Competition Time!

The Nightmare Stacks

There are only 30 days to go until the UK release of The Nightmare Stacks, and to celebrate, my UK publisher Orbit are giving one lucky and inventive reader the chance to win a Laundry Files pack, including signed copies of The Nightmare Stacks, plus a Magic Circle of Safety mug and a Laundry Files tshirt. All you have to do is come up with your own Laundry Files gadget, app, or piece of tech - for good or evil. Give us a name, a classification and a brief explanation of how it works/what it does.

Five runners up will win a signed copy of The Nightmare Stacks.

Here are some examples of gadgets you might run into, or might run into you, if you work for the Laundry. (Terms and conditions apply: continued below the fold.)


Name: OFCUT (Occult Field Countermeasures Utility Toolkit)

Classification: Mobile application - counter magic class

Deployment: Usage recommended for field work by Laundry Agents for defence and offence against hostiles. Includes both preventative measures (Thaumometer: measuring magic in the area) and more extreme counter-measures (see ref: Scorpion stare)

Magic being a side effect of computation, Laundry IT services have been working on portable invocation and exorcism equipment since the late 1970s (see ref: Osborne-1). In the 21st century, modern smartphones have become as powerful as 1990s supercomputers and replace the laptops and briefcase-sized portable computers of earlier days as a platform agents can use to run the OFCUT software suite. OFCUT has tools for sensing magical flux (thaum field strength), identifying active intrusions using the smartphone's various antennae and positioning sensors, and a handy database of known ghostly manifestations and extradimensional horrors to assist the agent in working out how fast they should run away. It also includes a secure email and messaging client, a remote access tool to allow Head Office to activate and control the phone's features remotely, and a voice chat tool so that the agent's last words can be captured for posterity.

With additional bluetooth-controlled peripherals a proficient demonologist can use an OFCUT-equipped smartphone to summon and control the sort of things sane people prefer to avoid, and with an additional secondary camera module it can acquire SCORPION STARE capability.


Name: Jesusphone

Classification: Irresistibly shiny slab of preciousssss created in high security bunkers by a secretive cult-like corporation based in Silicon Valley. Sold around the world to millions of people who can't resist its Class 4 glamour. Believed by some to be merely a smartphone.

Allegations that the sub-basement floor plan of JesusCorp's new billion-dollar donut-shaped headquarters in Cupertino is laid out as a vast summoning grid are under investigation, but JesusCorp's internal secrecy, enforced by the so-called Worldwide Loyalty Team, is harder to penetrate than the cold-war era KGB.

Deployment: It's nearly impossible to keep employees from buying their own JesusPhones, so IT services finally bowed to the inevitable and started handing them out as official work equipment. At which point, JesusCorp's paranoid approach to security becomes an asset: running a native version of OFCUT the JesusPhone becomes a secure, reliable Swiss Army chainsaw for tackling occult intrusions in the wild--and without attracting undue attention, because they're ubiquitous.

Scorpion Stare

Name: Scorpion Stare

Classification: Weapon: Medusa class

Deployment: Basilisks and Medusas have been known of since antiquity: an observer-mediated quantum tunnelling effect causes a tiny fraction of the nuclei of carbon atoms in the target of the basilisk's gaze to be replaced by those of silicon atoms from a parallel universe, causing a sudden release of gamma radiation and heat. More recently, special-purpose electronic hardware has been developed that allows two or more suitably-connected high definition CCTV cameras to produce this effect. If you wonder why stereo/3D digital cameras are scarce on the market, this would be why: they're deadlier than hand grenades.

The Laundry operates Scorpion Stare technology in various modes. On a national level, in time of emergency/invasion by Elder Gods, the national CCTV network can be turned into a look-to-kill grid. And at a personal level, an agent with a smartphone and a special secondary camera module is less conspicuous than an agent toting a sawn-off shotgun. But in practice relatively few problems can be solved satisfactorily by making heads literally explode, encouraging bored civil servants to run around thinking they're James Bond inevitably leads to tears before bed-time, and the failure modes are drastic and unforgiving (more than one employee has ended up the subject of a secret Coroner's Report after forgetting to remove their auxilliary camera module before taking a selfie in the bathroom mirror).

Effects: People (and objects containing any amount of carbon--trees, grass, painted surfaces, small yappy dogs) bursting into flames, leaving characteristic remains that resemble the original object reincarnated as a cinder block. Vampires have been observed to sparkle in daylight (very briefly).


Name:* HOG-3 (Hand of Glory)

Classification: Unconventional weaponry level 2

Deployment: For centuries, it has been known among occult circles that the hand of a hanged felon, suitably pickled and inscribed, can be used for certain ritual purposes as a ghastly five-branched candle. While the fingers burn, according to legend, the bearer can be invisible, can enter any locked building, and can force their will upon others. Much of this is bunkum, but it is confirmed that someone holding such an artefact is very difficult to see.

Prior to 1965 the Laundry maintained a discreet supply arrangement with the Home Office, but after the abolition of capital punishment in the UK supplies became scarce. Finally, a 1980s research project identified a suitable and plentifully available substitute--which is why so many of the pigeons in London's Trafalgar Square appear to only have one foot. The newly miniaturized HOG-3 burns for a duration of up to 120 seconds, during which time a person or vehicle connected to it can move unseen. This is, however, an emergency tool.

Variant models:*

HOG-1: Most powerful version, but extremely rare as no more are being produced. (It is believed that less than ten remain in storage.) Attempts to obtain replacement supplies from overseas fell foul of human rights legislation banning support for capital punishment.

HOG-2: Made from an octopus. Unfortunate side-effects. Don't ask.

HOG-3: Standard issue since 1989; ultra-compact, short duration invisibility device, manufactured using feral pigeons. No longer issued routinely due to incidents of employee abuse resulting in prosecution for stalking. Stockpile diminishing and not being replenished following discussions with the RSPB.

Want to enter? Read the T&Cs, and if you're eligible, leave your entry in a comment below. (When the winners are announced I'll post an update blog entry telling the winners to get in touch so we know where to send the prizes.) Over to you!


You can run variations on Scorpion Stare or basilisks all you like; they ain't gonna win.

Similarly, OFFOG, TASP, and other clear steals from other SF authors (such as Eric Frank Russell or Larry Niven, in those two cases) will be disqualified. Oh, and I am fully aware of the SCP Wiki, and that's off-limits too. (If you want to win, it needs to be All Your Own Work.)

And (you did read the terms and conditions, right?) this bears repeating: "anyone aged 16 or over in the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand except employees of Little Brown Book Group, their families, or anyone professionally connected to the competition either themselves or through their families." Non-UK/EU/Australasians are welcome to pitch in, but sorry, you're not eligible for the prizes.

Scheduled downtime

Just a warning: the blog (and this server) will be offline for about ten minutes between the hours of 5am and 8am on Thursday the 19th (tomorrow)—that's 1am to 4am Eastern Seaboard Time—while technicians hook it up to a new power distribution board in the data center.

Hopefully this will go without a hitch. In event of hitches, yr. hmbl. crspndnt. will shoot trouble when he's out of bed.

Comments on the blog will be disabled until the server is up and tested tomorrow morning (so I can take a clean database backup without worrying about missing stuff, Just In Case things don't go smoothly).

Update: comments are now back

Upcoming Appearances: Washington DC and Baltimore

Upcoming events

Next week I'm going to be in Washington DC and Baltimore. The primary reason I'm going is because it's the 50th Balticon SF convention this Memorial Day weekend and, as a previous guest of honor, they've invited me back. (I'm not the real draw: this year the guest of honor is George R. R. Martin, with a side-order of John Picacio (artist guest of honr), Bill and Gretchen Roper (music), R. Shirley Avery and Martin Deutsch (fan guests of honor), Alexandra Duncan (Compton Crook Award winner) and Kim Stanley Robinson, just because they can. Oh, and they've also got Harry Turtledove, Joe Haldeman, Jo Walton, Larry Niven, and a bunch of other previous guests.

(I'll update this blog entry with my program items when I get a finalized schedule.)

But that's not my only appearance. The Open Technology Institute in conjunction with the ACLU have kindly invited me to an evening event on Tuesday May 24th, 5:30-7pm:

What Can DC Learn From Sci-Fi? A Conversation With Author Charles Stross

In a world where cars drive themselves, everyone has a supercomputer in their pocket, and billionaires are building their own spaceships, where can policymakers and citizens turn to make sense of it all? Perhaps they should talk those people whose entire careers are devoted to imagining the future: science fiction writers. From the White House to think tanks like the Atlantic Council and Data & Society to tech commentary outlets like Slate's Future Tense, more and more policy thinkers are turning to science fiction writers to help them understand our futuristic present--and now you can too. Join us for a conversation over drinks with one of the 21st centuries most influential science fiction authors, Charles Stross. Interviewed by two tech policy experts (and science fiction fans) from New America's Open Technology Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union, the prolific Scottish novelist and blogger known for modern sci-fi classics like Accelerando, Singularity Sky and many more will talk about the future of surveillance and privacy, why the idea of space colonization is unrealistic, whether or not we are in the midst of a technological "singularity", and what science fiction can--and can't--teach us about how to live in the 21st century.

Take part in the conversation online using #SFinDC and following @OTI.

Beer and wine will be served along with some light snacks.

(And if you want me to sign books I'm happy to do so after the talk.)

The event will be held at New America's Open Technology Institute, 740 15th Street NW, #900, Washington DC, 20005 (not far from the White House) and you can find updates online at Open Technology Institute > Events.

UPDATE (because you clicked through): There will be a Beer meet-up in DC on Monday evening, from 8pm, at Bier Baron. All welcome.

Don't be surprised if I'm up to half an hour late arriving -- got to eat, first -- and in a zombie-like stupor (our first flight takes off from Edinburgh at 6am BST, i.e. 1am EST, and we need to be on our way to the airport two hours before departure). Plan is to stay awake with bright lights and conversation until at least 10:30pm, so I can wake up on local (DC) time the following morning.

Updating a classic

In 1944, the Office of Strategic Services—the predecessor of the post-war CIA—was concerned with sabotage directed against enemies of the US military. Among their ephemera, declassified and published today by the CIA, is a fascinating document called the Simple Sabotage Field Manual (PDF). It's not just about blowing things up; a lot of its tips are concerned with how sympathizers with the allied cause can impair enemy material production and morale:

  1. Managers and Supervisors: To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.
  2. Employees: Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do instead of a big one.
  3. Organizations and Conferences: When possible, refer all matters to committees, for "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
  4. Telephone: At office, hotel and local telephone switchboards, delay putting calls through, give out wrong numbers, cut people off "accidentally," or forget to disconnect them so that the line cannot be used again.
  5. Transportation: Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Issue two tickets for the same seat on a train in order to set up an "interesting" argument.

Some of these sabotage methods are commonplace tactics deployed in everyday workplace feuds. It's often hard to know where incompetence ends and malice begins: the beauty of organizations is that most of them have no effective immune systems against such deliberate excesses of incompetence.

So it occured to me a week or two ago to ask (on twitter) the question, "what would a modern-day version of this manual look like if it was intended to sabotage a rival dot-com or high tech startup company"? And the obvious answer is "send your best bad managers over to join in admin roles and run their hapless enemy into the ground". But what actual policies should they impose for best effect?

  1. Obviously, engineers and software developers (who require deep focus time) need to be kept in touch with the beating heart of the enterprise. So open-plan offices are mandatory for all.

  2. Teams are better than individuals and everyone has to be aware of the valuable contributions of employees in other roles. So let's team every programmer with a sales person—preferably working the phones at the same desk—and stack-rank them on the basis of each pair's combined quarterly contribution to the corporate bottom line.

  3. It is the job of Human Resources to ensure that nobody rocks the boat. Anyone attempting to blow whistles or complain of harrassment is a boat-rocker. You know what needs to be done.

  4. Senior managers should all be "A" Players (per Jack Welch's vitality model—see "stack ranking" above) so we should promote managers who are energetic, inspirational, and charismatic risk-takers.

  5. The company must have a strong sense of intense focus. So we must have a clean desk policy—any personal possessions left on the desk or cubicle walls at the end of the day go in the trash. In fact, we can go a step further and institute hot desking—we will establish an average developer's workstation requirements and provide it for everyone at every desk.

  6. All work environments must be virtualized and stashed on the corporate file servers for safe-keeping. Once we've worked out how many VMs we need to run, we can get rid of the surplus hardware—redundancy is wasteful.

  7. Programmers don't need root/admin access to their development environments. Marketing, however, need to be able to manage the CRM and should have global admin permissions across the network.

  8. All communications within the company will be conducted using the corporation's own home-rolled secure instant messaging/email system. IT Services are hard at work porting the PocketPC 2006 Second Edition client to Android 2.2 and Windows Vista; it should be available any day now, at which point the iPaqs and XP boxes will be sunsetted. (This has the added benefit of preventing the developers from sneaking Macs or Linux systems into the office.)

  9. Stand-up meetings will be scheduled every morning, to allow the development team to share insights and situational awareness. To ensure that everybody has their say everybody will be allocated exactly the same amount of time to speak. If they don't have anything to fill the silence with, we will wait it out, to encourage slow thinkers to keep up.

  10. If a project is running late, then everybody in the department will move to a death-march overtime tempo and pitch in until it's done, shelving their own jobs and switching tasks if necessary. If a death march is established and still fails to produce deliverables on time, then as punishment the coffee in the departmental cafetiere will be switched to decaff.

Okay. What can you add to this dot-com sabotage manual? (No more than bullet point per comment, no more than three comments per day—so there's room for everyone! Alan, this is your cue for variations on full-stack Javascript plus NoSQL ...)

Three Unexpectedly Good Things VR Will Probably Cause

This is a guest post by filmmaker and VR developer Hugh Hancock.

OK, at this point we can call it. VR is definitely here, it works, and it's not going away.

I was one of the first people in the UK to get the consumer version of the HTC Vive, the VR headset designed around standing up and walking around in a virtual space, not just sitting looking at it. I bought it for research rather than because I was sure it would be good - but when it arrived, it was absolutely amazing.

We're in full-on Holodeck territory here. Whether you're shooting ninjas with arrows or wandering around on the bottom of the ocean, it's incredibly immersive. And Valve's legendary "taking a dog for a walk" sim is... well, just spookily good.

So yeah. It arrived. I used it. I promptly put every project on my slate on hold and decided to focus on room-scale VR for the indefinite future.

It's that good.

Now, it's all but guaranteed that we're going to see a lot of scaremongering about VR in the near future. It's ripe for the next moral panic, and there are plenty of people looking for clicks on their articles about how VR must be banned now or it will cause the end of humanity.

So I thought I'd get in there first - with some unforseen side-effects of VR I've observed or learned about that will make the world better, not worse...

Fitter Nerds

Here's a video of one of the projects I've been experimenting with for the Vive:

It's a fairly simple idea: you're on a raft, on a river. You're holding a paddle (the VR controller, which is tracked to milimeter level by Magic Technology, and thus means you can move things in the virtual world with your hands). Stick paddle in water, paddle, repeat.

(If you happen to have a Vive, you can download it here - let me know what you think!)

It's fun. It's immersive. And most interestingly, it's rather exhausting. Not quite as much work as padding a real raft, but you can build up a sweat doing it.

Indeed, currently most of the top room-scale VR experiences combine those three things - fun, immersive, and actual exercise.

Take Hover Junkers, for example, a multiplayer competitive shooting game where you're building defences and blasting away at rivals both from your own little mini-hovercraft. Here's a video of two people playing a round of Hover Junkers .

It's genuinely very hard work. The amount of squatting you'll do challenges most people's level of physical fitness. But at the same time, it's a highly addictive, very entertaining computer game.

Recommended minimum exercise levels in the UK are approximately 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week. Most of the population don't even manage to get to that.

Recommended minimum play time to get into DOTA2, one of the most popular competitive computer games available right now, is around 10 hours per week. That's a minimum. Lots of people play a lot more.

(There's a famous review of DOTA2 on Steam which simply reads "Pretty good. Didn't play much.". It has 10,000 hours of play time listed.)

So the result of gaming, particularly competitive gaming, colliding with roomscale VR? Anyone who's into competitive gaming in VR is going to be ripped.

Even those of us who mostly play single-player games will get our exercise minima and then some. One brisk walk across Azeroth in World of Warcraft (with interludes to shoot at, hack apart or run away from the wildlife) or a couple of in-game days of hard manual labour in Stardew Valley will do it.

Forget the stereotype of the overweight gamer - the top gamers of tomorrow are going to be triathelete-level fit.

Less Eyestrain

When I first acquired a VR headset, I took it to my optician to check that it wasn't going to do anything horrible to my eyes. And unexpectedly, rather than giving me a stern talking-to about time spent in front of screens, he got very excited.

It turns out that VR could be rather good for the eyes of anyone using it - much better than using a regular monitor, in many ways.

Why? The main reason is convergence. Humans are evolved to look at the horizon, scanning for prey and predators. Staring at things very close to us, not so much.

If prey's already within 20 inches of so of our face, chances are the deal's done. And if a predator's that close, well, it's a bad day for Ms Hunter-Gatherer and a good day for Captain Stripey McBigTeeth.

(As a side note, we also evolved to look at green things a lot, hence why green is the most relaxing colour for our eyes to stare at. Hence old-school green-text CRT monitors.)

Focusing on something very close to us for 8-12 hours a day is very much not what our eyes are good at, and it's starting to cause serious problems. In fact, my optician recently referred to computer vision syndrome as an "epidemic".

Enter VR.

In a VR headset, you're more or less focusing on infinity, from the point of view of convergence between your two eyes. You're also focusing considerably further away from the point of view of individual eyes, too - approximately 1.2m in the Vive, which is a lot better than 40cm on average for a computer screen.

And in VR, you can simply create any size of screen you like, and work on that. There's an app called Virtual Desktop which allows the user to project his or her usual desktop up onto a massive IMAX-sized screen, and work there.

VR: it's coming to save our eyesight.

Less Mental Illness

And finally, and arguably most exciting of all - VR looks like it's going to have some major applications in treating mental illnesses of all kinds.

Studies are already showing that virtual experiences can be of considerable help in treating paranoia.

It also has a long history of use - hampered by the cost of old-fashioned VR headsets - in treating phobias, from agoraphobia to fear of spiders to fear of flying.

One VR developer reported on Reddit - very excited - that in developing a VR app with some significant height elements, they'd managed to cure their own fear of heights

And a clinical psychotherapist recently tried out the VR chat application AltSpace VR, and immediately became very excited about the possibilities for treating social anxiety, including his or her own, using AltSpace.

This is pretty remarkable, ground-breaking stuff: arguably offering a lot of the advantages of therapies using LSD or similar drugs that alter perception, without the obvious and unpleasant side effects.

So when the inevitable "VR is causing children to KILL" headlines come along, just remember - change on this scale causes a lot of effects, both good and ill. And it's already obvious there's plenty of likely good outcomes from this particular revolution!

What do you think? Have you tried VR? Noticed any positive effects?