Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dateline: Lincoln, Nebraska

Two items:
  1. US Customs officials continue to ably occupy the niche of gate-keeping trolls with tiny dicks and/or withered vaginas, who seem to think that people might actually want to stay in their miserable dick-ass country a day longer than absolutely necessary.
  2. Nature has accepted another story of mine for their ongoing "Futures" series. This one's called "Hillcrest v. Velikovksy", and it draws its inspiration from this entry here.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

Gone to Ground

Packing now, to spend a month at a field research station in the so-called "Tornado Alley" of Nebraska — which is a nice coincidence, as those at last Thursday's reading will attest to the presence of a strong tornadoey element in the opening of the new novel. But I'm mainly just heading out to do some writing in a bona-fide desert environment (which also figures prominently in said novel), and to hang out with a buddy who's doing research for a nonfiction book of his own. (And oddly enough, even buddies doing research for nonfiction books of their own factor into the plot of the new novel.) (Yes, it's true. This new novel is really going to suck.)

I will be at the Cedar Point Biological Station, somewhere around here:

I think I'm even supposed to give a talk or something. If your plane happens to crash in Lake Ogallala over the next month, drop on by.


Friday, April 25, 2008

For Those Who Could Not Be With Us Last Night...

First, I am pleased and proud to announce that the Toronto Public Library does not overtly censor its public-access Internet terminals. True, if you enter "doggie snuff porn" or "bukkake" into the library's default search engine you get only a single hit — which, when clicked on, boots you into an endless log-in loop that keeps asking for password and ID until you get tired and go away. However, if you simply enter Google's URL directly into the nav bar you can bypass that entirely and wallow in all the sploogy, sour-cream-dip Asian wonderfulness that you desire. (I should mention for the record that I didn't even know what "bukkake" was until introduced to the term last night by a buddy who, perhaps wisely, does not appear to have an online presence I can link to.)

Anyway, you might wonder what I was doing testing the limits of the TPL's nannyware in the first place. I was killing time in the hope that more people might show up to my fucking reading if I gave it a few more minutes. It actually worked, kind of. The room was small but reasonably full — maybe, what, 20? 25? or am I flattering myself? — and not counting Bakkanalia and library staff I'd only met four of the attendees before. Of course, when I asked up front how many of the audience had even heard of me, a good chunk of the room put their hands up; I'm guessing that my hosts might have rounded them up with tasers for a spot of the ol' community service. On the other hand, most of the rest not only knew who I was, but had read most of my stuff. To reward them for their loyalty I read a previously unreleased bit of Dumbspeech. Then, since this was after all part of a larger, federally-funded effort promoting Canadian speculative fiction, I threw in "The Eyes of God". It has all the explicit Canadiana anyone would want: priests, pedophilia, a trip to the Northwest Territories, Westjet pimping the intrusive mindreading technology of multinational conglomerates, and the kind of if - you - don't - have - anything - to - hide - you - shouldn't - mind - this - camera - in - your - bathroom mindset that our current lawnorder government was so fond of before the RCMP busted them for cheating on the last election.

Afterwards a few of us went for beer, during which part of the discussion centered around whether Starfish or Maelstrom would translate better to film. I'm still of the opinion that a faithful Maelstrom movie might be a bit like watching a Terminator film in which every one of the stats and tactical overlays shown from the T-eye's view is essential to the plot. One of my companions mentioned the late Stanley Kubrick's opinion that the best movie adaptations are based on books with the least amount of actual plot, and suggested that Starfish would therefore be an ideal candidate. I decided then and there that I would not be paying my share of the tab that night.

Then there was the cab drive home, in which it was decided that the best way to present Starfish would be as "Starfish! The Musical!", featuring the hit dance numbers "Cold Fish" and "Daddy Does Me Best".

This morning I woke up sick. I'm sure there's no connection.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Audio Art

Blindsight is coming out as an audiobook from Recorded Books; check out the cover art by Leonard Likas (© Recorded Books, LLC):

Notice anything unusual for a Watts-type book? Notice anything unusual for a story set a half light-year from the nearest star, set in the dark and shadowy borderlands of interstellar space?

Notice the rich, radiant colors? WTF?

Well, Leonard took his lead from the synesthesiac's eye. There's a brief scene near the end of Blindsight where we get a hint of what Sarasti or Michelle might see if they looked outside, and it's beautiful. So's this artwork: an inventive departure from the usual dark, glum Wattsiness, and a nice addition to the Gallery.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

One Down, One to Go

The Toronto Public Library's Big Honking Series On Speculative Fiction kicked off last night, as promised, with a panel discussion between Jim Gardiner, Karl Schroeder, and myself, with Mike Skeet proving more than up to the task as moderator. It was pretty well-attended, if I do say so myself. And it was fun. We kicked around many ideas, we took many questions from the audience, and — best of all — we did it all at the expense of the Canada Council, whose disdain (nay, even hatred) for skiffy is the stuff of legend. I don't know how the TPL managed to slip this one under their radar — maybe the Council was lulled by the strategic use of the word "heritage" in the series title — but when they find out I bet they'll be spinning in their elbow-patched tweeds.

Afterwards a bunch of us adjourned to a nearby faux-Irish pub that had a Monday special on hamburgers and karaoke (although when challenged, they could not provide the track for Thick as a Brick. I sang it anyway.) I reconnected with some folks I'd met at SciBarCamp the month before (although, sadly, not Leona Lutterodt, who took this picture:)

It was a good night, and I shall cling to its memory, for my next appearance is unlikely to be quite so popular. It is way out in the boonies, you see ("The Bitches", as we in TO refer to them), and it is not a Grand Opening but only a reading, and the stage will not be festooned with four skiffy authors but only with me. I shall read. (The vampire-domestication talk is off the table, because it's been a couple of years since I've given it and I've been too busy to dust it off and rehearse.)

Just what I end up reading is up to the audience. I have a meaty little excerpt from a novel-in-progress, never before posted, never before seen by human eyes. I could premiere it out in the Beaches, if enough people in the audience already know my other stuff and want to hear something new. Or, in the more likely event that the audience is only there because they mistakenly thought that Avril Lavigne was going to be signing autographs and who is this Watts doofus anyway, I might just stick with old standards from my other novels because it'll all be new to them anyway. In either case I'll probably round out the evening with a recent short story or two.

So, for those of you who are a) local, and b) suckers for the obvious low-status manipulation I went for in the previous paragraph, here are the details:

Thursday, April 24, 7pm
Beaches Branch, Toronto Public Library
2161 Queen St. East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1J1
(northeast corner of Kew Gardens: map and further details here)

Come. There will be cake.

But we all know what that means.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

I Couldn't have Said it Better Myself

Trudeau Was Wrong

The universe is not unfolding as it should. It is merely unfolding as it always has.

It was a nice dream while it lasted: a grass-roots campaign, launched and promoted by the scientific community, supported by Nobel Laureates, endorsed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, pimped on science blogs far and wide: a debate among the three presidential candidates on science policy. Because word has it that science and technology might have some small amount of impact on, you know, the future of our fucking species. Just maybe.

And all three candidates have declined the invitation. Oh, Clinton and Obama tripped all over themselves signing up for a televised debate on "Faith and Values", of course, but then, faith is pretty much what you want it to be. You can make any statement you want, with no fear that some uppity chick with too many letters after her name is going to jump up and say Actually, we got the data on that, we did a multilinear regression and it got an radj.2 of 0.82 with P<0.0001,and according to those numbers God actually doesn't want you to put retarded children in the electric chair. That's the main reason faith sucks, actually.

Science is a whole different ball game. You shoot from the lip on climate change or El Nino and some guy who's spent his whole life studying the subject is liable to set you straight. And that's the thing about politicians. They don't like it much when it’s obvious that they're not the smartest ones in the room. (I rather suspect this is why Stephen Harper is such an intensely private man.)

I didn't expect McCain to go for it. He'd probably lose support if any of his base thought he had any respect for science. Clinton, well, we all knew she'd avoid it if she could, but there was hope she'd be shamed into it just to keep up with Obama. And Obama? The dude throws out enough curves (and catches enough of those aimed at his head) that he might have just gone for it.

But no. Once again, the status quo reigns supreme.

Fuck all of them. May drug-resistant syphilis saturate their bloodlines, may their genitals wither and drop off. You especially, Obama. You alone offered hope for real change, you alone made the unrepentant realists among us think Hell, if that guy is making it work, maybe we can turn this thing around after all. You actually made an optimist out of me, for a little while. And because of that, you suck harder than all the rest.

You're still way better than the alternatives, granted. But that's a pretty low bar to clear.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Living in the Past.

Most of you here have read Blindsight. Some of you have made it almost to the end. A few have even got as far as the references (I know this, because some of you have asked me questions about them). And so you might remember that old study Libet did back in the nineties, in which it was shown that the body begins to act on a decision a full half-second before the conscious self is aware of having made the decision. A lot of Blindsight's punchline hung on this discovery— because obviously, whatever calls an action into being must precede it. Cause and effect. Hence, the johnny-come-lately sense of conscious volition is bogus. We are not in control. I mean, really: a whole half a second.

Half a second? Chun Siong Soon and his buddies piss on Libet's half a second. Nature Neuroscience just released a study that puts Libet's puny electrodes to shame; turns out the brain is making its decisions up to ten full seconds (typically around seven) before the conscious self "decides" to act.

Ten whole seconds. That's longer than the attention span of a sitting president.

It all comes down to stats. Soon et al took real-time fMRI recordings of subjects before, during, and after a conscious "decision" was made; then they went back and looked for patterns of brain activity prior to that "decision" that correlated with the action that ultimately occurred. What they found was a replicable pattern of brain activity that not only preceded the decision by several seconds, but which also correlated with the specific "decision" made (click a button with the right or the left hand). (Interestingly, these results differ from Libet's insofar as subjects reported awareness of their "decision" prior to the activation of the motor nerves, not afterwards. Whereas Libet's results suggested that action precedes conscious "decision"-making by a very brief interval, Soon et al's suggest that actual decision-making precedes conscious "decision"-making by a much longer one. Bottom line is the same in each case, though: what we perceive as "our" choice has already been made before we're even aware of the options.)

This isn't exactly mind reading. Soon and his buds didn't find a circuit that explicitly controls button-pressing behavior or anything. All they found was certain gross patterns of activity which correlated with future behavior. But we could not read that information if the information wasn't there; in a very real sense, your brain must know what it's going to do long before you do.

Obviously this can't be the whole story. If the lag between processing and perception was always that long, we would feel no sense of personal agency at all. It's one thing to think that you told your muscles to leap from the path of an approaching bus when the time discrepancy is a measly 400 millisecs; but not even organisms with our superlative denial skills could pretend that we were in control if our bodies had leapt clear ten seconds before it even occurred to us to move. So I would think this is more proof-of-principal than day-in-the-life. Still. As IO9 points out, given these results, how long before we can do without that stupid conscious part of us entirely?

Wired's online coverage is a bit more defensive. They bend over backwards to leave open some possibility of free will, invoking the hoary old "maybe free will acts as a veto that lets us stop the unconscious decision." But that's bogus, that's recursive: if consciousness only occurs in the wake of subconscious processing (and how could it be otherwise? How can we think anything before the thinking neurons have fired?), then the conscious veto will have the same kind of nonconscious precursors as the original intent. And since that information would be available sooner at the nonconscious level, it once again makes more sense to leave the pointy-haired boss out of the loop entirely.

But I'm going to take a step back and say that everyone here is missing the point. Neither this study nor Libet's really addressed the question of free will at all. Neither study asked whether the decision-making process was free; they merely explored where it was located. And in both cases, the answer is: in the brain. But the brain is not you: the brain is merely where you live. And you, oh conscious one, don't make those decisions any more than a kidney fluke filters blood.

(Oh, and I've figured out who the Final Cylon is. For real this time. Romo Lambkin's cat.)

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Music is a drug

At least, the endorphin receptors in my head are still buzzing madly almost an hour after the encore ended. I kind of lost touch with Oysterband back in the early nineties, when they decided no one was listening to their lyrics anyway so they might as well just have fun and do covers of I Fought the Law. Except I was damn well listening to their lyrics, and their music, and I always thought I Fought the Law blew goats. So I went away.

But evidently that was just a phase, because I just saw them and it was the best fucking concert I've been to in years. The mix and the acoustics were as clean as a studio recording, except they were right there, live, in front of our table. The new tunes were great, the old ones lovingly rendered, and even the cover they did sneak in — the ancient traditional John Barleycorn — was an electric revelation in close harmony with massive percussion.

I tell you, the UK grows the best groups...

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dying with Dignity

Anna Davour, a Post-doc out of Queen's, has been hitting up various sf authors for informal bloggable interviews. This week was my moment in the sun. I say some nice things about the Sarah Connor Chronicles, and repeat my usual grumbling about Firefly.

And if you're not satisfied with mere wordage— if any of you feel the need to encounter me face-to-face, if only to see for yourselves whether my headphones are surgically attached— it looks like I'll be emerging from my hole to participate in something called the "Canada Council Heritage Series of Speculative Fiction", being hosted by the Toronto Public Library over the next few weeks. I'm not entirely sure what the whole program consists of (the TPL's website is mum on the subject so far, and my contract is evidently in the mail), but I'm going to be showing up on two occasions: the official kick-off on April 21, and a somewhat darker event on the 24th.

Here is what I know: the kick-off is a group affair involving fellow skifscribes Karl Schroeder and Michael Skeet, and probably someone else TBA James Alan Gardner. It's happening at The Lillian H. Smith branch ( 239 College St. Toronto, Ontario, M5T 1R5) between 7:00 and 9:30pm. I was asked to suggest a possible theme, with the caveat that there had to be some kind of Canadian angle; I suggested "Embracing Apocalypse: How Canadian SF Can Help Us Die with Dignity", and was gently told that no such title would ever be allowed on a TPL poster. As of this writing the title has been changed to "Embracing the Future: How Canadian SF Can Help Us Embrace the Future".

Yeah, I know. It sucks like Cygnus. I disown it utterly. But at the very least it'll give me something to complain about right off the bat. Could be an effective icebreaker, assuming I don't care if these guys ever invite me back again.

The second event is All Me, and is being held from 7:00-8:15pm at The Beaches branch (that's 2161 Queen St. E. Toronto, Ont. M4L 1J1). I'm not entirely sure what I'll be doing there. It was originally suggested that I give a live performance of the Vampire Domestication talk, but I don't know how well something like that would go over with a non-sf audience. I've only delivered it twice live, both at cons, and while it killed both times the con-goer sensibility isn't entirely conventional. I'm not particularly concerned about whether a more mainstream audience would be offended, mind you; I just don't know if they'd get it. So maybe I should just do a more conventional reading— a short story, maybe an excerpt from a novel-in-progress. Assuming my stories aren't to even more peculiar tastes than the talk would be.

Any suggestions? Reading or talk? If reading, any suggestions as to content? Help me out here.

Update 11/4/08: The event is now listed at the TPL website. They are hosting a lot of events for this thing. And I notice that they've explicitly stated that I'll not only be reading, but reading from Blindsight. Which is not something I've actually decided yet, so for the time being let's just act as though someone jumped the gun, and continue on with the whole what-should-Peter-do thread. (OTOH, they are the ones writing the cheque, so if it turns out that they do strongly desire a Blindsight reading, that's what they get.)


I am a Sad Pathetic Man

I dreamed last night that I kept hitting on Katee Sackhoff, and she kept turning me down. That's right: Starbuck, the antiMikey of sexual cereals, wouldn't even give me the time of day in my dreams.

But I'm not going to go with the obvious subtext here, because I am desperate to give my imagination credit for more subtlety. What it's really telling me to do, I think, is to start collecting Return-of-Starbuck theories, and to do it soon before IO9 ruins all the speculation with one of their spoiler strafing runs.

So. Starbuck theories. Place them here.


Friday, April 4, 2008


Inspired by the synergy of my own stuffed, crusty, raw red nose and the long-awaited return of Battlestar Galactica (and if you haven't seen the season premiere yet, what are you wasting time here for? Get onto BitTorrent and start downloading right fucking now, do you hear me?), I am reminded of this little tech item sent courtesy of Alistair Blachford from UBC: the importance of mucous for the optimal functioning of robot noses. It seems that snot is essential to trap and distribute airborne molecules so they can be properly parsed by olfactory sensors. And that in turn reminds me of this earlier article from Science, which reports that sweat might also be an integral part of robot makeup, since evaporative cooling can double the power output of robot servos. The same paper reviews current research in the development of artificial muscles. I wonder how many more wet and sticky and downright organismal traits are going to prove desirable and efficient for our robot overlords. Is it possible that fleshy terminators and death-fetish replicants and even hot Cylon chicks look and taste and feel like us not merely for infiltration purposes, but because form follows function? Do the best robots look like us? Are we the best robots?

Not in every way, I hope. The best robots gotta have better arch support. And it wouldn't kill them to put their visual cabling behind the photoreceptors for a change.

Oh, and those wisdom teeth have got to go.

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