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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