Excellent Interview on Cybercrime with Misha Glenny

If you get the chance, absolutely watch/listen to TVO’s interviews with Misha Glenny on cybercrime. They’re really fascinating stuff, even to someone like me who already knows a bit about the topic. Glenny covers not only how it’s done, but who does it, and how they get involved with this shadowy underworld. He also talks about the most vulnerable place for cybercrime in the world- North America. Why? Give them a watch.


If Ian Fleming – author of the James Bond spy novels – were alive today, and wanted to write a non-fiction book about the burgeoning cybercrime industry and the ingenious characters involved in it, he’d be too late. British journalist Misha Glenny, former Central Europe correspondent for the BBC World Service, has already written that book. Drawing on over 200 hours of interviews with players on both sides of the law, Glenny, in DarkMarket: How Hackers Became the New Mafia, weaves the shadowy, expansive global network of cyber criminals and the police that track them into a terse crime thriller.

via Misha Glenny: In Detail | The Agenda.

The Warbots by G. Harry Stine

In the high-tech laboratories of tomorrow a new breed of super-soldier is born! The brutal face of warfare has been dramatically altered. Armored giants now roam the explosive fields of battle-massive instruments of devastation with computer minds inseparably linked with the brainwaves of their human masters. They are the Warbots, men and machines combined to create the most lethal warriors in the history of armed conflict. But a monstrous challenge emerges for the mechanical gladiators emanating from a country technology forgot. As Captain Curt Carson leads his robot infantry in a daring attempt to rescue 105 hostage Americans from the sadistic clutches of a bloodthirsty terrorist army, the soldiers of tomorrow face the butchers of yesterday in a battle for the future of the free world! -Warbots Back Cover

As I read more and more about the US becoming a country focussed on Drone Warfare, the Warbots series by G. Harry Stine begins to look more and more prophetic.

I originally picked the books up back in the 80’s at City Lights used bookshop because I was a huge mecha fan, and saw their covers:

Of course, I don’t think the guy who did those covers ever actually read the books, or maybe the publisher was looking for something more metaphorical, because that’s not what the Warbots in the story look like at all. They actually look more like this:

That’s a P.A.C./R.A.T. from the 80’s G.I. Joe toy line, and the set of them actually represent the Warbots in the book so well that I’ve often wondered if they aren’t a tribute of sorts to the books. Like the R.A.T.S. the Warbots aren’t very big, being about the size of a golf cart, and each one is equipped with a specialized weapon for a particular function. In the book, each type has a nickname, usually based on their weapon characteristics. The one I remember is the “Saucy Cans”, which is the nickname for the Soixante-quinze (75) Millimetre guns they were using.

TALON units being tested in Iraq right now.

So basically the Warbots books are military Sci-Fi books about squad-level combat in a future where the US Army has heavily integrated drone units into their forces. If I recall right (it’s been a while since I read them) a squad now consists of a human commander, and a team of AI Warbots under his or her command. The AI’s in the story aren’t very smart, and basically just follow orders (they operate on the level of a Starcraft unit), but they are incredibly deadly and dangerous, especially when properly arrayed.

The humans in the unit are all using neural interfaces that let them communicate with each other instantly using surface thoughts, and they can control and communicate with the bots using this system. It makes them quite a terrifying force in the field, actually, because the Warbots are acting as extensions of the human soldiers, albeit slightly dumb extensions that often require the humans to be on-site to supervise. (The human side of the stories don’t take place in an air conditioned military base in Nevada like real drone war combat might.)

As I recall, the stories usually tend to be about the unit in the story trying to accomplish missions in the third world. A lot of it is about them trying to deploy their Warbots to deal with overwhelming enemy forces that the bots can only hold off for so long. The Warbots aren’t very nimble (no ninja-stealth-robots here) since they’re mostly small tracked vehicles, and as a result in urban and jungle terrains can really be quite limited by the environment.

In terms of writing, the stories are okay. They’re really pulp adventure novels in a lot of ways, but with a very cool concept behind them that was way ahead of its time. Our hero Captain Curt Carson (square jawed, heroic military commander) leads his team of tough but lovable troopers on a series of missions that has him fighting villainous dictators and romancing princesses across the globe. (Not kidding, the love interest that shows up later in the series is the daughter of the Sultan of Brunei.)

Despite this, I actually recommend giving them a look if you’re into military sci-fi or the future of combat in general. While dated in some ways, I do think that Stine had the right ideas, and that in twenty years the future of warfare will look a lot more like his novels than it will how we fight today.

Who wants to live forever?

What if people could live to 200 instead of just 80 years?

Dr. Stuart Kim has already done the equivalent in his studies on how to reverse the aging process in worms, and has learned incredible things about aging. Traditionally, we’ve always thought that aging was the result of wear and tear on our cells, but it turns out that isn’t quite true.

ideacity on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free

I heard this lecture last night on CBC radio and was blown away by it, and the implications it offers about aging in the future. It’s almost one of those things which makes me think I was born a touch too early, because I might just miss the benefits of this kind of research. On the other hand, it kinda terrifies me, because it also offers a real prospect of a future where the options are a) the rich (who can afford the treatments) live for hundreds of years while the poor continue to die as normal. Or, b) a world where people age at 1/2 to 1/3 the rate they do now, and which will see terrifying overpopulation like we can’t even imagine.

Neither seems all that pleasant. But hopefully we’ll find a happy middle.

Augmented Reality on track to becoming reality.

I’ve been expecting this for a while. The fact Google is backing this project makes it seem like it will be a certainty, and be soon. First our smartphones will sync with our AR glasses to do this, and then eventually it will be AR contact lenses (they already have these in the prototype stage) and we’ll be immensed in a constant dual reality as part of our daily lives.

Not sure if this will be good or bad, but it will be as ubiquitous as the iPhone within five years, tops.

GIMP – The FREE Open Source Photoshop

For those who might not be familiar with it, there is a free alternative to Photoshop called GIMP – The GNU Image Manipulation Program which is surprisingly powerful and useful, and has a tonne of plugins and tutorials out there. I’ve been using it in lieu of Photoshop recently (since I can’t afford the $600 for Photoshop at the moment just to do some minor photo editing) and so far I’ve found it quite easy to use and well documented.

America’s Science Decline – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson shows North America’s (sadly, Canada as well) place on the world stage in terms of the development of new science and technology as we fade into irrelevance. Watch it and weep!

Is 50,000 the magic number for e-books?

I was talking with a friend this afternoon who is something of an industry watcher in the publishing industry, and we were discussing e-book length. Now I’ve thought about the length of e-books for a while, so it was a familiar discussion, but he brought some interesting ideas to the table.

His take on things is that thinking of e-books in terms of the conventional publishing market is wrong, because they simply aren’t paper books and don’t follow the same psychological rules as books. Size is a factor in buying books, and people these days like to feel they are getting their money’s worth as books have become more expensive, so longer books are the norm in many parts of the publishing industry. (Not all, which I’ll come to in a moment.)  Therefore, the ideas of long a book should be are based on concepts of thickness and value.

But these concepts don’t apply to e-books, as e-books have no physical form for the reader to judge, and things like word count (and to a degree even page count) are abstract enough to be meaningless to most buyers. This means that in theory an e-book just needs to be long enough to tell the story, and length is irrelevant, right?

Not so fast.

His other thought was that while the physical rules don’t apply anymore, other rules do. He felt that people simply aren’t used to reading long works in electronic format, and that this desire to spend less time staring at a screen (don’t we spend enough time staring at screens in our day already?) would mean that people would tend to read shorter works as opposed to longer ones. In his opinion, he felt that e-books would be better suited to be shorter than print books are on average, and that this is what people would gravitate towards. People would want shorter books they can consume during commutes or on lunch-breaks and the in-between moments of their day.

So, I asked him- Taking all this into account, how long should an e-book novel be?

His answer- 50,000 words, or shorter.

What’s interesting is that this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this number bandied about, not only is this the target number for NaNoWriMo, but it turns up a lot of other places as well. This is also the length of choice for most Young Adult novels, and (he pointed out) has been the target length of Harlequin Romance Novels for several decades. (When I think about it, this is also the rough length for most Louis L’Amour westerns, and was also the target for Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels back in the 60’s and 70’s.)

He suggested that for longer works, it would be better to write at this length and then serialize the story over several of these shorter books.

Is he right? I’m still deciding, but he does have some good points, and at least for a forthcoming YA project I will definitely use this as a target length.




Advice on Covers

Speaking of the Dead Robot’s Society writer’s podcast (which I’ve become a fan of recently), among the myriad topics they’ve covered, they did two especially good interviews with Robin J. Sullivan of Ridan Publishing.  Ms. Sullivan is something of an indie book marketing guru and gave great advice in general in the first interview, but the second interview has some especially good thoughts on the importance of book covers. (Hint- they’re the most important piece of marketing material a book has.) She covers what makes for good and bad covers in great detail, so if you’re a writer or artist, it’s definitely worth a listen.


Most Human Like Robot Ever – YouTube

Holy Uncanny Valley Batman! That thing looks like it’s ready to start terminating people any day now! No wonder they dressed it as a nurse!

The Future of Self-Publishing: Co-ops

“That which comes together must break apart- that which breaks apart must come together.” – Old Chinese Proverb

Today, I was talking to one of my co-workers about the future of the music industry and he was discussing how 100 years ago a musician needed to be a part of a large group to produce music. Yes, in theory one man with an instrument could produce music, but the mass-media form of music at the time was an orchestra that people physically went to see. That required not just musicians, but composers, backers, conductors, producers and even marketers- in other words, a lot of people.

Now, on hundred years later, a single person with a smartphone app can perform almost all of those functions by themselves, and distribution through the internet is also equally easy. He likened it to an inverted pyramid, where everything slowly came together over time and the power became concentrated into a single person with a single device. But then, our conversation led to the logical question- what’s next?

My answer- the pyramid will start to widen again and power of artists will return to the group over the individual.

I know a lot of people, especially in the ebook publishing world (to shift to book publishing), might strongly disagree with this statement, especially since we’re just being set free! We’re just throwing off the shackles of the traditional publishing industry, and every day there’s a new story about an individual self published author making a living or making it big from ebooks.

But therein lies the problem. Where people smell money and opportunity, that’s where they will go, and they will go in droves. As I talked about in my previous post, the rise of ebook readers doesn’t just mean the opening of a new market- it means the opening of the field for even more competition. And while, as with anything artistic, the cream will rise to the top, the competition at all levels of the industry is about to become fierce.

The “demise” of traditional publishers doesn’t mean just opportunity for authors, it also means the loss of at least three functions they played- gatekeeper, marketer, and editor. All three of these functions are incredibly important for artists and consumers, and they have now been foisted onto the artists themselves.

So, what we will have is a situation where anyone can publish anything, but due to competition and noise it will become harder and harder to find and hold an audience. In addition, with stronger competition, the quality of work must be high or it will be dismissed out of hand by many readers. With books, high quality means good editors, good covers, and potentially more and more up-front costs before any money is made.

On the plus side, this will help sift some of the wheat from the chaff. On the down side, this will also create a barrier to entry for many writers or other artists who simply cannot afford what it takes to have that professional style. Few people are good at everything, and many simply cannot do it alone.

So, why do I say artists need to come together?

Because it’s the only way to overcome the above barriers, and because more and more artists of any kind will need to work as part of a team, or rather a co-operative, to get their work out there. Yes, there will be lone wolves who manage to do it all on their own, but they will become less and less common in time as co-operatives take over the roles of gatekeepers, editors, and even producers and designers. It will become about sharing labour to succeed, and forming groups for the purpose of mutual opportunity for all members. (Not success, since not all members could ever be equally successful, but all can have equal benefits from group memberships.)

This is already happening. Just as “clans” formed in online games, groups of musicians in different genres of music have already started to form together, different graphic artists have started to form “clubs” or “leagues” on places like DeviantArt and writers groups (which have always existed) are starting to support each other in different ways than before. Whether these are informal networks, semi-formal communities, or formal co-operatives, these groups have and will continue to take on the roles that traditional publishers have held in the past.

They must, because as the competition ramps up in the coming months and years, it will be the only way to survive.