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, 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?
www.scienceblogs.com 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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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.