Invisible Sun Cover

I have a new book coming out at the end of this month: Invisible Sun is the last Merchant Princes book, #9 in a series I've been writing since 2001—alternatively, #3 in a trilogy (Empire Games) that follows on from the first Merchant Princes series.

The original series was written from 2001 to 2008; the new trilogy has been in the works since 2012: I've explained why it's taken so long previously.

Combined, the entire sequence runs to roughly a million words, making it my second longest work (after the Laundry Files/New Management series): the best entrypoint to the universe is the first omnibus edition (an edited re-issue of the first two books—they were originally a single novel that got cut in two by editorial command, and the omnibus reassembles them): The Bloodline Feud. Alternatively, you can jump straight into the second trilogy with Empire Games—it bears roughly the same relationship to the original books that Star Trek:TNG bears to the original Star Trek.

If you haven't read any of the Merchant Princes books, what are they about?

Let me tell you about the themes I was playing with.

So, I'm going to talk about Elon Musk again, everybody's least favourite eccentric billionaire asshole and poster child for the Thomas Edison effect—get out in front of a bunch of faceless, hard-working engineers and wave that orchestra conductor's baton, while providing direction. Because I think he may be on course to become a multi-trillionaire—and it has nothing to do with cryptocurrency, NFTs, or colonizing Mars.

This we know: Musk has goals (some of them risible, some of them much more pragmatic), and within the limits of his world-view—I'm pretty sure he grew up reading the same right-wing near-future American SF yarns as me—he's fairly predictable. Reportedly he sat down some time around 2000 and made a list of the challenges facing humanity within his anticipated lifetime: roll out solar power, get cars off gasoline, colonize Mars, it's all there. Emperor of Mars is merely his most-publicized, most outrageous end goal. Everything then feeds into achieving the means to get there. But there are lots of sunk costs to pay for: getting to Mars ain't cheap, and he can't count on a government paying his bills (well, not every time). So each step needs to cover its costs.

What will pay for Starship, the mammoth actually-getting-ready-to-fly vehicle that was originally called the "Mars Colony Transporter"?

(This is a short expansion of a twitter stream-of-consciousness I horked up yesterday.)

The error almost everyone makes about COVID19 is to think of it as a virus that infects and kills people: but it's not.

COVID19 infects human (and a few other mammalian species—mink, deer) cells: it doesn't recognize or directly interact with the superorganisms made of those cells.

Defiance—a common human social response to a personal threat—is as inappropriate and pointless as it would be if the threat in question was a hurricane or an earthquake.

And yet, the news media are saturated every day by shrieks of defiance directed at the "enemy" (as if a complex chemical has a personality and can be deterred). The same rhetoric comes from politicians (notably authoritarian ones: it's easier to recognize as a shortcoming in those of other countries where the observer has some psychological distance from the discourse), pundits (paid to opine at length in newspapers and on TV), and ordinary folks who are remixing and repeating the message they're absorbing from the zeitgeist.

Why is this important?

Well, all our dysfunctional responses to COVID19 arise because we mistake it for an attack on people, rather than an attack on invisibly small blobs of biochemistry.

Trying to defeat COVID19 by defending boundaries—whether they're between people, or groups of people, or nations of people—is pointless.

The only way to defeat it is to globally defeat it at the cellular level. None of us are safe until all of us are vaccinated, world-wide.

Which is why I get angry when I read about governments holding back vaccine doses for research, or refusing to waive licensing fees for poorer countries. The virus has no personality and no intent towards you. The virus merely replicated and destroys human cells. Yours, mine, anybody's. The virus doesn't care about your politics or your business model or how office closures are hitting your rental income. It will simply kill you, unless you vaccinate almost everybody on the planet.

Here in the UK, the USA, and elsewhere in the developed world, our leaders are acting as if the plague is almost over and we can go back to normal once we hit herd immunity levels of vaccination in our own countries. But the foolishness of this idea will become glaringly obvious in a few years when it allows a fourth SARS family pandemic to emerge. Unvaccinated heaps of living cells (be they human or deer cells) are prolific breeding grounds for SARS-NCoV2, the mutation rate is approximately proportional to the number of virus particles in existence, and the probability of a new variant emerging rises as that number increases. Even after we, personally, are vaccinated, the threat will remain. This isn't a war, where there's an enemy who can be coerced into signing articles of surrender.

So where does the dysfunctional defiant/oppositional posturing behaviour come from—the ridiculous insistence on not wearing masks because it shows fear in the face of the virus (which has neither a face nor a nervous system with which to experience emotions, or indeed any mechanism for interacting at a human level)?

Philosopher Daniel Dennett explains the origins of animistic religions in terms of the intentional stance, a level of abstraction in which we view the behaviour of a person, animal, or natural phenomena by ascribing intent to them. As folk psychology this works pretty well for human beings and reasonably well for animals, but it breaks down for natural phenomena. Applying the intentional stance to lightning suggests there might be an angry god throwing thunderbolts at people who annoy him: it doesn't tell us anything useful about electricity, and it only tenuously endorses not standing under tall trees in a thunderstorm.

I think the widespread tendency to anthropomorphize COVID19, leading to defiant behaviour (however dysfunctional), emerges from a widespread misapplication of the intentional stance to natural phenomena—the same cognitive root as religious belief. ("Something happens/exists, therefore someone must have done/made it.") People construct supernatural explanations for observed phenomena, and COVID19 is an observable phenomenon, so we get propitiatory or defiant/adversarial responses, not rational ones.

And in the case of COVID19, defiance is as deadly as climbing to the top of the tallest hill and shaking your fist at the clouds in a lightning storm.

(Crib Sheet essays may contain spoilers for the book in question. Previously I refrained from writing them until the book was published in paperback, typically 12 months after first hardcover release. However, times are a'changing. In the UK, Orbit released the paperback of Dead Lies Dreaming only six months after the hardback. And in the USA, Tor.com is an ebook-first publisher; while they issue my books in hardcover, there will probably never be a paperback release unless for some reason they decide they need a trade paperback. (The mass market paperback channel for trade fiction has been dying by inches since about 2005, as ebooks supplant it.) Dead Lies Dreaming came out in October 2020, and I figure you've had time to read it by now: so I'm releasing this particular essay a few months earlier than I would have done for previous books.)

I wrote Dead Lies Dreaming in 2018-2019, during a difficult time in my life when I was unable to grapple with the book I was supposed to be writing (Invisible Sun, which got finished a short time later). Dead Lies Dreaming happened almost by accident—it wasn't on my to-do list at all, let alone planned with the idea that it might be the start of a whole new series (book 2, Quantum of Nightmares, is with the copy editor right now: it comes out next January 11th). That, and the chaos caused by the arrival of COVID19, probably account for it being marketed in hardcover as Laundry Files book 10, which it most certainly is not: but it's set in the same world as the Laundry Files, the world of the New Management, and that's why it says "New Management book 1" on the spine of the UK paperback.

I'm insisting on the distinction because the New Management books are not about the government agency known to its staff as the Laundry. Nor do any Laundry Files characters—with the significant exception of His Dread Majesty, the Prime Minister—show up in the first two books of the new series. As the first Amazon reader reviews predictably complained about the lack of Bob, Mo, and the Laundry, I want to make it quite clear: Dead Lies Dreaming is set some time (six months to two years) after the end of the final, not-yet-written (or titled) Laundry Files novel. Spoiler: the Black Pharaoh, N'yar Lat-Hotep, is still Prime Minister of the UK, and CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is ongoing (if not actually getting any worse). There may or may not be survivors and revenants from SOE Q-Division and Continuity Operations. We will get to briefly see Persephone Hazard again in book 3. But that's not relevant ot the plot of this book, which kicks off a whole new series.

The previous series turned out to be impossible to continue as of 2018-2021, a period during which British politics became so bizarre as to be impossible to satirize. I promise I'll get back to it eventually! But if I was to write more stories in the same setting, I had to drop the political/civil service angle, which meant dropping the Laundry and moving the spotlight to focus on civilian life under the New Management.

So what happened to trigger this unexpected attack novel?

This is well overdue because I kind of lost track of my irregular series of spoileriffic essays about my novels: it should have turned up in 2019, but I was dealing with a parental death, then trying to get my writing re-started (you might have noticed 2019 was The Year Without A Novel, for the first time since 2007), then COVID19 hit.

So I'm going to try and think myself back into my 2018 state of mind and brain dump whatever I can, and you can ask me fill-in questions in the comments below.

(NB: a Crib Sheet for Dead Lies Dreaming is due in the next few months. I need to catch up on the publication schedule to see where we're at, but as it went paperback in the UK and probably isn't getting a US paperback release, and Quantum of Nightmares is due out next January, you're welcome.)

So, without further ado ...

(I need to blog more often, so here's one of hopefully a series of shorter, more frequent, opinions ...)

NOTICE (as of comment 322): the discussion is about the book, not the Verhoeven movie, which I have not seen. Stop with the movie discussion or I will start to delete comments. I run this blog for my amusement and I have zero interest in movies/TV adaptations of this novel.

Anent the "Heinlein was a fascist" accusations that are a hardy perennial on the internet, especially in discussions of Starship Troopers (the book, not the movie, which I have not seen because it's a movie): I'd like to offer a nuanced opinion.

In the 1930s, Heinlein was a soft socialist—he was considered sufficiently left wing and "unreliable" that he was not recalled for active duty in the US Navy during the second world war. After he married Virginia Gerstenfeld, his third and last wife, his views gradually shifted to the right—however he tended towards the libertarian right rather than the religious/paleoconservative right. (These distinctions do not mean in 2021 what they might have meant in 1971; today's libertarian/neo-nazi nexus has mostly emerged in the 21st century, and Heinlein was a vehement opponent of Nazism.) So the surface picture is your stereotype of a socially liberal centrist/soft leftist who moved to the right as he grew older.

But to muddy the waters, Heinlein was always happy to pick up a bonkers ideological shibboleth and run with it in his fiction. He was sufficiently flexible to write from the first person viewpoint of unreliable/misguided narrators, to juxtapose their beliefs against a background that highlighted their weaknesses, and even to end the story with the narrator—but not the reader—unaware of this.

In Starship Troopers Heinlein was again playing unreliable narrator games. On the surface, ST appears to be a war novel loosely based on WW2 ("bugs" are Nazis; "skinnies" are either Italian or Japanese Axis forces), but each element of the subtext relates to the ideological awakening of his protagonist, everyman Johnny Rico (note: not many white American SF writers would have picked a Filipino hero for a novel in the 1950s). And the moral impetus is a discussion of how to exist in a universe populated by existential threats with which peaceful coexistence is impossible. The political framework Heinlein dreamed up for his human population—voting rights as a quid pro quo for military (or civilian public) service—isn't that far from the early Roman Republic, although in Rico's eyes it's presented as something new, a post-war settlement. Heinlein, as opposed to his protagonist, is demonstrating it as a solution to how to run a polity in a state of total war without losing democratic accountability. (Even his presentation of corporal and capital punishment is consistent with the early Roman Republic as a model.) The totalizing nature of the war in ST isn't at odds with the Roman interpretation: Carthago delenda est, anyone?

It seems to me that using the Roman Republic as a model is exactly the sort of cheat that Heinlein would employ. But then Starship Troopers became the type specimen for an entire subgenre of SF, namely Military-SF. It's not that MilSF wasn't written prior to Starship Troopers: merely that ST was compellingly written by the standards of SF circa 1959. And it was published against the creeping onset of the US involvement in the Vietnam War, and the early days of the New Wave in SF, so it was wildly influential beyond its author's expectations.

The annoying right wing Heinlein Mil-SF stans that came along in later decades—mostly from the 1970s onwards—embraced Starship Troopers as an idealized fascist utopia with the permanent war of All against All that is fundamental to fascist thought. In doing so they missed the point completely. It's no accident that fascist movements from Mussolini onwards appropriated Roman iconography (such as the Fasces ): insecure imperialists often claim legitimacy by claiming they're restoring an imagined golden age of empire. Indeed, this was the common design language of the British Empire's architecture, and just about every other European imperialist program of the past millennium. By picking the Roman Republic as a model for a beleagured polity, Heinlein plugged into the underlying mythos of western imperialism. But by doing so he inadvertently obscured the moral lesson he was trying to deliver.

... And then Verhoeven came along and produced a movie that riffs off the wank fantasies of the Mil-SF stans and their barely-concealed fascist misinterpretation: famously, he claimed to have never read the book. I pass no judgement on whether Starship Troopers the move is good or bad: as I said, I haven't seen it. But movies have a cultural reach far greater than any book can hope to achieve, so that's the image of Starship Troopers that became indelibly embedded in the zeitgeist.

PS: I just want to leave you wondering: what would Starship Troopers have looked like if it had been directed by Fritz Lang, with Leni Reifenstahl in charge of the cameras?

PPS: I don't agree with Heinlein's moral framework, although I think I can see what he was getting at.

While Bitcoin was originally proposed as a currency, it has most of the attributes of a commodity bubble, including a huge halo of swindlers and scam artists working to exploit it. It's also horribly energy-inefficient and contributes to the current global semiconductor shortage, neither of which are desirable. Even worse: attempts at fixing Bitcoin mostly revolve around tweaking the "proof of work" required to add a transaction to the blockchain. Currently, BtC and relatives are computation-intensive. Other paradigms exist, including the new fad for Chiacoin, currently big in China, which is storage intensive — this is what happens when the designer of Bittorrent brings his own personal obsessions to bear on the problem of manufacturing scarcity, and if you want to upgrade your SSD or hard drive in the near future you'd better get right to it before this catches on.

(And about NFTs, the less said the better. Grift, 100% grift, and exploitation of artists as well. Oh, and it appears to be mostly used for money laundering. So fuck off and die if you own any, and especially if you thought pirating some of my work and turning it into NFTs would be a good way to milk the gullible.)

However, these aren't the only options.

It occurs to me that if you want a blockchain secured by scarcity and diminishing returns, you might consider other options that don't totally fuck our lived environment and that can't be gamed trivially by, say, running Chiacoin (the storage-space coin protocol) as part of the burn-in for new consumer grade drives your employer has you shoving in racks at Amazon S3 or maybe Arsebook. (Who totally have a first-mover advantage on that brain-damaged currency in the "phone my customer account manager at Western Digital, tell him I want another ten million terabytes of non-shingled platters" stakes.)

For example, to Elon Musk, a modest proposal:

Hork up a bunch of space probes going somewhere of interest to JPL or NASA or ESA, as both a tax write-off and an apology to the international astronomical community whose night skies you just vandalized with Starlink. Order, say, a dozen. For energy where they're going and for what's coming next they're definitely going to need RTGs, but you're not as fussy about maximum launch weight as the US government (you have Falcon Heavy and, soon, Starship to launch them with) so you can order up something running on, say, Strontium-90: it'll be heavier, but who cares. You're also going to use some of the power from it to run ion rockets for positioning and slow long-term acceleration (hint: Starlink uses ion propulsion for station keeping/reboost: presumably SpaceX have got quite a bit of experience with this tech by now).

So, you kindly donated a couple of dozen probes to Neptune, Uranus, Pluto, Eris, Makemake, Haumea, and the rest of the gang (and the dwarf planet wonks are ecstatic).

But you're not going to be using much bandwidth for sending back data, most of the time. So what to do with those radio transmitters you just kicked out at something above solar escape velocity?

Code signing, that's what you do.

Each probe has a dedicated crypto processor and a very VERY private key. It receives a constant uplink from the ground, and replies by signing and echoing back to Earth the blockchain transactions it receives. The further away from Earth it gets, the longer the delay. Also, the higher demand for the currency rises, the longer the delay to get your transaction into the queue for uplink and signing via the big dishes. You might be able to make an end run around the queue by bribing someone, but gambits based on building hardware are going to run into the wee problem that Deep Space Tracking Networks aren't off-the-shelf commodities and even if they were, you couldn't force the receding space probe to listen to your transmitter and reply (presumably the uplink is secured by the coin owner's own PKI system).

Upshot: it's a cryptocoin system with a big up-front setup cost (as in, billions), which is good (it deters low-end me-too systems), guaranteed scarcity of signing resources, and absolutely no advantage accruing to anyone buying up earthly power or material resources. So it shouldn't drive scarcity in hard disks/GPUs or unreasonable power demands. Flip side: there's a centralized chokepoint (the deep space network) that can be throttled by governments. But some might see this as an advantage ...

PS: my preferred solution to the problems created by cryptocurrencies is to treat them all like child pornography: totally illegal, possession a strict liability offense, choke off interoperability with real currencies at the credit agency/bank interchange level, and make them useless for non-criminals, at which point only criminals will bother with them. And India is going down this route. Let's hope other governments follow suit rapidly and we can say goodbye to this Trump-grade lunatical grift before it degrades our lived environment any more.

PPS: I despise libertarianism. Just in case you were wondering ...

TITLE: Someone died

So, a rather famous old man died yesterday. I'm not going to say any more about him, for reasons that'll become obvious below: instead I'm going to talk about the vile media feeding frenzy we're about to be subjected to.

Compulsory mourning for a stranger sucks--especially when it's performative Victorian-style royal mourning.

The past century has seen a huge cultural flip-flop so that death and mourning are as inadmissible/peripheral to public life today as sex was in the 1890s, and vice versa.

Back in the 1890s, at least among the upper classes sex was spoken of elliptically or not at all, carried out furtively and in private, and not admitted to in polite society. Everybody did it, but nobody wanted to be known for it, and the taboos surrounding it were many and punishment for infractions could be savage. But mourning was a huge social spectacle, acted out in public: there were special clothes, ritualized stages of mourning with defined time frames within which certain behaviours were expected and other normal activities suspended. The funeral cortege was a public procession through the streets, sometimes with hired mourners to indicate the degree to which the deceased was respected: monumental architecture sprouted in graveyard.

Then the 20th century happened.

Today we're relatively open to discussions of sex--at least to talking about it and portraying it openly in the media. (I'm not sure we're having more of it--the Victorians were hyperactive furtive shaggers--but we're not trying to hide it, for the most part.) However, death isn't something we're routinely exposed to. The demographic transition from a high birth rate/high death rate society to a low birth rate/low death rate culture has resulted in death becoming something that mostly happens behind closed hospice and hospital doors. Funerals still happen, and act as an excuse for reunions of far-flung families ... but then we resume everyday life immediately. Employers grant a week off for the death of a spouse, parent, or child: more distant relatives are ignored. The idea of women going into seclusion at home, wearing only black clothing (and a veil if venturing out in public) for six months, would be a jaw-dropper. Grief and bereavement is a very private thing these days, not a fit subject for sharing. The normal thing to do this century is to leave the bereaved family decently alone with their grief in private.

But then the Queen's squeeze died, and the national discourse is suddenly dragging us on a 150 year deep dive into the unfamiliar territory of archaic public mourning rituals. And the vultures are circling ...

I never met Prince Philip, or his wife and kids. My only interaction with the royal family ever was to walk across a stage during a graduation ceremony attended by a bored minor royal--the patron of the university I attended. They are, in a very real sense, strangers to me: no more familiar than Kim Kardashian or Elon Musk.

And yet I'm expected to join in an orgy of vicarious synthetic grief and mourning and wrap myself in either a flag, or a black armband, or both (I'm unclear). The sanctimonious right wing tone police are already out in force, marching in columns in every newspaper. On top of the normal stentorian roar of monarchist calls for obedience, this time round we also have moralistic finger-wagging injunctions to observe social distancing because of COVID19: to remain silent behind closed doors, the royal funerary rites to invade our private spaces.

The UK is ruled by a monarchy-obsessed reactionary Party (and by Party I do not mean to identify the Conservatives: rather, it's the Party of the Establishment as embodied by the state itself). The media aligned with the monarchy-obsessed party can--and will--use this event to bury bad news or manufacture pretexts (Look! They're not wearing black! Or genuflecting obediently to power!) attack the usual targets. Expect the government to use this grim-reaper-delivered opportunity to the max to bury bad news (renewed rioting in Northern Ireland, the Scottish election, Brexit, COVID19 vaccine shortages, corruption) and demand that we focus on the ritual of royal mourning instead of paying attention to current events.

The cultural dynamic of celebrity drags the unthinking and unaware along with it. Humans like to watch the powerful (we're descended from primates who live in troupes, after all), and the death of a member of the royal family is very much like the death of a film star, musician, famous-for-being-famous celebrity--it's ripe for exploitation for commercial or political ends.

Worse, looming on the horizon is the spectre of another royal funeral. The Queen is 94 years old and presumably a grieving widow. Losing a spouse after more than 70 years of marriage is like suffering an amputation of the soul, according to my mother, after a similar bereavement. She's probably not going to last out the current decade, even though her family is famously long-lived. Indeed, widows or widowers often follow their spouse relatively rapidly after such a long relationship: codependency withdrawal can kill. And the usual vultures are circling.

Shorter summary: the royal family is institutionally resistant to change, this means its death/mourning rituals are increasingly out of touch with contemporary cultural norms, and the cognitive dissonance between what they tell us is expected of us and what we know to be true will be exploited by manipulative and malignant political actors.

It's April 1st today, historically a day when persons of ill repute tried to prank one another into believing ridiculous things.

However, this is the second year of the COVID19 pandemic, and also the year Brexit bites, and the second year in which British Prime Minister Clownshoes Churchill can tell any damn lie he feels like in the House of Commons without being called on it by the press, the public, or even the leader of the opposition.

Take for example the recent release of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which in other years would be an epic-level April Fool's Day trolling exercise (it purports to prove that the UK is a tolerant, multicultural, ethnically diverse paradise that has abolished structural racism and in which non-white people experience no discrimination whatsoever, they're just imagining it). It's clearly a joke, having been commissioned by the jester prime minister himself, who wrote (during his career as a journalist and editor) of "picanninies with watermelon smiles" (and described veiled muslim women as "letterboxes", and let's not even get into his overt homophobia). Ha, ha, ha. (Shakes rattle at monarch, squeezes pig's bladder to make farting sound.) And yet here we are, expected to believe a rigged report from a committee so incredibly unsure of itself that they had to name it "C.R.E.D.", presumably as a signal that they needed help ...

... And this is without even mentioning the previous US President.

It is therefore no surprise that as of 2021, the April Fool tradition has been declared to be obsolete by the International Trade Commission subcommittee on Humor.

Henceforth, trading in April Fool's japery is banned (and may result in suspension of social media accounts and blogging privileges) and an international treaty criminalizing the propagation deceptive and malign jests will relieve us of the onerous obligation to evaluate material we see on the internet skeptically for at least one day every year.

Indeed, I'm going to set up a petition to the committee to consign April the 1st to the status of damnatio memoriae—its name to forever be stricken from memory and banned from utterance. Where it's necessary to mention it for calendrical purposes it will be referred to as "March 32nd", and it will be followed sequentially by "April 2nd": when I've got the petition website up I'll post details here, and I encourage you all to sign it.

Thank you, and have a happy March 32nd! (And may it be the first of many.)

(PS: Toby Young could not be contacted for comment.)

(Blogging was on hiatus because I've just checked the copy edits on Invisible Sun, which was rather a large job because it's 50% longer than previous books in the series.)

I don't often comment on developments in IT these days because I am old and rusty and haven't worked in the field, even as a pundit, for over 15 years: but something caught my attention this week and I'd like to share it.

This decade has seen an explosive series of breakthroughs in the field misleadingly known as Artificial Intelligence. Most of them centre on applications of neural networks, a subfield which stagnated at a theoretical level from roughly the late 1960s to mid 1990s, then regained credibility, and in the 2000s caught fire as cheap high performance GPUs put the processing power of a ten years previous supercomputer in every goddamn smartphone.

(I'm not exaggerating there: modern CPU/GPU performance is ridiculous. Every time you add an abstraction layer to a software stack you can expect a roughly one order of magnitude performance reduction, so intuition would suggest that a WebAssembly framework (based on top of JavaScript running inside a web browser hosted on top of a traditional big-ass operating system) wouldn't be terribly fast; but the other day I was reading about one such framework which, on a new Apple M1 Macbook Air (not even the higher performance Macbook Pro) could deliver 900GFlops, which would put it in the top 10 world supercomputers circa 1996-98. In a scripting language inside a web browser on a 2020 laptop.)

NNs, and in particular training Generative Adversarial Networks takes a ridiculous amount of computing power, but we've got it these days. And they deliver remarkable results at tasks such as image and speech recognition. So much so that we've come to take for granted the ability to talk to some of our smarter technological artefacts—and the price of gizmos with Siri or Alexa speech recognition/search baked in has dropped into two digits as of last year. Sure they need internet access and a server farm somewhere to do the real donkey work, but the effect is almost magically ... stupid.

If you've been keeping an eye on AI you'll know that the real magic is all in how the training data sets are curated, and the 1950s axiom "garbage in, garbage out" is still applicable. One effect: face recognition in cameras is notorious for its racist bias, with some cameras being unable to focus or correctly adjust exposure on darker-skinned people. Similarly, in the 90s, per legend, a DARPA initiative to develop automated image recognition for tanks that could distinguish between NATO and Warsaw Pact machines foundered when it became apparent that the NN was returning hits not on the basis of the vehicle type, but on whether there was snow and pine forests in the background (which were oddly more common in publicity photographs of Soviet tanks than in snaps of American or French or South Korean ones). Trees are an example of a spurious image that deceives an NN into recognizing something inappropriately. And they show the way towards deliberate adversarial attacks on recognizers—if you have access to a trained NN, you can often identify specific inputs that, when merged with the data stream the NN is searching, trigger false positives by adding just the right amount of noise to induce the NN to see whatever it's primed to detect. You can then apply the noise in the form of an adversarial patch, a real-world modification of the image data being scanned: dazzle face-paint to defeat face recognizers, strategically placed bits of tape on road signage, and so on.

As AI applications are increasingly deployed in public spaces we're now beginning to see the exciting possibilities inherent in the leakage of human stupidity into the environment we live in.

The first one I'd like to note is the attack on Tesla car's "autopilot" feature that was publicized in 2019. It turns out that Tesla's "autopilot" (actually just a really smart adaptive cruise control with lane tracking, obstacle detection, limited overtaking, and some integration with GPS/mapping: it's nowhere close to being a robot chauffeur, despite the marketing hype) relies heavily on multiple video cameras and real time image recognition to monitor its surrounding conditions, and by exploiting flaws in the image recognizer attackers were able to steer a Tesla into the oncoming lane. Or, more prosaically, you could in principle sticker your driveway or the street outside your house so that Tesla autopilots will think they're occupied by a truck, and will refuse to park in your spot.

But that's the least of it. It turns out that the new hotness in AI security is exploiting backdoors in neural networks. NNs are famously opaque (you can't just look at one and tell what it's going to do, unlike regular source code) and because training and generating NNs is labour- and compute-intensive it's quite commonplace to build recognizers that 'borrow' pre-trained networks for some purposes, e.g. text recognition, and merge them into new applications. And it turns out that you can purposely create a backdoored NN that, when merged with some unsuspecting customer's network, gives it some ... interesting ... characteristics. CLIP (Contrastive Language-Image Pre-training) is a popular NN research tool, a network trained from images and their captions taken from the internet. [CLIP] learns what's in an image from a description rather than a one-word label such as "cat" or "banana." It is trained by getting it to predict which caption from a random selection of 32,768 is the correct one for a given image. To work this out, CLIP learns to link a wide variety of objects with their names and the words that describe them.

CLIP can respond to concepts whether presented literally, symbolically, or visually, because its training set included conceptual metadata (textual labels). So it turns out if you show CLIP an image of a Granny Smith, it returns "apple" ... until you stick a label on the fruit that says "iPod", at which point as far as CLIP is concerned you can plug in your headphones.

NN recognizing a deceptively-labelled piece of fruit as an iPod

And it doesn't stop there. The finance neuron, for example, responds to images of piggy banks, but also responds to the string "$$$". By forcing the finance neuron to fire, we can fool our model into classifying a dog as a piggy bank.

The point I'd like to make is that ready-trained NNs like GPT-3 or CLIP are often tailored as the basis of specific recognizer applications and then may end up deployed in public situations, much as shitty internet-of-things gizmos usually run on an elderly, unpatched ARM linux kernel with an old version of OpenSSH and busybox installed, and hard-wired root login credentials. This is the future of security holes in our internet-connected appliances: metaphorically, cameras that you can fool by slapping a sticker labelled "THIS IS NOT THE DROID YOU ARE LOOKING FOR" on the front of the droid the camera is in fact looking for.

And in five years' time they're going to be everywhere.

I've been saying for years that most people relate to computers and information technology as if they're magic, and to get the machine to accomplish a task they have to perform the specific ritual they've memorized with no understanding. It's an act of invocation, in other words. UI designers have helpfully added to the magic by, for example, adding stuff like bluetooth proximity pairing, so that two magical amulets may become mystically entangled and thereafter work together via the magical law of contagion. It's all distressingly bronze age, but we haven't come anywhere close to scraping the bottom of the barrel yet.

With speech interfaces and internet of things gadgets, we're moving closer to building ourselves a demon-haunted world. Lights switch on and off and adjust their colour spectrum when we walk into a room, where we can adjust the temperature by shouting at the ghost in the thermostat, the smart television (which tracks our eyeballs) learns which channels keep us engaged and so converges on the right stimulus to keep us tuned in through the advertising intervals, the fridge re-orders milk whenever the current carton hits its best-before date, the robot vacuum comes out at night, and as for the self-cleaning litter box ... we don't talk about the self-cleaning litterbox.

Well, now we have something to be extra worried about, namely the fact that we can lie to the machines—and so can thieves and sorcerors. Everything has a True Name, and the ghosts know them as such but don't understand the concept of lying (because they are a howling cognitive vacuum rather than actually conscious). Consequently it becomes possible to convince a ghost that the washing machine is not a washing machine but a hippopotamus. Or that the STOP sign at the end of the street is a 50km/h speed limit sign. The end result is people who live in a world full of haunted appliances like the mop and bucket out of the sorcerer's apprentice fairy tale, with the added twist that malefactors can lie to the furniture and cause it to hallucinate violently, or simply break. (Or call the police and tell them that an armed home invasion is in progress because some griefer uploaded a patch to your home security camera that identifies you as a wanted criminal and labels your phone as a gun.)

Finally, you might think you can avoid this shit by not allowing any internet-of-things compatible appliances—or the ghosts of Cortana and Siri—into your household. And that's fine, and it's going to stay fine right up until the moment you find yourself in this elevator ...

Or, Muskcoin: a credible proposal.

So, a few weeks ago I was chewing over COVID19 on Mars (insert any other pandemic here), a discussion of how a Musk-initiated Mars colony circa 2070 might handle an aggressive viral pandemic.

Which brings me onto the topic of Elon Musk (okay, Tesla) recently buying $1.5Bn of BitCoins. I personally think this is a stunt, but an interesting one: BtC is a commodity in a bubble; if it goes up, Tesla turns a profit, and if it goes down it's a tax write-off. As Tesla is currently ridiculously over-valued this therefore looks like a smart way of hedging against some of their risk. But it got me thinking about SpaceX ...

Some of you have read Neptune's Brood, right? Shortlisted for the 2014 Hugo award, and, ahem, currently on offer for $4.99 as an ebook (North American edition only, sorry British folks).

What are the opportunities for Musk's colony to implement its own cryptocurrency?

In terms of "Neptune's Brood", MuskCoin might be a plausible implementation of Medium Money.

On Earth it would function as a cryptocurrency backed by the Mars colony. Blockchain is used for transactions. However, the proof-of-work in generating a MuskCoin is non-algorithmic: you transmit a digital certificate for your shiny new coin to MuskBank on Mars, where it is countersigned with a string from MuskBank's One Time Pad, which was generated on and only exists on Mars. The blockchain is then updated—from Mars. The publicly issued checksum of MuskBank's OTP is itself published via the Blockchain.

MuskCoin is required in payment for cargo capacity on Earth-to-Mars shipping, or for purchasing real estate on Mars. It has a floating terrestrial exchange rate: the idea is that it's used for mediating interplanetary exchanges.

Unlike Bitcoin there's a central bank and an anti-forgery mechanism. It's not inherently deflationary like Bitcoin, because the Martian Central Bank can if necessary generate a new one time pad and add its checksum to the blockchain, expanding the money supply. The proof of work doesn't inflate over time, either—it remains constant, and is ridiculously hard to forge (the only reasonable mechanism would be to figure out how to derive the one time pad from the published checksum, which should be impossible). And given its founder's ego issues, the unit of currency will be the Elon.

Conversion between Elons and regular (fast) money: you use it to acquire title to a chunk of land on Mars, then put it on the real estate market. When somebody buys it, you get your exchange rate.

One side-effect of it being Mars-backed is Mars has a shallower gravity well than Earth: once the colony is up and running and eating its own dogfood (in terms of semiconductor and high-end space-rated fabrications), it may be cheaper to buy satellites and other spacecraft from Mars than to lift them from Earth, as long as you schedule their launches years in advance. However, that's a long-term consequence. The main point is that it provides a way to loosely couple the Martian economy with Earth's, without locking Mars into fiscal interdependency with other-planetary economic cycles.

Note that I have certain ideological assumptions: namely that BitCoin itself is a highly inappropriate currency for anyone, much less an embryonic Mars colony. It's designed to promote Libertarian values, is inherently deflationary, and ridiculously wasteful of energy, all of which are liabilities when you live in a tin can on a lump of rock with no air. Interplanetary colonies for at least the first couple of centuries are going to be highly regimented collectivist institutions, more like a 1950s Kibbutz than a libertarian utopia. But any sufficiently large colony will eventually need to interact at a macroeconomic level with its neighbors—Mars will get out of the inevitable early Juche phase fairy soon, or Mars will die—at which point some species of currency seems desirable. However, one that is directly exchangable with existing terrestrial currencies is an invitation to disaster (if nothing else it renders the Mars colony vulnerable to speculators on Earth).

Discuss?

It's 2021! And I have publications coming.

First up, due out in the USA/Canada only on July 13th (no UK sale— see below) is a short Laundry novella, Escape from Puroland. As the cover copy says:

Regular readers of Charles Stross's Laundry Files might have noticed Bob Howard's absence from the events of The Nightmare Stacks, and his subsequent return from Tokyo at the start of The Delirium Brief.

Escape from Puroland explains what he was doing there.

This is going to be available as a hardcover and ebook. I emphasize that it's not a full novel, but a rather short novella—about 90 pages. (Incoming 1-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads ahoy: "Too short: this is a rip-off!")

It's one of two planned novellas I need to write before the final full-length Laundry novel about Bob et al; I found myself blocked by current events from roughly 2018, hence the switch of direction in Dead Lies Dreaming, which is the start of a separate ongoing series.

(British readers: you have not been forgotten! Over the years I've published a number of Laundry short stories and novellas in the USA via Tor.com. None of them have been released in the UK so far. However, once I write the last planned novella, there'll be enough for a full sized Laundry short story collection, which of course will show up in the UK in due course.)

Second up, due out on September 28th in both the US and UK, is Invisible Sun, the last book in the Empire Games trilogy (and the last novel in the Merchant Princes setting).

Invisible Sun was previously due out in January, and a lot of folks are asking me why their pre-order has been cancelled and bookstores are saying it's out of stock. This is mostly due to Amazon and/or other wholesaler databases: if a book is delayed by more than 6 months they cancel advance orders with no explanation, or show it as out of stock.

What happened was a perfect storm, for a book originally due for publication in 2017. First, my editor David Hartwell died suddenly and unexpectedly. David was the main impetus behind the entire Merchant Princes series, and he commissioned the new trilogy: his death not only deprived me of a friend but disrupted the project and threw Tor's entire editorial workflow into chaos for a while. Then, in 2017 my father became unwell and died (a week after his 93rd birthday). Work staggered on, and then in 2018 my mother had a series of strokes and ended up in a nursing facility: her health declined and she died in mid-2019 (a week after her 90th birthday). Losing your editor and both parents in the space of 3 years is not a productivity-enhancing experience, to put it mildly, and my mid-crisis attempts to get the capstone of a million-word saga to gel were not good. But I finally completed work on a fifth re-write of Invisible Sun and sent it to my agent for delivery ... in February 2020, just as COVID19 came along. COVID didn't actually kill anyone I was directly working with, but it disrupted my publishers—editorial are all working from home these days—and shut down their printers for a few months. Hence the delay.

But despite all the deaths, despair, and pandemic, Invisible Sun is now with the production department at Tor and it will arrive on September 28th, unless a dinosaur-killer asteroid gets us first. (And it's the longest book in the series by quite a margin: I had a lot of plot threads to wrap up, and only a limited stockpile of nuclear weapons this time round!)

Third up—you weren't expecting this, were you?—I just delivered another novel! I don't normally talk about books before the publishing contract's signed, but as the paperwork is in the pipeline and the book is actually with an editor already, I think it's now safe to mention that In His House is the sequel to Dead Lies Dreaming. Barely a week has passed since the end of the previous story before Eve learns that her plan to sideline Rupert might not have worked as intended: meanwhile, on the other side of London, the nefarious Thieftaker-General is preparing to bid for a government contract, the Banks children are about to meet their new nanny, and Wendy Deere has been asked to investigate why human DNA traces are showing up in the butcher counter produce of a supermarket. All these plot strands converge in the dungeons under a castle in the Channel Islands, where Rupert's plan to summon a blood drenched horror is about to bear strange fruit ...

Due to COVID-related disruption and the need to coordinate both my British and American publishers, I can't give you a publication date for In His House. It might show up very late this year, or it might be delayed until some time in 2022: I don't know, but I'll update you when I have something concrete to report.

In the meantime I'm pushing on with Bones and Nightmares, the third book in the sequence, although I might get diverted onto other projects by editorial request (possibilities: that last Laundry novella, the long-overdue space opera, or even the last Bob novel). Watch this space.

Time for a thought experiment! (For those of us who don't want to keep chewing on the sore that is the US presidential succession—if you do, please stick to this already-existing discussion: cross-contamination into this new discussion will be dealt with harshly.)

We all know by now that Elon Musk wants to appoint himself Pope-Emperor of Mars. As the world's richest man (currently, and only on paper—it's based on the Tesla share valuation, which is wildly inflated) and as the guy with the private space program that scooped 50% of the planetary civil launch market in the past decade, it's not entirely inconceivable. Evidently SpaceX hope to fly Starship to orbit in the next 1-2 years and land a Starship on Mars within this decade. Let's suppose it happens.

So then ...

Serious question, for discussion.

After the events of January 6th, I currently expect the inauguration to happen on January 20th, although there will be death threats against both the incoming president and vice-president. How seriously they're taken by the US Secret Service, FBI, and other relevant security agencies is going to be telling: we know that white supremacists have pursued a policy of entryism in police and military forces for decades now (globally, not just in the USA), and although a palace coup by the Praetorian Secret Service seems vanishingly unlikely, there may be conspiracies from within the state apparat of repression.

It's fairly obvious that the new administration will go after the rioters/putsch plotters/lynch mob. It's possible there'll be a criminal investigation of elements of the Trump administration: all those high-level resignations on the 7th suggest that something very illegal was going on, in relation to the storming of the Capitol. Possibly enough to justify the prosecution of a former president, if there is a smoking gun to be found ...

And it also looks as if the Republican party have lost their grip on the executive and congressional branches of government (but not yet on the judiciary), and are beginning to wake up to the moral hazard of farming baby alligators in their bathtub: the promise of croc-skin shoes is all very well, but when the alligator grows up and gets loose in your house, you have a problem on your hand.

Are the Trumpists going to split and form a new party? Or are the Republicans going to split, many of them deserting to the Democrat coalition, and leave the rump party to the neo-Nazis? Or something else?

I'm in a holding pattern on the blog just now because I'm frantically busy with end-of-year work: publisher production departments like to clear their desks before the office shuts down for a fortnight, and they expect to come back to a full in-tray on January 4th, and of course authors don't have families or friends to socialize with, so why not share the joy of a tight deadline copy edit check with your loved ones this festive season?

That's not actually what I'm working on right now, but I am actually working way more than usual, and as a result I hope to have good news to share with you early in the new year.

As for the blog?

I ought to blog about either an update on my COVID19 forecast, or an update on my Brexit forecast, but those are basically boring and disgusting and demoralizing and would take precious brain cells away from bringing you the next book, so naaah. If you feel like updating me with your predictions for 2021 in the comments below, though, go right ahead.

Finally, I have one thought to leave you with. Apparently the Washington Post ran a write-in competition for the best summary of 2020, and the winner (a nine year old from the mid-west) came up with this totally accurate description: "2020 was like taking care to look both ways before you cross the road, and then being hit by a submarine."

Happy solstice!

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