfectly well over a GSM/GPRS network. What can you do over 3G that justifies the extra cost?

Version 1 of their attempt to monetise 3G consisted of walled gardens of carefully cultivated multimedia content — downloadable movies and music, MMS photo-messaging, and so on. The cellcos set themselves up as gatekeepers; for a modest monthly fee, the customers could be admitted to their garden of multimedia delights. But Version 1 is in competition with the internet, and the roll-out of 3G services coincided (and competed) with the roll-out of wifi hotspots, both free and for-money. It turns out that what consumers want of a 3G connection is not what a mobile company sees fit to sell them, but one thing: bandwidth. Call it Version 2.

Becoming a pure bandwidth provider is every cellco's nightmare: it levels the playing field and puts them in direct competition with their peers, a competition that can only be won by throwing huge amounts of capital infrastructure at their backbone network. So for the past five years or more, they've been doing their best not to get dragged into a game of beggar-my-neighbour, by expedients such as exclusive handset deals (ever wondered why AT&T in America or O2 in the UK allowed Apple to tie their hands and retain control over the iPhone's look and feel?) and lengthening contractual lock-in periods for customers (why are 18-month contracts cheaper than 12-month contracts?). And the situation with international data roaming is dismal. It doesn't hit Americans so much, but here in the UK, if I travel over an hour by air, the odds are good that I'll be paying £6 per megabyte for bandwidth. It's as if my iPhone's IQ drops by 80 points whenever I leave home.

Enter: Apple and Google.

Apple are an experience company. They're a high-end marque; if they were in the automobile business, they'd be BMW, Mercedes, and Porsche rolled into one. They own about 12% of the PC market in the USA ... but 91% of the high end of the PC market (laptops over $999, desktops over $699). How they got into the mobile phone market is an odd and convoluted story, but it's best to view it as a vertical upwardly-mobile extension of the MP3 player market (from their point of view), which has taken on a lucrative life of its own. Apple's unique angle is the user experience. Without OS X to differentiate them from the rest of the market, their computers would just be overpriced PCs. So it should be no surprise that Apple's runaway hit iPhone business team have a single overriding goal: maintain control of the platform and keep it different (and aspirational).

Apple don't want to destroy the telcos; they just want to use them as a conduit to sell their user experience. Google, however, are another matter.

Google is an advertising corporation. Their whole business model is predicated on breaking down barriers to access — barriers which stop the public from accessing rich internet content plastered with Google's ads. Google want the mobile communications industry to switch to Version 2, pure bandwidth competition. In fact, they'd be happiest if the mobile networks would go away, get out of the users' faces and hand out free data terminals with unlimited free bandwidth. More bandwidth, more web browsing, more adverts served, more revenue for Google. Simple!

This is where the Nexus One announced last week may be significant. If the rumours are true — that they're pushing it at a low or subsidized price, and have strong-armed T-Mobile (the weakest of the US cellcos) into providing a cheap data-only mobile tariff for it, and more significantly access to VoIP and cheap international data roaming — then they've got a Trojan horse into the mobile telephony industry.

I think Google are pursuing a grand strategic vision of destroying the cellco's entire business model — of positioning themselves as value-added gatekeepers providing metered access to content — and their second-string model of locking users in by selling them premium handsets (such as the iPhone) on a rolling contract.

They intend to turn 3G data service (and subsequently, LTE) into a commodity, like wifi hotspot service only more widespread and cheaper to get at. They want to get consumers to buy unlocked SIM-free handsets and pick cheap data SIMs. They'd love to move everyone to cheap data SIMs rather than the hideously convoluted legacy voice stacks maintained by the telcos; then they could piggyback Google Voice on it, and ultimately do the Google thing to all your voice messages as well as your email and web access.

(This is, needless to say, going to bring them into conflict with Apple. Hitherto, Apple's iPhone has been good for Google: iPhone users do far more web surfing — and Google ad-eyeballing — than regular phone users. But Apple want to maintain the high quality Apple-centric user experience and sell stuff to their users through the walled garden of the App Store and the iTunes music/video store. Apple are an implicit threat to Google because Google can't slap their ads all over those media. So it's going to end in handbags at dawn ... eventually.)

The real message here is that if Google succeeds, the economic basis of your mobile telephony service in 2019 is going to be unrecognizably different from that of 2009. Some of the biggest names in phone service (T-mobile? Orange? Vodafone? AT&T? Verizon?) are going to go the way of Pan Am and Ma Bell by then; the ones left standing will be the ones with the best infrastructure (hint: that doesn't look like AT&T right now — by some analyses, AT&T mis-understand TCP/IP so badly that their network trouble is self-inflicted) and best interoperability (goodbye Verizon), selling bits at the lowest price to punters who buy their cheap-to-disposable (phones are part of the perpetually deflating consumer elecronics sector; today's $350 BoM should be down to under $100 by 2019, for something a good deal more powerful) unlocked in WalMart and take ditchwater-cheap international roaming service for granted.

Probably around the time VoIP takes over from the current model, we'll see something not unlike DNS emerge for mapping OpenID or other internet identities onto the phone number address space. (God, I hate phone numbers. Running a phone service that forces everyone to use seven to twelve digit numbers is like running an internet that forces everyone to use raw IP addresses.) Then the process will be complete, and things will have come full-circle, and the internet will have eaten the phone system.

What's good for the internet is good for Google. Right now, the phone companies are not good for the internet. If I'm right about the grand strategy, the Googlephone will change that.

December 11th, 2pm

So in late November, I cracked and bought a Vaio P11Z/B as a travel typing machine. (Half price, two year extended warranty thrown in — they were discontinuing it. What can I say?)

It's a nice piece of hardware, except for the software. It came running Vista, and lumbered with Sony's usual crapware. There are also fun issues surrounding the GMA500 graphics chipset and Linux — hopefully they'll be fixed in 2010, but in the meantime, I'm being cautious and not switching OSs on the machine immediately. Vista is a horrible parody of a real operating system, but it also came with a voucher for an upgrade to Windows 7 — and the upgrade path allows you to keep your apps and data in situ (no reformatting needed). So for the past couple of weeks I tweaked the machine, tapped my fingers while Vista took forever to do anything, and waited for the parcel to arrive.

Well, it came yesterday.

Step 1: there's a 9Gb Vista OS restore partition on the Vaio. It'd be a good idea to back it up to DVD, wouldn't it, and claw back the 20% of my available disk space it's using, wouldn't it? (I could even install Linux in that partition.) Cue collision #1 with Sony's crapware. They provide a utility for burning backup system restore DVDs. It doesn't work: I tried with three different external DVD burners and four different sets of disks (including +RW, -R, and +R). The drives work — I burned a data DVD with one of 'em — but the Sony utility horks and dies every time. (Oh, and it's such a piece of shit that it runs in a non-resizable window and if you rescale the UI to a sensible number of pixels per inch the buttons you need to click are clipped. So you can only run it with the screen set to 96dpi ... on a machine that has a physical resolution of 200dpi. Cue bleeding from the eyeballs.)

Step 2: So I proceed to do the Windows 7 upgprade without a lifebelt. Oka-a-a-y ...

Step 3: Follow the instructions in Sony's leaflet and de-install a bunch of Sony crapware that derails the Windows 7 upgrade. Reboot three times in the process (because some of the installers won't give you an option to reboot later).

Step 4: Start the upgrade. Watch as Win 7 checks ... then quits, warning you to remove three other pieces of crapware and ensure that there are at least 16Gb of free space on the hard disk. Okay, some of the crapware was my fault (iTunes, Skype) ... but what kind of OS needs 16Gb of free space to install? Scratch head, jump through hoops, go back to Step 4.

Step 5. Over a period of six hours, Windows 7 installs itself. Then it reboots. Bombs to a DOS prompt: "one of the filesystems needs to be checked. Press any key to avoid running chkdsk. You have five seconds ..."

Not being stupid, I leave chkdsk to do its stuff. It has now been running for (checks clock) around 16 hours. It's spitting out lots of lines of the form "Inserting an index entry with Id 999999 into index $SII of file 9". Well okay, a quick google reveals that it does this if the filesystem is set up for disk indexing and it thinks the index is corrupt. Interrupting it would be Bad, so I don't do that. Such a shame that I switched indexing off on Drive C: for performance reasons (read: 1.33GHz Atom processor wheezing and groaning under the weight of Vista).

Ellapsed wall-clock time on Windows 7 upgrade so far: 22 hours.

Still to do: finish chkdsk run, reboot into Win7, enter activation key, switch to Sony's driver disk, install drivers (rebooting three times), deinstall any unwanted Sony bloatware (rebooting to taste), reinstall iTunes and Skype.

(Brief discursion: the only reason it isn't running ubuntu is that my initial attempt to get the Intel GMA500 graphics accelerator working (on Netbook Remix 9.10 via Wubi) ended in tears before bed-time, so I was waiting until I've got Win7 up and running before nuking the Vista restore partition and making another serious run at Ubuntu. Reason for upgrading to Win7 first: because Sony's borked Win7 upgrade installer insists on the Vista restore partition being occupied by, er, Vista, or it refuses to run.)

Worth noting is the time to upgrade from OS/X 10.5 (Leopard) to OS/X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) on a supported Mac: 40 minutes on average — I did it to four Macs in an afternoon. (And before the Windows-users leap in to say "but that's only a service patch", no it isn't. New BSD kernel, new thread despatcher, large lump of new subsystems, Rosetta separated out as a separate installable module, and so on. It's as much a new OS relative to OS X 10.5 as Windows 7 is relative to Vista.)

UPDATE: Elapsed time so far: 28 hours. chkdsk is still hamsterizing the flywheel. It's now added around 375,000 index entries ... assuming it's rebuilding an index for the entire FS, with one record per file, it's got another 500,000 to go. Groan. The only time I've ever seen Linux or OS/X's filesystem checker fsck pull a stunt like this, it was trying to recover a RAID-based filesystem that had been mangled by massive memory corruption ...

FLASH UPDATE: Just as I finished typing the above update, it rolled over to say "Repairing the security file record segment" instead.

Gosh, the excitement is killing me.

11pm

30 hours and counting on the Win 7 install.

chkdsk.exe has finished hamsterizing the flywheel inserting index entries in the security file record segment, and is now hammering the hard disk while maintaining NSA-grade close-lipped silence.

I think it has simply run out of excuses and is staying shtumm to avoid self-incrimination.

(I'm used to filesystem checking algorithms on real operating systems that run in seconds to minutes on devices an order of magnitude larger. This is a sick joke, right?)

December 12th, 2pm

chkdsk has, for a miracle, finished squirrelizing the cat tray or whatever it was doing for nearly two days. Got downstairs this lunchtime to find the Vaio had rebooted and was waiting patiently for a registration key. It is running Windows 7, and for a miracle had cleaned up an extra 11Gb of disk space — I started the install with 16Gb free, and it's now showing 27 free.

Now to mess with the driver disk/BIOS update/other miscellaneous crap.

8pm

Fifty hours and yes, I now have a Vaio P running Windows 7, fully patched and updated and mercifully free of re-installed Sony bloatware. The actual Vista to Windows 7 upgrade took around 12 hours of wall-clock time, of which about 2-3 hours was preparation (uninstalling incompatible apps and drivers), 7 hours was execution, and the rest cleanup and post-install. The remaining 38 hours was disk checking.

The Vaio is still chittering away re-indexing the filesystem, but by tomorrow it should be done. As it's no slower — while indexing — than Vista was while twiddling its thumbes, I shall call this a win, and declare the upgrade complete at 50 hours ellapsed, wall clock time. I might have been able to squeeze another six hours out of that if I hadn't gone to bed while chkdsk was embalming the corpse of Vista, but what the hell.

For the past three days I've been on the road, and I have to say that a Vaio P, with Windows 7, makes a usable — if very sluggish — platform for email and web work. I wouldn't want to write a book on it (the screen's about 20 centimetres wide and 10 centimetres high) but for web and mail it's more than adequate ... if the software didn't let it down. It's like dropping a two and a half ton truck body on a Ford Fiesta's mechanicals: nothing good will come of this. So the search for a lightweight alternative operating system is on.

Next week ... I'm going to make a bootable external hard drive with a restorable image of Windows 7. Then I'm going to try and squeeze Ubuntu into the Vista restore partition and get the GMA500 drivers working. Spraying Ubuntu over an existing partition should only take an hour or so (call it an hour for the install, then two hours to slurp up the updates over my ADSL line), but it's anybody's guess how long the other job will take. At least I won't be bored ...

If Ubuntu and the GMA500 prove to be fatally allergic to one another, there's always Mandriva (who claim to include a GMA500 driver in the proprietary stuff that comes with their for-money batteries-included version).

Microsoft: providing pointless hamster-wheel exercises for gearheads since 1976.

As you may have noticed, in the second half of 2008 we had a minor whoopsie in the banking sector — what is laughingly known as a "liquidity crisis". Now here's the sound of another shoe dropping. The Observer reports:

Drugs money worth billions of dollars kept the financial system afloat at the height of the global crisis, the United Nations' drugs and crime tsar has told the Observer.

Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said he has seen evidence that the proceeds of organised crime were "the only liquid investment capital" available to some banks on the brink of collapse last year. He said that a majority of the $352bn (£216bn) of drugs profits was absorbed into the economic system as a result.

Organised crime always has a problem with legitimising (or laundering) the proceeds of its operations. If you're a regular widget business and you have a billion dollars coming in, you have accountants and pay taxes (or rather, pay accountants to avoid taxes) and everything is above board. But if you have a criminal widget business — selling heroin by the gram, for example: one gram of heroin being a "widget" in this context — the police would like nothing better than to get their hands on your accounts so they can crawl back up your supply chain and arrest everybody. You end up taking lots of cash, and then face the fun conundrum of how to invest the money. Banknotes stuffed in a mattress aren't working for you, after all.

There are draconian anti-money-laundering controls in place throughout the banking system in the UK, the USA, and pretty much the entire developed world. Ever wondered why your bank wants to see a passport or government-issued photo ID before opening a new account? It's in case you're a runner for a criminal firm, trying to open another deposit box to shove the money inside. Once you're in the legal system you can do things with your money other than simply leave it in a bank's virtual vault; you can invest it elsewhere. Indeed, if you've got more than a couple of thousand bucks to spare, and the banking sector as a whole is going through a liquidity crisis, you want to invest it elsewhere.

What we've just seen, hidden in the euphemism here, is a confession that drug cartels and other organized criminals have gone on a $352Bn asset-buying spree — and the banks and regulators, world-wide, turned a blind eye to this because the alternative was to allow the banks to collapse. And the corollary is that these investments are now in the system, laundered, whitewashed, and legit. These narcodollars aren't neatly bundled up inside the mattress any more; they're in the system, doing their owners' bidding.

A third of a trillion dollars is a lot of money; it's enough to fund the US military invading another country halfway around the world, or a manned Mars exploration program. Obviously, there's no single Mr Big here, no Blofeld investing SPECTREs ill-gotten billions in an ambitious bid to go legit.

But one wonders whether the "organised criminals" have been investing in anything innovative. (Politicians, if they're smart.) And what the long-term consequences are going to be ...

Ever wondered where books come from, from the publisher's point of view? Marty Halpern explains how The Atrocity Archives came to be, with bits of our email correspondence from, oh, 2002 or thereabouts. Marty has edited the Laundry novels, first for Golden Gryphon, and now as external copy editor for Ace; it's an unusual look into how the business works from the other side of the desk, and well worth reading.

Meanwhile, new technology has interesting side-effects. Google Wave has sometimes been described as a communications technology looking for a niche; early heavy users, for example, seem to have consisted of software developers ... and AD&D gamers. I recently got a Google Wave account, and here's some of the fallout; me, interviewed for writing blog badlanguage.net, via Wave. Wave seems to work significantly better than the traditional email interview for Q&A dialogs; does the result read better?

Turning to a different aspect of communications technology, I'd like to pass on a note from Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) (who describe themselves as "a not for profit non-governmental organization that searches for better outcomes, including new solutions, to the management of knowledge resources, as is described in http://www.keionline.org.")

We are distributing a letter (in English and Spanish) to writers, journalists and authors who support the World Blind Union WIPO treaty proposal to improve access to books in formats accessible to people who are blind, visual impaired or have other disabilities.

The World Blind Union has been for years requesting a new international legal framework that will allow them to produce and share accessible formats of books and other written material.

The World Blind Union treaty proposal, formally endorsed by Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay is supported by nearly all developing countries and by disabilities and consumer organizations but the position that developed countries, like the European governments and United States, will take next week is still unclear.

Why is it urgent: Next week the treaty proposal is going to be discussed at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva. This is the website for the WIPO meeting.

A fact Sheet that explains the treaty proposal is available here (PDF).

They're looking for writers and asking them to sign the petition: interested parties should contact Judit Rius at judit.rius(at)keionline.org. My take on it is that this is an unequivocally good cause, and I'll be signing KEI's letter. One of the big problems with electronic media and DRM is that they tend to lock the visually handicapped out; for example, a common restriction on ebooks is to disable the "read aloud" feature offered by Kindle and other readers. Such behaviour is discriminatory and (in some jurisdictions) illegal, but it's going to be hard to prevent it spreading without something like this proposed treaty.

I read ebooks. I've been doing so since around 1997, on a variety of handheld gadgets; the convenience factor of having a bookshelf in your pocket over a few kilograms of dead tree in your shoulder bag shouldn't be underestimated, and if you travel a lot, well — a random empirical test suggests the average mass market paperback weighs about 250 grams, and a hardbound novel about 660 grams.

Reading ebooks on a PDA or phone has two drawbacks: battery life, and screen size. Battery life probably won't hit you until the next time you're 35 hours late on an 18 hour three-sector flight ... but most PDAs or phones are only good for 3-7 hours of reading before it's time to swap power packs (assuming you're carrying a spare). Screen size is another headache. Ageing eyes (mine have been working for 45 years now) have difficulty resolving tiny text. (I discount dealing with glare from backlit screens, a common objection you hear from the anti-ebook folks; if you can watch TV for 30 hours a week you can deal with an LCD.) So it's nice to have something a bit larger ...

I acquired my first dedicated ebook reader two and a half years ago: a Sony Reader PRS-505, their third generation ebook. The marketing proposition for ebook readers is that rather than a backlit LCD or OLED display, they rely on electronic paper — a very low power consumption, greyscale reflective display technology that has much the same visual feel as newsprint. You read using ambient (reflected) light, just like a book, and it only consumes battery juice when you update the display (i.e. by turning pages).

The PRS-505 had pros and cons. Pros: good screen, light weight, ability to render PDF and RTF files as well as Sony's own proprietary LRF ebook format, and an SD card slot for additional storage, internal memory presenting as a USB mass storage device if you cable it up to a computer. The battery life was amazing: on that 35-hours-late trip it was still showing three bars out of four when I arrived, having read about three books en route. The cons: well, Sony's software for starters (it's awful, and back then was Windows only), useless extra bells and whistles (I did not buy it for its MP3 playing capabilities, or to use it as a monochrome digital picture frame — if the MP3 player got activated accidentally it could drain the battery in less than six hours, with no warning), and bad ergonomics.

The software was not, ultimately, an obstacle, thanks to the sterling work of programmer Kovid Goyal, whose application Calibre makes a much better ebook library manager than anything Sony's development group have barfed up; it's open source, cross-platform, and feature-rich, and among other things can convert ebooks between a dizzying range of file formats. The one thing it doesn't handle is DRM. But DRM on ebooks is ... well, I won't buy any electronic product protected by DRM that I can't unlock. (And unlike most readers, I'm in a position to email editors and say "is the manuscript of $HOT_NEW_NOVEL ready yet? If so, email me a copy and I'll blurb it for you." Which is to say, I have slightly different relationship with the publishing world from most readers.)

There are some minor annoyances. Sony's readers (at least the 505 and 300) don't come with a power brick. They will charge over USB ... but many USB chargers don't deliver enough juice, and if you plug them into anything other than a live computer there's a good chance you'll drain the battery instead of topping it up. There's a socket for a separate charger, but Sony seem to think that £30 is a sane price for one. Tip: it uses the same plug, current, and voltage as a Playstation Portable, and PSP power bricks are lot cheaper and easier to find.

But in the end it was the ergonomics that got to me. If you read books on screen, you will be in intimate contact with the ebook reader for hours on end. And the page turn buttons on the PRS-505 were diabolically stupid in their placement: bottom-left of front, or middle of the right edge. I got cramp in my thumbs, turning pages. Not good.

A couple of months ago, Sony began a major roll-out of new ebook readers, and after playing with the new models in a store and doing some research on alternatives from the likes of Irex and Amazon I settled on a Sony
PRS-300 — the pocket-sized stripped-down member of the range.

What I have to say about the PRS-300 after a couple of months with it is: win. It's about the width and weight (220 grams) of a slim mass-market paperback, but about a centimetre shorter: jacket pocket sized, in other words, and light enough not to make the jacket sag. It doesn't have memory card slots or an MP3 player or a web browser and wifi and other bells and whistles; instead, it has half a gigabyte of onboard storage (enough for about a thousand novels) and does just one thing. It's a single purpose device, in other words, but a properly designed one that does the job well (and the page turn wheel is in the right place, easily usable with either hand and no joint-busting contortions). It does everything ebook-wise that the PRS-505 did, including reading Adobe Digital Editions (a more universal standard for DRM lock-in) and the ePub common ebook format.

I rejected the bells-and-whistles approach for a reason. Firstly, things like Amazon's whispernet or wifi suck battery power like crazy. Secondly, I'm used to getting books onto my machine by using a library program on my main laptop. The argument that an ebook reader should also let you browse online bookstores is fine as far as it goes — but it rapidly leads to feature-creep (and price rises). I'm not enchanted by Amazon's policies on Kindle ebook sales, and I see no prospect that Sony or Barnes and Noble or the other retailers will be any better with respect to balancing consumer rights against the powers that DRM give them to control your reader. So the online stores aren't attractive to me. When I want to read a book, I don't need distractions; I need a simple display device that does one thing well — puts pixels in front of my eyes. Oh, and it had better be cheap, in case I accidentally drop it in the bath or leave it in a hotel room. The PRS-300 isn't cheap, but it costs a lot less than its competitors, and I reckon the price will come down a long way in 2010. (It'll have to, if it's going to stay on the market and compete with the bells'n'whistles brigade.)

Note that, implicit in this discussion, is the assumption that I'm reading non-graphical works of English-language fiction. If you want to largely read other types of text, the PRS-300 will suck. It'd be useless for colour comics, useless for large PDFs such as RPG manuals, and poor for text books. Unlike more expensive readers it doesn't support annotation of texts. (I'm not convinced we're anywhere remotely close to a proper digital textbook reader yet — not unless your definition stretches to something like the Asus Eee T91 and a five-hour battery life.)

But if what you want to do is to read novels in regular lighting conditions without having to worry about running out of battery power, the PRS-300 is the way to go.

UPDATE: My wife is looking for an ebook reader that supports annotations. The catch: she is 100% Mac-based (and allergic to Microsoft products — if a piece of software runs on Windows, it's inappropriate to her needs). Anyone got any recommendations?

Ever wondered why sometimes the names of characters in works of fiction are ... familiar? In the SF field there's a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tradition called Tuckerization (after SF author Wilson Tucker), whereby authors sometimes use the names of friends or acquaintances in their stories.

There's another SF tradition, called the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund, "created in 1953 for the purpose of providing funds to bring well-known and popular members of science fiction fandom familiar to fans on both sides of the ocean, across the Atlantic" (as wikipedia puts it).

This year the TAFF fund administrators are running an auction, and they've got a bunch of SF writers (including yours truly) to join in. Here's your chance to get your name into a story or novel by, variously, folks like me, Mary Robinette Kowal, Elizabeth Bear, Cory Doctorow, David Brin, Nalo Hopkinson, or Julie Czerneda. It's on eBay, it's due to end in the small hours on Tuesday night, and it's in a good cause.

So, on Friday I got together with $LOCAL_FILM_DIRECTOR and we went round to visit our MP, Mark Lazarowicz, at his constituency surgery, and talk about the Digital Economy Bill. My particular angle was clauses 42 and 43 (perhaps better known as the "how to fuck every literary agency and publisher's rights department in the UK" clauses), but of course we covered other areas of interest too — the problems any attempts at bringing in "three strikes" anti-file sharing penalties will cause for the legitimate distribution of free material, the bizarre bid to arrogate control over the entire domain name system to the Secretary of State, and so on. The DEB is a target-rich environment; it was a quiet evening so we had twenty minutes with our MP, but even so barely scratched the surface.

The utility of lobbying your legislator in person ... well, he was interested to hear of our concerns, suggested people we should be talking to, channels to go through, and expressed a willingness to act as a conduit. But at the mere hint that he might like to take it up as an area of interest himself, his body language became telling: leaning back in his chair, with arms tightly crossed, you'd think we'd notified him of the presence of a vampire in the church hall next door and offered him a stake and a mallet. (Given the identity of the bill's sponsor — Baron Mandelson of Mordor — this reaction is not surprising, albeit somewhat disappointing.)

As has been noted elsewhere, the DEB may well be drafted with ACTA-compliance in mind, ACTA being the international trade agreement that our governments are negotiating in secret (from the public, if not from the large media organizations with whom they have signed nondisclosure agreements). If this is typical of the legislative regime ACTA will bring about around the world, ACTA looks like being very bad news indeed.

Anyway, more grassroots organizing from Edinburgh North and Leith is likely to happen over the next couple of weeks. I'll try to keep you posted.

There are some interesting structural differences between writing a police procedural novel (that sub-genre of crime that deals with how the police pursue the process of detection) and writing a science fiction thriller. I'm currently elbow-deep in the guts of a pantomine horse of a novel (SF thriller at one end, police procedural at the other) so this is a topic of some interest to me right now.

One of the features of genre crime fiction is closure: the natural order of things is out of kilter (a crime has been committed) and at the end of the story the natural balance is restored (the criminal has been apprehended). There are, of course, variations: an ancient miscarriage of justice must be righted, or the detective is a serial killer or a purple singing dinosaur ... but the essential form is about the restoration of justice, whereas SF has a tendency towards divergence: nothing will ever be the same again.

How do you reconcile the divergent goals of the two media?

One option is to do metafiction: use SF as a lens for examining the process of crime and detection, turning a cold camera eye away from the traditional certainties of method, motive, and opportunity to dwell instead on how criminal behaviour is defined. Aside from the ancient bedrock offenses (killing, assault — sexual or otherwise — and theft) there's a vast spectrum of grey, within which any number of shades clash for our recognition of their severity or innocence. (File sharing: threat or promise? The very wording of legislation governing it would strike a lawmaker of the 18th century as gibberish, in the absence of a crash course in modern technology.)

Another option is to examine the likely policing of things as they might come to pass: is it murder to pull the plug on a computer hosting an artificial general intelligence or a running uploaded copy of a human mind? If a spammer sends a billion emails, each of which cost the recipient on average one second of their life, is it proportionate to deprive them of their liberty for a corresponding time? Hint: that's thirty years.

(And then, there's my approach: flail around happily in a near-future paddling pool full of brightly coloured machine parts ideas, until enough of them jammed together in the right pattern say something interesting.)

An interviewer once asked the elderly Agatha Christie how she got her her puzzle-box murder mysteries to hang together so elegantly. To paraphrase her: "first I write nine-tenths of the book. I put in lots of clues, and many suspects, and hapless detectives. But I don't know who did the deed! When I reach the nine-tenths point, I go back through the manuscript and make notes, until I know who the murderer is. I then go back again and take out all the contradictory clues — except for obvious red herrings — and write the climax, in which the killer is unmasked."

If you substitute "what the crime is" for "who the murderer is", this strikes me as being an approach eminently applicable to police-procedural SF ...

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