Squids With Tasers.

A simple experiment, a famous fish. Electric eels, shocking their prey. Nothing to see here, right?

“The mechanism of the eel’s attack is unknown”, Kenneth Catania states right off the top in his new paper in Science, and I admit I shrugged and thought What’s to know? What’s so mysterious about electrocution?

But it turns out there’s a subtlety, a nuance to Electrophorus electricus’s attacks that nobody suspected until now. (Yes, Electrophorus. Not only does this fish have the powers of a Marvel superhero, she’s got a name that’s every bit as hokey.)

Electric eels hunt kind of like this.

“A signal, Commander!” “We have him. Move toward him.”
Electric eels hunt kind of like this.

Catania’s experimental setup was surprisingly low-tech: basically, coax an eel into firing her weapons by feeding her worms, while monitoring neuromuscular activity inside pithed fish placed nearby (but still deep in the shock zone). It yielded some very nifty insights, though. For one thing, Electrophorus doesn’t just use her superpower to kill prey; she uses it to detect that prey beforehand. She sends a low-voltage tickle through the water that mimics fish-motor-neuron commands, tricks her victim’s muscles into a twitch response. The prey jerks; that movement generates a pressure wave that the eel can lock onto (think of sharks, drawn to the signature thrashing of wounded prey; think of a submarine, patiently pinging for enemy contacts). Only then, with her target in the crosshairs, does Electrophorus fire the big guns: packs of modified muscle tissue punching 600 volts through the water, turning the target into one big clenching charlie-horse to be scooped up at leisure.

We’re not just talking about muscles frying in an electrical field, or just sticking your tongue into a light socket. This is far more sophisticated. The muscle contractions don’t occur unless the motor neurons controlling them are active. It’s the neurons, not the muscles, that are being targeted. What we have here is a strategy that precisely and remotely hacks the prey’s nervous system, planting an explicit self-destruct command that throws the whole body into tetanus.

From Catania 2004.

If you don’t find this deeply cool, you shouldn’t be reading this blog. And if I can’t find a way to use this, then I shouldn’t be writing it.

Fortunately I can think of two ways. This remote-firing of neurons reminds me of the “ephaptic coupling” some of you may have noticed in Echopraxia‘s endnotes, in which neurons are induced to fire not by direct synaptic stimulation but by diffuse electrical fields generated elsewhere in the brain. I invoked it as a mechanism for the Bicameral hive-mind interface— but this whole eel-zap strategy could serve a similar function if harnessed for good instead of evil (especially if the Hive happens to be hanging out in a hot tub). So maybe Electrophorus will get a walk-on part in Omniscience.

That’s small potatoes, though. Regular visitors will know that my next novel (as things stand now, at least) is going to involve genetically-engineered giant squids attacking Petrocan wellheads in a melting Arctic. They already pack some cool modifications: kidneys that double as batteries, generating current along the ionic gradient in the nephridium. Weird membranous structures, like some kind of diffuse body-spanning eardrum tuned way down to the 5Hz range: an organic acoustic modem, sensitive to low-frequency rumbles that could cross an ocean.

Would it not be awesome to equip them also with remote neuron-hacking battery packs that could take down— or even better, commandeer—other life forms at 200 meters?

Squids with tasers. I’m telling you, Intelligent Design is looking better and better.

Interstellar and my Inner Anti-Abortionist.

Let’s start this review by warning you all that major spoilers follow. Then let’s talk about abortion.

If I squint really hard, I can sort of see how someone possessed of a belief in an immortal soul— and further, that it slides down the chute the moment some lucky sperm achieves penetration— might hold an antiabortion stance on the grounds that they’re protecting Sacred Human Life. What I can’t see is how that stance would be in any way compatible with actively denying the means to prevent such life from being jeopardized in the first place. And yet— assuming the stats haven’t changed since I last looked in on them— the majority of those who unironically refer to themselves as “pro-Life” not only oppose abortion, but birth control and sex education as well.

You can’t reasonably describe such a suite of beliefs as “pro Life”. You can’t even reasonably describe them as “anti-abortion”. What they are is anti-sex. These people just don’t want us fucking except under their rules, and if we insist on making our own we should damn well pay the price. We deserve that STD. We should be forced to carry that pregnancy to term, to give up the following two decades of our lives— not because new life is a sacred and joyous thing, but because it is onerous and painful, a penalty for breaking the rules. We should suffer. We should live to regret our wanton animalistic shortsightedness. It is galling to think that we might just skip gaily off into the sunset, postcoitally content, unburdened by the merest shred of guilt. There should be consequences.

Movies like Interstellar serve as an uncomfortable reminder that maybe I have more in common with those assholes than I’d like to admit.

*

In a market owned by genre, where every second movie is crammed to the gills with spaceships and aliens (or, at the very least, plucky young protagonists dishing out Truth to Power), Interstellar aspires to inspire.  It explicitly sets out to follow in the footsteps of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It wants to make you think, and wonder.

It succeeds, too. It makes me wonder how it could fall so far short of a movie made half a century ago.

This is not to say that Interstellar is a bad movie. It actually has significantly more on the ball than your average 21rst-century genre flick (although granted, that’s a much lower bar to clear than the one Kubrick presented). The dust-bowl vistas of a dying Earth evoke the sort of grim desolation we used to get from John Brunner’s environmental dytopias, and— most of the time, anyway—  Interstellar shows a respect for science comparable to that evident in Gravity and 2001.

This part was pretty cool.

This part was pretty cool.

Admittedly, my delight at seeing space presented as silent has more to do with the way decades of Hollywood crap have hammered down my own expectations than it does with any groundbreaking peaks of verisimilitude; it’s not as though every school kid doesn’t know there’s no sound in a vacuum. On the other hand, the equations Interstellar‘s FX team used to render the lensing effects around Gargantua, the movie’s black hole— equations derived by theoretical physicist-and-science-consultant Kip Thorne— have provided the basis for at least one astrophysics paper here in the real world, an accomplishment that would make Arthur C. Clarke jealous. The hole was carefully parameterized to let our protags do what the plot required without being spaghettified or cooked by radiation. The physics of space travel and Gargantua’s relativistic extremes are, I’m willing to believe, plausibly worked out.  So much of the science seems so much better than we have any right to expect from a big-budget blockbuster aimed at the popcorn set.

Why, then, does the same movie that gets the physics of event horizons right also ask us to believe that icebergs float unsupported in the clouds of alien worlds? How can the same movie that shows such a nuanced grasp of the gravity around black holes serve up such a face-palming portrayal of gravity around planets? And even if we accept the premise of ocean swells the size of the Himalayas (Thorne himself serves up some numbers that I’m sure as shit not going to dispute), wouldn’t such colossal formations be blindingly obvious from orbit? Wouldn’t our heroes have seen them by just looking out the window on the way down?  How dumb do you have to be to let yourself get snuck up on by a mountain range?

Almost as dumb, perhaps, as you’d be to believe that “love” is some kind of mysterious cosmic force transcending time and space, even though you hold a doctorate in biology.

"Love is a— you're joking, right? Please tell me you're fucking joking.

“Love is a— you’re joking, right? Please tell me you’re fucking joking.”

You’re probably already aware of the wails and sighs that arose from that particular gaffe. Personally, I didn’t find it as egregious as I expected—at least Amelia Brand’s inane proclamation was immediately rebutted by Cooper’s itemization of the mundane social-bonding functions for which “love” is a convenient shorthand. It was far from a perfect exchange, but at least the woo did not go unchallenged. What most bothered me about that line— beyond the fact that anyone with any scientific background could deliver it with a straight face— was the fact that it had to be delivered by Anne Hathaway. If we’re going to get all mystic about the Transcendent Power of Lurve, could we a least invert the cliché a bit by using a male as the delivery platform?

The world that contains Interstellar is far more competent than the story it holds. It was built by astrophysicists and engineers, and it is a thing of wonder. The good ship Endurance, for example, oozes verisimilitude right down to the spin rate. Oddly, though, the same movie also shows us a civilization over a century into the future— a whole species luxuriating in the spacious comfort of a myriad O’Neil cylinders orbiting Saturn— in which the medical technology stuck up Murphy Cooper’s nose hasn’t changed its appearance since 2012. (Compare that to 2001, which anticipated flatscreen tech so effectively that it got cited in Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung half a century later.) (Compare it also to Peter Hyam’s inferior sequel 2010, in which Discovery‘s flatscreens somehow devolved back into cathode-ray-tubes during its decade parked over Io.)

Why such simultaneous success and failure of technical extrapolation in the same movie? I can only assume that the Nolans sought out expert help to design their spaceships, but figured their own vision would suffice for the medtech. Unfortunately, their vision isn’t all it could be.

This is the heart of the problem.  Interstellar soars when outsourced; only when the Nolans do something on their own does it suck. The result is a movie in which the natural science of the cosmos is rendered with glorious mind-boggling precision, while the people blundering about within it are morons.  NASA happens to be set up just down the road from the only qualified test pilot on the continent— a guy who’s friends with the Mission Director, for Chrissakes— yet nobody thinks to just knock on his door and ask for a hand. No, they just sit there through years of R&D until cryptic Talfamadorians herd Cooper into their clutches by scribbling messages in the dirt.  Once the mission finally achieves liftoff,  Endurance‘s crew can’t seem to take a dump without explaining to each other what they’re doing and why. (Seriously, dude? You’re a bleeding-edge astronaut on a last-ditch Humanity-saving mission through a wormhole, and you didn’t even know what a wormhole looked like until someone explained it to you while you were both staring at the damn thing through your windshield?)

You could argue that the Nolans don’t regard their characters as morons so much as they regard us that way; some of this might  be no more than clunky infodumping delivered for our benefit.  If so, they apparently think we’re just as dumb about emotional resonance and literary allusion as we are about the technical specs on black holes.  Michael Caine has to hammer home the same damn rage against the dying of the light stanza on three separate occasions, just in case it might slip under our radar.

And yet, Interstellar came so close in some ways.  The sheer milk-out-the-nose absurdity of a project to lift billions of people off-planet turns out to be, after all, just a grand lie to motivate short-sighted human brain stems— until Murphy Cooper figures out how to do it for real after all.  Amelia Brand’s heartbroken, irrational description of love as some kind of transcendent Cosmic Force, invoked in a desperate bid to reunite with her lost lover and instantly shot down by Cooper’s cooler intellect—  until Cooper encounters the truth of those idiot beliefs in the heart of a black hole.  Time and again, Interstellar edges toward the Cold Equations, only to chicken out when the chips are down.

*

But the thing that most bugs me about this movie— the thing that comes closest to offending me, although I can’t summon anywhere near that much intensity— was something I knew going in, because it’s right there in the tag line on every advance promo, every Coming-Soon poster:

The end of the Earth will not be the end of us.

 Or

Mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here.

Or

We were not meant to save the Earth.  We were meant to leave it.

Which all comes down to

Let’s trash the place, then skip out and stick everyone else with the bill.

Check your technosapiens privilege, asshole.

Check your technosapiens privilege, asshole.

This is where I finally connect with my inner antiabortionist.  Because I, too, think you should pay for your sins. I think that if you break it, you damn well own it; and if your own short-sighted stupidity has killed off your life-support system, it’s only right and proper that that you suffer, that you sink into the quagmire along with the other nine million species your appetites have condemned to extinction. There should be consequences.

And yet, even in the face of Interstellar‘s objectionable political stance— baldly stated, unquestioned, and unapologetic—  I can only bristle, not find fault. Because this is perhaps the one time the Nolan sibs got their characters right.  Shitting all over the living room rug and leaving our roommates to deal with the mess? That’s exactly what we’d do, if we could get away with it.

Besides. When all is said and done, this was still a hell of a lot better than Prometheus.

Posted in: ink on art, reviews by Peter Watts 77 Comments

David and the Goliaths.

Perhaps the saddest, most telling indictment of our current political administration is that even after the drone strikes, the executive murders, the ongoing suppression of torture reports, the all-engulfing phagocytosis of the surveillance state— basically, a Human Rights record so abysmal that even Dubya might flush with shame—  we Canadians can still look south of the border and wish we were led by the likes of Barack Obama.

At least Obama doesn’t muzzle his own scientists. At least his administration doesn’t strangle research programs in the crib on ideological grounds, or fight tooth and nail against the slightest effort to mitigate climate change (he has Congress to do that for him). At least Obama has the balls and the fluency to weather interviews that extend beyond the comfy restrictions of tightly-scripted photo ops.

There is, however, at least one area in which The US and Canadian governments see eye to eye. The US wants to extort money from Canadian citizens. The Harper administration wants to help them do that.

You can tell both of them to take a flying fuck at a rolling donut, if you’re so inclined.

*

Somewhere between one and two decades ago— in the midst of a relationship which has long-since ended— I first met Gwen and Kevin, a couple who were friends with my then-partner.  If you ran into them on the street you’d figure they were almost too good to be true; co-owners of a successful graphics design company they ran out of their home, both smart, both ridiculously charismatic. Gwen was hot; Kevin looked like a Navy Seal from a martial arts movie.

We called them “Gwevin”.

I fell out of touch when my partner and I split up— the last time I ran into Gwevin was at a book launch way back in 2008. We caught up a bit, friended each other on facebook, mutually liked the occasional link. That was about it. For the next six years I had no idea what either of them was up to.

That changed last summer, although I didn’t realize it at the time.

*

Like any fading imperial power, the US has a tendency to bite off more than it can chew. After a global meltdown precipitated by the deregulation of their financial institutions, a couple of unnecessary wars that continue to go about as well as could  be expected, and an ongoing smattering of police actions designed to plaster over the resulting cracks in the middle east, the royal treasury is apparently running a bit low. There are a couple of ways The IRS can boost tax revenues to make this up. They could, for example, stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, or increase taxes on the 0.1%. Alternatively, they can redefine as “US Persons” a bunch of unsuspecting little people who’ve lived their whole lives in other countries, then present them with a bill for taxes owed stretching all the way back to the fucking Paleolithic.

Guess which option they chose.

*

I first started paying attention to this in early 2014, when my eye was caught by the anomalous fact of the CBC and the Global & Mail actually agreeing on something. Turns out the NSA hasn’t quite got the whole global surveillance thing down pat just yet. They’re not up for extracting the private financial records of Canadian citizens on their own— or maybe they are, but it’s just easier to order our banks to hand over their lunch money on threat of getting the shit beaten out of them. In this case, said shit-kicking comes down to punitive financial penalties on all US activities if the banks don’t play ball, enshrined in a piece of legislation called FATCA. Two governments push; the banks go over like a pile of bricks; Harper’s henchmen collect the financial records of a few million private citizens and, tail wagging vigorously, passes it all on to Uncle Sam.

Lest you think that we’re only talking about a few rich Americans hiding out in Yellowknife to avoid the taxman, let me disabuse you: we’re talking about anyone the IRS defines as a “US Person”. That does include rich tax evaders, of course. It also includes children born in US hospitals to Canadian parents, even if those children never subsequently set foot south of the 49th. It includes people who were not born in the US and who never lived there, so long as they were pupped by Americans. In includes the Canadian spouses of Americans. Hell, my Dad— born, raised, and retired in Canada— might have been caught up in that net if he was still alive. My late brother, a US citizen, handled Dad’s finances in his declining years, and any citizen who has such financial connections with a US citizen becomes— you guessed it— a “US Person”.

A lot of these poor bastards didn’t know they were US people. It never occurred to them. A lot probably still don’t. Those waking up to demands for a few decades of back tax returns can, if they want, renounce their default US Citizenship.  Only catch is, the IRS has— coincident with the implementation of this new policy—  just jacked up the processing fees from four hundred dollars and change to well over two thousand. Then you have to file five years of back tax returns anyway, and six years of foreign bank account data on all accounts exceeding ten grand; those fees can cost you up to twenty grand. IRS demands capital gains tax on your Canadian home. Canadian retirement plans? Taxed. And you could face up to ten years in jail just for failing to file the paperwork.

One way or another, those fuckers are gonna squeeze you.

This past summer I read about a couple of women who’d launched a legal challenge on constitutional grounds— not to the US policy per sé, but to the Harper government’s eager collaboration therewith. These people took a dim view of the idea that foreign governments should be able to dictate the domestic policy of other countries, even if those countries are lapdogs. (The fact that the US has been routinely doing just that for generations is beside the point.) These people were of the opinion that FATCA violated the Constitution as well as the privacy of Canadian citizens. I had no idea who they were— I got the impression that at least one of them was keeping anonymous for fear of bureaucratic reprisal— but I wished them well. It was only a few days ago, when one of them gave me a nudge on facebook, that I finally blinked away the cobwebs.

Hello, Gwenny.

*

David and Goliath doesn’t even come close. It might, if Gwen Deegan and Ginny Hillis were only going up against the one federal government they’re taking to court. But there’s another  Goliath lurking in the shadows, vaster and darker and so much more dangerous than the pallid spiteful fish-faced lapdog yapping on its behalf.  This is David and the Goliaths, and holy shit is it going to cost.

These people need your help. They need your money. I’m giving them some of mine, and I implore you to go thou and do likewise. In exchange— just maybe, acting together— we can kill two turds with one stone.

Wouldn’t it be glorious, to see the good guys win for a change?

Posted in: rant, scilitics by Peter Watts 29 Comments

Shapeshifter.

My most recently published story, a bit of neouromil  that appears in Neil Clarke’s cyborg anthology Upgraded, contains the following passage:

Monahan had inventoried Sabrie’s weak spots as if he’d been pulling the legs off a spider. …  Not into performance rage, doesn’t waste any capital getting bent out of shape over random acts of microaggression. Smart enough to save herself for the big stuff. Which is why she still gets to soapbox on the prime feeds while the rest of the rabies brigade fights for space on the public microblogs.

A couple of phrases— “performance rage”, “rabies brigade”— were consciously inspired by my 2012 dust-up with an online shapeshifter who, at that point in her career anyway, went by the names “AcrackedMoon” and “Requires Hate”. At the time I got a fair bit of blowback for my use of the phrase “rabid animal” to describe her; Cat Valente equated my use of that term with a death threat, slung against a woman who was, she told me, “vibrantly engaging” with the SFF community. (There is an irony to this; its magnitude will be old news to most of those assembled here today.)

RequiresHate and Me, Together Again.

RequiresHate and Me, Together Again.

Funny story.  The piece immediately preceding mine in that same anthology was penned by a bright new up-and-comer named Benjanun Sriduangkaew: lauded in progressive SF circles, Campbell Award nominee, by her own admission a newcomer to the field who hadn’t even dipped a toe into the genre prior to 2011. Bright of eye, bushy of tail, her biggest flaw seemed to be a disposition so sugary sweet it would rot your pancreas from thirty paces.

Turns out Benjanun Sriduangkaew and CrackedMoon/RequiresHate are the same person. So are Winterfox, pyrofennec, and Christ knows how many other online personae.

Benjanun-This-Week has been very busy over a number of years, wearing a number of guises. She has stalked, harassed, and threatened. Some of her actions have proven actionable, to the point that authorities are now apparently involved.  She drove at least one person to attempt suicide, has induced PTSD symptoms in a number of others. She has told people who disagree with her that they should be raped by dogs, dismembered, and/or have acid thrown in their faces. She habitually deleted these comments shortly after making them, then gaslighted her targets (fortunately there are archives, and screenshots).

She got caught last month— outed by an advocate in a self-declared act of damage control—  and has since “apologized”. Apparently all that prior nastiness was just youthful indiscretion during the thirteen years when she was nineteen, and is now ancient history.  She feels much better now. She’s learned a lot about love. So if you’ll just believe her good intentions and let her get on with her career, we can all let bygones be bygones.  Also I have some farmland to sell you on the Sea of Storms.

The initial outing raised a bit of a storm in its own right, but it was only the opening act. The curtain on the main event went up November 6, when engineer and author Laura J. Mixon posted a comprehensive report— amazingly comprehensive, given RH’s tendency to cover her own tracks— drawing together records from as many varied incarnations as we know of to date.  Mixon presents timelines, quotes, links, demographic breakdowns of RH’s targets. Bar graphs and pie charts and tables. It’s a trove, and it’s indispensable, and it contains a wealth of links to a variety of other sources. (For that reason, I’ll be relatively sparse with my own linkage in this post.  Just go to Mixon’s page and follow the spiderweb of cracks proliferating across the internet. If I make a claim here that isn’t link-supported, you’ll probably find the documentation over at Mixon’s place.)

Mixon offered her comments section as a safe place for people to speak about their own experiences with the Winterfox Colony Creature. My own case was cited a couple of times (as one of the few honest reflections of RH’s true nature, since she couldn’t employ her usual strategy of deleting her comments and then denying she’d ever made them). I haven’t posted there myself. Partly this is because Mixon wanted to maintain an environment free of angry epithets and name-calling, even when directed at RequiresHate, and I’m not in the mood to practice such charitable restraint. More importantly, though, I don’t think it’s really my place to speak there because I’m not one of RH’s victims. I was a minor target for a while, but only because I spoke out in defense of a colleague. RH didn’t even know who I was until I mentioned her on my own blog. I was, as they say, asking for it.

The blowback pissed me off, at the time. I readily admit that much.  It pissed me off to see Valente blatantly misrepresent what I’d said, it pissed me off to get a lecture on the  power imbalance between Powerful White Authors and Poor Vulnerable Fans in a world where five minutes with Google reveals my home address to any anonymous darling who wants to take a rusty meathook to my scrotum.  (Being called a racist by someone who publicly rhapsodizes about “killing all white people”, on the other hand, was just funny.) Caitlin will attest that I wasn’t very nice to be around sometimes.

Still, anger isn’t injury. I wasn’t victimized, wasn’t driven from the field. If the righteous outrage of RH’s minions cost me any sales, I didn’t notice it. On balance it may have even been a good thing; at the very least, episodes like that show you who your friends are. (Richard Morgan, for one: a truly honorable dude who dived into the muck and engaged RH on her own blog, something I never had the stomach for.)  (You also learn about the fair-weather opportunists in your life; turns out there were a few of those, too.)

I was targeted, but I wasn’t a primary target. And that’s the curious thing: not even Scott Bakker was a primary target, not when you came right down to it. What both of us probably were, it turns out, was camouflage. We privileged white dudes provided cover so that RequiresHate could go after her real victims: Minorities. People of Color. Aspiring writers. People who, to put not too fine a point on it, might be considered competitors of one Benjanun Sriduangkaew.

It is at this point one has to stand back and emit an appreciative whistle for the sheer sick sociopathic brilliance of Benjanun’s Long Con.

Go, if you haven’t already. Look at Mixon’s figures. See for yourself.  The fact that RH occasionally went after the Bakkers and Bacigalupis of the world let her claim that she was Speaking Truth To Power, but in fact People of Color were four times more likely to be targeted than us privileged white boys.  Four times more likely to be hounded across every social media site they appeared at over months, sometimes years. More likely to be told that they should have acid thrown in their faces, or raped by dogs, or have their hands cut off.  A lot more likely to be considered insufficiently Asian, or “white on the inside”.  (Although to be fair, arguing that Paolo Bacigalupi should be flayed, dismembered, immersed in acid, set alight, and forced to eat his own genitals goes to show that RH wasn’t exactly phoning in her assault on the big names, either).

Now go read the comments below the report (461 as I write this). Read the first-hand testimonials of people hounded relentlessly for the crime of liking a book that RH didn’t. Read about the blackmail and the death threats. Read the stories of those who left fandom entirely, abandoned their own authorial aspirations, dared not speak out for fear of catching the baleful Eye of a CrackedMoon. People who could barely even see the word “Requires” on a computer screen without feeling sick to their stomach.

Those are your targets.

It’s been suggested that if RH really is a sociopath, she can’t be held accountable for her behavior because it’s hardwired. This is factually wrong. Sociopaths are not compelled to do horrible things. They’re simply not constrained from doing those things by anything we’d recognize as a conscience. They can choose to hurt the innocent, or not to; the fundamental difference between them and us is, if they choose the former it won’t really bother them.

As I mentioned above, I caught some flack back in 2012 for referring to RH as a “rabid animal”. I intended it as a precise echo of the sort of invective RH was slinging at others for no good reason (in fact the very next sentence was “See what I did there,” followed by an explicit rumination on dehumanising terminology)— but in hindsight I do regret my use of the term. Rabies victims truly do have no choice; their foamy-mouthed aggression is compelled by their affliction. RH is clearly not in that camp. I apologize to all rabid animals for the comparison.

Anyway. The news has spread like Ebolaphobia. It’s on too many blogs to link to. It’s all over the Westeros boards.  It’s also being discussed behind the scenes, in online writers communities where the shell-shocked share their stories behind closed doors— because even now, they don’t feel safe speaking openly.

Requires Hate still has friends, you see. Her legions have thinned somewhat as former allies scramble to cover their asses but she still has supporters, even if they might not all describe themselves as such. Some grumble at ground level, some huddle all the way up in the hallowed halls of Tor.com (where apparently they helped to blacklist and exclude authors of whom RH disapproved). [Editorial clarification: it’s been pointed out that this might be construed as an indictment  of Tor.com as an entity entire. I’d like to make it super clear that I’m only talking about someone affiliated with Tor.com, not any kind of corporate policy.  I have no reason to believe that Tor.com blacklisted anyone; we’re talking a standard bad-apple scenario here. Again, check out Mixon’s post for details, and apologies if I wasn’t clear on that point.) The usual outgroup rhetoric continues, oddly oblivious to the recent stark evidence of where such groupthink leads; Mixon’s  analysis has even been questioned on the grounds that it was performed by a privileged white woman. Apologists still mill about, decapitated since RH went to ground but still sparking fitfully with the same reflex-arc clichés.

Some would have us draw a distinction between RH’s abuses and her “legitimate” literary critiques, as if somehow there might remain a kernel of edible corn buried in all the shit. They don’t seem bothered by the fact that said “reviews” were often based on publisher’s blurbs, or quotes mined and presented out of context; I guess they’re also cool with the fact that RH bragged openly about not having read the books she critiqued.  It’s increasingly evident that book reviews for their own sake were never part of the plan anyway; they were just another bile-delivery platform, another iteration of patterned abuse extending back years before she ever discovered the joys of hacking social-justice paradigms for fun and profit— repurposed, now, to take out the competition. Perhaps a valid insight did slip through every now and then; as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Others opine that RH, wearing her saccharine new Benjanun costume, should continue to get her stories published based solely on their literary merit. (Let’s put aside for the moment that “merit” exists at least partly in relation to other work in the same field, a metric which might be compromised after said field has been burned to the ground in a campaign to eliminate potential competitors.) I’ll admit that there is sometimes a case to be made for separating the art from the artist.  This is not one of those times. This is not a case of a brilliant writer who happens to be an abusive shitstain in some unrelated aspect of their personal life; this is someone being an abusive shitstain as a deliberate strategy to further her writing career. Arguing that that career should be decoupled from past abuses is like catching the guy who stole your car, then letting him keep it because you like the way he drives.

Still others mourn the enablers, revile RH but sympathize with the eager minions she recruited in her campaign of abuse and intimidation. Not their fault, we’re told; RH merely hacked the progressive paradigm of “punching up”, turned it to evil instead of good. And after all, she made some good points.

I fell for this myself, briefly: back in 2012, when a couple of ‘crawl regulars ran the “some good points” argument up the flagpole. So I dialed back my rhetoric, asked you all to do the same, even tried to engage RH directly until she sprang the trap. But even I figured it out after a day or two, and I live in a nerdly bubble way over in the Science-is-Cool wing of the SFF mansion (which might be a problem; maybe I should get out more). I hardly ever stray across the quad to Social Commentary, where everyone’s presumably way more familiar with these moves.

“Punching up”? The premise, to me, seems corrupt at its heart. If someone walks into a pub and swings a crowbar at the first person they see, it doesn’t matter which one of them is a poor queer WoC and which is a rich straight white dude. It doesn’t matter whether the assailant is punching up, out, or down; they’ve got no claim to outrage if the target punches back. (Note this only applies if the targeting algorithm lights up indiscriminately, based solely on demographic profile. If you’re targeting the specific rich straight white dude who assaulted you the day before, I won’t get in your way.)

Apparently, RH was adept at positioning herself “below” pretty much anyone she wanted to punch. She’d deride a target as being white, and therefore privileged/punchable.  If the target turned out to be Asian, RH would redefine herself as “Asian-Asian” and her target as “white inside”. (I’m not joking. I know it sounds like I am. Read Mixon’s post.) It’s a fundamental weakness in the concept— you can always punch up if you win the race to the bottom— and I’m not sure how much sympathy I should have for people who fall for something like that. If you buy into the cult of some Nigerian Prince you met on the Internet, maybe you shouldn’t expect much support when you end up with egg on your face and a zero credibility balance— especially if you got that way by abusing people who didn’t deserve it, or by being complicit in their abuse.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve read endless lamentations about the sundering effect that Requires Hate has had on the “SFF community”. I wonder if there ever was such a thing; I don’t see a “community” so much as a bunch of squabbling tribes forced to share the same watering hole. That’s how she did it, for crying out loud: by exploiting those pre-existing fracture lines, by setting different tribes at each other’s throats.  If SFF were truly a community, would one sociopathic pissant have been able to wreak such havoc?

Blame Benjanun Sriduangkaew, by all means. She deserves it. But she didn’t do it alone. She’s not a sorcerer, she didn’t use any Jedi mind tricks to enlist her troops. They had a choice. Even those she tricked into confiding their vilest thoughts, then blackmailed by threatening to betray those confidences— she couldn’t take that power by force. She could only encourage them to give it to her. They chose fealty— either to a sociopathic troll, or to an ideology whose tires they really should have kicked a few more times before taking ownership.

So I have a question for the person who claimed to like RH’s reviews, only to jump onto the Garment-Rending bandwagon when the jig went up. I have something to ask the self-proclaimed progressive who chummed around with RH’s shock troops even while admitting— in private, with no one else around— that yes, maybe RH goes too far, but her friends follow me on twitter. I have a question for the outspoken social justice advocate who didn’t speak out when the lies spread across a site with their own name on the masthead, because they didn’t want to “fan the flames”. I’d like to ask all those self-proclaimed champions of the disenfranchised, all those defenders of up-punching, all those opportunists who are so busy now disavowing the whirlwind they helped sow:

Where were you, when RequiresHate called Cindy Pon a “stupid fuck” and a rape apologist? Where were you when she made Rachel Brown’s life a living hell? Where were you just last year, when she and her buddies went after a rape survivor for the crime of saying that recovery was a good thing?

Where were all you people?

Edmund Burke once said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. I think that begs a question.

If you do nothing, what makes you any good?

 

Posted in: rant by Peter Watts 128 Comments

SFContario: The Schedulening.

So I’m at SFContario this weekend.  Five panels, as follows:

Reviews and Critiques – Saturday 11 AM – Courtyard
Reviews, both bad and good, are a part of being a writer and can even be a positive part of the creative process. What are the right and wrong ways to deal with reviews and criticism? How can you use them to improve your writing, and what sort of criticism can you safely ignore? Andrew Barton, Jane Ann McLachlan, Peter Watts, Maaja Wentz

It’s the End of the World as We Know It – Saturday 1PM – Ballroom BC
The post-apocalypse in genre fiction, why do we love the end of the world so much and why are we so badly prepared for it in real life? Margene Bahm, Lynna Merrill, Michael McPherson, Peter Watts

Author Branding – Saturday 3 PM – Solarium
Gaining exposure can be a challenge for an author, whether experienced or brand new and shiny. Social media like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+ have important tools for reaching an audience. Merely having an account is not sufficient. How do you develop content to attract your target audience while being creative and standing out in the crowd? Can you keep a private social presence separate from your professional persona? Alyx Dellamonica, Robin Hobb, Leeman Kessler, Peter Watts

Synchronizing the Alien and the Alien Culture– Sunday 11PM – Ballroom BC
How does the science fiction author create an alien culture that is believable, that realistically flows from the physical and psychological attributes of the alien, and yet is also relevant to human readers? Is it possible? How have authors done it successfully or not so successfully? How would you do it as an author?
Julie Czerneda, Herb Kauderer, Rob St-Martin, Peter Watts

Keeping the Science In Science Fiction – Sunday 2 PM – Ballroom BC
How can writers incorporate real science into their stories, instead of just resorting to technbabble and handwaving? What are some themes and issues being explored by today’s scientists that would make good story ideas? How do authors keep up so that their writing doesn’t become obsolete by the time their books are actually published? How do writers avoid insulting the intelligence of informed readers? How much detail do readers want and expect about science and technology in the science fiction we read? Julie Czerneda, Dan Falk, Cenk Gokce, Alex Pantaleev, Peter Watts

I don’t think I’m moderating any of those.  Which is just as well, because I’m not especially good at being moderate.

The con is also hosting a reading series called “Hydra’s Hearth“, which I can only assume is at attempt at rebranding  after those guys came off so badly in the last two Captain America movies.  Hydra has apparently infiltrated the Toronto Arts Council, which is funding the following roster:

Friday, November 14
7 PM David Nickle
8 PM Douglas Smith
9 PM Derwin Mak

Saturday, November 15
11 AM Madeline Ashby
12 PM Karl Schroeder
2 PM Hugh A.D. Spencer
3 PM Eric Choi
4 PM Robert J. Sawyer
5 PM Peter Watts

Sunday, November 16
11 AM Michelle Sagara
12 PM Lesley Livingstone
1 PM Alyx Dellamonica

Lotta good names there.  That’s me on the Saturday, although I’ve just received an email asking if I can go on Friday instead.  I’m not sure yet, but we’re getting down to the wire so I thought I’d post this as is and update if necessary. Watch this space.

Note also that these reading slots are a solid hour apiece, or the length of an undergraduate lecture on the lachrymal gland secretions of herring gulls.  You have been warned.

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 6 Comments

Your Brain on Gore.

Some of you have seen this already.  It’s a few days old, this revelation of yet another difference between liberals and conservatives. In addition to the usual polarities on abortion, gun control, climate change, evolution— you know the list— here comes another wedge issue some of you may not have been expecting:

Animal mutilation.

Turns out right-wingers are more opposed to it than left-wingers are. More precisely, Ahn et al claim that given an MRI, a heuristic regression model, and a single photograph of a mutilated animal carcass, they’ll be able to tell with 95% accuracy whether a given person leans left or right politically.  They can do that because said picture provokes a stronger disgust response in right-wingers, causing their brains to light up differently.  (Actually, if you read the supplementary material, right-wingers also have more intense reactions to pictures of dirty toilets and barking dogs— pretty much anything that can be construed as either “threatening” or “disgusting”— but it turns out you don’t need to cast such a wide net. That one gory photo generates results strong enough for high statistical confidence.)

Liberals don't mind this as much as conservatives do. Go figure. Photo: Lyn Mitchell.

Liberals don’t mind this as much as conservatives do. Go figure. Photo: Lyn Mitchell.

Hmmm.

The difference isn’t all that surprising, isn’t even all that new— as far back as 2008 we were talking on this very blog about the right wing’s lower threat threshold— but the strength of the relationship kinda blows the doors off anything we’ve seen before. Ninety-five percent accuracy off a single photograph?  I’d give a lot to see that particular money shot (and to paraphrase Wesley, I’d have to get used to disappointment; it’s not even available in the supplementary materials). As the team leader (and most junior author) remarked, “I haven’t seen such clean predictive results in any other functional imaging experiments in our lab or others.”

Conservative brains like their yellow-red bits.  Liberal brains like the blue-green ones.

When conservative brains get grossed out, they light up their yellow-red bits most . When Liberal brains do, they prefer the blue-green.

Any gaping methodological problems? Nothing jumps out at me. I’m not familiar with this “elastic net algorithm” they used— and I admit a little alarm bell when off when Ahn et al described it as especially suitable “when the number of predictors is much higher than the number of observations”—  but it’s not as though Current Biology can’t get its hands on qualified peer-reviewers.  The sample size is a respectable 83, split pretty evenly between Ms and Fs. The participants were drawn from a database of local Virginians, so you’re going to get all the usual cultural biases that traditionally plague studies of this sort— but that doesn’t make this a bad study, just a limited one, subject to refinement and testing across other populations as budgets allow.  (Cultural biases are hardly something you want to weed out anyway, when you’re studying political attitudes.) Findings were broken down along sex and age; neither variable proved significant.

The methodology itself seems straightforward: scan your subjects’ brains while showing them a random mix of “pleasant”, “threatening”, and “disgusting” pictures (and here there might have been a bit of additional cultural bias: a picture of playing babies was placed in the “pleasant” category, whereas most rational folks would be more likely to classify it as “disgusting”).  The analysis took a more holistic view than most, generating what might be best described as a kind of Principle Components index based on activity from a number of areas (rather than simply focusing on one or two isolated spots in the brain).

Right/Left differences in brain activity in the seconds following exposure to blood & guts. The confidence bands are ±1 SE.

Conservative/Liberal brain activity in the seconds following exposure to blood & guts. The confidence bands are ±1 SE.

Even when it came to interpretation, Ahn et al didn’t go off the reservation.  They didn’t conflate correlation and causation, didn’t contend that politics were genetically hardwired or a direct result of neurological disgust:

“We have not isolated the distinct roles played by genetics and life history in the development of the brain responses that we measured.”

They revise their initial proposition “that conservatives, compared to liberals, have greater negativity bias, which includes both disgusting and threatening conditions” in light of the fact that “only disgusting pictures, especially in the animal-reminder category, differentiate conservatives from liberals”. They even pull back from the tempting conclusion that there might be some “primacy for disgust in the pantheon of human aversions”, admitting the limitations of their own study: “it is also possible that … compared to threat, disgust is much easier to evoke with visual images on a computer screen.”

All in all, from this semi-layperson’s perspective, it looks like a neat, enlightening study. Pending further input, I’m going to say these results are real.

In which case they raise a question.  Disgust exists for a reason, after all: those of us who fail to recoil from the sight of gaping wounds and maggot-riddled carcasses are more likely to come into contact with disease, and commensurately less likely to live long enough to pass on our genes. Disgust, in its primal Pleistocene form, is adaptive— and so I wonder why, today, it would tend to manifest more among Republicans than Democrats, more among Tories than Grits. And given that it apparently has, what are the consequences?

Has anyone followed this up, I wonder? Are Republicans less likely to indulge in fecal kink, for example?  Are conservatives less prone to infectious disease than liberals?  Do they take up less space in the Infection wards of the world? Once you factor out the lifestyle issues— lung cancer, clogged arteries, proximity to Denny’s and the like— are right-wingers less susceptible to parasites and pernicious microbes?

Are Republicans, in some weird immuno-evolutionary way, better than the rest of us?

Posted in: evolution, neuro, scilitics by Peter Watts 79 Comments

Terrorist Creep.

Anyone who believes that all laws should always be obeyed would have made a fine slave catcher.

—John J. Miller

 

We had a shooting up here in Canada the other day. Like most things Canadian it was a modest, self-effacing affair, nothing that even a couple of losers from Columbine would write home about: a single death, a geriatric hero. A Prime Minister cowering in the closet, scribbling back-of-the-napkin notes on how best to exploit this unexpected opportunity.

He didn’t have to think very hard. Harper’s always seemed almost pathetically eager to turn Canada into a wannabe iteration of the US— think the dweeby eight-year-old, desperate to emulate his idolized older brother— and the Patriot Act has, I suspect, always been his Beacon on the Hill (or his Castle Anthrax grail-shaped beacon, depending on your cultural referents).  So our beloved leader is once again trying to resurrect all those measures he couldn’t quite sneak into C-52, or C-10, or C-30— all those measures that no sane citizen would ever oppose, unless of course we chose to “stand with the child pornographers“.  You know the list: lowered evidentiary standards. Increased powers of police surveillance. Increased powers of detention and “preventative arrest”.  Increased data sharing with the US.

Basically all that stuff they were doing anyway with impunity, only now more of it will be legal.

But here’s an interesting proposition: new legislation making it illegal to “condone terrorist acts online“.  The money shot from Ivison’s story:

There is frustration in government  that the authorities can’t detain or arrest people who express sympathy for atrocities committed overseas … Sources suggest the government is likely to bring in new hate speech legislation that would make it illegal to claim terrorist acts are justified online.

Read that again, just to make sure you’ve got it.  We’re not talking about real hate speech here.  We’re not talking about advocating genocide, or gay-bashing, or threatening real violence of any type. We’re talking about looking at people the government doesn’t like and saying You know, maybe those people have got a point. We’re talking about criminalizing statements like— oh, for example, “Omar Kadhr was a kid on a battlefield, under attack by the US Military: why wouldn’t he fight back?”

And don’t even get me started on what they’d do with this.

It would be bad enough if it stopped there. I don’t think it will. Look what happened in the US, once the word “terrorism” acquired its magical power to short-circuit higher brain functions and call down showers of government cash at the invocation of its name. It took about thirty seconds for anything any right-wing nutbar didn’t like to be reclassified as a terrorist act. Here, for example, is a piece of US legislation that would literally define taking pictures of animal abuse as an act of terrorism.

Stolen from Dennis Meneses, I think...

Stolen from Dennis Meneses, I think…

Call it “Terrorist Creep”.

Harper has always taken his lead from his idols to the south— perhaps that’s why, just a couple of weeks ago, a bunch of bird-watchers got threatened with a tax audit after writing a concerned letter on the plight of honeybees affected by government-approved pesticides.  (Nor is this an isolated incident.  Harper’s ideological antipathy to science is notorious around the globe.  I’ve heard first-hand accounts of government biologists being reprimanded for using the term “tar sands” instead of “ethical oil” in casual conversation, of field biologists being told there’s no need to monitor wildlife populations this year because they already did that last year. Just last week the Union of Concerned Scientists—  one of the few US organizations Harper does not seem eager to emulate— sent our esteemed PM an open letter signed by 800+ scientific professionals, protesting the routine muzzling of Canadian scientists by their own government.)

If it’s an act of terrorism to document instances of industrial animal abuse, what about documenting governmentally-induced disasters from the collapse of Atlantic cod populations to the toxic catastrophe spreading across northern Alberta?  What about whistleblowing the wholesale spying on Canadian citizens?  What about writing a polite letter of concern about colony collapse disorder?

What about just publicly sympathizing with the folks who are doing those things?

So far, it’s legal to say “Yay Edward Snowden” when his revelations uncover abuses by the Canadian government.  But at least one MP quoted in Ivison’s story seem to think we need “new offenses” on the books.

A segment of society—the largest segment, in all likelihood — believes that we all have a duty to obey The Law, whether we agree with it or not. Society, they say, isn’t some kind of Red Lobster buffet where you get to pick and choose what statutes to obey. If everyone availed themselves of the freedom to decide right and wrong for themselves we’d have— why, we’d have Anarchy!  (The argument generally ends there; nobody feels especially compelled to spell out what exactly would be wrong with anarchy, presumably because its consequences are so self-evidently horrific.  Although it seemed to work well enough on Annares.)

But there’s a down side. If they pass a law saying you can’t criticize the government, you gotta shut up and like it. If the law says that flinching while being attacked by the police is “resisting”— or even “assault”— there’s not much you can do about it. Historically there are so many laws allowing the government into your bedroom— telling you what kind of sex you’re allowed to have, or which way you have to swing if you want The Law to regard you as Human— that we’ve had to store them out in the garage.  (Here in Canada, you’re SOL if you get pleasure out of pain; a lot of BDSM between consenting adults is illegal because you’re not allowed to consent to “assault” whether it gets you off or not.)

This little statute over in the corner sends you to jail for documenting cases of animal abuse.  That big five-hundred-kilo behemoth on the coffee table says the gummint can do whatever it likes to whoever it brands a “terrorist”, and that one with the FISA tattoo on its butt says Big Telecom isn’t liable if they help the gummint do that.  And if the law presumes guilt unless you can prove innocence— well, that’s just the Canadian Tax Code.

We’ve already seen laws down south, lurking in the shadows, that define you as a terrorist if your ethics run sufficiently counter to Big Agro. Now, up here, we’re hearing whispers behind closed doors that maybe we should criminalize the mere suggestion that “terrorists”— whoever they are this week1— might have a point. And most folks will shrug and say Yeah, it sucks, but you know. Gotta obey the Law.

Personally, though? If someone were to take another crack at Parliament— get into the House of Commons with a loaded Tavor, mow down everyone on the blue side of the aisle— I might just say, let’s not be hasty.

Maybe they’d have a point.

 


1 It changes so often. Remember when bin Laden was the US’s bestest friend against the Russians? Remember when Saddam was an ally?Maybe not. After all, we have always been at war with Eastasia.
Posted in: rant, scilitics by Peter Watts 58 Comments

Announcements, Appearances, and Add-ons

Some ominous developments in the politics of the Canadian Surveillance State recently. A postmortem on Echopraxia waiting in the wings, now that the dust has settled. But in the meantime a bunch of links have been piling up, little self-aggrandizing things that, in isolation, weren’t important enough to warrant their own blog posts (they might have warranted announcement on facebook, but I try to avoid facebook for anything beyond luring eyeballs to the ‘crawl). Only now they’ve piled up, and some of them are going stale, and shining a light on these things is part of the job description.

So today, we scour the fridge for leftovers and the makings of Link Salad:

  • There’s this thing called the Campaign for the American Reader, administrated by a dude named Marshal Zeringue. CAR promotes books. One of the ways they do this is via  “The Page 69 Test”.  It doesn’t always work very well. It kind of depends what’s in page 69. In the case of Echopraxia, not much.
  • CAR also as a somewhat more forgiving shtick called “My Book, the Movie”; I did it back in 2009 for the rifters trilogy, and Marshal just posted the Echopraxia edition the other day. (I’d like to thank all you guys for chipping in when I asked for advice on this one, by the way. It proved really helpful. Tilda Swinton as Valerie is a stroke of genius, although Sengupta remains a bit problematic.)
  • Albedo One has a fairly in-depth interview with me in their latest issue, during the course of which  I had to look up the meaning of “pantropy”. Some of it revisits material covered in other interviews; some of it’s brand spanking new. You might want to check it out.
Among other things, I reminisce about partially-dismembered sea lions.

Among other things, I reminisce about partially-dismembered sea lions.

  • Our buds over at Starship Sofa just dropped their latest podcast, which contains a performance of a story I coauthored with Laurie Channer over ten years back. With the exception of a cheesy video on seal-fisheries conflicts that came out back in the nineties, “Bulk Food” is the closest I’ve ever come to documentary. Some of the names have been changed. Slightly.
  • If you’ve been paying attention to the sidebar, you may have noticed that I’ll be appearing at SFContario in a couple of weeks. I’ll blog my schedule once it’s finalized, but at this point it looks like I’ll be doing five panels and a reading. Said reading is slotted for a solid hour; any thoughts as to whether I should drone on for the whole 60 minutes or keep myself to 30 and do a Q&A on the back half? Only those who actually plan on attending need respond— and I’m guessing there won’t be very many of you, given that SFContario is taking place the same weekend that the Toronto International Book Fair invades the Toronto Convention Center to present the likes of Margaret Atwood, William Gibson, Anne Rice— oh, and a certain up-and-comer by the name of Caitlin Sweet.  (No, really, no need to apologize— I’d be down there myself, albeit only as an attendee, if I wasn’t already committed to this other thing. Between this and getting squeezed by World Fantasy a couple years back, SFContario can’t seem to catch a break. You guys have fun, though.)
  • A few days further on, I’ll be giving a reading at Concordia, in Montreal. Time and place remain fuzzy from this range, but at least the Unholy Trinity of Atwood Gibson & Rice won’t be performing across the street. I don’t think they are, anyway.
  • For those of you looking for a little more of a challenge, the Russian iteration of Popular Mechanics recently posted an interview with me, conducted between those times when I was inadvertently breaking chairs outside St. Petersburg. (I don’t know how far I’d trust Google Translate on that page, though— it serves up an exchange in which Blindsight seems to get described as a bestseller, which I don’t remember and which comes as news to me. At least, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten any royalties from those guys…)
One of these things is not like the others.  The Russian Popular Mechanics has a different emphasis than what I was expecting. Why, it's almost like the American Popular Mechanics...

One of these things is not like the others. The Russian Popular Mechanics has a different emphasis than what I was expecting. Why, it’s almost like the American Popular Mechanics…

  • An illo from "Giants".  Once again, that famed sunny Polish optimism just shines through with every brush stroke.

    An illo from “Giants”. Once again, that famed sunny Polish optimism just shines through with every brush stroke.

    Finally, a few website updates: a couple of new bits of art in the gallery (including the first based on the Sunflowers story “Giants”), and new pull quotes from  Echopraxia’s second professional “meh” review that I know of  (this one coming from Strange Horizons; the first hailed from The Register, a couple of months ago). I can’t really complain; even the meh reviews use words like “brilliant” and “rewarding”— they just don’t think it measures up to Blindsight, and I’m actually kind of surprised at how little of that I’m getting.  (More on that a couple of posts down the road.)

I think that pretty much catches us up on the thumping of tubs. Next time we’ll be back to thumping on the Dystopian Drums of Doom.

This shot of last night's sunset doesn't actually have anything to do with the text. It just reminded me how cool it is to be living on a world orbiting a binary at the edge of the Trifid Nebula.

This shot of last night’s sunset doesn’t actually have anything to do with the text. It just reminded me how cool it is to be living on a world orbiting a binary at the edge of the Trifid Nebula.

Climbing Mount CanLit.

“An adolescent girl comes to terms with her burgeoning lesbianism on the windswept shores of Canada’s west coast while dealing with her emotionally distant father.”

Thus goes my stock exemplar of that branch of fiction known as “CanLit”. Some of you may find it familiar; I’ve certainly recited it often enough. Others may find it resonant because they’ve, you know, actually read CanLit.

CanLit doesn’t like us genre types much, as many of those who’ve applied for a Canada Council grant might tell you. That’s okay. I don’t like CanLit much, either. (Except for Margaret Atwood, actually. I devoured her early stuff, back before she ascended into Heaven with the gods. Life Before Man, Cat’s Eye— I even liked Surfacing, believe it or not, although I suspect it may not have aged well. The woman’s biology connections really shone through, and this was way before she started stealing gengineered dystopias from the ghetto.)

Anyhow. CanLit and I don’t generally get along, and that’s okay. Like certain people you run into at cons, there’s a kind of unspoken agreement to look past each other when you both end up at the same room parties. But while I take a kind of live-and-let-live attitude to the stuff, I’d certainly speak up were anyone were to try to put my own writing in that camp. Not that that would ever happen in a million years, of course.

At least, that’s what I thought until yesterday, when Amazon.com declared otherwise.

It almost slipped past me. I don’t check my Blindsight ratings all that much any more; I’ve been hitting refresh a lot more often on the Echopraxia page, fighting off the inevitable growing despair that accompanies confirmation of that old rule about 90% of sales happening in the first 6-8 weeks. (My baby is already nine weeks old.) But for the past couple of days I’ve been poking at a retrospective comparison of the Blindoprax titles, weighing their reader reviews, running rudimentary stats on their respective rankings— and it was during such a data-gathering expedition that I encountered the following flag.

CanLit2

Click to embiggen. Because you probably don’t think you’re seeing it right at this scale.

Here are other titles on the list, just to show what odd company I keep.

Here are other titles on the CanList, just to show what weird company I’m keeping.

Yes, you read that right. For a few hours yesterday— at about the same time that a crazed gunman opened up on the steps of Parliament— Blindsight hit #1 on Amazon’s CanLit chart.  Pretty sure that was a coincidence.

Note that this isn’t even Amazon.ca. This is Amazon dot com. If you’d tracked that orange flag back to the .ca site you’d have seen— digging down within this Arkansas-sized market— that Blindsight was not only the #1 CanLit title, but it was also the #1 seller under both “Canadian Short Stories” and “Short Stories, Canadian” (although if anyone can see a meaningful distinction between those categories, I’d love to know what it is). Which, while inaccurate, is nice— although not quite so surrealistic as seeing Firefall sitting at #1 on Amazon.uk’s “Religious and Inspirational” chart a couple of weeks back.

You might also notice that the title most commonly bought together with my novels is Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. I reserve comment on the potential significance of this.

Presented without comment.

From Amazon.ca.

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 25 Comments

Psychotic Dreams and Strange Extremes

Where do you start with dreams?

People say you’re asleep when you dream, but you’re not really; it’s just that the input you’re consciously processing is generated internally, instead of coming from outside. It’s a kind of consciousness that believes the most ridiculous things, though. Your best friend doesn’t look anything like your best friend actually does in real life. Your girlfriend is a biker chick with three thick hairs the diameter of birch saplings growing out of her head. Doesn’t matter; you recognize them instantly and without the slightest whiff of discontinuity.

You can fly, in dreams.  Converse with the dead. Oozing octopus suckers sprout across your face for no reason. You swallow it all, without reservation, without question. In terms of critical analysis, dreams are the Tea Party of cognitive states.

It’s only upon waking that you realize, in retrospect, how utterly absurd it all was.

The circuits you have to thank for that belated insight lie in a little strip of tissue along the orbitofrontal cortex. They say it acts as a reality-checker, tells you whether the input you’re processing makes sense or not.  It doesn’t always get it right, even when you’re awake; if someone actually does turn into someone else in the middle of a conversation, or if a building really does disappear without warning in the background, you’re not likely to notice it consciously because that OFC censor throws it into the garbage  before you’re aware of it.

Usually the censor is powered down during sleep. Sometimes, though, it works overtime. That’s when you realize, mid-dream, that you are dreaming. That’s when you can take the reins and control the narrative, become the architect of your perceived reality instead of its passive observer-victim.  That’s when dreams turn lucid.

Once I was in a hotel elevator when it went rogue: shot right out through the roof like a cannonball, fifty stories up, and plummeted towards the earth. I realized this made no sense, conjured up a little control panel out of the wall, talked the elevator car— which now had panoramic wrap-around windows— into sprouting stubby little wings, and glided us down to a soft nighttime landing on a coral reef (which we could now explore at leisure because the elevator car also doubled as a submarine. It was awesome).  That’s a rare level of control in my experience, though.  More often I simply remember at the worst possible time that people can’t fly, or the red wagon I’m riding shouldn’t be able to travel in space even if I did tie two lengths of 2×4 onto its gunwales— and suddenly I’m  tangled in high-tension wires twenty meters up, or what I thought was flying turns out to be, on closer inspection, just me hanging off a climbing rope in some high-school gym whose dingy roof and rafters have been coated with a thin layer of blue paint and some cheesy cartoon clouds. Sometimes the recognition that I’m dreaming is more of a Hail-Mary, when I realize that the Thing In The Basement isn’t going to leave me alone and I might as well just get it over with and hurl myself into its maw.  The dream generally changes channels at that point.

Sometimes, though— sometimes dreams are positively inspirational.

Ramanujan was inspired by the Hindu Pantheon. I got inspired by this.

Ramanujan’s dreams were inspired by the Hindu Pantheon. Mine were inspired by this.

Kekulé dreamed the structure of the benzene molecule. Ramanujan swore that the mathematical theorems he derived were served up to him in dreams by Hindu deities.  The solution to my own Master’s thesis came to me in a dream (although I wasn’t nearly as excited by that revelation as I was by another dreamed insight, a solution to the age-old problem of how to build a walking beachball: I had the blueprints right there in my head).

So you are asleep when you dream, and you are awake. Dreams are unconnected to reality; dreams provide fundamental insights into reality. Dreams reduce you to passive observer; dreams elevate you unto godhood.

Or to paraphrase what Corlett et al report in a recent paper that Sheila Miguez pointed me to: dreams make you psychotic.

They mean this in the clinical, not the Gamergate sense: psychotic as in dissociated from reality, unable to distinguish fact from hallucination. (On second thought, maybe they mean it in the Gamergate sense after all.) Perhaps psychotics are merely dreamers who have not awakened, sleepwalkers whose experiences are not being properly filtered through the Orbitofrontal cortex.

Corlett et al looked at two possibilities. On the one hand, a high level of dream awareness might imply a greater grasp of waking reality— if your OFR is so on-the-ball that it even functions when it’s supposed to be off-duty, how much better will it perform during regular business hours? Alternatively, a high level of dream awareness might imply a reduced grasp of waking reality— because lucid dreamers are supposed to be characterized by “thin boundaries”, or a tendency to confuse fantasy and reality. Aspects of waking experience tend to leak across that boundary into the dream state (leading to greater “dream awareness”); but perhaps, by the same token, aspects of the dream state leak back into the waking world across the same semipermeable membrane.

Honestly, this will make more sense if you ignore the official caption and just read my interpretation to the left.

You can click to embiggen. But honestly, this will make more sense if you ignore the official caption and just read my interpretation to the left.

Corlett et al ran groups of lucid and non-lucid dreamers through a repeated series of memory tests;  subjects had to decide whether they’d seen a given image previously in the same experimental run (as opposed to previous runs in which that image might also have appeared). They describe this in terms of  “Signal Detection Theory”, but what it comes down to is the ability to distinguish between recent memories and old ones. A parameter called d-prime scales to the width of the uncertainty zone between new and old. The higher d-prime is, the narrower the zone and the more confident you are in your response. If lucid dreaming indicates an elevated grasp of reality, then lucid dreamers should have higher d-primes.

The other criterion is called, um, criterion— but that’s such a dumb and ambiguous name that I’m just going to call it C. C describes any tendency to make a default guess one way or the other in case of uncertainty.  If, when in doubt, you’re more likely to guess that the memory is old, C<0. If you’re more likely to guess that it’s “new”,  C>0. If lucid dreaming implies a reduced grasp of reality in the waking state, C should be lower for Lucids than for Nonlucids.

(This is the way I understand it, at least.  You can go to the paper for more specifics, but don’t blame me if you end up even more confused.  If it’s clarity you’re looking for, Corlett et al couldn’t write their way out of a fortune cookie if you held a gun to their heads.)

You may wonder what the conclusion would be if lucid dreamers turned out to have both a lower C and a higher d-prime than nonlucid dreamers. I wonder that too; I can’t see what in principle would prevent such a result. The two hypotheses that Corlett et al are testing here are mutually exclusive, but the actual tests are not. Statistically, this leaves me a bit queasy.

Fortunately for the authors, that bullet never fired. They found no difference in the width of the Uncertainty zones of Lucids vs. nonLucids, but they did find that C was significantly lower in the Lucid group (P=0.013), suggesting that Lucids were “more likely to indicate that a picture was familiar to them, even if it was novel.”

So. If you buy this, lucid dreamers have more difficulty than non-lucid dreamers when it comes to distinguishing fantasy from reality. As Corlett et al put it, “individuals with high dream awareness make a pattern of memory errors consistent with an impairment in a reality monitoring process involving the function of the OFC”.

More succinctly, lucid dreamers tend to be more psychotic. Do we buy this?

The Royal We would certainly like to; anyone familiar with my recent work might be reminded of the multithreaded “dream state” I imagine for vampires, or the increasing sense of disreality Daniel Brüks experiences as the conscious wetware is incrementally disassembled during the course of his salvation. Corlett et al embed their findings in all kinds of neurological context— schizophrenia, false memories, the role of dopamine in “reality monitoring”—  that’s pure uncut catnip for the likes of me. They even call up the Default-Mode-Network I invoked a couple of years back to explain my dumb gullible vulnerability to scam artists (and to explore the role of competing neurological subsystems in the production of conscious experience).  They describe déjà vu as a kind of neurological false-positive:

“False familiarity signals have also been invoked to explain Déjà vu and Déjà vecu experiences, which bear phenomenological similarity to lucid dreams – people report the uncanny (and surprising) experience of having had an experience before in their past (O’Connor & Moulin, 2010). This false familiarity is believed to emanate from fronto-hippocampal dys-interaction (O’Connor & Moulin, 2010). These models of comparable phenomena perhaps point to the generality of predictive learning mechanisms in the brain (Friston, 2009) and the consequences of disrupted predictive learning across brain systems (Corlett et al., 2010)…  We believe our data support the idea that dream awareness involves the intrusion of reality onto the dreaming state and that this overlap is also manifest during waking, whereby high dream awareness subjects experience false familiarity for memoranda causing them to make false alarm responses.”

How can I not cream my jeans over all this technobabbly goodness? Think of the extra infodumps that Echopraxia could have contained, if only I’d read these results earlier!

corlett2

What’s wrong with this picture?

And yet. In so very many ways, this paper is just bad. It leaves obvious methodological questions unanswered (even if you squint past the nonexclusive nature of the hypothesis testing, doesn’t the probability of error increase throughout the course of a task?  Isn’t the question “Have you previously seen X during this run?” a lot easier to answer for the first image in a sequence than it is for the last?).  One of the figure captions contradicts the legend in the same figure. The sentence-level writing is, to be charitable, not as clear as it could be. And for all the fancy neurological terminology being thrown around, the study reports no neurological findings (although we’re told that the subjects completed “a series of further neuropsychological tests to be reported elsewhere”).

This was basically a button-pushing test performed on a small (N=57) sample of self-selected male volunteers. Admittedly, even a journey of a thousand miles has to start with a single step— but did it have to be such a timid and slapdash one? Would it have cost anything more than a bit of additional time to— oh, I don’t know, include women in the study, double the sample size, and test for between-sex interactions? Cognitive Neuropsychiatry isn’t the most prestigious of journals, but it’s supposed to be peer-reviewed. Someone should at the very least have caught the figure errors.

This all might be a bit easier to take if Corlett et al didn’t seem to have mistaken their one small step for a Giant Leap for Mankind. As it is, it seems a bit questionable to go from Lucid dreamers slip up more when it comes to remembering how long ago they saw something to the claim that their errors are

… consistent with … patients with neurological damage to the OFC and its connections who  let old memories override or govern current perceptual inputs and they allow memory fragments to intrude upon their current conceptual understanding of the world, generating a set of beliefs about themselves that is bizarre and insensitive to change (Nahum et al., 2009; Schnider, 2001, 2003; Schnider et al., 2005).

Consistent with? Maybe so. But “consistent with” doesn’t necessarily translate into “evidence for”. This deep in the 21rst Century and we still need to keep reminding people that correlation ≠ causation?

Of course, that’s me the former-scientist talking. Me the SF writer is thinking Oooh,  programmable déjà-vu.  Deja-vu and pareidolia.  Pareidolia and intuition and the religious experience.  Maybe Bicamerals can be hacked, I’m thinking. Maybe vampires can be; maybe the connection between dreams and déjà vu and multithreaded dream-state awareness gives us a weapon to use against the Legions of Valerie.

Or a weapon for something to use, anyway. If we’re not around…

So for all their failings, let’s keep an eye on Corlett’s & Crew. Follow their follow-ups. See if hard neurochemistry supports their soft speculation. Draw up battle plans.  Scientist-me says, stay skeptical.

SF me says, Prepare to pillage.

Posted in: neuro, Omniscience, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 53 Comments