The Toilenator

Before I forget; they’ve posted my bio over on the IAPP website, so I guess it’s official: I’m one of three (and by far the least qualified) keynote speakers at the International Association of Privacy Professionals’s Canadian symposium next month. Apparently one of the organizers was taken by my panopticon rant of a few weeks back, and invited me to put my mouth where the money is. “You’ve got a chance to talk to the regulators who enforce privacy law and the executives as big companies who make decisions about what to do with your data,” he told me.  “What do you want to say to them?”

No it's just on the street where you live.

No it’s just on the street where you live.

I’m not entirely sure. I suspect that death threats wouldn’t be anything new to such folks, and I’m pretty sure they’d be actionable as well. So I thought I might tell them something about the biological underpinnings of the mammalian surveillance response. Still, if any of you have anything you’d like to say to such professionals, I’m willing to consider requests.

That assumes, of course, that I make it back from Kawasaki in one piece. So far I have experienced two toilets since being hauled into Secondary, photographed, and fingerprinted upon my arrival. One was situated in a private residence and is a model of efficiency and conservation: it refills post-flush via a spigot emptying into a sink situated on top of the tank itself, and which drains thereinto; you wash your hands (assuming you’re given to that kind of thing) in the very stream that replenishes the device.

The other model lurks in my hotel room, and is somewhat less nonthreatening. It is the first toilet I have ever encountered with a sapience-class AI. It boots itself up with the sound of pistons and hydraulics when you sit. It autofills its own bowl as some kind of function of the curvature of your butt, which I think it assesses by means of low-intensity lasers arrayed around the rim. The seat itself is electrically heated; using it is like taking a dump while sitting on a waffle iron.

None of these controls flushes the toilet. I don't think there is a control to flush the toilet. I think the toilet decides for itself when to flush.

None of these controls flushes the toilet. I don’t think there is a control to flush the toilet. I don’t even think it has an “off” switch.  I think the toilet decides for itself when to flush.

I remain wasted, even now, from thirteen hours of jetlag.  And yet I spent most of last night propped up unsleeping in bed, cradling the magnum hair-dryer that came with the room, keeping it aimed at that dark ominous rectangle leading into the bathroom. I swear I could hear the thing breathing in there.

Also the seats in their airport commuter train pirouette en masse at each terminus, twirling majestically in place to face whichever direction is forward on any given leg of the trip. The elevators invite you to enjoy your trip through their doors.

And the SF part of this trip hasn’t even started yet.










Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 18 Comments



You’ll be hearing from me fleetingly if at all over the next few days— I’m off to Kawasaki for HAL-Con 2014, with a mixture of fear and excitement and the profound hope that I’ll be able to find my way home again afterward. One nifty thing the HAL Con folks do is put out an exclusive private minicollection of stories from their author GoH— the iteration to your right having been illustrated by this year’s artist GoH, Hotaru Unno.

I’ll be accompanied on this trip by the new Light of My Life, which I’ve spent the past few days stroking and loading and introducing to the rest of UnicornSquidNet: meet BOG, the latest and shiniest addition to our Laptop Family:


Count on the anime style to make Lenie Clarke look happy.

Count on the anime style to make Lenie Clarke look happy.

Seven kilograms of quadcore goodness. Four separate fans to keep it from scorching the flesh of your legs right through the denim. An entire backside dedicated to every kind of video interface from mini to semaphore. A function bar reverse-engineered from Cylon technology, over a keyboard whose programmable LEDs pulse in enough colors and frequencies to induce epilepsy in all but the legally blind. Built-in subwoofer. The power brick alone is the size of a cinder block.

They say you shouldn’t even boot this baby up if you’re more than fifty kilometers from the nearest nuclear reactor; further than that and the sheer suck of power through attenuating cable melts the hydro lines. Homely and massive and magnificent— just like its namesake.

brickBOGbog BOGzilla2


So anyway, I’m outta here. Wish me luck.

Transoceanic flights haven’t been getting the greatest press lately.

The Heinlein Hormone

You all remember Starship Troopers, right?

That slim little YA contained a number of beer-worthy ideas, but the one that really stuck with me was the idea of earned citizenship— that the only people allowed to vote, or hold public office, were those who’d proven they could put society’s interests ahead of their own. Heinlein’s implementation was pretty contrived— while the requisite vote-worthy altruism was given the generic label of “Federal Service”, the only such service on display in the novel was the military sort. I’ll admit that thrusting yourself to the front lines of a war with genocidal alien bugs does show a certain willingness to back-burner your own interests— but what about firefighting, or disaster relief, or working to clean up nuclear accidents at the cost of your genetic integrity? Do these other risky, society-serving professions qualify? Or are they entirely automated now (and if that tech exists, why isn’t the Mobile Infantry automated as well)?

But I digress. While Heinlein’s implementation may have been simplistic and his interrogation wanting, the basic idea— that the only way to get a voice in the group is if you’re willing to sacrifice yourself for the group— is a fascinating and provocative idea. If every member of your group is a relative, you’d be talking inclusive fitness. Otherwise, you’re talking about institutionalized group selection.

Way back when I was in grad school, “group selection” wasn’t even real, not in the biological sense. It was worse than a dirty phrase; it was a naïve one. “The good of the species” was a fairy tale, we were told. Selection worked on individuals, not groups; if a duck could grab resources for herself at the expense of two or three conspecifics, she’d damn well do that even if fellow ducks paid the price.  Human societies could certainly learn to honour the needs of the many over the needs of the few, but that was a learned response, not an evolved one. (And even when learned, it wasn’t internalized very well— just ask any die-hard capitalist  why communism failed.)

I’ve lost count of the papers I read (and later, taught) which turned a skeptical eye to cases of so-called altruism in the wild— only to find that every time, those behaviors turned out to be selfish when you ran the numbers. They either benefited the “altruist”, or someone who shared enough of the “altruist’s” genes to fit under the rubric of inclusive fitness. Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene— which pushed the model incrementally further by pointing out that it was actually the genes running the show, even though they pulled phenotypic strings one-step-removed— got an especially warm reception in that environment.

But the field moved on after I left it; as it subsequently turned out, the models discrediting group selection hinged on some pretty iffy parameter values. I’m not familiar with the details— I haven’t kept up— but as I understand it the pendulum has swung a bit closer to the midpoint. Genes are still selfish, individuals still subject to selection— but so too are groups. (Not especially radical, in hindsight. It stands to reason that if something benefits the group, it benefits many of that group’s members as well. Even Darwin suggested as much way back in Origin. Call it trickle-down selection.)

So.  If group selection is a thing in the biological sense, then we need not look to the Enlightened Society to explain the existence of the  martyrs, the altruists, and the Johnny Ricos of the world.  Maybe there’s a biological mechanism to explain them.

Enter oxytocin, back for a repeat performance.

You’re all familiar with oxytocin. The Cuddle Hormone, Fidelity in an Aerosol, the neuropeptide that keeps meadow voles monogamous in a sea of mammalian promiscuity. You may even know about its lesser-known dark side— the kill-the-outsider imperative that complements love the tribe.

Now, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Shalvi and Dreu pry open another function of this biochemical Swiss Army Knife. Turns out oxytocin makes you lie— but only if the lie benefits others. Not if it only benefits you yourself.

One of several illustrations which are  clearer than the text.

One of several illustrations which are clearer than the text.

The experiment was almost childishly simple: your treatment groups snort oxytocin, your controls snort a placebo. You tell each participant that they’ve been assigned to a group, that the  money they get at the end of the day will be an even third of what the whole group makes.  Their job is to predict whether the toss of a virtual coin (on a computer screen) will be heads or tails; they make their guess, but keep it to themselves; they press the button that flips the coin; then they report whether their guess was right or wrong. Of course, since they never recorded that guess prior to the toss, they’re free to lie if they want to.

Call those guys the groupers.

Now repeat the whole thing with a different group of participants— but this time, although their own personal payoffs are the same as before, they’re working solely for themselves. No groups are involved.  Let’s call these guys soloists.

I’m leaving out some of the methodological details because they’re not all that interesting: read the paper if you don’t believe me (warning; it is not especially well-written).  The baseline results are pretty much what you’d expect: people lie to boost their own interests. If high predictive accuracy gets you money, bingo: you’ll report a hit rate well above the 50:50 ratio that random chance would lead one to expect. If a high prediction rate costs you money, lo and behold: self-reported accuracy drops well below 50%.  If there’s no incentive to lie, you’ll pretty much tell the truth.  This happens right across the board, groupers and soloists, controls and treatments. Yawn.

But here’s an interesting finding: although both controls and groupers high-ball their hit rates when they stand to gain by doing that, the groupers lie significantly more than their controls. Their overestimates are more extreme, and their response times are lower. If you’re a grouper, oxytocin makes you lie more, and lie faster.

If you’re a soloist, though, oxytocin has no effect. You lie in the name of self-interest, but no more than the controls do.  The only difference is, this time you’re working for yourself; the groupers were working on behalf of themselves and other people.

So under the influence of oxytocin, you’ll only lie a little to benefit yourself. You’ll lie a lot to benefit a member of “your group”— even  if you’ve never met any of “your group”, even if you have to take on faith that “your group” even exists. You’ll commit a greater sin for the benefit of a social abstraction.

I find that interesting.

There are caveats, of course.  The study only looked at whether we’d lie to help others at no benefit to ourselves; I’d like to see them take the next step, test whether the same effect manifests when helping the other guy actually costs you.  And of course, when I say “You”  I mean “adult Dutch males”. This study draws its sample, even more than most, from the WEIRD demographic— not just Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, but exclusively male to boot. I don’t have a problem with this in a pilot study; you take what you can get, and when you’re looking for subtle effects it only makes sense to minimize extraneous variability. But it’s not implausible that cultural factors might leave an imprint even on these ancient pathways. The effect is statistically real, but the results will have to replicate across a far more diverse sample of humanity before scientists can make any claims about its universality.

Fortunately, I’m not a scientist any more. I can take this speculative ball and run with it, anywhere I want.

As a general rule, lying is frowned upon across pretty much any range of societies you’d care to name. Most people who lie do so in violation of their own moral codes— and those codes cover a whole range of behaviors. Most would agree that theft is wrong, for example.  Most of us get squicky at the thought of assault, or murder. So assuming that Shalvi and Drue’s findings  generalize to anything that might induce feelings of guilt— which, I’d argue,  is more parsimonious than a trigger so specific that it trips only in the presence of language-based deceit—  what we have here is a biochemical means of convincing people to sacrifice their own morals for the good of the group.

Why, a conscientious objector might even sign up to fight the Bugs.

Once again, the sheer abstractness of this study is what makes it fascinating; the fact  that the effect manifests in a little white room facing a computer screen, on behalf of a hypothetical tribe never even encountered  in real life.  When you get down to the molecules, who needs social bonding? Who needs familiarity, and friendship, and shared experience?  When you get right down to it, all that stuff just sets up the conditions necessary to produce the chemical; what need of it, when you can just shoot the pure neuropeptide up your nose?

It’s only the first step, of course. I’m sure we can improve it if we set our minds to the task. An extra amine group here, an excised  hydroxyl there, and we could engineer a group-selection molecule that makes plain old oxytocin look like distilled water.

A snort of that stuff and everyone in the Terran Federation gets to vote.

Posted in: biology, neuro, sociobiology by Peter Watts 29 Comments

Tyson in the Ring

Didn’t Kill him.  Didn’t hug him.

I laughed a lot, though.

Neil deGrasse Tyson gave the inaugural Dunlap Award lecture over at the University of Toronto on Friday. A couple of tickets dropped into my hands at the last moment, a bit of karma for a minor role I’d played at the recent Toronto Science Festival. They were even VIP tickets, so we got really good seats and didn’t have to line up or anything.

But the talk itself. Hmmm.

I was expecting the man to be interesting and informative. I wasn’t expecting him to be hilarious. And yet, I gotta say; the laughs-per-minute came faster than they usually do on The Daily Show, maybe even as fast as they come on Colbert. They were accessible laughs, too; my date for the evening was only eleven years old, and if anything she howled more than I did. Neil deGrasse Tyson presents as kind of a cross between Jon Stewart and Bill Cosby; I suspect he may have been the class clown back in high school (as it turns out that would be the Bronx High School of Science, the same institution that schooled a guy by the name of Samuel Delany).

Tyson started off by telling everyone to get over the Pluto thing. He moved on to money: showed us a selection of paper currencies from around the world as he cleverly sidled into the relative esteem in which science is held throughout the world’s nations. (Germany came out on top. Their money comes with an honest-to-god Gaussian distribution printed on the back— or at least it did, before the Euro swept that continent. Canada does okay; we’ve got the Canadarm on our fives. The US, well…) He showed us a periodic table in which each element was coded by the country-of-discovery. He ranted about the brain-dead superstition that keeps so many North American elevators from admitting the existence of a thirteenth floor, he praised the willingness of the Germans to use negative numbers in the labeling of underground sublevels. He told us about the Golden Age of Islam, and mourned Dubya’s boneheaded claim in the wake of 9/11 that the ‘Murrican God had “named the stars”, whereas in fact pretty much every star in the visible celestial sphere has an Arabic name.

He did all of this in service of a single point: the power and the influence that any nation can expect to wield has historically correlated to how much they invest in science.

Then he showed us a map of the world in which each nation’s size was weighted by the per-capita production of peer-reviewed scientific papers. Europe swole up like Betelguese. Japan covered half the Pacific. Africa withered down to an umbilical cord dangling off the Med, and Canada— Canada was basically reduced to a wide purple belt cinched across the top of a shrunken-but-still-respectable US.

Then he showed us the same map weighted not by current publication rate, but by trend-line: by the rate at which peer-reviewed research was increasing or declining over time. Once again, Japan and Europe loomed large over the whole damn planet. Brazil was up-and-coming; the US continued to wither.  Africa disappeared entirely.

So did Canada.

Tyson wondered why that might be. The audience grumbled with a single furious simmering voice: Harper. At least we’ve got the Canadarm on our $5 bills.

There was a lot of other stuff. He talked about Cosmos a bit. He learned a new word (“euphonious”). He shared hate-mail from third graders, and brushed up against the nonbaryonic. He worked the crowd like the pro he was, found an identical twin and asked her if she’d ever wanted to harvest her sisters organs (yeah, we got into cloning a bit too). He engaged a woman wearing Pluto t-shirt emblazoned with the words: NEVER FORGET. He debated GMO with someone way up in the balcony. He shook hands and high-fived and had us all in the palm of his hand for the whole three hours.

I would have asked him questions— Micropone would have, too— but the moment we turned around to locate the microphones there were already a dozen people piled up behind each. Besides, I had so much to ask. I wanted to ask what he thought of Christof Wetteric’s new model that does away with dark energy and dark matter entirely, claims that the universe is not expanding after all but just getting fat. I wanted to ask what he thought of Tegmark’s take on Digital Physics, whether the universe really is a vast quantum computer, or whether Lee Smolin is on to something with his natural-selection cosmology that not only allows the laws of physics to change, but demands that they do. I wanted to challenge his oft-repeated claim (and repeated again, that night) that scientists are at least partly to blame for the abysmal state of scientific ignorance in North America, that they should be reaching out more and engaging; I wondered what he thought of all those studies showing reason simply doesn’t work when someone’s mind is made up. Even if I’d got to the front of the line, I would never have been able to limit myself to just one question, and it would have been unseemly to hog the mic. So me and the ‘pone, we stayed in our seats.

Beers, though. Man, I’d love to sit Tyson down at a bar and ply him with beers and just ask questions  until last call.

I brought my camera, but I can’t show you any pictures of the man in motion; can’t show you any of the slides and maps that had such an impact. Photography and recording devices of all kinds were forbidden. Ostensibly this was to ensure “the enjoyment of the audience”— but given that the talk was neither streamed nor will be made available online, I suspect it might just have been ol’ Neal’s way of making sure that he could give the same talk in a bunch of different venues, without half his audience grumbling that they’d already seen all this stuff on Youtube.

Not that Tyson has anything against Youtube, mind you. In fact, he kept us five minutes late just to show us this clip of his enthused and articulate ode to Isaac Newton— followed by this remix of the same footage, slowed down just enough to turn Neil deGrasse Tyson into the Ultimate Stoner.

It’s the only thing I’m allowed to show you from that night. I think you’ll find it’s time well spent.


Postscript: Oh, wait. Turns out not everyone shares my respect for authority. Here’s a clandestine video of the lot of us watching Tyson watching Tyson. If you look closely a few rows from the front, you can even see me.

Posted in: ink on art, reviews, scilitics by Peter Watts 10 Comments



I saw Particle Fever the other night. My movie buddy didn’t like it as much as I did: she thought the music was intrusive, and she didn’t learn anything new about the science. I did— I learned that Supersymmetry and the Multiverse were mutually exclusive theories, which had somehow failed to sink in even after all the popsci articles and books I’ve read on the subject— but it didn’t matter. The movie wasn’t just about the science anyway.

It was about the scientists.

If anything, I should have had more to complain about than Leona. Having once been a scientist myself, having hung around with scientists most of my adult life, there wasn’t much the film could tell me on that front that I didn’t already know first-hand. But it was just so goddamn refreshing to see a movie convey some sense of what it’s like to be in science, the giddy, kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm of discovering stuff. Even if none of my colleagues ever discovered anything so fundamental as the so-called God Particle. Even if the most I ever did was learn how to read the sun and the wind, and predict when a hauled-out harbor seal would overheat enough to wriggle back into the water.


You can see the resemblance, right?

Particle Fever conveys the intensity of the pursuit, the joy of the discovery, better than any other film I’ve seen. You can’t watch post-doc Monica Dunford— think Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck with a PhD, a hardbody cyclist and rower and runner given to intermittent high-energy explosions of her own— you can’t see her spread her hands and exclaim “Okay, first off— data is fucking awesome!!!!” without breaking into a big goofy grin. At least, I couldn’t.

Perhaps my favorite scene in the whole movie was the Data Orgasm Sequence. That’s what I’m calling it, anyway: the supercollider’s first successful supercollisions, particle trails blooming like fireworks across the monitors, data leapfrogging out of CERN into a thousand daisy-chained servers across the globe, experimentalists and theoreticians alike rapturous almost unto ululation— all to the strains of “Ode to Joy” blasting from the speakers at a hundred fifteen decibels. But that wasn’t the only high point. There was also the official announcement that the Higgs had been nailed, 4.9 and 5 sigma, no chance in three million that it was just a random fluke. All those people arrayed in tiered rows— in Geneva, in Princeton, at MIT and Johns Hopkins— rising to their feet in spontaneous applause, hugging, slapping each other on the back, tears in their eyes. A rapture borne of the fact that we know more now than we did then, that a central piece of the puzzle has been made to fit. That a shitload of models have just been thrown out with yesterday’s mayonnaise, and that others have been born again.

That we are beginning to understand.

Tell me this wasn't built by the Krell.

Tell me this wasn’t built by the Krell.

I loved this movie. I loved the massive science-fictional machinery, straight out of Forbidden Planet. I loved these hard-science strangers whose souls I relate to, although I will never meet them in the flesh.

And I hated the rest of humanity, so much duller and pettier and nastier when thrown into high contrast with those happy few.

Because these people show us what we can do. Ten thousand scientists from a hundred countries, scientists from countries that are mortal enemies (Israel and Iran, come on down!), seemingly oblivious to the petty hatreds and rivalries that define so much of human existence.  It boggles the mind. Thousands of people, decades of investment, billions of Euros: all devoted to a goal of simple, abstract enlightenment. Early in the film an economist (I can’t help but suspect that he might have been a deliberate audience plant, for dramatic purposes) asks one of the project leads about what possible financial return could be expected from the consumption of all these resources. After the usual recapitulation of the economic potential of basic science (“radio waves weren’t called radio waves because there were no radios; they had no economic potential when they were discovered”), the scientist resorts to concise honesty: “Possibly nothing, except understanding everything.”

We can do this. We are doing this. A few of us, anyway.

The rest— who have pretty much the same synapse count, the same computational complexity, the same potential for curiosity— the rest don’t give a shit. They’re too busy shooting schoolgirls, or throwing hissy-fits over Neil deGrasse Tyson’s set piece on evolution, or getting out the pitchforks and torches for anyone who suggests that our fossil-fuel habit might be throwing the world on its side. They’re too busy worshipping sky fairies, or insisting that the all-too-real laws of physics are somehow subordinate to the all-too-imaginary laws of Economics. They’re too busy letting their kids die of preventable diseases (although there’s at least the hint of a silver lining in that last example; if there’s any genetic component at all to intelligence, increased mortality among the children of antivaccinators might at least result in some small increase in the mean IQ of the species).

How is this possible? How can the same species encompass both such passionate intelligence and such vicious stupidity?

Of course, I’m being rhetorical here. There’s nothing unexpected about variation between individuals, nothing cryptic about distributional curves. Even the nonnormal skew of that curve, the prevalence of morons in the mix, is no great mystery. I’m not even really asking a question here. I’m just lamenting the answer.

Maybe Particle Fever is pure propaganda. After all, it’s not as though science is free of pettiness and rivalry; I haven’t forgotten that to a large extent, science depends on those things. Maybe physicists are just a little purer than the rest of us. Or maybe the old saw that Academics fight so much because so little is at stake has a corollary: When a lot is at stake, Academics don’t fight so much. And the discovery of the Higgs— yeah, that’s a lot. Possibly nothing, except understanding everything.

A reflection, for the first goddamn week of spring.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Posted in: ink on art, rant by Peter Watts 44 Comments


silverback-shadesBack in 2003 I attended a talk by David Brin, at Worldcon here in Toronto. Brin had blurbed  Starfish; to say I was favorably disposed towards the man would be an understatement. And yet I found myself increasingly skeptical as he spoke out in favor of ubiquitous surveillance: the “Transparent Society”, he called it, and It Was Good. The camera would point both ways, cops and politicians just as subject to our scrutiny as we were to theirs. People are primates, Brin reminded us; our leaders are Alphas. Trying to ban government surveillance would be like poking a silverback gorilla with a stick. “But just maybe,” he allowed, “they’ll let us look back.”

Dude, thought I, do you have the first fucking clue how silverbacks react to eye contact?

It wasn’t just a bad analogy. It wasn’t analogy at all; it was literal, and it was wrong. Alpha primates regard looking back as a challenge. Anyone who’s been beaten up for recording video of police beating people up knows this; anyone whose cellphone has been smashed, or returned with the SIM card mysteriously erased. Document animal abuse in any of the US states with so-called “Ag-gag” laws on their books and you’re not only breaking the law, you’re a “domestic terrorist”.

Chelsea Manning looked back; she’ll be in jail for decades. Edward Snowden looked back and has been running ever since. All he did to put that target on his back was confirm something most of us have suspected for years: those silverbacks are recording every move we make online. But try to look back and they’ll scream terrorism and national security, and leave an innocent person on the no-fly list for no better reason than to cover up a typo.

Look back? Don’t make me laugh.

I don’t know if Brin has since changed his stance (Larry Niven just coauthored a novel which accepts the reality of climate change, so I guess there’s hope for anybody). Either way, other SF writers seem willing to take up the chorus. About a decade back Robert Sawyer wrote an editorial for a right-wing Canadian magazine in which he lamented the bad rap that “Big Brothers” had got ever since Orwell. He waxed nostalgic— and, apparently, without irony— about how safe he’d felt as a child knowing that his big brother was watching over him from the next room (thus becoming an unwitting case-in-point for Orwell’s arguments about the use of language as a tool of cognitive manipulation). Just a few years ago, up-and-comer Madeline Ashby built her Master’s thesis around a misty-eyed love letter to surveillance at border crossings.

But it’s not a transparent society unless light passes through the glass both ways. The light doesn’t do that.

Can we stop them from watching us, at least? Stay away from LinkedIn or facebook, keep your private information local and offline?

Sure. For a while, at least. Of course, you may have to kiss ebooks goodbye. Amazon reserves the right to reach down into your Kindle and wipe it clean any time it feels the urge (they did it a few years back— to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, ironically). You’ll have to do without graphics and multimedia and spreadsheets and word processing, too: both Adobe and Microsoft are phasing out local software in favor of Cloud-based “subscription” models. Even the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for chrissakes— an organization that really should know better— has recently switched to a “browser-based” journal feed that can’t be accessed offline. (And what happens if, for example, you’re out in the field doing, you know, science, and don’t have internet access? “Unfortunately, you won’t be able to download the issue on your computer,” Member Services told me, before passing on her Best Regards. “You’ll have to have internet access to view it.” Which is why I quit the AAAS, after over twenty years of membership.)

We used to own our books, our magazines, the games we played. Now we can only rent them. Business models and government paranoia both rely on stripping us naked online; but if we stay offline, we’re deaf dumb and blind. It doesn’t matter that nobody’s pretending the Cloud is anywhere close to secure. The spooks and the used-car salesmen are hell-bent on forcing us onto it anyway. I’ve lost track of the number of articles I’ve read— by such presumably progressive outlets as Wired, even— lamenting the lack of effective online security, only to throw up their hands and admit But of course we’re not going to retreat from the Cloud— we live there now. It’s as though those most cognizant of the dangers we face have also been charged with assuring us that there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it, so we might as well just give up and invite the NSA into our bathrooms. (Or even worse, embrace the cameras. Have you seen that Coke ad cobbled together from bits of faux-security-camera footage? A dozen “private” moments between people with no idea they’re on camera, served up to sell fizzy suger-water as though our hearts should be warmed by displays of universal surveillance. Orwell— brought to you by Hallmark.)

You all know this as well as I do, of course. I’m only about the millionth blogger to whinge about these things. So why do I feel like a voice in the wilderness when I wonder: why aren’t we retreating from the cloud, exactly? What’s so absurd about storing your life on a USB key or a hard drive, rather than handing it over to some amorphous webcorp that whispers sweet nothings about safe secrets and unbreakable encryption into your ear, only to roll over and surrender your most private details the first time some dead-eyed spook in a trench coat comes calling?

Remember the premise of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica: that the only way to win against high-tech opponents is to go retro, revert to a time when no computer was networked, when you ran starships by pulling levers and cranking valves. It was an exquisite narrative rationale for the anachronistic vibe endemic to everything from Alien to Firefly to Star Wars, that peeling-paint aesthetic that resonates in the gut even though it made no real sense until Moore gave it context.

Maybe now it’s more than rationale. Maybe now it’s a strategy. Because now we know that the NSA has back doors installed into every edition of Windows from Xp on up— but not into dusty old Win-95. And while giving up online access entirely is a bridge too far for most of us, there’s no reason we can’t keep our most private stuff on a standalone machine without network access. Even if we don’t ditch facebook entirely (and we should, you know— really, we should), there’s no reason we can’t tell it to fuck off when it keeps nagging us to tell it where we went to school, or if we want to be friends with this K. Homolka character. (And you certainly don’t want to use a real picture of yourself for your facebook header; they’re gearing up to use those as biometric baselines to ID as many other pictures of you as they can find. If they haven’t started already.)

Bruce Schneier points out that if the spooks want you badly enough, they’ll get you. Even if you stay off the net entirely, they can always sit in a van down the street and bounce a laser off your bedrooom window to hear your pillow talk— but of course, that would be too much bother for all but the most high-value targets. Along the same lines, Edward Snowden recently advocated making surveillance “too expensive” to perform with a driftnet; force them to use a longline, to focus their resources on specific targets rather than treating everyone on the planet as a potential suspect on general principles. The only reason they target all of us is because we’re all so damn easy to target, you see. They don’t seriously suspect you or I of anything but impotent rage, but they’ll scoop up everything on everybody as long as it’s cheap and easy to do so. That’s why the Internet is every spook’s best friend. It takes time and effort to install a keystroke logger on someone’s home machine; even more to infect the thumb drive that might get plugged into a non-networked device somewhere down the line. Most of us are welcome to keep whatever privacy can’t be stripped away with a whisper and a search algorithm.

That’s hardly an ethical stance, though. It’s pure cost/benefit. Wouldn’t it be nice for them if it wasn’t so hard to scoop up everything, if there were no TOR or PGP encryption or— hey, while we’re at it, wouldn’t it be nice if all data storage was Cloud-based? Wouldn’t it be nice if nobody could write a manifesto without using Google Docs or Microsoft’s subscription service, wouldn’t it be nice if somehow, local storage devices could get smaller and smaller over time— who needs a big clunky desktop with a big clunky hard drive when you can have a tablet instead, an appliance that outsources its memory to the ether? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could weed out the luddites and malcontents who refuse to face reality and get with the program?

When I explain to someone why I’m not on twitter, they generally look at me like I’m some old fart yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. At the moment, refusal to join social networks is merely regarded as quaint and old-fashioned— but social norms change over time. My attitude is already a deal-breaker in some contexts; some literary agents refuse to represent you unless you’re an active Twit. Before too long, my attitude might graduate from merely curmudgeonly to gauche; later still, from gauche to downright suspicious. What’s that guy afraid of, anyway? Why would he be so worried if he didn’t have something to hide?

It’s no secret that it’s mainly us old folks who are raising the ruckus about privacy. All the twentysomething thumbwirers out there grew up with the notion of trading personal data for entertainment. These kids don’t just lack an expectation of privacy, they may even lack a functional definition of the stuff

We all know the only people who go on about privacy issues are the ones who are up to no good…

Science fiction writers are suppose to go beyond predicting the automobile; we’re supposed to take the next step and predict smog alerts. So here’s a smog alert for you:

How long before local offline storage becomes either widely unavailable, or simply illegal?

Posted in: rant, scilitics by Peter Watts 51 Comments

Excuses and Aspirations


I do not belong in here.

It’s been a while.

There’ve been these deadlines. A secret Munich gig I can’t talk about which might turn into something and might not: that took me to the end of January. February got swallowed by a lecture, two short stories, and the monthly Nowa Fantastyk column, all written from scratch. Not to mention an earlier story I wrote for the latest iteration of Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity series, which— after laboring on the damn thing for ages, and just ten minutes before sending it off— I discovered I had written for the wrong damn anthology. (Jonathan decided to use it anyway, for reasons which remain unclear— but it’ll be obvious, when the book comes out, which one of these things is not like the other.)

I think, from now on, I may just reject story solicitations on general principles. I always seem to end up pushing the deadline to the limit, and I’m never completely satisfied with the result. In the meantime I fall behind on my science feeds, and abandon the ‘crawl to the tumbleweeds. So maybe, from now on, I should just set some time aside each week for the short stuff, work on stories I’m inspired to write (as opposed to assignedHey, we need 7,000 words of science fiction for a unicorn-theme-based anthology by the end of next month— think you could fit it in?). Send them off when I’m happy with them, and not before. Back-to-my-roots kinda stuff. Who knows, I might even submit something to Analog. (It’s been about twenty years since I even tried.)


A seprequel to “The Island” is in here somewhere.

In the meantime, news has come and gone. Extreme Planets, the anthology from Chaosium that went strangely missing for the better part of a year, is finally out, so another story in the Sunflowers cycle has escaped into the wild.  (A third— which takes place before Eriophora even launches— is that out-of-place number in Reach for Infinity that I lamented a few paragraphs back).  I gave another talk at the SpecFic Colloquium last weekend, in which I reframed the previous four years’ talks to provide context for my decision to abandon empirical science in favor of evangelical religion. (No, really. Ask anyone who was there.) A number of worthy talks flew past the post that day— ranging from a comparison between the works of HP Lovecraft and VC Andrews to a freewheeling Q&A with bestselling author Christopher Golden— but the talk that really stuck in my mind was presented by Liana Kerzner, with the unwieldy title of “Digital Romanticism: Speculative History as Modern Social Commentary in Video Games”. Probably the most cogent analysis of gender and race in video games I’ve encountered— although that might not be saying much, given my lack of expertise in political realms. It impressed  me, anyway. Left me less eager to play Bioshock: Infinite and somewhat more intrigued by this Assassin’s Creed franchise…

This made sense in context. Really.

This was from my talk, not Ms. Kerzner’s. It made sense in context. Really.

Echopraxia (which I have begun to describe as a faith-based Hard-SF novel) is now well and truly in the pipe in France, Germany, Poland, Japan, Russia, and the UK (where it is being sold under the title Firefall— apparently they can do that. Next time I’m putting something in the contract.)

I’m going to be in Japan next month, serving as a GoH at HAL-Con in Kawasaki. I don’t imagine I’ll get a chance to see much outside the convention center— the trip is pretty much in and out with a day or two bolted on the front end for jet-lag— but maybe I can absorb some futurions by osmosis. Any self-respecting SF author has to get over there at some point; my own indoctrination is way overdue. At the very least, maybe I can get one of those anime body pillows.

In the meantime, I am going to catch up. I am going to see friends that I have put on hold for too long. I am going to read for pleasure again; I am going to read for knowledge again, revisit all those RSS feeds that have been streaming discovery after discovery while I’ve fallen ever-further behind the curve. (A side-effect of this, I expect, is more frequent posting of scientific commentary to the ‘crawl.) I am going to pursue the goal of getting this damn website upgraded to a state that’s a little less nineteen-nineties, and adding new content in time for Echopraxia‘s release. I am going to buy a new laptop: one that does not have to be held together with binder clips, one that hasn’t gone mostly dark across the lower-right third of the screen. One whose USB ports never short-circuit the motherboard when you plug anything into them. I am going to play video games.

Mostly, though, I am going to breathe.

It’s been too long.


This is the spaceship from Echopraxia. I made it in Photoshop, using aluminum pie plates, model bits, and screen grabs from old Starlost episodes. It fills me with pride.

Being Something That Might Show Up in This Saturday’s Talk.

Or maybe not. It’s so hard to tell.

I see so many patterns. Patterns everywhere…


Posted in: public interface by Peter Watts 22 Comments

Quick Test

To see if new posts are also plagued by this sudden and mysterious incapacity to leave comments.

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 31 Comments

Anybody Out There Know Anything About Military Law?

No, I’m not in trouble again.

I haven’t been talking much lately because I’m facing down four pretty major deadlines that all stomp their big Monty Python Feet down over the next few weeks. Five if you included the deadline I met a few days back, in which I labored to finish a short story over the holidays and then— having finally got the damn thing done and just ten minutes before sending it off— discovered that I’d misread the pitch and written the wrong damn story.

I want to be less dumb over this next one. I’m writing a story about neuroenhancement, war crimes, and the culpability of soldiers whose augments anticipate their intentions before they are intentions, proactively opening fire in advance of any actual decision — the kind of thing I’ve wittered on about in the past.  Any such story is gonna contain certain elements of military law, both international and domestic: “Just following Orders” may not cut any ice after Nuremberg, but “the voice in my head followed orders it says I would have given before I made them” is a little less clear-cut than that old-school precedent.

Would any of you be able to help me with some of the legal nuts and bolts of such a story? Prisoner protocols, legal procedures, that kind of thing? Or could any of you point me towards a friendly expert who wouldn’t mind having their brain picked? Specific jurisdiction isn’t as important as you might think; there are a lot of places I could set this tale.

The faster I get this done, the sooner I stop sticking my hand out and get back to fiblets and crunchy science-type posts.


Posted in: legal, misc, neuro by Peter Watts 38 Comments