Charlie Stross: March 2012 Archives

There is an app, currently on the Apple app store as a free download, called Girls Around Me.

A couple of days ago, computer journalist John Brownlee wrote an essay about it explaining why he found it disturbing. I'd like to propose that it is symptomatic of a really major side-effect of our forced acculturation into Facebook's broken model of human social interaction—a broken model shared by all the most successful social networks, by design—and that it is going to get much worse, until it kills people. Quite possibly in very large numbers.

I wish this was an April Fool's joke or a piece of dystopian near-future fiction. Unfortunately it isn't.

Christopher Priest, Grand Old Man of British Science Fiction, launches an outspoken Harlan Ellison-style assault on the Arthur C. Clarke Awards! Whackiness ensues.

Alas, Mr Priest doesn't appear to have a twitter handle. But you can buy the tee shirt anyway.

(Update: we also sell official Laundry coffee mugs.)

I'll be appearing at Olympus, the 2012 British Eastercon (in London) from the 6th to the 9th of April.

If you're going there, my program items are below the cut:

Yes, I know I taunted you all with "President Santorum's America" in "Accelerando". But that was then, and this is now. Back in 2005 (when I was assembling "Accelerando" from its constituent pieces — he didn't feature in the original version of "Troubadour", circa 2002) he seemed vaguely sinister. But his electoral defeat in 2006 gave us the most hysterically funny portrait of an American political family ever, sort of like the Addams Family Does DC ...

Thinking back to my modest proposal to the Pirate Bay, I have a simpler solution to their needs ...

The news this weekend has been dominated by the disembodied punch-lines to a pair of surreal jokes. First, there's the Kazakhstan national anthem scandal at the Arab shooting championship in Kuwait — not the first time that a Google search has triggered a diplomatic incident, but certainly one of the most embarrassingly peurile. (The film "Borat" was banned in Kuwait; so when Kuwaiti officials googled for "Kazakhstan national anthem" it probably didn't occur to them that a parody might be the top search result ...)

Then there's Dick Cheney's heart transplant. (What exactly did they remove from his chest to make room for it?)

What next? Are we going to learn that the Conservative party have been quietly selling personal access to the Prime Minister in return for quarter million pound back-handers? Well, maybe. But that wouldn't be particularly funny: we already know this is the party of granny muggers, road privatisers, and a political witch-hunt by anti-abortionists. And that's just in the past month! Hang onto your hats, folks, the silly season this year is going to be epic.

Various folks are emailing me today because their (note the suffix to the domain—this is important) preorders for "The Apocalypse Codex" have been cancelled.

This is just Amazon being ham-fisted again. If you are in the UK and this has happened to you, all you need to do is click here to pre-order the UK edition. (Yes, I know they've got the publication date wrong. It will be fixed in due course.)

What is happening is this ...

I'm going to assume that you know who and what The Pirate Bay are.

The Pirate Bay just announced a nifty but somewhat questionable application for the Raspberry Pi low-cost Linux computer:

With the development of GPS controlled drones, far-reaching cheap radio equipment and tiny new computers like the Raspberry Pi, we're going to experiment with sending out some small drones that will float some kilometers up in the air. This way our machines will have to be shut down with aeroplanes in order to shut down the system. A real act of war.

We're just starting so we haven't figured everything out yet. But we can't limit ourselves to hosting things just on land anymore. These Low Orbit Server Stations (LOSS) are just the first attempt. With modern radio transmitters we can get over 100Mbps per node up to 50km away. For the proxy system we're building, that's more than enough.

I applaud their ingenuity, but I think this can be improved upon.

Fiction is an art form, and like all art forms it relies for much of its effect on a bunch of shared conventions that both the author and reader are familiar with. There's a difference between a bland description of a sequence of events, described in the passive voice from an omniscient viewpoint—as in, for example, a report by a formal body investigating an accident—and a dramatic presentation intended to induce a specific emotional reaction in the reader. And one of the key techniques we use in written fiction is dialog.

Next time you read a novel, try speaking some of the dialog aloud. Then analyse a conversation between real human beings (as opposed to imaginary ones) — preferably by recording one in the wild and then transcribing it directly to text. (NB: It helps if the conversationalists aren't self-conscious about being recorded.)

(You knew this was coming, right?)

Comparing feature lists and statistics doesn't really work on Apple's products, because that's not what makes them sell.

Selling on feature lists only works if you're trying to differentiate your product from a pack of close rivals in the same niche. Apple 2.0 — post-1998 — sells by inventing a new niche and then defending it, by staying out in front of the pack of me-too products.

So what's the new iPad like?

The spam has gone exponential.

I have just shut down comments on all but the last five blog entries. And I am switching off the ability to post comments globally for 24 hours. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow, i.e. on Saturday 17th around 4pm GMT (lunchtime if you're in New York). I am crossing my fingers and hoping that the shutdown will cause the spambots to give up and go away. It's a forlorn hope, I know, but it's worth a try.

If you're wondering what the 500 Server Errors are about, or why comments are currently closed, it's because the spam was coming in so thick and fast that the blog software couldn't classify it and bin it fast enough. None of it is getting through (it's really simple-minded stuff and easy to auto-detect and shitcan) but it clogs up the server's CPU and disks. In particular, this blog runs on Movable Type and MySQL, and has a dual-core 2.4GHz Athlon box to run on — about half the power of my last laptop. And it is being hammered. The trash can auto-empties after 30 days (yes, Alan, I tweaked the threshold) and currently holds a whisker under 59,000 spams; however, all but about 1-2000 of them have come in the past two weeks.

(If you want to contact me wrt. spam filtering, try tweeting to @cstross. Note, however, that I've been running this system for more than six years, I have expert help, and I think we've explored most of the options for securing a movable type installation.)

Here is some random stuff I have stumbled across in the past week, which I was hitherto unaware of, and which may or may not make it into a future work of near-future fiction. Can you think of a short story plot that uses any three of these four things?

(Note: when playing "think up a story around these objects" extra credit is awarded for characterisation and transparency, i.e. for believable human beings interacting plausibly with these gizmos in a manner that doesn't strain credulity within the reference frame of the narrative.)

I would just like to note that the process of trying to buy a car ("destroying the planet") is doing my head in.

I last did this nine years ago. The current car is within spitting distance of being old enough to vote; if I keep it, it is going to cost me a lot of money in expensive repairs in the near future (hint: power steering, suspension). And after I spend a lot of money on it, it will still be a rattly old banger. So I'm finally doing the buy-a-car thing in earnest for the first time in two decades. My current motor came from within my family; before that, I spent a decade without a car, so while I recall having bought cars from days of yore, the memories are sepia-tinted.

I am very lucky; I live in Scotland, where healthcare is a fully devolved issue under the control of the Scottish parliament.

If I lived in England, though, I would be getting alarmed right now.

If you live in England (and not under a rock) you can't possibly be unaware of the Health and Social Care Bill (2011) that is working its way through parliament. Short version for foreigners: the Conservatives are unhappy to be presiding over a socialist healthcare system that works, so they've decided to break it by turning it into a single payer insurance system. Or so they say: the truth is actually rather worse.

Various medical folks have spoken out against it, including the Royal College of Surgeons, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing ... it's not a short list.

Anyway, this paper (PDF) is the lead item in the British Medical Journal today. I'm going to crib from its preamble, per Dr Ben Goldacre's blog:

"Entitlement to free health services in England will be curtailed by the Health and Social Care Bill currently before parliament. The bill sets out a new statutory framework that would abolish the duty of primary care trusts (PCTs) to secure health services for everyone living in a defined geographical area. New clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) will arrange provision of fewer government funded health services and determine the scope of these services independently of the secretary of state for health. They may delegate this decision to commercial companies. The bill also provides for health services to be arranged by local authorities, with provision for new charging powers for services currently provided free through the NHS (clauses 1, 12, 13, 17, and 49), and it will give the secretary of state an extraordinary power to exclude people from the health service. Taken together the measures would facilitate the transition from tax financed healthcare to the mixed financing model of the United States. [my emphasis] We provide an analysis of the key legal reforms that will govern policy development and implementation if the bill is enacted."
Note that the authors of this paper are a professor and a senior research fellow at one of the leading medical teaching colleges in London.

Yes, it's worse than you thought. They're not merely trying to turn the NHS into a single-payer insurance system, they're trying to turn it into a copy of the most notoriously bad private healthcare system in the world (as measured by the ratio of inputs to outcomes).

Allegations of corruption and conflict of interest surrounding the bill have not been addressed. Meanwhile, the government refuses to publish the risk register relating to the bill despite a court order to do so. Finally, if you're wondering why copying the US system at this point would be so very, very bad, read this RIGHT NOW. (TL:DR; the US insurance system is doomed, thanks to the impending arrival — within the next two years — of cheap genome sequencers. Massive insurance premium inflation will ensue. And Lansley thinks the UK should copy a system that's about to collapse ...?)

Just to warn regular commenters: our incoming spam level has shot up in the past couple of days — we seem to be getting on the order of a thousand a day five thousand a day now. (Yes, I'm looking into additional methods for weeding it out. Where is ATHENA when you need it?) Virtually none of it is getting through, but it does mean that the spam bin is impossible to search for legitimate postings.

If you post a (non-spam) comment and it is held for moderation, it goes into a different folder, which we can still keep an eye on. But if your comment doesn't appear after 24 hours, the odds are high that it's lost for good.

Apologies for any inconvenience ...

It's that time of year again. If you have a copy of "Rule 34" — the US hardcover edition only — and have spotted any typos, please post a comment here. I need the approximate page in the book, and a few words containing the exact text (so I can search the PDF of the paperback page proofs). No, typos in the Kindle edition are useless (the Kindle conversion process adds its own). No, the UK edition isn't much use either. No, typos in earlier books are no use to me (it's too late to fix them). I just want typos from the US hardcover edition of "Rule 34", so that they can be mercilessly extirpated from the forthcoming mass market paperback.

Op-ed found on internet: "Who is speaking up for the mothers who, under HHS mandate, have been falsely coerced into feeling that to be a woman means to have 'control' of their own bodies?"

Okay, so the author of that op-ed is a fringe Lutheran. Doesn't make it all right, though. Once again, I feel the need to shout: The Handmaid's Tale was written as a warning, not a road map!

He goes on to define contraceptives as "death-dealing prescriptions". It would appear that the junior anti-sex league has a posse.

(Moderation note: refer to this blog's moderation policy before commenting. Also note that yr. hmbl. blggr. is of the opinion that any quibbling over the absolute right of a pregnant woman to demand an abortion, for any reason, at any point during pregnancy, is symptomatic of misogyny: it implies at a minimum that the quibbler doesn't credit pregnant women with being able to make an informed decision about a matter of pressing personal importance, which is pretty much the bedrock of civil rights.)

PS: Don't mind me, I'm just having a bad news week. This nonsense follows hot on the heels of the government deciding that the Way Forward requires them to privatise the Police. Science-fictional dystopias? Take your pick!

Room 101: the torture chamber in the basement of the Ministry of Love where the Party subjects its dissidents to their worst fears (from 1984 by George Orwell).

More recently, Room 101 has become a highly successful game show run by the BBC.



About this Archive

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

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