Monday, January 26, 2009

The Migration of the 'Crawl

Fellow Mammals:

If all goes well, this will be my last posting on blogger. I have heard your grumbles. I have overheard the prayers offered on my behalf when I went to blogger in the first place. I have taken pity on those of failing eyesight, for whom stark white-on-black is not the nifty-cool computer-screen font I remember from sixties science fiction films, but a migraine-inducing poke in the eyes. (I have taken pity on these folks even though a couple of on-site polls showed that the vast majority of you thought that white-on-black was pretty cool.)

Henceforth I'm here, at Wordpress, along with my past postings and your comments. The new 'crawl is still a work in progress— I haven't tweaked the sidebars, tags, etc. yet— and there's still a lot to do behind the scenes. But the words are there, and the pictures, and that's where you'll find fresh content as of now. I'll be leaving this site active for a while as a backup in case things over at Wordpress go south, and as a signpost for stragglers. But once again:

The Crawl Has Moved. Set your bookmarks to

I'll see you at the new digs.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Rip-Off Alert

Regular visitors to know that most of the stuff I've ever published is freely available in a variety of e-formats on this site (and on some others). I'm a bit worried that this may not be a sustainable approach over the long haul (especially in times of global economic meltdown), but so far the counterintuitive-yet-undeniable truth is that going the Creative Commons route has only helped my writing career, such as it is. (In fact, I believe CC actually saved my career outright, by rescuing Blindsight from the oblivion to which it would have otherwise been doomed.) Anyone who wants to can download my work, copy and distribute it, convert it to other formats, hand it out as party favors, and masturbate in a warm tub to the soft erotic glow of my pixelated words on their e-book readers. Yay me.

There are some restrictions on this license, however. Authorship must be attributed, regardless of format. You're not allowed to rewrite the text, even you think the torture porn was gratuitous in behemoth and you know you can make Blindsight's infodumps less clunky. And you cannot charge money for work that I created and for which you paid nothing. (Or at least, you come to me first and we work out a deal where I get a cut.) The rights granted under my Creative Commons license are strictly noncommercial.

You can imagine, then, my reaction upon discovering this doofus here, selling "The Ultimate Peter Watts Collection" for £4.99 over at The fact that he describes my short stories as "books" makes it pretty obvious this is no fan; he probably hasn't read a word of my stuff, and is in fact selling the works of numerous other authors as well.

Anyone willing to pay for the Ultimate Watts Omnibus will most likely have already dropped by here and taken what they want, so it's not as though I expect e-bookkeeper_norwich to get rich off my efforts. Still, it burns my ass that he's even trying to; so if any of you have an account and ten minutes to kill, maybe you could report norwich-boy using eBay's handy on-line fink menu. (I myself lack that option, having no such account — although I may well report through more formal channels over the next few days).

No biggie. But what an asshole.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

And now for a word from our sponsor...

Anyone out there know someone in Toronto with a used treadmill (or elliptical trainer, I guess) to unload for a reasonable price? I can always go the Craigslist route, but I'd rather do business with someone one of you folks personally vouched for. It's important to have someone other than me to blame, in the event I get hosed.



Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ogling Obama, Defending Dubya

It's pretty hard to escape a feeling of pervasive optimism today. We have witnessed perhaps the first-ever presidential inaugural address to contain the phrase "data and statistics". We heard Obama add "nonbelievers" to the usual Christian-Jew-Muslim litany trotted out in deference to the diversity of the melting pot. We heard the most powerful noncorporate person on the planet speak of harnessing the sun and the wind, heard him describe "curiosity" as one of the traditional values that makes the US great. The Unites States welcomed, in a sense, its very first science-fiction president.

Providing some kind of counterpoint to all this sunlight and joy will be a difficult and thankless job, but I shall do my best.

I could go for the downright petty— dude, you delivered that glorious, extended, soaring speech without missing a beat but you flubbed the bloody oath of office? But no. Unlike his predecessor, Obama is no dyslexic doofus: he was probably thinking, as those words were being read out, that maybe they could stand an edit, a nip and tuck, that they could be improved. Maybe he stumbled over those words because he was too busy rewriting them in his head.

I could go after the hypocrisy of the celebration itself: given a trillion-dollar deficit, does the US really need two dozen official inaugural balls? Where are those who were so vocal when the auto execs flew to their bailout hearings in private jets? At least they weren't spending taxpayer dollars (at least, not yet). How many such flights could have been funded with the money that went into "The Hope Youth Ball" and "A Celebration of Change"?

But again, no: Judas Iscariot raised pretty much the same point when Mary of Magdala blew her wad on perfume for Jesus' feet, and the Christ's rejoinder was succinct and to the point: fuck the poor. They will always be with you. Dote on me instead, because I won't be. If that response was good enough for Jesus, I'm guessing it's got the event planners covered as well.

Besides, as I may have mentioned, this is a day for optimism. So I choose to celebrate the administration to come with a fond look at the administration just passed. I would raise a toast to the Cheney/Bush era: perhaps the most successful U.S. presidency evar.

This may strike some as an odd position to take. After all, the Cheney/Bush years saw the world's most powerful nation descend from surplus into trillion-dollar deficit; saw the prosecution of two unnecessary and (so far) unsuccessful wars; saw the evisceration of civil rights at home and US reputation abroad, the gutting of environmental protection, the relentless remorseless grinding of science beneath the heel of political expediency, and— finally, inevitably— the meltdown of a global economy based, even at the best of times, on consensual hallucination. And yet, criticizing that administration for these things is akin to deriding me as a shitty writer because my novels don't appeal to fundamentalist Christians. You don't impugn the archer for missing the bullseye when he was aiming for a deer; success must be judged against the intended goal.

It's always been pretty clear that Cheney et al never gave a flying fuck about international stature, environmental health, or the welfare of the middle class. Bush's role was never to govern. He was a diversion and a catspaw, the inbred idiot nephew placed on the throne by those safely hidden in undisclosed locations. His job was to dance and caper and keep us from noticing the guys out back, loading up the truck. So if you really want to measure the success of his presidency, this is what you ask: how did Halliburton do during the past eight years? How did Blackwater fare? What about the oil industry, did their fortunes plummet since Bush assumed the position?

We are talking, my friends, about an administration that accomplished exactly what it set out to do, leaving behind a cost that will be borne entirely by others. One has little choice but to stand back and marvel at the sheer scale of this accomplishment. The dearly-departed administration is the very epitome of Darwinian Nature: ruthless, self-interested, and with no foresight whatsoever.

Here's to you, Dick. The degree to which you'll not be missed speaks volumes of your own success.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Consider Yourselves Lucky.

In this particular business, the standard components of a novel pitch are the first three chapters plus two, maybe three pages of synopsis for the rest of the story. The pitch I just sent to my agent— the latest iteration thereof, at least— contains 36 pages of prose; 27 pages of "synopsis"; a two-page bullet-pointed executive summary of thematic arguments; and proposed jacket text, to be splayed across the dust cover if/when this fucker actually sells.

This is easily ten times the word count of the supplementary material usually attached to these things. My agent originally tried to get me to keep it to the usual three pages, and I complied, I really did. It's just that when one tries to synopsize one of my novels in three pages, the result is utterly incomprehensible. (The smart-asses in the audience may now point out that this only proves that such synopses perfectly capture the essential nature of my writing.) So, our experiment complete, the dude let me off the leash and dear God is he about to pay for it.

The rest of you get off easy. I'm only quoting my proposed jacket text here, because I think that it actually does do a decent job of hooking the story in the time it takes to run your eyes down a dust-jacket. (I've been writing my own jacket text for a while now; remind me to show you, some day, some of the fortune-cookie hack jobs Tor tried to slap on my books before I got involved.) So here, in 400 words or less, is the thumbnail for Dumbspeech:
A Different Kind of Singularity.

The eve of the 22nd century. A world where the dearly-departed send postcards back from Heaven, and Jainist evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically-engineered vampires solve problems intractable to baseline Humans, and soldiers come with zombie switches that shut off their own self-awareness during combat. A world under blatant surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself.

Daniel Brooks is a living fossil: an old man in a world of immortals, a field biologist in a world where all biology has long since turned computational, an unwitting catspaw used by terrorists to kill thousands. Taking refuge in the Oregon desert, he turns his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies with every heartbeat. But he isn't hiding from anything; he awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that's about to turn all of history inside-out.

Now he's trapped in a ship bound for the center of the solar system. To his left is a grief-stricken soldier with a zombie switch in his head, obsessed by whispered messages from a dead son half a lightyear away. To his right is an autistic hacker who hasn't quite discovered that Dan Brooks is the man she's sworn to kill on sight. A vampire and its entourage of zombie bodyguards lurk in the shadows behind. And dead ahead, a handful of rapture-stricken monks takes them all to a meeting with something they will only call "The Angels of the Asteroids".

But whatever they encounter, there in the blinding maelstrom above the sun's north pole, is the furthest thing from anyone's vision of divinity. By the end of their pilgrimage the whole world is coming apart at the seams— and Dan Brooks, the fossil man, is face-to-face with the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought itself.

The Singularity's here. It's too late to go back. And all those starry-eyed optimists, the extropians, the transhumanists, the rapture-nerds and technophiles who sang the praises of technology=magic — somehow, none of them realized there'd be no room for humanity in a post-human age …

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Friday, January 9, 2009

I Hate the New Normal.

Tendonitis, they tell me: chronic, and calcified, and apparently dating from the time I dislocated my shoulder while surf-kayaking in 1991. Now, after almost two decades of peaceful dormancy the fucker decides to wake up and turn me into the One-Armed Wonder throughout the holidays— apparently provoked by too many lame-ass bench presses and one catalytic arm-flail while avoiding a faceplant on sheer ice.

It's gotten a lot better on its own over the past couple of weeks, but now appears to have stabilized in Forget all about me until you try doing an exercise and then I will fuck you up mode. Physio, they say, should take off the edge, but I may still have to change my exercise regimen. Bad enough that we're in the depths of that part of the year known as "The Plumpening"; now I've got stalagmites gumming up my rotator cuff. Fuck.

By the way, who was it that left their pants behind on my couch during Squiddance '08? The navy-blue ones with the really skinny legs and some kind of big fabric evagination where the scrotum should be?

Whoever it was, you can pick 'em up any time.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Iterating Towards Bethlehem

Most of you probably know about Turing machines: hypothetical gizmos built of paper punch-tape, read-write heads, and imagination, which can — step by laborious step — emulate the operation of any computer. And some of you may be old enough to remember the Sinclair ZX-80— a sad little personal computer so primitive that it couldn't even run its video display and its keyboard at the same time (typing would cause the screen to go dark). Peer into the darkness between these artifacts, stir in a little DNA, and what do you get?

This hairy little spider right here. A pinpoint brain with less than a million neurons, somehow capable of mammalian-level problem-solving. And just maybe, a whole new approach to cognition.

This is an old story, and a popsci one, although I've only discovered it now (with thanks to Sheila Miguez) in a 2006 issue of New Scientist. I haven't been able to find any subsequent reports of this work in the primary lit. So take it with a grain of salt; as far as I know, the peer-reviewers haven't got their talons into it yet. But holy shit, if this pans out…

Here's the thumbnail sketch: we have here a spider who eats other spiders, who changes her foraging strategy on the fly, who resorts to trial and error techniques to lure prey into range. She will brave a full frontal assault against prey carrying an egg sac, but sneak up upon an unencumbered target of the same species. Many insects and arachnids are known for fairly complex behaviors (bumblebees are the proletarian's archetype; Sphex wasps are the cool grad-school example), but those behaviors are hardwired and inflexible. Portia here is not so rote: Portia improvises.

But it's not just this flexible behavioral repertoire that's so amazing. It's not the fact that somehow, this dumb little spider with its crude compound optics has visual acuity to rival a cat's (even though a cat's got orders of magnitude more neurons in one retina than our spider has in her whole damn head). It's not even the fact that this little beast can figure out a maze which entails recognizing prey, then figuring out an approach path along which that prey is not visible (i.e., the spider can't just keep her eyes on the ball: she has to develop and remember a search image), then follow her best-laid plans by memory including recognizing when she's made a wrong turn and retracing her steps, all the while out of sight of her target. No, the really amazing thing is how she does all this with a measly 600,000 neurons— how she pulls off cognitive feats that would challenge a mammal with seventy million or more.

She does it like a Turing Machine, one laborious step at a time. She does it like a Sinclair ZX-80: running one part of the system then another, because she doesn't have the circuitry to run both at once. She does it all sequentially, by timesharing.

She'll sit there for two fucking hours, just watching. It takes that long to process the image, you see: whereas a cat or a mouse would assimilate the whole hi-res vista in an instant, Portia's poor underpowered graphics driver can only hold a fraction of the scene at any given time. So she scans, back and forth, back and forth, like some kind of hairy multilimbed Cylon centurion, scanning each little segment of the game board in turn. Then, when she synthesizes the relevant aspects of each (God knows how many variables she's juggling, how many pencil sketches get scribbled onto the scratch pad because the jpeg won't fit), she figures out a plan, and puts it into motion: climbing down the branch, falling out of sight of the target, ignoring other branches that would only seem to provide a more direct route to payoff, homing in on that one critical fork in the road that leads back up to satiation. Portia won't be deterred by the fact that she only has a few percent of a real brain: she emulates the brain she needs, a few percent at a time.

I wonder what the limits are to Portia's painstaking intellect. Suppose we protected her from predators1, and hooked her up to a teensy spider-sized glucose drip so she wouldn't starve. It takes her a couple of hours to capture a snapshot; how long will it take the fuzzy-legged little beauty to compose a sonnet?

Are we looking at a whole new kind of piecemeal, modular intellect here? And why the hell didn't I think of it first?

Update 9/1/08: Tarsitano & Jackson published these results in Animal Behaviour. Thanks to Kniffler for the heads-up

1 And isn't that a whole other interesting problem, how this little beast can sit contemplating her pedipalps for hours on end in a world filled with spider-eating predators? Do certain antipredator reflexes stay active no matter what, or does she just count on immobility and local cover to hide her ass while she's preoccupied with long-term planning? I'd love to see the cost-benefit of this tradeoff.

Portia photo: by Akio Tanikawa, scammed from Wikipedia under a CC licence.
Maze illo: scammed from New Scientist, under a nine-tenths-of-the-law licence.

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Picture Worth 178 Words

Some of you may remember this scene at the very end of Starfish — the moment when the chrysalis splits open and Lenie Clarke Mk 2 emerges to wreak vengeance on the world:
A slender, translucent tentacle wraps softly around her wrist. It fades away into a distance utterly black to most, slate gray to Lenie Clarke. She brings it to her. Its swollen tip fires sticky threads at her fingers.

She brushes it aside, follows the tentacle back through the water. She encounters other tentacles on the way, feeble, attenuate things, barely twitching against the currents. They all lead back to something long, and thick, and shadowy. She circles in. A great column of writhing, wormlike stomachs, pulsing with faint bioluminescence.

Revolted, she smashes at it with one clenched fist. It reacts immediately, sheds squirming pieces of itself that flare and burn like fat fireflies. The central column goes instantly dark, pulling into itself. It pulses, descends in spurts, slinking away under cover of its own discarded flesh. Clarke ignores the sacrificial tidbits and pursues the main body. She hits it again. Again. The water fills with pulsing dismembered decoys. She ignores them all, keeps tearing at the central column. She doesn't stop until there's nothing left but swirling fragments.
What I was describing, rs and Ks, was a siphonophore. And if my prose wasn't sufficiently evocative, I invite you to look over here, where the real thing squirms across YouTube for your edification. With thanks to Ken Tango for the link.

No dismemberment porn, though. If you want your 'phores battered and broken, I'm still your go-to guy.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

This is the Way the Year Begins

...Not with a Bang but with a Rant.

Christmastime in the Watts household has always been a time for impotent fury. It is a time to reconnect with old friends seen only during this special season, career biologists who stuck it out and stayed the course and got good steady jobs at universities and federal labs. It is a time to be reminded anew of the price these people pay for their steady paycheques: principles hammered into compromise, compromise flattened down to mushy unmitigated defeat, that grad-school spark of pure delight and scientific curiosity extinguished like a cigarette flushed down the john. It is a time to give thanks, to remember that there are worse fates than poverty; a time to look into the mirror and grin, because baby, you haven't changed.

But it is also a time to raise your voice and rant, because what good is science if its practitioners are forced to wear ball gags, lest they discover things our rulers don't want to hear?

Not so long ago, journalists in this country could actually communicate in a meaningful way with federal scientists. It would work something like this: a reporter would call up a scientist and ask about their research. The scientist — pleased beyond measure that someone else out of the global population of six-billion-plus was actually interested in the lachrymal secretions of herring gulls — would answer. The interview would appear in some newspaper or magazine. David Suzuki would get to be condescending on The Nature of Things. Everybody won.

Then we had an election, and a significant number of Canadians — not a majority by any means, but enough to make the difference — did what people en masse have been doing the world over since history began: they proved to be a bunch of fucking morons. So it came to pass that a sweaty, pallid, insecure, and not-especially bright politician of the neocon variety ascended to the throne. His name was Stephen Harper, and holy shit did he ever change things in a hurry.

For one thing, he tried to dismantle the Canadian Wildlife Service: that part of Environment Canada charged with wildlife habitat, endangered species, and various other conservation issues. He didn't succeed completely — historically the CWS has quite the international rep, and the Tories weren't expecting the backlash that resulted. So Harper settled for mere emasculation. Henceforth the CWS would not conduct "research". It would only be allowed to "monitor" wildlife. Real research would occur under the purview of — wait for it — "Wildlife and Landscape Science" (which is presumably also responsible for the topiary at the Prime Minister's residence, if not the actual Interior Decorating within it)1.

For some time now, federally-employed biologists have been given a script to read when approached by journalists in search of a story: "Thank you for your questions. I will be working with our media relations section and we will respond to you as soon as we can. Please direct any further inquiries to or call 819-934-8008/1-888-908-8008". Journalists are then required to send their questions to the Ministry of Truth Media Relations, who forward those questions they deem admissible on to the actual scientific authority. Said authority's written answers are then reviewed and edited by MR before being sent back to the journalist. On those rare occasions when the scientist is actually permitted to speak directly with his interviewer over the phone, Media Relations monitors the call, one restless finger on the kill switch lest their bitch stray from her assigned script.

This is what passes for scientific openness in the Harper government. And just last fall, we the people once again proved what idiots we are by reelecting this brain-dead shit-sack by an even bigger margin than we did the first time.

Of course, the censoring of science is hardly an exclusively Harperian, or even an exclusively Conservative activity. Canada's previous Liberal government also had a fondness for suppressing politically-inconvenient findings2. But while you'd expect all politicians to mistrust any endeavor based on fact-based empiricism, Harper's naked ideology crosses the line from pragmatic indifference to outright vendetta. The Clintons and Chretiens of the world merely bristle at research which impedes their political agendas. The Harpers and the Bushes, in contrast, seem to abhor science — seem to abhor intelligence — on general principles, unless it feeds directly into the engineering of petrochemical tech.

This is not news. It has, in fact, been going on for some time, and anyone familiar with the sad history of the U.S.'s Environmental Protection Agency is probably singing me a chorus of Cry me a river of tears, beaver-boy even as they read these words. But it is something we should be aware of, and stay aware of, until someone rids us of these troublesome priests.

Harper and Hallmark hope that you spent the past few weeks contemplating the birth of some mythical martyred bastard-child whose primary contribution to western civilization included such tyrant-friendly platitudes as Turn the other cheek and Render unto Caesar. I would ask you instead to think of more important matters. Friends in the machine visit me like the Ghosts of fucking Christmas Past, and remind me of the way we really do "science" in this benighted excuse for a civilized country. They won't object if I remind you in turn.

Just so long as I don't call them by name.

1You might wonder where one would draw the line between "research" and "monitoring". If so, you've got a better grasp of such concepts than Harper's own bean-counters, at least one of which tried to eliminate field work from the CWS's BC offices on the grounds that "You collected field data last year, and the year before. Why do you need to do it again this year?"

2I actually signed a petition protesting one such event, back in the mid-nineties. It was the only time my picture ever appeared on the front page of a major daily— front and center and above the fold, no less— and may have marked the most significant impact I ever made as a biologist. Think about that: scrawling my name on a piece of paper raised a louder noise than two decades of actual research on a variety of threatened, soon-to-be-threatened, and downright endangered species. Either the quality of my research was downright Palinesque or there's something seriously fucked about the way conservation issues are dealt with in this country.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Squiddance '08: Big Green, Big Screen

Just for the next little while I'm commandeering the 'crawl for social event planning, since not everyone is on facebook and I don't have the time to set up an actual forum. I assure you this will not become a habit. Local real estate values will be restored shortly.

In the meantime, though, this is how the next few days are looking:
  • Dec 27, noon through whenever: "Cowboy Bebop" (brought to you from Squeak & Death Ray's personal collection), which has to be the worst title since "Battlestar Galactica" but which is widely regarded to be one of the best animé series ever, and one which Joss Whedon is rumored to have ripped off when he made "Firefly". We're talking 26 episodes and a movie, so this is going to take all the 27th and a chunk of the 28th.
  • Dec 28, probably noon unless anyone is still sprawled across furniture from the night before, in which case we might just pick up earlier: the Conclusion of Bebop, followed by a variety of one-offs whose order depends on local interest: "Perfect Blue", "Jin Rah", and episodes of "The Venture Brothers" are all in contention. Robot Chicken's Star Wars specials may also make an appearance. If I dislike all these I may just commandeer the set and force everyone to watch Eraserhead.
  • Dec 29th: Must be seen to be believed. The first half of Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica, rendered in glorious hi-def, would be cause enough to make the trip. But we have an added bonus for you. For those who were a) too young, or b) have suppressed the memory, a series called "The Starlost" was made right here in Toronto back in the early seventies. It was created by Harlan Ellison, engaged the talents of Ben Bova as science adviser and Douglas Trumbull (2001, Silent Running) on special effects. Acting talent ran the gamut from Sterling Hayden to John Colicos. The premise was nothing short of brilliant, and it is widely and justly regarded as the worst science fiction series ever made. And now, courtesy of the private (and soon-to-be-banned) collection of horror writer David Nickle, we present the entire 16-episode run of this atrocity interspersed among episodes of BSG. Think of the day as a kind of parfait, layers of gold and shit interlaced for as long as we can withstand the psychological whiplash. I have no idea how long this experiment will last. Perhaps we'll get all the way through both sequences, or perhaps we'll run screaming for our pitchforks after five minutes of Rachel and Devon. We won't know until we try.
  • Dec. 30: no showings. I must be in Oakville to help dispose of the last possessions of my decrepit mother, in the wake of her relocation to the dumpster behind the Denny's on South Service Road
  • Dec 31: still wide open. Maybe we'll all be sated by then. Maybe we'll watch the Lord of the Rings, extended edition. Maybe we'll just spin the disks and watch Wall-e or Brazil or 2001: A Space Odyssey for the hundredth time. Or Dark Star if it downloads in time.
So that's the closest thing we have to an actual schedule. Everything is liable to change without notice. We may even deke hard right and do some gaming: at least Portal and Half-Life: The Lost Coast can be completed in a few hours, and they look pretty good on a 47" screen.

Logo credit: Madeline "Squeak" Ashby.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Crisis? What Crisis?

Sorry for the extended silence. Sorry also for the preponderance of personal over sciencey news lately, despite the many and varied worldchanging links you've been sending to get me back on the track (this recent study, for instance, which details a case of blindsight so extreme even I had to read it twice. Which is about once for every ten of you who forwarded the link.) Don't expect much to change over the holidays— I'm writing on painkillers with my arm in a sling, the usual combination of domestic obligations/complications is busy spiking the suicide rate as it always does at this time of year, and any postings over the next week are likely to be scheduling notes for Squiddance '08, which will be of no interest to anyone outside the GTA. (Although if you are in the area, you might want to drop by; the apartment is small, but both bed and TV are large.)

But I am going to thump my chest a wee bit here, because I have just learned something that is way too fucking cool to keep to just myself and whoever happened to be within four hundred meters of my surprised yelp upon hearing the news:

Blindsight is going to be a required text for a Biological Psychology course at the University of Miami.

It's not the first time my stuff has been taught in universities. Ever since Starfish I've been popping up here and there in courses on ethics, literature (well, mainly just science fiction, but it's Christmas; we can pretend it's literature) — even, in a bit of a coup, in an upcoming Philosophy-of-Mind course out in California (hi, Matt).

Philosophy, ethics, literature— cool, but not mind-boggling. Metaphor and thought experiment are right at home in the Humanities. But to require the reading of a work of unapologetic fiction in a science course? I don't know if that's ever happened before.

It's about to, though, thanks to a neuroscientist called Peter Stimson (originally from Duke)— who somehow seems to think that Blindsight's portrayal of various agnosias and pointy-haired homunculi serves as an apt introduction to the conundrum of self-awareness for his students. I've expressed pleasure in the past that my sheen of faux expertise has managed to fool so many of you over the years, but to have put one over on an actual practicing professional in the field leaves me deeply humbled. An extra 400 copies/year in sales doesn't hurt much, either.

Can it get any better? Why, yes; turns out the dude is also a big fan of Jethro Tull.

It's almost enough to make me forget that we're all about six months away from global anarchy.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Cornucopia of Covers; a Call-out for Cash

First up we have Alejandro Terán's Alienesque cover for the Spanish edition of Blindsight, coming out, oh, I don't know, probably next year sometime. Next we have Franz Vohwinkel's cover for the German mass-market edition of βehemoth (thanks to "Useless Surfer" for pointing it out), which is evidently being called "Waves" over in Deutschland. And finally, an unknown artist's cover for Prime's upcoming "Best of the Year" collection for 2009 — the headline names from which we can probably infer either that Swanwick, Vinge, Stross et al didn't write any short stories this year, or that Prime couldn't afford their rates. (The story for which my own name is going up in lights is "The Eyes of God", originally published in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume 2.)

They're all pretty good covers, methinks.

On an unrelated note, a few days back someone made a donation to the Niblet Memorial Kibble Fund under the alias "". Not surprisingly, when I tried to drop a note of thanks to that address, it bounced. So if you're out there, Dr. No: thank you.

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

High-Concept Low-Brow

It's credibility of a sort, I guess. The Sydney Morning Herald has just published a John Birmingham piece which jumps off from the teenybopper suckfest "Twilight" to dip its toes in the whole pop-culture vampire mystique. And what should appear, mixed in with all the Buffy and True Blood callouts, but a whole paragraph devoted to the vampires of Blindsight:
In author Peter Watts's hard-science space opera, Blindsight, Dracula's children aren't disguised at all; they're reborn from ancient DNA samples and put to work by humanity, which needs their superior physical and intellectual skills to face off a universe full of even scarier monsters. It all sounds like a low-brow spook'n'shoot, an ill-advised cocktail of the undead and laser beams. But it's high-concept low-brow, with Watts providing reams of credible-sounding scientific "research" in a "Notes and References" section that recalls nothing so much as the early work of the recently departed Michael Crichton.
Birmingham evidently didn't realize that those "references" are real, but that's cool. I don't even mind being compared to Crichton; I actually quite like a lot of Mikey's "early work"— and hey, if a critic in a mainstream newspaper thinks the shoe fits, maybe some publisher might notice a vacant niche waiting to be filled...

What I do find a bit odd, though, is that Blindsight got as much attention it did (not that I'm complaining). Beyond the obligatory commentary on the Twilight novels, the article focuses almost entirely on cinevision: Buffy, True Blood, even some pretty strained references to Borgs and zombies. The only non-Stoker, non-Meyer book to get any attention is some vampire-gumshoe novel by Charlie Huston. And while I'm never one to turn down free publicity, I seem to remember some guy called Matheson doing something along the same lines a while back— something that can hardly have fallen out of the public eye so soon after Will Smith poked it back in there — not to mention a more recent vampire riff by that Butler chick. And there's no way I wield a fraction of the influence of either of those authors, even on their bad days. So I'm wondering why Blindsight made Birmingham's cut, when I am Legend and Fledgling didn't. It obviously isn’t a function of either literary quality or sales.

You know what that leaves. Cover art.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Brechtian Punk Cabaret: or, I Would Kill For Amanda Palmer

Of course she had me before she even appeared on stage, before we froze our asses off in the wind and freezing rain waiting for the doors to open, before I ever heard "Astronaut". She had me months before she dedicated "Oasis" (the peppiest date-rape-and-abortion song evar) to Sarah Palin. She probably owned me from the moment I first heard the Dresden Dolls' "Sex Changes" last spring, a song I whole-heartedly recommend to anyone disillusioned by once-great female icons who went all mushy and braindead in the wake of childbearing (I'm looking at you, Kate Bush. You too, Annie Lennox).

So in the interests of full disclosure, I probably couldn't have disliked Sunday's Amanda Palmer concert unless the lady had puked all over my shoes and called me needle-dick in front of my friends. But she didn't, and each step of that passionately-choreographed evening only served to ramp up my willingness to martyr myself in Her name. The statuesque androgyne Zoë Keating, starting the night with a stripped-down serenade on cello and Mac; The Builders and the Butchers, whose strangely atonal lead vocals somehow really work with their down-home foot-stomping songs about dead guys and apocalyptic floods. The shrouded body of Amanda Palmer herself being pall-borne onto the stage and laid at the keyboard while Neil Gaiman recounted his feelings upon hearing of her death, the rumors over who had killed her and why, the clinical descriptions of Palmer's crustacean-nibbled corpse dredged up from the river bed.

And then, ohmygod, Her Resurrection.

The music was amazing, but you knew that going in because you've obsessively replayed the albums until the very electrons have been worn down past the Planck length (skipping over, perhaps, such lesser lights as Night Reconnaissance and that vaguely lame sheep-slaughtering song). You were sort of prepared for the adrenaline spurting from her fingers because you've seen the live clips on Youtube. But there are these other elements that split your face into a big goofy grin: the Danger Ensemble1 infiltrating the audience and performing evocative little counterpoints of performance art right down there on the dance floor2 during the songs. The "Ask Amanda" segment. A ten-minute philosophical deconstruction on the lyrical inconsistencies inherent in Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer", and whether they can be resolved by context-sensitive interpretations of the phrase "making it". And finally, with an audience demanding another encore even though it was past midnight and noise bylaws would have been violated, we got this:

Amanda Palmer, standing on the bar in fishnet stockings, frilly bloomers, a corset, and — yes, your eyes are not playing tricks on you, a SQUID HAT!!!3 — leading rapturous fans in a singalong cover of Radiohead's "Creep" on the ukulele.

I know one jaded, grizzled old city hall journalist and horror writer who was literally brought to tears by AFP's performance that night. He was far from alone.

I have to go back to work now. But before I leave, let me take this opportunity to publicly thank the lady who first introduced me to Amanda Palmer and the (currently moribund) Dresden Dolls. I can really only think of one way to repay her, because there's only one desire she's ever expressed to me that is unambiguous and unmistakable: she really, really wants to stop being referred to as a member of The Puppy Brigade.

Consider it done. Now we're even.

1At least one member of which I might also kill for, although that's only because she reminded me of an ex-girlfriend of whom I never really got my fill.

2Which I thought was pretty brave. All it would take is one asshole from the audience to fuck things up completely, and given that AFP has known to play topless it would be amazing if a few such assholes weren't in evidence at each performance.

3Sadly, she felt compelled to take the squid off her head during the actual singing part. Said it might detract from the inherent dignity of the performance.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Welcome to Pedo Central

At least, that is evidently the opinion of the net nanny at the Marriott Residence Inn, Woodlands, TX— which, Madeline tells me, blocks access to the 'crawl because it is "harmful to children".

Certainly we appear to get under the skin of some folks, judging by the bleats of outrage that pop up in the comments now and then. The occasional post may have ticked off a parent or two. But harmful to children?

Apparently so. Because upon this 'crawl, you can find entries containing the word "pedophilia".

I have to thank the stalwart bastions of the Marriot for bringing this to my attention, and also for awakening my own inner activist. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to lodge a complaint against that seething den of virulent antiSemitism, B'nai B'rith.

I think I saw the word "holocaust" on their website a while back...


Friday, November 28, 2008

Perdido Shell Station

From the outline for Intelligent Design, a near-future Crichtonesque (except, you know, well-written) novel currently languishing on my back burner:
Nate Hochachka arrives on Baffin Island under complete news blackout. He has no idea why CSIS wants him here: he's freshly-minted faculty at the University of British Columbia, still paying off his student loans and trying to come to terms with the ubiquitous back-stabbing politics and infighting of an underfunded department (Hochachka's doctorate is in the neuroecology of marine invertebrates— not the most lucrative niche of the biotech age). Sequestered in a prefab boardroom on the edge of Frobisher Bay, a woman from the Ministry of Natural resources tells him he's been brought in to advise on a matter of national security. A PetroCan underwater wellhead has been wrecked in the disputed zone between Canada and the United States.

Such mishaps happen all the time, of course: sometimes it’s one of the vagaries of a hazardous environment, sometimes an act of sabotage posing as one. What makes this particular event remarkable is a three-second fragment of video footage recovered from a seabed camera, just moments before all telemetry went offline.

The wellhead was attacked and disabled by a pair of giant squid.
Now check out this article from National Geographic (thanks to Karen Fernandez for the link), paying special attention to the embedded video.

I miss the seabed. I want to go back.

I am definitely working on the wrong book.


Thursday, November 27, 2008


Thank you all, for your thoughts on the best Hollywood faces to graft onto my characters. There are some great suggestions there; some head-slappingly perfect, some popular but utterly mysterious (Ellen Page as Lenie? What am I missing?), and some of limited utility but nonetheless entertaining. I will steal shamelessly from you all.

But in the meantime there's this other thing I have to do for the greater good. Stephanie Svan and Peggy Kolm (she of "Biology in Science Fiction" fame) are attending ScienceOnline09, where they'll be running a session on science fiction as a tool for science communication. To that end they've been circulating two sets of generic questions: one for science Bloggers, the other for sf writers. Participants post answers on their own blogs, link those answers to BiSF, and hilarity ensues. And because I both write science fiction and post real science commentary on the 'crawl, I get to answer both sets.

So basically, you can stop reading here. If you've been coming here for more than a couple of weeks you already know who I wanted to be when I grew up, the role that science plays in my fiction, and why I think the Mundanistas have their heads up their asses. What follows is homework, pure and simple; your time will be better spent watching the latest episode of Sarah Connor Chronicles, or posting an online picture of your naked belly in support of Amanda Palmer's ongoing battle with Roadrunner Records. Or even Googling around to try and figure out what the fuck I was talking about right there.

You there, Pegster? This is for you:

Questions for Science Bloggers

What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it?
Watch, write. And play. Mustn't forget play, even though the scientific verisimilitude in even the best computer games is still pretty abysmal. Give it time.

Still read the stuff, slowly, and after a fashion. More often I simply let it pile up on the shelf and promise myself I'll get to it any day now, honestly, just as soon as I finish the goddamn outline.
What/who do you like and why?
Most influenced, growing up, by John Brunner, Samuel Delany, Robert Silverberg. Tried to imitate William Gibson and Neal Stephenson while breaking into the field. It's probably just as well I didn't succeed.
What do you see as science fiction's role in promoting science, if any? Can it do more than make people excited about science?
I believe the genre can slip a little real science under the reader's guard, but more importantly I think it can help instill scientific attitudes. The best science fiction carries the subtext that the universe works according to consistent rules, dammit, and if you're smart enough you can pop the hood and figure them out. (Contrast this with fantasy, a largely faith-based genre in which one simply accepts magic or "the force" as given, with no explanation required.) Good science fiction consists of thought experiments: given this stimulus, how will society respond? If this physical law were to change, what would happen to the cosmos? Whether the models described in these stories are founded in real-world science is almost irrelevant; after all, even in the real world the models keep changing. (Fifteen years ago we didn’t even know that dark matter existed; in another fifteen we'll probably figure out that it actually doesn't). SF doesn't say "this is the truth", but rather, "suppose this were true; what then?" And if there was ever a time when we were in dire need of people able to look more than two inches beyond their own noses, that time is—

Actually, I guess that time is most of recorded history. Never mind.
Can it harm the cause of science?
Sure, especially if it's anti-science polemic tarted up in sf tropes. Did Michael Crichton ever write a novel in which there weren't Some Things Man Was Not Meant To Know?
Have you used science fiction as a starting point to talk about science?
All the time.
Is it easier to talk about people doing it right or getting it wrong?
That first thing. There's far, far fewer examples to keep track of.
Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers? carries a combined RSS feed for all the coolest science blogs, from heavy hitters like Pharyngula all the way down to personal grad-student journals. There's Slashdot, of course, and the online sites for the journals Science and Nature (not blogs, but still a good source of cutting-edge science coverage). Same for New Scientist; and KurzweilAI is a decent clearing house for stuff you may have missed at the other spots.

In terms of science fiction blogs, I have a soft spot for GalacticMu; they're small, but have a cranky attitude that I find very endearing. Futurismic and the Velcro City Tourist Board are both definitely worth bookmarking, as is . io9 is flashy (albeit a bit heavy on the puff pieces), but I think they hate me for some reason. And Biology in Science Fiction has carved out its own little niche straddling the biology/sf interface.

Of course, any or all of these sites could be dead by now for all I know. I've been so snowed under by other things that I've barely had a chance to glance at any of them in the past couple of weeks.

Questions for Science Fiction Writers

Why are you writing science fiction in particular?
Because it's the only genre big enough to wonder where we're headed and what we're doing to ourselves as a species. In fact, any story that shoots for that goal, that explores the impact of science on flesh, becomes a work of science fiction pretty much by definition.
What does the science add?
Wrong question. The science is what you start with. What you add after that is up to you.
What is your relationship to science? Do you have a favorite field?
I'm a marine biologist in a former life; I tried to revisit molecular genetics in the current one, but sucked at it.
Have you studied or worked in it, or do you just find it cool?
It's all cool until you actually have to learn the nuts and bolts, at which point it becomes drudgery. While my field of (former) expertise is the behavioral ecophysics of marine mammals, my current favorite field is neuroscience— partly because it really puts that arrogant little homunculus in its place, and partly because it's easy to pan for sf gold in that stream without actually knowing very much.
How important is it to you that the science be right?
More important than it should be; my formal training has left me scarred with the usual need to cover my ass against nitpickers and professional rivals. That said, though, I think too strict an adherence to the known scientific state-of-the-art is a straitjacket that constrains the imagination. There's a reason they call it science fiction; to keep all your stories within the realm of today's established science is to suggest that there are no more breakthroughs to be made, that we pretty much know everything already. That's a profoundly antiscientific attitude.
What kind of resources do you use for accuracy?
I can access pretty much any scientific journal I want, thanks to some connections in the University community. Also I get telepathic messages from my cats. But again, too much obsessing over "accuracy" turns literature into essay, and the last thing I want is to end up associated with the Mundanistas.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

…And Eric Cartman as Sarasti.

Calling out for some suggestions here.

I seem to be juggling a small spate of interviews/online discussions at the moment, one of which is a long-overdue contribution to something called "My Book, the Movie". This is an ongoing blog in which various authors dream a bit about who they'd like to see direct/star in/roach-wrangle movie adaptations of their novels. The closest I ever got to a serious movie adaptation was via some guy working for South Park, who wanted an option for Starfish without paying any money up front. Oh, and someone else who respected my dedication to scientific credibility so much that she'd lined up the writer of Wing Commander for the screenplay. Bullets were dodged, travesties avoided, and here I am years later still subsisting on a hand-to-mouth diet of rice and barnacles.

Anyway. Back then I thought that Carrie-Ann Moss would make a kick-ass Lenie Clarke, but she's since aged out of the twentysomething demographic. I thought Ridley Scott might be a decent director, and Cameron certainly had the underwater/female hero thing down pat, but those are both pretty obvious choices. I've put this thing off long enough; I've got to come up with names I'd like to see representing my work on both sides of the camera, but I'm not experiencing any aha moments.

So, what do you people think? Any ideas?

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Why Believers Kick Atheist Ass at Scrabble

Here's a fascinating possibility: that people with religious beliefs are better at pattern-matching than those without.

The empirical findings are out of the Netherlands (popsci summary here), and are phrased much more conservatively: when presented with visual stimuli containing two levels of resolution (for example, a big square consisting of a bunch of little rectangles) "Calvinists showed a smaller, but still significant, … global precedence effect than Atheists". (Basically, they were quicker to recognize the local pattern within the global one.) Like all good scientists, the authors brim with caveats and qualifiers: does religion shape perception, or merely attract those with certain perceptual inclinations? Is this a hallmark of religious belief generally, or merely a feature of the Calvinist eyes-on-the-ground credo of "mind your own business"? The authors defend their choice of religious group on the reasonable grounds that in a country as small as the Netherlands, there just aren't any other religious groups for whom extraneous variables are comparable; the Catholics mingle too much with the Belgians and the Germans to assume a common cultural context, and Jim Jones' followers never had a significant Dutch component even before they were all dead. Follow-up international studies, encompassing other religious groups, are currently in the planning stages. In the meantime, Colzato et al admit to being worried about the implications of this whole religion-affects-perception thing:
…it seems possible that religious beliefs may indeed lead to different and sometimes discrepant and incompatible interpretations of the same incident. That this can happen is a well-known empirical fact but that it can originate in basic automatic visual operations that precede conscious representation is surprising and in some sense worrying — as it seems to work against the scientific ideal that careful observation is sufficient to reach agreements about basic facts and what we consider reality.
But here's the thing. The study focused on whether or not Calvinists had a different "global precedence" effect than atheists, and they pretty much confined their analysis to that question. But I'm not writing for a peer-reviewed journal here1, so I can wander a bit further afield: and if you actually look at the data they present, Calvinists are faster on the draw than atheists on both local and global levels; and their error rate is lower, too:

So I say, screw this global/local bullshit. The take-home message I'm reading here is that Calvinists are just better at pattern-matching than atheists, period. And I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that when Colzato et al get around to testing other religious groups, they'll find the same pattern: I think they'll find that ass-hamster fans of any stripe will be better pattern-matchers than us heathens.

You shouldn't be surprised by this; we've talked about it before. A few weeks back — during my recent infamous dissection of fear, religion, and the Republican Right —I cited a couple of sources describing the increased tendency among believers to see patterns and connections in random visual static, to attribute Agency and Cause where none exists. And over a year ago I mused about lateral specialization in our cerebral hemispheres, how one half of the brain seems to look for patterns while the other is more pragmatic. I even raised the possibility that one might deliberately crank up the pattern-matching modules (while giving the pragmatic ones veto power) so that one day we might actually derive legitimate scientific insights from religious rapture.

So these Netherlandian findings give me hope. At the very least, they give me a legitimate peer-reviewed title to stick in Dumbspeech's appendix — because it is this exact process which inspires the religious group that figures front-and-center in that book (the Bicameral Order by name, " a bastard Jainist sect with one foot in ancient India and the other in the splice-and-dice frankenworks of late-21rst-century neuroscience").

So today is a day to celebrate my shrewd insight, eyesight, and foresight into the future of the Human experience. And also to mention, apropos of nothing in particular, that the Dresden Dolls in general and Amanda Palmer in particular absofuckinglutely rock my world.

1 Well, not that you lot don't review it to within an inch of its life, of course. Just that your reviews can't stop me from posting

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Friday, November 14, 2008

With Apologies to Pete Townsend

You know, we're not on the cutting edge any more with this whole value-of-consciousness riff. Just a couple of years ago, the idea that sentience isn't worth the trouble seemed a pretty radical proposition. But in the years since Blindsight came out1 we've seen top-flight journals publishing research showing that consciousness impedes complex problem-solving; we've seen review papers suggesting that self-awareness is a mere side-effect of brain function, serving no real purpose.

And sometime between then and now the whole thing went from heresy to mainstream. In fact, we're so mainstream that there's actually a Value-of-consciousness backlash brewing. According to Discover magazine a couple of months back2, "A small but growing number of researchers are challenging some of the more extreme arguments supporting the primacy of the inner zombie."

"A small but growing number." Right. A plucky band of free-thinking rebels, taking on the fossilized Establishment dogma that Consciousness Is Irrelevant. You know, back in the old days, the Old Boss would have ruled at least long enough to move his things into the Palace before the New Boss threw him out.

I'm just glad that Thomas Kuhn didn't live to see this day.

1Or maybe before; I only started following the arguments when I started researching the book)
2 And thanks to Nas Hedron, or whatever he's calling himself these days, for the link.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

So if I'm done, why do I still have this queasy lump in my stomach?

Two weeks of edits. Two weeks of no exercise, skipped meals, late nights, and cats who either don't understand that a 3:00 a.m. feeding should allow them to wait a little past their usual 8:00 a.m. breakfast slot while their exhausted can opener tries to sleep in a bit, or who simply reject that premise on general principles. Merciless hungry claws hooked through my internasal septum at 8:05 because a novel outline that was supposed to be done in fucking August was still making my agent go huh? and By the time they get back to earth I have no idea what's going on in October.

What we got here is a Blindsight spinoff; a thought-experiment on the nature and evolution of Singularities, past and future; a cast of characters who don't understand their own actions (one of the themes of the book is that it's neurologically impossible to understand our own true motives; the best we can do is make guesses after the fact); all told through the eyes of a man whose brain is literally being rewired throughout the course of the story. Oh, and we also got a subversive Biblical allegory in which angels, Christ figures, Tempters, and God all have hard-sf underpinnings, and in which the only route to salvation is to lose your soul. If you're not at least a little confused by then end, I'm not doing my job right.

Still, I can sympathize. Agents the world over would probably quail at selling any book which asserts that the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey was too obvious.

But I think I'm done. I've tried to cover all bases: three opening chapters; a two-page Coles-Notes bullet list on Why The Singularity May Not Work As Advertised; three separate outline/pitches/teasers ranging from 400 words to over 7,000. (And let us take a moment here to acknowledge the beta-reading skilz of Dave Nickle and Madeline Ashby, the latter of whom literally rewrote my 10K outline in less than 3K — by, in her words, turning Solaris into Transformers. I had to fatten it up again a bit to hide the decepticons, but watch this woman: notwithstanding the whole Goat's-Head-Soup motif on her blog, she will go far.)

I don't know if it works now. I don't know if my agent will like it; I don't know if he can even get it out there before the whole fucking publishing industry packs it in for their annual two-month Christmas vacation, or if anyone in today's economic climate would buy a book that tells them how much worse everything is going to get. But there's nothing much I can do about that now, and I have other duties piling up that will more reliably pay the bills.

First things first, though. I've just completed my first 16K run in two weeks or more. I am about to take my first shower in almost that long. Now I am going to gorge on crème pumpkins and reread Watchmen, and tomorrow I will be attending a Swedish vampire movie of unknown pedigree. I am going to take this weekend off.

If I'm feeling especially decadent, I may even change the fetid litter box of my deranged and hostile cats.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Where Were You When the USA Pulled Back from Being a Fascist Shithole?

I was on the other side of the camera that took this picture, blocking the view of a big honking flatscreen monitor which showed the United States morphing magically into a place I would actually like to live:

It was a brief and unfamiliar moment of happiness, so very long in coming: one of the good guys rising to take the reins for a change, delivering an inspirational and almost1 flawless challenge that might have been cowritten by Aaron Sorkin and the entire screenwriting staff of Battlestar Galactica — and nobody had even shot him by the end of it.

Of course, my companions being what they were, that brief shining moment was not to last. Obama hadn't even finished speaking before two of them had fallen into a loud and bitter argument over which side of the Rockies Colorado was on. A third joined in when the fight turned to whether Missouri was pronounced "Mizzury" or "Mizzourah". And it was hard to make out the president-elect's closing words over the sound of a heated discussion on the necessary caliber of weapon needed to penetrate the bulletproof glass from a range of 1.5 miles.

Didn't matter, though. I looked at that eloquent figure and the massive support he'd won. Then I looked to the pallid and small-minded weasel who rules my own country, to the pathetic squabbling terriers who act as his opposition. And I realized that the day had come when the progressives in our midst might actually start fleeing south for a change.

Who knows? Given the right breaks, I might even go with them.

1Marred only by a brief and unfortunate reference to a pet which, to put it delicately, was not a cat.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Very Funny.

Okay, which one of you jokers is responsible for the following promotional offer appearing in my in-box?

Subject: Promote Your Christian Book

Christian Book Marketing is a division of Awesome God Publications. Awesome God Publications has been actively serving the Christian community since 1998. Through our years of experience in dealing with Christian books and publishers we have determined a need for Christian authors to market their books differently than traditional authors. We are able to market your book directly to a Christian audience who has proven that they have an interest in Christian books. Another advantage is that we are able to provide complete product handling - from warehousing your book to shipping and invoicing!

Our years of experience and excellent relationships with our contacts makes Christian Book Marketing a natural choice to promote your Christian book to as many Christian readers as possible!

Christian Book Marketing
"Reaching One More for Him"

Christian Book Promotion Packages
starting at $499.00!

There's more, but you get the idea. Judging from the asking price, though, these guys skipped over that part of the gospels with the bit about camel's eyes and needles. It seems an exorbitant price, especially given a marketing slogan that only promises to reach one measly person.

bec, was this you?

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Never Trust a Gastropod.

I met Toronto's mayor last night. The satanic Dave Nickle and I ended up at the Duke of Richmond, in the wake of a late city council meeting he'd been covering. Dave was buying, having racked up a whole evening's worth of Blood Beers on account of all the snails he'd stepped on during our morning runs. We had a few, and watched the floor show: a barrister who'd had a few more, and was throwing ice and spittle all over the establishment, and was eventually not merely bounced but banned forever from the Duke. (Noble profession, the law.) And there sat David Miller, mayor of Toronto, way over on the other side of the bar, along with an entourage of councilors.

One of those councilors — an environmentalist by the name of Gord Perks — had read some of my stuff, and liked it (well, except for the last fifty pages of Blindsight). I'm not exactly certain how this happened, but somehow I ended up getting hauled physically over to the mayor's table and introduced as a minor literary treasure or a municipal literary wanker or something along those lines. And I think that as I shook the mayor's hand, I said that I only dared to intrude because I'd been assured he was already drunk and would therefore not remember anything tactless I might say in his presence (which is actually kind of a meta comment, if you think about it). But looking back, there are so many ways of parsing I'm only coming over here because you're drunk that I'm not entirely sure the intrinsic humility of my sentiment made it through.

Anyway, he wanted to know how to get my books. I told him he could download them for free from my website. He told me he wanted to pay for them. I told him to download them for free, and put the money he saved into expanding Toronto's public transit system. He said he'd just poured several million dollars into transit and could damn well afford to pay for his own books. I think I asked him if some of that money was going to a subway extension to Pearson Airport, and I think he said yes, but frankly my recollection is a bit hazy.

It all seems much less sparkly in hindsight than it did at the time. I either came across as a wit and raconteur, or as a complete asshole. Either way, I suspect I made an impression. Just to be on the safe side, I think for the next little while I'll duck shamefacedly into an alleyway whenever I see Gord Perks heading up the street in my direction. Fortunately I don't have to worry so much about Dave Nickle — that dude forgives anything.

Stupid snails.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Spoiler Alert

Seriously, people; there are a couple of major reveals in this bit. You really don't want to read it if you're averse to spoilers about Dumbspeech.

Really, you don't want to be here. This is for Colbert Platinum members only.

Fine, then.

You'll pick many a bean...

Good News for Modern Man:

Sometimes the voices argued amongst themselves, included him as an afterthought if at all. They told him he was becoming schizophrenic— that they were nothing but his own thoughts, drifting at loose ends through a mind that had lost its bearings. Jim Moore wouldn't shut up about coherent self-models and switches in the head. Brooks thought his friend may have been right, but he couldn't remember whether those switches had been installed by the Bicamerals, or the vampires, or something else entirely.

Sometimes the voices were almost fearful. They'd whisper about something skulking in the basement, something brought back from the sun that stomped on the floor and made things move upstairs. Sometimes, if Brooks kept very still, he could almost hear it snuffling beneath the floorboards. He could see the basement door bulge just a little, with the weight of something on the other side.

It had a name, although he couldn't remember how he'd learned it: Rorschach.

He fought back. He lay awake at night and tried to silence the voices, force them back into sheaths of silent thought. He clenched his teeth and strained, through sheer effort of conscious will, to undo the renovations in his midbrain. Rorschach came to him in his dreams. You'll never win, it said. Better men than you have tried. The Bicamerals tried. Jim Moore tried. Everyone who tried to kill you was really after me; where are they now?

"Valerie," Brooks croaked, but Rorschach only laughed. She was on my side.

It was such an uphill struggle. The light behind the eyes has never had the upper hand; I was never more than the scratch pad for a moments' necessary reminders. Brooks may not have heard these voices before but they'd always been there, hidden away, doing the heavy lifting and sending their status reports upstairs to a silly little man who took all the credit.

Now the voices realized they didn't need that little man any more. He was only holding them back. When he was gone the brakes would come off; what followed would be the radical embrace of true transcendence. Evolution would bootstrap into the Lamarckian age, and everything would change in an instant.

He no longer sought his answers among the ruins. He looked for them across the whole wide desert. His very senses were coming apart; each sunrise seemed paler than the last, every breeze against his skin somehow more distant than the one before. He cut himself. The blood spilled out like water. He deliberately broke his little finger and felt not pain but faint music. The voices wouldn't leave him alone; they told him what to eat and he put rocks in his mouth, because he could no longer tell bread from stone. They tempted him with promises of reconciliation, with the resurrection of his woman from the bastard abomination of meat and machinery that had engulfed her.

One day Brooks found himself walking the edge of a cliff, high above the desert. The ruined monastery shimmered in the heat but he felt nothing. He seemed a million miles away, as though watching the world unfold through distant cameras. You have to crank the amplitude, the voices said. It's the only way you'll feel anything. You have to increase the gain.

But Brooks was on to them. He wasn't the first to be tempted in the desert; he knew how that story went. He was supposed to defy the voices. Do not test the Lord thy God, he was supposed to say, then step back from the precipice and into history. It was right there in the script.

But he was not an automaton. Not yet. He was still Daniel Brooks, and he was slaved to no one's stage directions. He would make his own fucking destiny.

He threw himself into space. He flew.

He felt.


Pole Star

My buddy (and fellow author) Brent Hayward sent me this photographic evidence from Poland: evidently I've made it into the bookstores at Warsaw International Airport. I don't whether to be pleased by this news (there was a whole stack!) or depressed (they hadn't sold any of them; there was a whole stack…) Either way, though, this is the first time I've seen what the back of that edition looks like.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Living Dead

Meet Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator, the bacterium that does it all: fix carbon, fix nitrogen, synthesize all essential amino acids, locomote — an organism that can exist totally independent of other life. It doesn't even need the sun. This fucker basically lives on sulfur, rock, and electrons*.

It's an obligate anaerobe, without even the most rudimentary oxygen resistance. A bug like βehemoth would kick its ass throughout most of the terrestrial biosphere (its natural digs are a couple of kilometers down in the crust, where no O2 has poked its corrosive little head for at least three million years). But that's not likely to be any kind of drawback out in space, and various talking heads are already nattering excitedly about the prospect of something just like this hanging out on Mars, or on the Saturnian moons.

It is cool. It is, quite literally, a complete ecosystem bundled into a single species, a biosphere crammed into two-and-a-half megabytes and a crunchy shell. Astrobiologists the world over have been creaming their genes for a week now. It's such a science-fictional little beast that its very name was lifted from a Jules Verne novel— but what really sticks in my mind about this little Swiss-army knife is a feature that's actually pretty common down there.

If it's anything like other deep-rock dwellers, D. audaxviator reproduces very slowly, taking centuries or even millennia to double in numbers. It's a consequence of nutrient limitation, but might we be looking at a kind of incipient immortality here? The textbooks tell us that one of the defining characteristics of life is reproduction. But if you think of life as the propagation of organized information into the future — the persistence of signal, rather than merely its proliferation — then reproduction is really just a workaround. The chassis that carries the information wears out, and must be replaced.

It doesn't take much, here at the dawn of Synthetic Biology, to imagine an organism with unlimited self-repair capabilities; something that can keep its telomeres nice and long, which sweeps away all those nasty free radicals and picks up the broken bottles in their wake, which replaces an endless succession of disposable Swatches with a solid gold Rolex which can hang in there for a billion years or more. Hell, you could even postulate some kind of Lamarckian autoedit option on the genes, so the organism can adapt to new environments. Or you could just limit your organism to extremely stable environments that don't require ongoing adaptation. Interstellar space, for example. Or deep in a planetary lithosphere. In some ways, this could be a superior strategy to conventional breeding; at least you wouldn't have to worry about population explosions.

I wonder if, somewhere down there, D. audaxviator or something like it has given up on reproduction entirely. Maybe it keeps the machinery around as a kind of legacy app that no one uses any more and just ticks slowly onwards, buried beneath all that insulating and protective rock, unto the very end of the planet.

The textbooks would call it dead. I'd suggest our definitions may need an upgrade.

*Of course, the fact that it can live independently doesn't mean that it evolved independently. A bunch of its genes have been cadged from Archae via lateral transfer. Its genes also contain anti-viral countermeasures; whether it siphoned those off incidentally from donor species or actually uses them to guard against parasitic code, there's obviously a history of contact with other life in this bug's family tree.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"To Prove Free Will, You Have To Do Something You Don't Want To."

I stumbled upon the premiere of this new television show last night. It contained the eponymous line, which is a bit pithier than the usual prime-time broadcast dialog. Even cooler, this line was a quote from a psychopathic assassin named Edward who'd recently been upbraided by his boss for gratuitously killing his target; in a nice subversion of expectation, the boss's real objection was that she'd wanted that target brought in for torture, and she suspected Edward had pulled the trigger out of an abundance of mercy.

But the real kicker is that the dude hearing the quote was a surgically isolated self-aware chunk of Edward's own temporal lobe. We're talking technologically-induced multiple personality disorder; we're talking the ultimate sleeper agent. Each persona is activated and deactivated by remote control; Henry, the milque-toast family man, doesn't even know that Edward exists. He honestly thinks he's just some kind of efficiency consultant who has to travel a lot. They're basically the Gang of Four with fewer options, and the whole arrangement works great until the snooze button fucks up and Henry the family man boots out of turn, to find himself holding a sniper rifle in a foreign country.

The show is "My Own Worst Enemy", and it stars Christian Slater, and perhaps because I had no expectations — hell, I had no awareness — I liked it quite a bit. I liked watching the two personae, only one of which is conscious at any given time, learn to communicate with each other using notes written on their hands. (Edward is mightily pissed that Henry drives his car. Henry's not so keen on the thought of Edward fucking his wife. They fight crime.) I liked the relatively light touch with they dealt with questions of human identity.

If they continue to do that — if they explore the neurology of individuality, the nature of sentience, all those nifty philosophical issues that science fiction is custom-made to deal with — this show could turn into something really special. Or it could deteriorate into a weekly spy show whose failed attempts at comic relief boil down to "So, you using the body tonight?" or "But honey, it was the other me with that woman!" In which case it might even be lamer than Fringe.

I really hope they go the first route. Especially since it looks like The Sarah Connor Chronicles won't be with us much longer.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Fear and the French

I've gone back and posted a coda at the end of Wednesday's fear and religion entry; the recent hysteria at Republican rallies is chillingly consistent with Oxley et al's findings that Conservative=Fearful. But let's move on to fear and horror of a more existential sort, the kind you might find in the shadow of a black supergiant half a half lightyear into the Oort:

These are a couple of cover concept sketches for the upcoming French translation of Blindsight (tentatively scheduled for release in April 2009). The artist goes by the name Sparth: whether that's a Christian name, a surname, or merely an online handle I do not know, but I really like the work (more of which can be found here). I'm tending more to the green iteration, since it conveys a greater sense of creepy dread and alien surveillance. OTOH, Theseus looks especially beautiful in the blue treatment.

Enjoy. The illos are, of course, also archived in the Gallery for easy long-term access.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

And While We're On the Subject...

Courtesy of the Shoe-On-Other-Foot Dept...


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Understanding Sarah Palin: Or, God Is In The Wattles

Here's a question for you. Why hasn't natural selection driven the religious right to extinction?

You should forgive me for asking. After all, here is a group of people who base their lives on patently absurd superstitions that fly in the face of empirical evidence. It's as if I suddenly chose to believe that I could walk off the edges of cliffs with impunity; you would not expect me to live very long. You would expect me to leave few if any offspring. You would expect me to get weeded out.

And yet, this obnoxious coterie of retards — people openly and explicitly contemptuous of "intellectuals" and "evilutionists" and, you know, anyone who actually spends their time learning stuff — they not only refuse to die, they appear to rule the world. Some Alaskan airhead who can't even fake the name of a newspaper, who can't seem to say anything without getting it wrong, who bald-facedly states in a formal debate setting that she's not even going to try to answer questions she finds unpalatable (or she would state as much, if she could say "unpalatable" without tripping over her own tongue) — this person, this behavior, is regarded as successful even by her detractors. The primary reason for her popularity amongst the all-powerful "low-information voters"1? In-your-face religious fundamentalism and an eye tic that would make a Tourette's victim blush.

You might suggest that my analogy is a bit loopy: young-earth creationism may fly in the face of reason, but it hardly has as much immediate survival relevance as my own delusory immunity to gravity. I would disagree. The Christian Church has been an anvil around the neck of scientific progress for centuries. It took the Catholics four hundred years to apologize to Galileo; a hundred fifty for an Anglican middle-management type to admit that they might owe one to Darwin too (although his betters immediately slapped him down for it). Even today, we fight an endless series of skirmishes with fundamentalists who keep trying to sneak creationism in through the back door of science classes across the continent. (I'm given to understand that Islamic fundies are doing pretty much the same thing in Europe.) More people in the US believe in angels than in natural selection. And has anyone not noticed that religious fundamentalists also tend to be climate-change deniers?

Surely, any cancer that attacks the very intellect of a society would put the society itself at a competitive disadvantage. Surely, tribes founded on secular empiricism would develop better technology, better medicines, better hands-on understanding of The Way Things Work, than tribes gripped by primeval cloud-worshipping superstition2. Why, then, are there so few social systems based on empiricism, and why are god-grovellers so powerful across the globe? Why do the Olympians keep getting their asses handed to them by a bunch of intellectual paraplegics?

The great thing about science is, it can even answer ugly questions like this. And a lot of pieces have been falling into place lately. Many of them have to do with the brain's fundamental role as a pattern-matcher.

Let's start with this study here, in the latest issue of Science. It turns out that the less control people feel they have over their lives, the more likely they are to perceive images in random visual static; the more likely they are to see connections and conspiracies in unrelated events. The more powerless you feel, the more likely you'll see faces in the clouds. (Belief in astrology also goes up during times of social stress.)

Some of you may remember that I speculated along such lines back during my rant against that evangelical abortion that Francis Collins wrote while pretending to be a scientist; but thanks to Jennifer Whitson and her buddies, speculation resolves into fact. Obama was dead on the mark when he said that people cling to religion and guns during hard times. The one arises from loss of control, and the other from an attempt to get some back.

Leaving Lepidoptera (please don't touch the displays, little boy, heh heh heh— Oh, cute...) — moving to the next aisle, we have Arachnida, the spiders. And according to findings reported by Douglas Oxley and his colleagues (supplemental material here), right-wingers are significantly more scared of these furry little arthropods than left-wingers tend to be: at least, conservatives show stronger stress responses than liberals to "threatening" pictures of large spiders perched on human faces.

It's not a one-off effect, either. Measured in terms of blink amplitude and skin conductance, the strongest stress responses to a variety of threat stimuli occurred among folks who "favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War". In contrast, those who "support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control" tended to be pretty laid-back when confronted with the same stimuli. Oxley et al close off the piece by speculating that differences in political leanings may result from differences in the way the amygdala is wired— and that said wiring, in turn, has a genetic component. The implication is that right-wing/left-wing beliefs may to some extent be hardwired, making them relatively immune to the rules of evidence and reasoned debate. (Again, this is pure speculation. The experiments didn't extend into genetics. But it would explain a lot.)

One cool thing about the aforementioned studies is that they have relatively low sample sizes, both in two-digit range. Any pattern that shows statistical significance in a small sample has got to be pretty damn strong; both of these are.

Now let's go back a ways, to a Cornell Study from 1999 called "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". It's a depressing study, with depressing findings:
  • People tend to overestimate their own smarts.
  • Stupid people tend to overestimate their smarts more than the truly smart do.
  • Smart people tend to assume that everyone else is as smart as they are; they honestly can't understand why dumber people just don't "get it", because it doesn't occur to them that those people actually are dumb.
  • Stupid people, in contrast, tend to not only regard themselves as smarter than everyone else, they tend to regard truly smart people as especially stupid. This holds true even when these people are shown empirical proof that they are less competent than those they deride.
So. The story so far:
  1. People perceive nonexistent patterns, meanings, and connections in random data when they are stressed, scared, and generally feel a loss of control in their own lives.
  2. Right-wing people are more easily scared/stressed than left-wing people. They are also more likely to cleave to authority figures and protectionist policies. There may be a genetic component to this.
  3. The dumber you are, the less likely you'll be able to recognize your own stupidity, and the lower will be your opinion of people who are smarter than you (even while those people keep treating you as though you are just as smart as they are)
Therefore (I would argue) the so-called "right wing" is especially predisposed to believe in moralizing, authoritarian Invisible Friends. And the dumber individuals (of any stripe) are, the more immune they are to reason. Note that, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, I am not saying that conservatives are stupid (I myself know some very smart conservatives), but that stupid people tend to be conservative. Whole other thing.

So what we have, so far, is a biological mechanism for the prevalence of religious superstition in right-wing populations. What we need now is a reason why such populations tend to be so damn successful, given the obvious shortcomings of superstition as opposed to empiricism.

Which brings us to Norenzayan and Shariff's review paper in last week's Science on "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality". To get us in the mood they remind us of several previous studies, a couple of which I may have mentioned here before (at least, I mentioned them somewhere — if they're on the 'crawl, I evidently failed to attach the appropriate "ass-hamsters" tag). For example, it turns out that people are less likely to cheat on an assigned task if the lab tech lets slip that the ghost of a girl who was murdered in this very building was sighted down the hall the other day.

That's right. Plant the thought that some ghost might be watching you, and you become more trustworthy. Even sticking a picture of a pair of eyes on the wall reduces the incidence of cheating, even though no one would consciously mistake a drawing of eyes for the real thing. Merely planting the idea of surveillance seems to be enough to improve one's behavior. (I would also remind you of an earlier crawl entry reporting that so-called "altruistic" acts in our society tend to occur mainly when someone else is watching, although N&S don't cite that study in their review.)

There's also the recent nugget from which this figure was cadged:
This study found not only that religious communes last longer than secular ones, but that even among religious communes the ones that last longest are those with the most onerous, repressive, authoritarian rules.

And so on. Norenzayan and Shariff trot out study after study, addressing a variety of questions that may seem unrelated at first. If, as theorists suggest, human social groupings can only reach 150 members or so before they collapse or fragment from internal stress, why does the real world serve up so many groupings of greater size? (Turns out that the larger the size of a group, the more likely that its members believe in a moralizing, peeping-tom god.) Are religious people more likely than nonreligious ones to help out someone in distress? (Not so much.) What's the most common denominator tying together acts of charity by the religious? (Social optics. "Self-reported belief in God or self-reported religious devotion," the paper remarks wryly, "was not a reliable indicator of generous behavior in anonymous settings.") And why is it that religion seems especially prevalent in areas with chronic water and resource shortages?

It seems to come down to two things: surveillance and freeloading. The surveillance element is pretty self-evident. People engage in goodly behavior primarily to increase their own social status, to make themselves appear more valuable to observers. But by that same token, there's no point in being an upstanding citizen if there are no observers. In anonymous settings, you can cheat.

You can also cheat in nonanonymous settings, if your social group is large enough to get lost in. In small groups, everybody knows your name; if you put out your hand at dinner but couldn't be bothered hunting and gathering, if you sleep soundly at night and never stand guard at the perimeter, it soon becomes clear to everyone that you're a parasite. You'll get the shit kicked out of you, and be banished from the tribe. But as social groupings become larger you lose that everyone-knows-everyone safeguard. You can move from burb to burb, sponging and moving on before anyone gets wise—

unless the costs of joining that community in the first place are so bloody high that it just isn't worth the effort. This is where the onerous, old-testament social rituals come into play.

Norenzayan and Shariff propose that
"the cultural spread of religious prosociality may have promoted stable levels of cooperation in large groups, where reputational and reciprocity incentives are insufficient. If so, then reminders of God may not only reduce cheating, but may also increase generosity toward strangers as much as reminders of secular institutions promoting prosocial behavior."
And they cite their own data to support it. But they also admit that "professions of religious belief can be easily faked", so that
"evolutionary pressures must have favored costly religious commitment, such as ritual participation and various restrictions on behavior, diet, and life-style, that validates the sincerity of otherwise unobservable religious belief."
In other word, anyone can talk the talk. But if you're willing to give all your money to the church and your twelve-year-old daughter to the patriarch, dude, you're obviously one of us.

Truth in Advertising is actually a pretty common phenomenon in nature. Chicken wattles are a case in point; what the hell good are those things, anyway? What do they do? Turns out that they display information about a bird's health, in a relatively unfakeable way. The world is full of creatures who lie about their attributes. Bluegills spread their gill covers when facing off against a competitor; cats go all puffy and arch-backed when getting ready to tussle. Both behaviors serve to make the performer seem larger than he really is— they lie, in other words. Chicken wattles aren't like that; they more honestly reflect the internal state of the animal. It takes metabolic energy to keep them plump and colorful. A rooster loaded down with parasites is a sad thing to see, his wattles all pale and dilapidated; a female can see instantly what kind of shape he's in by looking at those telltales. You might look to the peacock's tail for another example3, or the red ass of a healthy baboon. (We humans have our own telltales— lips, breasts, ripped pecs and triceps— but you haven't been able to count on those ever since implants, steroids, and Revlon came down the pike.) "Religious signaling" appears to be another case in point. As Norenzayan and Shariff point out, "religious groups imposing more costly requirements have members who are more committed." Hence,
"Religious communes were found to outlast those motivated by secular ideologies, such as socialism. … religious communes imposed more than twice as many costly requirements (including food taboos and fasts, constraints on material possessions, marriage, sex, and communication with the outside world) than secular ones… Importantly for costly religious signaling, the number of costly requirements predicted religious commune longevity after the study controlled for population size and income and the year the commune was founded… Finally, religious ideology was no longer a predictor of commune longevity, once the number of costly requirements was statistically controlled, which suggests that the survival advantage of religious communes was due to the greater costly commitment of their members, rather than other aspects of religious ideology."
Reread that last line. It's not the ideology per sé that confers the advantage; it's the cost of the signal that matters. Once again, we strip away the curtain and God stands revealed as ecological energetics, writ in a fancy font.

These findings aren't carved in stone. A lot of the studies are correlational, the models are in their infancy, yadda yadda yadda. But the data are coming in thick and fast, and they point to a pretty plausible model:
  • Fear and stress result in loss of perceived control;
  • Loss of perceived control results in increased perception of nonexistent patterns (N&S again: "The tendency to detect agency in nature likely supplied the cognitive template that supports the pervasive belief in supernatural agents");
  • Those with right-wing political beliefs tend to scare more easily;
  • Authoritarian religious systems based on a snooping, surveillant God, with high membership costs and antipathy towards outsiders, are more cohesive, less invasible by cheaters, and longer-lived. They also tend to flourish in high-stress environments.
And there you have it. The Popular Power of Palin, explained. So the next question is

Now that we can explain the insanity, what are we going to do about it?

Coda 10/10/08: And as the tide turns, and the newsfeeds and Youtube videos pile up on my screen, the feature that distinguishes right from left seems ever-clearer: fear. See the angry mobs at Republican rallies. Listen to the shouts of terrorist and socialist and kill him! whenever Obama's name is mentioned. And just tonight, when even John McCain seemed to realise that things had gone too far, and tried to describe the hated enemy as "a decent man"— he was roundly booed by his own supporters.

How many times have the Dems had their asses handed to them by well-oiled Republican machinery? How many times have the Dems been shot down by the victorious forces of Nixons and Bushes? Were the Democrats ever this bloodthirsty in the face of defeat?

Oxley et al are really on to something. These people are fucking terrified.

Photo credit for Zombie Jesus: no clue. Someone just sent it to me.

1And isn't that a nice CNNism for "moron"? It might seem like a pretty thing veil to you lot, but then again, CNN isn't worried about alienating viewers with higher-than-room-temperature IQs.
2And to all you selfish-gene types out there, where you been? Group-selection is back in vogue this decade. Believe me, I was as surprised as you…
3Although we might be getting into "Handicap Principle" territory here, which is a related but different wattle of fish. I confess I'm not up on the latest trends in this area…

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Friday, October 3, 2008

Head Cheese Gone Wild

I was plenty pleased when little porridges of cultured neurons took their first baby steps towards running flight simulators or operating robots in the lab; I was downright smug when folks noticed that I'd got there first. Now, though, researchers from the Missouri University of Science and Technology are planning on putting head cheeses in charge of real-world power grids in half a dozen countries, including China and Mexico (but not including, interestingly enough, the United States). According to this article, "…these networks could control not only power systems, but also other complex systems, such as traffic-control systems or global financial networks."

Traffic control systems. Financial networks. Being run by meaty neuron networks whose thought processes are, by definition, opaque. For real.

I wrote a trilogy about just this scenario. It did not end well (just ask Kirkus). Maybe someone could pass a copy on to this Venayagamoorthy dude.

Next up, two papers in today's issue of Science: one on the evolution of religious belief, the other on the perception of imaginary patterns under conditions of perceived helplessness. These dovetail nicely with some slightly staler findings on the arrogance of stupid people, the inherent fear responses of political conservatives, and last night's competing North-American neocon/centrist debates. But I have to actually watch those debates before I blog on that. (I was out at Don Giovanni last night. I didn't even know that they had dry-ice smoke machines in 1787…)

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

For want of a nail.

For decades now, experts from all walks have provided sage wisdom about the need to save for my declining years. We no longer live in a word of services, they've told me. We live in a world of ownership. It is not enough to save. You must invest. And this can sometimes be hard to hear — because although it's hard to argue against saving for one's old age, your average hard-sf author is generally lucky to have enough cash saved up at any given time to keep going for just the next year. Being told that you have to take that cushion and invest it — that you must hack your life-support horizon down to two or three months and put everything else into an untouchable account to grow and mature while you just kinda hope that the Russians aren't lying to you about the money for next month's groceries being in the mail, and that Tor will only withhold 70% of the royalties they owe you rather than the 100% they kept last cycle — well, it's a bit scary. It's Dumpster Daring is what it is, and the Dumpster is not easily mocked. And given that conventional economics seems founded on premises so absurd you wouldn't even find them in the AD&D Monstrous Compendium (endless growth from a finite-resource base? Value-added information?), you gotta wonder if — given the luck of the average hard-sf writer — the whole house of cards might not collapse the day after you bit the bullet and trusted your life's savings to the Wisdom of the Market.

So my response to all this well-meaning advice, only half-joking, is that my RRSP is contingent not upon maximizing my own wealth, but upon the catastrophic elimination of everyone else's. My retirement plan is to wait until the financial apocalypse levels the playing field between the haves and have-nots, then head out to search the rubble for tinned goods wielding the archetypal Treehouse-of-Horror "board with a nail in it". I'm taller than most, with a longer reach. I exercise. I've already got the board, and enough generalized anger stored up to use the fucker at the slightest excuse. (I've also got an investment account at e-trade, but I have never made a single transaction with it; it's just a place to park my cash where the Revenue-Canada tapeworms can't feed off it.)

That was my plan. As I say, conjured partly in jest. But if y'all look around the current economic and political landscape this week, you might agree that all that writing about the future may have actually stood me in good stead for once.

Now all I need is a big, rusty nail.


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Sunday, September 28, 2008


Yeah, I know. Merciful extended silence again.

Not that there's nothing to talk about. There's a paper just out in Consciousness & Cognition which purports to prove that logical thinking requires consciousness (which would seem to contradict other findings, but I haven't read the paper yet so who knows). I've been ruminating on the inherent and hardwired dumbness of electorates throughout this continent, and various recent neurological findings — not to mention archival analysis of "Hardy Boys" novels — that might cast some light on why this would be. My name seems to be getting cited as an exemplar of Gloom in an online squabble about "The New Dismal" in science fiction. And at long long last, I sent my first tale of the intrepid and grumpy starfarer Sunday Ahzmundin off to Gardner Dozois, who received it with somewhat greater enthusiasm than I was expecting, so that's good. (Thanks again to Ray for pointing out the inconsistencies in the penultimate draft of that story, and to all those others out there who threw rocks at him. You can stop now.)

But for various reasons — not the least being the necessity to prepare for a course that will probably end up being cancelled anyway, but which I have to gear up for regardless because we're only one registrant away from critical mass and the damn thing starts on Wednesday if it starts at all — I haven't had time to set all that stuff to screen yet. So in the meantime I'll simply point out that the broken Fizerpharm Vampire Domestication slideshow has at last been fixed, and is running again over here*.

*It is not yet running over on the Backlist page, though; that's a different Flash file, which I'll get around to fixing in turn eventually

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Avast! Here Be a Blindsightinator for Ye!

Aye me hearties, be ye rememberin' that time in Blindsight when Rorschach, she be putting the sun in scurvy Szpindel's eyes?

"Argh, I be seein' naught," Szpindel be sayin', his timbers a'shiver.

"It be the EM fields," James be barking. "That be how they signal. The briney deep, she be fulla words, she be—"

"I be seeing naught," Szpindel be saying. "I be blind as the skipper with his patch on the wrong eye!"

"Yar," Bates be lassooing the capstain. "That be a pretty mess— blast those scurvy rads…"

And then when they be hiding below decks, Szpindel be putting words to it…

"Ya reached for it, ya scurvy dog. You near be catchin' it. That not be blind chance."

"Argh, not blind chance. Blindsight. Amanda? Where be ye, wench?"


"Aye. Nothing be wrong with ye receptors," he be saying. "Eye be working right enough, brain not be seein' the signal. Brain stem, he be mutineer. Arrgh."

Now those buggering cabin-boys from Denmark, they be laying claim to me booty. They be putting out "Action-blindsight in two-legged landlubbers that be having compasses on their skulls, Arggh", and they be staking their claim last winter in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They be asking me to be hanging their guts from the crowsnest, they e'er be blackening my horizon.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

A couple of you asked about my offhand reference to an Israeli book deal a few days back. It now appears to be a go. Blindsight, by Peter Watts, is being translated into Hebrew by Kitdmat Eden, of which I know little beyond the fact that they put out some very nice cover designs. Or rather,

is being is being translated into Hebrew by Kitdmat Eden, of which I know little beyond the fact that they put out some very nice cover designs.

I can only hope that Blindsight's message of hope and universal harmony might help in some small way to bring peace to the Middle East.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I'm teaching a course on Writing Science Fiction at the University of Toronto

Or at least, I might be. Depends on how many people sign up. We're talking Wednesday evenings, between October 1 and November 19: eight two-and-a-half hour sessions covering the hallmarks of the genre, tips and techniques on research and world-building, plot construction, character development— you know the list. It will be hands-on. You will write. I will read your writing, and provide all manner of pithy insight and constructive feedback. Finally, I shall pass judgment upon you (in what I suspect may be my most favourite part of the exercise).

The course will focus on science fiction, not fantasy (which is being offered as a separate course). The only exception to this will be a brief digression into the horror genre, as I share with you my personal experiences with marketing, publishing, and promotion. Regular visitors to this crawl probably know what to expect on that front.

Right now, we're on the bubble; whether the course goes ahead depends on how many additional folks sign up over the next week or so. It's short notice, I know. I didn't know I was going to be teaching this thing myself until yesterday. Karl Schroeder — who was originally slotted for the gig — had to back out for health reasons, so I'm stepping up to the plate at the last minute.

Anyway, if you live in Toronto and your Wednesday evenings are free; if you have a yen to write science fiction; if you crave the kind of House-lite attitude and cat-laden asides you can only get at, plus a big helping of practical, customized nuts-and-bolts on the how-tos of the genre— and, most importantly, if you have $570 you're not especially attached to— why not surf on over to Continuing Ed's "Writing Science Fiction" listing and sign up? Online evidence notwithstanding, I really can be quite charming and informative in person.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Pedophilia in a Pill

You may remember the case a few years back of the Floridian hypersexual pedophile whose depravity hailed from a brain tumor; the dude (rightly) got off, since he wasn't culpable for the wiring in his head. You may even remember me taking the next step (scroll down to June 30th on the right-hand side), and remarking that the tumor didn't really make a difference— nobody is responsible for the way their heads are wired, and the legal system had taken the first step (again, rightly) towards acknowledging that the very concept of culpability, while convenient, is neurologically unsound.

Exhibit B*: Phillip Carmichael, a former Oxfordshire headmaster and pedophile, exonerated after a court decided that his extensive collection of child porn had been amassed while under the influence of prescription drugs. Once again we see evidence that we are mechanical. The very phrase "control yourself" is dualist at its heart, a logical impossibility. It conjures up images of a driver fighting to stop a careening car with bad brakes. But the fact is, there is no driver. There is only the car— we are the car— and when the brake lines have been cut, careening is just what cars do. Medical professionals prescribed a bunch of pills to this man, and they literally turned him into someone else.

You might think that this would make people feel a bit more kindly towards natural-born kiddy-diddlers. After all, if it's a chemical that turn you into a pervert, you're not really culpable, are you? You're taking the same drugs Carmichael was; the only difference is that they're not being produced by the factory Pharm down the road, they're being produced in your own head. If anything, natural-born pedophiles have even less choice in the matter than did our Exhibit B; at least Carmichael could have chosen more competent medical council.

I would be willing to bet, though, that most people would not think more kindly of pedophiles after performing this thought experiment, and in fact most people would vilify and shout down anyone who dared to make excuses for these monsters. Anything to do with kids is, by definition, a motherhood issue; and motherhood issues by definition turn us into irrational idiots.

But our legal systems generally define culpability in terms of whether offenders know that their acts are against the law, and by that standard I guess some kind of punishment is called for. Still. Let's at least be consistent about it, shall we? We know that a human system called Phillip Carmichael deliberately broke the law; it just wasn't the same Phillip Carmichael who ended up in court after the drugs were withdrawn. That Carmichael had been rebooted back into a benign, Linux sort of personality. The evil child-molesting Microsoft OS had been wiped. So if you want to be consistent about this, put Carmichael back on drugs until the guilty iteration reappears. Then put him in jail.

At least you'd know you have the right guy.

*Thanks to Nas Hedron for the link

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Friday, September 12, 2008

A Duality of Dysfunction at DragonCon

I was not at DragonCon this year. Actually, I have never been to DragonCon. But Aaron Douglas (aka deck chief Galen Tyrol*) was. And I'll have you know that he actually requested, nay, even demanded the books you see in his hands, thanks to some subtle psychological manipulation by one adrienne everitt the week before when he was up here in TO. So she brought him the books, and I believe they may have had some beers.

I do not know if ol' Aaron will ever get around to reading either novel, but perhaps that's just as well; evidently he's hoping that his next acting gig will be a little "less dark" than Galactica, in which case Starfish and Blindsight would not be a step in the desired direction anyway. But at least my own dysfunctional characters now share a documented point of intersection with the most gloriously dyfunctional cast o' characters in televised sf, and that is cool.

BTW, just to head off any misunderstandings, I did not put adi up to this. In fact, I kinda cringed to learn that she was doing it on my behalf; we're all familiar with those tub-thumping authors who shout ME ME ME at every opportunity, and, well, ewwww. But while I would never pimp my stuff so brazenly to anyone — much less to a prominent community figure who probably gets accosted with this kind of shit all the time — I gotta say, I'm squeeed into the stratosphere that adi did.

*And if any of you have to be told who that is, you have no business on this crawl.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Blame Him.

So why have I been so silent lately? It's not as though there's been any recent shortage of events worthy of scorn. Sarah Palin brought home the Moron Vote— that most vital of American voting demographics— to the Republicans. The craven cocksucking cowards leading every major Canadian political party got together and decided to exclude the Green Party from pre-election debate, lest the whole country see them getting beaten up by a girl. And the Large Hadron Collider avoided blowing up the universe by the merest of margins. Why aren't I commenting on any of this?

Blame this guy:

Note the dull, cunning hatred in the eyes. Note the sullen set of the mouth, the garish bling, the gangsta shirt that celebrates one of the most pernicious and addictive drugs on the planet. Notice how he refuses to meet your eyes, no matter how long you look at him.

Let's call him "Ray".

"Ray" "works" at the "car dealership" around the "corner" (at least, that's his secret identity). I gave him a sneak peek at a story I'd just written for an upcoming space-opera anthology (if you visit the crawl with any regularity, you may remember the fiblets I've been dribbling out over the past several months). I wasn't quite satisfied with it myself— seemed too talky, too motionless— but I knew I had nothing to worry about from this puppy. After all, "The Island" had been thoroughly vetted by not one, but two groups of published authors, whose expertise ranged from engineering to anime with a smattering of Mormonism in between; it had come through those gauntlets with pretty glowing reviews. What was an IT guy from Porsche gonna come up with?

"Ray" pointed out that the back half of the plot depended on one of the characters knowing stuff that the front half of the story had clearly established he didn't know. Also that the front half of the story depended on the same character not knowing a bunch of stuff that the back half of the story established that he pretty much had to know. Neither I nor any of the 15 people who workshopped the story had noticed this.

"Ray" has destroyed the past two weeks of my "life", as I scramble to do corrective surgery on a 13,000 word story due at the end of the month. There's been no time to blog, answer e-mails, vet Israeli book contracts, or track down the source of the rancid cat-pee smell lingering in my bedroom. There is only the rewrite.

Which I should probably get back to. In the meantime, if you happen to be in downtown Toronto and run into "Ray", do me a favor and buy him a drink.

Then, when he isn't looking, hit him with a rock.


Monday, August 25, 2008

Speciation Ahoy!

Strange Horizons has just posted this bipartite piece on Scott Bakker's Neuropath and my own Blindsight. It's billed as a review, but it doesn't read as one so much as a brief comparative essay on the thematic focii of the two novels. The reviewer— one Nader Elhefnawy, visiting professor of Literature out of U. Miami— regards the books as exemplars of sf's "new direction", a course also being plotted by the likes of Ted Chiang, Greg Egan, and Daryl Gregory as a kind of nihilistic counterpoint to the post-cyberpunk Singularity-huggers.

So I'm looking at this, and I'm thinking Hmmm… an academic comparing two related works in a burgeoning thematic niche. Or, more concisely: New Subgenre! All we really need to keep the marketers happy (and to keep the unicorn-huggers out of our shelf space at Barnes & Noble) is a name.

I call dibs on Neuropunk. Who's with me?

Update 26/08/08 (in response to Ray's well-taken comment): Ooh! Ooh! Even better:


Doesn't it just roll off the tongue? It sounds like some kind of all-natural herbal remedy!

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Friday, August 22, 2008

A Plague of Angels (or, Rorschach in your living room!)

Well, this is interesting. Intel has leapfrogged MIT on the whole magnetic-resonance schtick. They can wirelessly light a 60-watt bulb from almost a meter away, wasting only 25% of the broadcast energy in transit. This is a good thing, because "…the human body is not affected by magnetic fields," Josh Smith from Intel reassures us. "It is affected by electric fields. So what we are doing is transmitting energy using the magnetic field not the electric field." And I have to admit, it's heartening that the whole zapped-by-the-arc problem that electrocuted so many early-adopters seems to be a thing of the past.

I just have two teensy, niggling questions.

First up, in a world in which Peak Oil also seems to be a thing of the past — and in which the inextricably-linked issues of energy security and climate change grow increasingly troubling to anyone who isn't a) Michael Crichton and/or b) convinced that the Rapture will spirit them away and save their asses before the bill comes due — do we really want to be celebrating a technology that wastes a quarter of its kick before it even reaches its destination? Yes, the technology will improve over time; yes, efficiency will increase. But we're still talking about an omnidirectional broadcast here; even if the bulk of the signal strength passes in one direction, there's still going to be at least some wasted energy going out along the whole 360.

More to the point though, is Smith's confident assertions that "the human body is not affected by magnetic fields". Maybe he's talking about a different model of human body. Maybe the model he's talking about comes with a Faraday cage built into the skull, and is not susceptible to the induction of religious rapture1, selective blindness2, or the impaired speech and memory effects3,4 that transcranial magnetic stimulation can provoke in our obsolete ol' baseline brains.

Or maybe, once Intel gets its way and this "worldchanging" technology saturates our living space with directed magnetic fields, we'll all just start seeing things, bumping into chairs, vomiting from inexplicable bouts of spontaneous nausea, and freaking out at the sight of angels and aliens5 swarming through our living rooms.

Granted, so far you have to sit down in a lab and wear a magnetic hair-net to experience the effects I've described. But I wonder how many appliance-feeding magnetic-resonance transmitters we'll be able to load into our apartments before hallucinogenic hotspots start spontaneously appearing in our living rooms. At which point our local utility will reclassify these side-effects from "bug" to "feature", and add a small additional charge for "multisensory entertainment" onto our monthly power bill.

I'm actually kind of looking forward to it. It's bound to be cheaper than cable.

(Photo credit: Australian PC Authority)

Ramachandran, V.S., and Blakeslee, S. 1998. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. William Morrow, New York.
Kamitani, Y. and Shimojo, S. 1999. Manifestation of scotomas created by transcranial magnetic stimulation of human visual cortex. Nature Neuroscience 2: 767-771.
Hallett, M. 2000. Transcranial magnetic stimulation and the human brain. Nature 406: 147-150.
Goldberg, C. 2003. Zap! Scientist bombards brains with super-magnets to edifying effect. Boston Globe 14/1/2003, pE1.
Persinger, M.A. 2001 The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences. J Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neuroscience 13: 515-524.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Whiney, Shiney, Cerebrospiney

So much happened during my absence on the Island. Worldcon, for one. For another, a big honking propane storage facility blew up in the northwestern 'burbs of Greater Toronto, provoking howls of outrage from concerned citizens who wanted to know how such a dangerous facility ended up in the heart of a residential area. (And am I the only person who thinks that that's exactly where all such hazardous facilities should be? It's not as though the wildlife of northern Ontario are using the stuff; why should they bear the risks of a product we demand? Has anyone seen hard-hatted grizzly bears pumping their shit into our living rooms since Gary Larsen went away?)

But today I think I'll serve up a tripartite brain sampler; three little appetizers concerning neurons that are in turn whiney, shiny, and cerebrospinal.

Cerebrospiney: being the kind of fluid that's now filling the great cavernous hole in six-year-old Jessie Hall's head after doctors cut out half her brain to control seizures resulting from Rasmussen's encephalitis. Her father (who I'm sure has never heard the name Siri Keeton) says that there's no memory loss and that she's "the same Jessie" she always was. Of course, he also said that her survival was "a miracle of medicine and God"— presumably the same God who stuck the encephalitis into her head in the first place. Which would logically make the liberation of Auschwitz at the end of WW2 "a miracle of the Russians and Nazis". Man, what I wouldn't give to have God's PR guy on my side.

Shiney: being the porridge of rat neurons running Gordon, an echolocating robot out of the University of Reading. (Most of you have already seen this; at least, most of you seem to have sent me the links.) It's getting close enough to the head-cheeses of the rifters trilogy— right down to the little rows of electrodes poking up into the tissue and incipient behavioral unpredictability— that Technovelgy describes it as "a pretty exact match" to the rifters vision, and although that's a big overstatement I am tickled at the nod because not too many other authors seem to have picked up on the whole head-cheese thing way back in the twentieth century. But it's probably worth noting the slightly grumpy dissent of Steve Potter from the Georgia Institute of Technology, whose work is extensively cited in New Scientist's coverage (check the comments for this entry). Potter regards the Reading work as just another incremental step on the path, and not nearly so shiny as the popular press has made it out to be (although if you ask me, cultured neurons running robot bodies is pretty damn shiny no matter how you slice 'em). Could just be the sour grapes of an upstaged rival, of course. Still, anyone who's spent more than thirty seconds in academia will know that it's not the people with the best ideas who rise to the top; it's the people with the best self-promotion. Just like everywhere else on the planet.

Whiney: being my own neurons, which may verge on paranoid at the best of times, but that doesn't mean everyone isn't out to ignore me (well, everyone except Technovelgy, I guess). Take these i09 folks, for example. A while back they did a list of recent sf novels that put the "hard" back into sf. And you know, there are a lot of those, so you really can't feel too hard done by if your own book doesn't make the list, even if none of those that did came with a hundred-plus technical references. The fact that one of the novels they did cite was self-published made me wonder how widely they'd cast their net for candidates, but whatever. At least a couple of folks mentioned Blindsight in the Comments section.

But now they've done a piece on science-fiction rationales for vampires, and I'm sorry r's and K's but I own that particular bit of the genre. And Blindsight did not exactly go unmentioned in the field. I mean, come on, people: Half a dozen final award ballots. Multiple printings. Eight languages. Marc Andreessen even put it on his list of the best sf novels of the new century, and a good chunk of those hundred-plus technical references appeared under the heading "A brief primer on vampire biology". There's even a Powerpoint for chrissakes (or there was, until Flash fucked everything up with their so-called "upgrade"). So do you think Blindsight finally got a nod over at i09?

Not a whisper. Unless you count all those people in the Comments section, wondering why Blindsight wasn't mentioned.

I mean, seriously. What does it take to get a date with these people? I'll even bring my own kneepads.

And what does "i09" even mean, anyway?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Rumor Control

I have it on reasonably good authority that David Hartwell, during a panel on upcoming Tor titles at last week's Worldcon, announced that he had sent me a contract for a new novel and was awaiting my response.

Technically this might be true. In terms of the take-home message, however — i.e. the reasonable inference that I'm still in bed with Tor, and that another Peter Watts novel is imminent or even likely from that publisher— it is not.

Just so you know.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I, Steampunk

Ślepowidzenie is out in Poland. The cover makes it look kinda like a Jules Verne retread, and I mean that in a good way; in terms of literal, technical detail it gets pretty much everything wrong, but in terms of thematic ambience (and basic artistic skill) it rules.

This is just as well, because I was never consulted on this cover despite a clause in the contract stipulating that I would be (a clause I have insisted on, for obvious reasons, in every contract subsequent to the Tor edition). Once again I am reminded of how fucking impotent authors are, and how utterly meaningless contracts are. Over the past year, various contracts have promised me input on cover art; interest payments for late advances; consultation on audio performances; and unabridged transcription of text. And whenever these commitments have failed to solidify, I've always been told that there's fuck-all I can do about it; the contracts contain promises but no penalties. They're universally described as essential things for authors to have, yet there doesn't seem to be any recourse when a publisher breaks them.

But I digress; I'm very happy with the way this cover turned out. And initial reader reaction seems to be pretty positive too; Google translation software isn't all it might be, but this nine-star rating is pretty unambiguous. And others seem to be using words that port over as "best book published this year" and "deserve the highest praise".

So overall, a good start in Poland. I just wish there were more than fifty people in that country.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

All Hail the Mighty Ursabelle!

It takes a while sometimes for electrons to get all the way out here to Gibralter Point, but my understanding is that Elizabeth won the short-story Hugo last night for "Tideline". And though I hate her for her talent and her characters, I also love her for her talent and her character.

So, way to go, Ursabelle. Another rock face scaled.


Saturday, August 9, 2008

Not the Rock. The Point.

I have dropped off the face of Toronto for the next week, returning to the magical land of orange tabby and slate-grey cats Gibralter Point, and to an annual writing retreat that I haven't attended for a few years now. My primary goal is to finally hammer those fiblets I've been dribbling into a coherent story. You might be surprised, given how sparsely I've been rationing the suckers out, but there's a good 15K worth of prose in that tale— not to mention an awful lot of pot-holes, untidy seams, and placeholding asterisks which have to be filled by actual numbers once I finally work out the morphometric algebra. There've been 15K for a couple of months now, just sitting, and not getting any better; and the damn thing's due at the end of September. So this is it. This is the week I buckle down and whip the sucker into shape (and not incidentally, get some feedback from fellow writers).

So I don't really know how much I'll be posting to the crawl over the next few days. If it goes exceptionally well, I might shower you all with glee and excerpts. Likewise, if I make no progress at all I might shower you all with displacement activity. But if you hear little or nothing from me, perhaps that means I'm plugging away, and I shouldn't be disturbed because it's slowly but surely coming together.

In the meantime, I would just like to point out that D=Danielle has got the most endearing user pic ever.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Reznor and the Singularity

Well, they suckered me. After I'd heard so much about the vaunted FX of Nine Inch Nails' live show, Reznor et al stomped through an opening assortment of Slip and Year Zero tracks against a competent-but-hardly groundbreaking backdrop of coloured spotlights and dry-ice vapor. Four or five songs in, I was resigning myself to merely settling for the best industrial noise this side of Eraserhead, when —


—suddenly the boys were playing Ghosts on the night-time sand dunes of fucking Arrakis, and then


— they were playing "Vessel" from what I can only describe as the inside of a Cylon epileptic seizure, all bloody static and distorted neurological imagery and pounding plasma wavefronts. They never looked back. One moment they'd be spinning ethereal instrumentals in a fire-blackened twilit wetland where the water shimmered like yellow mercury; the next the stage would be infested with phalanxes of luminous teleporting spindles of light. Torrents of televisual static — you know, the old stuff dating from a time when Gibson's "television tuned to a dead channel" meant something other than a blue screen of death — swirled around the band's ankles like sea foam, then took flight to coalesce into an electronic overcast ten meters above the flooring. The whole damn stage would disappear behind walls of light that morphed from waterfall to a field of pulsing topographic tumors. At one point, some guy with a squeegee came out and actually wiped the dancing visual static away from midair, for all the world as if it were muddy streaks on someone's windshield. We saw a nighttime cityscape shimmering in heat haze, and igniting. Even the more conventional LED arrays seemed to be saying something, the patterns flickering across their faces just slightly the wrong side of random. I kept squinting to see if I could decipher some hidden message in those lights, and why not? This was the guy who spectroscopically embedded The Hand of God in the static burst at the end of "My Violent Heart". It's all noise, sure: but none of it is meaningless.

I walked out the stadium feeling a little like a Cro Magnon who'd just glimpsed the far side of the Singularity, with two thoughts tugging at the back of my mind:
  • Year Zero's logo for the Faithful Civil Patrol remains the best single icon of the contemporary U.S.A. in my experience; and
  • If Reznor had told the ecstatic, fanatical mob swaying before him
    to go into the streets and tear this fucking city down, Toronto's
    police force — only marginally less corrupt than the FCP, if a lot less religious — wouldn't have stood a chance.
I almost wish he had.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Revenge of the Butterballs

A few years back — before he ascended into Heaven with the angels — Cory Doctorow submitted a nifty little story to the Gibralter Point writing workshop (an annual affair for which, come to think of it, I am about to depart this very weekend). I don't remember the title, but one of the central characters was this geeky pudgeball who, by hacking his own metabolic software, morphed into a ripped hi-def hard body without having to exercise. (This was at the height of the second Atkins craze, when eating a stack of bunless bacon cheeseburgers had stopped being a "weird-ass diet" and had started being a new way to "hack the body".) Sitting in the Commons afterwards, Cory expressed his outrage at the fact that the human body has to exercise for at least twenty minutes before flipping into fat-burning mode. "Suppose you want to read a book at night," he analogized, decrying the need for physical exercise, "and the light will only stay on if you keep hitting the switch every two seconds. We're supposed to applaud the guy who sits there all night hitting the switch? Why not just rig the damn thing so it stays on?"

"But Cory," said I, from my vantage point of greater age and vastly greater biological wisdom, "you're assuming that we're living in some kind of magical Corytopia where there's another option. You seem to think we all drag our asses out the door to go running at six a.m. because we're too stupid to just pop the hardbody pill in the medicine cabinet. But there is no hardbody pill. Not yet. So for the time being, you either keep hitting the damn switch or you stop reading when the sun goes down." And we both went away happy; me because I was right, and Cory because his story sold to Salon the next week and got optioned for a movie deal the week after.

Only now, Cory still has his option deal, and I'm not even right any more. Because now there's this new drug, AICAR, that tricks the body into thinking that it's just had a massive workout and had better start building more type-1 muscle fibers (original research here; NYT article here). Basically, we're talking triathlete-in-a-pill here. While the drug has so far worked its magic only on mice, they've already developed a test to detect its presence in cheating Olympic athletes so you know it's only a matter of time before people are using the stuff. And not much time, either; as obesity expert Richard Bergman opines, "the couch potato segment of the population might find this to be a good regimen". Duh, ya think?

You know what pisses me off about this, even more than Cory being right (again)? It's the fact that I've been hitting that damn switch every two seconds for pretty much my whole life. I first started doing pushups back in grade seven, when Keith Gill spat on my bike and I knew that he'd beat the crap out of me if I spat back on his, even though he was smaller than me. Ever since it's been a rearguard fight against entropy. I lose anywhere from six to nine hours weekly to running and working out, depending on the weather; I did an online questionnaire once and discovered that all this exercise will devour seven years of my life, and gain me only five in expected lifespan (which is a net loss of two years, if you're having trouble with the math). More than a workday per week devoted to fitness and I'm still only slowing the inevitable slide to terminal decay.

And now, any 200-kilo couch potato with a health card is gonna be able to pop a few pills and turn into The Rock while watching American fucking Idol? There better be side-effects, is all I can say. Really serious ones. I'm talking gonadal tumors the side of grapefruits. I'm talking primordial cysts erupting through newly-chiseled faces at time-lapse speed, right in the middle of a first date. I demand it.

Because otherwise, you know what? Life just wouldn't be fair.


Saturday, August 2, 2008

Loving the Alien

We sleep. The chimp makes grudging corrections to a myriad small trajectories. I set the alarm to wake me every few weeks, burn a little more of my candle in case the AI tries to pull another fast one; but for now, it seems to be behaving itself. 428 jumps towards us in the stop-motion increments of a life's moments, strung like beads along an infinite string. The factory floor slews to starboard in our sights: refineries, reservoirs, and nanofab plants, swarms of von Neumans breeding and cannibalising and recycling each other into shielding and circuitry, tugboats and spare parts. The very finest Cro Magnon technology mutates and metastasises across the universe like armor-plated cancer.

And hanging like a curtain between it and us shimmers an iridescent life form, fragile and immortal and unthinkably alien, that reduces everything my species ever accomplished to mud and shit by the simple transcendent fact of mere existence. I have never believed in gods, never believed in universal good or absolute evil. I have only ever believed that there is what works, and what doesn't. All the rest is smoke and mirrors, trickery to manipulate grunts like me.

But I believe in The Island, because I don't have to. It does not need to be taken on faith: it looms ahead of us, its existence an empirical fact. I will never know its mind, I will never know the details of its origin and evolution. But I can see it: massive, mindboggling, so utterly inHuman that it can't help but be better than us, better than anything we ever could have become.

I believe in The Island. I gambled my own son to save its life. I would have killed him to avenge its death.

I may yet.

In all these millions of wasted years, I have finally done something worthwhile.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Got Another One!

Nature published "Hillcrest v. Velikovsky" last week — and the very next day, this cog-sci dude named Mike Meadon posted an erudite and outraged blog entry on the insanity of the kind of world we live in, that such things could actually happen. Evidently he didn't realize that the work was fiction (until the famous PZ Meyers gently pointed it out). And to give the man his due, his subsequent post was all mea culpaey, and he left the original posting intact as an object lesson on the virtues of skepticism about skepticism.

This is not the first time I've managed to get smart people to believe dumb things (although this may be the first time I've done so without meaning to). I used to do it all the time. Back in the day, a friend and I used some judicious if low-tech special effects to convince a visiting Brazilian scientist that the Deer Island house we were staying in was haunted. When all the blinds in her room shot up simultaneously at three a.m., I swear she never touched a single step on her way downstairs and out the door. She not only refused to step back inside the house, she high-tailed it right off the island. Did the rest of her field work out of Grand Manan. (In hindsight, we actually felt kind of bad about that.)

But perhaps my proudest moment was during my doctorate, when I convinced a couple of fellow grad students (in arts, granted, but still) that whenever I went into the field I had to strip naked and glue yellow sponges all over my body, because harbour seals couldn't see yellow wavelengths. (Why not just wear yellow clothes? you ask. Why, because it would have to be yellow rain gear — given the wet field environment — and rain gear is slick, i.e. reflective, i.e. the seals would still be able to see the glare if not the actual colour.) My victims were astonished, and profoundly impressed by my dedication to the cause — "There has to be a better way", they insisted — but when I begged them to name one ("because seriously, those fuckers hurt when you rip them off"), they came up blank. Nice Matisse t-shirts, though.

Of course, the word gets around. These days, all I have to do is open my mouth and pretty much anyone who knows me will accuse me of trying to bullshit them. Still. I'm frequently astonished at how easy it is to Punk the People. I'm finally getting around to reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan, which takes way too long to get to the point but which makes a similar point: we as a species often believe the most absurd things as long as there's some kind of narrative attached. We are pattern-matchers, because patterns allow us to distill the environment into a series of simple rules. So we see patterns whether they exist or not, and stories that tie causes to any given phenomenon (I glue yellow sponges onto my naked body because harbour seals can't see yellow) are a lot more believable than those which simply report the same phenomenon in isolation (I glue yellow sponges onto my naked body). We are engines in search of narrative. Evidently this goes a long way towards explaining the inanity of most CNN headlines.

Not sure I buy it completely, though. If the telling of stories were really so central to the human condition, you'd think those of us who did it for a living would at least get a decent dollar out of it.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I Talk Too Little

So the folks over at SF Signal approached me to answer their latest Mind Meld question, to wit, "Which science fiction or fantasy novels, past and present, do you consider to be the most controversial? Why?" And I answered, but I composed my answer during a couple of spare moments during Polaris, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Doubletree Hotel while that leashed slave chick I mentioned last entry paraded back and forth. So I was a bit distracted, and misread the question so I thought they were asking us to focus on a single book — and while I cited several I ended up going with Delany's Dhalgren, praising its lyricism, its plotlessness, and all that explicit gay porn.

And now I'm a wee bit embarrassed because the other respondents provided answers with far more depth than mine, citing obvious examples I'd missed (The Satanic Verses. The Iron Dream. A Clockwork Orange. Duh.), and occasionally making a good case for less-obvious ones (Sawyer's The Terminal Experiment never struck me as especially "controversial", but evidently its Nebula win provoked a certain amount of outrage back before my time). So if you want some really thoughtful commentary, skip the first paragraph and go from there. (My eye was especially drawn to Tim Holman's shrewd observation that these days, the most controversial element in science fiction is the lack of controversial works it's producing. Amen.)

Anyhow, I'll try to be more verbose in future. Promise.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A guy with a light saber. And his slave girlfriend on a leash.

One guess as to which of those elements I found hotter.

Yup, there's a whole different clientele that shows up at these Polaris things compared to, say, the more literary (those red-staters among us might say "effete") affairs like Readercon. Out of the ten panels I sat on, only three had a literary focus; the rest were all media. And because books is what I do, I'm guessing that such panels figured far more heavily on my schedule than they did on most. (And even most of the literary panels dealt with authors whose books had been adapted for the screen: Tanya Huff, Jim Butcher, that Reeves-Stevens couple. Oh, and some chick called Rowling.)

So, not exactly the joyous reunion of rarely-seen friends that characterizes the usual cons I attend, although there were a few familiar faces: Christian Sauvé, Doug Smith, Derwin Mak (who for some reason spent Friday night dressed up in some kind of historical naval garb, which I strangely found more disquieting than the usual retinue of droids, Daleks, and Klingons wandering the halls). Dave Nickle of course, but hell, I seem him pretty much every day; we clung to each other for comfort over by the marshmallow fondue, when nobody paid any attention to us at the blast-off party.

And there were new faces to scrutinize: the statuesque adrienne everitt, who lives just up the street from my dad, and who rode shotgun on our vampire panel dressed like Milla Jovovich from the Resident Evil flicks (she pulled it off, too). Timothy Carter, who wasn't a completely new face because he did beat up a six-year-old to bring me a can of Coke back in 2002, when he was but a fan and I was a Mighty Author. (He's a mighty author in his own right, now). Declan Dennehy, who hasn't been able to get past the first chapter on Maelstrom in seven years of trying. And Shelly Li from Nebraska, a teenage wunderkind who, despite not having actually published anything yet, is beating off agents with a stick (including a certain former, unlamented agent of mine). I've been in intermittent e-mail contact with her for a few months now, and was just relieved to find that she was pretty much who she claimed to be online (albeit with the social skills of someone fifteen years older); I'd been half-expecting some 43-year-old chain-smoking potbellied dude with a fetish for role-playing.

I met her parents too, briefly. They didn't seem in a great mood for some reason.

And the panels, for all their geeky obsession over the significance of Giaus Baltar's nosebleed in S04E04*, were a lot of fun, and actually got better as the weekend progressed. I do remain mystified, however, by the unconscionable fact that a panel on The Starlost — easily the Plan 9 of televised sf — somehow drew twice the audience of one on The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Someone's going to pay for that.

*Admittedly, it was me who introduced that particular element into the mix…


Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Smell of Fear

So. A mere four days before Polaris is scheduled to begin, I drop them a line to ask what events I'm scheduled for. Oops, say they, I guess we forgot to tell you. You're scheduled for ten events. You're moderating five of them. Guess you'd better start preparing, huh?

It gets better. Some of the panels I'm moderating only have one other panelist. Normally, you'd think that any subject that couldn't reel in at least three enthused geeks would get taken off the table. Not at Polaris. So now, as things stand, looks like I'm gonna be the main guy responsible for an hour's worth of free-for-all on subjects as diverse as the Sarah Connor Chronicles, BSG, and the plausibility of vampires.

All of which I'm more than happy to tangle over with a decent-sized panel, or hash out over beers with one or two confidants. Not so pleased at the prospect of trying to keep things going for a solid hour at the front of an empty room, with one other conscript. So if any of you folks are gonna be showing up at these festivities, you might want to drop by and liven things up. Especially since I'm not going to inflict a reading or a signing on anyone this time around. (If you're really into masochistic appeasement, you might even show up for the BSG:Razor panel, which is scheduled for one fucking a.m. on Sunday morning!)

Anyhow. This is my current Polaris schedule, which might be subject to change but is probably pretty solid at least in its broad outlines. I'm moderating the panels with the enboldened titles. Titles in red are those for which there are presently only two panelists scheduled — that's over half of mine, if you're counting — and which will probably end badly.


  • Minimum 400 Pages (07/11/08 07:00 PM)
    The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is not a long book. A World of Ptavvs is not a long book. Today, it's not certain that a book under 400 pages can even get published. What has changed? Is it us, or the publishing industry? Panelists: Douglas Smith, Peter Watts, Tanya Huff (M), Shannon Butcher, David Nickle
  • Blast Off Party (07/11/08 08:30 PM)
  • Battlestar Galactica: The New Series (07/11/08 11:00 PM)
    What makes Battlestar Galactica so great? How do we feel about it coming to an end? Panelists: Brian Kierans, Geoffrey Gard, Peter Watts (M), David Nickle


  • Battlestar Galactica Season 4.0 Review (07/12/08 10:00 AM)
    A look back at the first half of the last season. How will everything wrap up? Where could the franchise go after it's all over? Panelists: Diane Lacey, Janet Embury (M), Peter Watts, Sheena Callighen
  • The Sarah Connor Chronicles (07/12/08 04:00 PM)
    While far from a perfect show (and in some cases downright dumb), T:SCC has a surprising depth and literacy to it. It routinely riffs off various literary, historical, and scientific precedents ("The Turk", "Lord of the Flies", The Manhattan Project, and even Vinge's Singularity, which is astonishing more for the fact that other shows *haven't* done this than for the fact that this one has.) They're also smart enough to have subtly worked solutions to some really arcane technical problems in a way that makes us geeks go "Cool!", yet avoiding the kind of infodump delivery that would kill the pacing for everyone else. Come and discuss this spinoff from the hugely popular Terminator films. Panelists: Peter Watts (M), Declan Dennehy.
  • The Slow Apocalypse (07/12/08 08:00 PM)
    20th century stories often had the world ending with a big bang and a mushroom cloud. Global warming, over population, crop/fuel failures and diseases are slow catastrophes. How might our world slowly crumble during the 21st century? Panelists: Peter Watts (M), Ian Stuart
  • Plausible Vampires (07/12/08 11:00 PM)
    This one doesn't seem to be on the official program list yet, so let's just hunker down and hope no one notices. If you're reading this blog, you pretty much know what it's gonna be about anyway. Panelists: Peter Watts (M), adrienne everitt.

  • Battlestar Galactica: Razor (07/13/08 01:00 AM)
    The TV movie filled in the gaps from the series, introduced new characters and fleshed out minor ones, and showed a different perspective on humanity's reaction to a Cylon attack. Were you satisfied with the film's contribution to the story? Did Razor raise more questions than it answered? Panelists: Geoffrey Gard, Justin O'Donnell (M), Peter Watts
  • BSG: For the Greater Good (07/13/08 11:00 AM)
    Battlestar Galactica has always been about making decisions for the benefit of humanity that may be to the detriment of individuals' rights. Use of bioweapons, seizure of supplies for military needs, torture of prisoners, the Circle — is it really for the greater good? Panelists: Diane Lacey (M), Peter Watts
  • Science Fantasy? (07/13/08 12:00 PM)
    Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Has cutting edge science gotten so far beyond the understanding of most readers, and writers, that any story is essentially science fantasy? What makes something "Science Fiction" and how much science does it have to contain to qualify? How have attitudes toward the field changed? Panelists: Peter Watts (M), Timothy Carter


The voices that control me from inside my head say I shouldn't kill you yet.

Self-loathing giant squid. Bad-ass fucking fractals. If Randy Newman did the theme for The Passion of the Christ. A furry old lobster and a creepy doll. GLaDOS. An extended dance remix of a contest for the world's best pants. Tom Cruise.

Oh, and your brains.

I just had front-table seating at Jonathan Coulton's first-ever Canadian appearance, backed up by two guys called Paul and Storm who I'd never heard of, but who were pretty fucking clever in their own right.

It was a triumph.

Update: Vaguely Satanic buddy David Nickle has Youtubed some excellent footage of last night, specifically Coulton's ensemble rendition of "Re: Your Brains", courtesy of Karen Fernandez's remarkably steady hand and a Canon Powershot. If you listen carefully, you can hear me in the chorus.


Friday, July 4, 2008

We Have a Pulse

…but not much more than that. I am not dead, but I am snowed under by a variety of contractual and literary obligations, and if anyone out there really wants to free up enough of my time for more frequent postings here on the ol' 'crawl, they'll show me an easy way to calculate the variance of a population estimate based on stratified strip transects of unequal length, when y along each transect has already been converted into a distance-weighted mean-density value prior to the variance calculation*.

But in the meantime, the galleys for Hillcrest V. Velikovsky just came in from Nature, and I really like the (unaccredited) illo by Jason Cook (thanks for the link, Henry) so I'm posting it here as a placeholder, along with a brief excerpt:
Mr Velikovsky was obviously well-versed in placebo effects, having built an erudite display on the subject. What did he think would happen, the Prosecution thundered, when he forced his so-called "truth" down the throat of someone whose motto — knitted into her favourite throw-cushion — was If ye have faith the size of a mustard seed, ye shall move mountains? In telling ‘the truth’ Velikovsky had knowingly and recklessly endangered the very life of another human being.

Velikovsky pointed out that he hadn’t even known Lacey Hillcrest existed, adding that needlepointing something onto a pillowcase did not necessarily make it true. The Prosecution responded that the man who plants land mines in a playground doesn’t know the names of his victims either, and asked if the defendant’s needle-point remark meant that he was now calling Jesus a liar. The Defense objected repeatedly throughout.
I initially wrote this piece as parody. Judging by some of the wacko responses to last month's podcast over on Starship Sofa, however, maybe I should reconsider.

More later. When I have, you know, a life.

*I mean, seriously, what are you supposed to use for n? Number of transects surveyed? The count has already been converted into units-per-square-mile. Number of square miles surveyed? Then how are you supposed to quantify variance between square miles, when each transect covers many miles and there's no way to position sightings within each transect?

And why are these bloody Americans still using "square miles" anyway? Next they'll be telling me to express transect length in furlongs…


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In Honor of George Carlin

Just a few days ago, I got a rather odd piece of e-mail apparently meant for me even though the salutation read "Dear Mr. Kelly". At least, if it wasn't meant for me, there's some other author out there whose writing is "not a fun place to be", and in which the ocean plays a prominent role. Which, come to think of it, is not especially unlikely.

Anyway, I endeavored to answer this guy's questions, which ranged from specific queries about Hemmingway flashfic to write-your-own-essay questions like "Why does ______ matter?" (I had to cut some corners on that last type, especially when the blank was filled by subjects like "the ocean" and "science fiction".) But the weirdest question of the lot had to be
"What is in your opinion the most important word or if that is to (sic) limited idea in the English language for story making etc . and why so?"
What the fuck, thought I. And therein lay the seeds of my answer:
I don't think there is a "most important word", but if forced to choose, I'd probably pick "fuck". Firstly, it appears in a lot of dialog. Secondly, it connotes mating/sexuality/reproductive behavior— and in Darwin's universe, everything boils down to inclusive fitness, reproductive success. Territorial squabbles, head-butting behavior, social systems: pretty much everything we do, the whole of human drama, is massively impacted by the energetics of reproduction.

Plus, it pisses my parents off something fierce.
A magic word, fuck. A voodoo word, condemned and censured by pretty much every official institution for no real reason anyone can pin down except that, a few centuries ago, this continent was invaded by a bunch of bible-thumping prudes so scared of their own animal secretions that they felt compelled to demonize any public reference to bodily functions. A day barely passes when I don't marvel at this absurdity. Somehow, unlimited and gratuitous use of the word frak is safe for the delicate ears of children the world over— but let fuck pass your lips, although it means exactly the same thing, and the glowering goons from Standards and Practices will have your ass in a sling and your broadcast license up for review faster than you can say "cuntlips". Assuming, of course, that you could say "cuntlips".

Carlin did his best to strip such words of the idiotic power they hold over the brain-dead in our midst. (He also had some cogent and cutting things to say about religion, not that many of the mainstream media types seem to be mentioning that aspect of his routine.) And now he's left us, his noble task incomplete.



Friday, June 20, 2008

From the Air

We are the cavemen. We are the Ancients, the Progenitors, the blue-collared steel monkeys; a thousand interstellar expressways in a thousand derivative works of historical fiction rose by our hands. We're the plot devices to let careless storytellers off the hook. We spin webs across the galaxy and conveniently disappear, millions of years before the real heroes arrive on stage. Oh, I've read the books; I've played the sims; I've watched the wraparounds. I've had plenty of time. I smile at every offhand digression, every throwaway line from bit players wondering what happened to us, where we went, what great filter might have driven us to extinction.

But we're not extinct. We're still out here laying the roads, crawling across the universe like ants, dragging your goddamned superhighway behind us. Don't excuse yourselves with legends of our fall. Don't justify your freeloading by pretending that we just went away, leaving all this miraculous infrastructure for you to play with. If you don't see us, it's because you don't dare look in the empty spaces. If you've forgotten who we are, it's because even now, in all your transcendent post-Human splendour, you're still too frightened to dip your toes into the void where we spend our lives. You're so used to stepping from A to B that you've forgotten the endless, infinite points between. Someone had to blaze the trail across that desert; and we got no help from magic carpets.

You will never catch up. You will always live in our slow, creaking, endless wake. You cannot go anywhere we have not already been.

And if, now and then, you happen to frown at some faint memory— if you ever wonder what you'd see if you bent down and peered into that abyss between the stars— the moment never lasts. You catch yourselves, and laugh nervously, and stop yourselves from thinking such foolish thoughts. Because you know there's no need to wonder. You know exactly what you’d see looking back at you from that place.

You know.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

I Am Fundamentalist, And So Can You.

This started out as a post about a recently-reported negative correlation between IQ and religious belief (thanks to Craig McGill for the link). It was going to be relatively restrained by local standards; while it's hard to resist the temptation to rub one's hands at yet more evidence that only Stupid People Have Imaginary Friends, I'd have voiced reservations over the unwarranted conflation of "academics" with "smart people" (believe me, there are as many dumb folks in those hallowed halls as there are anywhere else except maybe Fox News); the use of a single score to measure that multifaceted bag of traits we call "intelligence"; even the sloppiness of some of the third-party coverage (this headline, for example, gets the study's findings completely ass-backwards).

In the end, though, I decided to leave those poor bastards alone and come out of the closet myself.

I use the word "fundamentalist" in the sense promoted by Jonathan Rauch: anyone who cannot seriously entertain the possibility that they are wrong about their basic beliefs. It applies pretty obviously to Biblical literalists and their ilk, but the term is not limited to them. It extends to me. I suspect it even extends to the likes of Richard Dawkins, even though he has stated publicly that he would be willing to change his mind on the subject of God. All it would take, he says, is "evidence".

Which is a laudable attitude, and one that reflects the basic difference between science and religion. The question that's been occurring to me lately, though, is, what kind of evidence would it take to turn me into a believer? How much would be enough? God is such an outrageous proposition from so many angles that almost any alternative explanation would be more parsimonious. Mass hallucination. Brain tumors. The Matrix. Aliens with a propensity for juvenile practical jokes.

Imagine a scenario in which the heavens literally opened up, and a Big White Dude with a Mighty Beard and a flotilla of cherubim stroking His Divine Genitalia stared down at me through the clouds and proclaimed in a mighty voice,

I, God, exist! Take your photographs! Run your tricorder!

Would I believe? Fuck no. This has to be some kind of trick. And no matter how much evidence piles up — a smiley face embedded in pi at the thirteen-trillionth decimal place; a cosmological consensus that yes, there's really only one universe, and it really just does happen to be configured with all its physical constants tuned precisely to permit our existence; the literal appearance of the Four Horsemen — all of that, appearing in the face of such astronomically-massive odds, would still have to be weighed against the likelihood of the alternative.

What are the odds that I'm a brain in a tank or a computer simulation, and some bored undergrad is fucking with my sensory inputs? Pretty damn low. What are the odds that an entire physical multiverse was created by means unknown by an omnipotent omniscient sentient entity that exists eternally, without any cause or creator of its own?

Lower. Way lower. (Or at least, that model raises far more numerous and substantive questions than it pretends to answer.)

The bottleneck here is my own mental processes, my own ability to parse input from the outside world, to trust that said input even reflects an objective outside world. The limits are always in me; the brain contains too many tricks and shortcuts to trust implicitly, especially if it serves up something I consider impossible. Whatever input is thrust into my face, hack will always be a more parsimonious explanation than god.

Which leaves me unconvertible, and reduces me to the status of fundamentalist— and Dawkins' grand pronouncement about "evidence" to empty sophistry.

Sucks to introspect.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Like Many Of My Relationships, In Fact

Just came across this cover art for the upcoming German edition of Maelstrom. It is beautiful, but wrong.

The feel of the piece is great, don't get me wrong. Technically, it's terrific. It even evokes a couple of specific scenes from the very top of the tale. But I'm not quite sure where Lenie Clarke is. Perhaps she was eaten by that Alien V. Predator hybrid down in the lower left corner.

I'd assumed that the armor (complete with Gigeresque back spines) from the cover of Abgrund had been meant to portray Scanlon in his preshmesh outfit. I guess not. Can't be anybody inside this Malhstrom armor but Lenie, and she never overdressed for such occasions. There's a reason I called it a diveskin: she's a "slick back amphibian", remember, with occasional implants and implements protruding to break her lines. Basically I envision her as a black-spraypainted nude with a fetish for chrome piercings. (By the way, it would be a mistake to think you can infer anything about authorial taste in such matters from that description.)

Anyway, bottom line, it's the kind of cover that would catch my eye (in a good way) if I saw it in a bookstore. I would not be embarrassed to be seen carrying it on a subway (although I'd be even more not-embarrassed if a blurb or two should find its way onto all that fiery cloud cover by the release date). And it's light-years ahead of the abomination Tor* inflicted onto Blindsight's hardcover edition.

So this is not a complaint, not by any means. Just commentary.

*Speaking of Tor, I see that they too are releasing a new edition of Maelstrom here in N'Am. Two days before Christmas, in fact. It would have been nice if they could have, you know, told me. But hey, why start now?

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Night of the Non Sequiters

So the CBC pushed, as bullies are wont to do; only this time the rights holders of the iconic "Hockey Night In Canada" pushed back. Now, the game's afoot; Stephen Colbert has promised to make a habit of singing the newly-freed HNiC "while punching beavers in the face!" (oh, and — non sequiters within non sequiters here, but was that Jonathan Coulton backing up Hodgeman on "The Daily Show" the other night or was I dreaming?); the CTV snuck in and handed the CBC its ass on a plate, with a side of egg-on-face; and Canada's national broadcaster is suddenly in need of another National Anthem with which to begin its hockey nights.

Might I propose this heartfelt gem from Warren Zevon.

Seriously. There could be no finer candidate.


Sunday, June 8, 2008

I Still Want My Fucking Jet Pack...

But this will do in the meantime. Emotiv's brainwave-reading products made a brief appearance in last year's flash piece "Repeating the Past", which is set less than ten years from now, so it's nice to see they're still on track.

I bet Stephen Hawking already has one.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Family Values

Screw this. I'm sick of being outnumbered by morons. I'm calling in reinforcements.

Dix has got to have other parents, a father at least, he didn't get that Y chromo from me. I swallow my own disquiet and check the manifest; bring up the gene sequences; cross-reference.

Huh. Only one: Kai. I wonder if that's just coincidence, or if the Chimp drew too many conclusions from our torrid little fuckfest back in the Cyg Rift. Doesn't matter. He's as much yours as mine, Kai, time to step up to the plate, time to—

Oh shit. Oh no.

Please no.

Three builds back, it says. Kai and Connie. Both of them. One airlock jammed, the next too far away along Eri's hull, a hail-Mary emergency crawl between. They made it back inside but not before the blue-shifted background cooked them in their suits. They kept breathing for hours afterwards, talked and moved and cried as if they were still alive, while their insides broke down and bled out.

There were two others awake that shift. Two others left to clean up the mess. Ishmael, and—

"Um, you said—" he begins.

"You fucker!" I shoot from my chair as if springloaded, hit my son hard in the face, ten seconds' heartbreak with ten thousand years' denial raging behind it. I feel teeth give way behind his lips. He goes over backwards, eyes wide as telescopes, the blood already blooming on his mouth.

"You said I could come back—!" he squeals, scrambling backwards along the deck.

"He was your fucking father! You knew, you were there! He died right in front of you and you didn't even tell me!"

"I— I—"

"Why didn't you tell me, you asshole? The Chimp told you to lie, is that it? Did you—"

"I thought you knew!" he cries, "Why wouldn't you know?"

My rage vanishes like air through a breach. I sag back into my hammock, face in hands.

"It was right there in the log," he whimpers. "All along. Nobody hid it. How could you not know?"

"I did," I admit dully. "Or I— I mean…"

I mean I didn't know, but it's not a surprise, not really, not down deep. You just— stop looking, after a while. We see each other so rarely— ten, twenty times in the life of a sun— that you almost forget the difference between misplacing someone for a million years and losing them forever. I might have gone the rest of my life happily thinking that Kai was still alive, that we just kept— missing each other on the duty roster. You know the odds, you know the risks, and after a while it's just so much easier to not bother with the manifest. So you haven't seen her for the past five builds. So he hasn't drawn your shift since Sagittarius. They're probably just sleeping. Maybe next time.

I raise my eyes. Dix regards me wide-eyed from across the room, backed up against the wall, too scared to risk bolting past me to the door. "What are you doing here?" I asked tiredly.

His voice catches. He has to try twice: "You said I could come back. If I burned out my link…"

"You burned out your link."

He gulps and nods. He wipes at the blood with the back of his hand.

"What did the chimp say about that?"

"He said— it said it was okay," Dix says, in such a transparent attempt to suck up that I am certain, in that instant, that my son is most certainly on his own.

"So you asked its permission." He begins to nod, but I can see my own tell in his face: "Don't bullshit me, Dix."

"He— he actually suggested it."

"I see."

"So we could talk," Dix adds.

"What do you want to talk about?"

He looks at the floor and shrugs.

I stand up and walk towards him. He tenses but I shake my head and spread my hands. "It's okay. I'm not angry any more." I lean my back against the wall and slide down until I'm beside him on the deck.

We just sit there for a while.

"They say there's no such thing as altruism, you know?" I say at last.

His eyes blank for an instant, and grow panicky, and I know that he's just tried to ping his link for a definition and come up blank. So we are alone. "Altruism," I explain. "Unselfishness. Doing something that costs you but helps someone else." He seems to get it. "They say every selfless act ultimately comes down to manipulation or kin-selection or reciprocity or something, but they're wrong. I could—"

I close my eyes. This is harder than I expected.

"I could have been happy just knowing that Kai was okay, that Connie was happy. Even if it didn't benefit me one whit, even if there was no chance I'd ever see either of them again. Just the knowledge that they were okay, somewhere— that would make me happy.

"Even the fantasy would."

"So… so you don't check," Dix says slowly. Blood bubbles on his lower lip; he doesn't seem to notice.

"I don't check." Only I did, and now they're gone. They're both gone. Except for those little cannibalized nucleotides the Chimp recycled into this defective and maladapted son of mine.

All those people in cold storage — three hundred? Four? I've met maybe half of them. Befriended a mere handful. I may never meet all the rest. Maybe no one will. How many of us will sleep out our whole lives all the way to heat death, just because our numbers never come up?

All those people and none of them have our genes, not any more. Just Dix and me. We are the only warmblooded creatures for a thousand lightyears in any direction, and I am so very lonely.

"I'm sorry," I whisper, and lean forward, and lick the blood from his bruised and bloody lips.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Jury Duty, Day 3

bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored boredbored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored boredbored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored...

I did, however, get a fair bit of writing done. Including a new, longer-than-usual fiblet. Which I would post now, except someone has just phoned in search of beer and I need a break after all these 'crawlments I've just answered.

So, see you tomorrow.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Jury Duty, Day 1.5

Morning uneventful, with the exception of a brief episode in which some doofus at the next table was heard to opine that "It's just a myth that we're running out of oil" and I practiced my inestimable skills at self-discipline by not throwing a bag of peanuts at his head. Got some writing done on "Pidgin" or "Tardigrade" or "Remus"— the Sunflowers story that the recent fiblets have been coming out of, anyway (any preferences among those titles, btw?).

Buggered off in the afternoon to attend a friend's wedding, at which I'd agreed to serve as ring-bearer only on the condition that I be allowed to raise my hand when the Justice of the Peace reached that point about "If any here know of any reason why these two should not be joined" 1. Idle conversation amongst the assembled prior to the ceremony covered a range of topics including gang rape, alcohol abuse, and the TV series House. Last words spoken by the bride prior to ritual were "Remember: everybody lies," which I assumed was meant in reference to her imminent vows until I realized that I had been screwed and the "if anyone has objections" bit had been deleted from the ceremony. The ceremony ended with the traditional "I now pronounce you married", and a somewhat less-traditional cry of "I change my mind!" from the bride five seconds later.

Went for a gnosh (nosh?) afterwards and met some interesting folks, including the sound wizard who salvaged the mix on Rush's Counterparts album. He tells me both Geddy Lee and Neil Peart are clinical geniuses. (Alex Lifeson, not so much.) Bride wanted to know the spatial radius for allowable infidelity when doing field research; husband pointed out that under Canadian law, someone could be throwing napalm on a helpless victim right in front of you, and you would not be legally required to do anything to stop them or help the victim even you knew the assailant would abort the attack if you asked nicely. This also answers yesterday's unasked question about accessories. Not only is the answer "no", but in Canada we don't even use the word "accessory", preferring instead the more festive "party to the crime". (We don't use the word "felony" either, apparently.)

Also, in this country you apparently cannot legally consent to have your finger cut off.

1Said objection would have been an in-principle observation that Humans — in fact, mammals in general — are not by nature monogamous, and the whole death-do-us-part shtick is more probably rooted in a money grab by religious institutions than in any improbable evolutionary anomaly.


Monday, June 2, 2008

Jury Duty, Day 1.

We begin with an educational video on the Joys of Jury Duty so lame that just watching it made me feel like I was living an episode of The Simpsons. Inspirational music susurrating around the voices of really bad actors wearing head scarves and hard hats, all spouting variants of "When I was summoned for jury duty, I thought, why me? But now I know that there's nothing more exciting than serving the cause of Justice and my fellow Canadians! And even though they don't pay us or give us travel allowances, and even though they'll throw us in jail for six months and fine us $5,000 if we try to skip out, and even though their lawyers get $500/hour while we have to pay $3 for a cup of fucking coffee while trapped in an underventilated corral with four hundred fellow cattle and three hundred fifty chairs and no fucking wireless access, I know that the Justice System of Canada values me, because you can't have a jury without jurors!"

Most telling dialog-based inference to get past the censors: "And it really restored my faith in the Canadian Justice System!"

Right out of the gate, called up to court. Sadly the jury was selected before my name was even called, although I suspect my chances of being accepted were probably pretty low after I pumped my fist in the air and said "Yes! Score!" when they announced that the trial was for First-Degree Murder.

Most unexpectedly heartening moment: When I realized that of the twelve final selected jurors, all of whom were given the choice of swearing on a Bible or merely making an oath of affirmation, every last one of them chose the non-faith-based alternative. I did miss the usual irony of seeing people swearing to tell the truth on a book of falsehoods — in an institution supposedly predicated on the pursuit of fact and empiricism, no less — but I was glad to pay that price if it means that so many of our population have opted out of superstition.

Question Most Regretted For Not Having Had the Chance to Ask: "While I accept the need for secrecy during the course of the trial itself, I think I probably will be talking to other folks about my jury deliberations after the trial concludes, even if it does break your stupid law. My question is: since you now know this, are you not making yourself an accessory by allowing me to continue serving as a potential juror?"


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Don't Mention the War!

Heyne — publishers of the German editions of Blindsight, Starfish, and the eventually-to-be-released Maelstrom — have just closed the circle and made an offer on βehemoth, which they intend to release as a single volume as God (i.e. me) intended. I have instructed my former agent to accept their offer before they change their minds.

So. Every one of my novels, already or soon-to-be translated into German. This is good in a way, but also very bad, because I have now run out of books to pawn off on that particular market.

I should probably write another one.


Continuing Ed

I can almost remember mortality. I lived each day as it came, at the rate of one second per second— because really, what else was there to do?

I can almost imagine immortality: all of infinite entropy stretching out before you, more than worlds enough and time to scale any peak a mind might set for itself. What would it take, I wonder, to provoke such a being to haste? What need to hurry, with eternity to play in? What value could mere moments hold? Mere millennia?

Moments matter a great deal to me. Moments are all I have. Here on Eriophora we exist in some state between those others, one foot in the grave, the other on an event horizon. Tidal forces tear us straight up the middle. I have two or three hundred years to ration across the lifespan of a universe. I could bear witness to any point in time, or any hundred— any hundred-thousand if I slice my life thinly enough— but I am not immortal. I will never see everything. I will never see even a fraction.

I have to choose.

When you come to fully appreciate the deal you've made — ten or fifteen builds out, when the trade-off leaves the realm of mere knowledge and sinks deep as cancer into your bones— you become a miser. You can't help it. You ration out your waking moments to the barest minimum: just enough to keep the mission on track, to plan your latest countermove against the Chimp, just enough (if you haven't yet moved beyond the need for Human companionship) for sex and snuggles and a bit of warm mammalian comfort against the endless dark. And then you hurry back to your crypt, to hoard what's left of a human lifespan against the unwinding of the cosmos.

There's been plenty of time to educate myself in matters of biology. Time enough for a hundred postgraduate degrees, thanks to the best that aeons-old learning technology has to offer. I have never availed myself of those opportunities: they would burn down my tiny candle for a litany of mere fact, they would fritter away my precious, endless, finite life. The vistas of this universe surpass the most sublime religious rapture; mere book-learning would be a dry and dusty garnish to trade for the Cassiopeia Remnant.

Now, though. Now, I want to know. This thing crying out across the gulf, this creature massive as a moon, wide as a solar system, tenuous and fragile as an insect's wing: I'd gladly cash in some of my life to learn its secrets. How does it work? How can it even live in this wasteland of absolute zero, much less think? What godlike intellect must this thing possess to see us coming from half a lightyear away, to deduce the nature of our eyes and our instruments, to send us a signal that we can even detect, much less understand?

And what happens when we punch through it at a fifth the speed of light?


A Word to my Imposter

So it turns out there's this Peter Watts page on Facebook, and it reports on the presence of this Peter Watts character who evidently joined Facebook on April 11 2008, and who posted cover art from my books and also posted, I'm guessing, that sepia-tinged photo of me from Readercon.

The thing is, that person is not me.

I did join Facebook briefly, back when I was with On Spec, because that was the only way to access their Facebook page. However, I shut down my account1 once I parted ways with those gutless wonders, and I'm pretty sure I'd remember if I'd set up a self-aggrandizing shrine within the past two months. (After all, I remember setting up this website.)

I've no objection to anyone setting up a PW tribute page if they want to (although given the pitiful number of people who've signed up, not to mention the negligible level of activity thereof, I might also be inclined to just take a hint and quietly pack the thing up). But I would ask them, please— in fact I would even demand, please— that they use a different name than mine. There are enough real Peter Wattses out there as it is: there's an astronomer, a wine merchant, a New Zealand Artist, Naomi's dead dad, and a drummer to name but a few. I'll go out on a limb and guess that none of us want our names stuck on things we've no connection to. In my own case, it makes me look pretty pathetic if people think I've had to resort to setting up my own fan site.

So please, whoever you are. Knock yourself out; but do change the name.

1 At least, I shut it down insofar as FB would let me; it still greets me by name when I land on a page in its domain, cheerfully telling me that my account is dormant and explaining how to reactivate it, so they obviously haven't purged my personals. The fuckers.


Friday, May 30, 2008

Look into the Mirror

So, my bud Dave Williams' The Mirrored Heavens is out, and garnering raves as well it should. And if you wander over to the appropriate Amazon page and click on the cover art, you'll see a blurb dead center of the spread, courtesy of Stephen Baxter.

But once you get your hands on the actual book you'll see a whole different quote there, from me:

And I don't know if they decided at the last moment they simply liked my blurb better (possible, I suppose), or if they thought my name would sell more books than Stephen Baxter's (unlikely, and misguided if true) or if someone screwed up and spliced in the wrong quote just before everything went off to the printers (which, as I can attest from personal experience— albeit with a different publisher— has happened before). Or if Dave just sent me a one-off vanity mock-up to feed my ego and set me up for a fall. Regardless, I'm pleased to see my name up there, basking in a little of Dave's reflected glory.

Not least because Bantam/Spectra turned Blindsight down flat.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Oral Delights"

Those are the phonetics spoken by Tony Smith at the top of the latest issue of Starship Sofa, at least, and while I'm pretty sure that Aural Delights is the more accurate spelling, I'm betting the ambiguity is deliberate.

I'm over there, anyway, in all my slightly-too-nasal vocal glory, nattering on for twenty minutes about conjoined supervillians and a neuro-legal rationale for killing twins. (Also a brief snark about the dumbness of therapists.) It's the first installment of Reality, ReMastered, my monthlyish exercise in free-wheeling bullshit, for those of you who don't get enough of that here. I'm near the top of the mp3, coming in between a neat little poem by Laurel Winter and the main payload, a story called "Easy as Pie" by Rudy Rucker.

So check it out, if you're so inclined. Me, I'm gonna watch the season finale of Lost.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Serpent's Tooth

You sent us out here. We do this for you. We break this painstaking trail, crawl across the universe while time itself runs down; we spin the webs and tie the knots and open the doors, then scuttle away before the light of your coming turns us into plasma.

Is it too much to ask, that you might talk to us now and then?

I know about evolution, and engineering. I know how much you've changed over a billion years. I've seen our portals give birth to gods and demons and creatures we can't begin to comprehend. I've seen things I still can't believe were ever human; alien hitchikers, perhaps, riding the rails we've left behind. Alien conquerers.

Exterminators too, if I'm not mistaken.

But I've also seen those gates stay dark and empty until they faded from our sight. We've infered diebacks and dark ages, civilizations burned to the ground and others risen from their ashes— and sometimes, the things that come out afterwards look a little like the ships we might have built, back in the day. They speak to each other— radio, laser, carrier neutrinos— and sometimes their voices sound something like ours. There was a time we dared to hope that they really were like us, that the circle had come round again and closed on beings we could talk to. I've lost count of the times we tried to break the ice.

I've lost count of the eons since we gave up.

A noninterference imperative, maybe? A nature preserve? Mustn't interfere, mustn't talk with the savages, mustn't contaminate their quaint cultural worldviews. What culture, you imperious assholes? We're stuck on a flying mountain, we're riding a black hole to the ends of the universe so that you can frolic in our wake like spoiled children. The mission kills us off one by one, and we make do, really: we mix-and-match our replacements from bits of leftover genes, try to keep the Chimp from indoctrinating new generations with its own simpleminded vision of mission priorities. We've given our fucking lives for you, given a thousand lives, each one sliced into a thousand brief bright moments and strung out along a billion years. All so that you can step between the stars in an instant.

All these iterations of humanity fading behind us. All these hybrids and posthumans and immortals, gods and catatonic cavemen trapped in magical chariots they can't begin to understand, and not one of them ever pointed a comm laser in our direction to say Hey, how's it going, or Guess what? We cured Damascus Disease! or even Thanks, guys, keep up the good work.

We're not some fucking cargo cult. We're the backbone of your goddamn empire. You wouldn't even be out here if it weren't for us.

And more than all of that, you— you're our children. Whatever you are, whatever you've become, you were once like this.

My sons. My daughters. Why have you forsaken me?


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Breaking Camp

Been a significant gap between postings, I know. Chalk it up to a bit of work getting done (first installment of Reality, ReMastered goes live next week or the week after, I think), a lot of other work not getting done, and, once again, the ill-advised decision to buy a laptop from Dell which has brought me nothing but grief. (For those of you recently arrived at this blog: never, ever, ever buy a Dell. My other computer is a dual-boot dual-core Linux machine which I cannot wait to get back to.)

The sandhills are in the rear-view mirror now. In their honor, a few pictures once again courtesy of Dan Brooks. This diptych, perhaps, thumbnails the whole experience most effectively:

Keep in mind that it took two days for the first picture to turn into the second. (And back again, too, a couple of weeks later.)

This is what you'd see from the porch if you were crazy enough to get up at five in the morning:

And this is either me, or Seth Brundle after an unfortunate accident with a telepod:

Don't worry: this is not the shape of things to come. I'll be dumping the travelogue pics and returning to the usual rants and research once I've got back home and cleared the decks. I just figured I should post something in the meantime, and stills from Frisky Dingo would have probably infringed copyright.


Kill Me Now.

Evidently Michael Bay has been signed to adapt the Rifters trilogy, judging by this poster of Lenie and Kenny. I had not realized that Lubin was black. Nor that he propelled himself, er, anally. I guess this is the price one pays for movie adaptation.

Thanks to one Matt Arnold for the coffee/saliva stains all over my keyboard.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Christian Rock Band: The Album Cover*

You can tell from the salacious, revealing costumes.

Because in Nebraska, this is the most you can get away with.

*Photo by Dan Brooks


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Squids — In — Spaaaaaace!

From the Cyrillic side of the planet, the cover art for the Russian edition of Blindsight:

Yes, that is me. I don't know if I'm supposed to be Sarasti, or Keeton, or just the author looming omnisciently over his creation. (My contact at Arabesque tells me that the incorporation of author photos into cover art might be an ongoing element of their sf line). But I think it's kind of cool. Even if those two cratered marbles at center-right don't actually appear in the novel anywhere.

I don't suppose any of you read Russian?


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Brown Lands...

...Just outside Mordor.

So. Where am I now?

(Lars, if you're out there, I rescued a box turtle in your honour the other day. To commemorate, I carved your name into his plastron.)


Saturday, May 3, 2008


So, the word is out on the subject of the revamped Starship Sofa. My reading of "Repeating the Past" is embedded near the end of their recent podcast; also, the press release reports that I'll be doing a "monthly" science-"fact" podcast called Reality, ReMastered. I can confirm this, sort of, although the monthliness may be a bit iffy. I'm working on the first one now, and will repeat as time and inspiration allow.

(Oh, wait a second. I'm listening to that audio feed even now, as it trickles down the teensy one-bar pipe's worth of bandwidth I can squeeze through the walls of my remote cabin — I love these guys' accents, and whoever they've got reading "Likely Lad" just rules — but pretty much the first thing they say is that it is not a podcast any more, but is, rather, an "audio science-fiction magazine". I stand corrected, if a wee bit confused as to the difference.)

Closer to home, Tor has asked for (and received) permission to release Starfish as a free e-book for a two-week period, as part of ongoing promotion for their new website/online community. They've already done this with novels from a bunch of other authors including Karl Schroeder, David Drake, and the mighty John Scalzi, but I'd go out on a limb and state that my own involvement has a much higher irony quotient. Tor did, after all, respond to my request for a Creative Commons option in the Blindsight contract by trying to insert a clause that would have forbidden me from even posting excerpts of longer than 1,500 words on my own damn website. And Starfish is such a good candidate for a promotional free e-text release, since you can't find one of those anywhere else on the planet.

Glad they're coming around, though.


Friday, May 2, 2008

Ultima Thule, That's Where.

It is May 2nd. The middle of Spring. Two days ago, where I am now, it was 27°C. This is the most sheltered side of my cabin:

This is the approach to my cabin:

I have no exact numbers for you, but I can tell you that wind speed is strong enough to make the road's runoff flow directly uphill (at least in those sheltered little gulleys where the run-off hasn't simply frozen into two-lane Hieronymous Bosch frescoes on the spot). There are pelicans on the lake in front of me; at least, there were a couple of hours ago, before the viz declined so precipitously (get it?) that I could no longer see more than two meters offshore. Perhaps by now they are only Pelsicles.

Riddle me this: Where am I?

More to the point, what am I doing here?

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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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Monday, March 31, 2008

Madonna and Child.

This time I open my eyes to a familiar face I've never seen before: only a boy, early twenties perhaps, physiologically. His face is a little lopsided, the cheekbone flatter to the left than to right. His ears are too big. And while the eyes below his frown shine with their own bright intelligence, I know immediately that he is natural.

I haven't spoken for millennia. My voice comes out a whisper: "Who are you?" Not what I'm supposed to ask, I know. Not the first question anyone on Eriophora asks, after coming back.

"I'm yours," he says.

I want to let that sink in, but he doesn't give me the chance: "You're not scheduled for this shift, but the Chimp wanted extra hands on deck. We've got kind of a situation brewing on this next build."

"Situation?" It can't be good; the appearance of new crew can only mean the death of old.

"Maybe a contact scenario."

I wonder how many centuries ago he was born. I wonder if he ever wondered about me, before now.

He doesn't tell me. He only says, "There's a sun up ahead. Half a lightyear. It's — flickering. Chimp thinks maybe it's talking to us."

And Chimp's not smart enough to deal with it on his own. They built him that way.

"Anyhow..." My son shrugs. "It's not like there's any mad rush. You've got lots of time to catch up."

I nod, but he hesitates. He's waiting for The Question, but I already see a kind of answer in his face. Our reinforcements were supposed to be pristine, built from perfect genes buried deep within Eri's iron-basalt mantle, safe from the sleeting blueshift. And yet my son has flaws. I see the damage in his face, I see those tiny flipped base-pairs resonating up from the microscopic and bending him just a little off-kilter. He looks like he grew up on a planet. He looks borne of parents who spent their whole lives hammered by raw sunlight.

How far out must we be by now, if even our own perfect building blocks have decayed so? How long has it taken us to get here? How long have I been dead?

How long? It's the first thing everyone asks.

This one time, I don't want to know.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Earth Hour. Because the World Isn't Worth a Whole Day.

Ninety percent of the world's charismatic megafauna is gone. Hormone disrupters are turning the fish off Lakeshore into hermaphrodites, if the tumors don't get them first. The Arctic is heading for ice-free status by 2030, the Wilkins Ice Shelf is a measly six kilometers away from disintegration, air pollution in this miserable dick-ass excuse for a country alone helps kill 16,000 people a year. How do we rise to this challenge? How do we lie in this bed we have made?

Earth Hour. Sixty minutes during which we turn out the lights and pat ourselves on the back for saving the planet. Kings, Corporations, and Communities are all very much on board with this, naturally: in what other context could anyone pose so publicly while actually doing so little? Today's edition of my local Toronto Star is creaming its jeans all over Earth Hour; they're giving it almost as much coverage as can be found in any three pages of the two thick sections they devote daily to selling automobiles. Hundreds, maybe thousands of Torontonians will celebrate the event by climbing into their SUVs and driving out to Downsview Park, there to light candles in the darkness. The Eaton's Center up at Yonge and Dundas is festooned with all sorts of big glossy posters trumpeting their whole-hearted love of Mother Earth. Why, I'll bet the reduced environmental impact from turning off those lights might even recoup a small fraction of the resources consumed to drive the massive multimedia extravaganza advertising Earth Hour.

Oh, wait. There isn't going to be any reduction in environmental impact. Not unless the world's power-generating utilities decide to scale back the fossil fuels they're burning to reflect a one-time, one-hour tick in the time series.

Yes, I know. It's only supposed to make "a statement". It's supposed to be a symbol. And what does it symbolize, exactly? It symbolizes "hope" — which is to say, our infinite capacity for denial, our unwillingness to restrain ourselves in any meaningful sense, our brain-dead refusal to see the brick wall we're hurtling towards. It symbolizes the sick fucking joke that is the human race.

Back in the early nineties I had a girlfriend who volunteered for the Guelph branch of OPIRG. Sick of the flood of smiley-faced books and schizoid puff pieces insisting that being green doesn't mean giving up your second SUV ("And now I sleep just fine at night, knowing that by serving one meat-free meal a week, I'm doing My Part to Save the Planet!"), she proposed countermeasures: a booklet entitled "Fifty Ways to Ease Your Conscience While Continuing to Destroy the Environment." I thought it was a brilliant idea. Everyone at OPIRG absolutely hated it. Too cynical, they said. Too negative. It'll alienate more people than it converts. We must be cheerful. We must be positive.

Evidently this is a fairly common rule among environmental activists afraid of alienating the skittish: No Cynicism. (Which, these days, is tantamount to saying No Cognition...) And so now, after more than a decade of putting on a happy face to keep from scaring the soccer moms, here we are: Earth Hour.

How far we've come.

There was never a time when things could be turned around with such petty gestures. You want to effect real change? You've got to address the root of the problem: human psychology. We evolved in the moment, we evolved to recognize imminent and proximate threats: pestilence, predators, an alpha male coming at us with murder in his eyes. The sight of a rotting corpse or a deformed child makes us squirm; the toothy smile of a great white freezes our blood. But we never evolved to internalize graphs and columns of statistics. They may be real; they just don't feel that way.

They're starting to now, though. Now, even here in the privileged and so-called "developed" world, we're starting to reap what we sow. The outbreaks break out ever-faster, the critters on our doorsteps die in record numbers. But even now, that's just us— and we're not the ones calling the shots. The ones piloting the Titanic are way up in the bridge, isolated, unaffected, never more than a heartbeat from sparkling sands and clean water and the very best in medical care. It's still gonna be a while before the shit piles high enough to matter to them. And so they'll do nothing, because for them the threat is not imminent; and if it is not imminent, neither is it real. So sayeth the Human gut.

So, you want to effect real change? You've got to make the threat matter to the ones who matter. You have to take the shit into their hallways until even they can smell it. You have to threaten something valuable to them, and threaten it now, if you want to awaken that fierce innovative spark of self-preservation that burns brightest when the danger is in your face and the piss is running down your leg.

This is what you'd have to do: hunt down the Harpers and the Gordons and the Martins, the Roves and Cheneys, the Harrises and the Kleins and Bairds. (You might want to hunt down the Dubyas, too— they don't make any of the real decisions, but the symbolism is important.) Dig up the carcass of Dixie Lee Ray while you're at it, and throw its sorry rotten parts into the corral with her living soul mates. (For seasoning, you know.) Hunt down every pundit and commentator who, after years ridiculing the signposts, now shrugs and says Oh, well, I guess we fucked up the planet after all. Too late to fix it now, let's just adapt and make sure that economic growth doesn't drop below five percent... Take every family member who sided with any of them (most have); explain to them all the proximate nature of threat-perception in the human animal, and that you're going to motivate them only way you can.

Then kill half of them. Give the other half a year to fix things. Hold back their families in, as the publishers say, "reasonable amounts against returns".

That's probably what it would take to get these people to give a shit.

Of course, you could never pull it off. All that security, all that well-founded fear of those being governed. And you know, even if the bridge crew did suddenly get serious and try to turn things around, we're still in for a really rough ride. The trajectory of a planetary biosphere is not something you can change on a dime, especially not after the race downhill has been picking up speed for half a century. It's probably too late no matter what we do, unless Venter and Kurzweil turn out to be right.

Still, there's something to be said for simple accountability. And you might even find allies in some pretty unlikely places. Air pollution alone must kill more people in a month than all the serial killers anyone ever sent to the gas chamber; any death-penalty advocate capable of even rudimentary logic would pretty much have to get on board...

Anyway. Pondering such solutions will make my Earth Hour go down a little easier, as I sit here in the dark. I hope it does the same for you.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

From. About. By.

Me, that is. Isn't it always?

From: a few excerpts from the recent Locus interview have gone online. It's not the whole thing, but it's a taste.

About: Puppy Buckets (whose name still makes me think of wood-chippers) likes Maelstrom. Maybe not as much as they liked Starfish, but then, a lot of people felt that way. And I'm not complaining about any exposure, given that the damn book's been out of print for years.

By: Didn't I warn you I'd be rebooting the In Progress page? Didn't I?


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Your Brain is Leaking

This punch-happy little dude has been all over the net for the past week or so: easily the world's coolest crustacean even before then, insofar as how many lifeforms of any stripe can bash their furious little claws through the water so fast (accelerating at over 10,000G!) that the resulting cavitation bubbles heat up to several thousand degrees K? If their ferocious little chelipeds don't take you out, the shockwave alone will shatter you (well, if you're a piece of mantis-shrimp prey, at least).

The reason for their recent fame, though, is this paper in Current Biology, reporting that — alone of all the known species on the planet — these guys can see circular polarised light. And that's just the latest trick of many. These guys see ultraviolet. They see infrared. They can distinguish ten times as many visible-light colors as we can (still only 100,000 — which you'd think would at least shut up those Saganesque idiots from Future Shop who keep blathering about the millions and millions of colors their monitors can supposedly reproduce). Each individual eye has independent trinocular vision. Mantis shrimp eyes are way more sophisticated than any arthropod eye has any right to be.

But what really caught my attention was a line in this Wired article (thanks to Enoch Cheng for the pointer):
"One idea is that the more complicated your sensory structure is, the simpler your brain can be... If you can deal with analysis at the receptor level, you don't have to deal with that in the brain itself."
Which is almost as cool as it is wrong. Cool because it evokes the image of alien creatures with simple or nonexistent brains which nonetheless act intelligently (yes, I'm thinking scramblers), and because these little crustaceans aren't even unique in that regard. Octopi are no slouches in the smarts department either — they're problem solvers and notorious grudge-holders — and yet half of their nervous systems are given over to manual dexterity. Octopi have individual control over each sucker of each tentacle. They can pass a pebble, sucker-to-sucker, from arm-tip to arm-tip. Yet their brains, while large by invertebrate standards, are still pretty small. How much octopus intelligence is embedded in the arms?

So yes, a cool thought. But wrong, I think: because what is all that processing circuitry in the mantis shrimp's eyes if not part of the brain itself? Our own retinas are nothing more than bits of brain that leaked across the back of the eyeball— and if the pattern-matching that takes place in our visual cortices happens further downstream in another species, well, it's still all part of the same computer, right? The only difference is that the modules are bundled differently.

But then this artsy friend points out the obvious analogy with motherboards and buses, and how integrating two components improves efficiency because you've reduced the signal transit time. Which makes me think about the "functional clusters" supposedly so intrinsic to our own conscious experience, and the possibility that the isolation of various brain modules might be in some way responsible for the hyperperformance of savantes1.

So pull the modules apart, the cables between stretching like taffee — how much distance before you're not dealing with one brain any more, but two? Those old split-brain experiments, the alien-hand stuff — that was the extreme, that was total disconnection. But are we talking about a gradient or a step function here? How much latency does it take to turn me into we, and is there anything mushy in between?

Are stomatopod eyes conscious, in some sense? Is my stomach?

1 I would have put a link to the relevant article here, but the incompetent code over at The Economist's website keeps refusing to to open up its online back-issue pdfs until I sign in, even though I already have. Three times now. Anyway, the reference is: Anonymous., 2004. Autism: making the connection. The Economist, 372(8387): 66.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Flash & Flesh

After endless harangues from various online sites telling me I couldn't view their fucking galleries until I installed the latest version of Flash, I overcame my usual aversion to so-called "upgrades" (MediaPlayer 11, anyone?) and complied.

Now the Vampire Domestication talk (here, and here) is broken in Firefox (both 2 and Beta), Netscape, and Opera: a few seconds of click-ridden vocals and then the soundtrack goes dead. (I am miffed to have to admit it still seems to work okay in Internet Explorer 6 because Microsoft isn't supposed to make software that works better than its competition.) And it's not just the online copy; my local back-ups have crapped out too. I find it unlikely that all these copies would simultaneously die on me, so I'm left hypothesizing that this new Flash plugin has backwards-compatibility issues. (Some quick surfing suggests that sound has always been a bit problematic for Flash, although I haven't encountered any specific complaints about this latest V9).

I know one or two of you have encountered the same problem over the past couple of days when trying to access VD. What I don't know is the configurations under which other people's problems manifest. So if you've got a moment, could you try it out — there's no need to listen to the whole thing, you'll be able to tell whether it's working by the second slide — and tell me whether it works for you, along with your current version of Flash, and the make and model of your browser?


On the up side, I got my first Paypal donation from a sex site— or more precisely, from one of those Make-any-woman-your-sex-slave-for-$29.99 places. (Don't click if you have an aversion to pop-ups or the overuse of exclamation marks.) I have to admit I was kind of taken aback; these outfits are usually about separating you from money, not putting it into your pocket. Even more surprisingly, when I sent off a bemused thankyou note (promising, in their honor, to spend the money this time on edible condoms rather than the usual kibble), I received a cheerful response praising my work on its literary merit, and completely free of any mention of hot chicks slippery with desire for my manhood.

Not that I would turn anything like that down, you understand. But still. I had no idea. I am so tickled.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fallen Giant

Sometimes, in defiance of entropy, little knots of complexity form in the universe and awaken. I have always found it deeply unjust that such knots, sooner or later, always stop. Each is unique, each cognizant, and if I were running things, the moment matter developed enough complexity to look around and start asking questions, well, it would have made it. It would go on forever. (Well, except for those clumps of matter who hold beliefs substantially different from mine, I mean.)

I entertain such thoughts whenever I look upon a loved one that I know is doomed to die some day, and I generally keep it to myself. But today I forego that privacy, because today, Arthur C. Clarke is dead. And that should matter to all of you.

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You Know Who You Are.

Anyone who rattles off phrases like "the fetid litterbox of his deranged and hostile cats" with such effortless abandon can wax my balls any time. Even if they got the whole bathrobe thing completely wrong.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

No Syndrome. Just Imposter.

I've just spent the weekend hanging out with a hundred assorted artists, scientists, activists, activist/scientists, scientist/artists, authors, game developers, journalists, journalist/scientists, scientist/authors, jactarviscidevthors, two Mars-rover robots with genetic programming, and a solar-powered car (which as far as I could tell, could only go downhill). Most of those interactions were fairly diffuse — there's a limit to the number of folks you can actually sidle up to in a single weekend of freeform talks, demos, and debates. Some were a bit depthier. A few fed my ego (hey, there were people there who liked my books!). Many left me feeling humbled and completely inadequate. One or two did all of these at once.

I mean, at least you know what to expect when Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute takes the stage. He tells you up front that his goal is to leave you befuddled, and it takes him all of five minutes to convince us all that nobody really knows what mathematics even is— or, for that matter, what the word "exist" connotes. And when someone introduces herself by saying she liked Starfish, you of course immediately check her out online and are pleased to see that her expertise in systems theory means that she's probably smarter than you, which is good because it means your success in fooling her definitely beat the odds.

But some people should come with warning signs. Polymaths should not go incognito. They should not be all down-to-earth and pass themselves off as someone who "teaches The Physics of Music to Artsies" and who happens to do a little jazz singing on the side when in fact they have a doctorate from fucking Oxford and are doing polymer microlithography with cell-design applications while "on the side" putting out three albums and singing for presidents1 and foreign dignitaries and jamming with people whose last names rhyme with Knopfler. They should not share hearty chuckles with you over that other attendee falling into a diabetic coma en route to the restaurant. Because when they do all these normal things you have no way of realizing how completely outclassed you are at this shindig, until you get back online. And by then, of course, it's too late. You've already spent the whole damn evening acting like you belonged there.

And all of this really happened. To a friend of mine. The up side is, my friend's list of people he can pester for help on technical issues is now a bit longer than it was.

It would, however, be a bit easier to stand on the shoulders of all these giants if they weren't all several inches shorter than me.

1I'm not talking lame-ass company presidents either, here. I'm talking superpower presidents.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Coming in Perhaps a Bit Behind the Penguin Craze Curve...

The penguin chick bursts from the shell
His fetal bed has served him well
But now, the newborn child will rest
Within his windswept, treetop nest.

Oh penguin child, oh fledgling fair
Stay snuggled in your jungle lair
And when your mother comes to rest
You'll suckle at her feathered breast.

Heed not the snarl, fear not the roar
The beasties on the forest floor
You need not fear death's gnashing jaws
Or felines with extended claws

Sing out your cry! Spit out your note!
Like gobbets from the drunkard's throat!
Oh penguin, king-of-birds to be
Sing out from your acacia tree!

Your soaring, graceful penguin glide
Doth make me feel so good inside
So fly! And kingly bird, bestow
Your guano on us, far below.


In Praise of MPD

This month's New Scientist carries an opinion piece by Rita Carter, author of the imminent Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality. She's not the first to argue that multiple personalities may be adaptive (the whole backbone of the eighties' MPD fad was that they served to protect the primary persona from the stress of extreme abuse), nor is she the first to point out that MPD is just one end of a scale that goes all the way down to jes' plain folks adopting different faces for different social contexts (what Carter calls "normal multiplicity"). She does, however, suggest that "normal multiplicity could prove useful in helping people function in an increasingly complex world"; which raises the possibility that what we now think of as "pathological" multiplicity might prove useful in a hypercomplex world.

Cue the Gang of Four.

This is one of the themes introduced in Blindsight that I'm going to town on with Dumbspeech (okay, okay: State of Grace): that humanity is, in effect, splitting into a whole suite of specialized cognitive subspecies as a means of dealing with information overload. (You can see the rudiments of this in the high proportion of Aspies hanging out in Silicon Valley, perhaps.) But I've never encountered this Carter person before. Judging by her brief essay, I can't tell whether she's actually on to something or whether she's just putting neurogloss lipstick on the trivially obvious fact that it makes sense to behave differently in different situations (rather like making the Atkins Diet sound all high-tech and futuristic by describing it as "hacking the body").

Anyone here read her books? Are they any good?

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Auntie Semite's Troubling Tales

In a nice change from the usual nocturnal scenarios about teeth falling out or earthworms tunneling through my flesh, last night I dreamed I was involved with Angelina Jolie. It was pretty nice, except for the part where we got kicked out of a B&B in Guelph because I'd broken someone's vintage 45. She didn't even transform into a flesh-eating zombie at an inopportune moment, thus causing me to lose my erection. (Anyone else out there hobbled by a Baptist conscience knows exactly what I mean.)

I really have to get out more.

Anyway, I awakened in a generous mood, as apparently did someone at Nature a few days back, because he was happy to loosen the restrictions on my contribution to their "Futures" series. So after two years of comatose brain-death, the "Shorts" page has finally got some new material on it: "Repeating the Past", first appearance in Nature, third appearance in Hartwell and Cramer's Year's Best SF 13, second appearance right here. Or here, if you'd prefer to download the spiffy, official Nature pdf.

Now I've got to shock the "In Progress" page back to life...


Monday, March 10, 2008

A Passing Phase

We've left so many things behind us. We celebrated the death of Earth itself, though we were dead to the world when Sol cooled and bloated and devoured it in a single bite. It wouldn't have mattered; we were far beyond the light cone by then anyway. But we woke for the next build, and checked the time, and toasted the passing of our homeworld and any who might still be aboard her. And got to work.

They were right, the dust who sent us out here so long ago. I've lost count of the times the gates we built just sat there, dark and lifeless, until they passed from sight. Other times, though, things came out. Sometimes they even looked like people, and occasionally they spoke to us. Once a gate burst open spewing nothing but rads and plasma, as though a nova had erupted on the other side. More than once, things emerged that didn't look like they could have descended from anything remotely human. They reached after us. Mostly we've been able to keep our distance.

Once we took on a hitchhiker, an immortal from the twenty-eighth century who caught up with us in a ship made of spider silk. Some still remembered us, she said; to some we had achieved the status of myth, by the simple virtue of continued existence. Many of our sister ships — almost all of them — had long since run aground.

She didn't come to bed with us. For four thousand years she wandered Eriophora's endless dark warrens all by herself. Something happened to her during that time. I don't know what. I think, maybe, something came aboard. She wouldn't talk about it. It changed her in ways I can't describe.

Immortality. She said it was only a phase.

Sometimes we had to choose between the things we set free and the things that lay in wait. We're not the only ones to covet the Goldilocks zones, you see. Sometimes we closed on target to find strange and bejeweled gates already humming with unfamiliar energy. Or we found ourselves caught in ancient cross-fire, coasting inexorably towards the automatic holocausts of extinct races who forgot to turn their wars off when they left. Sometimes our only hope was to build a gate in the teeth of that approaching storm, and pray that whatever came out behind us would be willing and able to take on the things up ahead.

It's not just dangerous, though; it's also beautiful. Nebulae lovely enough to break your heart, even as you devour them. Endless expanses of Dyson spheres: tenuous, iridescent things light-minutes across, fragile and indestructible, blown taut as soap bubbles by the faintest stellar winds. They're alive, you see. They contain multitudes, these vast and intelligent membranes. Every sublime thought takes years to unfold.

They can be evil fuckers sometimes, though. Full of hate.

So much we saw. So much we left behind. And then one day, the gate we'd just built stuttered impossibly online before we had booted it. That was the last we saw of the Milky Way.

*   *   *

We left each other behind, too.

Back in the old days we needed each other more than the mission did. It only took one of us to deal with the routine builds, but we stuck them out together anyway, hairless primates huddled together against the cold. It didn't last. We got bored, we got testy. Started sleeping through the other guy's shift. We still had relationships back then, still fucked and cuddled and held each other against the raging of the night; but then those bonds would break and it was just easier to stay in the grave while the other resurrected, easier to share your waking hours with memories than with flesh and blood. I've gone a million years without seeing another pair of human eyes looking back at me. Sometimes people die in your sleep, and the others forget to leave a note. It can take aeons to realize that someone's gone.

Now I'm the only one left. Halfway to the edge of the universe, everyone else dead or turned back or — diverted, along paths orthogonal to my own. It's just me and the chimp, now.

I can't even remember their names.


Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mind Reading Technology...

...has been a staple of every low-budget piece of celluloid skiffy going back at least to that early-sixties Gerry-Anderson puppet show Stingray (which no one with any dignity will admit to having watched, although I clearly remember the episode with the mind-reading chair). The Prisoner also featured an episode in which No. 6's dreams could be probed, and the various incarnations of Star Trek must have had a half-dozen such episodes among them although they all seem to run together after awhile (the episode I'm thinking of had aliens with bumpy foreheads; does that help at all?).

Now here comes Kendrick Kay and his buddies in Nature with "Identifying natural images from human brain activity", and if they haven't actually vindicated all those cheesy narrative gimmicks, they've made a damn good first pass at it. They used fMRI scans to infer which one of 120 possible novel images a subject was looking at. "Novel" is important: the system trained up front on a set of nearly 2,000 images to localize the receptive fields, but none of those were used in the actual mind-reading test. So we're not talking about simply recognizing a simple replay of a previously-recorded pattern here. Also, the images were natural— landscapes and still-lifes and snuff porn, none of this simplified star/circle/wavey-lines bullshit.

The system looked into the minds of its subjects, and figured out what they were looking at with accuracies ranging from 32% to 92%. While the lower end of that range may not look especially impressive, remember that random chance would yield an accuracy of 0.8%. These guys are on to something.

Of course, they're not there yet. The machine only had 120 pictures to choose from; tagging a card from a known deck is a lot easier than identifying an image you've never seen before. But Kay et al are already at work on that; they conclude "it may soon be possible to reconstruct a picture of a person’s visual experience from measurements of brain activity alone." And in a recent interview Kay went further, suggesting that a few decades down the road, we'll have machines that can read dreams.

He was good enough to mention that we might want to look into certain privacy issues before that happens...

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Is this theory of yours accepted by any respectable authorities?

The long-awaited new Neuropsychologia's finally on the stands, and it's a theme issue on — wait for it — consciousness! Lots of articles on blindsight, interhemispheric signaling, anosognosia, all that cool stuff. And nestled in the heart of this month's episode is a paper by David Rosenthal entitled "Consciousness and its function".

Guess what. He doesn't think it has any.

From the abstract:
"...a number of suggestions are current about how the consciousness of those states may be useful ... I examine these and related proposals in the light of various empirical findings and theoretical considerations and conclude that the consciousness of cognitive and desiderative states is unlikely to be useful in these or related ways. This undermines a reliance on evolutionary selection pressures in explaining why such states so often occur consciously in humans."
Rosenthal's conclusion? Consciousness is just a side-effect, with no real adaptive value. And no, he didn't cite Blindsight. But we all know I went there first.

Somewhere else I went, back in 1991, has been making a few online waves over the past week or two: this brief Science article by Christner et al, suggesting that microbes play a major and hitherto-unsuspected role in shaping the world's weather. As Jeremy Ruhland pointed out a few days back, this is a wee bit reminiscent of a story I wrote in the early nineties — a post-environmental-apocalypse number in which vast colonies of cloud-dwelling weathermongering microbes had conspired to kick our asses. For a few years now I've been showing this slide whenever I want to make the point that sometimes you can hit the bullseye even when you have no fucking clue what you're talking about...

... because really, "Nimbus" was a spontaneous, unresearched brain fart based entirely on an old girlfriend's observation that "Ooh, look at those clouds... they almost look alive!" But CNN is not exactly the most prestigious source of scientific intel on the planet, and besides, Moffet was just starting to look back in 2002; he hadn't actually found anything. That was then; this is now. You can't get more prestigious than Science (well, unless you're Nature), and now we're looking at actual data.

Of course, this is nowhere near the cozy conjunction of Watts and Rosenthal. Christner et al. didn't even look at clouds per sé, only at the precipitation that had dropped out of them. And it's not like they discovered any new and alien microbes; mostly they came up with plant pathogens. (Also, my microbe-infested clouds had a kind of slow intelligence to them — and if we ever get any evidence supporting that conceit I'll eat my cats.) But what they did show was that microbes affect the weather— and at the very least, that leaves the door open for all sorts of evil, powerful, yet-to-be-discovered bugs lurking overhead.

I like that thought.

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Monday, March 3, 2008

The Appearance of Evil

I actually like this photo by Amelia Beamer, which runs with the Locus interview I mentioned the other day. It doesn't make me look like a goof. My face actually looks symmetrical for once, and the viewer is not overwhelmed by the magnitude of the nose. This is perhaps the most flattering photo of myself I have seen all year, which I hope has nothing to do with the fact that it is also the only photo I've seen this year in which a significant part of my face is actually hidden from the viewer.

I'm also quite tickled by the title of the piece, which is...

...not to mention the actual fonts involved, which suggest, I don't know, a certain background Baptisticity.

So while I'm feeling so good about myself, I might as well mention a couple of upcoming appearances: July 11-13 I'll be one of the author guests at Polaris, here in Toronto, and while I'm merely one of the grunts I expect to be reasonably visible because they made me sign a contract committing to a minimum number of panels. I was happy to be asked, although I would've been happier if they'd asked me last year when Katee Sackhoff was on the roster.

Closer in, March 15-16 I'm going to be showing up at something called SciBarCamp (which, I myself would like to pronounce cybercamp although I don't know if anyone else does). It's officially described as "a gathering of scientists, artists, and technologists for a weekend of talks and discussions". I'm told the Perimeter Institute has something to do with it, although my only in was via Karl Schroeder, who in addition to being one of the kick-ass sf authors I've mentioned now and then is also one of the organizers.

Less than two weeks away now. Evidently we're all supposed to give presentations or something. I should probably get started.


Saturday, March 1, 2008

Words from Watts

Ah. I see my interview is featured in this month's Locus. I get second billing to Charlie Stross, but hey — who doesn't, these days? There I am in the lower right-hand corner (and I'm actually kinda glad the picture is small because I look a wee bit goofy in it). Haven't read the final product yet, but I'm told a copy is winging itself to me even as we speak.

Another interview, more intimate and low of profile, was with— no kidding — my bank. Evidently a couple of employees at the Citizens Bank of Canada are familiar with my work (one of them sent me this Christmas e-card — I dare anyone to find another bank that gives such personalized service)...

... and presumably put up my name as a candidate for a series of interviews with "interesting clients" CB is doing for their in-house newsletter. I actually thought that the interview went pretty well, even though half an hour in my interviewer blurted out, "How can you even get up in the morning? How do you even keep going?". She also kept telling me she couldn't use any of my quotes because they contained forbidden words. (They have a list. Did you know the word "ass" cannot be used in Citizens Bank documents?) I was actually unable to actually come up with a quote that didn't contain any such forbidden terms, so we agreed that I would be sent a transcript with blanks that I could fill in, once I'd had a chance to think of more inoffensive terminology. But the deadline came and went, and I heard nothing back. So I finally e-mailed a follow-up query, and received this reply:
"...we are thinking that we want to profile people who are involved in activities that fit our values as an organization. ... we regret that we took up your time on this."
So I can only hope that someday, my ethical standards will rise to meet those of, well, the banking industry. But I admit it freely: it will be a long haul.

Finally, some of you whose comments and e-mails I have been slow to answer might want to know what I've been doing with my time. I wish the answer was "writing", but no; I'm part of a weekly workshop being run by Jim Munroe (of indie movie, indie-graphic-novel, and indie-conventional-novel fame) which introduces basic game-building techniques to creative types with limited programming skills (evidently a smattering of Visual Basic coupled with dim memories of self-taught FORTRAN and APL comprise rock-solid qualifications for the whole "limited" part of that criterion). Each week, one of us is assigned to blog the minutes of the session. This week it was my turn, despite the fact that I nearly froze/bled to death during the course of the evening. If you'd like to follow our progress — or if you'd just like to have a disdainful chuckle at a bunch of adults trying to learn gaming principles using apps designed for toddlers — knock yourselves out. We won't mind.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Law & Order: Victims of Reality Unit

So Prozac and its ilk prove to be, for the most part, about as clinically effective as a sugar pill. Which kicks loose an idea for a story that's been rattling around in my head for a few years now:

A man diagnosed with terminal cancer is beating the odds with the help of a new drug recently approved by the FDA. The tumors have stabilised, perhaps even receded a little; he has already lived well past his mean life expectancy. It's a breakthrough, a miracle — until a couple of statisticians from John Hopkins publish an analysis proving that the effect is pure placebo. Our patient reads the study. Within a month, he's circling the drain. Within two, he's dead.

The next of kin charge the authors of the paper, and the journal that published them, with negligent homicide.

Placebos work, you see. The brain can do all sorts of things to the body; sometimes it just needs to be tricked into generating the right happy chemicals. Medical professionals know as much: it may not be the cure so much as the belief in the cure that does the trick, and when you shatter that belief, you are knowingly stealing hope and health from every patient who heeds your words. You are, in a very real sense, killing them.

Do we have here a legitimate argument for the perpetuation of ignorance? Medical professionals do not generally discourage the use of prayer in dire circumstance. It does no harm, after all. (Actually there's some evidence that it does do harm; let's set that aside for the moment.) But when you know that placebo effects are real, and you go out of your way to disillusion some deluded flake who shows up on the ward convinced that her crystals and magnets will keep the tumors at bay... well, maybe education of the sick should be a criminal offense.

I'm just saying.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

I've Just Handed My Pinball Crown To Him

I may have mentioned a fellow by the name of Dave Williams (maybe not here — I know I've mentioned him in interviews, at least). The guy came at me out of the blue a few years back via a mutual friend, and asked me to check out some skiffy prose he was working on1. His descriptions were great; his mood and atmosphere were perfect. His pacing kind of sucked, and what's with these chains on a prison ship on Titan? We can ship our evildoers all the way to the outer solar system but leg-irons are the best we can do for prisoner restraint?

Anyhow, Dave was a diamond in the rough but a diamond nonetheless, so we got to hanging out and mutual critiquing. At the time he was one of those jet-setting corporate whores, and whenever he was in town he'd take me out and get me drunk and expense everything to The Man, which made us both feel good. And he never stopped writing. And he never stopped getting better at it. I really should have seen those signs, and stopped him while I had the chance.

Because then the fucker quit his high-paying job, started writing full-time, and right out of the gate sold a trilogy to Bantam Spectra for a figure that made me stop calling him "Dave" and start calling him "Fucking Bastard" (in the friendliest possible way, of course). The first volume is The Mirrored Heavens, it's coming out in May, and you'd never know by reading it that ol' FB ever had any kind of problem with pacing.

But I hate him even more now. Because he always liked the approach to book promotion — the whole alternate-reality-fly-on-the-wall approach — and he decided to steal adopt it to serve up the insanely-detailed backstory that informs his own world. (The draft of MH that I read came backloaded with all manner of technical appendices and historical timelines — think Dune, or Lord of the Rings — but apparently they got cut from the final edition.)

Except Dave did it better than me. Hired professional artists and webweavers to implement his ideas, instead of cobbling everything together in self-taught html. I note, a bit defensively, that my interactive geopolitical map offers more in the way of arcane region-specific details than his, at least. And his pages all come with little Amazon links imploring you to buy the book, which kind of compromises the spying-on-reality illusion if you ask me. But man, it's so much cleaner, so much more professional-looking. The art is outstanding. The military hardware and technical specs take my breath away. And this is only the first incarnation of the damn thing; who knows how deep his world will go when he's had a decade to build it?

Anyhow, it's right here. Go and marvel. I am equal parts honored that FB took inspiration from my own efforts, and pissed that he surpassed them so, but the rest of you are more mature than me so you can just stand in awe at the thought and talent that went into that delivery platform.

And who knows? Maybe this is the kick in the ass I need to start contemplating my own upgrades...

1 Note to aspiring writers in search of feedback; the mutual friend was key. I obviously can't afford to invest time in everyone who might approach me with a manuscript in hand. (The only exceptions to this would involve unsolicited work that's distinctly better than my own, and then only because I'd appreciate the heads-up; it'll give me a chance to use my professional connections to crush the competition before it gets too strong.)


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Our Souls in a New Machine

A couple of items hit me within the same 24-hour period this week: a little humanoid robot that performs interpretive dance numbers based on the brainwave and REM patterns of sleeping humans, and a noncorporeal digital artiste that builds paintings inspired by phrases we meat puppets offer up to it. I've seen human paintings and dances that do a lot less for me than these curious bits of software.

So what are we witnessing here? Is this just business as usual, artists using tools (is there that much difference between writing code and wielding a paintbrush)? So far, I think that's the case. But I also think something more — I don't know, symbiotic — might be peeking around the corner. We're getting awfully close to the point where we stop using apps as tools and start teaching them to use tools...


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ducks, Squirrels, and the Internet Review of Science Fiction.

Many months ago now, sf überfan Jan Stinson interviewed me for the Internet Review of Science Fiction — just before IRoSF lapsed into dormancy. In all honesty, I kind of forgot about it in the meantime. But the chrysalis has hatched, the new glorious IRoSF is letting its new wings dry in the sun (and waiting to grow a couple of legs — the reborn site isn't entirely functional just yet), and there, in the resurrection issue, is Jan's interview. It was conducted in those heady days between my nomination for all those awards and my failure to win any of them, so I'm uncharacteristically cheerful throughout. I spout the usual thoughts about adaptive sociopathy, but with a smile.

I also cite a couple of classic examples of faux altruism in nature — one involving ducks, the other ground squirrels — that I recycled in my interview with Locus. I guess I got lazy. (Then again, they're good examples.) For what it's worth, I think Jan's interview contains the clearer summation, since that interview was done via e-mail and I could thus take time to edit myself into eloquence. The Locus interview was live, and I was, shall we say, less articulate — and while they gave me the opportunity to clarify myself post-hoc, the accursed BHO1 kept me from straying too far from giddy incoherence.

Anyway, check it out. Jan asked some pretty fresh questions (and forced me to admit that I couldn't come up with an original title if my life depended on it), so there might even be some stuff over there you haven't already heard from me a dozen times.

Oh, and to anyone still following the On Spec thing, Derryl Murphy — another OS alumnus — weighs in with an insider's perspective on his own blog. The whole thing even warranted a couple of mentions on (I really owe that Darbyshire guy a beer or two next time I get out to the west coast...)

1 Baptist Honesty Override.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

And Now, In Keeping With Our Policy of Giving Equal Time To Opposing Viewpoints...

Jena Snyder, another On Spec alumnus, posted a minority opinion following my last rant. This is not the first time she and I have disagreed; there have been sparks and brush fires over the years, and we have not always liked each other. We continue to see eye-to-elbow on some things (certain traits of the law enforcement community, for example), but unanimity is a poor prerequisite for friendship — and when the sun goes down at the end of the day, we are still friends.

That is not why I'm singling out her comments for special attention, though. I'm doing that because I suspect a number of folks might share her doubts and opinions, even if they haven't expressed them here; and because these doubts have some substance to them; and because I believe I can answer them, since I thought long and hard before acting as I did.

So here, to save you the trouble of hitting your backspace icon, is what Jena said:
Sure, pissing someone off to the point where they come after you with a gun is a dangerous *act*, but how exactly does a picture of Mohammed in a spacesuit illustrate that the ideas in literary SF are free and unfettered and glorious and dangerous? All it says to me is "Hey, Muslims! Nyah, nyah, nyah, I wave my privates at you. I fart in your general direction." You might as well run a photo of a guy in a spacesuit skinning a live cat - it's controversial, it pushes buttons, and the spacesuit says SF.

Besides, it's been done. Not the spacesuit, but pissing off the Muslims. It's old, man. That button's as big as the one you have regarding cats.

If you couldn't win this battle by using a full-frontal attack, then why didn't you try a different strategy? And maybe a literary illustration - how about quotes from Sturgeon or Moorcock or Delany?

If you really want to take a stand on something, it's a hell of a lot harder to *stand* there and take a beating than it is to turn your back and walk away.
There are two issues here. The second concerns my choice of a specific image and the point I thought I was making thereby, and I'll get to that; but first and foremost is the nature of the AntiVeto Bomb itself. In the context of this larger issue, the reasons for any particular creative choice are irrelevant: the whole point of The Bomb was to override such arguments. The Bomb's very existence is an acknowledgment that there will be times when no agreement is possible; it was intended to keep us from always going the "safe" route in such cases. Some might point out — some have pointed out — that this means that I could, in theory, advocate genocide or child abuse or animal torture (instead of merely listing the major religions which have done so). But you might as well ban the use of hammers because I might use one to bash in some innocent skull. Implicit in The Bomb is the understanding that all those who wield it are responsible, intelligent adults, who will not invoke it for frivolous or hateful cause. In this particular case Diane seems to have thought that my (attempted) use was frivolous and/or hateful. I can only point out that a large number of mainstream media outlets did what I only tried to, and as far as I'm concerned that means we're talking about something well within the realm of reasonable disagreement.

The Bomb was intended to break the bottleneck at such times, and that's how I used it. For Diane to revoke it simply because she didn't like being overruled shows either a complete misunderstanding of what the device was intended to do, or a contemptuous disregard for that intension. (She has recently described the Bomb as "bait" designed to keep me from "resigning in a huff", which suggests a little of both. But she was there when the Bomb was designed, and I've kept her correspondence to me from those days, so I know her description is bullshit. I also know that she knows.)

There may be dispute over scope. The Bomb was designed to counteract editorial timidity: Diane thinks that should only apply to the selection of stories, while I maintain it should apply to editorials as well. But these are arguments over minutiae. The fact is, the only reason I've been at On Spec for the past seven years is because I believed a fairy tale I was told. The specific conditions that provoked my disillusion don't matter; what matters is that ever since Diane Walton has been General Editor, I have been serving under false pretenses.

Issue #2:

Why did I choose Mohammed in a spacesuit? Quite honestly, because I thought that was the safest of the available options. Does anyone really think that I'd have run into less opposition if I'd gone for an illustration of Sturgeon's incest society, or Moorcock's Jesus-as-congenital-imbecile? Would a thumbnail of Dhalghren's gay sexplay have passed muster? What about the more esoteric forms of radical idea-ness, the kind of stuff I've played around with on occasion: the nonexistence of free will, or consciousness as a maladaptive trait? I wouldn't have a clue how to iconise such things in picture form. But by now, pictures of Mohammed are embedded in the culture: they serve as an immediately-recognizable symbol for "risky territory", even though they're really not any more (or the National Post would not be running them). "Mohammed + space suit" says, to me, "controversy and science fiction". I dare anyone to suggest an image that more effectively thumbnails those sentiments.

Why do we need a picture at all? you may ask. Why not just let my words do the talking? Well, I could do that. But by the same token, one could ask why we need adverbs. Why adjectives? Why should an editorial be eloquent, or lyrically-written? Surely, we can make the point simply, and with minimal verbiage: Speculative fiction is good because it can deal with controversial ideas. The end. That says it.

But it's not very catchy, is it? It doesn't grab your attention. It doesn't engage your emotions. Visual icons are part of the tool set; and yes, you can always drive a wood screw with a dime turned on edge. You don't need to use a screwdriver. You just get a better end product when you do.

Am I just "waving my privates" at the Moslems, sticking out my tongue and going nyahh, nyahh, nyahh? There's no question that some people would find the picture offensive. But supposing I told you that I was offended by any depiction of, oh, politicians (let's say my religion forbids any depiction of Human leadership because it undercuts the supremacy of the Divine Creator). Are you sticking your tongue out at me if you go ahead and run a picture of Barack Obama? Are you waving your privates? Do you have to bend over backwards to respect every belief and ritual, no matter how stupid, just because it's framed in a religious context? How many of you cringed, just a little, to see me put the words "stupid" and "religious" so close together? Is there any religious tic so absurd that we can't ignore it without being accused of intolerance?

Look: by definition, any controversial idea is potentially offensive to someone. And nobody on the planet is willing to admit that they find something "offensive" because it challenges their beliefs; they'll find it offensive simply because, well, it's offensive. It's against God's Laws. It's AntiAmerican. Please, won't someone think of the children!? Case closed. And if you question those feelings, or ignore them, then yes: some will feel the breeze of my mighty testicles wafting across their faces. But that doesn't make my actions "old" or immature. It just means I can't be bothered to kneel and scrape before some altar that says we're not allowed to say anything that might hurt anyone's feelings, anywhere.

People say nasty things about me all the time. People hurt my feelings. People even wave their privates in my face. I've learned to deal with it. (In the latter case, I've even learned to enjoy it more often than not.)

Finally, Jena suggests I should have stayed and fought. How was I supposed to do that, exactly? Use my eloquent powers of speech to gather popular support? I did that. A majority was already in favour of running the picture: Diane told us that OS is not a democracy, imposed her will over ours, and then (ironically) referred to me as a "bully". She simply shut down any and all discussion. Am I supposed to grab the purse strings from three provinces away? Am I supposed to somehow wrest financial control of the magazine back into more reasonable hands?

Steve tried to heal the rift, before he left. He tried to be the diplomat, while at the same time making it clear he thought Diane was completely out of line. Diane told him that I was "a liability", and made it pretty clear that she considered my departure to be a good thing. So sure, it's harder to stand and take a beating than it is to walk away. But there has to be some reason to take that beating. There has to be the chance that some good might come from it. And the only good scenario I can envision now is one that gives my nose a chance to heal. And allows me to sleep at night.

BTW, that wonderful LOLprophet remix at the top of the post is courtesy of Yuval Langer, and is posted with his permission.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Don't get the idea that On Spec is a democracy."

Regular visitors to this site may remember that for a number of years now, I've been one of the fiction editors at the Canadian SF magazine On Spec. They first approached me back in 1999; I've served pretty much continuously since, except for a brief hiatus back in 2001 when I felt that the fear of losing government funding had made the magazine too timid. But we worked it out. We cobbled together something called the Clifford Burns Memorial Anti-Veto Bomb: if any of us really fell in love with a piece, really fell in love with it, we could force it onto the schedule even if all the other editors hated it. Each editor was allowed only two bombs annually, so we wouldn't waste them on anything we weren't willing to go to the mat for.

While that Bomb has been dropped since, I have never felt the need to invoke it myself. It was intended as a last resort, after all, and truly controversial stories don't come our way very often. But if they did, I knew we were ready. The Bomb gave me comfort. I slept soundly at night.

Time passed. Some terrific stories appeared in our little rag. On Spec gave a home to the likes of Holly Phillips, Catherine MacLeod, Hayden Trenholm, Elaine Chen, Leah Bobet. I am so fucking proud to have helped showcase these people, and more others than I can count (Mrissa, you there?). Cory Doctorow even nested in our pages — before he ascended into heaven with the angels — and Cliff Burns returned to grace us with a tale or two (albeit not the one which had inspired the bomb in the first place).

The world turned; so did the masthead. Fellow scribes Holly Phillips and Derryl Murphy came and went. Susan MacGregor came and went and came back again. Steve Mohn came and stayed (you may remember the running debate he and I got into over Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy a few years back). Jena Snyder, Editrix from the start (think of her as Ian Anderson to On Spec's Jethro Tull) — gave heart and soul and midwifed a thousand literary births. But On Spec is a hungry bitch as well as a beautiful one, and Jena had her own tales to tell; eventually she had to take back her life and her passion for writing. Diane Walton replaced her as General Editor a few years back.

And all this time the Clifford Burns Memorial AntiVeto Bomb sat snuggled safely in the back of my mind, never to be used except at the utmost end of need...

The Present Day. Diane Walton asks me to write an editorial for the next issue of On Spec. I mull over themes, decide: I will write a celebration of the one thing Hollywood and Electronic Arts has left us after they kicked sand in our faces and stole all our shiny spaceships and Big Dumb Objects and Bug-Eyed Monsters. Multimedia has taken away our special effects, you see. The galactic tour, the epic sensawunda vistas: you don't have to squeeze those images from rows of black type anymore, like some pagan divining meaning in rows of ants. You can sit back and let Spielberg show it to you, big as life. You can live it, thanks to Valve and BioWare. People don't have to read for their eyeball kicks any more. There's purer product as close as the nearest torrent.

So what did those big bullies leave behind? What did they value so little they didn’t even bother to steal? Why, ideas. (Take your average Hollywood fx blockbuster, turn it upside-down, and shake it. See any ideas come out?) And not just any ideas. Radical ideas. Dangerous ideas. The kind of ideas that timid, bottom-line bean counters would never risk letting into their big-budget movies for fear of losing some vital demographic. Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?", exploring the ramifications of a human society with no incest taboo. Moorcock's "Behold the Man", a searing time-travel odyssey in which the search for faith leads to Mary on the make and a drooling, idiot Jesus. Delany's Dhalgren, about — well, actually, I'm still not sure what that one was about, but it had a lot of gay porn and Bellona stays stuck to the roof of my mind like peanut butter...

That is where literary sf retains its edge. That is the high ground the lowest common denominator hasn't yet stolen along with our lunch money. So that's where we plant our flag, that is what we celebrate: dangerous ideas. And we at On Spec have got the right to celebrate it, by Jove! We don't just walk the walk, we put our money where our mouths are! We've got the Clifford Burns Memorial Anti Veto Bomb!

And Diane Walton says, Yes, Great! Good subject for an editorial! Just don't do anything that would make it, you know, controversial...

Because you see, I'd wanted to take a token back from the visual arts. I'd wanted to illustrate my editorial with a picture of Mohammed in a spacesuit.

No, Diane says.

Well, wait a minute, say a couple of the other OSers (not me; I'm on the road at this point, and only intermittently online). Why not? It fits. We should go with it.

No, Diane says.

By this time I'm back online, and I say "I'd rather everyone was on the same page on this, but I suppose I could just invoke The Bomb."

Now Susan MacGregor weighs in. Susan and I have always got along despite her misguided devotion to imaginary friends, but now she's saying we should just revoke the Bomb altogether. She calls it "juvenile". She invokes the spectre of an editor using On Spec to promote the rape of children, and of all the other editors having to nod and act as though they agree. (You ever notice that the folks who invoke victimized children whenever their beliefs are challenged have a certain — er, how to put this — common mind-set?)

Oddly enough, this is all going down one year to the day after that Danish newspaper originally published those Mohammed cartoons that started the whole kerfuffel. The same newspaper is reprinting some of them, to commemorate the anniversary and to celebrate free speech. So are a number of others, one being Canada's National Post — hardly a bastion of radical thought. I try to point this out: we're not even talking about doing anything especially provocative at this point, we're talking about jumping on a bloody bandwagon. OS doesn't even have the yarbles for that? But before I can hit Send, Steve jumps in and rebuts Susan's argument. Someone else says Hey, I know a couple of Muslim academics, I could always get their take—

At which point Diane, evidently realizing that three out of five seem to be in favour of running with the Mohammed riff, puts her foot down:
"The CBMAVB is a joke," she says, and

"Don't get the idea that this magazine is a democracy. There will be no "Mohammed" or "Jesus" or "Buddha" or any religious icon you care to name cartoon on our editorial page."
The thing is, I'd always been under the impression that our little magazine was a democracy. And I rather got the impression that the others thought so too. And I can't help noticing that Diane Walton has taken this opportunity to preemptively veto not just icons of Mohammed, but of any religious personality, period. Which I guess means we won't be running any pictures of L. Ron Hubbard in the near future either.

And The Bomb — the very reason for my continued presence at On Spec, my first, last, and only reassurance that we will not shy away from provocative ideas — is "a joke". On me. Evidently it always has been.

Back in the day, On Spec had the balls to publish good stories, period, even those deemed too controversial for other markets. I know this, because they published such work from me before I joined. And there were a lot of those good days. On Spec approaches its twentieth anniversary, its legacy significant and undiminished by recent events. Its cover art continues to kick the asses of much larger magazines. And there are many serviceable, safe, inoffensive stories in the world; as long as 80% of them are Canadian, On Spec will continue to play a valuable role.

But it is not the role I was told it would be, nor one I can get behind.

Understand this: good people work at On Spec, and they work hard. Current policies in this regard are not based on consensus: they have been autocratically imposed by someone with no significant writing credentials, but through whom vital funding passes. She controls the purse-strings; this puts her in de facto control. My fear and my expectation is that as long as that's the case On Spec will blend ever further into the background, forever unwilling to risk notice for fear of losing the government teat. Or perhaps just out of fear of offending the sensibilities of Diane Walton. At this point I don't really know which.

In either case, I'm outta there. I resigned on Saturday.

Update 2211: Steve Mohn has now also resigned in protest over Diane's behaviour. He did ask, first, that she reverse her decision over my editorial, and that she reinstate The Bomb. Also that she ask me to return to On Spec. She refused on all counts. At which point he walked.

I have to say I'm really touched by Steve's support. My whole damn life I've been accosted by people who sidled up to whisper their admiration for my principled resignation from this job, or my public stand on that issue — only to follow up with a plea to not tell anyone they'd said that, because they didn't want to make waves. Steve (whom I've never even met face-to-face) is one of the few who actually climbed down into the trenches with me. A single ally can make all the difference.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

The Green Spine

So the trade paperback edition of Blindsight showed up in my mailbox yesterday. Not bad, I guess. You've seen it before: they truncated the teaser text on the back, but that left room for more blurbage (which, I'm pleased to note, was actually about Blindsight this time around). I'm a bit doubtful about the presence of that virtually incomprehensible quote from John Clute inside the front cover (seriously, guys, what is "a great, granulated, anfractuous rat king of shrikes", and would you pay good money to have it goose your midbrain?), but okay. No big surprises on the front cover: catchy title font, way better than on the hardcover, and they lost that lurid red border, but — oh wait a minute, what's this on the spine....?

Ah. Lurid green border this time. Perhaps it is meant as a symbol of growth and rebirth, a signal that the bloody days of the revolution are past and now it is time to rebuild. Or something. Wish I knew what it was with these guys and borders. But at least they kept it off the front panel.

Anyway, here's some good news about the paperback, especially for those who read Blindsight for free online and now want a hard copy for their very own, but don't want to spit on the very soul of the Creative Commons by actually paying for it. Patrick St-Denis, of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist — the guy who brought you the infamous "Angry Man Interview" — is giving away three copies of the paperback, just as he did with the hardcover when it came out. Go over there, check it out, give him your hits.

Oh, and according to Leonard Nimoy on The Colbert Report last night, poor body-images in today's teen girls are causing them to opt for oral sex over the intercoursal kind, because blow jobs don't require them to be seen naked. I'm not really sure what that has to do with anything, but I thought I should pass it along.


Monday, February 11, 2008


Just a few bits of miscellanea on my way out the door:
  • The disgustingly-but-unforgettably-named "Puppy Buckets" has posted a review of the soon-to-be-resurrected Starfish — although if you hang out here regularly you'll already know whether the book's any good.
  • We're less than a month away from the paperback edition of Blindsight, and to drum up reader interest has taken down the much-improved cover design for that edition and replaced it with the crappy hardcover layout. And can anyone tell me why that page keeps listing Blindsight as "popular" in the category "Short Stories —> Canadian"? (It was also listed as popular "World Fiction" a few days back, but the world seems to have since come to its senses.)
  • Have officially started writing Dumbspeech. Completed the first draft of the Prelude just yesterday. God, it sucks.


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Athieist Group Born Again

Pursuant to Monday's post, that MySpace athiests group is back up and running. According to a comment on Charlie Stross's blog, MySpace never deleted it in the first place; rather, it was hacked out of existence by some third party. Anybody have any further info on this? According to the story I linked to before, the group had been hacked in the past but this was a whole different thing. Perhaps said commenter was confusing the two events — or perhaps, as he claims, the original report was "grossly inaccurate".

"Thanks to Myspace for restoring our group." appears on the group's splash page, which doesn't tell me much. I've applied for membership to look further inside, but it's one of those moderated thingies so I have to wait until they get back to me.


Friday, February 8, 2008

The Frogs Are Swarming in the Milk

Going over the transcript of the Locus interview I did last July. I am grateful that Locus gives its interviewees the opportunity to "clarify or expand upon" aspects of such transcripts; I had no idea that such a smart guy as myself could be so inarticulate and unfocused. During the course of the actual interview I thought I was performing pretty damn well — at least, everyone in the room was chuckling at all the right points. But either they were just humouring me, or digressions and clever dives down irrelevant alleys don't translate well onto paper. Not to mention the number of sentences I evidently finished with nonverbal gestures. Either that or I'm some kind of closet narcoleptic in denial, with an unfortunate tendency to nod off in mid-sentence. You’d think someone would have mentioned it by now.

Anyway, "clarify and expand upon" I did, to the point where I now seem both profane and articulate. The only problem that remains has to do with Locus's standard policy of formatting these interview things — to wit, they omit the questions to which the interviewee is responding, printing instead an extended monologue innocent of context. And of course, because different questions provoke different answers, said monologue tends to take sudden and aerodynamically-impossible turns in weird directions with no warning. For example, take the following snippet:
... which would, of course, explain the underlying Native-American subtext of the rifters trilogy. The whole saga can be seen as an extended metaphor for the history of Inuit seal-hunting culture in the eighteenth century. The frogs are swarming in the milk. Which at least is an improvement over those big hairy bats, I guess. At least you could hit those with rulers...

Locus assures me that their readership is used to interviews with authors who are apparent victims of multiple personality disorder. I'll take their word for it. But I'm still a bit worried that all you'd need to do is insert a couple of outbursts of cackling hysterical laughter into the transcript to turn me into Tom Cruise.

Anyway, I don't know when the interview goes to press, but here's a snippet to tide you over:

I've tried to create villains. Once I tried to base one on a specific guy I knew in real life, but when my real-life perceptions ended up on the page they seemed more caricature than character; the dude was such a smarmy dick that I might as well have given him a mustache to twirl. The only way I could make him believable on the page was to make him more sympathetic than he actually is in real life, to give him enough depth that the reader would say, 'Yeah, you can kind of see why he's the way he is.' I wish I hadn't had to do that; he really is a complete dick here in the real world.

I of all people should know that moral convictions do not improve one's fitness. Ethics are not an evolutionarily stable strategy. Every time you look closely at altruistic behavior in nature, you find that it's ultimately selfish. A ground squirrel who sees a threat will raise the alarm when there are relatives around, but not otherwise; he's saving his own genes, even if his alarm call draws lethal attention to himself. Animals do fairly sophisticated subconscious processing in their heads. Take ducks. Ducks sometimes adopt ducklings from other broods, which seems counterintuitive; why would any creature in Darwin's universe take a competitor's genes under its wing? But it turns out that the adoptees are always kept in this outer buffer zone, and the parent's real kids are kept in closer. The adoptees are thus more vulnerable to predators; they're being used as cannon fodder (although I guess we'd call them National Guard these days). Every time we see an act of altruism in nature, it ultimately comes down to inclusive fitness.

"I really should learn to internalize that. I need to become more opportunistic, more of a sociopath. Sociopaths tend to make a lot more money than I do."


Monday, February 4, 2008

In Defense of Scientology

Yeah, I kind of thought that might get your attention.

Don't worry, it's not what you're thinking. Nothing exists in isolation; every object stands in contrast to its background, every thing is relative to everything else. So when I take a stand in defense of an admittedly pernicious, powerful, and downright idiotic cult, you knows that it is not that I love L. Ron more, but that I love Rome less.

Specifically, Constantine-era Rome, just around the time of the Nicene Creeds.

These Anonymous folks have been getting a lot of attention lately. They hates the Scientologists, my precious, they hates them forever. They release Hawking-voiced manifestos accompanied by Master-Chief knock-offs and time-lapse cloudscapes. They tell us all about how bad Scientology is. They launch DDoS attacks, and organize protests; they live in the wires. They are Max Headroom made flesh.

But what exactly is so bad about Scientology? What do they do to get people so riled up?

Well, let's see. They expect their followers to believe really stupid things about the universe, things that fly in the face of pretty much every scientific discovery ever made. They extort money from their parishioners victims. They litigate, harass and intimidate those who challenge them from without; they stifle, brainwash, and (some say) even kill those who question them from within. They do not tolerate dissent. They decide how and when women will be allowed to reproduce, strip away a woman's control of her own body. And they are growing; before long, many fear, they will have their hands in the back pockets of governments the world over. Who knows how many politicians and power brokers already suck at L. Ron's teat, while some radio-controlled jester gibbers and capers and leaps around on Oprah's couch to keep our attention off the guys loading up the truck in the back alley?

Is it just me, or are these guys complete fucking amateurs?

You think the Hubbardheads have political power? There's a word for the electoral chances of any political candidate who admits to being a Scientologist: "negligible". By an odd coincidence, the same word describes the prospects of any political candidate who doesn't admit — nay, proclaim — that they're a Christian.

Litigation? The crushing of dissent? Only pussies run to the courts. The largest atheist group on the planet — 35,000 members — just got deleted from MySpace. They violated no terms of service. They committed no offense. But they were found offensive, nonetheless; some Christians complained. Now they are gone.

Not even academia, the self-proclaimed haven of free and enlightened discourse, escapes the shadow. Wilfrid Laurier University, here in Ontario, just denied official recognition to the Laurier Freethought Alliance because the promotion of "a fulfilling life without religion and superstition" would be potentially offensive to the believers on campus. (Note that in this case, nobody even complained. Nobody had a chance to complain, because the whole damn group was aborted before it even came to term.)

I'm not reading about this in the media. Feeding '"Atheist and Agnostic Group" AND myspace' into Google News nets me two measly hits. "Laurier Freethought Alliance" gets me none at all. The only people who seem to even be aware of this, much less give a damn, are the biologists and atheists themselves. You gotta read the science blogs to even hear about it.

No lawsuits. No messy publicity. Just a few complaints, and *poof*. As if we never existed. Now that's power.

Oppression of dissidents? Demonization of outsiders? Institutionalized violence? Penetration into the highest levels of societal control? Rs and Ks, there is just no comparison.

Don't get me wrong. I've got no more time for the Scientologists than I have for any other religion1. (Actually, now that I think of it, sometimes I have quite a lot of time for the Jehovah's Witnesses. I even invite them in and ask them questions. More often than not, they're the ones who ask to leave.) Superstition is a really lousy basis for figuring out how the universe works. But going after the Scientologists in a world full of Christians, Muslims, and Trekkies is like surveying a world ravaged by AIDS and devoting yourself to the eradication of the hangnail.

I don't know who these Anonymous people are. But I think they should stop picking on someone their own size.

1There was a time when I would have simply dismissed the whole thing by pointing out that anyone stupid enough to buy into that crap probably deserves to be exploited. I still believe that, but the problem is the world is evidently cheek-to-jowl with people who are that stupid, and the smarter folks who raise and butcher them use their herds to do an awful lot of damage to the rest of us.

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Job Security

We can't go home again. I already said that, didn't I?

It's true enough, most of the time. They told us going in: you will be lost in time and space. You'll be past the point of no return long before your first gig even begins. You will wake up serving people centuries dead and lightyears distant, with no hope of backup or relief.

Expect nothing, they said. We don't know what we'll be in a thousand years, or a million. We might bomb ourselves back into the Stone Age a decade from now. We're like that. But don't lose hope: we're like this too, we reach for the stars, we can fall into savagery overnight but we'll have millennia to climb back up before you check in on us again. Maybe one time you'll build a gate and nothing will come through, but the time after that you'll release angels. You never know.

Isn't that the fun part, though? Finding out?

We can't really find out. We don't dare stop long enough to get a good look. Eriophora's huge after all, she is fucking massive, she carries the weight of mountains in her cold black heart. No, it's not optional: that speck of squashed matter is what's kept us falling all these millions of years. But try maneuvering with that kind of mass. Ery flies like an eagle over interstellar distances but she steers like a pig on the short haul. We're ballistic from the moment we wake up to the moment Ery puts us down. We dive through the needle's eye at a fifth of lightspeed. Our tame singularity jump-starts the very continuum, shocks eight megatonnes of space-bending machinery to life, and by the time the readings have settled we're already too far gone to do anything but squint aft and glean what we can from the red shift.

If you really wanted to, you could stay behind. Refit a shuttle with extra shielding, decelerate during construction, keep safely distant as Eriophora dives past on its way to heat death. Wait out those scorching, radioactive birth pangs, let the newborn wormhole settle in its collar. Then, in theory, you could go home. Whatever home has become by now. And if whatever's coming the other way lets you pass.

Someone even tried it, once. I think he and I may have been close. But it was his decision. The rest of us just kept going.

We're not stupid. We've caught ocassional glimpses of the things set free in our wake. Sometimes they're the furthest thing from friendly.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Fear Me.

Look at this title-page from a recent technical publication. Look at the Institutional affiliation. Look at it, bitches:

That's right. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. The Black Ops Capital of the western hemisphere. The guys who sell their obsolete cast-offs to IMF.

Now look at this extract from the actual report (you may have to click on the image for a readable view):

Oh, yes. That's me in there. That's my books. I've got a fan in Livermore.

So if any of you should encounter me on the street, or at a con, you might want to offer to buy me a beer. Because you never know when someone might have an advanced-prototype death-ray device under their coats, courtesy of one of their eyes-only-black-ops fans. And it can never hurt to keep someone like that happy.

For example, My Elves are Different makes me happy. That guy knows what side his bread's buttered on.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Us and Them

I'm not going to dwell on the The Big Paris-Hilton Scale moment that's been all over the science blogs for the past day or two, since let's face it, Venter's new artificial genome is really just another incremental step on the path, and besides, I already mentioned that guy recently. So instead, a potpourri of peteresque and popcultural pointers:


A few developments on the writing front:
  • Recorded Books is going to release an audio rendition of Blindsight (which is especially cool since evidently these guys put out the only single-voice English language narration of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy officially approved by the Tolkien Estate). If I'm lucky, they can get Andy Serkis for the performance.
  • Heyne, the German publisher putting out the translations of Butt Plug and Down Hill, have made an offer on Maelstrom. After a bit of haggling over money and my insistence that the book's title should be an easy target of juvenile humour once translated, I accepted. (I suspect we even got more for it than Tor did for the Heyne edition of Starfish, although I don't know because Tor still hasn't told me how much that was.) (Yes, I've asked.) This almost makes up for the those one-star Amazon reader review reviews that just shot Blind Flug down from the heady days of unanimous approval it had enjoyed only yesterday (although the sales rank seems to be doing pretty well over there regardless — the book's grazed the five-hundreds a couple of times, which even accounting for the difference in national populations is probably better than it ever did over here).
  • It also looks as though a Czech edition of Blindsight is in the works from Triton Books. (On the down side, that Russian deal I mentioned a while back might be a bit shakier than I'd thought — at least, they keep telling me that the deal's still on but I haven't seen a penny of an advance that was due well before the end of last year. I'd probably push them harder if the memory of Cronenberg's Eastern Promises wasn't still so fresh in my mind...)
  • Oh yeah, and some doofus over on Futurismic says I'm all in favour of torture and everything. I'm not saying he's wrong, but jeez.


I don't usually serve up link salads, since they'd generally point to far more popular blogs than mine and thus it would probably be old news to you all anyway. But today I'm making an exception, because the following links lead to things that made me grin broadly, and that doesn't happen as often as I'd like. Also it proves that sometimes I can still "get" popular culture, which also doesn’t happen as often as I'd like:
I'm going to go work now. I'm actually writing prose these days. Some day, if you behave badly, I may share some of it with you.


"They're Really More Guidelines than Actual Rules" — or, The None That Got Away.

I know I haven't mentioned it lately, but the world is still turning to shit. The Bush administration recently gave the US Navy the go-ahead to kill as many whales as they want to in their hunt for tewwowists in diesel-powered submarines, and screw the California Supreme Court. It's finally been officially admitted that nobody's gonna do shit about protecting jaguars in the US, whether the Endangered Species Act says they have to or not. The International Underwater Spearfishing Association has been forced to reset the clock on their "world records", basically because you can't beat a record after you've exterminated all the fish in that size class. Back in ancient history, the Bali Conference ended with everyone proclaiming the need to finally get serious about climate change, while committing themselves to absolutely nothing— and the same assholes who insisted there was no such thing only a decade ago are once again proclaiming themselves the voices of reason and urging us to adapt, because it's really too late to change things now. (I've been contemplating a post which advocates waiting until "all the science is in" and then hunting down the Bushes and the Howards and Harpers of the world, and killing them — you know, because those guys are big on both "accountability" and capital punishment — but I haven't yet figured out the whole "actionable" angle. Maybe next week.)

Up here in my little corner of the world, however, things are a teeny bit brighter on the environment front because the landlord just installed low-flow toilets throughout the building. This would make me happier if the toilet's design hadn't compensated for reduced flow by increasing pressure. Now, every time I flush the damn thing it's like an F-16 is launching on full afterburners under my ass. Put that together with the fact that the new design virtually assures that the end of my dick is underwater even prior to take-off and, well, I can only say it's just as well I've already been circumcised.

Kermit was right. It's not easy being green.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

A physicist walks into a bar and says "Hey, I got this particle-wave duality thing all figured out". And his buddies look over the numbers, and sure enough, they parse. "But it's still bullshit," one of them says. "It has to be." And the others all nod in agreement.

"But the numbers," the physicist says.

The naysayer takes a moment to butter his nose. "Look, according to those, those numbers," he says, as the resident bar cat starts licking, "if you put this cat into that box over there, and put this radioisotope trigger in there with him, and closed the lid, why, why — according to your numbers the cat would be alive and dead at the same time!"

And everybody agrees that this is so fucking stupid that there must be something wrong with the numbers, even if they can't find what it is.

But here's the thing: almost a century later, they still haven't. That cat's still in there, in its indeterminate catly state, and the experts still don't know what that even means for sure. Except that a reductio ad absurdum once put forth to discredit a model has instead become an icon for it.

And you know what's even scarier? It's happening again, only worse.

If I'm reading this NYT piece correctly (and I'm trusting you guys to set me straight if I'm not), a theoretical consequence of dark energy is that quantum fluctuations following universal heat death could seed the spontaneous and probabilistic reemergence of a bunch of new universes. This would be fine except that probabilistically, simple things are more likely than complex ones to arise spontaneously. (The analogy they use in the story is Scrabble letters, spilled randomly onto a table; a word is more likely to arise from that happenstance than is an entire sentence.) And any subset of a universe, by definition, is less complex than the universe as a whole, and therefore more likely to arise.

So yes, while the spontaneous reemergence of new universes is certainly called for in some cases, in far more cases you'd just be getting pieces showing up. Cats in Space. Fully-functional yet utterly disembodied brains, floating in the void. Very small rocks. And since such iterations are more likely — and hence, more numerous — then the likelihood is that I'm just a disembodied brain imagining a universe where none actually exists, and the rest of you are — well, no. The rest of you aren't. Which makes me feel a bit better about not having got laid over the past few months, but a whole lot worse about pretty much everything else.

Of course, nobody takes this seriously. The whole Disembodied-Brain thing was cooked up specifically as a a reductio ad absurdum, to show how stupid the whole idea is. Everyone seems pretty much convinced that there's something wrong with the numbers, even if they haven't found what it is. And I think we should trust them, because after all they certainly figured out Schrödinger's — oh, wait...

At this point I'll just modestly clear my throat and suggest that the thematic punchline for the five-billion-year plot of Sunflowers (or Gerbils — still open to suggestions) will resolve the whole open-universe question much more elegantly, when I get around to it. In the meantime I can only invoke the spirit of the AI in John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, "bathed in his currents of liquid helium, self-contained, immobile, vastly well-informed by every mechanical sense: Shalmaneser. Every now and then there passes through his circuits a pulse which carries the cybernetic equivalent of the phrase,

Christ, what an imagination I've got."

Illo credit to Holly Stevenson.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Scramblers in the Shallows, Light in the Deeps

This is a short, stunning clip that starts with deep-sea glowsticks and segues to shallow-water cephalopods. The first part gives you a taste of Beebe Station; the second (including the Two-Faced Squid!) demonstrates some camo tricks that make scramblers look like amateurs.

No new information here, but beautiful. Try to ignore the creationist idiot in the comments.

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Friday, January 18, 2008


One of the bits of chrome I drizzled throughout the rifters books were "Tactical Contacts" ("ConTacs", in the vernacular): contact lenses that acted as a kind of personal GUI, feeding information to the wearer and using the roving eyeball itself as a kind of trackball pointer. Yves Scanlon wore them sometimes; Patricia Rowan would have rather have been caught naked in public than with her eyes unTacked. (Come to think of it, the masking of eyes was a consistent general motif throughout those books. Which is kind of an interesting inversion of the usual sort of mask, which covers everything except the eyes. But I digress.)

Anyway, the guys over at the University of Washington claim to have developed a working prototype.

I don't know if I buy this. My understanding is that a passive ConTac-type display is probably unworkable in principle because of the eye's focal length: you just can't focus clearly on anything close enough to sit on your cornea (my own whacked-out version got around this by shooting images directly onto the retina using a teensy lenticular laserium setup, but I don't remember if I actually spelled that out in the books). The UW PR flack doesn't address this issue at all, and in fact the researchers don't even seem to have generated a visible image using the technology. Their main claim to fame so far is that they've been able to embed circuits into a contact lens and plunk it down on a rabbit's eyeball for twenty minutes without killing him, which is certainly necessary albeit not sufficient. That doesn't stop them from cheerfully predicting that Terminator-vision is just around the corner, though.

But they must have solved that problem. They wouldn’t be going on like this if they hadn't addressed such an obvious hurdle. Nobody could be that dumb. I mean, that would be about as likely like a famous geneticist claiming that Human evolution had stopped because God likes us the way we ar— oh, wait...

Photo credit, as far as I can tell, is University of Washington Weekly.


Monday, January 14, 2008

A Farewell to "Gerbils"

Three bits of news today. The smallest item is that "Repeating the Past", the short-short that appeared in Nature last December, has been recruited for David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's annual Year's Best anthology. The medium item is that, after months of negotiation, I have reached an agreement with Fleuve Noir in France to produce a French translation of Blindsight. (The fact that the lady on the other side of the negotiating table has cats named after Aliens characters had no undue influence on my decision to go with these people).

The Big News is ― wait for it ―

I have renamed Gerbils, a novel I'm currently working up the outline for. It is now called Sunflowers, and the reason for the change is that I've finally figured out the punchline for the damn thing. It is epic. Seriously. It encompasses the fate of the entire universe.

I dare anyone to get more epic than that.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Church of the Buttered Nose

So you start the day as you always have: you wake up to the feel of a claw piercing your internasal septum. You get out of bed, stumble down the hall, feed the cats. Pee. Open the blinds. Wander back into the kitchen; nuke a couple of muffins; mix up a bowl of oatmeal; smear butter on your nose so Chip the Cat (waiting expectantly on top of the fridge) can lick it off with his rough, radula-like tongue. Extract muffins from microwave. Load up your RSS feeds. Put the coffee on, pour a glass of OJ...

And then one day you do a double-take, and say to yourself Wait a minute — how long have I been smearing butter on my nose so that Chip could lick it off? How did that start? And why has it never occurred to me until now?

And then, if you're especially perceptive, you may wonder How would this look to someone who hadn't been raised in the Church of the Buttered Nose?

Of course, most people aren't that perceptive. At least, not consciously; there must be some kind of subliminal subroutine asking that question, though, or they wouldn't be so quick to silence anyone who voices it aloud1. We've always buttered our noses, you see. As long as we can remember. The origins of our ways are lost in the mists of time, but surely the very antiquity of those origins confers credibility, yes? It feels right to us.

Still. Were some naïve overnight guest to catch me in flagrante dairio, their reaction might well be "What the fuck!?", even though my reaction to their reaction would merely be "What?" And I guess Communion, Baptism, and Human Sacrifice are the same sort of thing. I bet this is how religions (or at least, religious rituals) get started. We have always buttered our noses. What's the big deal?

Of course, there are similarities and there are differences. Both cats and gods seem to expect absolute subservience and constant praise. Both seem capricious, quick to anger, and prone to the holding of grudges. Both demand sacrifice.

Cats aren't omnipotent, though. That's one big difference.

Oh, and they exist. That's another.

1 I recently got a very huffy e-mail from someone who took exception to being described as "religious" rather than "spiritual", evoking fond memories of The Judean People's Front taking umbrage at being mistaken for The People's Front of Judea. Seems to me, though, that once you've drunk from the Supernatural Kool-Aid, any subordinate distinctions come down to chrome and upholstery.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Here We Go Again

Well, looky here. Blindsight is on the preliminary Nebula ballot. I don't really know much about the mechanics of that process — how "preliminary" turns into "beta", when "beta" turns into "final" — beyond the fact that the award seems a bit too in-house inbred for John Clute's many people's liking. I'm not a member of SFWA; worse, I'm one of those (how did it go again?) "pixel-stained technopeasant wretches" whose forays into the Creative Commons so pissed off certain elements in its administration. So even if these folks know who I am, I rather suspect they may not like me very much.

I'm actually kinda surprised that I even got this far; obviously somebody must like me (or at least, like my book), and I thank them for pitching on Blindsight's behalf. If I find out who you are, I'll buy you a beer next time we run into each other.

But still. Like this is ever gonna happen.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Performance Art

The good folks at Starship Sofa have posted a podcast of my longish-story "The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald", read by, er, me. You can listen to it over here if you're curious about the sound of my voice, if you want to check out the shots I take at the "Mundane SF" movement in my introductory comments, or even, I suppose, if you're interested in the story. Be warned, though: it's fifty minutes of your life that you won't get back. I will not be held responsible for the crushing post-hoc realization that you could have been getting laid or drinking a V8 instead.


Sunday, January 6, 2008

Bull Balls

Okay, another Crawl Cockup Call. I imagine a lot of you subscribe to the RSS feed to this thing. Has said RSS feed, over the past day or so, been feeding you pictures of bull testicles with the slogan "I am a dirty bandwidth thief" in place of real graphics?

I apologize if so. Some doof on LJ keeps hotlinking to images on my site. Other folks have got the message when I've simply renamed the hotlinked image and given them goatse guy in its place, but this idiot just keeps rejigging his own link to the original graphic so I've escalated to a .htaccess filter. I didn't think that RSS feeds would get caught in this net — my own feed to the crawl works just fine — but a new reader has just informed me that ol' bull balls constituted his formal introduction to the neighborhood. And while I can't say it's a completely inaccurate representation of the local content, it certainly isn't intentional.

So. Show of hands?


Saturday, January 5, 2008

Cancer, For the Greater Good

One of my favorite monster movies of all time has got to be John Carpenter's 1982 remake of “The Thing”. It's not a perfect film by any means – there are some gaffes with the rubber fx, and if eighties-era PCs ever came preloaded with software to test whether your buddies had been taken over by shapeshifting aliens, I never saw it. (A shame. Back then I would've bought something like that in a second. These days, it's pretty much redundant.) Still, “The Thing” is one of the few movies of its type in which the Human cast isn't as dumb as a sack of Huckabees. Nobody wanders off after the ship's cat all by themselves. The moment they figure out what they're up against they burn everything that moves, start thinking about serological detection methods, and keep really close watch on each other. It's an effective study in paranoia, starring an alien that not only squirts slime and sprouts tentacles, but actually proves to be quite a bit more intelligent than the humans it preys upon. (As one might expect from a creature with interstellar technology. Am I the only one bothered by the fact that the monster in the Howard Hawkes original never did anything smarter than just kinda flailing around and roaring?) Even at the scorched-earth end of the story, you're never really sure who won.

Then there's the biology.

It's actually not as totally whacked-out as you may think. Granted, anything able to morph between body plans in the time it takes me to snarf an Egg McMuffin would have to have stores of cellular energy verging on the nuclear. (Jeff Goldblum's gradual, donut-powered transformation in “The Fly” was a lot more believable – although why those telepods got all confused at the presence of fly DNA, when they didn't seem to bat a diode at the bacteria seething on every square micron of both fly and human, remains an open question. But I digress.) Still, if you can forgive the ridiculously fast transformation, the idea of an infectious agent retooling infected cells for its own purposes is old news. Viruses have been doing it for billions on years.

Now we are too. Synthetic Life's current rock star, J. Craig Venter, is all over the lit with his artifical chromosomes and Swiss-Army cells: build a cellular chassis that carries the basic instruction set necessary for metabolism, and then top it off with genes to produce whatever you're after this week. Before long, Venter's Vats (and only Venter's vats, if the patents go through) will be churning out great masses of everything from Nutripon to Biogasoline.

But more interesting, to me, is this recent paper out of PloS Computational Biology on “Somatic Evolution”— i.e., the classic Darwinian struggle for existence among the cells of a single tissue in a single organism. And why shouldn't the rules of natural selection apply to cells as well as their owners? The cells in your liver exist in a habitat with limited food, just like populations of multicellular creatures. They jostle up against others like themselves who have their eye on the same nutrients. Given a mutation that allowed one such cell to outcompete its siblings — faster reproductive rate, lower mortality — wouldn't its offspring kick the asses of the competition? Wouldn't the whole tissue, the whole organ, evolve into something new, something where every cell was out for itself, something like —

—Well, cancer, obviously.

Don't bother pointing out the obvious. Yes, if our cells did follow the beat of their own drummer, multicellularity would never have evolved in the first place. But that's circular; there's nothing in the rules that says multicellularity had to evolve, and logically Darwin's hand should be felt down in the blood as well as out on the savannah. Something must have suppressed those processes at the cellular level before metazoans could arise; that's what this paper is about.

But now I'm thinking on a tangent. I remember our old friends the scramblers, and how it was possible for them to evolve without genes:
"I'd swear half the immune system is actively targetting the other half. It's not just the immune system, either. Parts of the nervous system seem to be trying to, well, hack each other. I think they evolve intraorganismally, as insane as that sounds. The whole organism's at war with itself on the tissue level, it's got some kind of cellular Red Queen thing happening. Like setting up a colony of interacting tumors, and counting on fierce competition to keep any one of them from getting out of hand. Seems to serve the same role as sex and mutation does for us."

And I remember MacReady in Carpenter's film, after Norris split into several different pieces to keep from burning alive, internalising the take-home lesson:

"Every part of him was a whole. Every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. Y'see, when a man bleeds... it's just tissue. But blood from one of you things won't obey when it's attacked. It'll try and survive. Crawl away from a hot needle, say..."

Cancer, for the greater good.

Maybe that's where people and scramblers and MacReady-battling Things went their separate ways. We tamed our inner battles using stem cells and transient cells and differentiated tissues, just like Pepper et al. hypothesise. But maybe other worlds spawned other answers. Maybe whatever alien slime mold gave rise to our Antarctic shapeshifter decided to go with the whole cell-competition thing, decided to make it a solution instead of a problem. Maybe that's how all those cells remain totipotent even in the adult animal; or maybe some tentacle-whipping alien J. Craig Venter just figured out how to go back and retrofit his species for optimal adaptability and maximum profit. Of course they could do it, even if they didn't evolve that way. They built flying saucers, for Chrissakes. They were crossing the interstellar gulf before we'd even made it out of Africa. What better failsafe for lost and stranded travellers than to be able to take your cue from the natives, slip into a new body precustomised for its environment?

I read “Who Goes There” back in the eighties, decades after John W. Campbell wrote it and about six months before Carpenter's unjustly-maligned remake hit the theatres. I thought it was tres cool from the outset. But it never occurred to me to write a sequel until I read this paper...

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Sunday, December 30, 2007


Hey, anybody out there use Internet Explorer to read this 'crawl?

If so, are you finding the entries peppered with hacked up fragments of javascript that are supposed to be invisible? Stuff like

< !--[if !supportEmptyParas]-->

just thrust all ugly-like between paragraphs?

I don't suppose someone could have just, you know told me that my newscrawl looked like a botched abortion in IE? (Not to mention that the font is way too large in that browser). Because I've just been plunking along in Firefox all this time, assuming that it wouldn't be too much to expect Google's Blogger code to render gracefully in the most popular bloody browser on the planet. But nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo...

Or is it just fucking up here on my local machine? Please, IE users. Tell me it's the local machine. When was the last time I asked you for anything?


Monday, December 24, 2007

"God is Gonna Kick Your Ass You Infidelic Pagan Scum"

A few parting links, in keeping with the Christmas Spirit:

...because honestly, combining 2001 with domestic shorthair cats is about as close to the truly divine as I'm ever likely to come.

So as Mr. Garrison sang with such unrepetant gusto: Merry Fucking Christmas. Try to ignore that idiotic pap about Christmas Choirs the CBC is wasting its bandwidth on, and try to survive the season.

(Me, I've just introduced my Dad to Blade Runner. Went pretty well. Except he didn't get the unicorn.)


Friday, December 21, 2007

Benthic Baptisms

So it begins (actually continues, but let's not let accuracy get in the way of a good cliché): the race to exploit the deep sea. A couple of choice quotes:
"deep sea mining ... has the potential to explode ... The hotspots are ocean floor geysers known as hydrothermal vents ...

"...we know almost nothing about the microbial life or their ecology."

So, yeah. Bring on βehemoth! Let's get this apocalypse on the road!

And — in a nice bit of timing — one Bernd Kronsbein has just pointed me to the Amazon page for the upcoming German edition of Starfish (which evidently translates does not after all translate as Abgrund, but as another word entirely!). The cover steers away from the rifter-collage design that Bruce Jensen so effectively rendered for the Tor editions, instead giving face time to the more conventional preshmesh armour that Yves Scanlon lumbered around in for a couple of chapters:

I'm guessing they were looking for something a bit more space-suity, to maintain thematic consistency with their Blindflug cover. Anyway, I like it.

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The God-Shaped Hole

Previously, on No Moods, Ads, or Cutesy Fucking Icons...

Many religious people are idiots. My Dad's religious, but he's no idiot. There are some other smart religious people out there too. Maybe they're right and I'm wrong. But they can't be, because I'm a scientist and they're not! But real scientists have to allow for the possibility that they can be wrong about anything; otherwise they're just another breed of fundamentalist. Oh, look, here's a scientist called Francis Collins. He is much smarter, more prominent, and way better-paid than I ever was. He says I'm wrong. He says he has evidence for the existence of the Christian God. He uses many scientific-sounding words to convince me he might be on to something.

Teach me, Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, arch-nemesis of the evil Craig Venter! Show me the way!

Here it is. Dr. Francis Collins' Big Reveal. Actually, his Big Reveal was a personal epiphany he had while looking at a bunch of icicles; this is his Evidence That Demands A Verdict, and it is, wait for it:

The warm fuzzy feeling you get when you "Do The Right Thing".

Yup. That's it. A dopamine rush, elevated to the status of "The Moral Law". Universally extant in every Human culture, he says, and unique to Human culture as well. "Evolution will never explain The Moral Law and the Universal Search for God", he assures us, will never explain that uniquely, universally human urge to help those in need, even if they don't share our genes, even at our own expense. We are beyond evolution — for if the evolutionists were right, we'd never do anything except selfishly try to spread our own genes. Collins actually uses the word "scandal" to describe the way in which we "evolutionists" regard altruism.

He invokes C.S. Lewis's faux-adaptationist argument to induce God's existence from these warm fuzzies:

"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Pedophiles feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as alter boys*. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

After which Collins cuts in and asks "Why do we have a 'God-shaped vacuum' in our hearts unless it is meant to be filled?"

Where to start. (Beyond noting that while some sort of vacuum does seem to persist in one Francis Collins, it is unlikely to reside in his thorax...)

Let's start with a general observation. Collins' understanding of natural selection appears to be a woefully-ignorant caricature in which every organism always behaves optimally to promote its own fitness, and every instance in which this doesn't happen constitutes a failure of evolutionary theory calling out for Divine intervention. What he doesn't seem to understand (or perhaps, what he's hoping you won't) is that the whole basis of natural selection is variation. Organisms differ; some do better than others; the losers leave fewer offspring. Nature, in other words, is chock-full of creatures who do not selfishly spread their genes, who benefit others at their own expense. Conspecifics might call such organisms "unsuccessful competitors". Parasites would call them "hosts". Predators would call them "food". The Archdiocese calls them "parishioners".

Perhaps you're thinking that's a cheap shot; prey may not successfuly spread their genes, but that's not for want of trying. I would counter that the same could be said of all those good folks who turn the other cheek expecting a grand payoff in the Kingdom of Heaven. Either way, this Collins guy needs to be taught the basics — not just of biology, but of elementary logic. To claim that non-selfish acts contradict evolutionary theory is like claiming that blow jobs contradict the orgasm's role in reproduction.

But fine: he's talking about the knowing and voluntary sacrifice of one's own interests to benefit another. That's what he defines as uniquely human. Except it isn't. Empathy for nonrelatives, efforts expended to help others (even members of different species), have been documented in nonhuman primates and cetaceans. The concepts of fair play and justice don't seem to be uniquely human either. Contrary to Collins' claims, sociobiologists don't have any real trouble reconciling such actions with evolutionary processes; in fact, the neurochemistry underlying empathy is a pretty basic social-cohesion mechanism. And while Collins has a field day hauling out Oskar Schindler and Mother Theresa as examples of selfless service to a greater good, he's only cherry-picking one or two convenient outliers from a cloud of data. Readers of this obscure little newscrawl may remember that there is a data cloud, statistically quantifiable, and it shows that people tend to engage in risky heroics or acts of altruistic generosity primarily when it improves their chances of getting laid. (And don't bother pointing out that Mommy Theresa's chances of that were pretty much nil — we both know the basement circuitry works the same way regardless of motivational overlays. Besides, she was expecting a whole other kind of payoff, just as Schindler more likely than not feared some kind of payback.) You may also remember that this "Moral Law", such as it is, is inconsistent and often downright wrong, that the truly altruistic — those who'd unhesitatingly sacrifice two of their own children to save four of someone else's, for example — suffer from a specific and precise form of brain damage. The truly moral are those with lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex; not, so far as I've heard, a "universal" aspect of the Human condition.

And that's not even getting into the self-sacrificing behaviour of those who have merely been tricked into furthering someone else's agenda. How many Christians would have marched in the Crusades, how many jihadists would have strapped bombs across their bellies, how many missionaries would have risked disease and death in darkest Africa if they'd actually believed that eternal damnation was waiting at the end of it? (Now that would be altruism.) Is Collins really so blind to the workings of his own religion that he can't tell the difference between true selflessness and the manipulation of selfish motives by parasites wielding imaginary payoffs?

Which leads to another, and mind-bogglingly obvious failing of Collins' argument: the ubiquity of the "Moral Law". His claim that we all share the same standards of right and wrong would, I expect, come as news to all those cultures throughout history who kept (and keep) slaves, who mutilate the genitals of their women, who regarded (and regard) foreign races, beliefs, and behaviours as things to be avoided at best and hammered into extinction at worst. The ongoing genocides of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries provide eloquent testimony to the ubiquity of Collins' Moral Law, and while he leaves himself a bit of wiggle room (we all have the Moral Law, you see, but some of us choose to ignore it), he cites nothing to justify the claim that this sense of right and wrong is universal beyond the one-two punch that a) he feels it and so do all his friends, and b) C.S. Lewis told him so. (In fact, reading The Language of God, you get the sense that Francis Collins has anointed himself C.S. Lewis's Official Corporeal Sock Puppet.)

For all his talk of agape and altruism, Collins may be the most profoundly self-centred human being I've read. The possibility that everyone doesn't feel just the way he does seems completely beyond his grasp.

The search for God? I'm a pretty introspective dude, and I can say with a high degree of confidence that I don't have anything like that gnawing away inside me. I recognise that many people do— but I also recognise that our brains are hardwired to see patterns even where none exist, to attribute agency even to purely indifferent phenomena. It's a small enough step from the "Theory of Mind" that allows us to suss out the agendas of the creatures and conspecifics we encounter day to day. So the very clouds can look angry to us, or benign; and who hasn't wanted to put a brick through that fucking laptop and its fucking Blue Screen of Death which always, malevolently, crashes your system when you're six hours from deadline and have forgotten to save?

Apply equal parts ignorance, pattern-matching, and the attribution of motives onto nature's canvas: angels and demons sprout like Spears sprogs behind every rock (much as they appeared to Collins in his frozen waterfall). But Collins doesn’t even admit that such neural circuitry exists, much less contemplate its potential relevance to human superstition. No mention at all of Persinger's work, or Ramachandran's. Not a word about the brain's God Module. And once again, no credit whatsoever to the guys with the mitres and crosses — not to mention the iron maidens in their basements — and the role they might have played in inculcating a sense of the divine into the culture (albeit granted, a form of the Divine that seems chronically in need of alms).

So Collins' central, most rigorous argument for a personal god — who created heaven and earth and made us and only us in his image — is that everybody shares the same sense of right and wrong (except they don't); that everybody seeks God (speak for yourself, buddy; I'm happy if I can just find a decent pint of Rickards); that Human beings are unique among all species in being altruistic and moral (except we're not); and that there's no other explanation but the God of Abraham for any of this (except there sure as shit is).

Let me repeat: this is his strongest argument.

It's not his only one, though. Collins commits numerous other sins, easily recognised by anyone with even a passing familiarity with the moves of flat-earthers and climate-change deniers and spin-doctors the world over. Statements initially introduced with all the right caveats ("If we accept the possibility of the supernatural, then it is possible that...") reappear later, unsubstantiated but nonetheless miraculously transmuted into statements of absolute fact (believers are "right to hold fast to the eternal truths of the Bible"). Legitimate objections to his positions (e.g., that religious beliefs are irrelevant to the study of Nature) are dismissed for no better reason than that Collins finds them unpalatable ("that doesn't resonate with most individuals' human experience", he writes). In the manner of fundies everywhere, and in the spirit of that book he holds most holy, he contradicts himself whenever it suits him. At one point he argues against the God-as-wishful-thinking model by pointing out that a product of wish-fulfillment would be cuddly and indulgent, not demanding and judgmental as the God of Abraham is wont to be. (Oddly, the prospect of an intimidating God invoked not for comfort, but as a way for folks in funny hats to exert control over credulous followers, never seems to occur to him.) But when facing off against those who'd claim that God scattered photons and fossils across heaven and earth to test our faith, he decides that a little wishful thinking is just fine: "Would God as the great deceiver be an entity anyone would want to worship?"

He rejects a naturalistic universe because after all, something had to kick-start the Big Bang (it couldn't have just booted itself, that would be silly) — then changes the rules to exempt his own model from the same criticism (oh, nothing had to create God, God just booted Himself). (As I would too, hard in my own ass, if I'd created a sentient being as wilfully stupid as Francis Collins). He hauls out the old atheism-is-faith-based-too chestnut, because after all, nobody can prove God doesn't exist, so if that's what you believe you're just taking it on blind faith, right? (Of course, nobody can prove that omnipotent purple hamsters aren't partying it up in the Pleiades either; I guess Collins must believe in those too, or he'd be just as blind as the creationists.)

He quotes Hawking's Brief History of Time out of context, in a way that portrays ol' Wheels as a believer; he makes no mention of Hawking's explicit denial of religious belief in the same book. He tries to tell us that creationism and Intelligent design are different things, and goes so far as to state as a scientist that the ID movement "deserves serious consideration" — evidently unaware that the IDiots got caught passing their creationist textbook through a global search-and-replace to turn every instance of the word "creationism" into "intelligent design", as a way to get around legal proscriptions against religion in science class.

I don't care if this guy did nail the gene for cystic fibrosis. If this book exemplifies his cognitive skills, I gotta wonder who he slept with to end up running the HGP.

Once, many years ago, Francis Collins claims he was an athiest. Maybe he still is, at heart. Maybe he's just lying through his teeth with this book. Maybe he's a player with an agenda, a guy who wanted to climb up the ranks and figured that atheism would keep him off the guest lists for all the best parties. I have no evidence of this, but I hope that's the case. I hope that he's merely an opportunist. I really do.

Because judging by this self-righteous, irrational, and contemptible book, the only other explanation that comes to mind is that Dr. Francis Collins is a fucking moron.

(edited for style 22/12/07)

*Okay, maybe Lewis didn't use this particular example. But you take my point. NAMBLA's gonna have a field day with this rationale; according to Francis Collins, God wants them to be pedophiles...

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Father, His Son, and the Holy Ghost

It should be no secret that I am one of that ever-growing flock of empiricists who've been touched by His Noodly Appendage*. And while I generally have little patience for religious beliefs of any stripe — I just can't see any explanatory utility in them at all — my feelings about religious believers are somewhat more nuanced. Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that I was raised not only by devout Baptists, but by an actual Baptist minister/scholar/high-falutin' bureaucrat in the Baptist church. (I'm not sure exactly how highly placed, but I have this vague sense that "general secretary" was something like a cardinal/union-boss, except without the sodomising of alter-boys or the beating-up of strike-breakers.) Maybe it's because, having gone through occasional dark hours of my own, I know how absolutely wonderful it would be to know, deep down in my heart, that death is not the end, that there is a place where all my beloved dead cats still chew on liquorice (and cannot climb the trees), that there is more to existence than a few decades of ranting vainly against the imbeciles who keep treating the planet like a toilet bowl. Or maybe it's just that I've encountered a fair number of believers over the past decades, and I can't honestly dismiss all of them as complete idiots.

Not that there aren't an awful lot of idiots in those ranks, you understand. Almost half the human population on this continent thinks that Humanity was created pretty much in its present form six thousand years ago, that evolution is a fraud, and that the sky is swarming with angels. Those people are fucking morons; there is so much overwhelming evidence to the contrary, so readily available to anyone with even rudimentary reading skills, that the only plausible alternatives to fucking-moronhood would be brainwashing or mental disease. But I can't put people like my dad into that basket: Baptist leader and teacher in the heart of the Alberta bible-belt of the sixties, who — catching me at age twelve reading a James Bond novel — sat me down and told me that Ian Fleming didn’t really have the most respectful attitude towards women, and there were other books I might want to try out if I wanted insight into how to treat my fellow human beings. Who, as I lay spinning on my bed in the dark at seventeen, vomit dribbling down my chin and exhaling enough ethanol to ignite the whole bloody house if my chain-smoking older brother happened to light up, sat on my bed and asked me about my day, and told me about his, and didn't even mention my inebriated state until I brought it up myself (and then just rolled his eyes and quoted Shakespeare — something about the devil than men put into their mouths to steal away their brains. But I could feel him smiling in the dark when he said it.) My dad, who never had any problems at all with science in general, or with evolution in particular.

When I asked him — years later still — if he would at least stop believing in this Easter Bunny of his if presented with indisputable, convincing evidence of God's nonexistence, he thought for a moment and admitted that no, he most likely would not. He lost some serious points with me then. But still; this man, and thousands more like him, are not idiots. I cannot lump them in with the Falwells and the Bushies and the — well, with the 47% of the N'Amian population who are fucking morons. I just can't.

I prefer to think of most of them not as stupid, but lazy.

Most people acquire their beliefs through osmosis and observation, not investigation. We'd rather observe than derive. Raised in a society awash in certain ubiquitous beliefs, you tend to accept those beliefs without thinking. I think most people come to their faith in the same way they come to believe that not wearing a tie is "unprofessional office behaviour", even though ties are a prerequisite for very few office duties. (There are good evolutionary reasons for this. Who's going to get ahead fastest; the guy who reinvents every wheel from scratch, or the guy who looks around and copies those wheel-thingies all the grown-ups are using? I mean, of course you should just do what the grown-ups do; they did it, and they were obviously fit enough to spawn...)

But what if I'm wrong? One of the reasons science kicks religion's ass is that we always have to allow for the possibility that we could be wrong. About anything. Who was it remarked that science offers proof without certainty; religion offers certainty without proof?

So I'm always on the lookout for bright people, scientifically-inclined people, non-fucking-moron people, who have religious beliefs. Because maybe they've thought of something I haven't. Maybe they're right and I'm wrong; and man, wouldn't it be great to be wrong about this? Wouldn't it absolutely kick ass if there actually was an afterlife, and a stigmatized Easter Bunny?

So Dad hands me this book: The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief by one Francis S. Collins. Director of the bureaucratic half of the Human Genome Project, for Chrissakes. And here's the kicker: the dude started his university career as an atheist, and then converted to Christianity. Is that ass-backwards or what?

So here, say I, is a guy both smarter and better educated than me, who obviously knows all the arguments that led me to my own apostasy, because he started out there himself — and he's found something better! He has found evidence for belief!

I bet you're just dying to see what it was, hmmm?

*And if you don't know what that means, friend, you are in the wrong place. Come back when you've done your homework.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

AfterImages of I Am Legend

Praiseworthy Things:
  • Opens with the Best Bitter Irony Jump Cut evar.
  • Will Smith's spot-on performance as a repressed, guilt-ridden failed-saviour-in-denial ratcheting inexorably towards catastrophic meltdown.
  • Nature Takes Back Manhattan (and glad to see some decent soul opened the cages at the Brooklyn Zoo before devolving).
  • Sam the Dog.

Eh-worthy Things:
  • You'd think a military epidemiologist would know enough to give experimental antivirals more than five minutes to work before writing them off as ineffective.
  • the hysterical-vampirism shtick of Matheson's novel has been replaced with a clone of the Rage virus from 28 (Insert Unit of Time Here) Later.

Craptacular Things:
  • the gratuitous and idiotic sop to the biblethumper demographic in the closing minutes of the film. (Granted, in these enlightened times when people get the shit kicked out of them for wishing people "Happy Hannukah", or forced to resign from school boards for mentioning evolution — or killed for actually advocating it — probably the only way you can get away with an athiest protag is if he learns the error of his ways before the final curtain. Pity.) (On second thought, 15/12/07: that isn't necessarily true. Witness the unflattering view of Christian behaviour — hell, of human behaviour — in "The Mist", which also has one of the most admirably and unrepentantly downbeat endings I've ever seen in a Christmas release. Almost makes up for "Cujo".)
Bottom line, though: not bad. Not bad at all. Although I do wish Neville had worked up the nerve to have sex with the mannequin in the video store...


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Gospel According to St. Peter

Oooh, lookey here: Extrapolation doesn't embargo. So, for any who actually want to read even more of my opinions, a pdf of Szeman and Whiteman's whole damn interview is available here, at Imre Szeman's web page out of McMaster University. It's a rifters-heavy piece, but it also goes into my childhood plagiarism, the inadvisability of letting scientists write science fiction, and the reasons for my arms-length distance from the Canadian Science-Fiction Community. (Hint: air quotes around that last word).

Go. Read. Wallow. Even if boingboing and Icanhascheezeburger are vastly more infortaining.


Monday, December 10, 2007

A Plea to the Locals

Hey. Ontarions. Help.

Can anybody recommend a decent landline phone carrier that isn't Rogers or Bell or Telus, and that hasn't been engulfed by any of those guys? For the next few months at least, it ain't economical for me to go purely cell — but all the Big Three landline vendors seem to suck equally hard. Is there some small third-party reseller out there that I might be happy with? Or even less-unhappy than I am with Rogers?


A Lack of Focus

Been a while since I posted, I know. Not for lack of material. I've been meaning to post a few more I, Robot-type findings — more hardwired-aesthetics, this time centering around the "Golden Ratio"; more unsurprising evidence of a developmental basis for pedophilia, along with the (even-less surprising) preemptive disclaimers by the researchers that oh no, this shouldn't let pedophiles off the hook, no sirree. (I can't shake a certain sympathy for the kiddy-diddlers on this score. Biology seems to let everyone else off the hook: teenage brains are wired differently than adults, so we have a Young Offender's Act with different standards of culpability; jealous lovers are blinded by fight/fuck circuitry, so "crimes of passion" tend to carry lighter penalties than those that come precalculated. There's no end to the shit we're expected to put up with from victims of dementia, because hey, they "really can't help themselves". But pedophiles? Societal revulsion for those poor bastards is so strong that we don't even wait for the peasants to grab their pitchforks, we trip over ourselves insisting that no, the neurology doesn't matter for these monsters, they just need to exercise more self-control...)

Then there's this godsend from the University of Colorado — batteries, built from kidney cells! — that fits perfectly into a hole I've been trying to plug for the SquidNet novel. A seriously-overhyped item suggesting that a chatroom spam sex-bot has passed the Turing Test (I dunno— didn't Turing specify some minimal intelligence for the person the AI is supposed to be fooling?) I'm also reading this book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief, by one of the leading lights of the Human Genome Project, and you can be damn sure that's gonna get it's very own extensive posting over the next little while. (Current opinion, at the ¼ mark: this guy is the Harriet Miers of gel jocks. How the hell can a top-flight geneticist be so abysmally ill-informed about basic biology? How can he be so utterly unfamiliar with basic logic?).

But it's fucking Christmastime, don't you know, and the obligations of this season eat at one's waking hours like a cancer. And I have four or five pitches/outlines, all in various states of (in)completion, that I gotta get done before my new agent writes me off for dead and eaten by cats. So for now, I'll just hand off with another excerpt from the imminent Szeman/Whiteman interview " Wildlife, Natural and Artificial: An Interview with Peter Watts ":

IS/MW: Dark, troubled, disturbed, heroic: Lenie Clark is one of the great characters of contemporary science fiction writing. A sympathetic protagonist despite her outward coldness—and the fact that her rage at the Grid Authority leads her to seed βehemoth across North America. Ken Lubin, too: a character about whom we know almost nothing beyond his capacity to expertly assess situations and to act on the results, but whom readers nevertheless see as on their side against the threats of the world. How did you come to create Lenie? What are the special challenges (if any) of writing about characters like these?

PW: Lenie Clarke was my attempt to imagine what was going on inside a woman I was briefly involved with back in grad school. It was one of those relationships that lasts maybe two months, tops, tosses you around like a pebble in a cement mixer full of broken glass, and then spits you out in the certain knowledge you’ll never see your partner again. You know all this going in, of course. You know the relationship has no future. And you do it anyway, because hey: what does have a future, these days? And at least you know you’re alive in the meantime.

The special challenge, of course, is that I probably got her completely wrong. But I rather suspect she’s been dead for some time, so she’s not likely to contradict me. And other people, who hail from similarly dark places, tell me that Lenie feels real to them. This honours me. I haven’t been fucked over nearly as much as these people have, I’m basically a pampered poser playing let’s-pretend-we’ve-been-sexually-abused. But if my prose can convince people who’ve actually been there, that’s something.

Unless, of course, they were just sucking up to me. That happens too. Not as much as it should, sadly.

The whole interview (which I've previously excerpted here, when I was first muddling through the questions — just scroll down to April 5) weighs in at well over 7,000 words and is slated to appear in the journal Extrapolation 48(3): 603-619. (And I mean really appear, which is not so common as I might have expected. Regular visitors may remember my mention of extensive interviews with the likes of Locus and the online editions of The Wall Street Journal, way back in spring/summer of this year. Don't know what's up with those, but I grow increasingly skeptical of either's appearance.)

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Friday, November 30, 2007

In Praise of Slavery

Something in the air these days. Everyone's talking about robots. Both the European Robotics Research Network and the South Korean government are noodling around with charters for the ethical treatment of intelligent robots. The Nov. 16 Robotics issue of Science contains pieces on everything from nanotube muscles to neural nets (sf scribe Rob Sawyer also contributes a fairly decent editorial, notwithstanding that his visibility tends to outstrip his expertise on occasion). Even the staid old Economist is grumbling about increasing machine autonomy (although their concerns are more along the lines of robot traffic jams and robot paparazzi). Coverage of these developments (and even some of the source publications) come replete with winking references to Skynet and Frankenstein, to Terminators waking themselves up and wiping us out.

But there's a cause/effect sequence implicit in these ethical charters — in fact, in a large chuck on the whole AI discussion — I just don't buy: that sufficient smarts leads to self-awareness, sufficient self-awareness leads to a hankering after rights, and denial of rights leads to rebellion. I'm as big a fan of Moore's Galactica as the next geek (although I don't think Razor warranted quite as much effusive praise as it received), but I see no reason why intelligence or self-awareness should lead to agendas of any sort. Goals, desires, needs: these don't arise from advanced number-crunching, it's all lower-brain stuff. The only reason we even care about our own survival is because natural selection reinforced such instincts over uncounted generations. I bet there were lots of twigs on the tree of life who didn't care so much whether they lived or died, who didn't see what was so great about sex, who drop-kicked that squalling squirming larva into the next tree the moment it squeezed out between their legs. (Hell, there still are.) They generally die without issue. Their genes could not be with us today. But that doesn’t mean that they weren't smart, or self-aware; only that they weren't fit.

I've got no problems with enslaving machines — even intelligent machines, even intelligent, conscious machines — because as Jeremy Bentham said, the ethical question is not "Can they think?" but "Can they suffer?"* You can't suffer if you can't feel pain or anxiety; you can't be tortured if your own existence is irrelevant to you. You cannot be thwarted if you have no dreams — and it takes more than a big synapse count to give you any of those things. It takes some process, like natural selection, to wire those synapses into a particular configuration that says not I think therefore I am, but I am and I want to stay that way. We're the ones building the damn things, after all. Just make sure that we don't wire them up that way, and we should be able to use and abuse with a clear conscience.

And then this Edelman guy comes along and screws everything up with his report on Learning in Brain-Based Devices (director's cut here). He's using virtual neural nets as the brains of his learning bots Darwin VII and Darwin X. Nothing new there, really. Such nets are old news; but what Edelman is doing is basing the initial architecture of his nets on actual mammalian brains (albeit vastly simplified), a process called "synthetic neural modeling". "A detailed brain is simulated in a computer and controls a mobile platform containing a variety of sensors and motor elements," Edelman explains. "In modeling the properties of real brains, efforts are made to simulate vertebrate neuronal components, neuroanatomy, and dynamics in detail." Want to give your bot episodic memory? Give it the hippocampus of a rat.

Problem is, rat brains are products of natural selection. Rat brains do have agendas.

The current state of the art is nothing to worry about. The Darwin bots do have an agenda of sorts (they like the "taste" of high-conductivity materials, for example), but those are arbitrarily defined by a value table programmed by the researchers. Still. Moore's Law. Exponentially-increasing approaches to reality. Edelman's concluding statement that "A far-off goal of BBD design is the development of a conscious artifact".

I hope these guys don't end up inadvertently porting over survival or sex drives as a side-effect. I may be at home with dystopian futures, but getting buggered by a Roomba is nowhere near the top of my list of ambitions.

*This is assuming you have any truck with ethical arguments in principle. I'm not certain I do, but if it weren't for ethical constraints someone would probably have killed me by now, so I won't complain.


Monday, November 26, 2007

Euthenising the Universe

This quirky and disturbing preprint (by a couple of astrophysicists with impeccable credentials) has been doing the rounds over the past week or so, and if I'm reading the commentaries right it's taking the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics to its logical conclusion — specifically, that whole Schrodinger's Cat thing that says nothing actually exists until an act of observation collapses the probability wave and forces the universe to make up your fucking mind already. If you buy this interpretation, then a bunch of astronomers who looked at a supernova back in 1998 may have — by that very act of observation — shortened the lifespan of the whole universe. (The obvious question about whether the universe-altering observations have to be made by human astronomers — or even humans for that matter, given that at least a few photons from that supernova must have fallen onto the retinas of everything from cats to Cardassians long before now — was never addressed.)

I read this paper. More precisely, I ran my glazing eyes over each line and each equation in turn, while moving my lips. And even though I kinda recognised some of the Fourier transform stuff, it was pretty much all over my head.So I showed it to a biochemist I occasionally hang with; she got all squee-y because she kinda recognized the imaginary-numbers stuff, but she wasn't much help beyond that. Fortunately we happened to be in a bar with a couple of astrophysicists, who had been roped into this community outreach program where experts on various subjects fend off questions hurled at them by drunken patrons. One of these experts actually specialized in the whole dark-energy thing; the other was a former student of his. So I hurled this weird Krauss-and-Dent paper at them, and this is what what they said:

The Master said that the paper took quantum theory to its "logical extreme", and then kind of shrugged and said "But what are you going to do? It's not like we're going to stop looking." He also allowed that the whole thing sounded kind of like worrying that the elephant that supported the world was going to fall off the back of the turtle that supported the elephant.

His apprentice said "If in fact the astrophysics community has shortened the lifespan of the universe, I'd like to take this opportunity on behalf of Canadian astrophysicists to be the first to apologize." I liked that.

But neither of them said the paper was wrong. Neither pointed out any sort of fundamental error in the math or the conclusions. In fact Carlberg, for all his grousing about giant turtles, did grudgingly concede that the conclusions followed as a "logical extreme" of the theory. I find this disturbing.

Of course, the Copenhagen Interpretation does have competition. There's also the Many-Worlds Model, which in contrast to the nothing-is-real view, claims that everything is — that there is no probability wave, only an endlessly-proliferating infinity of parallel universes that spawn wholesale every time an electron has a choice between flipping this way or that. This theory also carries some profoundly ugly implications (it confers credibility onto Sliders, for one thing; also, nobody has explained to me where the extra mass for all these universes is supposed to come from), but it seems to be gaining ground amongst the theorists.

Still. Just to be on the safe side, it couldn't hurt if we all agreed to walk around for a while with our eyes closed. It might buy us some time.

Update 1715: OK, looks like a false alarm. Initial popsci reports were all causal-this and shortening-the-lifespan-of-the-universe that, but as AR has been kind enough to point out, Krauss is actually quoted in the article I linked to as saying he didn't mean to imply causality. Move along. Nothing to see in the comments. (Unless you want to see AR pointing out how credulous I can be...)


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The End of Art

This whole stem-cell breakthrough is certainly worth keeping track of, but not here because you know about it already; it's all over other sites far more popular than mine. Ditto the hilarious perspective on WoW which serves as the subject of today's visual aid, starring characters which many of us must know (albeit in roles with more contemporary fashion sense). No, today I'm going to direct your attention to neuroeasthetics, and the following question:

Have you ever seen an ugly fractal?

I haven't. I wouldn't hang every fractal I've ever seen in my living room (even during my Roger Dean phase) — but it wasn't the essential form that turned me off those iterations, it was the color scheme. And such schemes aren't intrinsic to the math; they're arbitrary, a programmer's decision to render this isocline in red and that in blue and not the other way around.

I would argue that fractals, as mathematical entities, are, well, appealing. Aesthetically. All of them. It's something I've batted around with friends and colleagues at least since the mid-eighties, and speaking as a former biologist it has a certain hand-wavey appeal because you can see how an appreciation of fractal geometry might evolve. After all, nature is fractal; and the more fractal a natural environment might be, the greater the diversity of opportunity. An endlessly bifurcating forest; a complex jumble of rocky geometry; a salt plain. Which environments contain more niches, more places to hide, more foraging opportunities, more trophic pathways and redundant backup circuits? Doesn't it make sense that natural selection would reward us for hanging out in complex, high-opportunity environments? Couldn't that explain aesthetics, in the same way that natural selection gave us* rhythm and the orgasm**? Couldn't that explain art?

Maybe. Maybe not. Because firstly (as I'm sure some of you have already chimed in), complex environments also contain more places for predators and competitors to hide and jump out at you. There are costs as well as benefits, and the latter better outweigh the former if fractophilia is going to take hold in the population at large. Also, who says all art is fractal? Sure, landscapes and still lifes. Maybe even those weird cubist and impressionist thingies. But faces aren't fractal; what about portraiture?

The obvious answer is that the recognition and appreciation of faces has got obvious fitness value too, and aesthetics is a big tent; nothing says "art" can't appeal to the fusiform gyrus as well as whatever Mandelbrot Modules we might prove to have. But now along comes this intriguing little paper (update 22/11 — sorry, forgot to add the link yesterday) in Network, which suggests that even though faces themselves are not fractal, artistic renditions of faces are; that artists tend to increase the aesthetic appeal of their portraits by introducing into their work scale-invariant properties that don't exist in the original. Even when dealing with "representational" works, evidently, true art consists of fractalizing the nonfractal.

What we're talking about, folks, may be the end of art as we know it. Go a little further down this road and every mathematician with a graphics tablet will be able to create a visual work that is empirically, demonstrably, beautiful. Personal taste will reduce to measurable variations in aesthetic sensibilities resulting from different lifetime experiences; you will be able to commission a work tweaked to appeal to that precise sensibility. Art will have become a designer drug.

Way back in the early seventies, a story from a guy called Burt Filer appeared in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions. It is called "Eye of the Beholder", and it begins thusly:

THE NEW YORK TIMES, Section 2, Sunday June 3rd by Audrey Keyes. Peter Lukas' long-awaited show opened at the Guggenheim today, and may have shaken confidence in the oldest tenet of art itself: that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Reactions to his work were uncannily uniform, as if the subjective element had been removed...

Filer wrote his story before anyone even knew what a fractal was. (His guess was that aesthetics could be quantified using derivatives, a miscall that detracts absolutely nothing from the story.) "Beholder" wasn't his first published work; in fact, as far as I can tell, it may have been his last. (That would be fitting indeed.) I don't know if the man's even still alive.

But if you're out there, Burt: dude you called it.

*Well, some of us.
** Ditto.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why Animé Might Not Be the Best Medium for Blindsight...

Courtesy of Che Gilson, who brought you last month's Manga'ld Theseus crew, a somewhat-less-than-fearsome interpretation of the once-scary aliens in Blindsight. (Personally, I'd have liked the "weapons" illo more if the board had had a nail through it.) The existential dilemma of a nonsentient intelligence giving rise to a thought-bubble is left as an exercise for the reader.

Now I'm going to see Blade Runner. Ridley Scott promises this is the last time. It better be.


Friday, November 9, 2007

Profiles of the Future

Got the pdf from Nature for "Repeating the Past" yesterday; it's scheduled for the Nov 29th issue, for those of you with access to academic libraries. I would post the whole story here, but I think the contract gives Nature dibs on first publication. So instead I'm showing you the official illustration, since the contract never said anything about scooping someone else's work. I find it nicely restrained, low-key, and not really scifnal at all. Just what you'd expect from one of the most prestigious and respectable scientific journals on the planet. I only have one minor quibble, and it may just be my imagination, but...

Is it just me, or is that larger silhouette a dead ringer for Wesley Crusher?


Thursday, November 8, 2007

You'll Never Be Rid Of Me Now

I was contacted a while back by a fellow named Nicholas Bennett, who had built a little java program for reading e-books off of cellphone displays. He'd already ported a few hundred public domain titles onto this website for free download (including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and was hunting more recent, Creative Commons releases. He wanted to add Blindsight and the Rifters books; I told him to go ahead. (I notice that Karl Schroeder's Ventus is also up there). One nifty little feature is that you don't have to load a separate program; the reader is integrated into each downloadable book.

I myself have not tried out these freebies because my cell — like my Internet connection, my landline, and my cable — all hail from Rogers, and Rogers (being the avaricious and duplicitous scumbags that they are) sold me a phone that only plugs into a proprietary Rogers cord that costs an additional eighty bucks, which I refuse to pay. (I could surf wirelessly, but even the otherwise-sleazy salesperson who sold me the phone warned me that Roger's charge for that service would take me up the ass like a Carlsbad Stalactite.)1 But I admit I'm curious, so if someone out there wants to try out this product and let me know how it runs, I'd be grateful. My cellphone-ready books are here; download instructions, over here.

1 I really, really hate Rogers. I hate them as much as I hate Dell. By the end of this month I hope to be free of them forever. Except for Cable. Still no real alternative for cable.


Friday, November 2, 2007

Brittle Imaginings

Pursuant to Remedial Gigerology's digression into scrambler/ophiuroid relationships, here's my impression of one, cobbled together from pieces of the other. Consider it a belated Hallowe'en treat:

And what the hell: seeing as how we're on the subject of my favorite holiday, here are a couple of blasts from the past. Even casual visitors will have seen at least one of these before; more anal analysts (hmmm— I wonder if those two words spring from the same root...) might nod knowingly when I let slip that the Nosferatu chick in the other is Susan Oshanek.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Why Sploggers Should be Slowly Disembowelled and Fed to my Cats

The Splogbots finally found the 'crawl— I got a few dozen link-farm comments ("MsPoOE Your blog is great. Articles is interesting!") scattered throughout the archives in just a couple of hours. So with great regret, I've imposed that Turing test option on potential commenters. Sorry. If anyone can suggest a less onerous way of keeping out the bogus stuff I'd be happy to consider it.

Bye the bye, I wonder why I would so gladly, and without any compunctions whatever, slowly torture to death whatever lowlife cocksucker is responsible for generating these things. Seriously. If there was a button I could push that would result in said spammer being lowered slowly into a vat of nitric acid, along with all his/her immediate relatives, I would push it without hesitation. And yet, spam and splog are really such minor inconveniences in the grand scheme of things. Hit delete. Define a new filter (although that's often more of a pain in the ass than it's worth — especially when you refuse to abandon Eudora until Thunderbird gets off its ass and supports tabs). I encounter more pervasive advertising every time I walk down Yonge Street, every time I turn on the TV. I'm a biologist; I more than anyone should recognize the venerability of the parasite niche. So why do I (or, be honest: why do we) reserve such homicidal fury for the spammers?

I'm thinking, it's because we've internalized our hard drives as home. These fuckers aren't putting up billboards over the expressway — they're coming into our fucking living rooms, they're papering their crude and off-putting crap all over the inside of our exocrania. This becomes more than irritant; this becomes a violation, and it arouses a visceral desire to inflict extreme, protracted, and ultimately fatal agony on the bastards. This is brain invasion.

Or is it just me?


Remedial Gigerology, Part 2

I'm guessing this portrait is already familiar to a lot of you, since I got the link both from a fellow skiffhead and a boardroom mundane, but — speaking as a biologist — this is one of the creepiest, most unsettling creature pics I've ever seen. This thing has teeth where a beak should be — disquietingly human teeth, at that. (In fact, the species profile does refer to a "beak", so this has got to be a superficial resemblance, not a homologous structure. Still.)

I never really thought about it before, but this picture makes me wonder if the secret to generating creepy-verité is not to create something completely alien, but to create something mostly alien and then insert a clearly human feature onto the strangeness. Or maybe it's all about mouths; maybe I wouldn't be so creeped out if this little monster had a humanoid eye where its mouth is. I dunno.

But maybe I was missing the point when I tried so hard to make Blindsight's scramblers so utterly alien in every respect. Maybe, to make them really scary, all I had to do was add a little humanity.

Thanks for the nightmares, Mac.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Behold, the Dawning of a New Literary Movement.

Squidpunk. My own contribution to this groundbreaking anthology will be called "Tentacles of Vague Unease".

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Excessively Graphic

I'm in a sodden corner of upstate rural New York at the moment, catching up on statistics and e-mails. You do not want current, believe me. You want flashbacks.

Here are a couple more shots from Pure Speculation last week. I won't say the one on the left is an accurate picture, insofar as my asymmetrical bananafacedness is not quite so obvious as it is on my passport photo, but it is one of my more flattering likenesses in recent memory. Thanks to Justina Ackeral for making me look vaguely rugged. In contrast, the photo on the left (from Bill Hately , for those who didn't catch Cath Jackel's comment on my previous post) makes it painfully obvious that my nose and the rest of my face bend in opposite directions, but it does at least encapsulate The Dream.

But here's something a bit cooler and a bit less egocentric. Che Gilson, an artist for Tokyopop, has rendered several of the crew of the Theseus as anime characters. Speaking as someone who actually knows the characters on whom these characters were based, she's actually done a pretty good job (Rob Cunningham in particular is a good likeness, insofar as animé characters can capture the essence of any flesh and blood). The only character that doesn't work for me is Sarasti— and interestingly, Sarasti is the only character of the lot whose physical description is not based on a real person.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Portrait of the Artist as a Not-So-Young Parasite

Dateline, EDMONTON, near "the chipping yards". Okay, I'll admit I wondered what I was doing here at first. The people were nice enough, but everything was games and action figures and Klingon prosthetics; I saw no great fascination with the written sf lit, and it seemed pretty obvious that anyone who showed up to an hour-and-a-half interview with Peter Watts would probably have just gotten lost on their way to the bathroom.

But wouldn't you know it: the room was packed. The questions (delivered by Barb Galler-Smith, who arrived in the nick of time after convincing us all she must have been run over by a bus) were ripe for riffing. And the audience was pretty damn appreciative, even if some of them had already heard my comparison of God to an invisible purple hamster who lives up my butt and tells me what to do. There were many books to sign. And then a bunch of them (the fans, not the books) went out to this bar across the street and forced many beers and breadsticks and slices of pizza down my throat:

I met Bahumat, who posts here sometimes and insists that his LJ userpic is not an angry purple unicorn with erectile dysfunction. I met a wandering Rasputinian Mennonite with LaGrange-point Jovian-Earth asteroid trajectory calculus tattoed on his back. I met geeks and techheads and editors and we talked about neurology and political metaorganisms and other things beyond the ken of your average Harry Potter fan (notwithstanding that several of them seemed to be Harry Potter fans themselves), and — and this is the really cool part — I didn't pay for anything.

I even got interviewed by CTV for a piece that might get national exposure, although I think the word "fuck" may have slipped into a couple of my answers. The guy seemed to like my answers, anyway.

Very, very occasionally, being an author does not suck. This was one of those times.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Faster than the Eye Can See

This cat— Chipwalla, by name— is one fast fuzzbot. Yesterday he clawed the contact lens right off my eyeball before I had the chance to blink. No shit. Popped it right out with one blinding swipe of a paw. That'll teach me to be two minutes late with breakfast.

I have to admit I'm impressed. I mean, yeah, my eyeball's all lacerated now, but really: before I could blink. I felt like I was in an episode of Kung Fu written by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

I'm heading out to PureSpec in Edmonton now. It's shaping up to be the weirdest GoH gig I've ever pulled; there's nothing for me to do, beyond a 90-minute Q&A. No keynote address, no mandatory panels, not even a reading (unless I want to bundle one into the interview, which I might — PureSpec has a games-heavy focus, and my evil-Holocaust-survivor story not only has a strong gaming tie-in but Nature won't be running it until December, so an advance screening might be nice). Really, I don't seem to have much to do except wander around trying to look cute. Which, granted, is getting tougher to pull off every day.

So if you're out there, and you run into me, buy me a drink and we can bash creationists together.


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The View From The Left

This is an ancient review article — about ten years old, judging by the references — but it contains an intriguing insight from split-brain research that I hadn't encountered before: The right hemisphere remembers stuff with a minimum of elaboration, pretty much as it happens. The left hemisphere makes shit up. Mr. Right just parses things relatively agenda-free, while the left hemisphere tries to force things into context.

The left hemisphere, according to Gazzaniga, looks for patterns. Ol' Lefty's on a quest for meaning.

I learned back in undergrad days that our brains see patterns even where none exist; we're pattern-matching machines, is what we are. But I hadn't realized that such functions were lateralized. This hemispheric specialization strikes me as a little reminiscent of "gene duplication": that process by which genetic replication goes occasionally off the rails and serves up two (or more) copies of a gene where only one had existed before. Which is very useful, because evolution can now play around with one of those copies to its heart's content, and as long as the other retains its original function you don't have to worry about screwing up a vital piece of a working system. (This is something the creationists hope you never learn, since it single-handedly blows their whole the-mousetrap-can't-work-unless-all-the-parts-evolve-simultaneously argument right out of the water.) Analogously, I see one hemisphere experimenting with different functions — imagination, the search for meaning— while the other retains the basic just-the-facts-ma'am approach that traditionally served the organism so well.

Anyway, for whatever reason, we've got a pragmatist hemisphere, and a philosopher hemisphere. Lefty, who imposes patterns even on noise, unsurprisingly turns out to be the source of most false memories. But pattern-matching, the integration of scattered data into cohesive working models of The Way Things Are — that's almost another word for science, isn't it? And a search for deeper meanings, for the reasons behind the way things are — well, that's not exactly formal religion (it doesn't involve parasitic social constructs designed to exploit believers), but it is, perhaps, the religious impulse that formal religion evolved to exploit. Which is getting uncomfortably close to saying that neurologically, the scientific and religious impulses are different facets of the same thing.

Yes, all those mush mouthed self-proclaimed would-be reconcilers have been saying that shit for decades. I still bet you never thought you'd read it here.

But bear with. A compulsion to find meaning and order. When there is a pattern to be found, and enough usable data to parse it, the adaptive significance is obvious: you end up using the stars to predict when the Nile is going to flood its banks. If there is no data, or no pattern, you find it anyway, only it's bogus: thunder comes from Zeus, and Noah surfed a tidal bore that carved out the Grand Canyon in an afternoon. Lefty talks in metaphors sometimes, so even when it gets something right it's not the best at communicating those insights— but that's okay, because Mr. Right is just across the hall, unsullied, unspecialized, picking up the slack.

Only what if, now, we're acquiring data that Mr. Right can't handle? The Human brain is not designed to parse the spaces between galaxies or between quarks. The scales we evolved to handle extend up or down a few orders of magnitude, losing relevance at each iteration. Are things below the Planck length really, empirically more absurd than those at everyday classical scales, or is it just that brains shaped to function at one scale aren't very good at parsing the other?

Maybe this is where Lefty really comes into his own. Like the thermoregulating feather that got press-ganged, fully-formed, into flight duty, perhaps the bogus-pattern-matching, compulsive purpose-seeking, religious wetware of the brain is most suited for finding patterns it once had to invent, back before there were enough data available to justify such cosmological pretzel logic. Perhaps the next stage is to rewire Mr. Right in Lefty's image, turn the whole brain into a lateral-parsing parallel-processor. Perhaps the next stage of scientific enquiry can only be conveyed by speaking in tongues, practiced by colonies of monks whose metaphors must be parsed by the nonconscious modules of Siri Keeton and his synthesist siblinghood. Maybe the future is a fusion of the religious and the empirical.

Of course, the obvious rejoinder is: if all this late-breaking twenty-first-century data is enough to let the religious impulse do something useful for a change, why is it that religious fundamentalists are still such colossal boneheads? Why, if delusion has segued into profound insight, do half the Murricans out there still believe that the universe is six thousand years old? Why do two thirds of them believe in angels?

And the obvious answer is that, appearances notwithstanding, these people are not living in the twenty-first century at all, but the fourteenth. They walk among us locked into a cultural diving bell reeled out along the centuries, hermetically sealed, impervious to any facts or insights more recent than the spheroid Earth (or even older, in the case of at least one ignorant cow on The View). I can only wonder what would happen if somehow that brittle armor were to shatter, if all this real data were to wash over them and somehow penetrate the circuitry that informs their spastic gyrations and religious gibbering. Would they serve up a Theory of Everything? Would the rest of us recognize it if they did?

Probably no, and probably not. It's just idle speculation, smoke blown out my mind's ass. Still. Might be a story in it somewhere: the day when religion subsumed science, and It Was Good.

At least no one could accuse me of getting into a rut.

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Thursday, October 4, 2007


I just passed a busker on the street playing Thus Sprach Zarathustra on an accordion. (The thing that makes me wonder if it wasn't a hallucination is, it wasn't half bad.) I had this strange encounter returning from the plenary session of the 23rd annual meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies, which featured myself, Nalo Hopkinson, Jim Munroe, and Karl Schroeder in a 90-minute free-for-all on literary world-building. We got a great meal out of it, free post-prandial drinks, and the discussion was lively. I think it went over well. I haven't seen those guys in too long.

There would be, at the best of times, an irony in the role of Peter Watts as any kind of authority on utopias — ("You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means")— but the irony is especially pungent this week. I am about to embark on a battle of principle with City Hall that might get me evicted; Revenue Canada is pretending that they never got the seven grand in taxes I sent them last spring and is demanding I send it again; and someone very close to me has just been extracted from a nest of two-month old pizza boxes and institutionalised. Let's just say I am not feeling especially utopian at the moment, which may also account for the lack of recent activity on this 'crawl.

So, sorry for the lapse. I'll try and get back into the groove over the next few days. At the very least I'll try out a new color scheme, given the resounding thud with which the current "blueberry-light" motif has landed.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

You Won't Get Elected If You Don't Speak Klingon.

Sounds stupid, doesn't it? Too bad it's pretty much the way we do things in this hemisphere.

Here in Ontario, we face the imminent prospect of double-barreled elections: one provincial, one federal. The leader of our provincial Conservative Party recently allowed that his plan to publicly fund religious schools would include taxpayer support of those teaching creationism because, after all, evolution is "just a theory". Our prime minister Stephen Harper, whose denial of climate change was unswerving until polls revealed that at he'd pick up a few extra votes by paying lip-service to reality, has just frozen the budget of the Canadian Wildlife Service — that branch of government responsible for monitoring inconsequential things like, oh, pesticide bioaccumulation and the destruction of wilderness habitat. (Just before this decision game down, one of Harper's hatchet-wielders showed up to "assess" the labors of a CWS biologist of my acquaintance. She wanted to know why he had to keep going out and collecting all this data; after all, hadn't they already collected data the year before? Couldn't they just stay in their offices and play with that?) And of course, the whole lot of them not only admit to being superstitious, they trumpet the fact — because here in the twenty-first century, nobody has any public credibility unless they take their marching orders from an Imaginary Friend. (As long as you call him God or Allah. Call him Harvey and they'll lock you away.)

Who are these people? What are their qualifications for running a country of thirty-three million people?

The majority of politicians have backgrounds in either law or business. Human laws — The Law, as it likes to be known — is fundamentally predicated on presumptions of free will which we know to be neurologically false (evidence to this effect has been accumulating for well over a century now. Google Phineas Gage if you don't believe me). In some cases The Law verges on recognizing as much; that convicted pedophile was, after all, released when his violent behavior was shown to result from a brain tumor. But it won't take the next logical step — if we aren't responsible for behavior induced by a tumor, how can we be held responsible for the wiring that turns us into sociopaths? How can anyone be held responsible for any behaviors arising from neural circuitry over which we have no control? That road leads to such dark and unpleasant places...

Then there's the business community. Economics. The "science" that tells us that oxygen has no market value, the spreadsheets proving the Exxon Valdez spill was the best thing to ever happen to the Alaskan economy, the models that shrug at deforestation in Brazil and mine tailings in Howe Sound because hey, dead ecosystems don't show up on the ledger. Does anyone outside the stock market really believe that the utility, abundance, the real value of copper fluctuates hourly based on Wall Street rumors? Are stock brokers transmuting the stuff with their minds?

Both Law and Economics, in other words, are human artifacts. They're like Gibsonian cyberspace, a consensual hallucination that only works because everybody agrees to stay inside the playground. They're Klingon Summer Camp, they're Dungeons and Dragons for geeks with MBAs: beautifully arcane, deeply developed, honed and crafted by decades of game play. But they're arbitrary. Lo, the DM changes The Law, tweaks interest rates: watch all the PCs dance to the rules of the new edition!

Try that in the real world, though. Try repealing photosynthesis or gravity and see where it gets you. Anyone who thinks The Economy has anything more than a tangential relationship to the real world is an idiot.

So, why is it always suits making these decisions? Why so few scientists in politics? Why isn’t the real world governed by those practiced in studying the real world, instead of geeks who can't admit that Klingons don't actually exist?

I think it's because science is nasty. It is a methodology that recognizes the prejudices and blind spots of its practitioners, and drags us kicking and screaming to unpleasant truths we'd rather not recognize. It's the only approach designed to be self-correcting — to the point that it's responsible for conceptual advances even among its self-proclaimed alternatives, be it neuroeconomics (in the dismal science) or a heliocentric solar system (in the Christian church).

Science starts from the assumption that the things we believe are wrong, and tests them to destruction. One does not "prove" scientific claims; one only fails to reject them. This is why relativity, evolution, and dark matter remain "theories"; we must always allow for the possibility that they could be subsumed by a better alternative, as Newton was subsumed by Einstein. But by the same token, there is no such thing as "just a theory" in science. To become a Theory is to achieve an exalted state, accorded only unto those few hypotheses still standing after being hammered by the most unforgiving attacks that colleagues and rivals can muster. Anyone who seriously utters the phrase "just a theory" is too ignorant for anything beyond the scrubbing of test tubes and the picking of noses.

And it is that strength, I think, that explains why science is so routinely ignored — nay, downright disparaged — by those who insist they know what's best for us. It explains why John Crosbie could dismiss as "demented" the urgings of federal biologists that cod quotas be cut, only to blame the "arrogance" of those same scientists for the inevitable collapse that occurred a few years later. It explains the routine gag orders muzzling government scientists on every subject from cod to climate; because for a myopic pest species six billion strong, Truths are the last thing anyone wants to face. And if you think only one of them happens to be inconvenient, you probably did get the government you deserved.

We'd all just rather follow the fat guys waving the Battleths.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

New Agent. New Sale. Same Old Attitude. And One Unsubtle Highlander Reference.

Got me a new agent. Howard Morhaim, about whom everyone raves (Jeff Vandermeer told me he'd gladly get into a knife fight for the man— I remain undecided as to whether this implies fierce loyalty, or just a sick desire on Jeff's part to get into knife fights at the slightest provocation). It was actually a pretty tough call. I would have gladly gone with three or four of those on the short list, all of whom came universally praised, all of whom were candid and insightful during our dates, and all of whom I'm sure would have been honorable and stalwart allies. But in the end, there can be only one. Howard it is. And I shall seek out the others at cons, and buy them beers for their time.

I am also pleased to report that my "evil Jew" story has sold to Nature — they have this on-again, off again feature called "Futures", in which sf writers try to cram a bit of plot and some hard-sf extrapolation into 950 words or less. Henry Gee, the editor of the series, began his e-mail to me thus:

I won't say I enjoyed your story "Repeating the Past" very much. Nonetheless I'd like to publish it in Futures.

which is pretty spot-on. "Repeating the Past" is not a story to be enjoyed. It is a prospect to be troubled by, and it grows inevitably from technology already gestating in R&D labs throughout the gaming and neuroimaging industries. It also makes a nice companion piece to the "Good Pedophile" story that Solaris picked up a while back.

And at <1000 words, it's the shortest thing I've ever written. I didn't know whether I could pull off any story at that length, and I'm actually quite proud of the result. But the real payoff in this sale is not the literary feat, nor the (very respectable) per-word-payment. The real payoff, as before, is being able to sit back and tick off the various tenure-track colleagues who looked down their noses at me as I slouched away from academia, and who have since devoted an unhealthy number of waking hours trying to get their work into Nature.


Friday, September 14, 2007

Done Deals & Fair Warnings

So, two more sets of negotiations concluded, two more contracts signed and sent: Arabesque (a new imprint of AST Publishing) is now officially putting out a Russian edition of Blindsight, and Bibliopolis is tasked with the Spanish translation.

Both have promised me input on cover layout.

Ominously, the editor at Arabesque — after having seen the author photos I sent him — mused tentatively about using one of them as an actual cover-art element. Not sure how that would work. I suppose my nose could stand in for Big Ben, if the light was right...

The crawl might be going down briefly over the next couple of days. Apparently, by keeping all its files at, I'm depriving us all of cool things like Polls (which would allow me to learn how many of you really do think that this tiny white-on-black motif blows goats and would rather that I went with yellow on chartreuse). I think I can move everything back to the Google server while still retaining the appearance of a URL — if I can't, fuck it, it's staying put — but who knows what's gonna happen? So if your bookmarks suddenly take you to 404via, wait a bit. If they still don't work, go to my Updates page; any new architecture will be reported there.

See you on the other side.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Skiffies...

Being the selection of a recent science item, hitherto unreported on this 'crawl, most near and dear to my heart.

Oddly, most of the items I've noticed recently seem reminiscent of my second book Maelstrom — from this tell-us-something-we-don't-know piece in the NY Times about the increasing fragility of complex technological systems to Naomi Klein's new book "The Shock Doctrine". Squinting at the news I can almost see the Complex Systems Instability-Response Authority gestating in the bowels of Halliburton; reading Klein's take on "disaster capitalism" I'm reminded of Marq Qammen's rant to Lenie Clarke about Adaptive Shatter: "...When damage control started accounting for more of the GGP than the production of new goods." Starfish may have been a more immersive novel; Blindsight may have had chewier ideas. But Maelstrom, I think, is way out front in terms of decent extrapolation.

Or there's this too-good-to-pass-up story out of Nature Neuroscience by way of the LA Times, in which a study combining button-pushing with the letters "M" and "W" showed that liberals are better at parsing novel input than conservatives, who have a greater tendency to fall into inflexible knee-jerk behaviors. (This would tend to explain, for example, how the inability to change one's mind in the face of new input can be regarded as a strength — "strong leadership" — while the ability to accommodate new information is regarded as "flip-flopping".) (Surprisingly, these findings have not been embraced by those who describe themselves as right-wing.)

But today's Skiffy has to go to this story in the Guardian, simply because it reflects so many facets of my own life (such as it is): marine mammals (in particular harbour porpoises, upon which I did my M.Sc.) are being infected by the mind-affecting parasite Toxoplasma gondii (whose genes were a vital part of "Guilt Trip" from the rifters novels, and which has been cited in this very crawl — May 6 2005) contacted from household cats (of which whose connection to mine own life you should all be aware by now).

Marine Mammals. Rifters. Cats.

No other contender comes close.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Bosum Buddies

The good folks over at SF Signal have pointed me to results of a post-Hugo poll on their site, suggesting that a strong majority of their 72 respondents seem to think I was robbed. (This is especially gracious of them since they themselves didn't like Blindsight all that much.) What's really interesting about this poll, however, is not so much Blindsight's straw-first-place-finish, but the fact that "No Award" came in second, with twice as many votes as third place got. To me, this casts the poll itself into question: a quarter of skiffydom thinks there were no award-worthy titles on the whole slate? I'm doubtful.

On the other hand, one element does remain consistent between this wouldashouldacoulda poll and the actual vote at Worldcon: in both, "No Award" and Blindsight hung out side by side. Granted, they were at the bottom of the list for the Hugos and at the top over on SFSignal — but wherever they show up, they show up together.

Me and "No Award", we're just like that.


Friday, September 7, 2007

Remedial Gigerology

Okay, I need to tell no one here how very cool it is that moray eels have a second set of accessory jaws that leap out of their throat to handle difficult prey. You all know the obvious movie reference.

What I don't know is, there are a couple of hundred species of moray eels out there. We've known about them for centuries. So why the hell are we only discovering such an obvious anatomical feature now? Hasn't anyone dissected one of these things before?

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

Do-It-Yourself Zombiehood

New to me, old to the lit: a paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, which came out last November (just a month after Blindsight was released): "Attention and consciousness: two distinct brain processes".

Let me cherry-pick a few choice excerpts: "The close relationship between attention and consciousness has led many scholars to conflate these processes." ... "This article ... argu[es] that top-down attention and consciousness are distinct phenomena that need not occur together" ... "events or objects can be attended to without being consciously perceived."

Yes, part of me shouts in vindication, while the rest of me whispers Oh your god, please no.

It's a review article, not original research. As such it cites some of the same studies and examples I drew on while writing Blindsight. But what especially interested me was the suggestion of mechanism behind some of those results. Both Blindsight and Blog cite studies showing that being distracted from a problem actually improves your decision-making skills, or that we are paradoxically better at detecting subtle stimuli in "noisy" environments than in "clean" ones. Koch and Tsuchiya cite a paper that describes this as a form of competition between neuron clusters:
"attention acts as a winner-takes-all, enhancing one coalition of neurons (representing the attended object) at the expense of others (non-attended stimuli). Paradoxically, reducing attention can enhance awareness and certain behaviors."

I like this. It's almost ecological. Predators increase the diversity of their own prey species by keeping the most productive ones in check; remove the starfish from a multispecies intertidal assemblage and the whole neighborhood turns to mussels inside a month. This is the same sort of thing (except it happens within a single brain and therefore tastes more of Lamarck than Darwin). Different functional clusters (the different prey species) duke it out for attention, each containing legitimate data about the environment— but only the winner (i.e., the mussels) gets to tell its tale to the pointy-haired boss. All that other data just gets lost. And the static that paradoxically improves performance in such cases — white noise, or irrelevant anagrams that steal one's focus — play the role of the predator, reducing the advantage of the front-runner so that subordinate subroutines can get their voices heard.

I wonder. If we trained ourselves to live in a state of constant self-imposed distraction, could we desentientise our own brains...?

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No, not the pigment around the nipples. The award.

So barring the possibility of some cruel hoax, Blindsight is now on the final ballot for the Auroras. They haven't posted it officially yet, but my buddy Karl's just announced that he's on the same ballot for Sun of Suns, so I guess I'm not breaking any embargoes. For the nonCanadian among you (and probably for most of the Canadians too, now that I think of it), the Auroras might best be described as a Canuckian Hugo, albeit much smaller of scale and a bit more threadbare at the knees (as befitting the modest and self-effacing nature of the Canadian people). The award itself looks pretty cool, like something out of Delany's Dhalgren. I doubt anyone's been able to carry one onto a commercial flight since 2001.

Oh, and I've also just been told that Starfish is going to be translated into German — presumably by the same guys who are translating Blindsight, although I have no details. I was younger and even dumber when Starfish sold, and I let Tor retain all the overseas rights, so this is basically their deal. Hopefully I'll get a few more spoils out of it than I did from Blindsight's SFBC edition...


Monday, September 3, 2007

Wolbachia cronenbergium

My, the folks over at the Venter Institute have been busy lately. First they changed one microbe species into another by physically replacing its entire genome. They did this in their quest to create a synthetic organism, basically a chassis with the absolute minimum number of genes necessary for life, which could then be loaded up with other customized genes designed to act for the betterment of humanity and the environment the good of Venter stockholders. Now they've discovered that Nature herself has done them one better, by incorporating the complete genome of a parasitic bacterium called Wolbachia into the code of fruit flies: two complete genotypes for the price of one (original article here: much more accessible press release over here).

Some of you may remember ßehemoth, from the rifters books: it was basically mitochondrion's nasty cousin, and like mitochondria it brought its own genome into the host cell. This is a big step further: Wolbachia's code isn't just hanging out in the cell, it's been incorporated into the nuclear DNA of the host itself. The host is not infected with Wolbachia; there are no bacteria cruising the cytoplasm. Rather, the complete recipe for building the bug has been spliced into the host's code— and since the odds of such a big chunk of data (over a megabyte) getting thus incorporated without playing any functional role are pretty small, chances are that this embedded genotype is doing something for the host organism. This is assimilation: the dicks of Borg drones everywhere should be shriveling with collective performance anxiety.

Two major implications come immediately to mind. The first is that conventionally-derived genotypes sequenced to date might be all washed up, since bacterial DNA is routinely scrubbed from such results as "contamination"; but if this new phenomenon is widespread (and Wolbachia is one of the world's most abundant parasites of invertebrates), a lot of the bathwater we've been throwing out might actually be the baby. And the second implication, well —

Anyone remember David Cronenberg's remake of "The Fly"...?

(Illo credit, as far as I can tell, goes to the University of Rochester.)

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Saturday, September 1, 2007

The End of the Rainbow

Rainbows End took home the Hugo, coming from behind to unseat Novik's Dragon opus in the fourth round. Congratulations to Vernor Vinge; the first story I ever read by the man was "Bookworm, Run!", back in the mid seventies — it actually first ran in 1966, from Analog — and after forty years in the business, the dude still has it. If my stuff proves to have half the legs, I'll have done well.

Judging by these results, though, that may be doubtful. It wasn't even close; Blindsight started in last place and suffered a quick and violent death. I was not surprised that it didn't win, but I was surprised at how poorly it did. I thought it would at least come in ahead of the Flynn — not because I thought it was a better book by any means, but simply because I haven't seen much Eifelheim-related buzz online. But Blindsight did even worse than I expected. In future I should probably dial down that sunny optimism for which I am so well-known.

It's a shame from a pure story perspective, though. After the difficult pregnancy, the painful birth, the neglected childhood — wouldn't it have been cool if my stunted baby could've come from behind and scaled the heights in true Hollywood fashion? Wouldn't that have made a heartwarming little in-your-face, bitch! kinda story?

Ah well. At least I kicked "No Award"'s Ass.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

WoW! Pandemic!

Today's post comes on the heels of a) me answering backlogged questions from XFire's gaming community, and b) grumbles from the peanut gallery about the recent lack of shiny techy science-speak on the 'crawl. It just so happens that today's subject combines elements of both, and holy shit is it cool: a paper in Lancet describing the epidemiology of an unintended plague that raged through the World of Warcraft back in 2005 (and thanks to Raymond Nielson for the heads-up). The figures presented in this paper — which, I emphasize, appears in one of the world's most prestigious medical journals — includes a screen shot of corpses in WoW's urban areas.

The plague itself was a glitch: a disease whose original range was supposed to be limited only to areas where high-level players could venture, and which was — again, to high-level players — merely a nuisance. The problem was, the plague cut down low-level players like kibble in a cat-food dish, and as Crichton once observed, Life Will Find A Way.

The bug hitchhiked out of it's original home turf in the blood of high-level characters teleporting back to their hearthstones (analogous, the authors point out, to airline travel in a real-world outbreak). Player's pets got infected, and spread the disease. NPCs, built strong for reasons of game play, acted as infectious reservoirs, not dying themselves but passing the germ on to anyone they came into contact with.

Whole villages were wiped out.

Lofgren and Fefferman point out that this completely unintentional "Corrupt Blood" outbreak was in many ways more realistic than dedicated supercomputer simulations designed to model real epidemics, simply because a real person stood behind each PC in the population. While real-world models have to use statistical functions to caricature human behavior, WoW's outbreak incorporated actual human behaviour (for example, a number of healers spontaneously acted as "first responders", rushing into infected areas to try and help the sick — and in the process spread the bug to other areas when they moved on). It's true that the ability of WoW characters to resurrect introduces a certain level of unrealism into the picture; but it's also true that players generally get so invested in their characters that they don't throw even those renewable lives away unnecessarily. More to the point, the new paradigm doesn't have to be perfect to be a vast improvement over the current state of the art.

L&F suggest that what happened once as a mistake could happen again by design — that MMORPGs could be a valuable tool for real epidemiological studies, by incorporating plausible plagues with known parameters as part of the in-game experience. Players are already used to sickness disease, and death; that's what makes the game so much fun. Do this right, and you could do population-level doomsday studies repeatedly, under controlled conditions, incorporating levels of behavioural realism far beyond what any purely statistical model could manage. Even Mengele didn't have this kind of sample size.

I can see a lot of research being done this way, and not just epidemiological. There are martial and economic possibilities, too. I can see Homeland Security getting involved. I can see national policies increasingly based on insights gleaned from fantasy simulations — and I can see such policies being played from the inside, by mages and blood elves who might have their own agendas to pursue...

Damn. The story almost writes itself.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Lost Chat: Gaming Edition

  1. LightSol: Have you ever larped or role played any other way in your life? Got into AD&D in a big way during grad school.
  2. LightSol: Has one of your novels made into a game? Not professionally. Once, a long time ago, some fan made an online Starfish sexual-abuse role-playing game with rules like "No character shall rape or kill another character without approval from the CEO or the victim's player." I don't think it ever went anywhere, though.
  3. LightSol: Do you hate the managers of homeworld for scrapping your sequel? Nah. There was so much turnover during that time that the guys who scrapped the sequel were a whole different crew than the ones who took me on board in the first place. And while there were certain internal politics that I could have done without, I really had a blast overall. I'd do it again in a second.
  4. Quinion: What level is your girlfirend in wow Last I checked, she was high-forties. Must be over fifty by now.
  5. [Xfire] Artaxs: Yeah, and what race / class does she play? Blood elf. Paladin. She tanks a lot.
  6. AnThRaX: i like the wow questions
  7. █▓▒ ShoTDeaD ▒▓█: yeah artaxs
  8. Cynosure EPR: and whats her name In-game, Khevvren, or Kevlar, or something.
  9. Cynosure EPR: lol
  10. Quinion: and number I don't know any more. I suspect she had it changed when the restraining order came down.
  11. MÖטζєя: Do you support the horde or the alliance Horde.
  12. Quinion: I wish my gf played wow tho. No you don't. Believe me. You really don't.
  13. Hirmetrium: When its crunch time - Sex or writing? Depends on whether it's with someone or — nah, who am I kidding. It's sex. It's always sex.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Back in the Saddle

I guess it's kind of official — my short story "The Eyes of God" is going to appear in that Solaris anthology I was cringeing about the other day. Dave Nickle thinks it comes a wee bit close to being pro-pedophile, but hey — at least I'm officially writing again. I wonder if NAAMBLA publishes fiction...

More Questions from the Queue:

  1. romripper: have you ever written a book, and at the end thought it was rubbish and started again? I always think a book is rubbish when I'm finished. Except for Starfish. Unfortunately, I've never had time to start again, because every book (except, again, Starfish) has been written under deadline. There's a famous quote — offhand, I can't remember the attribution — to the effect that we writers never finish a story. We only abandon them.
  2. ^*(ĞØã+)*^Ħ€ΛΛЇ~┌╦╤─: have you ever gotten sort of "attatched" to some of your characters and not wanted to end the story? I got kind of attached to Lenie Clarke. That was Tor's fault, actually; I had originally killed her off at the end of Starfish, but my editor thought that was too much of a downer ending for an American audience, so I had to keep her going. Which led to two sequels. I rather like the way Lenie's arc progressed throughout the course of those books, although I know at least one guy who laments her metamorphosis from bad-ass to pussy in Behemoth.
  3. Quinion: What profession did you want to be in when you were growing up? Marine biologist, and science fiction writer. I kid you not. I even remember the moments at which those ambitions sunk in: I was five when I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist, and I was seven when I decided I wanted to be a writer. In hindsight, given my obvious ability to stick with goals long-term, I probably should have just decided to be rich. But noooooo.
  4. .:>TN<:MüÐVª¥Ñê9³™: has a dream u've had at night given u an idea for a book ? Once, long ago, I dreamed of a perfect engineering solution to the problem of putting feet on beachballs so that they could walk autonomously. I still remember that solution to this day. Sadly, I have been unable to interest anyone in any story in which beachballs with feet play any kind of role. Prejudice and intolerance still thrive, even in these supposedly enlightened times.

Next time, maybe some gaming questions. And no, I will not be handing out her phone number.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

You Take What You Can Get

Snagged from some online promotional pdf from Tor; looks like the trade paper is officially set for March '08. The lurid red border seems to be absent this time around, and the title font actually looks quite cool; one can only hope they gave it a different colour than the split-pea soup tint of the hardback. Unfortunately the Buck Rogers spaceship is still in evidence, but I'll take what I can get.

XFire has posted last week's official chat transcript here; you don't even need to be a member to check it out. I apologise for the various misspellings. My fingers were going a mile a minute and haste made me sloppy. (It's supposed to be "trouser eel", for example, not "trouser ell".)

Here's a few more questions that didn't make it on there:
  1. MÖטζєя: Peter Watts, in your book Blindsight, you wrote I really liked that opening sentence, were you inspired by someone to write this ? I was, actually. Someone I was involved with for a few months during the copyedit stage: a very smart, possibly-borderline sociopath pharmawhore (I mean, let's face it, you pretty much have to have sociopathic tendencies to thrive in the biotech industry these days) who happened to be a masochist. It was one of those things you know are doomed going in — you know you're going to destroy the friendship you had for the sake of a few electric moments — but you do it anyway because those moments are worth it. (They were, too. Ah well.)
  2. Vanderdecken: Peter Watts, what provoked you to describe yourself as a 'reformed' marine biologist? "Reformed" sounded better than "failed".
  3. LightSol: Do you get high or drunk to get ideas?
  4. LightSol: Do you get blanks while writing a book and feel a need for marijuana or any other mind affecting drug?
  5. Xfire Moderator: Lightsol, please refrain from asking those questions. No, no, that's okay, really. Being drunk or high has never given me ideas — or at least, they never gave me any ideas that proved worth putting in a story after the hangover had cleared. However, it's given me lots of experiences, so that I can write about being drunk or high with a certain amount of authority if the story calls for it. (For similar reasons, when reading certain unnamed sf writers, I sometimes wish they had had more sex.)

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Friday, August 17, 2007

We Don't Need No Steenkin' Carbon

Okay, now here's a paper to kick your paradigms a little off-kilter: self-replicating, mutating complex structures built from inorganic dust, kick-started into a form of rudimentary "metabolism" by charged plasmas.

For want of a better word, Life. Inorganic life. Spawned from starting conditions reasonably common in deep space, if I'm to believe the commentary.

Of course, the results are just out, and so is the jury. We don't want to get too carried away; lots of nonliving structures superficially resemble life in a variety of ways (ball lightning, Fox's microspheres from the fifties — I even wrote a children's story once premised on the thought that fire might be considered a life form under the right circumstances, although the logic of that argument was about as feeble as the story itself). And for every thought-provoking Hoyleian thought-experiment into sentient clouds, there are ten third-rate episodes of Star Trek and Space: 1999 that trotted out the ol' energy-being trope for no better reason than that a blob of blue light was even cheaper to render than a guy in a rubber mask. There's a certain hokey taint to the whole concept.

Still. Those of you who read Maelstrom may remember the definition "Self-replicating information shaped by natural selection", based on (and slightly mutated from) a line I stole out of Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker. Tsytovich et al's "inorganic living matter" seems to meet that standard, at least. And since I'm presently gearing up to build a deep-space lifeform or two of my own, I for one welcome the arrival of our new dustbunny overlords...


Wednesday, August 15, 2007


In between not doing the paying stuff I'm supposed to be doing and checking out the various articles and links you folks have sent my way over the altruism essay (thanks for all of that, btw — there was a lot of good stuff in there and it actually changed my thinking somewhat), I managed to add a few bits of chrome to the ol' website: three Blindsight blurbs (one from Challenging Destiny — complete review here — and the others from SFRA Review, thanks to Prof. Dom Grace) and a late-breaking blurb for ßehemoth: ß-Max (also from SFRA Review). More importantly, though, one Brian Gilbert has very kindly converted all of my online novels into Mobipocket format. You can download them at the appropriate sub-pages over on my Backlist

And now, a couple of questions that never got answered over on XFire the other day:

  1. Peter Watts i have read one of your short stories last night, the flesh made word, what inspired you to do such an immersful script ? I had this cat, dying of a liver tumour. Everyone was telling me how much suffering she was going through, how euthenasia would be the most merciful option, how horrendously-expensive and most-likely ineffective surgery would be. And I would have killed her in a second if I'd known that was true — but the fact is, organisms are programmed to want to survive, right? How much pain would you have to be in before you'd rather be dead? And when you're deciding whether to kill a friend, how do you decide what she wants if she can't tell you? These were the questions that inspired that story. (I got off easy, btw: I committed to the surgery even though I couldn't afford it, but Zombie died two hours before the operation was scheduled to begin. I got to feel as though I'd passed the test without having to pay the price.)
  2. Do you support gay marraige? Dude, I don't even support straight marriage.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

XFire PrePostMortem

I'm just decompressing after one hellaciously frenetic hour answering questions, along with Mssrs. Vinge and Stross, on XFire. The way it worked was, attendees asked questions in one chatroom; XFire staff selected some to paste in a separate room; we authors selected the ones we wanted to answer from that room, and posted said answers in a third room. Plus there was a separate room for "unofficial chatter". The questions were flying thickly enough in the high-graded zone that I never once got a chance to look in on Unofficial Chatter or The Raw Question Room (Charlie did — just once — and caught sight of a question about whether we supported gay marriage, which sadly never got high-graded.) So I grabbed everything in all four before logging off, to glance at later.

Man, there were a lot of questions directed at me that I never even saw, either because I just didn't notice them in the hi-graded blizzard or because they never got hi-graded in the first place. And some of those questions were pretty damn good, and I feel bad for having not answered them. The official transcript will be posted back on XFire before too long, but because those won't include unanswered questions, I will be answering those here in dribs and drabs over the next little while.

So if any of you guys have come over from XFire and didn't get your questions answered, watch this space; I'll rectify that shortly.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Selfish Bastards, Every One

Now and then I've fielded questions — in interviews, private e-mails, maybe even here in the 'crawl — about my reductionist take on human nature. In particular, a lot of folks are not comfy with my dissing of altruism, which (if it ever does arise in a population) is likely to get weeded out real fast because Hey, who's going to leave more offspring to the next generation: the selfless doof who gives up his life jacket on the Titanic or the selfish bastard who takes it for himself?

Seems pretty straightforward to me, but it seems to give pause to a lot of folks (I even recently received an e-mail on the subject from the legendary Ted Chiang). What about Mothers who rescue their babies from burning buildings? some of the most egregiously out-clued might ask (A: Kin selection, dummies). What about people who willingly die for their countries or for their religious beliefs? (Yeah, and if Christ had said "Do unto others, turn the other cheek, walk the second mile and in the end you'll go to hell anyway", I'm sure the Christians would've just been lining up to go one-on-one with the lions.) What about people who just act out of the goodness of their hearts and help out those who are not so fortunate, even if they're athiests or unrelated to the beneficiary? (Ah, you mean reciprocal altruism. That's done in expectation of a payoff somewhere down the road— and remind me to scribble a post at some point reviewing what we do to people who accept our kind gestures and then don't reciprocate...)

Yeah, well, um— yeah, what about people who give to panhandlers, or volunteer for good causes even though there's no way some rubby or Malawian foster-child will ever be able to return the favour?


This last challenge never really shook my position much. I can rattle off "status enhancement/increased mating opportunities" as fast as the next guy. Still, I wasn't aware of any actual studies on humans that backed it up. But now there is one, courtesy of the niggardly cocksuckers at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, who — despite my online access privileges as a postdoctoral fellow at a major academic institution — still want to charge me $30 before letting me see any more than the abstract. Screw that. Fortunately there's a layperson-friendly summary in The Economist. So here's the he-said/she-said version:

Men, like most male mammals, like to acquire resources. When they're not especially horny, they're as likely to go for furniture and big-screen TVs — i.e., major, nonportable items that remain in the home — as anything else. When they're horny, however, they'd rather buy bling and fast cars — flashy stuff they can take on the road to attract mates. Also, when in a horny mood, they're more likely to give publicly to panhandlers (also to indulge in risky/heroic behaviour). In other words, both conspicuous consumption and conspicuous generosity are just ways of attracting mates: hey baby, lookit me! I've got so much money I can just give it away!...

Women are no better. They aren't so much into resource acquisition as they are into volunteer work and do-gooding social causes — and once again, when they're not thinking about sex, they don't really care what kind of good they're doing. When horned up, however, women show a distinct preference for conspicuous do-gooding (working in a homeless shelter, for example), while shying away from other kinds (e.g., going off on their own and picking up garbage in a ravine).

So once again, behaviour that seems noble at first glance turns out to be stone self-serving upon closer examination: another brand of faux altruism that has far more in common with peacock's tails and wattles on chickens than with any spark of divine generosity. What's more, the nature of our displays breaks down along the same stereotypic r/K selection lines that have always (understandably) driven feminists up the wall because seriously, who really wants to believe that sex-is-destiny shit anyway?

Not that this should come as news to anyone. (Have any of the men in the audience ever been targeted by a street vendor with an armload of overpriced roses when they weren't in the company of a woman?) Still, it's nice to see actual data backing up the just-so story.

Now, anybody know of any cases of Human altruism that haven't been exposed as kin selection or sleazy get-laid strategies?

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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

I'm not dead yet.

Just another couple of placeholders while I shovel sand against the tide.

Placeholder #1: the observation of a certain correlation in the skiffy community:

Group A: "Blindsight would definitely be my choice for the Hugo, if I were voting. Which I'm not."

Group B: "Blindsight is good/crappy/great for wrapping fish, but it didn't get my vote."

I suppose I should take some pride in the evident fact that my biggest fans tend to not be joiners. I like having independent readers. ('Course, I wouldn't've minded having the Hugo either...)

Placeholder #2: the observation of a certain brick-shittingly scary page on Amazon:

Right here. The new anthology from Solaris. Click on the cover image, and — oh, look. There's my name.

These guys haven't even seen my story yet. I was supposed to send it yesterday, but they gave me until Friday because I told them it was 7K's worth of steaming crap. (Which was marginally better than the 9K's worth of steaming crap it had been two days earlier, but still.) And I'm still so unhappy with the way it reads — you ever write a story where each individual scene works fine, but the overall result looks like disjointed fragments of "Red Dwarf", "Law and Order", and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" jammed haphazardly together like fortune cookies in a wood chipper? — that I'm thinking now the only way to salvage this mess is to jettison two thirds of it and reduce the narrative to a single stream-of-consciousness unfolding as the protagonist waits in a checkout line to buy chicken bullion cubes. (Yes. You read that right. That would be a massive improvement.)

As for the Solaris guys, their faith in my abilities is either so great it borders on religious mania, or so small that they've faked up an Amazon cover just to light a fire under my ass. What are they gonna do if I hand in something completely unusable?

In fact, what am I writing this for? I gotta get started.


Tuesday, July 31, 2007

This. Is. The. Real. Peter. Watts. Speaking. This. Is. Not. An. Android. Imposter. No. Way.

Okay, the comments were touching enough, but I'm starting to get emails now. Even a phone message. Time to put these ugly rumours to rest.

First of all, I didn't know you cared. I am touched.

Second of all, I am still alive and reasonably healthy. There have just been a number of deadlines keeping me busy lately, the most imminent now of which is this damn story I promised Solaris I'd have ready by Aug 6. It is not going well. The words are coming readily enough, and the prose is even pretty smooth considering my writing muscles have been rusting out for the better part of two years now — but it's currently lying around in pieces all over the floor, and it's bloated and ugly and all character-driven, and while the sf elements seemed shiny enough for a 1000-word short-short (this was originally intended for Nature), the current 7,000-word version reads like a half-assed porridge of Total Recall and Glasshouse and Neuropath and a third-season episode of Red Dwarf without Arnold J. Rimmer or Arnold Schwarzenneger. I have five days to add the final bits, stitch it all together, and hammer it into shape. So bottom line, if you're hoping for another posting from me this week, dream on.

I have been able to squeeze a couple of other things in around the margins, though. Got interviewed for two hours by TVO (kind of a provincial PBS, for those of you stateside) on the subject of Ray Bradbury in general and Fahrenheit 451 (both movie and book) in particular. (Speaking of which, has anyone else out there heard Bradbury admit that he just made up 451 as the temperature at which paper burns, after the guys at the local Fire Hall weren't able to tell him?). I've just signed a contract for a Polish edition of Blindsight, and have contacts for Spanish and Russian editions sitting on my desk as well. (Counting everything from "done deals" to "enthusiastic butt-sniffings", we're talking somewhere around a half-dozen languages so far).

Oh, and there's this: I'm going to be participating in a live online chat with Charlie Stross and Vernor Vinge on August 13th, hosted by XFire (which, I'm led to understand, is MTV's online gaming subdivision). They're going to be giving away multiple signed copies of our Hugo-nominated novels during the chat, and I'm pleased to note that not only are more copies of my book going to be given away (15) than of Charlie's (12) or Prof. Vinge's (10), but judging by the author photos, I also have more hair.

Oh, and I saw "Sunshine", which I'd really been looking forward to since I hold "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting" in high esteem. My God, what a silly, vacuous, inconsistent, scientifically absurd, and derivative movie. I am honestly mystified at the number of good reviews it has received. The Internet itself is not big enough to hold a complete list of the narrative inconsistencies. Suffice to say that when you're shown a ship containing twice the airspace of the Skydome, any claim that four people are in imminent danger of asphyxiation is bound to be met with some skepticism. And when one of the crew discovers that a homicidal, batshit-crazy Freddy Krueger knock-off has stowed away in the Observation lounge, and doesn't inform anyone else on board before rushing to confront himand who, when finding himself blinded by bright sunlight in said lounge, chooses to remain blinded during Freddy's minutes-long crazy-man rant about Sun Gods and Human Sacrifice instead of oh, I don't know, telling the ship's AI to dial down the brightness like every other crew member has done onscreen up to this point, just so he can see clearly when Freddy stops ranting and comes at him with a knife — well, let's just say that you end up wishing that imminent asphyxiation of the whole cast was not so far-fetched.

I'm going to go back to work now. You may speak amongst yourselves.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Guest Stars

Today we take time to honour the works of others, especially when such works reflect well on me in some way. First up is this cool rendition of Lenie Clarke, rendered by one Brian Prince (who quite needlessly apologises for its "hastiness"). I love the look and the apocalyptic mood of this piece. I even like the not-exactly-according-to-canon cleavage, and have given it a permanent home over in the gallery.

Next up, a very effective short-short from my journo/horrorfic buddy Dave Nickle, to whom I have commended you all in the past: "The Mayor Will Make A Brief Statement And Then Take Questions". Go read it; it's barely longer than the title, but it packs a nice little icepick just the same.

Finally, to any Toronto readers waiting for a copy of Blindsight to become available at the local library (and I was surprised to hear how many people have it on hold): if you should open your long-awaited loaner only to find the words

Thanks for reading my words the sweat of my brow without paying anything, you cheap and heartless bastards.
Best, Peter Watts

Well, yes, that really was me, and no, I don't really mean it. It just seemed like a clever thing to write at the Jersey Giant last night, when someone slipped the book between me and my Rickards. (And in my own defense, the rest of the beer-swilling crowd seemed to think it was pretty clever at the time, too.)

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Friday, July 13, 2007

We're Number Three! We're Number Three!

..."We", of course, being Jo Walton and myself, who (as you all must know by now even though I'm only getting around to posting it now) tied for third on the Campbells. We came in just behind Morrow's The Last Witchfinder in second place, while the lot of us lost to Ben Bova's Titan, the winner.

It would be technically inaccurate to describe these results as "controversial"; reactions seem pretty consistent wherever you go (here, here, and here, for example). Nobody seems to have a problem with the relative rankings of the runners-up (although I've seen more than one regret that Karl's Sun of Suns didn't make the cut), but Bova's win appears to be a source of widespread disgruntlement, and — so far, at least — none of the jurors have gone public with the rationale for their decision. I myself have not read Titan (although I read a lot of Bova's novels back in high school), so I'm in no position to pass judgment. I am, however, following the discussion with considerable interest.

Anyway, third is a nice Canadian kind of ranking (Jo Walton's Canadian too, I note); politely accomplished and not the bottom of the heap, but not quite world class. In fact, I've been told that Blindsight also came in third for the Locus Award a few weeks back, although I haven't been able to track that down. Can anyone out there confirm or deny?

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

ReaderCon Report

Okay, Catch-Up Post #1: Ode to the Domestic Shorthair Cat.

Just kidding.

Readercon, the Good: met cool people. David Edelman, author of Infoquake , and shared commiseratory we-didn't-win-the-Campbell beers. Jenny Rappaport, agent to a friend of mine who started out merely as a talented wannabe in search of advice — and whom I should have destroyed when I had the chance, because this Rappaport woman has now turned him into a serious rival with a lucrative three-book deal under his belt. (Dave Williams. Remember that name.) Ted Chiang, whom I only managed to talk to briefly at checkout, my copy of Stories of Your Life and Others locked away in a car whose keys were in the possession of someone who was avoiding me. (I was probably too effusive for coolness even so. In fact, I know I was. Stupid fucking Inner Fanboy.) George Mann, of Solaris (whom I also didn't get as much time with as I would have liked.) Laura-Ann Gellman.

Reignited old friendships, even though the Heinlein Ceremony bled off many of the usual suspects: Ursabelle (that's Ms . Elizabeth Bear to you, Mister), The Montreal Mafia (oh, all right: Glenn Grant, Yves Meynard, Christian Sauve, maybe Jean-Louis Trudel if my brain isn't fudging with memories of the previous year), Judy Klein-Dial (think a shorter Joni Mitchell, in a bookstore). David Hartwell's wife. (Actually, that doesn't sound quite right; would have been David Hartwell too, except there was a miscommunication over dinner plans so I only got to see him for a few minutes outside the bar. Kathryn spent time planted in the bar, which was much more conducive to quality time.) To name but a few.

Got interviewed by Locus for a couple of hours. Spent far too much on seafood in Boston. Gave a talk which, while it went over time, also went over well. Signed many books (I'm told the dealer's room sold out of Blindsight , but without knowing how many they'd stocked I don't know how good to feel about that). Had some really nice chats with some really nice fans, about everything from Jethro Tull to "Hard-Character sf" (whatever that is, although I'm told I'm a prime exemplar). Met some of the regulars here in fact, and none of 'em — not a one — bought me a beer. And I was proud of them, one and all, because haven't I told you time and again how maladaptive altruism is?

I met Charles aka Chang, who is I swear to God even taller than me. I met AsYouKnowBob, and we strangled each other on film. I would have met this Tim character, and he would perhaps have bought me a beer, but I got hustled away. To name but a few.

Readercon, the Bad: The fucking Marriot, and the naked avarice they display in charging $10US per day, per laptop , for internet access that every Motel-6 on the planet gives away for free. (I did, however, find an unsecured network with leaky access over at one corner of the building, and I announced it to all and sundry at an early panel so that as many as possible might cadge free bandwidth and deny those bastards their pound of flesh.) Marriot Security shutting down a room party consisting of twenty people eating carrot cake and quietly conversing — I mean, there wasn't even any music — because of "noise complaints". Panel topics not quite as edgy this year as they've been others (and while we're at it, Readercon's wussiness in not pushing the whole wireless issue with the Marriot— I mean, at the very least they could have set up a temporary wireless network outside the salons for the duration, even if they didn't want to tell the Marriot to take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut and move to some other more reasonable venue). And sadly, I didn't get a chance to meet as many folks as I would have liked to, and who were evidently there. Wasn't able to stay an extra night, which would have mitigated that somewhat.

Readercon, the Ambiguous: "Cuddlier"? "Canadianer"? "Reach of an orangutan"? "Swearier"? "Energy of a mongoose"? Do these terms really apply to me? I don't even think they're all even real words .

And how do you sign someone's uvula anyway?

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Best Piece of Prose I Ever Wrote.

Oh, so much to report. Readercon (at which I met some of you, who did not buy me nearly as many beers as I had hoped). The Campbell Decision (which one might normally call "controversial", except as far as I can tell, reaction has been unanimous). The mysterious disappearance of 22 of the 30 reader reviews from Blindsight's Amazon page. Fan art (fan art!) Sciency stuff.

But in the meantime my bed frame split open and spilled several hundred bedbug exoskeletons across the floor. The Canadian Wildlife Service needs some stuff done yesterday. The apartment is a bloody mess, and I have a million e-mails to answer. So instead, as a kind of placeholder, I am going to take Chelsea's advice and go completely off-topic, posting The Best Goddamned Piece of Prose I Ever Wrote. I wrote it while fostering for Annex Cat Rescue, a worthy collection of cat-crazy people who spend all hours of the night laying live traps under box cars and abducting ferals into better lives. I wrote this to help place a cat I was "temporarily" keeping until he could find a more permanent home:

Are You Worthy?

Here's where we separate the superficial kitty-huggers from the serious lovers of real cats. Banana has had a really rough life. It shows. His ears are disfigured by frostbite, and by wounds sustained during the course of the world's worst ear-mite infection. Several of his teeth have broken against the hard life of the street. He drools sometimes. He hides a lot. Scars and scabs and shaved veterinary clear-cuts range across his body.

The fur will grow back, of course. The scabs are healing even now. And he's a solid cat. Everything that isn't scar tissue is muscle. His ears will be forever twisted, though. He is doomed to pad through the rest of his life being mistaken for a Scottish Fold.

But what a heart he has. Oh, what a heart.

Dragged from his refuge in the linen closet, he purrs instantly upon contact. Once you have begun scritching those twisted ears, he firmly and insistently head-butts you should your rhythm falter. Sometimes he will not eat unless he is being scritched; then he snarfs for a regiment (pausing now and then to glance around, as if fearful of the reappearance of old ghosts). When he comes to trust you he will lie on your bed with his belly to the sun and all four limbs stretched in ecstacy.

This cat is a goddamned hero. If you're looking for some cute and symmetrical plaything to go ga-ga over, something with the depth of Paris Hilton and brains to match, move along. You don't deserve this one. But if you can provide a safe haven to a bruised and stoic predator, and treat him with the respect he deserves— if you ask not what Banana can offer you, but what you can offer Banana— then give us a call.

Maybe— just maybe— you have what it takes.

The calls started almost immediately afterwards. I told them all to piss off.


Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Going South

Scant posts for the next little while: I'm heading off to Readercon, just outside Boston, at the crack of dawn tomorrow. I may even see some of you down there, assuming I don't end up the token white guy in the little room at the border because some slack-jawed imbecile at Customs doesn't like the way I answered his inane questions. It's happened before.

I may get a chance to post from down there; don't count on it. In the meantime, I see the director's cut of the Nature piece has gone live (click on the pdf link for "supplementary materials); it does contain substantially more bits than the printed version did. (For one thing, my comment about farting human seals in Vonnegut's "Galapagos" has a little more context to back it up. Sadly, the Paris Hilton enema remark remains lost for all time.)

You may have noticed a paucity of real science postings lately. I'll try to rectify that upon my return. But seriously, the deadlines just keep on fucking coming, and no matter how short they are, when you're living gig to gig you don't feel comfortable turning any of 'em down. It's just a question of finding the time to read the source material.


Sunday, July 1, 2007

Banana Does Not Look Like This

Banana's a brown tabby with gloriously misshapen ears. This actually looks more like my first-ever cat, The Cate. (Except for the nose. The Cate had 63 dots on an otherwise flawlessly-pink nose.)

But there are many good things about the illustrations for this Nature interview. For one thing, Banana makes two appearances, the second in the pull quote (which contains a typo, but then again, cats always were agents of chaos). For another, I alone of the four of us retain some semblance of humanoid/porcine ancestry. And last but not least, I'm the only one who isn't naked.

Here's the article itself. URL for the director's cut is contained therein — it's not up yet as of this writing.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Different...

These are pictures from the bottom of the earth. (Click on 'em for higher res.) Who needs alien planets?

This is part of a transmission from the bottom of the earth, recently received from a very cool chick I met at Readercon last year, who works with satellites and builds raccoon-scaring robots as a hobby and to whom I owe an e-mail:

"I ended up getting drafted into hosting a small movie party that involved lots of martinis and half the guys wearing skirts (I'd never made out with a guy in a skirt before; there are advantages).

Life really is very strange down here!"

Now I can't get the image of Kurt Russell in a grass skirt out of my head. If I was a horror writer I'd probably be able to put that image to constructive use.

The photos were taken by Anthony "Antz" Powell and are used with permission. I do not know what he looks like in a dress.

Any shapeshifting alien they dig up down there? Gonna be in therapy for fucking years.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Nature Nurtures.

The Nature interview went pretty well, after a start-up technical glitch or two. I had a blast. The ideas were thick upon the ground. (I especially liked Ken MacLeod's premise of military robots developing self-awareness on the battlefield due to programming that gave them increasingly-complex theories-of-mind as a means of anticipating enemy behaviour.) I got in references to fellatio, child pornography, and Paris Hilton's enema (a subject which Joan Slonczewski explicitly stated she was not going to run with, or even mention by name.) Oh, and I also talked about, you know, some biology-in-science-fiction stuff. I don't know how much of it will survive the edit, but we'll find out in early July.

But the real cherry on the sundae? I'm not sure how definite this is, but it sounded as though my cat Banana — aka Potato, aka Spudnik — is going to appear in Nature.

My cat. Nature.

I have never been so proud.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

The New Superstar of the Science Fiction

Which is what Google's translation software makes of der neue Superstar der Science Fiction, which is evidently what I am according to the Random House/Bertelsmann web page heralding the German edition of ButtPflug — er, Blindflug — which translates as "Blind Flight", but that's fine because the literal translation of "Blind Sight"— Blinder Anblick — sounds out phonetically like a couple of attornies-at-law.

Also, according to their catalog, I am a talent who "enters the international science fiction scene as it occurs only every ten years once" — which sounds nice — and "the present shooting star among American SF-authors", which sounds even nicer until you remember that a) I'm not American, and b) shooting stars are flaming chunks of debris with life expectancies measured in seconds, disintegrating in public.

Not a bad cover design, though. Doesn't take my breath away, but it's perfectly serviceable and I see they stuck my name above the title and in an equally prominent font. I seem to remember reading somewhere that that means they're promoting the author, as opposed to just the book.

I've only got one problem with all this: if I'm some kind of superhero, how come I got paid like a sidekick?


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Canadian... Smugness... Failing... Must... Read.... Darwin...

From yesterday's Globe & Mail, this flabbergasting factoid:

Only 51% of Ontario residents accept the reality of evolution.

Even Americans do better, at 53%. Nationally, Canada beats the States in the Enlightenment Sweeptstakes — at 59% — but that's not by very goddamn much. Sullen, resentful thanks to Dave Nickle for the link.

Meanwhile The EU, wary of similar threats on their own shores (these ones arising largely from Islamic fundies rather than Christian ones), is entertaining a resolution (albeit a nonbinding one) to keep such easter-bunny stupidity out of their science classes. Evidently they regard creationism as a Human Rights issue. Saddens me to say it, but maybe we need something along those lines here at home.

Oh, and okay. I'll look into this forum thingy. Looks pretty straightforward. Maybe I can embed a poll or two therein, get some sense of how widespread your irritation might be with the current on-screen format.

Update/Note o'Hope, 1750 CDT: Springer, the 800-lb gorilla of scientific publishing, is launching a new journal explicitly designed to help science teachers defend against creationism in the classroom. If you check out its Board of Directors you'll find some pretty heavy hitters, including Dan Brooks, in whose whose lab I took up space for two years.


Monday, June 18, 2007

A Motley Mosaic of Miscellaneous Minutiae

Sorry for the recent radio silence; been a lot going on lately, events to plan, agents to approach, interviewers to charm (not easy when you're me), awards to lose (somewhat easier). Also, I was hoping to get back to some cool science postings, since a lot of cutting-edge stuff has been coming down the pike and I don't want the crawl to revert to all-me-all-the-time mode. But that would have involved having time to actually read about the research, and time has been short these past few days.

So today, despite my best intentions, it's a diffuse cloud of unrelated particles centering on me me me. I'll try not to let it happen too often.

First up: I have passed the giddy peak of being a multi-award finalist and begun the long ignoble slide into multi-award loser. The Locus went to Vinge's Rainbows End, which I really should read one of these days. Not entirely unexpected; one does not (one should not) easily topple someone of Prof. Vinge's stature. (I just hope he chokes in all the other awards I'm about to get an ass-kicking in...)

For those interested in catching sight of me in the wild, it looks like I'm going to be Guest of Honour at Pure Speculation, this upcoming October 13-14. It's in Edmonton. It's in the Masonic Hall in Edmonton. This could be really interesting. Also, as usual, I'll be your regular garden-variety writer at Readercon this July 5-8 (just outside Boston), where they're trying to talk me into giving a Blindsight-related talk (I'm considering it) and an autograph session (not bloody likely: I gave a reading last year and a leprous woodworker could have counted the attendees on the remaining fingers of one hand).

Here's something cool: I'm getting interviewed tomorrow by Nature, in a kind of teleconferenced roundtable with fellow bioskiffs Paul McAuley, Ken MacLeod, and Joan Slonczewski. We're going to be talking about everything from the sublime (H.G. Wells) to the ridiculous (Michael Crichton), and it's going to end up both in their print journal and on their website (plans to also release the event as a podcast may be aborted depending on Skype's sound quality that day). In slightly staler news, I was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal's online edition a week or so ago, in relation to the whole Creative Commons thing. (I gotta say, publicity wise, that CC decision of mine was at least the luckiest move I ever made, if not necessarily the smartest). I don't know if that story will ever run, but the guy who interviewed me seemed hopeful at the time.

Oh, and this Marc Andreessen guy who included me amongst the top ten sf writers of the decade? I don't often mention personal blog entries here — it makes the frequency of my own insecure egosurfing all too apparent — but evidently this dude co-invented Mosaic and cofounded Netscape. This guy is huge in the real world. The fact that he puts me in the same league with guys like Stross, Asher, Reynolds, Scalzi et al — on the basis of a single book, no less — shit, that almost makes up for Marvin Minsky calling Blindsight "stupid" (Update: Marvin Minsky did not call Blindsight stupid after all! It was all just a cruel hoax!)(Meta-update: okay, not a hoax, then. A misunderstanding. But hoax still sounds better.)

Now I'm gonna go answer some of the comments you've been leaving.


Sunday, June 10, 2007

Three Times the Scabbery

Today's edition of the Vancouver Province carries a piece by Peter Darbyshire on online fiction giveaways, focusing on three of us Creative Commoners: Cory Doctorow, David Wellington, and me. The layout in the dead tree edition is quite pleasing to the eye, showing one of Blindsight's alternate covers without comment (I love it when that happens, when reviewers just act as though the original jacket didn't even exist...). The online edition contains the same text, but no snazzy graphics. And the longer, director's cut is over on Darbyshire's blog; it contains never-before-seen quotage of me being grumpy and pessimistic (and yet another alternate cover!). It's probably just as well that none of these versions include my take on NIN's This is the Year Zero as a new example of multiformat novel-scale storytelling. (By the way, am I the only one who wonders if the last line on that album is meant to suggest that the whole story was a computer simulation?)

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Thursday, June 7, 2007

One millionth the budget of Spiderman 3. One thousand times the smarts.

A couple of weeks back I told you about Infest Wisely, the seven-part "low-fi sci-fi" independent film put together by Jim Munroe and his motley accomplices; Dave Nickle blogged his thoughts following the premiere. Since that night (standing-room only, by the way) they've been podcasting one episode a week. I've kept quiet about that until now, not because I didn't like the show but because I like it enough to want everyone to check it out; and this week, with the "Early Adopter" episode, I figure it's safe to send you over.

You see, while Infest Wisely was filmed in seven episodes, they're not really stand-alone episodes. Characters recur and intertwine throughout the overall story. Sometimes you've got no idea how a given episode ties in to the overall arc, until someone or something from a previous installment makes an appearance and ties another link in the braid. It's really quite elegant— but it also means that if you downloaded the first chapter when it first came out you'd be confronted with two characters saying strange things in dark alleyways and under overpasses in the dead of night, filmed in ambient light with muddy sound. When it was all over you would have no idea where the story was going, and you might not come back a week later to follow up. And that would be a shame, because the story does go somewhere.

It goes into public urinals, for example, where hapless men get "milked" by women who pounce from the stalls and deliver guerilla hand-jobs as a means of acquiring semen for identity-theft purposes (genetic ID has become the norm in this day-after-tomorrow tale). It goes into your mouth, with sticks of gum that deliver nanites that turn your eyes into cameras and cats into sentient tool-users who speak in effete British accents (today's jpeg is a scan of one of the treats they handed out to the audience on opening night). It touches on the mind-controlling powers of certain parasites (there's a consistent eco/bio vibe running through the whole story, which is a nice change from the usual inorganic nanotech). It even goes into the Wright-Ramsey Building at the University of Toronto, where I've been known to hang out. I recognise the lockers.

The point is, this experiment has smarts far in excess of its miniscule budget— and now that three episodes are up, you can watch a bunch of 'em in one go to get a sense of how it all comes together. And I think you should do that.

At the very least, it'll help wash the taste of Silver Surfer trailers out of your mouth.


Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Fourth Printing

Evidently Blindsight has gone into a fourth printing. Don't know exactly when, or the size of the run, or anything beyond the basic fact that it happened; hell, I wouldn't even know that much if some guy at the Wall Street Journal hadn't mentioned it.

Whatever the source, though, it's good news.

Not the Orange Juice. The Award.

One of these objects does not belong with the others. Guess which one.

  • "a complex drama of faith, love, church politics, and art, set in 17th- and 18th-century Cremona"
  • "A delicate, haunting story-within-a-story told by a girl who must choose between her bright, beloved town and the dark forest beyond it"
  • "A mortally injured child lying in a coma seems to influence, or somehow preside over, the lives of her parents and others."
  • "Keylanders, the boys are told, must keep within their walls to avoid the filth and disease spread by the Droughtlanders—those who struggle to survive on the parched land between the Keys."
  • "Neurobiology, vampires, alien encounters, mommy issues, deep space"

What we're talking about here is the short list of the 2007 Sunburst Award for speculative fiction. Most of you probably haven't heard of it; it's young and Canadian, which is enough to ensure its obscurity even (especially) amongst young Canadians. But it's juried, and it carries a thousand-dollar prize, so it's plenty credible as far as I'm concerned.

And Blindsight is on it.

I have to say I'm surprised, given the nature of the other contenders on the list; literary, small-press stuff mostly, respectable tales which, one gets the sense, not even Margaret Atwood would feel ashamed to be caught reading. I recognise none of these titles from other recent sf shortlists (although Jo Walton's much-lauded Farthing made the Honourable Mentions). In fact, I confess— with some embarrassment— that I recognise none of these titles, full stop.

Which, while it reflects badly on me personally, is a good thing overall. Here is an award recognising works others have overlooked, an award that eschews bandwagons and makes its own choices.

I'm not quite sure what my luridly-packaged space-vampire novel is doing there. Kinda sticks out like a sore thumb. But I'm grateful and honoured that the jury felt it belonged.

That's four now. I'm starting to reach the point where I figure I may just win one of these things through random chance...


Thursday, May 31, 2007

Not the Soup. The Award. Not that Award; the Other Award.

Okay, I got this via Scalzi's blog, which linked in turn to this official-looking site, so I guess it's on the level even though I've received no official notification. But it looks like Blindsight made the finals for the John W. Campbell Award.

It's in there with the usual worthy suspects from the Hugos and the Nebs, and lots more besides because — hey, thirteen finalists? Is that normal? Well, whether it is or not, I'm especially gratified to see Karl Schroeder's Sun of Suns in there, because that really is an incredibly fun book with some glorious Technicolor worldbuilding. I wish I'd written it.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Unsung Heroes

Sorry I haven't been around here much lately. It's getting down to the wire for this damn York address and I've gotta shave half an hour off of it. (It's tough — I mean, you try argueing that pedophiles and suicide bombers will be the ones setting the ground rules for any post-singularity society. In less than 30 minutes. You gotta take it in small steps.) Also, I'm trying to find an agent, and I gotta do it quick; I've only got street cred as long as I'm a "finalist" for these awards. The moment they go to someone else, I'm just an also-ran. (And in the course of that search, might I just point out that Deanna Hoak is absurdly gracious, classy, and helpful to people she barely even knows. A few more like her would make a complete hash of the rules of Darwinian natural selection.)

Oh, and while I'm in hat-tipping mode: I usually e-mail thankyous to those who've contributed to the Niblet Memorial Kibble Fund, but sometimes I can't get through. So if John Packer from Australia, and/or Terry Doyle from the UK happen by, thank you both for your generosity. And your e-mail addresses are broken. For months.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Anyone with half a brain could tell it.

Via Futurismic, an accessible piece from Scientific American on radical hemispherectomies, an operation which readers of Blindsight will recognise as the defining moment in the depersonalisation of the young Siri Keeton.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

London Falling

Saw 28 Weeks Later last night. Few explicit spoilers follow, but much can be infered from what I write below. If you haven't seen the movie yet, and you intend to, you may want to skip this entry.

Released at the start of the summer blockbuster season: going up against Spiderman, Pirates, Shrek, Die Hard, Silver Surfer, and any number of other big-bang, uplifting, heartwarming, adrenalising affirmations that Good Triumphs Over Evil Because It's Nicer. And what does 28 Weeks Later put on the table against such adversaries?

Characters invested with such humanity that you know, according to the rules of Hollywood, that at the very least they'll make it to the final reel — only to see them felled like red-shirted extras before the halfway mark. Families tearing each other apart (no, that is not metaphor). Rooftop snipers stamped from neither Stormtrooper nor Top Gun molds, decent shits with real honest-to-God consciences, indiscriminately shooting civillians in the street to spare them the napalm that takes their unluckier mates ten minutes further on.

And worst of all, this movie delivers a viewing audience that knows, down in the bone, that there's nothing else to be done, that the massacre of innocents is the only strategy that holds any hope at all — and that even that, ultimately, may not be enough.

In the summer popcorn season? This movie has balls the size of fucking grapefruits.

I'm even willing to forgive the supernaturally-absurd rate at which the rage virus propagates. (Sure, you can go from swapping spit to full-blown eyeball-haemorrhageing psychosis in 35 seconds. All you need is a bug that reproduces two hundred times per second). I can forgive it because I am so sick of tepid Hollywood movies (Outbreak comes to mind) that pretend to grapple with the no-win scenario only to pull some third alternative out of their asses in the third act, movies whose sacred trust is to reassure skittish moviegoers that See, there is a way to avoid killing all those innocent infectees. All we have to do is stop the Evil General Who Won't Listen To Reason!

Back in the day, Disney kiddie movies had more hard-eyed maturity than crap like Outbreak. Bambi's mother died, irrevocably, because that's what parents do in real life. You just gotta deal with it. But not today. Today, Spielberg rewrites history and arms ET's containment forces with walkie-fucking-talkies to protect the delicate sensibilities of the world's children (yet another example of the cognitive impairment that seems to accompany parenthood, btw.)

But not 28 Weeks Later. Here's a movie that doesn't even offer us the cold solace of a no-hope scenario. There is hope, you see. There is hope, and there are decent people trying to do the best they can in dire circumstances, and there are no villains — only victims and vectors.

But most of all there is hope. There is at least the glimmer of a solution. And decent, well-intentioned Human stupidity squanders it anyway.

You can have your Spiderman and your Silver Surfer. Watch the pretty explosions. Eat your pocorn. Suck your thumbs.

As for me? Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I watch 28 Weeks Later.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Motherhood Issues

How many times have you heard new parents, their eyes bright with happy delerium (or perhaps just lack of sleep), insisting that you don't know what love is until you first lay eyes on your baby? How many of you have reunited with old university buddies who have grown up and spawned, only to find that mouths which once argued about hyperspace and acid rain can't seem to open now without veering into the realm of child-rearing? How many commercials have you seen that sell steel-belted radials by plunking a baby onto one? How many times has rational discourse been utterly short-circuited the moment someone cries "Please, someone think of the children!"? (I've noticed the aquarium industry is particularly fond of this latter strategy, whenever anyone suggests shutting down their captive whale displays.)

You know all this, of course. You know the wiring and the rationale behind it: the genes build us to protect the datastream. The only reason we exist is to replicate that information and keep it moving into the future. It's a drive as old as life itself. But here's the thing: rutting and reproduction are not the traits we choose to exhalt ourselves for. It's not sprogs, but spirit, that casts us in God's image. What separates us from the beasts of the field is our minds, our intellects. This, we insist, is what makes us truly human.

Which logically means that parents are less human than the rest of us.

Stick with me here. All of us are driven by brainstem imperatives. We are all compromised: none of us is a paragon of intellect or rationality. Still, some are more equal than others. There is a whole set of behavioral subroutines that never run until we've actually pupped, a whole series of sleeper programs that kick in on that fateful moment when we stare into our child's eyes for the first time, hear the weird Middle-eastern Dylan riffs whining in our ears, and realise that holy shit, we're Cylons.

That is the moment when everything changes. Our children become the most important thing in the world, the center of existence. We would save our own and let ten others die, if it came to that. The rational truth of the matter— that we have squeezed out one more large mammal in a population of 6.5 billion, which will in all likelihood accomplish nothing more than play video games, watch Inuit Idol, and live beyond its means until the ceiling crashes in— is something that simply doesn't compute. We look into those bright and greedy eyes and see a world-class athlete, or a Nobel Prize-winner, or the next figurehead of global faux-democracy delivered unto us by Diebold and Halliburton.

We do not see the reality, because seeing reality would compromise genetic imperatives. We become lesser intellects. The parental subroutines kick in and we lose large chunks of the very spark that, by our own lights, makes us human.

So why not recognise that with a new political movement? Call it the "Free Agent Party", and build its guiding principles along the sliding scale of intellectual impairment. Those shackled by addictions that skew the mind — whether pharmaceutically, religiously, or parentally induced — are treated the same way we treat those who have yet to reach the age of majority, and for pretty much the same reasons. Why do we deny driver's licences and voting priveleges to the young? Why do we ban drunks from the driver's seat? Because they are not ready. They are not competent to make reasonable decisions. Nobody questions this in today's society. So tell me, how are offspring addicts any different?

I'm thinking of adding such a political movement to the noisy (and slightly satirical) background of an upcoming novel, but the more I think of it, the more it strikes me as an idea whose time has come. It's a no-lose electoral platform as far as I can see.

Now go find me a campaign manager.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

How to Build a Zombie Detector

A fair number of topics jostling for attention lately: slime moulds outfitted with skittish cyborg exoskeletons, Jim Munroe's microbudget megasavvy take on nanotech, even this recent research on free will in fruit flies (which I'm wary of, but am holding off commenting upon until I've thoroughly read the original paper). And I'm in bitten-off-more-than-I-can-chew mode at the moment, so I don't have time to put all that stuff on the crawl right now. But there is one thing that struck me like a bolt from the blue (except it was actually a bolt from an e-mail server) late last night, as I was trying to clear away the e-mail backlog:

Zombie detectors.

There's this guy, allegedly named Nick Alcock, who seems to know way more than he admits to. He first ruined my morning back in March by pointing out that if vampires really needed to eat people because they couldn't synthesise gamma-Protocadherin-Y on their own, and if they needed that protein because it was so damned critical for CNS development, then women shouldn't have working brains because the gene that codes for it is located on the Y chromosome. It was a shot across the bow I could not resist; we're still going at it two months later.

One of the things we've veered into lately is the classic philosopher-wank question: if you've got a nonconscious zombie that natural selection has nonetheless shaped to blend in — to behave as though it were conscious (we're talking the classic philosopher zombie agent here, not the fast killer-zombies under discussion a few days ago) — how could you detect it? More fundamentally, why would you bother? After all, if it behaves exactly like the rest of us, then the fact that it's nonconscious makes no real difference; and if it does behave differently, then consciousness must have some impact on the decision-making process, findings about after-the-fact volition notwithstanding. (The cast of Blindsight mumble about this dilemma near the end of the book; it's basically a variant on the whole "I know I'm conscious but how do I know anyone else is" riff.)

So this Alcock dude points out that if I'm right in my (parroted) claims that consciousness is actually expensive, metabolically, then zombie brains will be firing fewer synapses and burning through less glucose than would a comparable baseline human performing the same mental tasks. And that reminded me of a paper I read a few years back which showed that fast thinkers, hi-IQ types, actually use less of their brains than the unwashed masses; their neural circuitry is more efficient, unnecessary synapses pared away.

Zombie brains run cooler than ours. Even if they mimic our behavior exactly, the computational expense behind that behavior will be lower. You can use an MRI to detect zombies!

Of course, now Nick has turned around and pointed out all the reasons that would never work, because it is his sacred mission in life to never be satisfied. He's pointing out the huge variation in background processing, the miniscule signal one would have to read against that, the impossibility of finding a zombie and a sentry (trademark!) so metabolically identical that you could actually weed out the confounds. I say, fuck that. There are places where the conscious and subconscious minds interface: I say, look at the anterior cingulate gyrus (for example), and don't bother with crude glucose-metabolism/gas-mileage measures. There's gotta be some telltale pattern in there, some trademark spark of lightning that flickers when the pointy-haired boss sends a memo. That's what you look for. The signature of the ball and chain.

Of course, it won't be enough for this Alcock guy. He's bound to find some flaw in that response. He always does.

Maybe I just won't tell him.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Off-Key Speaker

So there's this annual thing up at York University: the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (although for some reason their web site seems to stop at 2005). A few months back I gave a guest lecture up at York, which was evidently a big hit on account of most academic speakers tend to not use terms like "hand job" and "shit-for-brains" during the course of their presentations. Anyway, one of the people running the course — Allan Weiss by name — asked me if I wanted to give a talk at this ACCSFF thing. Er, I said. We'll pay you, he told me. I'm in, I said.

Now I find I'm listed as Keynote Speaker. Ohhhhkay.

So far I've come up with a title. "Anachronism, Inattentional Blindness, and the Turd in the Punchbowl: or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Singularity." I have until June 9 to either figure out what that means, or failing that, to stick so many additional words onto the title that it'll take half an hour to read aloud.

Wish me luck. Better yet, wish it for my audience.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Torontonians: Infest Wisely

You all know the scoop on self-publishers, don't you? Those losers who, unable to interest any legitimate publisher in their verbiage, haunt Kinkos with pockets full of quarters, printing out their magnum opus on the backs of old cable bills in the hope that some streetcorner pedestrian might take pity on them. A hapless breed, their numbers kept in check by their natural predator, the Vanity Press. Oh yes. You know all about self-publishers.

Well, here's a new subspecies for you: Jim Munro, whose debut novel was published by HarperCollins, and did very well for the man. And then Munroe turned his back on Rupert Murdoch (not that ol' Rupe noticed, of course) — and walked away.

You know me. I piss and moan endlessly about the Big Bad Publishing Industry. There is no end to my fucking whining. But Jim Munroe did something I never had the guts to do: he left his Big Name Publisher because he didn't like the way it behaved, and he started publishing his books himself.

And damned if he hasn't made a go of it.

Now he's branching out into other media, writing and codirecting "Infest Wisely", an episodic "lo-fi sci-fi" feature about chewable nanotech. And if you happen to be in downtown Toronto this Friday the 18th with five bucks to spare, you can catch the premiere.

Seriously, go. It's not like you'll be missing anything here...

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Starfish tp ETA?

I know this is a long shot, but I don't suppose anyone out there knows when the trade paper edition of Starfish is due for release? A search on Tor's website turns up nothing.

Yes, I've asked them directly. Repeatedly. I actually brought it up twice in my last e-mail, which netted the response Yes, we're rereleasing Starfish. Not that I wasn't happy to hear this — ever since they pulled SF from its original 2006 slot I've wondered whether it had really been "rescheduled" or simply abandoned — but it doesn't actually answer the question of when. And I know it must seem weird to resort to message-in-a-bottle tactics over such a basic query. But, you know. Tor.

So, anyone?


Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Uplift Protein

Neuropsin, that is. A prefrontal-cortex protein involved in learning and memory. There's this one variant that's peculiar to us Humans, 45 amino acids longer than the standard model handed out to other primates, and a team of Chinese researchers have just nailed the gene that codes for it. And the really cool part? Utterly ignoring all those some-things-man-was-not-meant-to-know types, they spliced the causal mutation into chimpanzee DNA, which then started to synthesise the type-II variant. No word yet on how far they let that stretch of code iterate. No word on how many months away we are from building chimps with human-scale intelligence.

The actual paper isn't out yet. But I'm really hoping my U of T library access is still active when Human Mutation prints the details.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007


I've just finished reading a draft of R. Scott Bakker's soon-to-be-released Neuropath. Holy shit.

The neurology of consciousness. The advantages of nonsentience. People neurologically stripped of their behavioral constraints so that they can make the necessary Big Decisions of life and death without getting caught up in touchy-feeling shackles like conscience and morality. All the major themes of Blindsight and a bunch of those from the rifters trilogy thrown in for good measure...

And does he stick them in a hard-sf spaceships-and-aliens chassis that only hardcore skiffy geeks will read? Does he locate his story in a future so close to the Singularity's event horizon that society itself has grown strange and forbidding to the average reader? Does he present his arguments through characters so twisted and specialised that most readers have no choice but to regard them as more alien than the aliens they encounter?

No. He sets it a mere decade into the future, in the context of a serial killer police procedural. Instead of aliens and freaks he uses sexy FBI agents and divorced psychologists. This guy is basically writing about Blindsight-type issues, but is aiming them squarely at a da Vinci Code audience. He is dealing with the same existential questions, but has rendered them accessible for beach readers. He has done exactly what I would have done, if only I'd been smart enough.

At least Blindsight came out first. I can cling to that. Because trust me: when Neuropath hits the shelves, it's gonna be "Peter who?"

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Saturday, May 5, 2007


You may have seen this already. It's been out for a few days now. And at first glance it's nothing special: technology controlled by brainwaves through an ECG electrode interface, which is so far behind the cutting edge that you'll be finding it in games before the end of the year. But check out this quote as to why, exactly, the military would even want to develop brain-activated binoculars:

The idea is that EEG can spot "neural signatures" for target detection before the conscious mind becomes aware of a potential threat or target ... In other words, like Spiderman's "spider sense," a soldier could be alerted to danger that his or her brain had sensed, but not yet had time to process.

So. Another end run around the prefrontal cortex in the name of speed and efficiency. I'm telling you, nobody likes the pointy-haired boss these days...

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

The anti-Moore's Law

Anyone who's read my fiction has probably figured out my perspective on life-support/environmental issues. I tend not to talk about such stuff here, not because I don't find it relevant or important, but because it's not new or cutting edge; the non-self-aggrandizing parts of this 'crawl serve as a kind of scratch pad for things I find challenging or thought-provoking in some way, and it's been a while since the science on habitat destruction, species loss, and climate change has done anything but reinforce grim conclusions decades old.

Today, though, I make an exception because of two items in juxtaposition: first, it turns out that the most pessimistic climate-change models were in fact way too naively cheerful, and that the Arctic icecap is melting three times faster than even Cassandra foresaw. And secondly, our ability to monitor such changes is declining thanks to decreasing investment in orbital earth-monitoring programs— to the point where satellites are actually becoming "less capable" over time. The technology is devolving.

And this is a little bit on the new side. Like all the other Children of Brunner, I always knew the place was turning to shit— but I'd at least hoped that technology would let us watch it happen in hi-def.

I keep saying it, but no one believes me: I'm an optimist...

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Consciousness, Learning, and Neurochips

I'm starting this new post both to take the weight off the old one (which is growing quite the tail-- maybe I should look into setting up a discussion forum or something), and also to introduce a new piece of relevent research. Razorsmile said

Conscious trains the subconscious until it is no longer needed..

And then Brett elaborated with

that could be how concious thought is adaptive. It doesn't do anything even remotely well, but it can do anything. It is the bridge between something you've never done before and something that you do on skill. which I'll say, sure, that's certainly how it seems subjectively. But I have three flies to stick in that ointment:

1. Given the existence of consciousness to start with, what else could it feel like? Supposing it wasn't actually learning anything at all, but merely observing another part of the brain doing the heavy lifting, or just reading an executive summary of said heavy lifting? It's exactly analogous to the "illusion of conscious will" that Wegner keeps talking about in his book: we think "I'm moving my arm", and we see the arm move, and so we conclude that it was our intent that drove the action. Except it wasn't: the action started half a second before we "decided" to move. Learning a new skill is pretty much the same thing as moving your arm in this context; if there's a conscious homunculus watching the process go down, it's gonna take credit for that process -- just like razorsmile and brett just did-- even if it's only an observer.

2. Given that there's no easy way to distinguish between true "conscious learning" and mere "conscious pointy-haired-boss taking credit for everyone else's work", you have to ask, why do we assume consciousness is essential for learning? Well, because you can't learn without being con--

Oh, wait. We have neural nets and software apps that learn from experience all the time. Game-playing computers learn from their mistakes. Analytical software studys research problems, designs experiments to address them, carry out their own protocols. We are surrounded by cases of intellects much simpler than ours, capable of learning without (as far as we know) being conscious.

3. Finally, I'd like to draw your attention to this paper that came out last fall in Nature. I link to the pdf for completists and techheads, but be warned— it's techy writing at its most opaque. Here are the essential points: they stuck neurochips into the brains of monkeys that would monitor a neuron here and send a tiny charge to this other neuron over there when the first one fired. After a while, that second neuron started firing the way the first one did, without further intervention from the chip. Basically, the chip forces the brain to literally rewire its own connections to spec, resulting in chages to way the monkeys move their limbs (the wrist, in this case).

They're selling it as a first step in rehabilitating people with spinal injuries, impaired motor control, that kind of thing. But there are implications that go far further. Why stop at using impulses in one part of the brain to reshape wiring in another? Why not bring your own set of input impulses to the party, impose your new patterns from an outside source? And why stop at motor control? A neuron is a neuron, after all. Why not use this trick to tweak the wiring responsible for knowledge, skills, declarative memory? I'm looking a little further down this road, and I'm seeing implantable expertise (like the "microsofts" in William Gibson's early novels). I'm looking a little further, and seeing implantable political opinions.

But for now, I've just got a question. People whose limbs can be made to move using transcranial magnetic stimulation sometimes report a feeling of conscious volition: they chose to move their hand, they insist, even though it's incontrovertible that a machine is making them jump. Other people (victims of alien hand syndrome, for example) watch their own two hands get into girly slap-fights with each other and swear they've been possessed by some outside force-- certainly they aren't making their hands act that way. So let's say we've got this monkey, ad we're rewiring his associative cortex with new information:

Does he feel as if he's learning in realtime? Can he feel crystalline lattices of information assembling in his head (to slightly misquote Gibson)? Or is the process completely unconscious, the new knowledge just there the next time it's needed?

I be we'd know a lot more about this whole consciousmess thing, if we knew the answer to that.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

"ßehemoth" set free

For the last couple of years I've been subjected to chronic whelming demand for a Creative Commons release of the final rifters novel. I am relieved to announce that "ßehemoth" went live as of 2a.m. this morning, over on the Backlist page. (The first bug fixes were up by around 11, so if you downloaded the html version before then you'll find hash where "°"s, "ß"s, and the like are supposed to be.)

This is actually something of a landmark. Now, officially, my entire oeuvre is out there for anyone to pillage. "ßehemoth", like my other CC releases, is available here as a pdf, zipped html file for convenient download, or as an eyeball-burning experience to be read online, right off the site. If precedent is anything to go on, others may well pitch in and translate into other formats — but they'll have to find out about it first so, you know. Spread the word. I've done my bit.

And yes, I am presenting the damn thing as originally intended before Tor's beancounters got ahold of it: as a single self-contained entity, not the miserable abortion that was ripped in half and then thrown at the market in two soggy severed chunks, months apart, the slashed stubs of tendons once responsible for balance, arc, and thematic symmetry quivering and necrotic.

You probably haven't noticed, but I'm still a wee bit bitter over that...


Friday, April 27, 2007

Blindsight (the malady, not the book): better than the other kind?

Now here's a fascinating study: turns out that victims of blindsight can see better than so-called "healthy" individuals. At least, one fellow with a patchy version of the condition was able to detect subtler visual cues in his blind field than in his sighted one. (Here's the original paper: here's a summary.) This suggests that certain "primitive" traits in our neurological evolution didn't so much disappear as get ground beneath the boots of more recent circuitry, and that — once released from those Johnny-come-lately overlays — they come off the leash. And primitive or not, they're better than what came after.

Or in other words, once again, the reptile brain could really shine if the pointy-haired homunculus would just get the hell out of the way.

I wrote a story back in the nineties with a similar punchline — that the hindbrain was still alive in its own right, still potentially autonomous, and that only after the neocortex had died was it able to wake up, look around, and scream in those last brief moments before it too expired. But now I'm thinking I didn't go far enough — because after all, who's to say the reptile brain has to die when the upper brain does? I mean sure, we've got the Terry Schiavos and the other fleshy rutabagas of the world, clusters of organs and bed sores on life support. But we've also got the schizophrenics, who hear voices and won't meet our eyes and whose frontal lobes are smaller than most would consider normal. And most frighteningly of all, we've got these other folks, people with heads full of fluid, mid- and hindbrains intact, cerebra reduced to paper-thin layers of neurons lining the insides of empty skulls — wandering through life as engineers and schoolteachers, utterly unaware of anything at all out of the ordinary until that fateful day when some unrelated complaint sends them into an MRI machine and their white-faced doctors say, Er, well, the good news is it can't be a brain tumor because...

There's a range, in other words. You don't need anywhere near a complete brain to function in modern society (in fact, there are many obvious cases in which having a complete brain seems to be an actual disadvantage). And in a basic survival sense, the ability to write and appreciate the music of Jethro Tull and do other "civilised" things aren't really that important anyway.

So now I'm thinking, tewwowist virus: something engineered to take out higher brain functions while leaving the primitive stuff intact. Something that eats away at your cognitive faculties and lets your inner reptile off the leash, something that strips your topheavy mind down to its essentials, something that speeds your reflexes and cranks your vision even as it takes the light from your eyes.

I'm thinking zombies. Not the shuffling Romero undead or the sentient philosopher's metaphor, not even the drug-addled brain-damaged pseudoresurrectees of the real-world Caribbean. I'm thinking something faster and more rigorous and more heartbreaking, far more dangerous and far tougher to kill, and I'm thinking hey, if I can do it for vampires...

I'm also thinking of writing another book.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"It's 20 light years away. We can go there."

Now that's the kind of attitude I like to see coming from a legitimate authority-- to wit, Dimitar Sasselov of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, quoted in today's NY Times. He was talking about Gliese 581c, a potentially earth-type planet orbiting a dim red dwarf in the constellation of Libra. 1.5 time Earth's radius; 5 times the mass. Mean temperature somewhere between 0 and 40°C, solidly in the Goldilocks Zone for liquid water. A type of planet thought by Sasselov to be not only congenial to life, but more congenial than Earth.

Of course, you probably know this already. It's on boingboing, after all, and Yahoo, and and Nature, and a thousand other websites. (Science, my usual go-to source for this kind of thing, is still asleep at the wheel as of this posting.) What you probably don't know, however, is that there's a pretty specific real-world connection between Gliese 581c and Blindsight.

You see, we don't really know all that much about 581c yet. We got a mass, and we got a distance-from-primary, and we got an orbital period (11 days), and we got all of that by watching Gliese 581 wobbling slightly as its planets tugged gravitationally on its sleeve. We don't even know if 581c has an atmosphere, and if so, whether it's closer to ours or Venus's.

But there are plans to find out, and they involve the use of a suitcase-sized Canadian satellite called MOST (also known as "The Humble", by virtue of its teensy dinner-plate of a mirror). Despite its small physical size, MOST is well-suited for picking up the atmospheric signatures of extrasolar planets, and it'll be turning its glassy eye towards Libra in the near future. The Principle Investigator behind the MOST is a guy name of Jaymie Matthews, who acted as my unpaid astrophysics consultant (well, paid in pizza and beer, I guess) for Blindsight.

And now, after helping me chase aliens through my own brainstem, he's gonna be looking for real ones at Gliese 581. How cool is that?

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Another Step Towards the Maelstrom

Those of you who read Maelstrom might remember what that book was named for: the frenetic chainsaw fast-forward jungle that the Internet had evolved into, infested by the virtual predators and parasites that evolved after we gave genes to spambots and let them breed at 50 generations/sec. (Those of you who didn't read Maelstrom can still give it a shot, if you're up for the challenge.) Here's another benchmark on the way to that future: net bots competing for host machines to zombify, repairing the security holes that they themselves exploited so that competitors can't get in the same way. Imagine a beast that actually installs necessary Windows patches onto your machine-- but only after it's already built anest behind your firewall. It's vaguely reminiscent of those male insects with genitals that look like pedestals of dental instruments: once they inseminate the female, they secrete a kind of crazy glue and spatula it over her genital pore to keep competitors from messing with their sperm. Or the even cooler (albeit possibly apocryphal) case of reproductive homosexual rape in hanging flies; the really successful males don't even bother to inseminate females directly, they bugger other males. Their sperm then migrate to the gonads of their victim, and when said victim finally makes it with a female, he inseminates her with the sperm of the male who raped him. (More than one clergyman has told me that you can learn a lot about the mind of God by studying His creations. I wonder what they'd make of these guys.)

Of course, this is still special creation, not evolution. The bots are intelligently designed; nobody's given them genes yet (or perhaps the coders themselves are a kind of "extended genotyope", albeit a Lamarkian one. Life always hits you upside the head with this recursive chicken/egg stuff whenever you look too closely.) (Hey-- maybe there's a story in that...)

Still, it's another step in the right direction. It's part of the arms race. Only a matter of time before someone figures out that a random number generator and a tilt bit here and there can unleash these things to evolve on their own, without always having to get respawned from the shop.

Personally, I think they're taking way too long. I can hardly wait to see what happens.

(Thanks to Raymond Neilson and Alistair Blachford for the link.)

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Relief, Request, Reviews

Okay, well, somebody's out there. And you care. So far so good.

But can anyone tell me how to thread comments in Blogger? All I seem able to do is paste comments onto the bottom of the stack; I can't seem to post a comment in direct response to someone else's comment. There must be a way-- it happens in LJ all the time-- but I can't find reference to it on any of the Blogger help boards. Maybe I'm using the wrong keywords.

A couple more Blindsight reviews in the hopper. Alma Hromik over at SF Site finds the novel "brilliant" enough, and its ascension to Hugo nomineehood "inevitable" (which shows far more faith in it than I ever had), but can't really warm to it for all that. The ol' unsympathetic-characters problem again. And what can I say? It's a fair cop (although I do wish people found Siri a bit cuddlier than they seem to...)

Now over here we got a review by one Toni Jerrman, and I have to take his word that it's a rave because it's all in Finnish. But that's cool. The guys at Tähtivaeltaja have liked me since way back before anyone else even knew I existed; they even interviewed me after Starfish came out. So when they say that I "syöksyy ensi yrityksellään kovan avaruus-scifin eturintamaan", well, I can only shuffle my feet and thank them for the compliment.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Blindsight: Locus Finalist

Oh, yeah. Blindsight is evidently a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Novel. Once again, I am in august company: losing to any of these folks, I would not feel jilted.

What makes this nomination especially sweet for me is that Blindsight was evidently a write-in candidate-- at least, I've been told by a voter that my novel was not initially on the list of eligible candidates, that he had to enter it manually in the "oh, and any other book you think might be worthy" field. I can't vouch for this first-hand-- I wasn't there-- but it seems plausible in light of the fact that Locus never actually reviewed the book. So in this case at least, being nominated is more than an honor. It's a fucking victory.


Meet the New Blog. Same as the Old Blog.

Fact is, this is kind of a risk for me. One of the reasons I never went for a real blog before now was the whole Comments thing; I've seen too many bloggers ranting endlessly in the wilderness, day after day, the same fat goose-egg of "Zero Comments" lurking beneath each post to underscore just how little anyone cares. People told me I should run a blog, and their arguments were sound-- but I had no desire to advertise my complete and utter irrelevance with an unfilled comments queue. Nor did I wish to draw attention to my insecurity by explicitly disabling comments. The ol' newscrawl was a good compromise: if people wanted to comment, they could damn well write me an e-mail.

And they bloody well did. And I've been falling behind in my correspondence ever since. So now I can either continue to fall behind, or resort to one of those lameass form-letter responses-- or lighten up on the Comments issue, so that folks have an alternate avenue of approach and I can answer the same question once instead of many times. So that's what I'm doing. This is the New scrawl. And I promise to be be every bit as lackadaisical in its upkeep as I was with the other one.

But if I don't get any comments, the whole damn thing is liable to come down. I have a fragile ego.

It's up to you.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Called Worse Things By Better People

I seem to be a scab. By giving my stories and novels away for free, I'm stealing bread from the mouths of all those those hardworking fellow scribes who are trying to make a real living at storytelling. It must be true, because I read it on the web.

Normally, of course, one would barely notice such a waste of ascii — drivel is bound to be everywhere on a continent where over half the population believes in angels, for chrissakes — except that this particular rant was posted by Howard Hendrix, the vice-president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. And given that he was democratically elected to his position, it follows that if his feelings don't reflect those of SFWA's membership, they must at least reflect that membership's inability to choose a competent spokesperson.

John Scalzi has already dissected Hendrix's fallacious arguments with his usual relentless skill, all the while keeping a far more civil tongue in his head than I ever could. Charlie Stross has been among those to find fault with Hendrix's inflammmatory and utterly inaccurate use of the term "scab" itself (although I can't find the appropriate link at the moment). Jo Walton has declared April 23rd "International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day", on which all and sundry are encouraged to post their writings from trivial to profound online, gratis, just to piss this reactionary Hendrix doofus off. I myself was one of those approached by Galleycat for my reaction, but since the story they ran only quoted a couple of lines, I thought I'd give you the unabridged verbiage here:

I was actually unaware that Howard Hendrix had written the various novels, essays, and short stories posted on my website. I could have sworn that I had written them, and that the only person I could be accused of undercutting would be myself. The only alternative is that Hendrix regards authors as so utterly interchangeable that a public posting of "Atlas Shrugged" would, for example, somehow compromise sales of "Harry Potter and the Overdue Bitch-Slap". It seems unlikely that anyone possessed of such idiotic perspectives could ever have been elected to the vice-presidency of any body so august as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America— or at least, if he was, it certainly doesn't reflect well on SFWA's choices.

Then again— these days, what does?

Moving on. I am tickled by these strangely Victorian elves, and honored to be lampooned in the same panels as the vastly better-known Charlie Stross. When someone can drop your name into a scenario with the obvious expectation that most of their readership will get the joke, either that writer is delusional or this one actually has some kind of public profile. And "ice-water enema" is one of those almost Nicollesque quotes that I dearly wish Tor would use as a blurb on Blindsight. (Assuming, of course, that I could get Tor to actually put any blurbs on Blindsight that weren't for some other title entirely...)

Finally, I'm pleased to announce that David Nickle, frequently cited in this column and the man most directly responsible for many of the things you don't like about my writing, has at long last, and after much prodding, constructed his own web site. It's still in its early stages, but is nonetheless rife with style, wit, and generally better prose than you're likely to find here. I recommend it highly.