Anteaters, Mushrooms, and the Inherent Goodness of Humanity

So the last few days have been both hectic and enlightening, as well as closing a kind of thematic circle about the fuckupedness of the Human Race. It started with Friday night’s appearance of Cory Doctorow and China Miéville on the stage of Toronto’s International Festival of Authors, where they were interviewed by Mark Askwith; I would have taken pictures if I’d only remembered that I’d stuck my camera in the bottom of my laptop bag. (Cory took a picture of Caitlin and me afterward, but given that it makes me look like Ichabod Crane I don’t think I’ll link to it.) Instead I asked an impertinent question from the floor, remarking on the fact that during the interview both had repudiated the notion of People=Assholes, and had then spent the following fifteen minutes exchanging tales of fascist sadism, sociopathic plutocracies, and recreational cannibalism (although I can’t swear to that last one).

We hung out with them and a couple of local friends afterward (it’s been ages since I’ve seen either China or Cory in the flesh), and while there wasn’t nearly enough time to get properly caught up we did touch on a fairly wide spread of topics ranging from circumcision to DPI to D&D (both China and Cory either are now, or ever have been, D&D fanatics. Who knew?). Also pupa soup, the amorphous liquid slurry that is, apparently, what a pupa consists of when caught with its pants down between larval and adult forms (I was embarrassed that China had to tell me about that). Not to mention this really-disquieting video in which Walter White uses the miracle of modern chemistry to either create a basket starfish or summon Cthulhu (I’m not quite sure which — but I swear, if Darwin had seen this he would’ve tossed his Natural Selection theory right out the window and bought into spontaneous generation on the spot).

We never did get back to the goodness/nastiness-of-humanity thing, but it was lurking in the wings.

Helen Marshall on e-literature.

That was Friday. Saturday evening was a kind of domestic electric pizza-and-wine fest in which Scott Bakker (you remember Scott Bakker, don’t you?) came by with a couple of friends who — in a classic case of small-world — turned out to be buds with Ed Keller, the guy who Skyped me right over the heads of the USA’s border trolls so that I could give a talk at last year’s Transhumanism Meets Design symposium in New York. It is unusual, in my experience, to meet someone for the first time at your front door and be arguing neurophilosophy with them by the time you’ve hit the kitchen; but that’s what happened with Nandita and Dan Mellamphy. The three of them were in town for the SpecFic Colloquium thingy that I gave you an excerpt from last post; that took up all of Sunday, and was a massive success even if all the speakers did go over our allotted time[1]. (I myself got a little flustered when the monitor held up his “5 minutes” sign and I was still on the stock-market-algo part of my talk — I could’ve sworn I’d timed the whole thing out at 45 minutes on the nose — and I ended up going overtime even after fast-forwarding over a bunch of stuff.  It seemed to go over well regardless. The vivisected leech-nervous-system video and Banana-the-Cat slide proved especially popular.)

Robert Shearmen on Debating Literature with Customs Officials Who Suffer From Low Self-Esteem.

The centerpiece of the whole day was a talk given by Robert Shearman; you might know him as a multiaward-winning playwright, novelist, and short-story writer, but you probably know him as the guy who wrote “Dalek”, the episode that reintroduced those malign giant pepper-shakers back into the rebooted Doctor-Who universe. His talk was awesome and doubtless rehearsed, but it didn’t come across that way; the dude just talked to us, no notes and a minimum of slides, and he ruled the day.

I will say no more about any of these talks, because they’ll all be online eventually; the whole day was recorded. But I continue to stand in awe of what the ChiZine people manage to pull off, year after year, from the confines of their tiny dank basement HQ. I shudder to imagine what they could accomplish if they turned their skills to Evil instead of Good.

Which brings us up to today, and the closing of the whole People=Assholes circle.

Scott Bakker on the Dumbness of TransHumanism

Today is the day that Minister Faust and I duke it out via competing blog posts over at CBC’s “Canada Writes”, on the question of whether or not SF is (or even should be) a happy place. The blog posts are mere preamble, though: the main event is a studio debate argued in realtime, recorded a couple of weeks back but released into the wild only today as part of the “Literary Smackdown” segment of Shelagh Rogers’s “The Next Chapter” on CBC radio. (CBC’s been doing a whole lot of SF-themed programming throughout the whole of October; you can catch up on it here).

The fact that I had such a good time is especially remarkable given that I was beset with mysterious and worrisome chest pains throughout that whole day (and actually ended up in Emerg that night — no, I am not dead, and no, they couldn’t find anything wrong me. Except perhaps that I am just a big pussy). Minister and I actually managed to have an honest-to-God debate, despite the fact that I actually agree with pretty much everything he said. I think the differences in our outlooks come down to scale of resolution. He looks at the local community level, sees decent people struggling to be good to each other under increasingly shitty circumstances; I look at the global level and see those decent people ground beneath the heels of the plutocrats and sociopaths who tend to rise to the top of social power structures. (I also see a lack of foresight throughout that pyramid, so that even at the local level people just don’t connect the dots between their SUVs and rising sea levels.)

Anyway, it was fun. And Minister Faust, with whom I’d never previously interacted, is awesome. The folks at the CBC were great and even left the occasional profanity more-or-less intact in my blog post, simply sticking a cautionary note at the top of the piece to warn off the easily-offended. (I admit wasn’t expecting that from such a mainstream, publicly-funded venue. I’ve seen far more censorious behavior from local cons with relatively-microscopic profiles and far less to worry about in terms of public prudery.)

I’d do this again in a second, even with the chest pains. It’s not every day you get to be interviewed in the studio they use for Quirks & Quarks. If I had any teensy complaint, it would be that the folks in post edited our recording so that my brilliant proposal of a Grand Synthesis (we cede local-perspective stories to the optimists, while us Nihilistic doomsayers get the run of the global scene) didn’t appear in the final cut. I think that would have been a nice and (dare I say it) upbeat way to end.

Now, that reconciliation denied us, I see no option but all-out war.

 

 

 


[1] Well, except for maybe Helen Marshall.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday October 29 2012at 02:10 pm , filed under public interface . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

14 Responses to “Anteaters, Mushrooms, and the Inherent Goodness of Humanity”

  1. On the chest pain thing — get your stomach checked out. I had chest pains for -years- that they eventually identified as a hiatus hernia.

    And I’m wholly unsurprised that Helen kept to her time. She’s got that editorial precision thing down pat. I regret missing her talk on e-literature.

  2. No serious health issues are allowed, Squid. If something’s breaking down, grow a new one or something.

  3. I’m still trying to puzzle out the whole circumcision conversation.

  4. Dude, it was awesome smacking down with you. I think we actually agreed about pretty much everything, but like good soldiers and self-interested self-promoters, we followed orders and made fun radio by pretending to disagree more than we actually did (really, anybody who reads my books would be hard-pressed to say they present optimistic views of our future). Looking forward to hanging out with you some time.

  5. Two other sources of chest pains which you doubtless know and were considered:
    costochondritis and bronchitis.

    Hope the edge of Sandy didnt wallop you guys too hard.

  6. Do you ever not look like Ichabod Crane?

  7. Considering the last time you mentioned offhand a small ailment ended up with the Great Leg Coring Adventure, I’m expecting your next update to be about how you survived an outbreak of chestbursters.

  8. Not that you asked, but. You’re never a pussy as a man in his 50’s to take chest pain seriously, especially if it is sometimes accompanied by breathlessness. That’s just using common sense, since one third of people do not survive their first heart attack.

    If the pain recurs, even though they cleared you at the ER, I’d be persistent about making the medical-industrial complex figure it out. It’s their job to keep you from dying prematurely, right?

    But that’s me.

  9. That weird-ass chemical reaction video appears to be from Serbia. Long live Tesla!

  10. Re: Ichabod Crane
    As a fellow tall guy, I have to offer the advice our mothers may have opined: Stand up straight.
    Continuously hunching down to hear all the Lilliputians talk to me or looking down to see my work on a lowered work surface has encouraged me to walk with my head at a 30-degree bent from erect. Plus, walking treacherous landscapes such as the toy-strewn floor of our kid-loaded living room has taught me the folly of NOT looking where I walk. My wife, at 1′-2″ shorter than me, has not been forced into the stooped position by the burden of life. She rarely has to look down, and has so far been the person to discover when the cat has yakked up his breakfast in the hallway, with her bare feet.
    The best we skyscrapers can do is to straighten ourselves up while sitting at our computers or televisions, or while walking a known surface like a finished school or factory floor, or a groomed walking path.
    Good luck, PW. If all else fails, get a tan.
    JF
    P.S. I saw “the leg” in your Norway photos – it looks good.

  11. Aaron:
    Do you ever not look like Ichabod Crane?

    Increasingly, this is the problem.

    John:
    As a fellow tall guy, I have to offer the advice our mothers may have opined: Stand up straight.

    I remembered to try doing this just as Resa Weisman took my picture up at the pre-WFC accretion-o’people up in Richmond Hill this afternoon. If she posts it, we’ll see how well it worked.

  12. As to those suggesting that you not ignore any chest pains, you ought to listen to them. Keep in mind that it’s not all about coronary blockages; arrhythmias can be pretty deadly. For what it’s worth, here’s a quick article on discovery of some genetic markers to do with heartbeat:

    http://www.igmm.ed.ac.uk/news_11.2010.htm

    Where could you get testing? You might start looking here:

    http://www.scotgen.org.uk/healthcare/content.asp?ID=82

    The reason I’m mentioning this harks back to your posting on “guess the ancestry”, and also to me remembering one of my longtime UseNet comrades mentioning something to the effect of there being a known inherited syndrome or syndromes well distributed among those of certain Scots ancestries. Cardiac failure resulting in death in the mid-50s even without comorbidity factors such as smoking, drinking, unhealthy diet, etc.

    Here’s a more scholarly paper:

    http://heart.bmj.com/cgi/content/meeting_abstract/95/1_MeetingAbstracts/102

  13. Ever notice that people have this Heart Attack scene in their head of an angry fat guy eating pork rinds in front of the tv while smoking and yelling at his wife? He clutches his left arm or his chest and dies. Sort of it being about who “deserves” heart disease, based solely on lifestyle, but myocardial infarction is waaay sneakier than that, or it wouldn’t be a top killer. My tiny theory is that it makes us feel safer to imagine Death as bribe-able with righteous living, and dying only happening to that other guy, who “deserved” it more. Healthly living is a smart thing to do, but guarantees nothing about your own personal death, just plays the odds.

    Consider: the last guy at my work to die unexpectedly from heart disease was barely 40, fit, healthy lifestyle, went to the gym at lunch … that was where he fell over and died, actually, at the gym, during the lunch hour.

  14. @Hljóðlegur and at anyone else listening here:

    This is an excellent observation. See also the concept of Sudden Cardiac Death, in which people — quite a few of them being extremely healthy and athletic teenagers — just fucking die for no reason that fits into any stereotype. Just to make the obligatory SF reference, See Also the backdrop in the seminal Cities In Flight quartet by James Blish… in which an increasingly desperate global government seeks the means to combat the increasing prevalence in youthful mortality by diseases formerly considered to be exclusively the province of extreme old age or extreme personal neglect of all concepts of health-maintenance.

    In Blish’s opus — which not incidentally appears to be the first expression of the concept of Virtual Reality — a very special and secret project develops the “anti-thanatic”, a set of fungal-origin antibiotics which kill Death along with bacteria (Blish wrote this in the early 1960s). Yet, so far as I know, as the novel quickly tells us, “against Death, there is no Simple (panacea)”.

    We try and try to modify our lifestyles to keep from us the banes of what we believe to be the harbingers or actual causes of deathly ills. Yet for some of us — for example the fine middle-school athletes headed for championship, who just flat out dropped dead in mid-game — it seems that it matters not what we do. What were the risk factors in a young man who ran three miles a day and could reliably sink a half-court basketball shot 9 times out of ten? Did he make the fatal mistake of having an RC Cola and a Moon Pie, and it felled him like a steer, when there are 10,000 people in their 80s who’ve done the same every day since the 1960s?

    It’s just a matter of chance? I doubt it.

    The Appalachians are full of decent g_d-fearing men and women who eat a perfect light diet, work like donkeys and only get stronger, and they hit the age of 55, and drop in their tracks like someone shot them dead. In the Ukraine, very similar people live extremely similar lives, and those lives reach a century of years. What’s the difference? And if it’s damage or mutation, how can we fix it? Deep questions indeed.

    All I can say is that if your heart gives a twinge, get thee to thine physician and discover what you can. And if your grandparents lived into their 90s or 100s and it looks like you’ll do the same, please find a worthy project and contribute however you can, even if it’s just a DNA swab.

    Because frankly a lot of people wish to be done with seeing perfectly healthy people of great accomplishment dropping dead for no reason anyone can quite understand, as they seemed to have been doing everything right… yet they die in their 50s or younger. How much more could they have given us? But one day their heart skips a beat, and another and another, and a healthy muscle fails because the neurons failed to drive it. A pacemaker could double the lifespan… if the need for such is discovered sufficiently early. Take care,