Tag Archives: Charlie Stross

Why tank stories make great tech myths

Interesting guest post on Charlie Stross’ blog by M. Harold Page “Why tank stories make great tech myths“, comparing the history of tank warfare with software development.

However, you’re a sophisticated lot, so call the above “A word from our sponsor” and let me tell you why I think tank stories make great tech myths.

First some examples…

We all know the one about the Panther and the T34. The Panther is the better tank, when the Russian mud hasn’t knocked it out, when it doesn’t need shipping to Czechoslovakia for repair, when it’s not being spammed by cheap and cheerful T34s.

That’s a story that ought to be taught to engineers and software developers. Sometimes perfect means “delivered now”. It’s reputedly the Duke Nukem Forever story, but that’s just the most anecdotal example of chasing perfection at the expense of practicality. I’m sure you guys have others.

He doesn’t develop the metaphor quite as much as I’d have liked, preferring to talk about actual tanks. But it’s still an interesting read,

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Roko’s Basilisk – Lovecraftian Calvinism on Steroids?

Memetic_hazard_warningSlate Magazine has discovered Roko’s Basilisk: The most terrifying thought experiment of all time, which postulates that an all-powerful Godlike artificial intelligence will punish everyone who didn’t help it come into existence in a computer-generated afterlife.

SF author Charlie Stross blogged about Roko’s Basilisk last year, and correctly identified is an a nasty mashup of the bleakest elements of Calvinist theology with H.P.Lovecraft’s “Things Man Was Not Meant To Know”.

Leaving aside the essentially Calvinist nature of Extropian techno-theology exposed herein (thou canst be punished in the afterlife for not devoting thine every waking moment to fighting for God, thou miserable slacking sinner), it amuses me that these folks actually presume that we’d cop the blame for it—much less that they seem to be in a tizzy over the mere idea that spreading this meme could be tantamount to a crime against humanity (because it DOOMS EVERYONE who is aware of it).

And now I discover I’m followed by Roko’s Basilisk on Twitter. Should I be worried?

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Charlie Stross on Superheroes

Interesting blog post by Charlie Stross entitled “The myth of heroism” in which he makes the good point that the superhero genre is essentially classical mythology reminagined in a modern-day setting. He suggests this reason as to why superheroes are more accessible to some audiences than science fiction.

SF—a spiky, chewy, unlovable form that is hard for the humanities to approach. The tools of hard science fiction are much trickier and slipperier to handle than those of the fantastic, because the cultural divide in our educational systems deprive many of the people following the literary and cultural track of the tools they need to engage with science and technology effectively. Whereas myth and legend comes naturally to the hands of people whose education, even if it doesn’t directly engage with the Greek and Latin classics, is pervaded by the writings of the literary elders who did.

I’m not completely convinced by that argument myself. But maybe it’s because I followed the science and technology track in education, and fiction needs internal consistency and logical cause-and-effect to work for me. Many of the superhero tropes break that, which is why I’ve never really appreciated the genre.

And no, I don’t buy Charlie Stross’ assertion that the superhero genre is any less trope-ridden than high or urban fantasy.

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Charlie Stross on A Nation of Slaves

Charlie Stross ponders the nature of “bullshit jobs” and “wage slavery”, and has some harsh words for George Osborne:

Meanwhile, jobs: the likes of George Osborne (mentioned above), the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, don’t have “jobs”. Osborne is a multi-millionaire trust-fund kid, a graduate of Eton College and Oxford, heir to a Baronetcy, and in his entire career spent a few working weeks in McJobs between university and full-time employment in politics. I’m fairly sure that George Osborne has no fucking idea what “work” means to most people, because it’s glaringly obvious that he’s got exactly where he wanted to be: right to the top of his nation’s political culture, at an early enough age to make the most of it. Like me, he has the privilege of a job that passes test (a): it’s good for him. Unlike me … well, when SF writers get it wrong, they don’t cause human misery and suffering on an epic scale; people don’t starve to death or kill themselves if I emit a novel that isn’t very good.

Stross’ solution is something an increasing number of people from right across the political spectrum have been advocating of late, but has yet to appear on mainstream politics’ agenda: a basic citizen’s income.

The idea is that instead of running a complicated and often demeaning welfare system, everyone gets a basic income, sufficient for a no-frills lifestyle. Any income you earn over and above that will be taxed, but what’s left after tax is yours to keep.

Yes I’m sure there will be plenty of misanthropic disciples of Ayn Rand or John Calvin who will dismiss the whole idea as unworkable – give the masses “free money” and they’ll do nothing but watch TV, drink beer, and breed.  But the present system isn’t working too well either in that regard, is it? One thing a basic citizens’ income would do will be to kill the so-called “Poverty Trap” where people are financially better-off recieving benefits than working in low-paid employment. There is at least a chance that it will end the waste of human potential caused by our present system.

There are bound to be all sorts of unintended consequences, and it’s likely to have all sorts of knock-on effects on pay rates if people are no longer dependent on work for survival. One likely effect may be to make it much harder to recruit people to work for low pay in unskilled but unpleasant or soul-destroying jobs.

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“Someone please take my bottomless bowl of popcorn? I’ve eaten so much I think I’m going to be sick” – Bitcoin-hating Charlie Stross on the collapse of Mt Gox. The whole thing reads like the plot of Stross’ novel “Halting State”.

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Is This a Poe?

Poe’s Law famously states that it’s impossible to create a parody of a fundamentalist or extremist site that won’t be mistaken for the real thing.

Does the same thing apply to management speak? I think it does…

Welcome to OVERBLUE, bridging the gap between strategy and execution.

OVERBLUE™ is an Operational Excellence Management System ( or OEMS ) that implements the principles of SPHIDA’s PROACTIVE THINKING to introduce a new paradigm in how people align business processes with corporate goals and how they get work done.

Reading text like this I am really unsure as to whether this site is for real, or whether the whole thing is a very clever parody.

A must have tool for any information worker and collaborative team. It ensures a flawless execution and empowers an organization to achieve the desired performance levels.

It does read as if someone fed the contents of a few Management Buzzword Bingo cards into a Markov Chain Generator, doesn’t it?

I’ve read most of the site, and I find myself with absolutely no idea as to precisely what this seemingly-magical software actually does.

Today’s process improvement methodologies and BPM systems are limited because they are designed to deal with simple, easy to automate processes.  But simple processes account for only about 10% of the any organization’s process portfolio.

… the OVERBLUE™ software can be seamlessly used to design, align and execute activities and business processes across 100% of the process spectrum.

Since the link came from the writer Charle Stross, the whole thing does sound like something from his Laundry novels, akin to CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. Is the CEO of this company called Ellis Billington?

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The New Reactionaries

Charlie Stross dives down the rabbit-hold of fringe politics to find New Reactionaries and other, stranger sects:

This we come full-circle. The Trotskyites of old have donned the Armani suits of libertarian and neoliberal think-tank mavens. And the libertarians have begun to search for a purer pre-modern framework with which to defend themselves against the searing vision of the radiant future. Welcome to the century of the Trotskyite monarchists, the revolutionary reactionaries, and the fringe politics of the paradoxical! I hope you brought popcorn: it’s going to be nothing if not entertaining.

I’m not totally convinced by Stross’ suggestion that new reactionary Mencius Moldbug is a great writer despite his unpleasant belief system. What I’ve seen suggest he’s more of a pompous windbag who’s deeply in love with the sound of his own voice. The way he takes saloon-bar bigotry and sprinkles it with classical references to make it look profound reminds me far too much of the late Enoch Powell.

As for the former trots turned libertoids, the way some leftists go so far to the left they go off the edge and reappear on the right is a well-known phenomenom; witness how many neocons on both sides of the Atlantic were former Trotskyites, or the way Tony Blair’s home secretary John Reid turned from a Stalinist to a right-wing thug.

It’s often said that politics is circular or horseshoe-shaped in the way the hard left and hard right frequently have more in common with each other than with pragmatic moderates. I’ve even semi-seriously suggested than AD&D alignments explain politics more effectively that “left” and “right”.

But perhaps the real divide is between pragmatists and utopians? This explains why, when a utopian ideology is found wanting, many of those who abandon it don’t become pragmatic moderates, but find another utopianism to cling to.

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Science fiction for people who don’t read SF

Gareth L Powell and Damien G. Walter have been compling lists of science fiction novels to recomment to friends who don’t read SF.

This is my list. Like Gareth Powell I’m avoiding the “classics” of the genre by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven or Robert Heinlein in favour of more modern works, on the grounds that they’ve dated quite badly, coming from a time when it was still acceptable for SF novels to contain cardboard cutout characters. And don’t even get me started on Heinlein’s and Niven’s view on sexual politics…

Some of these take place in the ill-defined borderland between science-fiction and fantasy. I find hair-splitting arguments over genre boundaries are never productive, all I’ll say is that this is my list, and they fall under my personal broad definition of SF.

Yes I am aware that I’ve only got one book on the list by a woman; my bookshelf is filled overwhelmingly with the work of men in the way my record collection isn’t. I do need to do something about that, but that’s really a topic for another blog.

Century Rain” by Alastair Reynolds.
Part noir detective story, part alternate history, and part space-opera, most of the action taking place in a version of Paris that isn’t quite our own rather than in outer space. A couple of the central characters reminded me of some musicians I know.


Ash: A Secret History” by Mary Gentle.
This starts out as if it’s a straight historical story about a medieval mercenary company, with a framing story formed from the correspondence between a present-day translator and her editor. Then things start to get strange, as it’s slowly revealed that things are not what they seem.


The City and The City” by China Mieville.
No aliens, spaceships or vampires, and set in something resembling the present-day, but with a central concept that does require an SFF-style suspension of disbelief. May not work for everyone, since I do know both SF and non-SF fans who have failed to get their head round this one.


The Bloodline Feud” by Charles Stross.
Marketed as fantasy but actually science-fiction, with the science in question being economics with a side order of dynastic politics, and very cleverly inverts a lot of fantasy tropes. Biggest downside is it’s the first volume of a trilogy.


Anathem” by Neal Stephenson. An ambitious work that’s partly about philosophy, part social satire (I do love the concept of the word “bullshytte” as an academic term), and part rattling adventure yarn. Not really a lightweight popcorn novel, though; one of those works that’s hard work but ultimately rewarding, so it’s one for your friends who are into heavyweight literary stuff rather that mass-market bestsellers.

What would your recommendations be?

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Goodbye to The Iron Lady

She’s only been in Hell a couple of days and she’s shut down three furnaces and privatised the Lake of Fire already!

Margaret Thatcher. A third of the nation loved her. Another third hated everything she stood for with a passion. And the remaining third is too young to understand why the rest us feel the way we do.

I was never a supporter. I found her intensely tribal style of class-based identity politics loathsome and dangerous, and hated the way she acted as if half the country were enemies to be defeated.

Some on the right are invoking “Do not speak ill of the dead” when anyone dares to mention anything on the debit column of her balance sheet. But Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian explains why that is only appropriate for private individuals, and should not apply to public figures, especially those as divisive and polarising as Thatcher. To allow her supporters and ideological heirs to heap unconditional praise while insisting that their political opponents remain silent out of respect is itself a highly political position, something many on the right seem unwilling to acknowledge.

There was certainly no love for her in Scotland, and Scottish writer Charlie Stross does not mince his words in response to the sort of uncritical praise I’ve seen coming from one or two right-wing Americans.

I’d like to remind non-Brits that strong leaders are more popular abroad than in their home land, because foreigners don’t get to see the skulls that were smashed in the process of building that reputation for “strength”.

The resulting comments thread contains some interesting discussion of Britain’s post-war industrial problems for which Thatcherism was supposed to have been the solution.

The funeral arrangements show that Thatcher is as controversial in death as she was in life. The Telegraph’s Peter Oborne eloquently describes why giving Thatcher a state funeral in all but name dangerously undermines the political neutrality of the monarchy, and is a very bad thing for democracy. A poster on Twitter made the very good point that an extravagant public event for such a partisan figure is the sort of thing that’s expected from a tin-pot dictatorship rather than a mature democracy. Charlie Stross (again) risks invoking Godwin’s Law by making direct comparisons with Nuremberg rallies.

I’m very glad to be overseas for the next week and a half. I fully expected Cameron et al to use the Maggon’s funeral as a rallying point for their clan, but I wasn’t expecting a full-blown Nuremberg Rally. Disgraceful.

Can’t say I disagree with that. Not that I want to condone or encourage rioting, but large scale public unrest would be as appropriate a memorial to Thatcher as what’s being described above.

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Representative Democracy’s Failure Mode

Author Charlie Stross talks of the beige dictatorship much of the developed world seems to be living under.

For a while I’ve had the unwelcome feeling that we’re living under occupation by Martian invaders. (Not just here in the UK, but everyone, everywhere on the planet.) Something has gone wrong with our political processes, on a global scale. But what? It’s obviously subtle — we haven’t been on the receiving end of a bunch of jack-booted fascists or their communist equivalents organizing putsches. But we’ve somehow slid into a developed-world global-scale quasi-police state, with drone strikes and extraordinary rendition and unquestioned but insane austerity policies being rammed down our throats, government services being outsourced, peaceful protesters being pepper-sprayed, tased, or even killed, police spying on political dissidents becoming normal, and so on. What’s happening?

Stross goes on to highlight the way the Equal Marriage bill passed precisely because no powerful vested interests stand to lose from it, and it gives the government a veneer of progressivism. But we’re unlikely to see any movement on the war on drugs, no matter how much human misery it causes, because the vested interests in the status quo are so powerful.

Tony Benn once said that our fate is now in the hands of bankers we did not elect, and cannot remove. Whatever you think of Tony Benn, it is clear that corporate interests, not the people, increasingly set the political agenda. It’s almost impossible to see equivalents of the large-scale social reforms by Liberal and Labour governments in the first half of the 20th century happening under today’s political systems. Indeed, many of those achievements are now being dismantled to the benefit of corporate interests against the wishes of the majority of the electorate. How many people actually voted to break up and privatise the NHS, for example?

When disparities in wealth in the USA have reached the levels of pre-revolutionary France, I can’t see how the situation is remotely sustainable, no matter what amount of bread and circuses. Hopefully the western world can avoid something as traumatic as the French Revolution, but the democracy isn’t performing the self-correcting function it’s supposed to.

I believe voting on it’s own will change nothing, and representative democracy will only start delivering governments that actually reflect the will and interests of the people after the real battle has been won elsewhere.

The internet may turn out to be a major battleground, as it provides a way around the corporate media. This is one reason why power-grabs like SOPA need to be resisted. The stakes are far, far higher than protecting the entertainment industries against “piracy”. If the web devolves into a cross between cable TV and a shopping mall, with other voices silenced or marginalised, that field of battle will be lost.

What do you think?

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