Charlie's Diary

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Tue, 13 Jun 2006

Holding Pattern

I finally got irritated beyond all call with Blosxom and QuickTopic, so in my copious spare time I'm moving over to Movable Type. The new blogging software takes a while to configure. When it's done, it will show up here in place of the existing blosxom setup (which will be preserved for posterity as an archive of static HTML files somewhere or other). Meanwhile, if you want a quick peek at the work in progress, go here.

posted at: 16:43 | path: /admin | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 11 Jun 2006

Pointing the finger

(Warning: politics ahead. May be distasteful for some. You're getting it because I'm angry. Normal service can wait.)

"They have no regard for human life. Neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us."

This statement emanated from US Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris. And now it's quiz time! Was he talking about:

  • Al Qaida members attacking members of the US military
  • Detainees at Guantanamo Bay committing suicide
  • If you guessed (2), you win! Yes, committing suicide after being held in a concentration camp, subjected to torture, and refused legal redress for over four years is now "an act of asymmetric warfare against us". That's asymmetric warfare committed by camp inmates, some of whom were 12 years old when they were detained, some of whom were taxi drivers, and a whole bunch of whom were ordinary folks handed in by neighbours who bore a grudge against them and wanted a cut of that reward money, thanks.

    Are there guerillas among the inmates? Probably. Are there innocents? Definitely. And are they being mis-treated? Well ... Let's see. A good yardstick to look at when examining morale among human beings is the suicide rate. What does it tell us?

    There are roughly 460 inmates in the concentration camp. They've been there for four years. The camp administration admit to 41 suicide attempts, although defense lawyers say this is a gross underestimate -- certainly hunger strikes to the death that are broken only by forced feeding are usually classed as suicide attempts in other jurisdictions, and Camp X-Ray has had over 128 inmates on hunger strike. The best figures I've been able to root out suggest prison suicide rates are typically on the order of 50-200 per 100,000 inmates per year; let's go with 100 per 100,000, or an incidence of 0.1% per year. (The Lancet recently reported that in British prisons, men are five times likelier to attempt suicide than on the outside; this is in line with these figures for overall mortality.) If we assume a ball-park figure of ten attempts per successful suicide, then if Camp X-Ray was a normal prison, we would expect 4-5 attempts per year. Instead we have, by the Pentagon's own admission, at least 10 attempts per year, and by defense lawyer's claims, an average of 20-30. Moreover, a rate that seems to have spiked to over 100 per year recently (and can only be denied by asserting that a hunger strike that is broken by nasogastric feeding tube and restraint chair isn't a suicide attempt).

    I'd say that a prison with a suicide rate two to five times higher than normal -- let alone spiking to 20 times higher than normal -- has a problem. A big, festering, shitty problem. And sticking fingers in ears and chanting "they're all terrorists, they're in prison so they must be guilty," is a big part of the problem.

    As to how to fix the problem ...

    It'd be a good start if Rear Admiral Harris washed his mouth out with soap and started investigating why prisoners at Guantanamo Bay seem to think that hanging themselves is an improvement over their current situation. It'd be an even better start if his bosses in the Pentagon and the Department of Defense were arrested and sent to the Hague for trial for crimes against humanity -- to wit, torture, waging illegal war, acts of terror against civilian populations, collective punishment, and most of the rest of the bill of goods that applied at Nuremburg in 1946 -- but that'll have to wait.

    But meanwhile, kindly reflect: if you support the war on terror, then you're also supporting a policy that has brought concentration camps back to the western world.

    [Link] [Discuss Camp X-ray trials]

    posted at: 16:34 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry


    I'd like to quote briefly from the report The Guantanamo Detainees: The Government's Story, prepared by legal academics from Seton Hall Law School who acted as defense advocates for the detainees.

    From the executive sumary:

    1. Fifty-five percent of the detainees are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its coalition allies.

    2. Only 8% of the detainees were characterized as al Qaeda fighters. Of the remaining detainees, 40% have no definitive connection with al Qaeda at all and 18% have no definitive affiliation with either al Qaeda or the Taliban.


    4. Only 5% of the detainees were captured by United States forces. 86% of the detainees were arrested by either Pakistan or the Northern Allaiance and turned over to United States custody. This 86% of the detainees captured by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance were handed over to the United States at a time in which the United States offered large bounties for capture of suspected enemies. (Emphasis mine.)

    Read the rest here.

    posted at: 16:33 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 06 Jun 2006

    Back to the future!

    CEV in Lunar orbit

    NASA have just announced that they're planning to start unmanned orbital test flights of the CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle) in 2012, with the first manned flights starting in 2014. The CEV (artist's impression above) is the Shuttle replacement that's designed allegedly to get NASA back into the manned space exploration business after an embarrassing forty year long diversion into putting lipstick (i.e. wings) on a flying pig. Meanwhile, the Shuttle's last flight is scheduled for 2010.

    Betcha the CEV is overdue, over budget, and doesn't perform to spec. While by then the Chinese space program should be working on their first space station, and who knows where the Russian Kliper program will be?

    I'm getting a really retro feeling off this next-generation space program. Smells like ... sailing ships!

    Meanwhile, the price of developing CEV's launch vehicle is rumoured to have tripled, there's reason to believe that it may be much more difficult than anticipated to produce defect-free nanotubes needed to build a space elevator, and the environmental health risks of space travel turn out to be so large that hithero insignificant factors like galactic cosmic ray bombardment may stop us getting past the inner solar system (at least, without cheap, easy and effective treatments for cancer).

    [Discuss space]

    posted at: 12:27 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 04 Jun 2006

    Paging Batman

    one man special forces flying wing

    This appears to be heading for flight tests early next year. An unpowered version has been developed for the German army -- next year's model is due to feature two small gas turbine engines and a cruise range of up to 200 kilometres after the paratroop leaves the mother ship.

    Where did I leave my bat-beacon?

    (Thanks, jwz!)

    [Discuss toys]

    posted at: 12:49 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 27 May 2006

    Miscellaneous news

    "Accelerando" is now on sale in paperback in the UK -- the US paperback should be showing up real soon now. It has also been shortlisted for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (something like it's fourth or fifth award nomination).

    "Glasshouse" is still on course for publication in US hardcover in the next three weeks or so. However, there isn't going to be a UK hardcover -- instead, it'll be out in trade paperback next March in the UK. (If you've ordered the non-existent UK hardcover edition from, please accept my apologies -- and cancel your order, because the book doesn't exist: Amazon are listing it in error.)

    You might have noticed a new title appearing in the link bar to the right: "Missile Gap" is a novella, previously only available to SFBC subscribers who bought the anthology "One Million AD" (edited by Gardner Dozois). It's being published as a limited edition, slipcased, signed hardcover by Subterranean Press at the tail end of December, making it my three-and-a-halfth book of the year.

    Finally: I'm not going to be at the worldcon this year -- instead, I'll be appearing with Ken MacLeod at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 25th (which kind of makes it impossible for me to be in LA at the same time).

    [Discuss Writing (3)]

    posted at: 12:17 | path: /promo | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 17 May 2006

    A report on the state of the National Identity Register, May 2016

    I'm currently working on a novel, HALTING STATE, which is set in 2016. Being an SF author, I try to do some background legwork to make the world the novel's set in seem vaguely realistic. Extrapolating on the basis of existing large government IT projects, I figure the state of play of the National ID Card by 2016 is going to look something like this:

    The National ID Register has been implemented, and (as No2ID are currently predicting) it was a train-wreck.

    Large scale civil disobedience (accelerating from mid-2006, with the introduction of compulsory interviews for passports, then from 2008 with the opening of the first ID card processing centres) prevented the ID card itself from being made compulsory. Bluntly, people who are agnostic on the idea of carrying an ID card when interviewed in 2005, suddenly turn out to be rather against it when they receive a letter ordering them to show up for processing (and to fork over somewhere between £50 and £150 for the privilege). Even disguising it as a driving license or passport or proof of age in the boozer doesn't make them happy, and the proportion of goats in the population is high enough that beating the problem over the head with a stick is going to cause a crisis rather than making resistance trickle away.

    So the card itself is theoretically voluntary, except there's silly shit on the books that make it an offense not to show one to the police when challenged, because the Home Office has predicated its entire legislative program since 2005 on the assumption that the ID card would be compulsory. So conformists carry them, but goats (and your typical petty criminal is always a goat, even though most goats are law-abiding) don't.

    Dangerous illegal immigrant criminals (see current newspaper scandal) do not carry ID cards, by definition. Indeed, they're no more identifiable than they are now.

    Businesses use the ID card for authentication ... except that the government doesn't want J. Random Corner Shop (which might be owned by a crazed Al Qaida-trained bomb maker -- you can never be too sure) poking around their super-secret database. So to keep the wheels of commerce turning, there's a chip and PIN mechanism rather than actual on-line biometric authentication against the government's database, and the PIN is stored on-chip (as with the British credit/debit card system, described in several APACS specifications). In 2006, the chip and pin system was already looking worryingly insecure just three months after its national introduction; by 2016 the system has been successfully attacked by trying to reverse-engineer the chip. (Oops.) What this means is, checking someone's identity using the ID card is no more secure than glancing at their credit card, unless you're a government agency with a biometric scanner and online access to a secure database server -- and credit card fraud is just as rife in 2016 as it was in 2005. But most folks don't realise this, because it is not in the banks' (or the government's) interest to trigger a panic. (There is a precedent for this behaviour; given a choice between sweeping it under the carpet/denying everything, and letting the UK banking system collapse, the government and regulators picked the former option. What did you think your shiny new chip'n'pin card was all about?)

    The lion's share of the complexity in the ID card scheme was actually the software to manage the national identity register -- the largest single distributed database system ever implemented by the British government and its contractors. As is usual in such projects, it was farmed out to the bidder who most egregiously low-balled the initial phase costings -- that is, those that would be spent on the watch of the then Home Secretary.

    The first law of British government IT contracts is "lowball the first five years", because five years is the event horizon of elected political office -- anything that happens five years and a day from now is some other guy's problem. And the contractors milk this egregiously -- you can read about it every couple of weeks in Private Eye. Unfortunately, the software development life cycle in the IT business is such that costs are always front-loaded (development is expensive, maintenance/support is cheap), and development of a large system is therefore always cash-starved just when it most needs investment. It therefore should come as no surprise to learn that the national identity register was delivered massively over-budget, several years late, and insufficiently flexible to do the jobs it was thought to be needed for. Especially as, once the system was under development, everyone ambitious greasy-pole-climbing consultant the government had hired to tell the civil service what to do kept thinking up new jobs for it. The register, with its provision for holding lots of unspecified we'll-fill-in-the-blanks-later data on its subjects, became a moving target. And we all know what happens to database projects that succumb to functional creep ... the additional work of meeting the new requirements puts the project even further behind schedule. Which means more time for idiots to dream up new requirements. It's a vicious circle.

    The other big ticket job was registering individuals and handing out their cards. This was initially to be carried out at regional processing centres for registering individuals, where everybody in the adult population was to be interviewed in person. Unfortunately, the civil service is not set up to interview fifty million people every decade -- or to deal with the hospitalized, the senile, the insane, and the just plain recalcitrant. Thus, the processing centres failed to cope with the interview/registration workload. It turns out that interviewing people is a labour intensive job, labour intensive jobs are expensive, and you can't speed them up by throwing technology at them.

    The final nail in the coffin was a panic measure, ordered by a computer illiterate Home Secretary (is there any other kind?) in 2009. At this point, the project was already 18 months overdue, the government was facing an election, and the ID card -- by now a core plank of Labour party policy -- was seen as vital to the credibility of the Home Office. Processing was an abject failure, so what to do? The answer was clear (to the computer illiterate Home Secretary): cut the Gordian knot, and begin merging existing data into the Identity Register without actual in-person interviews to authenticate it. (The phrase used was: "put it in the database now, we can check it's valid later -- anyway, who'd lie to us? It's a criminal offense!")

    By way of illustrating how totally bone-headed this is, here's an example. If they don't have time to interview you, they can create an entry for you from existing public sources: your driving licence might be merged with that DNA sample the police took when they arrested you three years ago, along with the money launding disclosure for your mortgage application that proves you're not a front for the Medelin cartel. Except that you were never arrested three years ago -- someone else gave your name in the cop shop. And because they accepted a caution, and your spam filter ate the email from the police, you don't even know you've got a criminal record and a DNA sample on the database.

    By 2016 it is believed that 5-10% of ID Register entries are false positives (i.e. false identities created by people who are illegal immigrants, or who just want a spare name for some reason -- e.g. benefits fraud), 15-20% of the population are false negatives (people who refuse register), and 30% of the actual entries that correspond to real people are just plain wrong in one or more details (e.g. the criminal conviction above). The system has been systematically poisoned by the initial influx of bad, unchecked data and by the fact that it is a nice fat central target for identity thieves (see chip'n'PIN authentication, above). Finally, there's a problem with corruption among processing centre staff (some of whom will, for a nice fee, create false identities with your own biometrics -- so you can prove you're someone else).

    There are other, more subtle, problems with the national identity register. Biometric identifiers change over time. People lose fingers and eyes. A lot of protesters discovered that atropine eye drops cause their iris to dilate, to the point where it's impossible to digitize. Middle-aged Filipino women have fingerprints that just plain don't work with the recognition software -- there's insufficient variation to tell them apart. 15% of the population have eczema, half of those have it on their hands, and their fingerprints are (in many cases) differently fucked from week to week. Post-operative transsexuals who have received hormone treatments have facial bone structures that mess up attempts at face recognition. Only DNA fingerprinting works, and even that is fallible, with multiple false positives (e.g. identical twins, and even random folks with identical matching sequences).

    The police hate the thing, but they're stuck with a Police and Criminal Evidence Bill (2008) that was drafted on the optimistic assumption that the thing would work as specified by the Home Office. So they have to pretend it works, even though everyone knows it doesn't. Although it is handy for fitting up people for crimes you really need an urgent clean-up on. (On the minus side, it means real villains, who want to disappear and have sufficient cash to suborn a processing centre worker, can create valid new identities for themselves that will stand up in court.)

    Personally you're against it because you're stuck paying for a new card every couple of years, because you have to carry the damned thing if you want to prove your age in the pub or visit your bank manager, and we all know what the life expectancy of a piece of plastic is. Plus, you can't get that bogus caution scrubbed from your record because your DNA sample doesn't match, and -- to prevent the identity register from being corrupted -- there's no way to revoke a record attached to your identity without proving that you are the same person one the record was created for. The program is costing the country, and you personally, close to £2Bn a year, rather than the initially projected £5Bn over a decade, and it has totally failed to achieve its objectives. It is, in fact, the biggest fiasco since the Poll Tax.

    ... All because of the quid pro quo the French government demanded in return for closing the Sangatte refugee camp (i.e. that the UK adopt an ID card), and Tony Blair's Americanophilia (which caused him to demand that the British ID card follow the example of the US REAL ID Act and use biometric authentication), and the gravy-train instincts of the usual government IT project contractors.

    [Discuss ID Cards]

    posted at: 15:24 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 10 May 2006

    A word from our sponsors

    It's that time of year again ... the birds are singing, the sun is shining, and the author's promoting his books.

    If you liked the first two Merchant Princes books -- or just the first one because you don't buy in hardcover -- you might like to know that both the first two books are now available in paperback, and the third, "The Clan Corporate", is due out next week in hardcover, which means it should be showing up in the shops any day now. Publisher's Weekly seemed to like it:

    Stross's lively third volume in his Merchant Princes SF series (after 2005's The Hidden Family) finds 33-year-old Boston journalist Miriam Beckstein still caught in a "barely post-feudal" alternate world where she's part of a mafiosa-like family called "the Clan." The Clan is holding Miriam's mother hostage in an effort to force the reluctant, thoroughly modern Miriam to make a politically advantageous marriage. Also dragged into deadly Clan politics is Miriam's ex-boyfriend, Mike Fleming, a DEA agent who has infiltrated Miriam's world on the orders of Homeland Security. Miriam's foolish, headstrong decisions help propel the fast-paced plot. Mike's discovery that the Clan may have planted nuclear weapons on our world raises the ante. While Miriam can be frustratingly dense, playing right into her captors' hands, the book gallops along to a cliffhanger ending that will leave readers eagerly awaiting future installments.

    (Go on, buy a copy from Amazon. You know you want to. Right?)

    But wait! There's more!

    Accelerando should be out in paperback real soon (end of this month, basically). And My next SF novel, the stand-alone "Glasshouse", comes out in hardcover on June 30th in the US, and July 6th in the UK. And this is what Publisher's Weekly had to say about it in their starred review:

    The censorship wars -- during which the Curious Yellow virus devastated the network of wormhole gates connecting humanity across the cosmos -- are finally over at the start of Hugo-winner Stross's brilliant new novel, set in the same far-future universe as 2005's Accelerando. Robin is one of millions who have had a mind wipe, to forget wartime memories that are too painful -- or too dangerously inconvenient for someone else. To evade the enemies who don't think his mind wipe was enough, Robin volunteers to live in the experimental Glasshouse, a former prison for deranged war criminals that will recreate Earth's "dark ages" (c. 1950-2040). Entering the community as a female, Robin is initially appalled by life as a suburban housewife, then he realizes the other participants are all either retired spies or soldiers. Worse yet, fragments of old memories return -- extremely dangerous in the Glasshouse, where the experimenters' intentions are as murky as Robin's grasp of his own identity. With nods to Kafka, James Tiptree and others, Stross's wry SF thriller satisfies on all levels, with memorable characters and enough brain-twisting extrapolation for five novels.

    Still not convinced? Kirkus Reviews had this to say in their starred review:

    A perfectly tuned combination of gravitas and glee (the literary/cultural references are a blast). Stross's enthralling blend of action, extrapolation and analysis delivers surprise after surprise.

    Be brave, remortgage the house, and buy both new books in hardcover. What can you lose?

    We now return you to the usual blank-channel hiss and occasional muttering and grumbling.

    [Discuss Writing (3)]

    posted at: 13:58 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 04 May 2006

    Tonguing the physics model

    I'd have been a lot more talkative this week -- I was planning to resume regular blogging -- if not for the fact that on Tuesday my shiny four-week-old laptop began showing signs of severe flakiness. Some twelve hours of brown-pants backups (yes, I back up regularly, what's your problem with multiple backups?) followed by another twelve hours of diagnostic tests confirmed that the hard disk has the electronic equivalent of chickenpox, a rash of bad blocks proliferating across its surface. It's a good ten years since I've had an honest-to-god disk crash; this really takes me back. And indeed, take back the laptop is exactly what I did next: it's in the shop for the next week or so, and I'm now running a week behind schedule.

    I notice that in the computer graphics world Ivan Sutherland's wheel of reincarnation is still turning, sort-of: the latest topic to hit the Register seems to be physics engines (like the Ageia PhysX chip reviewed behind that link). 3D graphics is all very well, but for a realistic VR or gaming environment (which is largely the same thing these days) you want realistic physics -- objects should exhibit the same sort of dynamics as they do in the real world, except where the designer wants them to deviate for enhanced game-play. My eyes nearly fell out when I got to the bit about the PhysX being effectively a 4x4 array of vector processors, able to peak near 50GFlops when fully utilized: I last paid attention to this sort of thing back in the days when 0.5GFlops was the sort of thing universities would pay big money to house in their computing centres. Doubtless in a decade's time the idea of throwing 50GFlops at optimizing the trajectories of your grenade fragments in a first-person shooter will be ho-hum, but right now it's got me wondering what the implications are going to be like when this sort of thing gets cheaper/faster/embedded in your cellphone. Put it together with the tongue sensor (that feeds data to you sublingually) and I'm thinking it'd be bloody useful to use one of these things for proximity analysis (with input from your phone's position sensor and your eyeglasses video cameras). Train the user how to react with a few hours of some DDR-alike full-body motion game cued via the tongue and, well, you didn't see that mugger? No need, your phone spotted him and body-swerved you around him while it uplinked his mugshot to the police.

    [Discuss Writing (3)]

    posted at: 18:38 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 29 Apr 2006

    Slow News Day

    I'm back home from a trip down to London, for the Clarke award — not the award for British achievements in space, but the similarly-named award for the best SF novel published in Britain in 2005 —, which was won this year by Geoff Ryman for Air. Congratulations to Geoff, who's one of the best writers in the field and whose low profile is little short of scandalous.

    While I was away from home, about a third of a million people were born; a slightly smaller number died; the government was hit by a series of scandals, some of which are clearly serious enough to demand the resignation of senior cabinet ministers; and the price of light sweet crude blew past US $70 a barrel and nearly peaked at $75. (This latter news item would be more alarming if the dollar had not weakened against the Euro and Sterling at the same time, suggesting that the spike in oil prices might have more to do with the dollar's weakness than with the black gold suddenly turning scarce.) Mexico decriminalized posession of small quantities of cannabis, cocaine and diamorphine (that's heroin, to you) for personal use. New Scientist ran an article suggesting that yet another physical constant — the ratio of the mass of the proton to the mass of the electron — is actually a variable (a couple of other inconstant constants are already under investigation this decade). Intel announced that by 2010 they expect to be working with nanolithography on the 32 nanometre scale in their consumer microprocessors — an if-this-goes-on straight line extrapolation would put us firmly in the Drexler-style top-down nanotechnology scale by 2016 to 2019 (although that's contingent on a whole bucketload of other things).

    While I was in London I spent about £50 on a gadget. Like all too many modern gadgets it's basically a silvery plastic box with an aerial socket and a couple of LEDs, and it's made in Taiwan. This one still requires a bit of DIY assembly on the part of the owner, but nothing much more complex than replacing a light bulb. You need to buy a laptop-size hard disk drive and install it in the box, then add electricity. (Not too much of the latter, if you want to avoid letting the magic smoke out.) The box contains an embedded system-on-chip computer running Linux, and it's about as powerful as my 1996-era desktop workstation. It's got a WiFi base station and it basically turns the hard disk into a wireless-aware file server, accessible to any computer that's got the password and a wireless network connection. We have a technical term for this: Network Attached Storage. (Prepend "wireless" to taste.) It used to cost thousands of pounds, oh, five years ago. Now it's a cheap-ass gizmo you take with you so that you can stream digitized movies to your personal media player. Doubtless Bruce Sterling would have something pithy to say about it's Spime-worthiness, but for now I'm almost at a loss to describe what it means to me — it's vastly significant and simultaneously completely meaningless. I must be growing old, or something.

    Future shock is everywhere.

    Meanwhile, I'm back at work. I've just checked the galleys of "Missile Gap" (a novella, forthcoming as a limited edition hardback from Subterranean Press), and begun signing my way through a twenty centimetre high stack of signing sheets for the leatherbound limited edition of "Glasshouse" (due July-ish). I don't normally use a pen to write anything longer than an address on an envelope, so signing my way through a thousand sheets is time consuming, to say the least. And beyond that, there's the problem of how to write "Halting State".

    I started off writing "Halting State" on a mobile phone. All right, so the phone in question was an Orange SPV M5000. (VGA screen. Pocket Word. WiFi. External keyboard and mouse. 4Gb storage card. We're talking 1997 laptops here, aren't we?) This seemed like the way to go — the M5000 is an early forerunner of the spime-o-sphere, a machine that could only be explained via infodump to a resident of the quaint pre-technological era of, say, 1990. But the M5000 has its problems. Notably, just carting a static dump of WikiPedia around on my phone is no longer enough for my research needs. Somewhere along the line, I've turned into a Google junkie. "Halting State" is a very near future novel (a decade is just about within the horizon for tech prognostication and social change) so doing research online is a necessity. As is some kind of technology for maintaining my own mini-wikipedia of ideas, automatically generating cross-linkages, carrying out in-depth web searches and building conceptual maps, and indexing everything.

    Interestingly, one company, Devon Technologies, appear to produce a couple of products that fit my needs precisely: DEVONAgent, a web search agent that does the boring data reduction job on the output from the main search engines and produces a digest of the results, and DEVONThink Pro, which is somewhat hard to describe but has features of a free text database, outline processor, web browser, word processor, and concordance generator. You can dump huge volumes of text (or web searches) into a DEVONThink database, then tell it to identify associations and connections between documents and classify everything. Or you can write notes and rapidly turn them into a wiki (which is exportable to static HTML if you need to make it available to other people). It can digest the text out of PDFs and import Word and RTF files or mailboxes — if it had a way to talk to a scanner I'd be declaring the arrival of the paperless office at this point.

    For my purposes, these tools look like a promising way of organizing my research and notes on "Halting State". In particular, being able to hyperlink from a name in the text of the manuscript to my notes on the character (and thence to any other characters they have strong opinions about) is coming in handy for spotting inconsistencies. It's the sort of technique that only becomes viable when we've got masses of computing power to throw at the problem of writing books — if this was a technical manual rather than a novel I'd be calling it a power tool for organizing research. But for now, let's just say that while bits of the novel will continue to be jotted down on a mobile phone, the heavy legwork of integrating everything is going to be left to my AI-derived research assistant.

    [Discuss Writing (3)]

    posted at: 20:50 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 20 Apr 2006

    Conjugate characters, not verbs

    (Taps microphone. Blows off dust. "Is this thing switched on?")

    Take a story, any story: a sequence of events in time. It's possible to tell this story in a myriad of different ways, depending on where you stand in relation to it.

    Imagine you're a camera, capturing a sequence of events in time. You can capture the events from outside, standing off-stage as it were: an external narrative, "he/she/it does ..." [whatever]. We call this a third person narrative. Or — in a work of written fiction, or machinima, or other suitable media — you can strap yourself to the forehead of one of the actors and make it an internal narrative: "I do ..." [whatever]. We call this a first-person narrative. And you can either capture the sequence as it happens, in the present tense — or, in a suitable medium (like prose) you can recount it after it's all over, the curtain fallen and the deeds completed, weaving in and out of the imaginary present of the story as the requirements of narrative take you through the past tense.

    These are the basic modes of storytelling, but they don't tell the whole story: we have options that are seldom used. The basic verb conjugations apply: "I am", "You are", "He/She/It is" — but whereas we routinely put the first person and third person viewpoints behind our camera, we rarely use the second person ("you do ..."), for a reason I'll get around to shortly. And we have other tenses than present and past. But these underused camera angles are hard to bring into focus. How do you tell a story in the future tense? I'm going to go into the kitchen and make a cup of tea while I think about the rest of this paragraph, then I'm going to come back into my study, sit down at the word processor, and explain by example. (Ba-ding!) Future tense works for declarations of intent, but it makes it impossible to hide — if all is known ahead of time, then how do you inject suspense into a story?

    The second person is also hard to use, and rarely applied even to short stories, although there are some notable exceptions. For example, Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInery's first novel, is narrated in the second person. But even though it works surprisingly well, I can't help feeling that McInery is cheating — it's an interior monologue, the narrator talking to himself and keeping up a running flow of stream-of-consciousness, and as such it's actually a first person narration reflected off the mirror of his narcissim: you could re-write it in the first person with no loss of information.

    One of the reasons the second person is so rarely applied to fiction is that it's directly intrusive into the reader's head. Instead of staying decently outside the narrative and peering at the actors, the second person directs — you become part of the story, bouncing around uncomfortably inside it. And the biggest reason this is uncomfortable is ... characterisation.

    Writing is the nearest thing to telepathy we have discovered (to steal a leaf from Stephen King's On Writing). It's a technique we use for serializing a stream of consciousness, freezing it for posterity, and injecting it into other human heads whereupon, by some process we don't fully understand, it is unpacked and hopefully creates a structural cognate of the original author's conscious experience in the reader's mind. Alas, it's also a piss-poor substitute for real telepathy (whatever that would feel like): you never read the same story the same way twice, and no two readers ever read it quite the same way. The structural cognate that a book gives rise to in the reader's mind is intimately dependent on the state of that mind, and human minds evolve over time.

    The big advantage that writing (and especially written fiction, my preferred art form) has over other media for conveying experience is that the writer can try to incorporate bits of other, imaginary minds in their serialized stream of consciousness. Writing isn't just a camera, or even a technicolor camera with Dolby surround-sound recording: it's a camera with flickering, blurry, black-and-white, routinely-malfunctioning telepathy bolted on the side. (The telepathy recording module works best when operated by an expert, with tender loving care.) And when we revisit the issue of first-person v. third-person, past v. present narrative with this in mind, we can add another mode: how we kibbitz on the actor's thoughts.

    First person is relatively easy and unintrusive. The story is told by one actor, with a camera strapped to their head, and imaginary electrodes in their brain: they can keep up a running commentary, injecting their own opinions into the narrative, and the worst that's likely to happen is that they'll irritate the reader by being overly chatty.

    Third person telepathy is a bit harder to arrange. We have literary conventions for this &emdash; he pauses to think about his next sentence carefully, while across the drawing room his wife wonders why he has stopped talking. That's an omniscient telepathy cam weaving among the actors like an attention-deficient mosquito, landing to suck a moment's thought here then buzzing across the room to slurp a transient meme there. In general omniscience is frowned on, at least among amateurs, because the writer really has to know what they're doing in order to differentiate the different thought-streams they're injecting into the reader's mind. So the usual compromise for third-person narratives is to stick to one viewpoint (one stream of a character's interior insight) per written scene, with clear cut-points — or to eschew the trick completely because, let's face it, cinema and TV work fine without telepathy, and some folks feel that telepathy is to some extent a crutch that allows stories to hobble along despite poor external characterisation.

    So what about the second person?

    You've been wondering when I'd get to the point for a minute or so by now, and you're not alone. (Obviously I couldn't figure out how to set this punch-line up without weaving all over the map in a drunkard's walk, but you're still reading because there's got to be a pay-off somewhere.) The second person is more irritating as an external viewpoint than the other camera angles we employ, because it constrains the reader to a set position within the action. And when the author switchs on the god-module telepathy box on the side of the camera, the itch becomes intolerable because the author is going to inject their thoughts straight into your brain through a syringe the size of the Channel Tunnel. And it's going to hurt because they're telling you to think this or think that and you don't really want to experience the raw trauma of someone else's drama from the inside.

    (It gets even worse when we go multi-viewpoint in the second person. Second person plural is not a common fictional mode because to pull it off you've got to get your reader to do the world's fastest costume change between scenes — and it's not just the external costume, but the internal props of ideas and attitudes and serialized consciousness that has to change. To go multi-viewpoint in the second person mandates a delicacy of characterisation that simply isn't needed in multi-viewpoint third (or even multi-viewpoint first). And as for multi-viewpoint second person future ...?)

    But I digress, as usual. Second person is our normal mode for communicating experiences. You're reading this essay right now and quite possibly scratching your head — there! Break out of the text for a moment and look back at that last sentence. Second person narrative is uncomfortable because it has the power to coerce our behaviour and direct our vision. If the first-person telepathy module is a bunch of electrodes in the brain of one actor, feeding us their stream of consciousness, and the third-person telepathy module is a brain-sucking mosquito bouncing around the actors, the second-person telepathy module is an alien mind control parasite that gloms onto you, sticks its electrodes into your brain, and tells you what to think. It's got amazing potential for fine-grained insight into the guts of a story — after all, the second person is the most immersive viewpoint — but it's a very hard tool to use without tickling the reader into noticing it. Alien mind control parasites tend to be one of those things that make most humans go "eek!" and run away very fast, and the same is true of this story-telling mode.

    So I'm probably not going to surprise you if I tell you that I'm currently experimenting with using this format at novel length. I might end up having to go back and re-write in a more conventional voice, but right now I have a sneaking feeling that when properly deployed, the omniscient second-person-plural is a really strong story-telling tool. You will get right inside the action and understand what the protagonists are thinking and doing — at least, that's the theory. Most importantly, for a work of near-future science fiction (a story set in a recognizably close future, perhaps ten years hence), by injecting the character's attitudes to their surroundings directly into your head I'm hoping to get away from the traditional science fictional snare of obsessing over the trappings of technology, the surfaces and sheen of the new. In other words, I'm fumbling after a new way of writing SF. Let me hasten to explain:

    Obviously, you know what it feels like to read a blog. But cast your mind back in time ten years &mdash, no, make that fifteen — to a time before you encountered the net and before blogs had been invented. Try to imagine yourself as an aspiring SF writer who's read about this internet thingy, and about some experimental hypertext tools (from Xanadu and Hypercard to Hyper-G by way of Gopherspace and WAIS, with a side-order of this funny compromise thing some guy with a double-barreled name is tinkering with at CERN). As this aspiring SF writer, you've decided to write a novel set in 2006, a novel in which this internet thingy your tech-head friends keep gassing about in the pub is everywhere. And you start trying to work out just what that might mean. You've heard about email, and that intuitively makes sense. You've possibly heard of AOL or CompuServe or CIX and, if you move in academic circles, of USENET, and the idea of a bunch of people talking on a multi-user bulletin board isn't that strange. And there'll be some kind of easy-to-use hypertext system that lets ordinary folks add data to it.

    But what are the ordinary folks going to add to this hypothetical global hypertext thing? What are they going to talk about? How are they going to use it and what's it going to feel like?

    Asking these questions, your traditional, instinctive, bad-SF approach is to explain everything in nauseating detail: "Johnny sat down at the HyperTerminal and typed in his password. The computer verified his identity and let him in, throwing up a picture of the InterWeb. Johnny thought for a moment: where do I want to go today? The answer was obvious. Like all other communications media, the InterWeb had only really taken off once it was adopted by the porn industry as a replacement for Betamax tapes; now, finding anything useful in it was like walking down a strip mall full of flashing red neon signs and questionable window displays. But Johnny wanted to research his dissertation topic. So he typed in the address locator of Google, a popular information clearinghouse that scanned the rest of the InterWeb daily and indexed it, allowing keyword searches." (And so on.)

    A more sophisticated approach that increasingly became the norm in more literary SF over the past couple of decades is to show. "Johnny picked up his laptop and logged on. Windows opened on its desktop, pop-up ads flashing garish offers of hardcore porn at him. Annoyed, he brought up a browser and headed to a search site to continue researching his dissertation." This mode is a whole lot less clunky, but it's got a crippling handicap: the author has to make the leap from technical description ("typing his password into the HyperTerminal's keyboard") to action ("he logged in") in a manner that is comprehensible to the reader. Because, let's face it, if you've never seen a computer the second version of this story is a whole lot less accessible than the first. Early SF was seen by its authors and their self-ghettoized readers as a didactic, educational medium exposing them to new ideas about technology and the way we might live. You could show the first version to a 1930s reader and they'd be able to follow the plot: the second remix is incomprehesible, because the referents for the action simply aren't there ("laptop", "logged on", "browser", "search site").

    Is there a better way to do it? Let's crank up that magical telepathy box again. I'd like you to imagine that you can download into the reader's head the experience of "logging in" and "opening a browser". That might put the references into a form that the reader can grasp, as long as it's external to the narrative. It's one of the ways that hypertext (a notoriously poor medium for fiction) nevertheless manages to work, with discursive links embedded in the text to provide illuminating metainformation. (As in the paragraph above that set out the parameters of this thought experiment about re-inventing the web.) The second person is the discursive medium par excellence — hard on the characterization though it is, it's a great way to shoe-horn information and thoughts into the reader's head. "You pick up your laptop and shift it around your lap until you're comfortable with its weight and the hot spot under the processor isn't burning your knee, then you type in your password. Instantly, a bunch of flashing ads pop up all over the screen, anoying you until you click on them to kill them. While you're waiting for the search form to load you wonder if maybe you shouldn't take your cousin's advice and install a program to block the nuisance ads, pyramid schemes, and other junk that gets in the way of your research."

    The second person's big strength is that it lets you show by doing, and it renders infodumps — those big, intrusive gobbets of metainformation that are so useful to the jobbing science fiction writer who's trying to portray an unfamiliar world — transparent. (It's big weakness is that if it isn't done carefully, it feels like an itchy straitjacket to the reader, but you already know that, don't you?) It's not so much about metafiction as about metainformation for the fiction at the centre of the narrative process. If you fine-tune your use of the interior monologue you can illuminate your character's experience of their universe, lending the "showing, not telling" narrative some experiential references and weight so that it feels familiar, even if it's full of novel placeholders. And you can banish the old didactic mode for good, consigning it to the howling wilderness of pulpish prose where it belongs. (After all, we're trying to commit literature here. Right?) You have the technology to tell this story the way it needs to be told. All you have to find now is the courage to use it.

    (That's my theory and I'm sticking to it — at least, until I'm far enough into "Halting State" to see if it survives its collision with reality.)

    [Discuss Writing (3)]

    posted at: 14:30 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 12 Apr 2006

    A brief word from our sponsors

    I have in my possession a book contract with the titles "The Atrocity Archives" and "The Jennifer Morgue" inscribed on it, in proximity to the name of the British publisher formerly known as Orbit or Time Warner (and now evidently eager to be called Little Brown). The first of 'em could be showing up in paperback as early as summer 2007.

    Oh, and it's a three book contract; the third title being "Eschaton 3" (i.e. a sequel to "Iron Sunrise").

    (In other news, the Infernal Realm has been found to be surfaced with solidified dihydrogen monoxide; and no, this is not a belated April Fool.)

    posted at: 13:43 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 31 Mar 2006

    On the unworkability of the National Identity Register

    Over at ("Chronicling the demise of the New Labour Project") Tom has an interesting post in which he estimates the workload the NIR registration centres will have to handle, just 32 months from now.

    So adding it all up, from NIR Day 1 for ten years you've got to keep processing people at the rate of 50 per hour at every centre, or one every 72 seconds, each of whom requires a scan of the whole central NIR to avoid multiple registrations, so the database has to be up and accessible every minute of the day to avoid delay.

    In the early days it's a nailed on certainty that we'll get failures, resulting in potentially hundreds of people making pointless journeys ...

    Assuming 99% reliability (which is pretty hysterically funny for a large distributed government program lashed together in 32 months, as it exceeds the MTBF of the client desktop PCs the staff will be accessing the register through) he figures the NIR will be processing 700,000 people a year and roughly 71,000 people are going to be making trips to the office in vain. "I'd suggest that anything much below 99.9% reliability is going to be seriously political in terms of people claiming loss of earnings, loss of holidays etc.," he remarks.

    I think Tom is an optimist (in favour of the NIR being unrealistically efficient). The devil is in the details of what the NIR is trying to track. This isn't just a passport system, folks, they want to know where you live, they want to know where your dog goes to school. Unfortunately the Blairwatch comment system seems to have swallowed my reply, so here it is. (I can't be bothered re-writing it, as I've got an annoying cold and it's time to go get some dinner. Go read his figures first, then come back here ...

    There is a reason we need to renew our passports every decade; the photograph ages. The same is going to be true of the biometrics on the ID card. There are also all those status changes to take into account. The average marriage lasts just 12 years, for example, and getting married or divorced is obviously an ID Register update. Right?

    On top of the on-going 700,000 teens per year I think you need to add the following ongoing overhead updates:

    • Marriages: (90% of folks get married, so that's another 650,000 p/y)
    • Divorces: (40% of marriages end in divorce, so about 300,000 p/y)
    • Deaths: (100% of us die, cumulative death rate is roughly equal to birth rate, so 7,000,000 p/y leaving the register)
    • 10 year biometric updates: 7,000,000 per year. (Do you look the same at 39 as you did at 29? I think not ...)
    • Mutilations: people who lose eyeballs or fingers or otherwise experience changes to their body that would interfere with the biometrics are obviously going to need their records updating. (I'd say this is probably cumulative to somewhere between 5 and 10% of the population, so another 350,000-700,000.)
    • Change of Address: people who move are required to provide proof of change of address. Say we live in a given house for an average of roughly 10 years. Yippee! We've just doubled that 7M figure again!
    • Loss or damage to ID Card: that's going to be a report-to-processing-center job too, isn't it? In 25 years I've damaged one passport and lost another. But these ID cards are going to be riding around in wallets, an environment more like that in which credit cards are used. Personally, I'd be surprised if the half-life of an ID card was much over 2 years in practice, so that'd actually multiply the replacement processing rate by a factor of 5. But that's ridiculous so I'm going to leave it out of the calculation below.

    In upshot, I reckon the mature system will have to handle more like 15M to 25M updates per year on an ongoing basis, rather than Tom's 7M updates at first and 700K after 10 years. If we include a card life more like a credit card than a passport, make that 50-100M updates per year.

    And this is in addition to the initial registration rate during the first decade as they try to shovel us all into the database!

    Bluntly, they're not going to be processing people at the rate of one per 72 seconds -- it's going to be an order of magnitude worse, minimum.

    And that's before we look at other updates. Maybe 500,000 people come into contact with the criminal justice system every year -- their records are going to be updated. (If resistance to the ID Card reaches levels associated with the Poll Tax in Scotland in 1989-90, you can ramp that number to more than 10 million a year -- believe it or not, the Councils in Scotland are still trying to clear up the Poll Tax backlog.) As we integrate further with the EU, I'd be unsurprised to see immigration/emigration figures close to 500K per year, too.

    Bluntly, the figures don't add up. They're not going to be able to process people properly without an order of magnitude expansion of the processing offices. Nor have we factored in the half-million or so folks a year taking days off work (with a vaunted 99% efficient system), or a whole load of other special cases.

    Build a distributed high-security database that's got to add a complex record every second, add three-nines or better availability, will be checked probably an order of magnitude more frequently as well, and ensure that the data integrity is preserved? And do it in 32 months, using the usual New Labour contractors like Capita and EDS? Go pull the other one, Mr Clarke.

    [Link] [Discuss ID Cards]

    posted at: 21:26 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    The UK National ID card

    You may have noticed the House of Lords resistance to the ID Card bill collapse earlier this week. You may have shrugged and wondered what it means to you. If you live in the UK, here's what it means:

    You Will:

    ATTEND an appointment to be photographed, have your fingerprints taken and iris scanned, or be fined up to £2500. Additional fines of up to £2500 may be levied each time you fail to comply until you submit to these procedures.

    PROMPTLY INFORM the police or Home Office if you lose your card or it becomes defective, or face a fine of up to £1000. If you find someone else's card and do not immediately hand it in, you may have committed a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment for up to two years or a fine, or both.

    PROMPTLY INFORM the National Identity Register of any change of address or face a fine of up to £1000 (you will supply evidence of your previous addresses, not just your current address).

    PROMPTLY INFORM the National Identity Register of significant changes to your personal life or any errors they have made or face a fine of up to £1000. You may also be obliged to submit to being re-interviewed, re-photographed, re-fingerprinted and re-scanned, or face a fine.

    PAY between £30 and £93 (Home Office estimates — every other body involved says it will be substantially more) to be registered, with further charges possible to change your details and to replace a lost or stolen card.

    When ID cards were introduced in this country during World War II, they had three functions. By the time they were abolished in 1952 they had 39 administrative uses. So what won't we be able to do without an ID card, according to Government plans?

    If you don't have an ID card ...

    You will not (be able to):

    Rent or sell a home

    Stay in a hotel

    Buy or sell a car

    Buy a mobile phone

    Open or close a bank account

    Travel overseas

    Obtain medical care

    Attend an institute of education

    Work or run a business

    Be declared dead (or alive)

    Be registered to vote

    I have four words to sum this up: Tony Blair's Poll Tax.

    And if you don't like this and want to do something about it, you should start by supporting the No2ID campaign and/or The Open Rights Group.

    [Discuss ID Cards]

    posted at: 17:36 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 22 Mar 2006

    2006 Hugo shortlist

    The shortlist for the 2006 Hugo awards is now officially out, and I'm very happy to announce that "Accelerando" is on the ballot for best SF or Fantasy novel of 2005.

    I'd like to congratulate everybody else who's on the Hugo ballot; and I'd especially like to single out John Scalzi, who's still new enough at this game that he's on the Campbell Award ballot for best new writer as well.

    Incidentally, if you're an eligible voter and haven't read "Accelerando" yet, you can download it for free as an ebook. (Or get the paperback when it ships, probably sometime in June.)

    posted at: 10:11 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 21 Mar 2006

    I love the sound of deadlines whizzing past my head ...


    Ah well. I think that's it — the first draft of a book provisionally titled "The Merchants' War", #4 in the Merchant Princes series, sputtered to a halt yesterday evening. Normally I expect to know damn well when I've finished a book, but this one is the middle of a three book story within an ongoing series: it's there to recomplicate a pre-existing plot, add character development, ramp up the tension, and end on a high note of anticipation. I think. (Doubtless my editor and I will have lots to say on the subjectwhen he gets his hands on the MS, but I'll jump that fence when I come to it ...)

    Incidentally, that's not the only reason I've been quiet lately — I've done two SF conventions in the past four weeks, and have another two to go to in the next four weeks, plus the Clarke Award ceremony ("Accelerando" is on the shortlist this year). And today I started writing the next novel. Both books are due on their respective editor's desks in September. They're very different: this next one, "Halting State", is going to be a near-future thriller set in Edinburgh about ten years from now, in the hazy zone where contemporary crime novels cross over with science fiction. In fact, it's going to be so close to the moment that I'm in danger of perpetrating a work of mundane SF.

    Being inclined towards crazy stunt performances, I'm planning on writing "Halting State" on my mobile phone. This is technologically feasible because the phone in question has more memory and online storage than every mainframe in North America in 1972 (and about the same amount of raw processing power as a 1977-vintage Cray-1 supercomputer). It's a zeitgeist thing: I need to get into the right frame of mind, and I need to use a mobile phone for the same reason Neal Stephenson used a fountain pen when he wrote the Baroque cycle. Afters all, I want to stick my head ten years into the future. Personal computers are already passé; sales are declining, performance is stagnating, the real action is all in the interstitial networked devices that keep washing up on the beaches of our bandwidth ocean, crazy-weird things like 3G phones and battery-powered network attached storage boxes and bluetooth-controlled vibrators. (It's getting weird out there in embedded intelligence land; the net is alive to the sound of pinging toasters, RFID chips are the latest virus target, and people are making business deals inside computer games.) The internet's old hat too, even with a second dot com boom (and bust) looking: in ten years' time we'll be up to Web 3.1415926535 and counting. Gibsonian cyberspace fits the picture about the way the US interstate highway system fits in a 1960s road movie. It's time to move on.

    As part of the research for "Halting State" I've been wallowing around in a whole bunch of blogs. You can get the official line on a community or culture by reading its publications, things like "RFID World" magazine or The Job (the London Metropolitan Police's newspaper), but the view at worm's eye level is very different and I suspect more likely to give you an idea of where things are really going. Strange communities are popping up everywhere on the web as it integrates ever more closely with our ordinary society. On the one hand, there are the academic and technical specialists: I'm inclined to wonder what Jaron Lanier or Michael Benedikt would have made of Terra Nova if you'd waved a dot matrix printout of it at them back in 1990? And then there's the furtively anonymous subculture of the blogging cops — Cough the Lot, A year in the life of a Police dispatcher, The Policeman's Blog, and so on. (Why focus on these two? Well, among other things I'm interested in seeing what happens when you mash the two cultures together, the VR eggheads seeing the 1980s skiffy idea of cyberspace turn into a 2000s commercial phenomenon and a 2010s social scene, and the police who're going to end up with a whole lot of new headaches as the physical world acquires a virtual mapping.)

    But that's enough for now.

    [Discuss Writing (3)]

    posted at: 16:58 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 06 Mar 2006

    Gone Phishing

    Identity fraud is something of a current-day worry. We've probably all heard about it, or heard horror stories from someone who's been on the receiving end of it. But how do you tell when someone is trying to do it to you?

    The most important thing you can know, to make yourself safe, is this: before some thief can empty your bank account, they have to know how to impersonate you convincingly on paper or on the telephone. And because your bank call center doesn't know you from a dalek by voice, this means they need the password or private information the bank depends on to identify you.

    If you've been on the internet for any length of time, you probably get phishing emails — messages purporting to be from financial institutions to you, their customer, warning that your account is in jeopardy and that you need to click here to update your details or log in or something. The "click here" button invariably leads to a convincing fake copy of the bank's web site, and if you enter your details the scammers will be into your real online banking account faster than a greased Jack Russell terrier down a rabbit hole. I get about two or three of these a day for my bank account, ten to twenty a day for my ebay/Paypal accounts, and another twenty to fifty for banks I've never dealt with in my life. Needless to say, I'm blase and cynical about them. On the other hand, things are different for folks who aren't used to the internet — different enough that these thieves find it a lucrative line of work.

    A somewhat rarer fraud requires a bunch of people in an office, with a set of telephone lines. I got one of these today. The first sign was around 1pm, when the phone rang. I picked it up: silence on the line. I put it down in disgust, immediately — the silent line means some automatic polling software at the far end is dialing numbers but there were no call centre staff ready to launch into a sales script. And that, I thought, was that.

    Then the phone rang again at 4pm. I picked it up, hearing a silent line, which immediately raised my suspicions. But a moment later, someone came on the line. "Hello, I'm J from Barclays banking security. Can I speak to Mr Stross, please?"

    As it happens, I do bank with Barclays, and once in a while I get a phone call from their security people. But that silent couple of seconds at the beginning of the call had got me on edge. (Why would the bank's security department be using a polling dialer?) "Speaking," I said. "What is the purpose of this call?"

    "We've had a notification about some suspicious activity on your current account and we're phoning to check into it." So far, this was following the standard Barclays script. However, a second odd thing about the call caught my attention: my caller's accent. Barclays have not, as far as I know, outsourced their call centres from the UK, but his accent was definitely foreign. I'm bad at accents: I initially thought "Indian", but as he continued I shifted to "South African". Still, that's not damning. When I visited my bank branch this lunch-time, the cashier who dealt with me was Polish. But you can add up points here, and this was the second oddity about the call.

    Then: "can I just confirm your identity sir? If I can ask you for your date of birth and your mother's maiden name ..."

    That is what really started the alarm bells ringing.

    You see, Barclays use these bits of information to authenticate callers. You go through a switchboard system, punch in your account number, and then talk to a call centre cashier. Who uses these questions to confirm that you are who you say you are. But this guy was asking me to break the first rule of security, which is know who you're talking to. He had called me. How did I know he really was from Barclays' security department? All I had was his word for it. If he was a bad guy, then he knew my name and phone number. If he had access to my bank statement (with account number and sort code printed on it) then all he needed was my pass information and he could impersonate me. Tell the bank I've moved to his own address, request new debit cards, and bang — that's my account stolen.

    Hint: Your mother's maiden name is a matter of public record. Banks who use this as a customer password are just asking to be hit on by fraudsters. Me, I lie to the bank: the name they've got on file as my response to that question is not my mother's maiden name, so any identity thieves who go researching me are going to get it wrong.

    "Excuse me, but I don't know who you are," I said. "Give me you department's phone number and I'll call you back."

    A little confusion, then he rattled off a number (0800 389 1652) and I hung up on him.

    First stop: caller-ID. I dialed BT's last number service and got "the caller withheld their number". That's odd, but not utterly implausible for a real bank (they do silly stunts with offshore voice-over-IP to save money). Second stop:, to see if I could find that telephone number anywhere. Funnily enough, the number (0800 389 1652 — a commercial freephone number) wasn't listed in Barclays' page of contact numbers. Third stop: google. Nope, nobody seems to have a web page with that phone number on it listed.

    Fourth stop: after some mild irritation digging it out of the web, I called Barclays customer services, and got through to a helpful fellow. Because I initiated the call, I didn't mind giving him the password. "No, there's no outstanding notes on your account. Let me call that number you were given and see if it's one of ours ..." (It seems big banks haven't yet cottoned onto the idea of an in-house phone book with reverse lookup). "That's odd, it hung up after it rang three times. I'll try again." And no dice that time, either. "I'll make a note on your account."

    And now for the punch-line. Some bastard just tried to steal my bank account. I have no idea how they decided to target me, but from the sound on the line they're running a call centre, and from the accent, they may not be based in the UK at all. If I had taken it on trust that my caller was from my bank and answered their questions, I would be in a world of hurt right now. I'm pretty sure they don't have my bank details (I don't leave statements lying around) but there's one due real soon now that hasn't arrived yet ... and you can never be sure what's happened to the mail that you haven't received. Barclays aren't a major high street presence in Scotland (they've got three branches in the whole country) and my phone number has the Edinburgh dialing code, so to be targeted that way implies that they knew beforehand that I am a Barclays customer and were just looking to fill in the gaps they need. Which is worrying. It implies they know more about me than they'd get by just sticking a pin in the phone book. (I should add that I won't be a Barclays customer for much longer — I've been meaning to change banks for a while now, and this is just the final straw.)

    Anyway, in this particular case I didn't get phished — but it's bloody easy if you lose track of the essentials: never disclose secret information — like your banking details or passwords — through a communications channel which you did not initiate for yourself.

    Oh, and J, if you're out there and reading this, I'm looking for you. And when I find you, I'm going to do my best to put you in prison. Sleep tight.

    [Discuss spam]

    posted at: 17:27 | path: /spam | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 02 Mar 2006

    Hugo nomination deadline approaching

    Just a reminder that if you attended last year's world science fiction convention, or are registered as a member of this year's con, you can nominate works for the Hugo awards. You can vote online here, or by post. Nominations are closing soon — midnight PST on Friday, March 10th.

    Hint: my eligible novels are Accelerando (which you can download for free from that link) and "The Hidden Family". My eligible short fiction is "Snowball's Chance" (published in Nova Scotia: the new anthology of Scottish speculative fiction), and, um, that's about it.

    [Discuss Writing (2)]

    posted at: 16:03 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 28 Feb 2006

    Ebook news

    Sorry 'bout the lack of updates: I've been knee-deep in work, then took off for five days of meetings and stuff, only to succumb to a nasty cold when I got home — the kind that leaves you feeling like a dishrag for a week afterwards. Normal service will be resumed, etcetera ...

    One of the questions I periodically get asked is "can I get an electronic version of [insert book title here]?" The answer has, all too often, been "no". With the exception of the free version of Accelerando, and a crippleware version of "Singularity Sky" (from Ace, by way of Fictionwise — DRM-locked to a single reader). However, the situation is now changing. Ace have added a DRM-locked release of "The Atrocity Archives", if you really need it ... but the big news is what Tor have been doing.

    For about eight years now, just one SF/F publisher in the English-speaking world had been doing the right thing with ebooks: Baen Books. Baen more or less have a corner on the military-SF market, and are a relatively small player in the US market, with maybe 50 titles a year (to Tor's 300 and Ace's 250). However, they're small enough to be agile and innovative, and since 1997 or thereabouts they've been running an effective subsidiary,, which was doing the job properly.

    You sign up with Webscriptions to get an account, then order books from their web site. You pay by credit card, and then you can download the books you've paid for as many times as you need to. The books come in a range of file formats, including HTML, RTF, and the popular ebook reader formats ... and they're not locked to one specific machine; you can use them anywhere. (Rule #1: the customer is not a PDA, they may change computers. Rule #2: trust your customers, don't treat them like shoplifters.)

    There are other aspects of the Webscription service model that are attractive. You can buy books individually, typically for less than the price of a paperback (guess what? The ebook editions of my Ace novels sell for as much as a hardcover or trade paperback, despite being much less useful to readers), or you can buy an entire months' worth of books for a flat rate of roughly $15. From the writers point of view, the royalty rate ain't bad — they pay twice the percentage of a hardcover, reflecting the lower cost of production and distribution. So they're cheaper for readers but pay the authors enough to live on. (Rule #3: don't rip your customers off. Rule #4: don't rip your suppliers off, either.)

    I'm pleased to say that Webscriptions have been doing good business, and, despite the marked lack of success of the rest of the ebook biz, they're expanding. I'm even more pleased to note that my largest publisher, Tor, have noticed that Webscriptions are making money where other folks aren't, and have decided to join in. From March onwards, a number of Tor titles will be sold through Webscriptions, including my own Merchant Princes books (starting with "The Family Trade" and "The Hidden Family" immediately, and to be followed by "The Clan Corporate" in parallel with its dead-tree publication).

    All I need is for Ace to issue an ebook edition of "Iron Sunrise" — preferably via Webscription, but I'll take whatever I can get — and I'll be happy!

    [Link] [Discuss Writing (2)]

    posted at: 19:47 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 10 Feb 2006

    Frogs and trilogies

    Quiet, isn't it? Yes, I know, I haven't been updating my blog recently. That's because I've been busy writing — half the first draft of a novel in the past six weeks, another 20% to go, and then another novel. (It's not my fault: if you folks didn't buy them I wouldn't have to write them ... and if you believe that, I have a very attractive Victorian railway bridge to sell you, just up the coastline from here.)

    Anyway, in addition to being busy with work, I've got to make a trip to the US next week. (It's a business trip, honest. Go on: point to where I said I would shun the shores of that continent forever. Yes, astute convention-going SF fans may spot me at Boskone — where do you think I'm doing business?) I've also got a trip to Dublin next month. And a trip to London the month after that, with a week in tropical Glasgow sandwiched in-between (for the Eastercon). I'd be right on top of the day job if I wasn't taking all this time off for travel, honest. In fact, the incessant travel has led me to buy a five-year old computer, just because it's a sub-notebook so tiny that I can type on it on the tray table in economy class. Yippee. (Not.) It's CPU is half the speed of my new mobile phone's, although it has slightly more RAM and a much friendlier keyboard. Technology marches on ...

    One of the things I've been grappling with lately is the long haul — coming to terms with the difference between writing a couple of linked novels, and writing a series, a huge, articulated structure in which individual books are mere chapters. This is because I'm currently wrestling with plot octopi and setting serpents down in the mire of the fourth Merchant Princes book. Back in the dim and distant days of late 2001, I originally figured I'd write four of them: four fat, self-contained novels expanding upon a common setting and background idea. No plan survives contact with the enemy, though, and big, fat, fantasy yarns are not entirely fashionable this decade.

    The first book, "A Family Trade", suffered the fate of many a stage magician's assistant: its truncated torso was followed into print by "The Hidden Family", and the second book, "The Clan Corporate", became the third in the series. Moreover, I'd originally intended "The Clan Corporate" to be a 750 page doorstop. The book of that name that's coming out this June is a svelte, shapely 300 page novel — unlike its predecessors, I got the signal about how long it was to be before I got my teeth into it. However, it's not the second planned big fat book from 2001 — it's the first third of it, the first installment of a trilogy within an ongoing series. And you know what? I've never written a trilogy before.

    A common complaint about the trilogy as a literary format is that the middle volume tends towards flab. Book one establishes characters and setting, and puts them in jeopardy or starts a plot-related ball rolling: book three resolves conflicts and brings thematic closure, but the middle volume just seems to keep rolling that ball along. From inside the belly of the beast, however, it's a very different picture. One of the necessities of any dramatic plot is an increase in tension between the initial situation and the climax. The middle volume seems to drag only because it is, in the terms of the memorable boiling frog, turning up the heat under the critters. By the end of the middle volume the heat ought to be just barely survivable, leaving the readers in no doubt that in the next book the frogs are going to start hopping. But for the frog-boiling bits themselves to be memorable ... well, it's like watching a kettle, isn't it?

    (Incidentally, the folk tale — that if you put a frog in a cool kettle and apply the heat gently, it won't notice the water temperature rising — is apparently untrue. But it's a neat metaphor for gradual intensification of stress, so I'm going to keep using it as such.)

    Back to the topic in hand. I'm currently boiling a frog, or several frogs, in a middle-volume kettle. And to keep it from getting too monotonous I've spread out the omniscient viewpoint (which spent most of "The Clan Corporate" watching a single individual) until it's time-sharing between half a dozen pivotal players as they gradually discover that their world — or rather, worlds — are not as they thought they were. And that's another headache, because broadening the scope of a story from the personal to the political brings its own problems of pacing and insight. The first three books were personal, the portrayal of one woman running head-first into cultural and economic structures that proved increasingly difficult to deal with. Now I'm trying to demonstrate how her impact has reverberated through those structures, and there's no way to do that from a single constrained viewpoint. So in some ways the story is mutating (as of book four) into an entirely different type of beast.

    'Twas ever doomed to go this way, I think. A brief confession: I've always been uneasy with the Fantasy label that was pinned on "Merchant Princes" from the outset. "Fantasy" carries a lot of baggage with it — expectations of an essentially romantic or pre-modern world-view, or at any rate of a weltanschaung that is not compatible with the technocratic ideological underpinnings of early SF, or even the Enlightenment-rooted humanism of more recent strands within the field. It seemed to me that what I was trying to do is very much more at home in the science fictional tradition, because I'd set out to explore the way in which certain technologies might dictate the structure of a society that employs them — or even to handicap its development. Which is essentially a job that requires a disruptive story arc, one that does not return to the eternal status quo ante — one of the characteristics of SF.

    Luckily for me, as of the latest round of book contracts, I'm no longer required to describe the series as Fantasy™ every time the subject comes up. Having shed one label I'm in no hurry to grab another for it, and you're welcome to keep calling it fantasy for as long as you think the hat fits — but you can take this as advance notice that the series may well take some wild swerves in the near future.

    And therein lies my hope for avoiding middle-volume-of-trilogy boredom: just when you, gentle reader, are settling down to knit yourself to sleep beside the simmering kettle, I'm going to let off some firecrackers and fill the bathtub with brightly-coloured machine parts.

    If nothing else, it'll be interesting to see which way the amphibian jumps, won't it?

    [Discuss Writing]

    posted at: 23:43 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 04 Feb 2006

    Got typos?

    I'm staring at the galley proofs for ACCELERANDO, the paperback edition (actually, at the laser-printed PDF output from Quark, but it amounts to the same), and I'm looking for typos. But one pair of eyes is never as good as ten thousand. Spotted something? Let me know about it here.

    posted at: 14:12 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 03 Feb 2006

    Here is a cat

    Frigg on a desk

    This is Frigg, helping me write. (Because it's Friday.)

    posted at: 15:51 | path: /cats | permanent link to this entry

    Sun, 29 Jan 2006

    More shameless self-publicity

    It has been drawn to my attention that "Accelerando" has been shortlisted for the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction. (Unlike the BSFA award, which is voted on by members of the British Science Fiction Association and the British Eastercon, the Clarke award is awarded by a small jury of writers and critics. The winner will be announced on April 26th in London.)

    The shortlist for 2006 consists of:

    • Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)
    • Learning The World - Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
    • Pushing Ice - Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)
    • Air - Geoff Ryman (Gollancz)
    • Accelerando - Charles Stross (Orbit)
    • Banner Of Souls - Liz Williams (Tor)

    [Discuss Writing (2)]

    posted at: 11:45 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 27 Jan 2006

    Here is the news

    I swear, I'm not making this up.

    In St Fillans, Perthshire (that's in Scotland, dammit), work on a residential development on the side of Loch Earn has been halted because of fears that it will offend the local fairies.

    Meanwhile, in Moscow, Russia, President Vladimir Putin is refusing to expel British diplomats accused of spying (after their WiFi enabled rock malfunctioned) in case MI6 replaces them with somebody competent.

    Scientists at the National Taiwan University have successfully created genetically modified pigs that glow green in the dark.

    Meanwhile, detectives in Brittany have concluded a murder investigation unsuccessfully. The victim's skeleton was found in 2003 at low tide -- a female in her 30s, she was clearly murdered, but all attempts at identifying her failed until radiocarbon dating determined that she died between 1401 and 1453. "We think it was pirates", said a local police spokesman.

    And I am reliably informed that H. M. Revenue and Customs have officially declared that, for purposes of calculation of import duty on goods being brought into the UK from outside the EU, edible snails are classified as "land-based fish". (No online citation for that one, I'm afraid, as the HMRC web portal is a masterpiece of obfuscatory prose that only tentacled horrors from beyond space-time could love.)

    Finally, because it is Friday, here is a cat:

    Mafdet, tarting


    posted at: 16:10 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

    Memo to spammer

    (Please bear with me -- I promise I'll get off this hot-button soon.)

    Dear spammer,

    It has come to my attention that you may be labouring under some misapprehensions concerning my interests. In order to facilitate our harmonious communications in future, please make note of the following points:

    • Electronic mail is a written, hence literary, medium. The first (and probably only) part of your missive that I see is your name and the subject line. If the name and subject line are mis-spelled, ungrammatical, or otherwise unpleasing to the eye, why should I assume that the content might be otherwise? You are, I fear, destined to remain on the slushpile of life until you lern 2 spel.
    • Sadly, I do not speak or read Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Turkish, or German.
    • My genito-urinary system is in adequate working order, thanks.
    • I am grateful for your heart-felt proposal, but I'm already married. (See also, "do not speak language X, above.)
    • This may be an unfortunate cross-cultural mis-communication, but your kind offer to leave me "drowning in sperm" appears to fall foul of local anti-homicide laws.
    • I'd like to thank you for offering me the cheapest counterfeit pharmaceuticals on the market, but I already have a National Health Service annual pre-payment card that's good for everything I need.
    • When trying to convince me to log into PayPal via the link in your helpful email, you ought to bear in mind that PayPal's Chinese servers routinely remind me to do this every fifteen to twenty minutes. You're next in the queue.
    • The same goes for my Chase Manhattan online banking account, my Amazon account, my eBay account, my Halifax PLC account, and all the other online banking and retail merchant accounts that I don't have.
    • Dear Mr Berlusconi, thank you very much for your request for financial assistance in dealing with your current embarrassing situation. Alas, I regret to inform you that I wouldn't cross the road to piss on you if you were on fire. Next time you're feeling desperate, send the corporate jet. Then we'll talk.
    • If you've identified such a wonderful investment opportunity, why don't you invest in it instead of spending all your time blowing the secret by emailing the rest of the planet?
    • Your offer of cheap OEM software will be much more appealing to me if you specify whether it runs on OS/X, Linux, or PalmOS.
    • Underage donkey incest rape videos are a little recondite, don't you think? (Not to say recherche.)
    • Thank you,, for telling me that my account is about to expire and I need to change my password. As the system administrator who maintains the server, this came as quite a surprise to me.
    • Thank you for sending me your attachment. It would be easier for me to open it if it wasn't a Windows executable binary. (They don't run on powerbooks, you know.)
    • Dear Mr. Lee, I have no doubt that your factory in Shenzhou sells the cheapest and best brightly-coloured machine parts in all of China. Nevertheless, I have no current requirement for brightly-coloured machine parts. Perhaps you'd find it easier to make your quarterly sales quota if you visited a trade show instead of my inbox?
    • Thank you for reminding me of my recent lottery win. I'd be more willing to send you my bank account details if I recalled ever actually having entered the lottery in the first place.
    • I may have visited your website six years ago while researching a magazine article. However, you seem to have forgotten that I didn't buy your product, didn't check the box saying "spam me senseless" on your web information form, and my comments were so pungent that your lawyers threatened to sue me for violating the conventions on chemical warfare. It therefore should not come as a surprise to you to discover that I am not breathlessly waiting to hear about the latest upgrade to your product line.
    • Your attempts to convince me to help support your father's ailing mission in Nigeria would be more effective if I wasn't an atheist. (But I promise I'll pray for you.)


    • When you ask, CAN YOU BE SINCERE? the answer is, of course, no.

    Yours sincerely,

    Charles Stross

    [Discuss spam]

    posted at: 12:32 | path: /spam | permanent link to this entry


    Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
    Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
    Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
    "Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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    Some webby stuff I'm reading:

    Engadget ]
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    The Memory Hole ]
    Boing!Boing! ]
    Futurismic ]
    Walter Jon Williams ]
    Making Light (TNH) ]
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    Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
    Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
    Bruce Sterling ]
    Ian McDonald ]
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    Cyborg Democracy ]
    Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
    Atrios ]
    The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
    This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
    Jesus's General ]
    Mick Farren ]
    Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
    Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
    Tangent Online ]
    Grouse Today ]
    Hacktivismo ]
    Terra Nova ]
    Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
    GNXP ]
    Justine Larbalestier ]
    Yankee Fog ]
    The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
    Cough the Lot ]
    The Yorkshire Ranter ]
    Newshog ]
    Kung Fu Monkey ]
    S1ngularity ]
    Pagan Prattle ]
    Gwyneth Jones ]
    Calpundit ]
    Lenin's Tomb ]
    Progressive Gold ]
    Kathryn Cramer ]
    Halfway down the Danube ]
    Fistful of Euros ]
    Orcinus ]
    Shrillblog ]
    Steve Gilliard ]
    Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
    The Panda's Thumb ]
    Martin Wisse ]
    Kuro5hin ]
    Advogato ]
    Talking Points Memo ]
    The Register ]
    Cryptome ]
    Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
    Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
    Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
    Simon Bisson's Journal ]
    Max Sawicky's weblog ]
    Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
    Hitherby Dragons ]
    Counterspin Central ]
    MetaFilter ]
    NTKnow ]
    Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
    Fafblog ]
    BBC News (Scotland) ]
    Pravda ]
    Meerkat open wire service ]
    Warren Ellis ]
    Brad DeLong ]
    Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
    Jeff Vail ]
    The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
    Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
    Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
    Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

    Older stuff:

    June 2006
    May 2006
    April 2006
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    January 2006
    December 2005
    November 2005
    October 2005
    September 2005
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    July 2005
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    (I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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