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.