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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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 media@ec.gc.ca 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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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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Thursday, April 17, 2008

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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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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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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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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Friday, January 25, 2008

"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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Friday, December 21, 2007

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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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.


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, 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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