Charlie Stross: December 2011 Archives

Internet sales have already eaten about 20% of the retail market by value, and around 10% of shop units in the UK are now standing vacant. Some large retail chains went bust early in the current recession (Woolworths, notably); others are teetering on the brink (Blacks, La Senza).

Where are we going in another decade? What is the high street environment going to look like? (This isn't an exercise in retail management forecasting but in Gibsonian futurism ...)

Many years ago (we're talking about the late 1980s) I spent a year and a half as a shop manager. Well, that and a retail pharmacist running a pharmacy: but in addition to dispensing prescriptions, a chunk of retail management came into the picture. (The 24-year-old Charlie really sucked as a retail manager. I would not hire him. Luckily both stores were parts of small local chains with competent management backup—even if one of them was owned outright by a very happy junkie—and in any event made up most of their turnover via prescriptions. At which I merely sucked somewhat.)

Walking around various British cities over the past couple of years I've noticed an increasing number of vacant shop fronts (some in prime retail situations). I've also noticed a disturbing loss of diversity in our high streets, as quirky local shops give way to cookie-cutter national chains. I have, like most people, had the frustrating experience of trying to work out whether my mobile phone contract or the airline flight I'm been booking is actually the cheapest one that meets my needs, or whether I'm being gouged by a computer somewhere. And so I'm trying to put the pieces of the jigsaw together because I'm interested in guessing what our retail experience is going to look like in 10 years' time—the traditional "if this goes on ..." exercise beloved of science fiction writers.

If you're wondering why Rudy is around here right now and I'm thin on the ground, it's because (a) he happened to be free-ish right now, and (b) I'm arm-wrestling an octopus of a novel called "Neptune's Brood", and coming off worse: I need some offline time in which to build up momentum. So if you wonder what I'm doing over Newtonmass and Hogmanay, the answer is "working".

Also, I have a new camera. (Evidence below the cut-line.)

Surprise! Over the festive season, we have a new guest blogger; I'm excited to introduce Rudy Rucker, SF author, mathematician, and computer scientist.

Rudy has published over thirty books, winning the Philip K. Dick award for both his cyberpunk novels Software and Wetware (which are available as part of the Wares tetralogy). He has a Ph.D. in mathematics and has worked as a computer science professor at San Jose State: he took up painting in 1999, and he's had three shows of his pop-surreal works in San Francisco.

Rucker's fantastic, transreal novel of the afterlife, Jim and the Flims appeared this year, as did his autobiography, Nested Scrolls. Nested Scrolls received the Emperor Norton Award for "extraordinary invention and creativity unhindered by the constraints of paltry reason."

For the last five years Rucker has also been editing a speculative fiction webzine called Flurb, attracting contributions from across the field. For more links and ongoing updates about his activities, see Rudy's Blog.

And he's going to be keeping us company over the next two weeks!

I'm off to do a reading in a few hours, and it's chilly outside, so I feel like turning up the heat. Therefore:

My view of contemporary US politics, which is that of an outsider and obviously incomplete (and possibly faulty, and subject to change) is as follows:

We are all, like it or not, consumers — short of going off to live in a hut in the wilderness, it's hard to cut yourself off completely from using services or goods made by other people. And for most of us, the majority of our purchases come from complex supply chains operated by and for large corporate entities that specialize in supplying what most of us are willing to buy, most of the time. (This isn't automatically the same as what we want, but neither is it automatically undesirable rubbish ...)

But some purchases are different because they're unique.

I have an iPad. (I think I already mentioned that a while ago ...)

I think the multitouch tablet interface style exemplified by iOS is the future of computing, in much the same way that the Mac interface circa 1985 was obviously the future of computing back then. Decried as a toy and handicapped by a closed architecture and a lack of third party applications though the Mac was, it nevertheless pointed towards a vastly more transparent and accessible way of working with computers, which in turn made computers useful to many more people. (I discount earlier GUI platforms such as the Xerox Alto because at $75,000 a seat in 1980 money accessible isn't exactly a suitable word to describe it.) You're reading this blog entry online (and, knowing my audience, you are more technologically literate than average), so you may be over-accustomed to using computers, which makes it hard to see it may be desirable to make them even more accessible; but if you watch an 80-year-old try to double-click the left button of a mouse within a particular window on a screen, it becomes glaringly obvious why we need a better, truly intuitive, interface paradigm.

(Moreover, by this time in 2013 we will, for the first time, have a networked general purpose computer in every adult's possession. Smartphones are real computers, and they're finally crawling out of offices and nerd bedrooms and into everyone's pocket. This means computers are making a great leap forward in social penetration, from being embraced by 10% who are truly proficient (and accepted reluctantly by 25-35% who can be taught to click on an icon to run a program), to being used by literally everyone.)

Anyway: I have a criticism ...

Tanenbaum's Law (attributed to Professor Andrew S. Tanenbaum) is flippantly expressed as, "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway". It's a profound insight into the state of networking technology: our ability to move bits from a to b is very tightly constrained in comparison with our ability to move atoms, because we have lots of atoms and they take relatively little energy to set in motion.

Which leads me to ask the following question:

1. Postulate that we make contact in the near future with an extra-terrestrial intelligence ten light-years away.

2. We can communicate with them (and want to communicate with them) by two means: we can beam data at them via laser, or we can send a physical data package (a "tape" travelling cross-country).

3. Our "tape" package will be made of something approximating the properties of memory diamond, i.e. on the order of 1022 bits/gram.

4. We will assume that we can use a laser-pumped light sail (with laser efficiency of 10%) to transfer momentum directly to a hunk of memory diamond. We're going to ignore the sail mass, to keep things simple. And we're going to assume there's another laser at the other end to allow our alien friends to decelerate it (so if you need xGj/gram to reach a specific speed, we can allow for 2x Gj/gram for the trip).

5. Our reference interstellar comms laser, for an energy input of 1GW, will be able to deliver 2.6 billion photons/second to a suitable receiver 10 light years away, while switching at 1Hz. If we increase the bit rate we decrease the number of photons per bit, so this channel probably limits out at significantly less than 1Gbit/sec (probably by several orders of magnitude). I'm going to arbitrarily declare that for starting purposes our hyper-sensitive detectors need 1000 photons to be sure of a bit (including error correction), so we can shift 2.6mb/sec using a 1Gw laser.

6. Ignoring latency (it will be one year per light year for lasers, higher for physical payloads), which is the most energetically efficient way to transfer data, and for a given energy input, how much data can we transfer per channel?

Here's my initial stab at it, which is probably wrong (because it's a Saturday night, I've been working for the past nine hours or so, and I'm fried):

Let's pick a 10 year time-frame first. 10 years = 315,576,000 seconds.


Running a laser for 10 years will emit 3.56 x 1017 joules in that time, at 10% efficiency, so roughly 3.56 x 1018 joules of energy is consumed. It will deliver 0.82 x 1014 bits of data. So, roughly 4000 joules/bit.


A packet of memory diamond with a capacity of 1 x 1014 bits has a mass of roughly 10-8 grams.

Kinetic energy of 10-8g travelling at 10% of c (30,000 km/sec, 30,000,000 m/s) = (10-8 * 30,000,0002)/2 = 0.9 * 106 J. Double the energy for deceleration and we still have 2 x 106 joules, to move 1014 bits. So, roughly 108 bits/joule.


Let's dink with the variables a bit. Even if we allow individual photons to count as bits at 10 light years' range, our laser still maxes out at around 4 joules/bit. And even if we allow for a 10,000:1 mass ratio for our data-carrying starwisp, and impose the same 10% efficiency on its launch laser's energy conversion as on our communication laser, we get 1,000 bits/joule out of it.

As long as we ignore latency/speed issues, it looks to me as if Tanenbaum's Law implies a huge win for physical interstellar comms over signalling. Which in turn might imply an answer to the SETI silence aspect of the Fermi paradox.

Of course, this is just an idle back-of-the-envelope amusement and I've probably borked my calculations somewhere. Haven't I?

No, I haven't turned to astrology; but it's handy to have a term for those periods of life that are dominated by Murphy's Law, and the past week has been one of them. Hence the paucity of blogging.

Let's leave aside — for now — the decision to ditch the first 26,000 words (or around 80 pages) of a new novel and re-do from start; this stuff happens. From time to time you dive into a project only to realize you'd started in the deep end and/or the pool was drained for maintenance. You learn to suck it up: part of being a pro is being able to recognize your mistakes and learn from them, rather than blindly pushing on.

Let's also set aside the short-notice turnaround I'm meant to be giving the copy edits on the manuscript of "The Apocalypse Codex" — shockingly, my US publisher is ahead of schedule and so I am expected to return the checked CEM before they close for the last two weeks of December. (This means I can't blame them for my tendency to work over December 25th, which I do every year on a point of principle.)

No. The real pain in the neck has been the Revolt of the Machines ...

Karl Schroeder links to and discusses a fascinating-looking paper vy Keith B. Wiley on The Fermi Paradox, Self-Replicating Probes, and the Interstellar Transportation Bandwidth. (The latter is a new reference point for discussion of the Drake Equation, defined as the number of people capable of moving from one solar system to another per unit time.)

I need to chew on this paper some more before I emit any thoughts. But in the meantime, you might want to go over to Karl's discussion of its implications for his take on it. (I'm not going to spoiler it here.)



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This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in December 2011.

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