Charlie Stross: August 2012 Archives

(Note: Kari and Charlie are both at Chicon 7, the world science fiction convention, this week. Replies to direct questions might be sluggish. ]

The weirdness of the real world is a permanent problem for the jobbing novelist. You simply can't make up stuff half as weird as what you read in the news:

Bride dies at 'trash the dress' photoshoot (killed by the wedding dress, no less)

Rembrandt lost in post by gallery (they tried to save the cost of a courier and insurance)

A lion is reportedly loose in rural Essex (if the climate there warms, could they go feral and start breeding?)

There are two ways to look at this. One is to synthesize — to pick a bunch of seemingly disconnected news reports, file off the serial numbers, and use them to seed your fiction with arbitrary existential noise, to provide a backdrop of excessively odd but realistic randomness behind the highly structured machinery of plot and character. And another is to take a bunch of disconnected news reports and to articulate them in some way, spinning a story out of found objects. (It's not a Rembrandt, but the last photograph — on glass plate, not digital — of the drowning bride, who was pulled under water by not-a-lion-but-a-crocodile escaped from the municipal sewers ...)

What can you do with these three random Rorscharch-test news items? (Or contribute your own high weirdness items to the mix.)

[ Discuss here ]

We have a new guest blogger to keep you informed and entertained for the next couple of weeks: author and academic Kari Sperring.

Kari Sperring grew up dreaming of joining the musketeers and saving France, only to discover that the company had been disbanded in 1776. Disappointed, she became a historian instead and as Kari Maund has written and published five books and many articles on Celtic and Viking history and co-authored a book on the history and real people behind her favourite novel, The Three Musketeers (with Phil Nanson). She has published short stories in several British anthologies: Her first novel Living with Ghosts was published by DAW books in March 2009: her second, The Grass King's Concubine, came out, also from DAW, in August 2012.

She's been a barmaid, a tax officer, a P.A. and a university lecturer, and has found that her fascinations, professional or hobby-level, feed and expand into her fiction. Living With Ghosts evolved from her love of France and its history, ghosts, mysteries, Celtic culture, strange magic, sharks, and sword-fights: The Grass King's Concubine has even found a creative role for book-keeping. She's British and lives in Cambridge, England, and is currently at work on her third and fourth novels at once, because she needs more complications in her life. She can be found at, on Facebook (Kari Sperring), Twitter (@karisperring) and on Live Journal as la_marquise_de_.

Is the internet having an epic snit this summer?

1. I'm doing a lot of flying in the US in the next few weeks. TSA guidelines theoretically permit ipads and netbooks up to 11.6" to stay in your carry-on during screening, while requiring larger laptops to be screened separately (with the concommitant risk of damage/theft you'd expect). Do they actually observe this guideline, or can I expect to have to do the unpack-everything dance even with a netbook or tablet?

2. I have an unlocked mifi. Last time I visited the only reasonable deal for a pre-paid data-only SIM for it was from T-Mobile, on GSM/EDGE only. Are any other vendors selling pre-paid data-only SIMs in the USA? (Note that AT&T want credit card billing details, which isn't acceptable because I don't have a US credit card. Yes, I know all about the Virgin Mobile pre-paid mifi that's actually a Sprint EV-DO device. It's a pile of crap. I want a SIM with data that I can pay cash up-front for with no strings. Yes, it is acceptable if it expires after 30 days. No, I do not want to take out a US cellco contract: I don't visit for long enough.)

3. (Mac software specific.) I have a requirement for a combined outline processor and mind-mapping tool, similar to Inspiration, but with import/export of OPML format outlines as well as pretty pictures. (Because I may not be working, but I'll still be making notes while I travel.)

Alas, Inspiration decided to go after the schoolkid market and don't support import/export in any usable format (except Microsoft Office, which I don't consider to be "usable" for my purposes—I need OPML to feed to Scrivener). The nearest I've found to a workable solution so far is that OmniOutliner for iPad and IThoughtsHD can both import/export each other's OPML and play nice together. This is very close to what I need, but the ability to flip instantly between outline and mind-mapping views of a project would be good, and I could do with a decent desktop application on the Mac. (Got OmniOutliner Pro; it's great for outlining, not so good at the mind-mapping stuff.) Anyone got any suggestions? As noted, Inspiration lacks import/export features, OmniOutliner lacks mind-mapping features, and XMind seems to lack outlining features. Any suggestions?

So, I've finished the editing death-march from hell (through-edits to seven novels, 730,000 words; 11,500 changes tracked, wall-clock time: six weeks) and now I'm taking about 72 hours of down-time. Then next Wednesday I'm flying out to the US.

This trip is not entirely a vacation. I'll be at the worldcon, Chicon 7, and then I've got a signing tour, with Cory Doctorow, for "The Rapture of the Nerds".

First, my worldcon itinerary; the tour schedule continues below it.

A comment on the Spies! discussion brought me up short by asking an interesting question:

I foresee the range of blackmail material to narrow considerably, already for celebrities sex videos are more of an oops than anything really damaging and I expect this probably to extend to politicians gradually.
Is this actually true?

Nothing to see here; I'm elbow-deep editing a novel right now, slogging through the mire. I should be back to normal blogging by Wednesday or Thursday (I hope), and then I intend to take a vacation for a few weeks, because since the first week of July I'll have ploughed my way through editing roughly 730,000 words of fiction. (To put that in perspective: "The Lord of the Rings" is around 480,000 words; "War and Peace" is about 620,000 words: "Cryptonomicon" is around 461,000 words.) Of this, 110,000 words is "Neptune's Brood", due out next July 7th; the rest is something I'm not at liberty to talk about yet.

Normally I'd collect typos from the hardcover release of a novel about six months after publication, for the mass market paperback edition. But with the arrival of the ebook era, things are changing and we can roll out a corrected and revised version a lot faster.

So — if you stubbed your toes on any typos, errors, or other problems that can be fixed with a single word change in "The Apocalypse Codex", please tell me about them in the comments on this entry!

Internet Evolution are kindly hosting a live interview with myself and Cory Doctorow this afternoon, at 11:00 a.m. ET, 8:00 a.m. PT, 4pm BST, on their internet radio show. We'll be talking about The Rapture of the Nerds, among other things. Yes, I'll be around to chat on their website after the phone chat. Click through the link above to register if you're interested!

Spying is one of the three oldest professions: agents of the state who snoop on citizens or on the activities of other states.

But since the early 1960s, there's been an accelerating trend away from HUMINT towards ELINT (and other less-well-recognized forms of intelligence through analysis of observational data collected from non-human sources).

We're now well into the age of biometric monitoring, and this is raising huge obstacles in the face of traditional spycraft; if your spy travels on a biometric passport, then simply replacing their passport with a new one won't hide their identity from the border authorities of the nation they're visiting. Indeed, the zealous attempts of anti-terrorist security agencies to make it difficult or impossible to disguise your identity may cause extensive blowback on HUMINT operations by their governments' intelligence agencies. What does it imply about the future of espionage if a given agent can only operate in a given target nation under one identity?

Does the second oldest profession have a future in the 21st century?

(This is an abridged version of the talk I gave at TNG's Big Tech Day in Munich, June 2012.)

On the subject of ubiquitous computing devices and urban architecture

A couple of basic physical rules underly the dizzying progress in electronics that we have seen over the past fifty years. Moore's Law, attributed to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, postulates that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit of constant size doubles approximately every two years. Originally coined in 1965, Moore's law has run more or less constantly ever since. It can't continue indefinitely, if only because we're getting close to the atomic scale; a silicon atom has a Van der Waals radius of around 200 picometres, and to build circuits that mediate electron transport we need discrete atomic-scale structures. It is not obvious that we can build electronics (or other molecular structures) with a resolution below one nanometre. So it's possible that Moore's law will expire within another decade.

Having said that, predictions of the imminent demise of Moore's Law within a decade go back to the 1970s. And if we can't increase the two-dimensional structure count on an integrated circuit, we may still be able to increase the number of structures by building vertically.

A newer, and more interesting formulation than mere circuit count is Koomey's Law, proposed by Jonathan Koomey at Stanford University: that the energy efficiency of computers doubles every 18 months.

This efficiency improvement has held true for a long time; today's high-end microprocessors require far less power per instruction than those of a decade ago, much less two or three decades ago. A regular ARM-powered smartphone, such as an iPhone 4S, is some 12-13 orders of magnitude more powerful as a computing device than a late 1970s-vintage Cray 1 supercomputer, but consumes milliwatts of power for computing (rather than radio) operations, rather than the 115 kilowatts of the Cray.

Taking them together, what do these two laws imply about the not-too-distant future?



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

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