Charlie Stross: January 2012 Archives

Charlie here: I'm writing this in a hotel room in Manhattan. It's been a long and exhausting week.

It started at 4am last Wednesday, when I left home in Edinburgh; I timed the door-to-door travel time to a hotel in Colorado Springs and it worked out as 24 hours and 6 minutes (with a seven hour time zone change on top). COSine, the local Colorado Springs SF convention was a blast, and I'd like to thank everyone (and in particular, con chair Joe Sokola) for inviting me. Then it all re-started again on Monday, with a 4am start and a couple of flights that ended at La Guardia. I'm now decompressing somewhat, but still rushing around: New York is where a huge chunk of the US publishing business is based, and I'm here because my agent and both my largest publishers are here.

Anyway, because I'm here, I might as well announce that I'm planning on holing up in a pub on Thursday evening: I'll be at The Ginger Man (11 East 36th St, NYC) from 6pm this Thursday 2nd. (No reservation, all welcome. Well, all who read this blog, or my twitter feed, or my Facebook page. I'd rather you didn't try to flashmob the place by inviting random strangers.)

I'm 12 hours from getting on a plane (the first of three) in the direction of sunny, tropical Colorado Springs. This weekend, I'm guest of honour at COSine; thereafter ... well, I'll post my convention program and my subsequent itinerary on Thursday (assuming all flights go well). Play nice, and give a warm welcome to our new guest blogger, Cat Valente!

In earlier think-pieces I discussed a very normative, predictable, conservative (in the sense of unadventurous) version of the likely shape of the next century.

Of course, it's not going to be like that.

I have, in general, very little time for Donald Rumsfeld; but he's very occasionally right about something, and in February 2002, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, he made a rather remarkable speech for a contemporary politician; one in which he attempted to distinguish between categories of uncertainty:

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don't know.
Contorted though his language might be, that's a pretty good guide to the future.

Yes, I'm travelling again, from next Wednesday. (I'll post details of my public fixtures tomorrow: places I'll be hitting include Colorado Springs, Manhattan, and Boston.)

While I'm on the road, blogging will be very erratic. So I'm handing over the soap box this time to award-winning and wildly innovative fantasy novelist Cat Valente. Here's her potted author bio:

Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan's Tales series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She is the winner of the Andre Norton Award, the Tiptree Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Rhysling Award, and the Million Writers Award She has been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, and Spectrum Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award in 2007 and 2009. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, and enormous cat.
Catherynne will be dropping in to blog here from next week ...

(This will redound to our detriment in the long term.)

As you might have noticed, the British public unintentionally elected a rather weird pantomime horse coalition government nearly two years ago. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the Conservatives vowed to reduce the national deficit — the ratio of tax income to expenditure — in order to reduce the government's level of borrowing. There's more than one way to do this: you can raise tax levels, cut expenditure, or cut tax and increase expenditure selectively to encourage economic growth (and thus increase tax receipts in the long term). The government decided to rely overwhelmingly on just one lever, however: spending cuts.

When the budget is cut, hard choices are made. Do you cut healthcare spending, or essential provision for the severely disabled (and those unable to work because there are no jobs to go round)? Or do you cut fripperies, such as the maintenance budget for public parks or libraries?

As in several other countries, here in the UK we have a thing called the Public Lending Right. PLR is a small pot of cash distributed annually to authors who have registered books that are loaned out via British libraries. This is compensation for sales lost to library loans. It's not a huge pot, and the disbursement is relatively small: it was 6.29 pence (£0.0629) per loan prior to February 2010, and there was a ceiling on payouts — both Terry Pratchett and J. J. Rowling stood to take home no more than £6600 each. To put it in perspective, the royalty an author receives for the sale of a £7.99 paperback is on the order of 60p, or the equivalent of ten loans under the scheme.

Since the Coalition were elected, PLR payments have been cut, modestly: to 6.25p in February 2011, and 6.05p in February 2012. Not too onerous for a round of public belt-tightening ... but it's only a cut of 5% or so over two years, right?

Which is why I am extremely worried to report that my payment has fallen from £1,956.21p in February 2011 to £1,371.39p in February 2012.

I registered two additional titles in 2011, thus increasing my number of titles eligible for loans by around 10%. And my publishers' sales figures don't show my sales to the public falling significantly. (The picture is muddied by the recession and the implosion of Borders in the USA, but I haven't suddenly fallen into the memory hole.)

After taking into account the fact that payments are made at 96.8% of the level in 2012 as in 2011, this corresponds to a drop in library loans of 27.6% in one year — probably more, taking into account the new titles.

I'm not worried because of a cut to my income: rather, I'm worried about the big picture. Libraries are substantially but not exclusively used by children, the unemployed, and pensioners: mostly people without the discretionary spending power to shrug and go to a bookshop instead.

And note the first group I mentioned. I'm not a children/young adult author, but if the drop in my PLR loans reflects library closures, then we have just slammed the door in the face of a new generation of readers. I got my start reading fiction from my local library; the voracious reading habits of a bookish child aren't easily supported from a family budget under strain from elsewhere during a time of cuts. I hate to think what the long term outcome of this short-term policy is going to be, but I don't believe any good will come of it.

If this was an American blog, it would be going dark for 24 hours tomorrow in sympathy with the strike against the Stop Online Piracy Act currently before Congress — which might more accurately be named the Rent-Seeking Plutocrats Enabling Act.

But this is not an American blog, I don't get to vote in those elections (not being American), and meddling in other folks' internal politics is rarely sensible. So I'm simply going to note my sympathy for the strikers at this point, and suggest that if you're American and don't want your internet future to be dominated by centralized media entities stamping down on anything resembling satire or remix culture or independent thought, you might want to learn about SOPA and get campaigning.


Meanwhile, in France, where President Sarkozy's government passed the draconian HADOPI anti-downloading law a couple of years back, it appears that the Elysee Palace is a hive of law-breaking online pirates ...

(PS: Many of the links in this blog entry will fail if you click on them on January 18th, the day of the anti-SOPA internet strike. They should be back by the 19th.)

"The past is a different country; they do things differently there."

In my last essay I discussed the likely and predictable environmental and technical constraints on writing fiction set in the 21st century, specifically looking at 2032 and 2092 as yardsticks. But I said virtually nothing about probably the most important factor in defining what our world might look like in the near future — namely, how we perceive it, and how our perception of our world feeds back into the way we behave (and how this in turn determines its shape).

This is of necessity a much fuzzier and more incoherent, flexible view of the future. But let's start with the predictive element that looks most likely — that the future will be about cities full of elderly people who are afraid of the sky — and then ask what this means.

Right now, over at the venerable discussion board known as the WELL, Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky and having their regular annual State of the World pow-wow, this time for 2012.

I always find these fascinating, because Chairman Bruce is the pre-eminent thought leader of modern near-future SF.

Just to let you know that between working on a novel ("robot accountants in spaaace!"), torturing the little people who live inside my iPad, and watching the gruesome train-wreck that is the Republican presidential primaries on the other side of the Atlantic ("I'm crazy: I want to define life as starting before conception!" "That's not crazy! I'm a billionaire and I want to ban taxes while nuking Iran!" "You think you're crazy? I bite the heads off atheist chickens in church every Sunday and I want to bring about the Apocalypse!") ... I am fresh out of subjects to blog about. So what would you like me to blog about? NB: the Republican presidential primaries are not a suitable subject.

(Just for the record, I want Santorum to win the nomination. Just so I can see another conceding-defeat family group portrait like this one. It's so Edward Gorey!)

Back when "Halting State" had just come out, I began having "Halting State moments"—flashes of deja vu when aspects of a work of near-future science fiction began cropping up in the news.

Now I'm having Rule 34 moments:

"At one major investment bank for which I worked, we used psychometric testing to recruit social psychopaths because their characteristics exactly suited them to senior corporate finance roles."

Here was one of the biggest investment banks in the world seeking psychopaths as recruits.

From The Independent: Brian Basham: Beware corporate psychopaths - they are still occupying positions of power.

Paging the Toymaker ...

(Alternatively, as Vladimir Lenin remarked, "what is to be done?")

This blog gets hit by spammers.

A couple of years ago the spam load was pretty bad; then we moved to a server with a new IP address. I reckon the blog spammers are using tools hardwired to go to a specific IP address (saving the DNS resolver overheads) and blast some fields at a CGI script. Unfortunately in October the spammers caught up with the new IP address and the spam load hitting this site has been rising ever since, from around 200 spams/month to around 7700/month currently (and rising).

The vast bulk of the spam (around 90% of it—over 200 spams/day) come from roboposters these days. And they have a common characteristic: they either leave the "your name" field blank when posting, or they fill it with "anonymous".

As you can see if you hang around the discussions here, not much spam gets through. We have filters; we also have volunteer moderators (both to nuke any spam that makes it past the filters and to enforce the moderation policy).

Unfortunately, the robospammers mean that some changes to the way I run this blog are necessary.

For starters: I don't insist that you use your real name when posting comments. Pseudonyms or anonymous handles will get you closer scrutiny by the moderators, because they are frequently used by trolls, but there are legitimate reasons for not wanting to use your true name on the internet. However you should use a pseudonym other than "anonymous" because all comments posted by "anonymous" go straight in the spam bin. Which is so full-to-overflowing that nobody bothers to check it for misplaced ham these days. NB: calling yourself "a. n. onymouse" (or variations thereon) will work fine.

For seconds: a huge amount of spam relates to three categories: (a) dodgy financial assistance (loans, credit, etc), (b) luxury designer brands (you would not believe the number of spammers who seem to think you all want to buy cheap Karen Millen dresses and Gucci handbags), and (c) prescription medication (Cialis, Viagra, you name it, they want to sell it to you). If you want to refer to these medicines or high-end designer brands in a comment, mangle the spelling slightly. Stick a space or a punctuation character in it. (I feel safe telling you to do this here because the spammers, almost by definition, aren't part of the conversation and won't read these helpful tips).

Thirdly: if you post something and it vanishes into the moderation black hole, feel free to post another comment saying "Moderator HELP!". We'll look for it. (Please bear in mind, though, that we may well live in a different time zone from you and be in bed at the time. And this is not the New York Times, with a paid staff on 24x7 duty.)

Finally: as noted here, this blog doesn't take advertising (because it is an advert). However, I won't snarl at you if, in the course of a discussion you post a recommendation or a link to some commercial product or service that may interest other readers as long as you have no financial interest in the product. Found something that you like using and want to share it? That's fine. Taking revenue from click-throughs or otherwise boosting the noise level for purposes of search engine optimization? That's not cool. Not sure whether what you want to push is okay? Just ask.



About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in January 2012.

Charlie Stross: December 2011 is the previous archive.

Charlie Stross: February 2012 is the next archive.

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