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.