Archive for the ‘sci-fi’ Category

While we’re on drugs, why not a look at China Miéville’s Embassytown, in which an unusual one plays a big role? This isn’t quite an AFOE “Premature Evaluation” as I’m actually reading it, I just haven’t finished it yet. A couple of points…

Pass by reference, not by value

This is the big-idea high concept here. It’s sci-fi where the sci is linguistics, and fairly hard science fiction too. The aliens – and one thing that stands out is that we’ve got some seriously alien aliens here – are creatures that are comparably intelligent with humanity and indeed with a couple of other species and an occasional unusually bright robot, but who don’t make use of a symbolic language.

As a result, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds good for them – words are their own referents, language is limited by perception, and action is therefore constrained by language. One of the first results of contact between them and us is the development of what is essentially a creole, back-porting elements of symbolism into their vocabulary. This offers huge new intellectual possibilities but also a really awful failure mode.

After all, it’s not as if they can’t hear people or things speaking their language if it obeys their rules. The result is a little like a catastrophic, and accidental, buffer-overflow attack. Stuff leaks and gets incorporated into their internal thought processes.

Addiction and performance

Addiction is not a state of being, it’s a relationship. This is why people rarely commit murder to get hold of coffee. It’s the economic relationship, not the drug physiology, that does the work of corruption, and that works for the supplier as much as for the addict. When the aliens become dependent on a very specific product the humans can provide, this might sound like a grant of absolute power. It doesn’t turn out very well for the humans, for just the reasons that suggests.

Similarly, people do the same sort of thing with their dependencies on each other. It’s the diva mindset – when you can’t tell “I need them” and “They need me” apart.


In part this is a love letter to diplomatic culture in its weirdness and anachronism and necessity. It was fashionable a few years ago to say that the whole thing had outlived its purpose. There were a couple of versions of this. One was that as Prime Ministers X and Y could just phone each other or fly off and meet, there was no need. This was astonishingly stupid and naive and the people who pushed it – Simon Jenkins for example – should have known better, knowing as they did just how much preparation goes into summit meetings and how journalists covering them generally start, the day before the meeting, by reporting what is likely to be in the communique as the diplomats have already drafted it.

Another, less idiotic but more pernicious, was that there was nothing to discuss. Free markets ruled, businesses spoke to businesses, and for the rest, all that mattered was brute force. The neocons liked this and it went with the old US military contempt for “Foggy Bottom”. Since 2007 and the roles of Ryan Crocker, Emma Sky, and the State Department PRTs in getting them out of their self-dug hole in Iraq, you don’t hear that so often.

Diplomacy is the weird and paradoxical medium in which states swim. (This is a trope of the book – people and other creatures manoeuvre through language, spaceships in space and in another convenient dimension, and states through diplo-space.) At the very least, it’s a continuing exercise in killing as few people as possible, like emergency medicine. Like lawyers, it’s one of the things I learnt to stop hating in the Bush years.


The ambassadors in Embassytown are rather odd creatures, selected, raised, and trained to think precisely the same thing at the same time and express it with great discretion and irritating charm. Meanwhile, the embassy staff are really in charge behind the scenes. Who the hell can he be thinking of?


I want one of these. There’s more here; the sheer coolth of a USB-based PCR analyser is hard to beat. Even if the potential for Wakefield-scale contamination fuckups is not to be denied.

In general, I’m trying to get up to speed on things biotech. it is true that, so far, cyberpunk has been a strategically undervalued source of science fiction, politics, and general weirdness – we keep thinking we’ve got to the end of computers and networks, only to find there’s more weird out there – compared to biology and nanotech, which has been a bit jam-tomorrow, always promising the revolution in five years’ time. I suspect this is changing, not least in the light of this and this.

That’s going to be quite a boat trip for one little robot, if not a giant step for mankind for quite a while. We might have to declare Titan a planetary nature reserve, if they don’t do it to us first.

So you might remember that Thai demonstrators invaded the brand-new airport there a while ago, establishing a huge Ballardian protest-camp among the glass walls and retail space and soft-xray terrorist detectors. Their movement went on to spray the prime minister’s house with their own blood, collected in buckets by their medical wing. Clearly, they have a certain style.

Which made me think when I saw this BBC story; how much science-fiction would you need to get from being stuck at the same airport due to northern Europe getting a fine dusting of Iceland, while the Redshirts and the cops and the No Colour Movement – colour revolutions have clearly reached some sort of logical end point – duke it out downtown, to actually getting the queues involved in the revolution? (The other way round is much easier, and amounts almost to a cliche.)


Kursk was a bit of a disappointment. A submarine control room as the setting of a play isn’t a bad idea – the movies worked that out many years ago – and putting it on as promenade theatre through the simulated sub is a cracking one. But, not quite.

It did remind me to check the (excellent) Wikipedia article on the loss of the Kursk, which answered my question. The problem is that the story doesn’t really provide for a good drama from the viewpoint of a British submarine; even if you accept they were present, had they decided to surface at once and steam up to the Pyotr Veliky, the best thing that could have happened would have been to launch the ineffectual Russian rescue attempt a few hours earlier, which would have changed nothing. Most of the dead were dead within seconds; the survivors survived for days, almost long enough for the eventual British and Norwegian rescue effort to save them.

This leaves the story as a pure sea-piece; the isolation of the submarine, the role of the captain, the character conflicts, navy culture, the details of control-room procedure. In fact, the set’s two-level structure, laid out around the central search periscope, isn’t all that far off the Navy’s original submarine simulator in design. In the original, the mockup control room was on the lower level, with the periscope rising through the ceiling into a room where the images required for the training scenarios were projected onto the walls.

You could make a case for secrecy being the main theme, but again, it doesn’t quite work. A minor note is that there’s a fair bit of Americo-scepticism about; the presence of two Los Angeles-class boats in the area is pointedly briefed as the American “threat”.

Seen as science-fiction, though, it holds up better. An SF writer, whose name I forget, once said that there weren’t any wars in his books because the universe was enemy enough.

yes, it really is that bad

Ah, the David Cameron poster machine is on line. And it’s gold dust.

Somehow, that poster seems almost designed for satire. There are excellent reasons why it works so well; it’s possibly the most stylised example of a political advert I can think of. In a sense, it’s a movie – not at all original, but highly competent in a limited way, and therefore a perfect subject for parody. You only need to identify a small number of controls, or variables, that define it, in order to produce a message that matches the requirements of the format perfectly but has an entirely different payload.

J.G. Ballard, of course, was very much aware that display advertising is in some ways a programming language. Hack work is one of the standard literary experiences, but Ballard’s time as an ad copywriter must have been especially telling on his writing. Ballardian has a superb post on his 1960s project to create a range of content-free adverts, based on randomly cut-up texts and unrelated photos, that he placed in Vogue.

Look at either the original, or the skits; note carefully where the content is. The backdrop is soothingly grey, but not blank – it’s chosen to be content-free but without being actually blank or being a block colour. Blank space or block colour are visual statements – in modernism, you’re being asked to concentrate on the elements of the object you’ll actually interact with, in post-modernism, you’re being asked to project your own internal imaginings onto the blank space. Either way, if you make the colour field bright red, you’re putting the viewer on notice that you want to say something. The blurred-out background of the Cameron posters is the colour of nothing.

In front of it, we’ve got the heavily retouched Dave. Look where he is. User-interface research in computing suggests that the most important part of the visual for the majority of people is to be found as follows; divide the screen in four equal quarters, then divide the top left-hand one in quarters again, and pick its lower right-hand sector. Search engines assume that over 90% of clicks land in this zone on the first page of results. (Back in 2004, ignoring this was how I did the Viktor Bout story – just keep ploughing through the Google output.)

So the big pink face goes here – it acts as a graphical and thematic anchor for the eye. Thinking of the poster as a frozen movie, the action begins here. It’s also true that we’re likely to pick out the monkey in the background flow of images first – before we react to anything else on the poster, we have the chance to feel the tebbly-tebbly concerned smile at a subrational, sublinguistic level.

We move on; saccading from left to right and top to bottom, the next scene is the message in big friendly letters, as Douglas Adams would say. It’s worth noting that the real thing always has two sentences, and although they are united by the same typeface (Franklin Gothic), the real poster has a slightly different colour mask for the second. This signals that there is a plot relationship between them. On the original poster, Cameron promises a crisis about the budget in the first colour, then promises not to cut the NHS budget in the second. So we’re setting up conflict and resolution here.

No matter that the two statements are contradictory – in fact, if they weren’t, it wouldn’t work as a film. We move on southeastwards – first of all, we see the whizzy logo, so we know how to recognise the next element in the plot, and then, we get the pay-off, the strapline at the bottom right-hand corner of the poster. This is important – it’s the finale, and it’s got to contain something actionable, in the intelligence sense rather than the legal sense.

For the first time across the vast span of three or so seconds we’ve spent watching this drama, we see the word “CONSERVATIVE”.


It’s probably worth remembering that a lot of these are meant to be installed next to motorways or major rail routes, where we will in fact approach them at speed. Treating it as a film rather than a static artwork is therefore very appropriate.

Charlie Stross has done a short story that is set in an NHS facility. This done, I feel he needs to take his unique view of Britain’s national institutions to its logical, strategic target. The whole project of much of his work deals with the civil service; he’s had a go at the military, at industry, and now at the NHS. Clearly, the next step is the Conservative Party.

Sir Peter Viggers…I think I’ve heard the name. Should I look him up in Who’s Who?”

“No. Perhaps you should try Who’s What.”

“Who’s What?”

“It’s a Laundry Intranet project – run out of Section MH. It’s an internal wiki, intended to gather our collective knowledge of the political establishment – something we’ve perhaps neglected since the Healey plan of ’76. Basically we’re trying to collate key facts – who’s associated with who, who voted for what, what kind of pan-dimensional squidthing ate and replaced whose brain.”

“You mean like TheyWorkForYou, but with ineffable alien gods from somewhere we inadequately describe as hell?”

“Actually, the formal name is WhoWorksForThem. And we’re beginning to worry about Tom Steinberg. But that’s the idea. Haven’t you ever wondered what went wrong with Peter Hain? Where they found Tony Blair? How Mandelson got like that? If William Hague is alive? Why did they have to get rid of Charles Kennedy, and why they sent him to the old Benbecula rocket range? What species George Osborne actually is? We have a remarkable amount of implicit expertise here – we’re trying to crowdsource it into structured data.”

“You mentioned the Healey Plan. What..”

“Technically you don’t need to know. But that wasn’t long after the creation of the Police National Computer under Roy Jenkins, who as you know had a Bletchley Park background. There was concern that certain field agents had…overreached. There were violations of the Civil Service Code.”

“Peter Wright and all that?”

“That was one way of looking at it. Sir Peter chose to be helpful, and the Australians backed us all the way.”

“You may have wondered what happened to the LEO Computers intellectual property, to the first patents on packet switching and public key encryption. After the discovery of improprieties at MH, Denis Healey launched the first effort to create a distributed database of the service’s political information, based in a cover entity at the National Girobank processing centre in Bootle. The software development team were in the Inland Revenue offices decentralised to Shipley. Data entry was in Longbenton, Newcastle…”

I stared at the government tea in my Vi Reference mug. It looked like childhood – not that it was a reminder of innocence, normality, or love. No, it reminded me of school in the 1980s – it was grey. I expected Angleton to tell me that, unfortunately, there would only be enough textbooks for one between three rather than one between two. Thankfully I realised talking would be better than thinking about that…I always make that mistake.

“Wilson thought there were spies in his office. He thought coup plotters would burst through the garden windows. He was probably in the early stages of Alzheimers, they say..”

“He was more right than you might think. A highly susceptible personality – charming, slightly alienated, ambitious, not deeply principled or introspective. Healey, Callaghan, Sir Frank Cooper – they were very different men. Not enough imagination to end like the PM, but certainly the intelligence to grasp the situation once properly briefed. Weinstock, Scanlon, Barbara Castle…it was her data centre, after all.”

“So Healey wanted some kind of encrypted USENET for spooks in 1976? To trace…”

“A lot of work was done at ICL, Plessey, Ferranti, GEC-Marconi in Edinburgh and Basildon, DERA Malvern, BT Martlesham Heath, Racal, and elsewhere. You’d be surprised at the scale of the project – and some of the people involved. Mr. Ibrahim was a post-doc, newly arrived at BT MHRC. There’s a notable gap in Mr Berners-Lee’s career – make of that what you will. The cabinet was not informed except for the GEN-261 committee. Go-live was set for the 29th July, 1980.

We descoped a number of requirements and committed substantial extra resources in late ’78 in order to bring forward an initial operating capability. As you know, the rest is history – did you know they actually burned magnetic tape drives in the car park at Martlesham? Must have been a heavy night in the Douglas Bader…”

“I read somewhere that the Queen sent her first e-mail in 1976..”

“You’re not wrong – specifically, Her Majesty sent it from the Royal Signals’ HQ in Blandford Forum. Sir Frank had a deep commitment to the constitutional niceties. No doubt you understand the importance of out-of-band connectivity.

Anyway, look at this photo.”

“You mean…he’s one of the undead?”

“Not the rest of them, you idiot!”

Update: Ken MacLeod contributes a much better ending – “Not him – the rest of them, you idiot!”

Viggers as the only human being in the 1922 Committee. I mean, who would believe that thing with the duck house? Clearly a cover story to exfil him before the tentacles closed in…

(Update: Amendment to make clear who’s speaking.)

OK, back from eComm in Amsterdam; here’s something interesting. Besides all the stuff I was meant to be following for work, we had a presentation from a group of the sort of media-arts types who get a lot of coverage on Bruce Sterling’s blog; in fact the whole gig was faintly Beyond the Beyond-esque when it wasn’t Charlie Stross-esque. Notably, two projects struck me as emblematic of a certain kind of thinking.

The first one was the Isophone, which is a mashup of a flotation tank and a telephone. The idea is that you sink into yummy sensory deprivation while talking to someone else in the same condition; it looks like this.

the isophone, with user

Maybe it’s just me, but having to take phone calls under a state of total sensory deprivation is not my idea of fun. I couldn’t help imagining some sort of nightmarish prison call centre, a whole pool full of them.

Then there was Mutsugoto. Let the official description speak for itself.

Mutsugoto is meant to be installed in the bedrooms of two distant partners. You lay on your bed and wear a special touch-activated ring visible to a camera mounted above. A computer vision system tracks the movement of the ring and projects virtual pen strokes on your body. At the same time these pen strokes are transmitted to and projected on the body of your remote partner. If you follow your partner’s movements and your strokes cross, the lines will react with each other and reflect your synchrony. Special bed linens, silk curtains and other aspects of the physical context have been designed to enhance the mood of this romantic communication environment.

But what are the civilian applications? As they say.

Go on, this is basically a sex toy, isn't it?

Well, I think we can probably guess. Anyway, I found both of them depressing; it also struck me that too many of these projects are all about sucking information out of the virtual space and representing it on a piece of hardware in private space. Basically, a gadget that reads out Twitter feeds, that you’re meant to think is your friend. Further, once you get rid of the microphone, pointing device, keyboard, webcam, etc, you’re basically watching TV on your own. It’s read-only communication into the private realm.

The suit faction in this field, oddly, works the other way round – the M2M (Machine to Machine) community in telecoms, the big IT types, they’re all more interested in getting data from the real world and representing it in virtual space. Basically, it’s all SCADA applications – monitoring the current status of CO2 pipeline valve number 58634. Flowrate, direction, valve setting and temperature, please, and when did you last have your grease changed?

What seems to be missing from this as an artistic project is sending stuff into the public space. A lot of data gets captured from the public space into the private space; CCTV is one version, promoting your demo on Flickr and taking photos of the cops is another. Nothing much seems to be sent back, though; can’t we have truth-screamer robots that run about yelling out under-reported news? Of course, if you or I were to encounter one we’d probably dropkick it into a handy canal. Splosh; “Hey there! CitizenMediaBot is sinking!”

But it would at least be fun, and more fun than gazing at a waldo that turns puce when #drivel is trending again. I suspect there’s scope for this with things like Layar, who were also presenting. Then, we’re deep into the Strossosphere; “what do we want? Brains!” indeed.

Other things I disagree quite strongly with Charlie Stross about. James Nicoll asks what happens if/when Moore’s Law is exhausted. Charlie has a well-known theory about this, based on the aerospace industry’s recession in the early 70s.

The CE industry is inherently deflationary — Moore’s law conceals this because we double the number of transistors on a die each generation, but under the hood the prices are falling by c. 20% per annum. Once we stop being able to have more transistors, existing fab lines will be amortized and the products will be commoditized. I speculate that we’ll then enter a period where the computer industry splits between (a) high-end well-designed premium kit (cf. Apple) and (b) cheapCheapCHEAP!!! (cf. the netbook sector). And then there’ll be a huge recession and layoffs, just as there was in aerospace around 1970 when the industry hit a performance wall (note that airliners today fly no faster than they did in 1970 — Concorde’s champagne quaffing elite aside, travel at over Mach 0.9 is not commercially sustainable).

Ultimately the field will be commoditized and after a period of consolidation and mergers it will become as thoroughly boring to outsiders as locomotive or airliner manufacturing.

The interesting developments will then take place in the areas of networking and software…

I disagree, at least in terms of economic, social, and literary possibility. Airliners may not go any faster than they did in 1970, but what Charlie thinks of as a “performance wall” could also be described as “the threshold of significance” or the “economic door”. Concorde is the wrong example to look at; the real achievements of the time were the development of the 747 and 737 families, the arrival of autoland and modern avionics through Smiths and Hawker Siddeley, and the creation of Airbus.

Sure, they may not be going faster than Concorde, but there are a lot more of them, their marginal operating cost is a fraction of what it was, they crash a lot less, and they are on time more often. And they are chucking a lot of filth out the back, of course.

Forget Princess Margaret. Civil aviation only became interesting economically or sociologically after Charlie’s performance wall – we’ve had David Frost commuting for the BBC from London to New York, we’ve had Easyjet ravers/poverty jetset types bouncing from sofa to sofa around Europe, Viktor Bout’s inverted triangle trade shipping diamonds out of Africa and guns in, enabled by cheap Antonov-12s and international free trade zones, Kenyan farmers discovering they could get backload freight to Europe for pence. Before the “performance wall”, people watched movies about air hostesses; after, they actually flew.

If the analogy holds true, the real change is still to come. It just feels like it’s already happened…because science fiction covered it so well in advance, something it notably didn’t do with the “aero” bit of aerospace. (O’Neill colonies! Flying cars! No Airbus 320s or Michael O’Learys.)

Also, what’s not interesting about locomotive manufacturing?

Remember cows with blogs? Sure ya do. This week I was talking M2M technology again, but with people who are way more hardcore about it than Scottish farmers wanting to give their cows RSS feeds, or even wind turbine engineers wanting to monitor the state of their bearings and power-control electronics. Putting control logic on the seabed is problematic, but putting it at the end of a drill, thousands of feet below it, at silly temperatures?

That’s science fiction, but the scary bit was the communications question. You can’t really do anything like that with radio, so they modulate the flow of drilling mud up to the surface to squeeze out a few bits/second of bandwidth. Seriously – it’s called mud-pulse telemetry. Of course, as you can only hope for 3 or so bits a second at the depths in question, this is why the control logic needs to be down at the drill and largely automatic.

We are, of course, talking oil here, and specifically the ultra-deepwater stuff BG Group has hacked out a speciality in. What struck me is that people constantly talk of the supposed complexity and difficulty of utilising renewable energy, and they tend to assume that oil is simple to extract. Intelligent drills and mud-pulse telemetry to you.

So, Chris “Chris” Williams, J. Carter Wood, and I met up in London to attend the aftermath of this ORG event. A good time was had, even though we didn’t find Charlie or Cory at the Three Kings; we heard of how I made an epic fool of myself in Berlin, how policemen are exported, an uncharacteristic moment of feminism at the Daily Express in the 1920s, British advisors to South Vietnam, and Chris’s vow to avoid sit-ins until his kids have grown up. The crowd was unusual; a mixture of tall and skinny fashion-twits and politicised computer-folk. Which is roughly what it’s like in my head, I suppose.