There are only 30 days to go until the UK release of The Nightmare Stacks, and to celebrate, my UK publisher Orbit are giving one lucky and inventive reader the chance to win a Laundry Files pack, including signed copies of The Nightmare Stacks, plus a Magic Circle of Safety mug and a Laundry Files tshirt. All you have to do is come up with your own Laundry Files gadget, app, or piece of tech - for good or evil. Give us a name, a classification and a brief explanation of how it works/what it does.
Just a warning: the blog (and this server) will be offline for about ten minutes between the hours of 5am and 8am on Thursday the 19th (tomorrow)—that's 1am to 4am Eastern Seaboard Time—while technicians hook it up to a new power distribution board in the data center.
Hopefully this will go without a hitch. In event of hitches, yr. hmbl. crspndnt. will shoot trouble when he's out of bed.
Comments on the blog will be disabled until the server is up and tested tomorrow morning (so I can take a clean database backup without worrying about missing stuff, Just In Case things don't go smoothly).
Next week I'm going to be in Washington DC and Baltimore. The primary reason I'm going is because it's the 50th Balticon SF convention this Memorial Day weekend and, as a previous guest of honor, they've invited me back. (I'm not the real draw: this year the guest of honor is George R. R. Martin, with a side-order of John Picacio (artist guest of honr), Bill and Gretchen Roper (music), R. Shirley Avery and Martin Deutsch (fan guests of honor), Alexandra Duncan (Compton Crook Award winner) and Kim Stanley Robinson, just because they can. Oh, and they've also got Harry Turtledove, Joe Haldeman, Jo Walton, Larry Niven, and a bunch of other previous guests.
(I'll update this blog entry with my program items when I get a finalized schedule.)
But that's not my only appearance. The Open Technology Institute in conjunction with the ACLU have kindly invited me to an evening event on Tuesday May 24th, 5:30-7pm:
What Can DC Learn From Sci-Fi? A Conversation With Author Charles Stross
In a world where cars drive themselves, everyone has a supercomputer in their pocket, and billionaires are building their own spaceships, where can policymakers and citizens turn to make sense of it all? Perhaps they should talk those people whose entire careers are devoted to imagining the future: science fiction writers. From the White House to think tanks like the Atlantic Council and Data & Society to tech commentary outlets like Slate's Future Tense, more and more policy thinkers are turning to science fiction writers to help them understand our futuristic present--and now you can too. Join us for a conversation over drinks with one of the 21st centuries most influential science fiction authors, Charles Stross. Interviewed by two tech policy experts (and science fiction fans) from New America's Open Technology Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union, the prolific Scottish novelist and blogger known for modern sci-fi classics like Accelerando, Singularity Sky and many more will talk about the future of surveillance and privacy, why the idea of space colonization is unrealistic, whether or not we are in the midst of a technological "singularity", and what science fiction can--and can't--teach us about how to live in the 21st century.
Take part in the conversation online using #SFinDC and following @OTI.
Beer and wine will be served along with some light snacks.
(And if you want me to sign books I'm happy to do so after the talk.)
The event will be held at New America's Open Technology Institute, 740 15th Street NW, #900, Washington DC, 20005 (not far from the White House) and you can find updates online at Open Technology Institute > Events.
In 1944, the Office of Strategic Services—the predecessor of the post-war CIA—was concerned with sabotage directed against enemies of the US military. Among their ephemera, declassified and published today by the CIA, is a fascinating document called the Simple Sabotage Field Manual (PDF). It's not just about blowing things up; a lot of its tips are concerned with how sympathizers with the allied cause can impair enemy material production and morale:
Managers and Supervisors: To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.
Employees: Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do instead of a big one.
Organizations and Conferences: When possible, refer all matters to committees, for "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
Telephone: At office, hotel and local telephone switchboards, delay putting calls through, give out wrong numbers, cut people off "accidentally," or forget to disconnect them so that the line cannot be used again.
Transportation: Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Issue two tickets for the same seat on a train in order to set up an "interesting" argument.
Some of these sabotage methods are commonplace tactics deployed in everyday workplace feuds. It's often hard to know where incompetence ends and malice begins: the beauty of organizations is that most of them have no effective immune systems against such deliberate excesses of incompetence.
So it occured to me a week or two ago to ask (on twitter) the question, "what would a modern-day version of this manual look like if it was intended to sabotage a rival dot-com or high tech startup company"? And the obvious answer is "send your best bad managers over to join in admin roles and run their hapless enemy into the ground". But what actual policies should they impose for best effect?
OK, at this point we can call it. VR is definitely here, it works, and it's not going away.
I was one of the first people in the UK to get the consumer version of the HTC Vive, the VR headset designed around standing up and walking around in a virtual space, not just sitting looking at it. I bought it for research rather than because I was sure it would be good - but when it arrived, it was absolutely amazing.
So yeah. It arrived. I used it. I promptly put every project on my slate on hold and decided to focus on room-scale VR for the indefinite future.
It's that good.
Now, it's all but guaranteed that we're going to see a lot of scaremongering about VR in the near future. It's ripe for the next moral panic, and there are plenty of people looking for clicks on their articles about how VR must be banned now or it will cause the end of humanity.
So I thought I'd get in there first - with some unforseen side-effects of VR I've observed or learned about that will make the world better, not worse...
"Welcome to the galactic federation, humans! All our riches and elite super-science will be yours—immortality, faster than light travel, the tools to build AIs, cures for all your illnesses and a working theory of economics that abolishes poverty and war and provides as much wealth as anybody wants—just so long as you sign this simple easy agreement and consent to make one minor cognitive tweak so that you don't mistakenly destabilize the false vacuum and destroy the universe."
"Um. Wossat, then?"
"We need you to become a group mind. Studies show that in all identified previous cosmoi, individualist tool-using sophonts with access to these technologies harboured splinter groups so deranged that they collapsed the vacuum energy. There are no known exceptions to this rule: apparently telling you collectively not to do something just makes it inevitable. Unless you Borgify first—become a group mind, render your individual mental boundaries permeable to one another, and allow any other human complete access to your thoughts and memories. Group minds generally stick to the terms and conditions voluntarily."
"Uh, let me get back to you on that. What happens if we say 'no'?"
"Then, regrettably, you will discover that you have asked a question to which you really did not want to learn the answer."
Your question: should the human species collectively sign up to (and ruthlessly enforce) the proposed agreement? Discuss the pros and cons.
(Follow-up question: what are the failure modes and unforeseen consequences?)
My name is M Harold Page ("Martin" is actually fine) and I don't really believe in Writers Block.
Yes, OK, it does describe a situation: "Oh look, there's a writer banging their head on the desk and weeping with frustration. (OMG is that blood?)"
And that was me for the last couple of months. My productivity plummeted. The contract I was working on seemed complicated and hard to focus on...
Then I had a very overdue eye test and the optician regarded my current reading glasses and said, "I wouldn't be wearing those."
It wasn't my brain. It wasn't my Fickle Muse (Oh The Angst). It was my damned eyes.
Not getting around for my eye test had cost me weeks of productivity and even begun to trigger self doubt. Was I really able to hack it as a writer? Would it make me happy?
Stupid! Stupid! STUPID!
Except when I started talking to other people about this, they had similar stories. External stuff - illness, eyes, depression, RSI - seeps into our lives in imperceptible increments. We're like a lobster going, "Ooo. Seafood! Where is that nice smell is coming from?" We don't realise we're the one being cooked until too late!
And that's the wider experience. Writer's block always turns out to be either some issue with skill, or else some non-writing specific issue revealed by the attempt to write.
So, inspired by the Checklist Manifesto, here's a checklist to get you out of the cooking pot. I've listed the most common issues first, but they are, alas, not mutually exclusive...
I've been writing Laundry Files stories since 1999, and I recently passed the million word mark. That's a lot of stuff! And it occurs to me that while some of you have been following them from the beginning, a lot of people come to them cold in the shape of one story or another.
So below the fold I'm going to explain the Laundry Files time line, and give a running order for the series—including short stories as well as novels.
Right now, the British (and by British I mean London) press are currently obsessed with a single topic: the up-coming BRExit referendum on June 23rd, asking whether the UK should leave (or remain in) the EU.
(This topic is somewhat less visible in the Scottish media because we have a general election coming up on May 5th. Campaigning is currently frantic, with Labour and Conservatives scrabbling to come second, the Scottish Greens (not the same as the English Greens) looking to upset the Liberal Democrats in fourth place, and Pat Robertson presumably saying "I knew it". But I digress.)
I already blogged about the BRExit referendum back in early 2013, when it was still only an idiotic twinkling in David Cameron's eye, and I still maintain that it's basically just an internal Conservative Party power struggle—the stench of hypocrisy and opportunism hangs over the contenders. But I'm not going to bore you with arguments I already went over years ago. Instead, I'd like to kick open a discussion (noting the presence of lots of non-British readers on this blog: I'm intrigued to know how this very British lunacy looks from the outside) with two observations I didn't make the previous time round.
In "Accelerando", Charlie posited the idea of a swarm of legal robots, creating a neverending stream of companies which exchange ownership so fast they can't be tracked.
It's rather clear to me that the same thing is about to happen to social media. And possibly politics.
What makes me so sure?
Microsoft's Tay Chatbot. Oh, and the state of the art in Customer Relationship Management software.
Turing Test 2: Is The Bot Distinguishable From An Asshole?
Microsoft unleashed its conversational bot on Twitter, and 4chan's /pol/ unleashed their opinions - or possibly their sense of humour - on it in turn. Hours later, it was a racist asshole.
But that's not the interesting bit.
The interesting and worrying part of the entire test was that it became a plausible, creative racist asshole. A lot of the worst things that Tay is quoted as saying were the result of users abusing the "repeat" function, but not all. It came out with racist statements entirely off its own bat. It even made things that look disturbingly like jokes.
Add a bit of DeepMind-style regret-based learning to the entire process - optimising toward replies or retweets, say - and you have a bot that on first glance, and possibly second through fourth glance, is indistinguishable from a real, human shitposter.
A lot of ink has been spilled worrying about what this says about the Internet. But that's the wrong thing to worry about.
The right thing to worry about is what the Internet is going to look like after more than one Tay is unleashed on it.
Rather than apps, the smart money is now on bots - intelligent servants called and dismissed with specific incantations, capable of granting your heart's desire (assuming that desire is for an artisanal pizza or an Uber).
I went over this briefly on Tuesday, in which I concluded that it's entirely possible we'll soon be able to summon a succubus - in the "perfect inhuman lover" sense, not the "explanation for brief sleep paralysis" sense - into our PCs.
(Fun side note: it turns out Ashley Madison was already using techo-succubi extensively in its affair-enabling business.)
And that led me to thinking. What other roles have humans traditionally attempted to summon, bind, control or conquer supernatural servants for? And to what extent have we managed to replace those with technology?
Let us wander off into occult history and figure out what other mystical creatures we're cohabiting with these days, or will be soon...
House Fairie, Brownie, etc
We'll start in Charlie's and my home, Scotland, where one of the most mundane and obviously useful of magical servitors originates - the brownie.
Not to be confused with the delicious baked good, the Brownie was a small faerie from the classic surprisingly un-grand-and-threatening school of British faeriedom, which would help out around the house in exchange for the owners keeping up a certain set - and often rather tricky - series of rules, from giving the little critter food to avoiding thanking it for its work.
They're fairly clearly the inspiration for Harry Potter's House Elves, although the latter are considerably more user-friendly.
Assuming you kept up those rules, Brownies would clean, churn butter, and perform other useful, mundane tasks.
Do we have a technological equivalent? We have several.
I don't mean that they're having sex with a RealDoll or similar—although I'm sure they are.
I mean that there are people out there, right now, who are shagging a state machine.
Welcome to the world of computer-assisted self-bondage (LINK IS VERY VERY NSFW!). Using Arduinos, Heath Robinson-esque contraptions involving keys held in CD trays, and Bluetooth-enabled electrostim machines, men and women have programmed their own doms or dommes. A truly merciless dominant who will randomly please or hurt, and there's nothing the user can do about it.
(There's a Terminator misquote here that I'm desperately trying not to make.)
Meanwhile, there are dozens of other people who are attempting to chat up a slightly different state machine.
Advertisers on porn sites around the world have figured out that users are, shall we say, somewhat preoccupied, and there are a limited number of advertising techniques that will work. One of the most common ones is a "fake chat" ad—an attractive woman propositioning the user with the promise of, at least, some hot Facebook or Snapchat messages.
Some of the more advanced ads actually take the user to a landing page where a very, very crude script will respond to them.
This has been happening for ages, of course. So why am I talking about it now?
Because tech developments in other areas are about to turn the whole "sex with your PC" deal from "crude and somewhat rubbish" to "looks like the AIs just took a really unexpected job away".
Soon you may well be able to summon a succubus. Through your PC.
Rise Of The Chatbots
Summoned servitors are about to make the mother of all comebacks.
I'm rather enthusiastic about that on a fictional level. Indeed, the film I just released, DANGEROUS TREASURES, came very close to being called BOUND THINGS instead—it's a story of a couple of geeks who follow clues on a deepweb occult forum which lead them to have a lengthy and bloody interaction with the bound guardian of the treasure they're robbing. And the binding and summoning of guardians is key to the entire thing (hopefully not spoiling it too much!).
(Amusingly for the topic of this post, the reason we didn't call it BOUND THINGS is that it sounded rather too porny.)
Accidentally, I seem to have hit something of a zeitgeist with this one. Because in Silicon Valley, I'm reliably informed, the Wave Of The Future is exactly this: summoned, intelligent servants which you can control if you know their True Name.
Hi! Charlie here. I'm a bit burned-out and busy with real-world stuff right now, so for the next week, guest bloggers are standing by to keep you perplexedbamboozled entertained. Starting with an interesting essay on deep learning and chatbots by Hugh Hancock, later today ...
Hugh adds: The film I've just released is called DANGEROUS TREASURES. It's a geek action-horror-comedy about Lovecraftian horror, deepweb forum culture, and frantic Googling.
The tagline I'm using is " These geeks think of themselves as 2016's Indiana Jones. Too bad the thing they've awoken knew Cthulhu. Personally. "