Accelerando Technical Companion
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This is a technical companion to Charlie Stross's novel Accelerando. Stross's book can be quite dense in unusual technical terms and concepts, which can sometimes be quite confusing to readers unfamiliar with them. The purpose of this companion is to help alleviate any confusions the reader may have, as well as to introduce new confusions by giving the reader an idea of the current state and expected future of the technologies described in the novel. Wherever possible, brief information on relevant research papers is provided.
Accelerando is not a "post-Singularity" novel but rather a "through-Singularity" novel as it takes the reader from our days (the first chapter "Lobsters" can be situated slightly in the future, maybe around 2020) through a Singularity to a sketched post-Singularity world. In the novel Stross focuses more on the social impact of technologies pushing to a Singularity and only hints at the technologies themselves. The aim of this technical companion is filling the gaps and providing Accelerando readers with a technical background.
From a recent online interview with Charlie Stross: "Accelerando starts out with a post-dot-com hustler, Manfred Macx. Manfred is already borderline posthuman, and he's struggling to keep up; within a generation he's an obsolete burnout case, his daughter Amber has transmigrated into a simulation space hosted aboard a one kilogram starship, and they're dismantling the solar system to build more brains. A generation later ..."
The novel is available as a free download from the official site, and will also be available for purchase in bookstores on July 1, 2005.
The first part of this technical companion is a glossary, intended to explain and elaborate on concepts without giving away plot details. Keep in mind, however, that simply knowing that the novel involves a particular term may be a spoiler in some sense, so some may wish to defer consultation of the glossary. Indeed, part of the appeal of Accelerando is the sense of confusion one gets by being exposed to the technical flurry.
The second part is a chapter guide, where chapter-specific commentary is given. This is bound to be chock-full of spoilers.
- 1 Technical glossary
- 2 Units of time
- 3 Chapter guide
- 3.1 Part 1: Slow Takeoff
- 3.2 Part 2: Point of Inflection
- 3.3 Part 3: Singularity
ackle: Transliteration of the pronunciation of "ACL", an initialism for "Access Control List", a computer science term for lists defining permission levels. For more information see wikipedia:Access_control_list.
agalmics: A form of economics concerning the "study and practice of the production and allocation of non-scarce goods," primarily via free-market trading, open-source initiatives, and flexible standards for intellectual property. Consult Robert Levin's "The Marginalization of Scarcity" for more information.
anarcho-capitalism: A political philosophy which proposes the replacement of governments with the free market. For more information see wikipedia:anarcho-capitalism.
Arianespace: A European commercial launch service. For more information see wikipedia:Arianespace.
Boötes Void: A roughly spherical region of relatively empty space 250 million light-years in diameter. Discovered in 1981 by Robert Kirshner, Augustus Oemler, Jr., Paul Schechter and Stephen Shectman in a survey of galactic redshifts. See: wikipedia:Bootes void
Bose-Einstein condensate: A Bose–Einstein condensate is a phase of matter formed by bosons cooled to temperatures very near to absolute zero (0 kelvins or -273.15 degrees Celsius). Under such supercooled conditions, a large fraction of the atoms collapse into the lowest quantum state, at which point quantum effects become apparent on a macroscopic scale. See: wikipedia:Bose-Einstein condensate
Brown Dwarf: Brown dwarfs are sub-stellar objects with a mass below that necessary to maintain hydrogen-burning nuclear fusion reactions in their cores, as do stars on the main sequence, but which have fully convective surfaces and interiors, with no chemical differentiation by depth. Brown dwarfs occupy the mass range between that of large gas-giant planets and the lowest mass stars (anywhere between 75 and 80 Jupiter masses). See: wikipedia:Brown Dwarf
Cartesian theatre: Descartes suggested that the brain served to pre-process sensory information and deliver it to the "seat of the soul," or homunculus (Latin, literally, "little man"). He proposed that this function might be somewhat like the viewing of a play, wherein the sole audience member, the soul, views the perceptions delivered by the brain as if in a theatre. Thus the "Cartesian Theatre."
C: The speed of light.
cellular automata: A discrete model studied in computability theory, mathematics, and theoretical biology. It consists of an infinite, regular grid of cells, each in one of a finite number of states. The grid can be in any finite number of dimensions. Time is also discrete, and the state of a cell at time t is a function of the states of a finite number of cells (called its neighborhood) at time t-1. See: wikipedia:cellular automata
cladistic tree: A tree-like relationship-diagram, called a "cladogram", that is drawn up to show different hypotheses of biological relationships. See: wikipedia:cladistics
computronium: Computronium is a class of materials optimized to perform computation. In Accelerando, post-Singularity posthumans convert much of the Solar System's mass to Computronium to sustain the huge volume of computation, including "running" uploaded humans, characteristic of a post-Singularity civilization. See also wikipedia:computronium.
Deep Space Network (DSN): From the official site: "The NASA Deep Space Network - or DSN - is an international network of antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions and radio and radar astronomy observations for the exploration of the solar system and the universe." wikipedia:Deep Space Network.
Dyson sphere: A sphere which surrounds a star, capturing nearly all of its energy. It's thought that such spheres would tend to leak a large amount of infrared radiation, which serves as a cue for detecting them with telescopes. For more information see wikipedia:Dyson sphere.
eigenface: In layperson's terms, eigenfaces are a set of "standardized face ingredients", derived from statistical analysis of many pictures of faces. Any human face can be considered to be a combination of these standard faces. For more information see wikipedia:eigenface.
entanglement: see quantum entanglement below.
exocortex: See wikipedia:exocortex. See also Chapter Guide, below.
extropian: Extropians share an optimistic view of the future, expecting considerable advances in computational power, life extension, nanotechnology and the like. Many extropians foresee the eventual realization of unlimited maximum life spans, and the recovery, thanks to future advances in biomedical technology, of those whose bodies/brains have been preserved by means of cryonics. See wikipedia:Extropianism.
field circus: In hacker jargon, field circus is a derogatory pun on the field service organization of a hardware manufacturer. See 
FLOPS: Floating Point Operations per second, a measure of processor speed. See wikipedia:FLOPS
Jerusalem, Spider: Protagonist in the cyberpunk comic book series Transmetropolitan. He used glasses similar to Manfred's and explored issues such as uploading that are also present in Accelerando. See: wikipedia:Transmetropolitan.
Kardashev Type One civilization: According to the Kardashev scale, a civilization that is able to harness all of the power available from a single planet (world).
Kardashev Type Two civilization: According to the Kardashev scale, a civilization that is able to harness all of the power available from a single star (sun).
Kardashev Type Three civilization: According to the Kardashev scale, a civilization that is able to harness all of the power available from a single galaxy.
Kardashev Type Four civilization: According to the Kardashev scale, a civilization that is able to harness all of the power available from a single brane / universe / dimension.
L5: One of the five positions with respect to the Earth and Moon where a small object affected only by gravity can theoretically be relatively stationary. See wikipedia:Lagrangian point.
light cone: In general relativity, the future light cone is the boundary of the causal future of a point and the past light cone is the boundary of its causal past. See wikipedia:light cone.
Lobster stomatogastric ganglion (STG): This is a well-studied network of neurons found in the lobster which controls the rhythmic contractions of stomach muscles and intra-stomach teeth. Neurobiologists treat this ganglion as a model system for understanding central pattern generators, a generic term for networks of neurons which control repetitive behavior. The neurons of the ganglion have been simulated on computers by many researchers at varying degrees of abstraction. (neuroethology link) see links to papers
Marder E. and Bucher D. (2001). Central pattern generators and the control of rhythmic movements. Current Biology (link)
Matrioshka Brain: A set of nested Dyson shells composed of computronium. The innermost shell is powered by the radiation from a star, while outer shells are powered by residual radiation and waste heat generated by inner shells. For more information see wikipedia:Matrioshka Brain.
Metacortex: See Chapter Guide, below.
MIPS wikipedia:Million instructions per second, a measure of processor speed.
Nanotechnology fabrication: See: wikipedia:Molecular nanotechnology
Neotenous/neoteny: childlike, maintaining some juvenile characteristics into adulthood. A page on XD38 personality types lists a few criteria that fit the protagonist.
Neural network: A very general term used to refer to any interconnected network of artificial neurons which perform some sort of computation. For more information see wikipedia:artificial neural network.
NHSNet: A wide area network run by the UK's National Health Service.
Panulirus interruptus: California spiny lobster; see Lobster stomatogastric ganglion for more details.
Parasite network: A global decentralized network of wireless antennas, proposed by Jim Griffin.
Psephology: The study of elections. See wikipedia:psephology.
Quantum entanglement: a phenomenon in quantum mechanics where the states of two particles are locked together, even across a distance. See wikipedia:Quantum entanglement
reputation market: See Cory Doctorow's wikipedia:Whuffie.
rubberized concrete: Roger Jones and others, working at LANL in 1997, reported on the successful use of supercritical carbon dioxide to impregnate concrete with polymers, dyes, and other interesting molecules that modify its physical properties. The news report from Los Alamos (Los Alamos paves the way for better cement ) was reported in New Scientist and elsewhere. (see also High Performance Concrete)
singularity: See wikipedia:technological singularity. Accelerando's author Charles Stross edits a personal wiki dedicated to the Singularity: " Singularity! A Tough Guide to the Rapture of the Nerds. "
Slashdotting: A large influx of visitors to a web server, due to a link from the front page of slashdot.org, a popular web site for technology-related news. The influx can be quite taxing on server processing power and bandwidth, and can often incapacitate a site. For more information see wikipedia:Slashdot effect.
small-world network: A class of random graphs where most nodes are also neighbors of one another, but every node can be reached from every other by a small number of hops or steps. See wikipedia:small-world network, wikipedia:Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and .
strange attractor: In dynamical systems, an attractor is a set to which the system evolves after a long enough time. For the set to be an attractor, trajectories that get close enough to the attractor must remain close even if slightly disturbed. Geometrically, a strange attractor is a complicated set with fractal structures. For more information see wikipedia:strange attractor.
syncitium: A concept introduced by Camillo Golgi (the same Italian biologist whose name is given to a component of the living cell). Golgi believed (incorrectly) that all neurons are connected by fibers which intermingle and mesh, and syncitium is the name he gave to the whole. The hyphae (strands) of many fungi are syncitial: long open cellular tubes with multiple nuclei but no internal cell walls, as opposed to one cell-controlling nucleus per partitioned-off cell. This seems to be the sense in which Stross uses the term.
Thompson hack: a type of back door (security hole) in a computer program which is undetectable even by examining the source code because it is introduced by the compiler, which itself contains this type of back door. See wikipedia:Backdoor_(computing)#Reflections_on_Trusting_Trust.
timing channel attack: An attack against an encryption scheme based on measuring the time taken to execute different operations.
Turing Oracle: A method for determining whether a given program ever halts. There is no algorithm to do this. Access to a Turing Oracle is near-godlike computing power. For instance, one could prove Fermat's Last Theorem (or almost any other theorem) by writing a program that tries all possible x, y, z, and n until it finds a solution of x^n+y^n=z^n, then asking the Turing Oracle whether the program will ever find a solution. It would also factor large integers, fold proteins, etc.
Turing Test: Proposal for a way to judge whether a computer is intelligent, proposed by Alan Turing in 1950. See wikipedia:Turing Test.
uploading: The transfer of a mind to a computer. For more information see wikipedia:mind transfer.
van Eck radiation: The electromagnetic emissions of a computer display or processor, the act of detecting and reconstructing which is known as van Eck phreaking, in a form of electronic eavesdropping. See wikipedia:van Eck radiation, wikipedia:Cryptonomicon.
van Eck, W. (1985). Electromagnetic Radiation from Video Display Units: An Eavesdropping Risk. Computers & Security (link)
Variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket: The variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket (VASIMR) is a hypothetical form of spacecraft propulsion that uses radio waves and magnetic fields to accelerate a propellant. See wikipedia:Variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket.
The scientist and astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz created VASIMR.
Wunch one of the minor villains of the book, are described as the elements of a run-amok financial institution, roughly termed "economics 2.0". It is likely that the Wunch are so named as a wikipedia:spoonerism play on "wunch of bankers."
Units of time
Since measuring time in units like days, months, and years are of limited usefulness in regions not on the planet Earth, one often sees the usage of time measures based on the second, such as megaseconds or gigaseconds. As most people aren't used to thinking in these units, conversions are listed here to and from the more conventional units.
See also wikipedia:Orders of magnitude (time).
Second-style -> conventional
- 1 kilosecond: 16.7 minutes
- 1 megasecond: 11.6 days
- 1 gigasecond: 32 years
- 1 terasecond: 32,000 years
- 1 petasecond: 32,000,000 years
- 1 light second: 299,792,458 metres (not actually a unit of time)
Conventional -> second-style
- 1 hour: 3.6 kiloseconds
- 1 Earth day: 86.4 kiloseconds
- 1 week: 604.8 kiloseconds
- 1 Earth month (30 days): 2.6 megaseconds
- 1 Earth year: 31.6 megaseconds
- 1 century: 3.16 gigaseconds
Part 1: Slow Takeoff
Chapter 1: Lobsters
Chapter 1 introduces two similar, but clearly separate, concepts that apply to various characters throughout the remainder of the book: metacortices and exocortices. Though etymologically similar, the two are quite different--the former, in effect, being composed in various ways of the latter. An EXOcortex can best be described as the portion of a trans- or posthuman entity's brain (or cortex) which exists outside of that entity's primary computing structure, usually the brain inhabiting a person's "meatbody." For example, a person's exocortex could very well be composed of all the external memory modules, processor, and devices that the person's biological brain interacts with on a realtime basis, thereby in effect making those external devices a functional part of the individual's "mind." A METAcortex, on the other hand, is a processing construction built entirely out of the connections between other processing constructions--a sort of "higher brain" composed of lesser brains, all of which contribute to its functionality.
A simple metaphor taken from contemporary IT describes this distinction nicely. Any technology you, as an individual, use to magnify or supplement your brain's natural functionality on a daily basis can be considered components of your EXOcortex; for example, a desktop and/or laptop computer...or even a pocket calculator! These devices, however, are almost certainly networked with millions of similar devices (other folks' computers/servers/etc.) via the Internet--which, as a collective processing and data-storage organ, can be considered a METAcortex encompassing but also transcending (in functionality) the sum of all its parts.
Manny refers to his robot pet cat as "his aineko." This is a bastardized Japanese word meaning "pet cat" (the correct Japanese would be "aibyō" (愛猫); the second character can be read as either "neko" or "byō", but in this context, the latter is correct). The word is a nice pun on top of "AI neko" or "AI cat", as Manny does use the cat as a storage of PDA-like information, and "ai" can also mean "love". The name is also an apparent reference to the Sony Aibo (a name that can be read several ways, but means "pet robot").
Chapter 2: Troubadour
As he arrives at the Luton airport at the beginning of the chapter, Manny makes an offhand reference to President Santorum's America, most likely referring to a future in which a decadent U.S. is presided by current (as of the book's writing) chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, Rick Santorum (of homosexual controversy fame).
Chapter 3: Tourist
widespread public paranoia about limbic spam
The limbic system is a group of brain structures involved in various emotions such as aggression, fear, pleasure and also in the formation of memory. Presumably limbic spam would be unwanted signals which delivers a stimulus directly to this area for advertising purposes.
A clear reference to the Pointy-Haired Boss of Dilbert comics.
Should have known you'd read Vinge
Part 2: Point of Inflection
Chapter 4: Halo
Chapter 5: Router
Hyundai +4904/-56 is a brown dwarf discovered around 2010 by an infrared deep scan, moving quickly with respect to the stellar neighborhood of the Sun. Amber Macx and her friends journey to Hyundai +4904/-56 following the discovery of a "router" orbiting the star. The router is a wormhole in a galactic network.
pocket universe (usage: "arguments proliferate indefinitely in the pocket universe of the ship") in the context, the ship is merely a container, with the crew/passengers being pure software; they and their chosen environment(s) are simulations run in real-time upon the computing matrix this is the entirety of the cargo/hull ("simulation space populated by upload minds").
cultural delta can be loosely described as the rate of change imposed upon culture/society by the speed and depth of new technology; for a small population semi-isolated from the main body of society, it is a reflection that no matter how hip and intelligent any given group could be, it is impossible for a 'small town' to be as creative as a 'large city';
fork repeatedly is what malware such as a virus would do upon penetration; ceaselessly duplicate itself until running out resources (primarily RAM); if expressed as a cliché, it would be: "when you reach a fork in the road, take both". See Wikipedia:Fork (operating system), and the attack itself is called a Wikipedia:Fork bomb
starwhisp (Originally spelled starwisp by the coiner of the term, Robert L. Forward) being a class of human-built space exploration probes; the name is intended to suggest the relative size (small) and mass (low--generally of the order of grams, or at most, a few kilograms) when compared to such fictional behemoths as the USS Enterprise.
immortagens (context: "cheap immortagens")
adjuvants (context: "out-of-control personality adjuvants") See Wikipedia:Adjuvant.
watchdog thread It is common in embedded computing to have a watchdog timer. This timer must be serviced periodically by the main program, or else it will force a reset of the system. This is to prevent bugs in the main program which would normally hang the system.
web of trust Wikipedia:Web of trust
Basilisk attacks are based on a concept popularized by British SF author David Langford. A basilisk is a visual representation which causes harm (usually death) by triggering a thought which the human brain is physically or logically incapable of thinking.
Chapter 6: Nightfall
Part 3: Singularity
Chapter 7: Curator
Utility fog Nanobots with extending arms reaching in several different directions, and can perform lattice reconfiguration. Utility fog is sometimes thought of as a nanotechnological version of the Swiss Army Knife. Utility fog
Chapter 8: Elector
God bothering (applied theological engineering) probably refers to the use of technology in the act of prayer. A god in this case would be a post-human, and this bothering would be an attempt to get the god's attention. An example might be a DDOS attack.
Nono, god bothering means bothering people in an attempt to infect them with your particular religious meme! No wonder it should be the greatest crime of the future when even murder is allowed, because once infected it's almost impossible to rescue people from this!
eigensister? Alternate states later collapsing. So two shades - duplicate mindstates - of the same person sent to experience different things and later converging on each other would be eigensisters. When they merged they would presumably collapse into a single state. Which seems non-trivial.