Wed, 17 Oct 12 at 14:08 |
No Comments Yet
Clawback will be re-released in paperback by Penguin this coming June. The sequel, Full Ratchet, is coming from Viking (in hardback) a couple weeks later — early July. These are the covers, and I couldn’t be happier. I can’t wait to see them in the world!
Mon, 15 Oct 12 at 18:07 |
Something’s missing …
When I was a kid, about five, Major Matt Mason entered our household. I had to save up so I could afford the jetpack, which allowed him to fly across the room (using a rather clever gear-reduction drive on a string, something I don’t recall seeing in any other toy).
Later I got Callisto the green alien, and one Christmas the Uni-Tred and Space Bubble, too. Catalog pages like this one were long pored over:
I spent hours and hours playing with these characters, running them through all sorts of adventures on the rocks and lawn outside our house, sometimes with other kids but mostly by myself. Major Matt Mason never seemed to like a crowd. As a writer I have been asked (once or twice) where I get my ideas. I can’t answer the question, but surely a childhood steeped in solitary imagination is essential preparation.
But take a closer look at the images above. The characters are simpler than the action figures kids have today, and not nearly so muscular. But there’s something else missing. Some critical accessory, that no twenty-first-century toy can sell without … got it?
No laser rifles, no blasters, no ion pistols. No machetes or chainsaws, for that matter. Buy your son an action figure for Christmas 2012 and it’s going to look more like this:
Think it makes a difference? Maybe not; later I discovered GI Joe, and I loved all that plastic weaponry. But in the earliest, formative years, my adventure surrogates weren’t shooting each other. They were exploring new worlds, climbing mountains, driving their Uni-Tred over impossible terrain, and flying through the air. Things that I wanted to do.
Needless to say, our son is none too happy with some of the choices made by his parents about his toys.
We’ll talk about Dungeons and Dragons some other time.
Sat, 29 Sep 12 at 21:16 |
No Comments Yet
To Protect, Serve, and Scan
One reason I like living in cities is how it’s possible to disappear into the crowds. Unlike a small town, where everyone knows your business, your family, your hobbies and (often) too much else, a big city offers the chance to be alone. In some ways, “off the grid” is easier to achieve in a major metropolitan area than in a rural county.
Rather, it used to be that way. Then the cameras arrived. Thousands, even tens of thousands of them in some areas, watching and recording, keeping track. As facial recognition and indexing improves, it will become impossible to walk outside without being logged.
Nor can you simply get in your car and hide behind blacked windows. As an article in today’s Wall Street Journal makes clear, police license-plate scanners are accumulating vast logs of all traffic in their jurisdictions:
For more than two years, the police in San Leandro, Calif., photographed Mike Katz-Lacabe’s Toyota Tercel almost weekly. They have shots of it cruising along Estudillo Avenue near the library, parked at his friend’s house and near a coffee shop he likes. In one case, they snapped a photo of him and his two daughters getting out of a car in his driveway.
Mr. Katz-Lacabe isn’t charged with, or suspected of, any crime. Local police are tracking his vehicle automatically, using cameras mounted on a patrol car that record every nearby vehicle—license plate, time and location.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the police. More disturbingly, private entrepreneurs are out there with car-mounted scanners, driving around and building enormous databases — on spec. They just assume that someone, sometime, will be willing to pay for the information:
Soon he hopes to start selling access to his plate data to bail bondsmen, process servers, private investigators and insurers. “In the next five years, I hope my primary business will be data gathering,” he says.
So far the best customers for this kind of information are repo companies. The scanned plates are matched against a database of cars whose drivers have fallen behind their payments. Whenever a hit is flagged, the tow truck is called.
But who else might find these records useful? A 1994 law restricts DMV information to “government agencies, police, private investigators, insurers, researchers, private toll operators and, in some states, journalists.” Gosh, that’s already a lot of strangers who can look up my license plate. Whether, and how, the law extends to scanned records is not clear.
Either way, the days are gone when you could drive around with some assurance that the government — or anyone else — was not keeping a detailed record of your movements.
Hiking in the woods may still be a private endeavor. But anywhere else, someone’s watching.
Fri, 28 Sep 12 at 15:11 |
No Comments Yet
Don’t try this at home
Years ago — strictly for research purposes! — I bought a copy of Kitchen Sink Explosives. It was cheaply bound, offset printed, with black-and-white drawings and only 30 or 40 pages. But in ten chapters it detailed how to make just about any type of high explosive you might want, using simple chemicals and lab equipment.
And it wasn’t hard to find the book, at least by mail order. For all I know the FBI was keeping track of all packages in and out of the distributor, and I’m now on some list. But actually getting the information into my hands? — easy.
So I’ve always assumed that such material would be even more readily available on the internet. Certainly that’s what politicians, consultants and other scare-mongers would have use believe.
But it’s not true.
Go on — try a google search and see! (You might consider doing so through an anonymizing proxy like Tor.) Bombshack.com has shut down. There are a handful of extremely dubious YouTube videos. One site does seem promising:
From the very basic explosive theories to comprehensive step by step instructions: there is simply just so much quality information in our library you will never need any other source! Our instructions have come strait [sic] from respected sources, scaled down for the home enthusiast.
They’re selling the information, however, which makes it seem not just like a honeypot but a honeypot for really stupid wannabe bombmakers. Don’t just let the Department of Justice know you’re interested, but give them your real name and credit card number too!
For contrast, try a search for “homemade guns.” Pages and pages of material comes right up. (I’ve written about this before.)
So what’s the story? Responsible self-censorship on the internet? … ha ha ha! Probably not. Silent take-downs and aggressive enforcement, amounting to the same thing? — no, we would certainly have heard about it.
My guess is that actually making bombs is simply not interesting to many people other than, you know, genuine terrorists — and they have their own websites, hidden away in darker corners of the deep web. Guns are a different story.
Which is both good and bad for a thriller writer. Bad, because real-life details that liven a story can be hard to come by. But good, because you can just make stuff up and no one will know. (And also good because hey, I don’t want lunatics blowing up buildings either.)
By the way ATF, if you’re reading this: I lost that book years ago, in one more or another. The most controversial reference I keep around nowadays is A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.
Thu, 27 Sep 12 at 13:24 |
No Comments Yet
“Read in order to live.” — Gustave Flaubert
Machine reading has been around for years. Any computer with a decent scanner and some OCR software can transcribe text into whatever code you want. Machines capable of understanding are obviously more difficult to design — but they’re beginning to emerge:
Robot essay graders – they grade just the same as human ones … Researchers found that “overall, automated essay scoring was capable of producing scores similar to human scores for extended-response writing items with equal performance for both source-based and traditional writing genre.”
The SAT today, barnesandnoble.com tomorrow. The end of reading is in sight. “Condensed” books were popular when I was a kid, and remain so (though the Readers Digest sort have given way to condensed business books, at least in sales popularity). Now you don’t have to bother wading through even a five-page summary of War and Peace; Robby can take care of it for you.
Old news. But technology is making strides at the other end, too — in writing itself (or, as the executives like to call it, “content creation”). Machines are becoming authors in their own right.
It started at Amazon, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a plague of Kindle spam: automated software that scrapes content from existing, public websites and packages it into electronic “books.” Any one title might sell only one or two copies, but if your computer can “write” and upload hundreds every day, well, you can see the incentives. A new company, Nimble Books, is now trying to legitimate the business:
All I did was type in my title on a website, hit enter, and wait for a machine to do the rest. This is supposed to represent the future of the written word. “The idea,” says Fred Zimmerman, the CEO of the company that brought my book to market, “is to automate the publishing process.”
Amazon claims to be cracking down, though they’ve announced similar, ineffective bans before. More to the point, this process is more like xeroxing than writing.
But more creative efforts continue. Journalism is the next target:
Now computers have proven competence—no, fluency—in yet another aspect of human life: writing. Narrative Science, a Chicago-based startup, has developed an innovative platform that writes reported articles in eerily humanlike cadence.
Novels are surely close behind. Perhaps in a few years the New York Times will have to introduce yet another bestseller category. “Mechanized”? “Automaton”?
And thus the circle will be complete: robots writing for robots. Let them do the grunt work; humans can focus on contemplation and leisure.
Best of all, the robots won’t demand to be paid.
Wed, 26 Sep 12 at 12:45 |
No Comments Yet
One person, millions of cameras
Facial recognition technology is progressing far more rapidly than many people are comfortable with. Automated systems are easily capable of sifting millions, even billions of photos and finding a single match. Apple, Google and Facebook all have such a feature, though the first two companies have made it opt-in. Facebook, which simply started scanning everyone automatically, encountered pushback in Europe — which is why they’ve recently backed down and agreed not to collect the recognition data.
The key takeaway is that the only barriers to implementation are regulatory. The technology is sound, tested, and already in wide use.
Is privacy truly dead then? Can we no longer walk around without being constantly snapped, uploaded, matched and catalogued?
Perhaps not quite.
One possibility is make-up. Painting your face with certain patterns can defeat the machines’ ability to collect the biometrics they need. Unfortunately, the camouflage might attract attention for other reasons:
You might avoid the cameras, but you sure couldn’t walk down the street anonymously.
However, one other possibility exists. It turns out that you can shift the contours of your face enough to defeat Skynet with nothing more than … a smile.
“[The computer measures] the distance between someone’s mouth and their chin. The distance between their mouth and their nose. The distance between their eyes. And when you make a bizarre or obscure facial expression, it prohibits the computer from conducting the measurements it needs to do,” Coffey explained.
Indeed, New Jersey has now banned smiling in your driver’s license photo.
So there you go. Privacy is still available — so long as you can keep a big grin on your face. And the best thing is, it will make you happier too.
Mon, 24 Sep 12 at 13:58 |
No Comments Yet
But who cleans THEIR houses?
One consequence of increasing inequality is that more people can afford to hire other people to handle life’s mundane tasks. Victorian England is an obvious example, when even the lowliest middle-class household had at least a housemaid. Contemporary India is another. I’m reading Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, and he describes how anyone with a bit of money hires out, well, just about everything:
Politics, too, has become yet another of those menial tasks that is assigned to servants or subordinates, something you drop as soon as you acquire the financial means to do so, like cleaning the toilet, doing the accounts, answering the phone, or standing in line at a government office. “Send your man,” I am told again and again, when I need service for my mobile phone or money picked up from the bank. “I have no man,” I respond. “I’m my own man.” They do not understand. In business, in politics, in government, those who can afford it never go in person. They send their man.
Which brings us to today’s trendy affliction, courtesy the New York Times: Taskrabbit Guilt.
But a few hours later, the first signs of trouble began. While sitting at the dinner, receiving texts and questions from the patient young man who was buying my mobile hot spot at Best Buy, I started to feel guilty. Was I taking advantage of him? Was I paying him enough? Was my time worth more than his?
No doubt these services are helpful …[the] emerging on-demand economy, made up of a wave of mobile applications and services, is certainly convenient. It is intended to deliver almost anything you need or want with the flick of a finger, if you have a smartphone and the cash to spare.
But are there murkier issues, about the haves and have-nots in a tech world, lurking just below the surface? I certainly felt uneasy about how simple it was to command an army of mobile helpers via my phone.
My discomfort, it turns out, is not uncommon.
Indeed. The New Servants are not really nannies and cooks and housekeepers, though those certainly continue to be hired (one typical billionaire mentions having more than 30 servants in the mansion). Rather, it’s that we can now outsource almost of all of life’s little annoyances to people willing to work for tips. Shoeshines one day … and then you’re paying some laid-off schoolteacher a few bucks to take your cat to the vet, pick up the dry cleaning and fix the broken mailbox.
Apart from the upstairs-downstairs awkwardness, economic questions arise. One argument is that it’s better for people to have some work, even low-paying, rather than none — and what’s wrong with a freely negotiated, freely entered contract? On the other hand, capital has the upper hand as usual, and internet mediation via services like Taskrabbit tends to push wages very, very low.
In this household, by the way, we have the one other kind of low-paid servants: two children. Sometimes they’ll even take out the recycling or sweep the floor without ten minutes of hectoring and argument.
Cheap at the price.
Wed, 1 Aug 12 at 23:45 |
No Comments Yet
Ready to take on those Occupy Wall Street hippies
I’m not sure what it says about today’s society that preparing for a total collapse of civilization has gone mainstream — nothing good, probably. A new television show devoted to survivalist loonies (from National Geographic!) is both disconcerting and depressing.
They call themselves “preppers,” by the way, not survivalists. The guy in the movie poster above is so 1980′s.
Where the trend gets interesting, however is at the intersection of survivalism — um, sorry, prepping — and the one percent. Today’s billionaires are really worried that the masses might rise up against them:
“This is my fear, and it’s a real, legitimate fear,” Greene says, revving up the engine. “You have this huge, huge class of people who are impoverished. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we will build a class of poor people that will take over this country, and the country will not look like what it does today. It will be a different economy, rights, all that stuff will be different.”
So perhaps it’s no surprise to see a Zero Hedge guest post on “The Most Often Forgotten Survival Preparations.” Zero Hedge is a well-trafficked investor’s website with libertarian leanings; a typical post is “Stephen Roach Mops Floor With Keynesianism And Former Fed Governor Larry Meyer.” Today, however, the focus is on filling your basement shelves with water and ammo:
It does not take much awareness anymore to notice looming fiscal volatility, social unrest, the potential for unrestrained war, and the totalitarian boldness of our government … Sadly, having a stockpile of food, weapons, and some slick tactical gear is not enough to ensure a high likelihood of survival, at least not in any of the social collapses that have occurred in the past century around the world. It’s a start, but only just.
So what does this expert think we should be doing to get ready for the apocalypse? The usual stuff, of course — body armor, IR flares, a geiger counter. But he also suggests getting in shape (“many of us are far too fat to outrun or outfight a paper sack, let alone a determined opponent”), learning to barter, and most interestingly, community building:
The more we isolate ourselves from one another now, the more alone and vulnerable we will be tomorrow … No prepper who goes it alone during crisis is going to come out unscathed, if they come out alive at all. This is the great forgotten lesson of survival, from the Depression and Weimar Germany, to Argentina and Bosnia; those persons and families who were isolated simply did not make it.
If you do not have ample neighbors and friends on board with the prepper lifestyle, and who can be counted on in an emergency, then you are not ready, nor are your chances very good.
It’s like, like … communism! What’s next, kumbaya circles? Survivalist co-ops?
That guy with the compound bow is even further behind the times than I thought.
Tue, 31 Jul 12 at 14:41 |
No Comments Yet
Short history of the progress: Hunter-gatherers. Agriculture. Five thousand years of inertia. Finally, the Industrial Revolution! At last, humans learned how to make real machines, and the modern world arrived.
Except it wasn’t about machines, it was about energy.
Pre-industrial society was limited by how much work people could do, plain and simple. Heat came from burning wood. Mills could only turn as fast as their water wheels. Farming and travel? — no more than the draft horse could accomplish.
What changed everything was the discovery of fossil fuels. Solar energy that had fallen on the earth over millions of years, converted to plants and animals, then compressed into the remarkably efficient forms of coal, oil and natural gas, was now available to power the glorious machines of progress.
One fossil fuel no one ever thinks about, however, is peat.
An intermediate step in the formation of coal, peat forms when plant material, usually in marshy areas, does not decay fully because of a lack of oxygen. This semicarbonised fuel can be found near the earth’s surface in layers of up to 5 metres thick.
While peat is available in several parts of the world, it was most easily exploited in the Low Countries. Starting in the later middle ages, the Dutch began digging peat, using it to heat their cities and power their looms. Eventually this fuel — more efficient and more available than wood — gave Holland a substantial edge in the energy-per-capita rankings. That superiority, in turn, provided a boost to economic development, perhaps even the primary impetus to the world-spanning Dutch empire of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
A readable article in Low-Tech Magazine fills out the story. The most interesting part might be the denouement:
Large-scale peat digging started in the coastal area of Flanders and northeast of Antwerp in the 1100s and 1200s respectively … The reserves in the coastal peat bogs of Flanders were exhausted by the end of the 1300s or 1400s, while peat production in Brabant diminished sharply during the course of the fifteenth century.
By the time Antwerp came to dominate the world economy, its peat reserves had already been dug out to satisfy the energy needs of Flanders in the course of the preceding two centuries. As a result, peat digging shifted to the neighbouring province of Holland … Around 1530, the then accessible reserves … became exhausted, while demand continued to grow. As a result, peat prices skyrocketed.
Next, more difficult peat sources had to be found: in particular, digging it from under water. More effort, more time (for drying out the peat), and less return. Furthermore, continued exploitation resulted in widespread loss of farmland, and even a rising water level that required more and more dikes to protect remaining territory.
Eventually the peat ran out. It’s still dug, here and there, but no longer supplies any substantial amount of energy. Now we have oil to burn, and natural gas.
They’ll last forever, of course.
Mon, 2 Jul 12 at 14:03 |
No Comments Yet
And where the hell is the SEC?
When the Supreme Court released its decision in the “Obamacare” case on Thursday, there was one notable winner on Wall Street. HCA Holdings, a major hospital group, saw its stock soar 11 percent.
Gee, it would have been nice to know that ahead of time! Anyone with some investing cash could have made a bundle.
Of course, the Supreme Court is famously secretive. Unlike, say, Congress, where inside information is not just sold to hedge fund managers but traded on by the members themselves, the Supremes hold themselves to a higher standard. As Bloomberg noted, “The secrecy ensured that [the ACA] announcement was a rare moment of genuine Washington drama, an instant in which the justices finally told us the news we’ve all been waiting to hear.”
Except … somebody did leak. And a few Wall Street traders made out like bandits.
The chart shows HCA’s stock price from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning. HCA closed at $26.61. Next morning, everyone knew the decision was coming at 10:00 a.m., one hour after the market opened. And during that hour, the price jumped about one dollar — on significantly heavy volume. Then, when the announcement was released, a spike all the way up to $29.40, as the rest of the world piled in.
See what happened? A handful of very, very lucky traders got in at $27.50 — and immediately saw their holdings leap in value.
But they got in before the decision was announced. About one hour before.
Somebody inside talked. Somebody outside made a killing.
This is why the little guy hates Wall Street, plain and simple. Even the Supreme Fucking Court has been compromised, its hallowed status as the safeguard of our nation’s laws sold out to some rich sharpies.
Nor is this an isolated incident. Transparency International, for example, ranks the United States a pathetic 24th on its “Corruption Index,” behind such exemplars of good governance as Qatar and the Bahamas.
This is a disgrace.