The Salt Vampire’s Ugly Cousin

Way back in Grade Seven— Dr. Oakley Junior High, Calgary— Keith Gill spat on my bike. He was half my size, but I knew that if I spat on his bike in return that he would beat the shit out of me. That was the whole idea. This was an act of provocation. He was looking for an excuse.

I did not spit on Keith Gill’s bike. I went home, and I started doing push-ups. I got to one-and-a-half before I collapsed.

By that summer, though, I was up to 35. By the time I hit Grade 9 I was doing fifty. First-year university, 75. At the height of my pushing prowess— mid-eighties, doctoral studies at UBC, routinely slinging 25-horsepower Evinrudes across my back and lugging them around in the field like sacks of potatoes— I was doing 125 pushups at a stretch.

There were other elements to the regimen, of course, ranging from the cheesy spring set I inherited from an older brother to the home gym I bought in the nineties. For I while there I actually joined a fitness club; other times I availed myself of the workout facilities at whatever campus I was calling home that year. Running was a constant part of the workout from the early eighties on. These last years, here at the Magic Bungalow, it’s been mainly running and free weights and chin-ups, mixed in with (significantly lower) numbers of push-ups (tougher variants, though— where your feet are on a chair, or you put your hands on stools so your face descends below “floor level” on each dip). Point is, while I’ve never been any kind of athlete, I’ve been in pretty good shape ever since I was a kid. I’ve kept strong. Why, just last Wednesday I ran 10K. I did 13 chin-ups.

These sequences were written less than 48 hours apart.

I wrote these sequences less than 48 hours apart.

This morning I couldn’t hold a half-full pot of coffee without trembling, without feeling as though my forearm was going to snap off. I had to use my thumb to depress the shaving-cream stud, because my finger wasn’t strong enough. I can barely hold a goddamn pen: look what’s happened to my handwriting.

It happened literally overnight. I have no idea why. Nobody does.

*

Some background: this started about four months ago, around mid-June. The BUG decided that she hated the sandals I’ve been wearing since before we met, dragged me over to Queen Street in search of replacements. I love the BUG— she saved my life, after all— and so did not complain. We each purchased a pair of Birkenstocks, slid them on, and proceeded to walk for 6.5 miles.

Thirty-six hours later I could barely move. Every groinal tendon was on fire. My knees felt like little exploding schematic diagrams of cartilaginous balls and sockets and springs, ready to go sproiiiinnggggg! the moment they folded more than a few degrees off dead-center.

The shoes, right? Those new fucking shoes. They’d screwed with my gait somehow, thrown everything out of balance. Couldn’t be the distance: I routinely ran further than 6.5 miles with no ill effects at all. So I chalked the pain up to experience and reunited with those beloved stinky old plastic sandals that Caitlin hadn’t quite been able to rid me of after all. I’d stressed my body past some limit, but it would self-repair over time; that’s just what bodies did. So the family packed up, and hugged the cats, and headed off to Greece.

Where my body did not self-repair. It got worse.

The stiffness, the frozen range-of motion, the pain, spread to my shoulders. Lifting a leg, bending a knee became an ordeal; pulling on my underpants was now a major event, each foot having to stamp and lift in repeated warm-up maneuvers until inertia and rebound bounced it high enough to crest the elastic of my Joe Fresh gauchies and plunge back down through the leg hole (please God let it be the right leg hole) while the outraged knee, bent briefly past some critical threshold, threatened to explode all over again. Sometimes I couldn’t quite clear the band; my toe would catch in the elastic and I’d topple like a big dumb one-legged redwood, roaring with frustration. The simple act of rising from the bed, sitting on the toilet, of bending over to pick something off the floor— suddenly, they were all spectacles you could charge admission for.

There was no real loss of strength, mind you. The moves hurt, but I could still do them as long as they didn’t require much range of motion. I didn’t have my exercise equipment but I could still do chin-ups from the arched trellis, push-ups by the pool. I could still go on extended futile hikes with the Unicorn Girl, looking for mythical mountain churches (even if what we mostly found was lizards). Some of you may have seen such expeditions documented on facebook; they all happened as described, even if I tended to fall over more often than usual. I did not get flabby or fat, for all the wine we guzzled.

It just— hurt. All the goddamned time. For the first time in my life, I felt old.

*

Home. Doctor. Referrals. All my subjective symptoms lined up with something called “polymyalgia rheumatica”, which if you go to the original Latin translates as we have no idea what causes this but the symptoms look familiar. No known cure (which goes well with “no known cause”). Goes away on its own after a year, maybe 18 months. Sucks to be you in the meantime, but Prednisone works really well on the symptoms. Mind the side-effects, though: osteoporosis, cataracts, plumpening, loss of muscle mass, meat tenderizing (i.e. your skin bruises if it so much as gets hit by a dandelion seed), penile slough—

OK, so much for the Prednisone. I guess I’ll just grit my teeth through the next year and wait for it to get better.

But then all the blood work came back negative.

Not that it would have told us much anyway. There is no smoking-gun diagnostic for PMR, which is not surprising because— once again— nobody knows what causes it. Mostly the bloods just test for tissue inflammation; RBC sedimentation rate, something called “C-reactive protein”. Those come back positive, and the doctors can say Aha! It is inflammation causing you pain! And while inflammation has a whole shitload of potential causes, today we are going to attribute it to polymyalgia rheumatica on account of where it hurts or something!

But my tests showed no inflammation. Everything came back clean. I’m subjectively experiencing every goddamn symptom of PMR— including, disturbingly, a week of symptoms consistent with Giant Cell arteritis, an equally-mysterious malady that frequently double-dates with PMR and which causes blindness if not treated— and my body doesn’t even have the good grace to show a generic inflammation response. Still, there we were. And things did seem to be manageable. Good days and not-so-good days; I was now officially a crotchety old man but I kept slinging the weights, kept pounding the trails even if I didn’t seem to be taking the 15K route any more. Just sticking it out until things get better, you know? And they would, eventually. Sure the bloods came back negative but those were crap diagnostics anyway; what else could this be?

So just last Friday, the BUG and I decided to walk to one of our favorite restaurants, a distance of about 10K. No big deal, right? I run that far all the time, and this would be a nice leisurely walk. Why, just like the walk we took back in June, after buying those accursed Birkenstocks. Pretty much the same distance, even. And to ensure my own pedular comfort, I wore my running shoes.

Apparently my lips were purple by the time we made it to the restaurant. The BUG didn’t mention it at the time, but then again she didn’t have to: I already knew something was wrong because my fingers had turned to pins and needles. That passed, fortunately. So did the fever and sheet-soaking sweats that kept me awake over the next three nights. Then there’s that mysterious, undiagnosable pain that’s been sitting on my should like a tax audit for the past four months; in the wake of our latest epic walk, it spread to abs and elbows and forearms, to the grinding bones in the heel of my thumbs, to all the places it hadn’t reached back in June when I was first laid low.

And this time, something scary and new. Suddenly I could barely grip a pen, had to use both hands to carry a bowl of cat food onto the porch. Last night I couldn’t even open the screw top on a bottle of wine.

Not me. Just the way I feel these days.

Not me. Just the way I feel these days.

It’s not a loss of muscle mass. There hasn’t been time for me to starting wasting away yet. It’s as though some cousin of Star Trek’s Salt Vampire, some weird hokey rubber alien with peculiar dietary needs, has sucked all the ATP out of my muscles. It took a half hour’s effort at this laptop before I even started hitting the keys reliably.

I seem to be coming back again, bit by bit. The pain seems to be withdrawing to its initial habitat; it’s easier to lift a pot of coffee now than it was when I started writing this 24 hours ago (although typing still provokes a strange exhausting ache in my forearms). I’m no longer terrified of the prospect of standing: whatever my left testicle (and only my left testicle, curiously) was pulling on when those vectors aligned has backed off on its threats to rip my guts out. I hope, in a few more days, to have returned to that state of chronic creaky heartiness that I’ve been clumsily dancing with for the past four months.

But you know the most depressing aspect of this whole damn experience? It’s not the mysterious sudden onset or the acute painful incapacity, which has passed. It’s not the chronic stiffness, which had better fucking pass but which is manageable in the meantime. It’s not even the weakness, which I hope is temporary. It’s the insight that accompanies the weakness. It’s the time travel: this first-person, total-immersion glimpse into a future when there’s no onset or remission, no mystery disease to wonder about, no hope for improvement because I’m not sick: I’m just old, and this is just the way things are. A time when the simple standard baseline of my life is that I lack the strength to write a fucking “3”.

Why I Stopped Ego Surfing.

Why I Stopped Ego Surfing.

Anyway. I’ve got another appointment with the specialist in early October, although she’s already sampled half my blood volume and come up empty. I get the sense neither she nor I really know where else to go with this thing. So I’m coming here, to the ‘crawl. (I’ve already tried asking the Internet at large, but Google can’t even return a search on “Peter Watts” AND “Starfish” without filling my screen with bad porn; you can imagine what “polymyalgia rheumatica giant-cell arteritis pain stiffness no-inflammation C-reactive-protein” turns up.) Has anyone heard of anything like this— a system-wide gimbal-lock that kicks in when you walk a long distance, but never when you run it?  Something that presents every subjective symptom of PMR but causes no detectable inflammation? Something that, you know, can maybe be fixed?

Anyone?

Because the next stop after this is the Healing Power of Crystals page on NewAge.com…

 

 

 

 

Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 98 Comments

Actually, You Can Keep a Good Man Down…

Or, more to the point today, a good woman.  Turns out it’s quite easy, in fact: all you need is a phone or an email account, and a certain kind of craven cowardice.

Quoting Sisyphus, whom I introduced in my previous post:

Hello again, Peter.

I enjoyed your blog post, though thank goodness I didn’t suggest reading it in any way with my class. As it turns out, I am no Sisyphus, and before I even began to teach the novel, one parent had written an email, and another called the principal (neither spoke to me) both outraged at the idea of teaching a novel which had at one point contained such language. I told my administrator, who is a completely reasonable man, by the way, to call off the dogs. If it was this big an issue before we’d read a single redacted page, it was going to become a catastrophe. I will continue to teach “Ambassador” in the future. And as for the kids who began reading the novel on their own, they were quite disappointed and asked if they might still be able to discuss the novel with you over Skype at some point.

Thanks for even considering this. It’s unfortunate how things turned out; in the words of Kurt Vonnegut: so it goes.

So it is not enough to be a good teacher. It is not enough to be a challenging teacher. It is not even enough to be an accommodating teacher, one so dedicated that she sought me out and enlisted my support for an act we both regard as downright odious— but were willing to commit if it meant that students could be exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking.  It is not enough to hold your nose and slash the prose and spread your cheeks in an attempt to appease these ranting, rabid Dunning-Kruger incarnations made flesh. They will not be appeased.

It is not enough to gut a book of its naughty bits.  That the book ever had such bits in the first place is offense enough.

We do not know the names of those who complained; they struck out bravely under cover of anonymity. I do know the name of the school at which this travesty went down, but if I spoke it here the teacher would be fired. I find it curious that those so full of self-righteous fury, so utterly convinced of their own virtue, would be so averse to the spotlight.  Are they not doing God’s will? Should they not be proud of their handiwork?

Strangely, though, these people don’t like to be seen.

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter. It’s not as though this is an isolated case, after all; it hails from the heart of a country where more adults believe in angels than accept evolution, a country where— in the race to rule a hemisphere— an orange demagogue with zero impulse control is once again even in the polls with a corporate shill who revels in the endorsements of war criminals.  The problem is not one outraged parent, or one school, or one county. The problem is the whole fucking country. The problem is people.

Naming names in one specific case— even if that did do more good than harm— would be like scraping off a single scab and hoping you’d cured smallpox.

But there she is, doing her goddamned best in the center of that shitstorm: Sisyphus, and all those like her.  Today she lost the battle, but I know her kind.

The war goes on.

Posted in: blindsight, politics, writing news by Peter Watts 62 Comments

Zounds, Gadzooks, and Fucking Sisyphus.

“Those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves.”
—Neil Peart, 1981

 

Did you know that Blindsight contains 73 instances of the word “fuck” and its variants? I’ve recently been informed of this fact by a high-school teacher down in a part of the US that— well, in the name of protecting the identities of the innocent, let’s just call it JesusLand.

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.

The ubiquity of “Fuck”— not just in Blindsight but in other contexts as well— carries a number of ramifications. For one thing, it implies that the characters who use it have better vocabularies and language skills than those whose mouths are squeaky clean. It also means that they probably have a greater tolerance to pain.

And in the case of this particular teacher— here in the Twenty First Century, for chrissake— it means she could lose her job if she taught Blindsight, unexpurgated, to her advanced English class. Apparently high school students in her part of the world are blissfully unfamiliar with this word. Apparently all sorts of calamities might ensue should that precarious state of affairs ever change.

*

It’s a hard scenario to wrap my head around, even though I myself had a relatively genteel history with profanity back in childhood. Raised by Baptists, I must’ve been eleven or twelve before I even used words like “damn” or “hell” in conversation; even then, I could only live with such unChristian lapses by telling myself that at least I limited myself to “clean” swearing.  I never lowered myself to the truly dirty stuff like “fuck” or “cunt” or “asshole”.

It cut no ice with my mother, who— as First Lady of the Baptist Leadership Training School— had appearances to maintain. When I pointed out that my use of such mild expletives didn’t hurt anyone, her response was always the same: “I find it offensive. That’s all you need to know.” I suspect it was this idiotic response— that unthinking preference of gut over reason— that inspired my defiant and long-overdue upgrade to F-bombery shortly thereafter.

While I changed, though, my parents never did. When my first novel came out decades later, there was Fanshun, sadly shaking her head— not angry, just very, very disappointed—  wondering why her son, who had such a way with words, had to ruin a perfectly good book with all that profanity. Especially since she had, in years past, gone so far as to suggest non-offensive alternatives for me to use.

One of them, believe it or not, was “zounds”.

Neither of us knew back then that “Zounds” was the “fuck” of its day— a contraction of “God’s wounds“, referring to the stigmata of Christ and purged from yesteryear’s polite literature the same way “fuck” is purged from mainstream outlets today (by spelling it “Z— ds!” and leaving readers to figure out the fucking omissions for themselves). Gadzooks— a similar contraction of “God’s hooks” (i.e., the nails of the crucifix)— was apparently considered equally vulgar, back before it ended up as a common expletive in Saturday comics and Bugs Bunny cartoons.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that taking offense at the word “fuck” is, rationally, no less nonsensical than objecting to “gadzooks” or “zounds”— in fact, those latter words should by rights be more offensive, since they hew closer to “taking the Lord’s name in vain”. (As far as I know, no part of scripture forbids taking the name of sex in vain.)  Should be case closed. Case shouldn’t have even been opened in the first place, in any rational universe.

*

 .

.

Cut to the present, and here we were: me, author of a book I’m pretty damn proud of in hindsight; she, a teacher who wanted to share that book with a gang of unusually bright students. Standing in our way— reluctantly, I’ve been told— was a department head who quailed at the prospect of teaching a novel that gave so very many fucks. Apparently there’d been trouble in the past. Jobs lost. Parents throwing shit-fits over course material they might have described as progressive, if such folks had ever been able work their way up to three syllables. So, this teacher asked, would it be okay if her students read a bowdlerised version of Blindsight? One from with all the f-bombs had been expunged?

It was a tougher question than you might think.

On one hand, it’s not as though I hammered out the novel thinking Oh boy, I’m gonna introduce fuck to a whole new generation! That’s what this book will be remembered for! I didn’t even think about the use of profanity, beyond the obvious need to ensure that my characters had consistent speech patterns.  Blindsight‘s essential themes could have been conveyed in language pure as the driven snowand it’s those themes that matter, not idioms of dialog.  Here was someone who wanted to introduce her students to riffs on evolution and neurology and human nature that a lot of post-grads never dip their toes into. Here was someone who not only wanted to educate, but challenge. Christ knows I would have benefited from more teachers like that during my own slog through the educational process.  I’m not seriously gonna throw a monkey wrench into her aspirations over a few expurgated curses, am I?  Am I?

And yet.

It’s not so much the change itself that rankles. It’s the demand for that change.  Where it comes from. Where it leads.

Because my work— whether you regard it as art, literature, or florid pulpy hackwork— is my work. You may love a painting or revile it, but you don’t walk into an art gallery and demand that the curator put duct tape over all the yellow bits in various paintings— no matter how easy it would be to do that, no matter if the basic theme of those paintings survives the mutilation. If the sight of yellow elements in paintings offends you, the solution’s simple: don’t go to the fucking gallery.

But these vocal Jesusland parents, who have the staff of this school so terrified: they are evidently not the kind who say I find this book offensive so I will not read it. They are not even the kind who say I do not want my children exposed to this so they will not read it. (If they were, students whose parents objected could simply be excused from that part of the class— problem solved— but this was never presented as a option.)  These parents— these hysterical, brain-dead dipshits with the room-temperature IQs— would say instead I find the profanity in this book offensive so I will have it removed from the curriculum. I will have it removed from the library.  I will have it removed from whatever parts of the world I can intimidate into bowing to my demands.

I find it offensive.  That’s all you need to know.

But isn’t that always the way it is? The line is rarely Abortion’s not for me but rather Abortion should be outlawed. Fundamentalists who demand that their creation myths be inserted into science classes tend to look at you funny when you suggest that likewise, we could insert passages from On the Origin of Species into the book of Genesis. The Ayatollah did not simply opine that The Satanic Verses wasn’t his cup of tea: he literally put out a hit on Salman Rushdie.

Maybe I’m going off the deep end here.  Maybe I’m being a self-important dipshit myself, grandiosely equating a bit of petty bleeping with homicidal fatwas and the bombing of abortion clinics. Certainly there’s no denying that Blindsight‘s troubles down in Jesusland don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to these other things, conflicts where lives are all too often at stake. But that’s kind of my point: I’d hoped that we’d won this small battle at least, that we could move on to bigger fights. It’s been a while since Catcher In the Rye was in the news. A few years back I read something about the fundies raising a stink over The Handmaid’s Tale— but that article left me with the sense that those protesters were some kind of relic population, kept alive only because of a captive-breeding program (sponsored by the Smithsonian, perhaps). PEN still has its work cut out for it but they focus overseas, on third-world totalitarian  regimes that imprison or murder writers of “offensive” or “subversive” material.

I’d hoped  that over here, we’d won on the profanity front at the very least. It’s hard to imagine a smaller victory. There’s still the ongoing war to be fought against the creationists and the racists and homophobes and the trans— hell, let’s just save ourselves a few lines and call them phobics, generic— but by all that’s holy, swear words? We haven’t even come this far, here in 21st-Century N’Am?

Evidently not. Educators in this place literally fear for their jobs, because they want to teach a book containing the word “fuck”.

I’m not claiming that Blindsight, stripped of profanity, would lose something essential. In fact, it’s the very triviality of this censorship that bothers me; it seems like such a ludicrous thing to get worked up about, such a high price to pay for something that really doesn’t matter. Such a little thing to risk one’s livelihood over. So let’s give in, and save ourselves the tantrum. Let’s pay this small, unimportant price. And Nineteen Eighty Four‘s Newspeak dictionary will have one fewer word in it, and Fahrenheit 451‘s grass-roots dystopia will burn one more book that someone considers offensive (That’s all you need to know). Only next time it will be the ideas and not the slang, it’ll be the political statement you have to cut if you want to keep your job, and it’ll be even easier this time because we’ve already taken the first step down that slope.

But that’s okay. After a few more iterations the problem will solve itself— because none of us will have the vocabulary to express dissent any more.

Back here in the present I suggested some workarounds. Maybe they could run the bowdlerized edition off on a Gestetner that blurred the words unto illegibility (I figured, given the outmoded attitudes at play in that part of the world, maybe their educational equipment might be equally antique)— at which point the teacher could simply point them to my website where the original text lay in wait. I seized upon the the department head’s reported objection to teaching a “non-classic” book containing profanity; did this imply that books regarded as “classics” got a pass? (I’m pretty sure To Kill a Mockingbird gets taught without having been purged of the word “nigger”, for instance.) As it happened, Omni had recently stuck my name on a list of “Greatest Sci-Fi Writers of All Time”, right up there with  Orwell, Wolfe, and Le Guin. It was completely bogus, of course— my name doesn’t belong anywhere near those folks, not yet at least— but somehow it had slipped in, and maybe that would be enough to classify Blindsight as a “classic”? No?

Okay, then. Maybe she could replace every instance of the word “fuck” with the name of some local personality, evil and/or corrupt in some way— someone whose name could be used as a common epithet in some dystopian future. I didn’t know who that might be— “Cheney”, “Harper”, and “Trump” would all be candidates on the federal scale, but I didn’t know anything about the local one. Since the teacher knew the locals, though, I figured I could trust her expertise.

That’s the option she went for.

And that, as far as I know, is where things stand. She says she’s cool with me blogging about this (I’ve filed off the serial numbers), and I’m told the students themselves are privy to our email conversation. (She’s also bringing “Mr. Robot” and the BSG reboot into the discussion, to illustrate various strategies by which one might get profanity past Standards & Practices; for this and other reasons, I think she’s pretty cool.)  I expect I’ll be Skyping with the class somewhere along the line. There’s little chance that any of those students will go home thinking that the characters in Blindsight used word like “heck” or “fudgemuffin”. No one will be fooled; in that sense, nothing will be censored.

And yet, I still don’t know quite how to feel about this. Some part of me still thinks I should’ve climbed onto some higher horse and refused to budge, out of sheer ornery principle. There’s not much chance the book will read smoother without the fucks than with them; in that sense, the reading experience has probably been compromised. On the other hand, Blindsight is hardly the smoothest reading experience anyway, even for people with a degree or two under their belt. (I’ve told you all about the smart-ass who asked me when it was going to get translated into English, yuk yuk yuk, right?). I don’t care how “advanced” this class is;  if the biggest problem they have with Blindsight is the rhythm of its curses, I’ll consider myself insanely lucky.

I should consider myself insanely lucky anyway. There are whole libraries of books that any teacher could go to if they wanted to turn their kids on to the joy of reading or the challenge of SF; pretty much every one of those books would be more famous than Blindsight, easier to read, and way less work. And yet, this person has chosen to climb uphill, doing all the heavy lifting herself.  She has become Sisyphus, because she believes that something I wrote might matter to people she teaches.

How often does an author get to say that?

Posted in: ink on art, politics, writing news by Peter Watts 54 Comments

The Dudette With the Clitoris, and Other Thoughts on Star Trek Beyond

I used to be a huge Star Trek fan.

The weird thing is, he did these after "The Forever War"...

The weird thing is, he did these after “The Forever War”…

I watched TOS reruns repeatedly and religiously in high school. Even watched the cartoons. Bought the James Blish episode adaptations, then the (better-written) Alan Dean Foster ones, then an endless series of mostly-forgettable tie-in novels (a few written by the likes of Joe Haldeman and Vonda McIntyre). I reread the Gerrold and Whitfield commentaries until the pages fell out of their bindings. I wrote Star Trek fanfic.The very first con I ever attended was a mid-seventies Trek con at the Royal York. I was pulling graveyard in the Eaton Center’s IT department that summer; I’d work from 10pm to 10am, stumble down to the con for the day, stumble back to work again at night. (My most vivid memory of that weekend was Harlan Ellison introducing his then-wife as the love of his life on Friday evening, then publicly excoriating her as a faithless slut on Sunday afternoon. Not quite sure what happened in between. I may have dozed.)

These, and many others.

These, and many others.

This one too. Did you know that Vulcan urine has the consistency of machine oil, and can kill plant life?

This too. Did you know that Vulcan urine has the consistency of machine oil, and can kill plant life?

I still have the original Franz Joseph blueprints of the Constitution class starship hanging around somewhere, along with the Technical Manual and the Medical Reference Manual and the Star Trek Concordance and the Star Trek Spaceflight Chronology and— I kid you not— the official Star Trek Cooking Manual (authorship attributed to Christine Chapel). I always hated the third season but I blamed NBC for that, not the Great Bird of the Galaxy. I endured The Motionless Picture, breathed a  sigh of relief at The Wrath of Khan, grimly held my nose and watched the first two seasons of Next Gen until they put Gene Roddenberry out to pasture so it could finally get good.

You thought I was kidding, didn't you?

You thought I was kidding, didn’t you?

Of course, this was all seventies-eighties era. Eventually I got tired of lugging a steamer trunk’s worth of paperbacks back and forth across the country and unloaded most of it onto Goodwill. I only made it halfway through DS9, got less than a season into Voyager before giving up on it (honestly, I wanted to throw in the towel after the pilot), and made it about as far as the easy-listening opening-credits song for Enterprise before deciding I’d had enough. I was clean and sober for years afterward, and proud of it.

Point is, I’ve earned a certain amount of ST cred. I didn’t just know episodes, I knew writers (on of my happiest moments was when Norman Spinrad raved about my work in Asimov’s). So I’d argue that my opinion, while watching these Abrams reboots coming down the pike, is not entirely uninformed.  I mostly loved the first one even though it went of the rails in the third act, even though it arbitrarily relocated a whole damn planet (Delta Vega) from the very edge of the galaxy (where it lived in TOS’s “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) to mutual orbit around Vulcan for chrissakes, a planet which has no moon (“The Man Trap”). I mostly hated Into Dumbness for far more reasons than I mentioned in passing back in 2013. Didn’t really weigh in on either of them here.

A couple of weeks behind the curve, though, we finally checked out Star Trek Beyond, our hopes stoked by its stellar rating on Rotten Tomatoes (No, I will never learn): 216 professional critics, 180 of whom applauded.  And finally having seen it for myself, I gotta ask that Ratey-One Eighty: What the fuck were you on?

Spoilage follows.

But beyond what, exactly? It can't be beyond reason; they haven't got there yet.

But beyond what, exactly? It can’t be beyond reason; they haven’t got there yet.

For starters, forget the bad science. Or at least, forgive it; Star Trek has never been the go-to franchise for rigorous verisimilitude, and that’s okay.  Forget the depiction of “nebulae”   as impenetrable fogs of cloud and rocks jammed so cheek-to-jowl that they’re forever colliding with each other. Just accept whatever weird biological mechanism grants you immortality by turning you into a horny toad (the lizard, not a sexually-aroused amphibian). Forget the fact that we shouldn’t even be using starships any more, since Into Darkness showed us Federation transporters reaching from Earth to the Klingon homeworld without straining, and communicators that did the same without any noticeable time lag.

Let’s put all that aside, and consider these questions instead:

  • Stripey-warrior-girl Jaylah is hiding from Krall’s forces in the wreck of the Franklin, which she has cleverly cloaked to avoid detection. But the Franklin was originally Krall’s ship; he was the one who crashed it on Altamid, back when he was Edison. So why doesn’t he know it’s there now, even though it’s invisible? In fact, why doesn’t the fact that his crashed starship has suddenly vanished raise all manner of red flags, draw attention to Jaylah’s hideout rather than concealing it?
  • Krall— and presumably his whole merry band of lizard-faced minions— are actually human, physically modified as a side-effect of alien life-extension tech. (At least, if his minions weren’t Franklin crew, someone please tell me where they came from; we’re told that Altimid’s original inhabitants abandoned the place centuries ago). So what’s this weird alien language they’re speaking throughout most of the movie, the one that we require subtitles to comprehend? I’m pretty sure it’s not French.
  • The last twenty minutes of the movie or so— basically, the climax— revolve around Kirk chasing a “bioweapon”— imagine that the Smoke Monster from “Lost” had its own Mini-Me— around the vast variable-gravity reaches of Starbase Yorktown. The weapon is on the verge of detonation. Kirk has to fly around and pull on a bunch of levers in a specific sequence to open a convenient airlock and suck it into space. One of the levers gets stuck. The clock ticks down. And not once does anyone say Hey, we’ve got transporters— why don’t we just lock onto the motherfucker from here and beam its squirmy black ass into space?

I mean, seriously: transporter technology and warp drive are the two most iconic  technologies of the whole 50-year-old franchise. Not using the transporter— not even mentioning it— is like putting an asteroid on a collision course with the Enterprise, then expecting us to believe that everyone on the bridge has just kinda forgotten  they can simply move out of the way. Such scenarios do not inspire you to grip your armrests and wonder how our heroes will escape this time; they inspire you to cheer for the fucking asteroid.

Two of these three quibbles are mission-critical plot elements; the story falls apart without them, yet they make no sense. And there are other issues, smaller issues, that chipped away at my increasingly desperate attempts to squeeze a bit of enjoyment out of this rotten fruit.  The lighting was incredibly dark, even in locations that should have been brightly lit; it was as if the theatre’s main projector bulb had burned out and someone was filling in with a flashlight. The sound was almost as muddy as the lighting;  at one point, Caitlin swore she heard someone make reference to “the dudette with the clitoris”, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell her what else it might have been.

Much has been made of Beyond‘s “return to basics” in terms of characterization, which seems like a fancy way of saying that Spock and McCoy get to trade jabs again like they did in the old days. That’s true; but these jabs are soft and flaccid things, never as funny or poignant as some of the sparks that flared between Kelly and Nimoy back in the sixties. “I do not blame him, Doctor.  He is probably terrified of your beads and rattles”; “They do indeed have one redeeming feature. They do not talk too much.”; “I know why you’re not afraid to die: you’re more afraid of living!”

Remember those?

Now take a moment to consider just what Star Trek Beyond has driven me to: it has driven me to praise (albeit in a relative way) the quality of the dialog in sixties-era Star Trek.

I could go on. I could complain about the absurdity of a soldier who felt abandoned by the Federation because “Starfleet is not a military organization”— despite the fact that Starfleet’s ships are armed to the teeth, and carry out military engagements with the Federation’s enemies, and are crewed by uniformed people assigned military ranks who follow a military chain-of-command. (Yup, no military organization here. Just the galaxy’s best cosplayers…)  I could remark upon the surrealism of two Starfleet captains locked in mortal combat while berating each other about their respective Captain’s logs: I read your diary! Yeah, well, I read your diary!—

Evidently, in this timeline, Starfleet captains tweet their logs for all to see. You might be forgiven for wondering if this doesn’t constitute some kind of security issue, were it not for the fact that Starfleet is not a military organization.

I could also go on at lesser length about the good things the movie served up. The FX were great, when you could see ’em.  Nice to see a Universal Translator that needs to be programmed now and then, and which actually voices-over audible alien dialog instead of magically reshaping the speaker’s sounds and mouth movements into English. I liked the almost-sorta invocation of nearest-neighbor algos to explain the schooling behavior of the alien swarm, even if they used a hokey made-up name and hand-waved the exploit. The acting was fine; the cast, for the most part, both honor and improve upon the legacy they’ve inherited. And—

Well, to be honest, that’s pretty much it. Not great Star Trek. Not a great movie.

And you know what really doesn’t make much sense? I’ll still probably go see the next one when it comes out.

Maybe I shouldn’t have tossed all those paperbacks after all.

 

 

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 32 Comments

Insect Awakenings.

Another PSA announcement: If anyone’s trying to email me, I’m not ignoring you. I haven’t got email for going on 4 days now. Alleged attempts by Dreamhost (the ISP that hosts rifters.com) to fix the problem have so far succeeded in changing its status from from “Everything’s pretty much cool, just a bit of leftover email congestion for a couple of users” to “critical problems, no estimated fix time, you’re hosed, we’ve disabled comments on the status update page, and we won’t even pretend to answer any follow-up queries.” So I don’t know when I’ll have a chance to even read any emails, much less respond to them.

In the meantime though, have a look at this expanded Director’s Cut edition of a recent Nowa Fantastyka column.

*

The study looks almost perfect, if ridiculously low-tech: the kind of thing an undergrad might do with a budget of $3.50. All you need is a mirror, a piece of Plexiglas, and a bunch of ants.

Oh, and blue paint. The whole thing comes down to blue paint.

Start with the Plexiglas. Put Ant A on one side, Ant B on the other. Ant A shows no reaction to its buddy at all. So far so good.

Stick it in front of a mirror. Now it pays attention. Goes up to the glass, taps its reflection, shows interest it never showed with the real ant on the other side of the plexi. Interesting.

Maybe closer than you think.

Maybe closer than you think. (Photo: screen grab from Phase IV.)

Maybe it’s reacting to something in the mirror, some chemical in the silver backing perhaps. So put a dot of blue paint on its head and put it in front of the mirror again. This time it checks out its reflection and starts grooming its head, as if to get rid of that weird-ass dot that just appeared there. It never tries to groom its reflection, which is where it actually saw the paint.

This is starting to get creepy.

Okay, um, maybe it could just feel the paint up there. Maybe it itched or something. So try a speck of brown, ant-coloured paint, something that won’t be visually obvious in reflection.

No grooming.

Put a speck of blue paint on the back of the head, where the ant can’t see it in a mirror. No grooming.

I’m not one to jump to conclusions, but I’m having a hard time interpreting these results in any way other than: ants recognize themselves in mirrors. Which means they pass a test frequently used as an index of self-awareness, a test that even some higher primates fail.

The stats seem sound, generally returning P-values of less than 0.001 (for the statistical neophytes in the crowd, that means the odds of getting those results by random chance are less than 1 in 1000). But the remarkable thing is, the researchers didn’t even do stats on most of their results. They couldn’t do stats, because there was no variation in the data. All the face-painted ants groomed their faces once they saw themselves in a mirror; none of the unpainted ones did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clean data in a behavioural study before.

Yup. Sure looks like a top-flight journal to me...

Yup. Sure looks like a top-flight journal to me…

What is this simple-yet-profound experiment, this rock-solid research with the batshit crazy results? Why, it’s “Are ants capable of self recognition?“, by Marie-Claire Cammaerts and Roger Cammaerts. Where will you find it? In the Journal of Science, a publication whose website veritably screams JunkWoo. The title bar on its website looks like a banner ad for generic penis pills. Just below that you’ll see, for some reason, a stock photo of a smiling dude in safety goggles and a yellow hard hat. “Instruction to Author” is either a typo or a tacit admission that every paper in the journal is written by the same person under different pen names. Even the journal’s name seems designed to encourage confusion with more respectable platforms (“the journal, Science?” “American Journal of Science?” “Journal of Science Education?”) while simultaneously discouraging investigation into its actual pedigree. (Google the phrase “Journal of Science”: you’ll get 67,000,000 hits. I scrolled through the first 300 and couldn’t find a single link to the actual journal.)

The Cammaerts are not flakes. They’re well-published in respected, peer-reviewed journals. I don’t know what they’re doing in the Journal of Science, unless they lost a drunken bet at a party somewhere. Or maybe their results are just so incredible that no one else would publish them.

I’m thinking maybe it’s that second thing. If you go to Wikipedia’s page on “Mirror Test”, pull back the curtain and read the backstage discussion, you’ll see editors and commenters stating that they “flat out don’t believe those results”, even while others praise the methodology that produced them. The idea that ants can self-recognize just opens too big a can of worms.

And yet, Cammaerts and Cammaerts are not entirely alone. Way back in 2010, writing in the top-of-the-line Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Björn Brems described research suggesting that fruit flies have Free Will. It wasn’t “free will” in the classic sense— it basically amounted to any behaviour complex enough to make you unpredictable to predators— but as anyone conversant with the literature will tell you, that’s pretty much the only kind of free will we humans can lay claim to as well (albeit with more bells and whistles). And just this year, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ran a piece called “What Insects can tell us about the origins of consciousness“, by Andrew Barrona and Colin Klein.

Evidence against vertebratism. Modified from Barrona and Klein 2016.

Evidence against vertebratism. Modified from Barrona and Klein 2016.

Barrona and Klein argue that vertebrate consciousness is seated in the midbrain, which acquires information about both the organism’s internal state and its external environment. It integrates these into a model that generates behavioural goals— if your internal state is too hot then move somewhere cooler, that sort of thing— and relays those goals to the motor system. The midbrain contains all the elements necessary to sense, navigate, and survive in a given environment. Barrona and Klein argue that such integration is the root of consciousness, and point out insect brain structures serving the same functions; they conclude that insects should experience comparable levels of awareness. (Nematodes, lacking comparable structures, would not.)

It’s important not to go off the deep end here. There’s a huge difference between consciousness and self-awareness, between sentience and sapience (and a belated thankyou to Leonid Korogodski for hammering that difference home to me many years ago); an organism can have conscious experiences without consciously reflecting on their own existence. And the Mirror Test has always struck me as a questionable metric for self-awareness anyway (for one thing, it’s easy to envision an algorithm that recognizes the self without being aware of the self). But the traditional view of insects as mere computer programs wrapped in chitin, utterly deterministic in their behaviour, appears to be wrong. Stimulus A does not always provoke Response B, as you’d expect from purely deterministic reflexes; sometimes the insect is focused on other input, sometimes it can be distracted. We are learning that insects pay attention to things. It seems increasingly likely that their experiences are conscious ones, to at least some extent. Consciousness may be far more ancient, far more widespread than we ever suspected.

Which means that suffering is, too, by the same token.

I’m not sure why, but I bet that explains a lot.

 

 

Posted in: neuro, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 38 Comments

Virtual Appearances, Virtual Realities

Couple of PSAs to start out with:

  1. I’m going to be participating in tomorrow’s Future of Mind Symposium, put on by the Center for Transformative Media down in NYC. (I will, no big surprise, be participating via video-link to reduce the chances of getting killed and/or arrested en route.) The event is free, but you gotta register. Also they’ve already had to move to a bigger venue so I don’t know how available tickets might be.
  2. Spacecat.

    Spacecat.

    I’ve already participated in another interview with Jasun Horsley’s “Liminality” podcast. This time, like the last, we rambled on so long that it ended up being a two-parter. As of this writing only the first hour is up; according to the page summary we discoursed erratically on UFOs, Michael Persinger’s helmet, abduction narratives and sexual abuse, J. Allen Hynek and close encounters, MKULTRA, the parliament of voices, ritual abuse and False Memory Syndrome’s disinformation campaign, Whitley Strieber & the Nazi-US alliance, Elizabeth Loftus, using satanic elements as cover to invalidate memories of abuse, and organized pedophilia in the British aristocracy. To name but a few. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the whole thing, so I have no idea how coherent or incoherent it might be. Think of it as sitting across from us at a bar after I’ve had a few drinks.

Gotta love what Jasun does to my author photos, though. He swears that any resemblance of that upper-right yellow blob to a seventies-era Space Invader is purely accidental.

*

“Nothing is real.”
—John Lennon

So. The latest variant on the classic double-slit experiment continues to support what all other such experiments have supported in the past, namely that whether something behaves like a particle or a wave depends upon whether it’s being surveilled, which demonstrates in turn that (in the words of the study’s author) “reality does not exist if you are not looking at it”, which in yet another turn means that nothing makes any fucking sense whatever. I’ve always clung to the belief that it all does make sense, but — because stuff that happens on quantum scales has no relevance to the process of natural selection up here in the classical world— our brains simply aren’t wired in a way that lets us grok such things intuitively. But let’s put that aside for now, because I think I might have come up with an explanation for all this quantum dumbness that actually does make sense at classical scales:

Nick Bostrom is right. We’re all living in a simulation. More, these dual-slit experiments suggest that (and here’s my little contribution, which probably has its head up its ass because I don’t know anything about this stuff but bear with me) we’re living in a simulation with a really low budget.

We are somewhere below the line

We are somewhere below the line

Most of you already know Bostrom’s argument. For the rest of you, his reasoning boils down to 1) if it’s possible to create simulations with self-aware inhabitants, and 2) if some advanced species is inclined to actually build such sims, then 3) there are probably way more simulated universes (>>1) than real ones (=1). Which means, based purely on the odds, that we are far more likely to be living in one of a myriad simulations than we are in a singular baseline reality.

I’ve always liked this thought. It fits in nicely with the whole Digital Physics paradigm that seems to have taken root in the Physics community. It jibes with the way reality seems to kinda “stop” below a certain scale of resolution (Planck Length and Planck Time may be no more than pixel dimensions and clock cycles). And if enough studies like Bean et al come down the pike— and if they hold up— the Simulation Hypothesis might even find its way out of the it’s-untestable-so-it’s-not-science swamp that’s mired String Theory for so long.

So what do we know about our own baby steps into building simulated realities? We know that when you’re playing Fallout 4, the graphics engine doesn’t waste energy rendering the landscape behind you. We know that when you put on your Oculus Rifts, they don’t paint the vista at the back of your head. Why should they? Nobody’s looking there. Oh, they keep all the pointers and variables on hand, sure. They’re completely capable of rendering the world to your left the moment you turn your gaze in that direction. But they don’t actually solidify any part of the world until someone looks at it.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Maybe not so Unreal an Engine after all...

Maybe not so Unreal an Engine after all…

First-person gaming is a pretty good metaphor for quantum indeterminacy; nothing is real until observed. Maybe it’s more than a metaphor. Maybe we’re living in a cut-rate Bostrom sim, one that can’t afford the computing power to render everything in hi-res detail all the time— so it cuts corners, saves cycles only for those parts of the model that are being observed.

Maybe there’s nothing insane or counterintuitive about quantum indeterminacy after all. Maybe it’s perfectly understandable— depressingly familiar, even— to anyone who’s lived on a grad-student budget.

Posted in: astronomy/cosmology, Digital Physics by Peter Watts 65 Comments

Shooting Back.

For at least three years now— probably longer— I’ve been worrying at a perpetually-unfinished blog post that tries to take an economic approach to murders committed by cops. I’ve never posted it, for reasons that should be obvious when I outline its essentials. The basic argument is that conventional attempts to reform police behavior are doomed to fail for two reasons:

  1. the cost (to a cop) of gunning down the average black person in the street is low; and
  2. the cost of not covering for your buddy when he guns down someone in the street is high.

I don’t believe these are especially controversial claims. We all know how rare it is to see a cop indicted, even when there’s video evidence of him choking the life out of someone or shooting them in the back. The astonishingly high rate of “equipment failure” experienced by body cams on the beat is old news. When you’re used to that level of invulnerability, why not indulge in a little target practice if you’re so inclined?

Likewise, the Blue Wall of Silence is news to no one. It is very difficult to get a cop to turn in their fellows because their very lives may depend on their partner having their back at a critical moment. You get a rep as a rat, your backup may just look the other way for that critical half-second when a real threat draws down on you. (I once compared civilian-police interactions to dealing with snakes in the desert: 95% may be nonpoisonous, but it’s still a good idea to pack an antivenom kit when you head out. No, said the person I was talking with, the cops are worse: with snakes, at least the nonpoisonous 95% don’t go out of their way to protect the other five.)

So: cost of murder low. Cost of turning in murderer high. These are the economics of Homicide: Cops on the Street. Seems to me, the only way to change the current pattern is to change those economic costs. For example, what if you increased the cost of not turning in a bad cop? What if, every time you didn’t turn in a badged murderer, you yourself stood significantly higher odds of getting killed?

What if we started shooting back?

Not at the guilty cop, of course. He’d be too well protected, too on guard by the time the word got out. But what if, for every cop who gets away with murder, some other random cop within a certain radius— say, 200 miles— was shot in reprisal? It wouldn’t matter that they were innocent. In fact, their innocence would be central to the whole point: to make the nonvenomous 95% stop covering for those “few bad apples” we’re constantly being told is the heart of the problem. The point would be to raise the price of collusion enough make those 95-percenters think twice. Simple economics.

From Ross, 2015.

From Ross, 2015. Risk Ratio (of getting killed by police): Black-and-Unarmed to White-and-Unarmed.

Of course it’s not justice; you’d be killing an innocent person. But we’re way past the point at which justice should have any say in the matter. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of justice in the number of people who get gunned down by police on an ongoing basis. There’s little justice in the statistical finding that on average in the US, unarmed blacks are 3.5 times more likely to be gunned down by cops than unarmed whites (over 20 times as likely in some corners of that benighted country). Anyone who tells you that you must remain polite, respectful, and most of all nonviolent while your fellows are being mowed down like mayflies has either chosen a side (hint: it ain’t yours), or drunk about ten litres of Kool-Aid.

When it comes to game theory, tit-for-tat remains the most effective strategy.

*

I never published that blog post. Never even finished it. The solution seemed way too naive and simplistic, for one thing. In a world of rainbows and unicorns cops might do the math, realize that murdering unarmed black people endangered themselves, and change their evil ways— but if we lived in a world of rainbows and unicorns, cops wouldn’t be murdering with impunity in the first place. In this world, it seems a lot more likely that things would simply escalate, that police forces across the US— already militarized to the eyeballs— would go into siege mood, feel increasingly justified in shooting at every shadow (or at least the dark ones). They’d rather put the whole damn country under martial law than lose face by backing down.

It also didn’t help that I’ve known some very decent people who happen to be cops— one a 9-11 first responder, another who actually reads my books and writes his own— and while that wouldn’t change the logic of the argument one iota, random assassination is still a fate I wouldn’t wish on good people. Because when it comes right down to it this is wish-fulfillment, for all the economic and game-theory rationales I might invoke. It was born in my gut, not my neocortex. Every time I read about another Philando Castile or Alton Sterling, I want to start throwing bombs myself. (My greatest disappointment in Bruce Cockburn welled up when he back-pedaled on “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”.)

I want the fuckers to pay, and I know they won’t.

Oh, maybe this month’s killers have some rough times in store— the public documentation of those crimes was so incontrovertible that the politicians don’t really have the option of sweeping them under the rug. But viral videos of murder in progress didn’t send Eric Garner’s killers to jail. Nobody got indicted for the murder of Sandra Bland. The killer of Samuel DuBose is at least awaiting trial, but given the history of such proceedings dating back to Rodney King I’m not counting on any convictions. And those victims are the lucky ones, the ones “fortunate” enough to be gunned down on camera. What about the greater number whose deaths happen out of camera range, whose killers are free to make up any story that fits without fear of contradiction or scrutiny by a legal system which continues, unfathomably, to treat the word of a police officer as golden?

They keep getting killed. And we keep rending our garments and sending them our fucking thoughts and prayers, and the moment they block a road or stop a parade or express a fraction of the rage that is their due we back away and tell them that they won’t get anywhere with that kind of attitude. We trot out the same insipid MLK Jr. quotes about the virtues of nonviolence, about peace being the only way to achieve “dialog” or “brotherhood”— as if the people who have them in the crosshairs give a flying fuck about any of that. We tell them to have patience, to let the system work because we’ve got the evidence now, everyone saw it on YouTube, no way those fucking cops will walk away from it this time— and yet they do. Time and time again. The cops walk away from it.

Photo by Jonathan Bachman. According to the Atlantic article from which I cadged this photo, a number of readers sided with the police.

Photo by Jonathan Bachman. According to the Atlantic article from which I cadged this photo, a number of readers sided with the police.

Why should the black community care about alienating us? Why should they give us another chance to express our shared anguish and deepest sympathies, only to have us wag our fingers at them the moment we’re inconvenienced? A quarter-century after Rodney King, why should they believe that the next time will be different, or the next, or the time after?

What’s left to try, except fighting fire with fire?

That is where my game-theory imaginings came from: not some rational step-by-step multivariate analysis, but vicarious rage. And while I might be able to construct such an analysis to yield the same result; no matter how rationally I might to put that argument; no matter how many of you I might even convince— all I’d have really done would be to craft a clever excuse to let my brain stem off the leash. I try to be better than that.

Which doesn’t make keeping it to myself all this time feel any less like a betrayal of some principle I can’t quite put my finger on.

*

Anyway, I never posted it. And now the scenario’s been realized anyway: five cops dead, six others critical. All innocent, so far as we know (although if they were black civilians, I’m sure Fox would already be pointing out that they were no angels…) All shot in direct retaliation for the murder of black people, for the sins of their brethren.

The only deviation from my own scenario is that the shooter didn’t get away alive. They blew him up, used a robot carrying a bomb on its arm like it was delivering a pizza.

The usual aftermath. People “coming together”. Pastors and politicians urging calm. The same old Kingisms and Ghandi-isms popping up like impetigo sores all over Facebook. Everyone expressing support for the members of the Dallas Police Force, chiefed by a black man who has, by all accounts, turned that department into a model of progressive policing and perhaps the worst target Micah Johnson could have chosen. (Although it bears mention that that same progressive chief, and those same progressive policies, are apparently quite unpopular with the DPF rank-and-file.) As usual, none of this seems to have had much impact on the tendency of certain cops to gun people down and lie about it afterward (I mean, Jesus— by now you’d think they’d dial back the shootings on account of the optics if nothing else). So far, nothing out of the ordinary.

Except now, here and there across the US, these other people have begun threatening reprisals against other cops. There’ve been some actual shootings. Copycat attacks, you might call them. Or perhaps “inspired reprisals” might be a better term.

Micah Johnson is becoming a role model.

So what now? Have we finally reached critical mass? Is this a smattering of isolated blips, or the start of a chain reaction? Have we finally reached a tipping point, will black lives matter enough to starting shooting back? Given the stats on the ground, who among you will blame them if they do?

For my part, I’m more glad than ever that I didn’t make that blog post. At least nobody can blame me for the events of the past few days. (Don’t laugh— following my post on Trump’s burning of America, I had at least one long-time fan renounce me completely for “throwing [him] under the bus”, as if my thoughts might have even an infinitesimal impact on the unfolding of US politics. Some people seriously overestimate my influence on the world stage.)

I have no idea what’s in store. I’m not sure I want to find out.

All I know is this: if we are, finally at long last, starting to reap the whirlwind— no one can say it hasn’t been a long time coming.

Posted in: politics, rant by Peter Watts 87 Comments

Sigmoid.

By Dan Ghiordanescu.

By Dan Ghiordanescu.

I cried for the Chimp, once.

I was there for his birth. I saw the lights come on, listened as he found his voice, watched him learn to tell Sunday from Kai from Ishmael. He was such a fast learner, and an eager one; back then, barely out of my own accelerated adolescence and not yet bound for the stars, I felt sure he’d streak straight into godhood while we stood mired in flesh and blood.

I didn’t feel the slightest hint of envy. How could I? He seemed so happy: devoured every benchmark, met every challenge, anticipated each new one with a kind of hardwired enthusiasm I could only describe as voracious. Once, rounding a corner into some rough-hewn catacomb, I came upon a torrent of bots swirling in perfect complex formation: a school of silver fish, in the center of Eri‘s newly-seeded forest. The shapes I glimpsed there still make my head hurt, when I think about them.

“Yeah, we’re not quite sure what that is,” one of the gearheads said when I asked her. “He does it sometimes.”

“He’s dancing,” I told her.

She regarded me with something like pity. “More likely just twiddling his thumbs. Running some motor diagnostic that kicks in when there’s a few cycles to spare.” She shrugged. “Why don’t you ask him?”

“Maybe I will.” Although I never got around to it.

I’d hike to the caverns during down time, watched him dance as the forest went in: theorems and fractal symphonies playing out against fissured basalt, against a mist of mycelia, against proliferating vine-tangles of photosynthetic pods so good at sucking up light that even under lights designed to mimic the very sun, they presented nothing but black silhouettes. When the forest grew too crowded the Chimp moved to some unfinished factory floor; when that started to fill up he relocated to an empty coolant tank the size of a skyscraper; finally, to that vast hollow in the center of the world where someday— a few centuries down the line— ramscoops and lasers and magnetic fields would devour dust and hydrogen like some colossal filterfeeding space whale, squeeze it all down to a small black mass heavy as moons. The dance evolved with each new venue. Every day those kinetic tapestries grew more elaborate and mindbending and beautiful. It didn’t matter where he went. I found him. I was there.

Sometimes I’d try to proselytize, invite some friend or lover along for the show, but except for Kai— who humored me a couple of times— no one was especially interested in watching an onboard diagnostic twiddle its thumbs. That was okay. By now, I knew the Chimp was mainly playing for me anyway. Why not? Cats and dogs had feelings. Fish even. They develop habits, loyalties. Affections. The Chimp may have only weighed in at a fraction of a human brain but he was easily smarter than any number of sentient beings with personalities to call their own.

One day, though, he didn’t seem twice as smart as he’d been the day before.

I couldn’t really put my finger on it at first. I’d just— developed this model of exponential expectation, I guess. I took for granted that the toddler playing with numbered blocks in the morning would have blown through tensor calculus by lunchtime. Now, in subtle increments, he wasn’t quite living up to that curve. Now he grew only incrementally smarter over time. I never asked the techs about it— I never even mentioned it to the other ‘spores— but within a week there wasn’t any doubt. Chimp wasn’t exponential after all. He was only sigmoid, past inflection and closing on the asymptote, and for all his amazing savantic skills he’d be nowhere near godhood by the time he scraped that ceiling.

Ultimately, he wouldn’t even be as smart as me.

They kept running him through his paces, of course. Kept loading him up with new and more complex tasks. And he was still up for the job, still kept scoring a hundred. It’s not like they’d designed him to fail. But he had to work harder, now. The exercises took evermore resources. Every day, there was less left over.

He stopped dancing.

The real tragedy was that it didn’t seem to bother him. I asked him if he missed the ballet and he didn’t know what I was talking about. I commiserated about the hammer that had knocked him from the sky and he told me he was doing fine. “Don’t worry about me, Sunday,” he said. “I’m happy.”

It was the first time he’d ever used that word. If I’d heard it even ten days earlier, I might have believed him.

So I descended into the forest— gone to twilight now, the full-spectrum floods retired once the undergrowth had booted past the seedling stage— and I wept for a happy stunted being who didn’t know or care that it had once been blazing towards transcendence before some soulless mission priority froze him midflight and stuck him in amber.

What can I say? I was young, I was stupid.

I thought I could afford to feel pity.

Posted in: fiblet, Sunflowers by Peter Watts 17 Comments

The Physics of Hope.

Okay, one more before I pack.  Since it came out in NF a long time ago:


I never liked physics much.

I’m not just talking about the math. I don’t like what modern physics tells us: that time is an illusion, for one thing. That we live in a reality where everything that ever was, and ever will be, always is: static timelines embedded in a “block universe” like threads in amber. I may remember scratching my head before writing this sentence, but that’s just one frozen slice of me with a bunch of frozen memories. An instant further along is another slice at t+1, with memories incrementally more advanced, and because it remembers the past it believes that it is moving through time. But in reality— seen from some higher-dimensioned overhead perspective— we exist on a tabletop where nothing changes, nothing moves, nothing goes away.

I hate that vision. My gut rebels at the grim counterintuitive determinism of it. But I’m no physicist, and we all know how misleading gut feelings can be. I don’t like it, but what do I know? I know nothing.

You can’t say that about Lee Smolin. Eminent theoretical physicist, co-Founder of the  world-renowned Perimeter Institute, author of the 2013 book Time Reborn. I’ve just read it. It gives me hope. It says my gut was right all along. We do exist from one moment to the next. This flow we perceive is no illusion. Time is real.

It’s space that’s bullshit.

Imagine the universe as a lattice of nodes; the only way to get from one place to another is to hop along the nodes between, like stepping-stones in a stream. The more dimensions the lattice has, the shorter the number of hops required to get between two points: Smolin invokes the analogy of a cell-phone network, which puts you just one step away from billions of “nearest neighbors”.

Well, sure, if this is how you represent a "higher dimension, then of course the cell phone collapses space...

Well, sure, if this is how you represent a “higher dimension, then of course the cell phone collapses space…

It takes energy to keep those higher dimensions active, though. In the early, hot universe— right after the Big Bang— there was energy to spare; dimensions were abundant and everything was one cell-phone-hop away from everything else. “Space” didn’t really exist back then. As the universe cooled, those higher dimensions collapsed; the cell network shut down, flattening reality into a low-energy mode where only those few locations adjacent in three dimensions could be considered “nearest”. Now, to get anywhere else, you have to hop a myriad low-dimensional nodes. You have to cross “space”.

The point is, space is not a fundamental property of reality; it only emerged in the wake of that energy-starved collapse. This is the story Smolin is selling: There is no time-space continuum. There is only time.

Physics is wrong.

According to Time Reborn, physics went astray at two points. The first was when it started confusing maps with the territories they described. Most physics equations are time-symmetric; they work as well backwards as forwards. They are timeless, these rules that do such a good job of describing our observations of reality; so, physicists thought, maybe reality is timeless too. When we first started drawing graphs of motion and mass on paper— each moment a fixed point along some static axis— we were being lulled into a Block-Universe mindset.

Smolin describes the second wrong turn as “the Cosmological Fallacy”: an unwarranted extrapolation of the local to the universal. Physics studies systems in isolation; you’re not going to factor in the gravitational influences of the Virgo Supercluster when you’re calculating the trajectory of a bowling bowl, for example. You ignore trivial variables, you impose boundaries by necessity. You put physics in a box and leave certain universals— the laws of nature, for example— outside. Those laws reach into the box and work their magic, but you don’t have to explain them; they just are.

Physics works really well in boxes. The problem arises when you extrapolate those boxy insights to the whole universe. There is no “outside” when you’re talking about all of existence, no other realm from which the timeless laws of nature can reach in and do their thing. Suddenly you’ve got to explain all that stuff that could be taken as axiomatic before. So you start fiddling around with branes and superstrings; you invoke an infinite number of parallel universes to increase the statistical odds that some of them would turn out the way ours did. If Smolin’s right, a lot of modern physics is an attempt to reimpose an outside on a universe that doesn’t have one. And because we’re trying to apply locally-derived insights onto a totality where they don’t apply, our models break.

Smolin’s alternative sits so much easier in the gut— and, at the same time, seems even more radical. Everything affects everything else, he says; and that includes the laws of physics themselves. They are not timeless or immutable: they are affected by the rest of the universe, just as the universe is affected by them.

They evolve, he says, over time.

Everyone agrees that reality was in flux during the first moments after the Big Bang: universal laws and constants could have taken entirely different values than they did when the universe finally congealed into its present configuration. The strong and weak nuclear forces could have taken different values; the Gravitational Constant could have turned out negative instead of positive. Smolin suggests natural laws are still not set in stone, even now; rather, they result from a sort of ongoing plebiscite. How the universe reacts to X+Y comes down to a roll of the dice, weighted by past experience. Correlations, initially random, strengthen over time; if X+Y rolled mostly snake-eyes in the past it’ll be increasingly likely to do so in the future.

Now we’re 15 billion years into the game. Those precedents have grown so weighty, the correlations so strong, that we mistake them for laws; when we see X+Y, we never observe any result but snake-eyes. Different outcomes are possible, though—just very, very unlikely. (Think of the Infinite Improbability Drive from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, transmuting a missile into a sperm whale or a bowl of petunias.)

So much becomes possible, if this is true. Smolin’s concept of “Cosmological Natural Selection” for one, in which Darwinian processes apply to the universe at large— in which black holes, egg-like, spawn whole new realities, each governed by a different physics (those which maximize black-hole production outcompete those which don’t). Another mind-blowing implication is that if the universe were to encounter some combination of quantum events that had never happened before, it wouldn’t know what to do: it would have to roll the dice without any precedent weighting the outcome. (Something to keep in mind, now that we’re starting to play around with quantum computing in a big way.)

We may even find our way to ftl, if I’m reading this right. After all, the lightspeed limit only applies to our impoverished four-dimensional spacetime. If you pumped up the energy in a given volume enough to reactivate all those dormant cell-phone dimensions, wouldn’t space just collapse again? Wouldn’t every node suddenly get closer to every other?

Of course, all this hypothesizing leaves open the question of how the universe “remembers” what has gone before, and how it “guesses” what to do next. But is that any less absurd than a universe in which a cat is both dead and alive until something looks at it? A universe governed by timeless laws so astronomically unlikely that you have to invoke an infinite number of undetectable parallel universes just to boost the odds in your favor?

At least Smolin’s theory is testable, which makes it more scientific than this multiverse that everyone else seems so invested in. Smolin and his allies seek to do to Einstein what Einstein did to Newton: expose the current model as a local approximation, good enough for most purposes but not truly descriptive of the deeper reality.

...but this is how I envision going from 2D to 3, and I don't see how that extra layer gets Mary and Ted any closer...

…but this is how I envision going from 2D to 3, and I don’t see how that extra layer gets Mary and Ted any closer…

And yet I’m not entirely convinced. Even with my poor grasp of physics (or more likely, because of it), aspects of this new worldview seem a bit off to me. Smolin openly derides multiverse models— but then, where then do the black-hole-spawned “baby universes” of Cosmological Selection end up? And while I can easily imagine two points, three nodes apart, on a 2D lattice, I don’t see how adding a third dimension brings them any closer together (although it certainly opens up access to a whole bunch of new nodes). Also, if the laws of nature are affected by the objects and processes they affect in turn, wouldn’t that feedback follow certain rules? Wouldn’t those rules bring determinism back into play, albeit with a couple of extra complications thrown in?

These are most likely naive criticisms. Doubtless Smolin could answer them easily; I’m probably just pushing his metaphors beyond their load-bearing limits. But perhaps the most important reason that I’m not convinced is because I so very dearly want to be. Current physics leaves no room for free will, no room even for the passage of time. Every moment we experience, every decision we think we make, is a lie. It’s not just that nothing happens the way we perceive it; in the block universe nothing happens, period.

Who wouldn’t reject such a reality, given half a chance? Who wouldn’t prefer an uncertain future in which we make our own decisions and influence our own destinies? What I wouldn’t give to live in such a world. Smolin offers it up on a platter. And because it is so tempting, I must counter my desire with an extra dose of skepticism.

Then again, the most basic tenet of empiricism is that any of us could be wrong about anything. “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right,” Einstein once said. “A single experiment can prove me wrong.”

Maybe, before too long, Smolin will get his single experiment.

Stay tuned.

Posted in: astronomy/cosmology, ink on art by Peter Watts 21 Comments

Rim Shot.

So I’ve been snowed under lately, head down in a late-breaking gig that I can’t say anything about except to tell you that I can’t say anything about it (and even that might edging up against the confidentiality clause). I did, however, take a few days off to hang with a childhood friend of mine who grew up to be an opera singer with questionable taste in Science jokes. So for want of filler, I thought I’d share the ones I can still remember him rattling off as he, I, and the Mighty BUG stumbled forth from Murphy’s Law last weekend:

Only one of this trinity is to blame; the other two are an author photo. If it helps any, his singing is way better than his stand-up.

Only one of this trinity is to blame; the other two are an author photo.

If it helps any, his singing is way better than his stand-up.

*

“My God, I’ve lost an electron!”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m positive!”

*

A Higgs boson slides into the front pew. The priest asks what it’s doing there.

The boson replies, “You can’t have mass without me.”

*

An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. The first orders a beer. The second orders one-and-a-half beers. The third orders one-and-three-quarter beers. The fourth orders—

“Okay, enough.” The bartender slams two beers down on the counter. “You guys should know your limits.”

*

Three statisticians go duck hunting. The first one shoots wide to the right; the second shoots wide to the left. The third says, “We got him!”


 

There were others, but I think they were better.

This may be it from me for a while. I’m heading off to Greece in a few days and it’s pure vacation, so unless my Nowa Fantastyka review of Smolin’s “Time Reborn” comes out of exclusivity (or my review of recent findings on Insect Consciousness, whatever comes first),  it’ll probably be a couple of weeks before you hear from me again.

Talk quietly amongst yourselves.

 

Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 10 Comments