Just So You Know.

My destination. Just maybe, my doom.

My destination. Just maybe, my doom.

Yeah, pretty quiet here lately. Those of you insecure and craven enough to be on Facebook (like, for example, me) might know it’s because I worked for a few weeks on this talk about the evolution of delusional optimism in Homo sapiens, to give at this weekend’s Asia-Pacific SF Con in Beijing. It was originally supposed to lead into a panel called “The World is Changing” (which had originally been called “A World in Upheaval”, only they changed it because— wait for it— they wanted it to sound “more optimistic”). Except last Tuesday I discovered that whole panel had been scrapped, and all along the organizers had been expecting me to talk about Extraterrestrial Intelligence instead.

So I’ve spent most of the past week desperately trying to build a new talk around a bit of fevered inspiration that struck me while I was on the toilet at 3a.m. It’s called “The End of Need: Cognitive Trends in Star-Faring Species”. It’s about evolving past natural selection. It’s, um, upbeat. Or hopeful. Or at least not completely nihilistic (I’m not especially familiar with the words that describe things at that end of the scale). It kind of hinges on survival instincts being tautological, and how there’s no real reason for them.

It’s more of an improv thought experiment than a rigorous argument— and I probably don’t buy it myself— but that’s okay. They say it’s good to get out of your comfort zone now and then, right?

Anyway, I’m dashing this off in the Departures Lounge, just before embarking on a 21-hour flight to the opposite side of the world. I’ll hopefully be in Beijing until the 21st, at which point I depart for Bergen and the World Cliffhanger premiere of Fish To Mars from the 22nd to the 24th.  Sometime during that interval I also have to finish a story for Spacing Magazine that’s due in two weeks (I finally found a plot to hang my weaponized yoghurt idea off of). Probably won’t be blogging much during any of that time.

After that, though, I’m just going to breathe. And lie around. And play video games for a solid month.

Because I will have earned it.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday May 16 2018at 03:05 pm , filed under On the Road, public interface . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

41 Responses to “Just So You Know.”

  1. Thanks for the update. LOVE your biting humor. Whilst reading your post, I thought of Vonnegut’s Galapagos. Have fun in Beijing. I’m sure there will be more unexpected twists and turns, which you manage so…gracefully! Looking forward to reading more of your adventure.

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  2. “evolving past natural selection” ?
    “survival instincts being tautological” ? (redundant?, recursive?)

    — How about “the whole gender thing”: control of/automation of reproduction? What would this mean for gender roles, self identity, thought patterns, society???
    — Minimizing thought shaped by neocortex/reptilian brain??? Fear dampers???
    — Moving from biological to synthetic (yea, yea, yea – this one’s overdone these days, just ask Kurzweil and that “university” of his, and HBO too…)
    — Biology not a good platform for “star-faring species” time vs. lifespan, etc., etc…just ask Clarke…

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  3. Good luck, here’s hoping the trip is interesting enough and boring enough in the right ways (i.e. no exotic new diseases or interactions with authoritarian nincompoops)

    Meanwhile while you’re absent maybe we could discuss this here?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXUQ-DdSDoE

    I posted it somewhere else and it got sidetracked into the usual goalpost shifting, so let’s table whether this thing is passing the Turing test or not or whether this is a staged demo: Given reliable performance like this, just how many jobs is this thing going to replace? The impact of self driving cars may be dwarfed in comparison…

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  4. It’s about evolving past natural selection. It’s, um, upbeat. Or hopeful.

    When Dr. Watts says that, I’m thinking…

    This is going to be seriously disturbing.

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  5. It kind of hinges on survival instincts being tautological, and how there’s no real reason for them.

    … yeah, but where are people going to get will to survive if not for survival instincts?

    This universe is a bad joke. Trying to kill survival instincts without a better replacement… you’d have to have a psychology totally immune to fear, anxiety, disgust and such no?

    Or do away with consciousness and free will, because conscious being with hopes, dreams and delusions suffer when those intersect with reality.

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  6. Peter Watts: After that, though, I’m just going to breathe. And lie around. And play video games for a solid month.

    Ooh! For the slacking marine biologist, I recommend Subnautica. Explore and survive an alien ocean, build your own underwater Beebe station near a thermal vent, avoid hostile local fauna with (mostly) non-lethal tools, and solve a mystery to escape the planet. Can be both relaxing and exotic, or deeply, deeply terrifying.

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  7. > evolving past natural selection

    Doesn’t sexual selection do that already?

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  8. DA: Ooh! For the slacking marine biologist, I recommend Subnautica.

    Subnautica is nice, but it doesn’t have working ecosystems. Not one game has that, not even Dwarf Fortress.

    Or am I wrong? Is there a game that is for biologist what Factorio is for geeky people?

    That game, dammit.

    Ultimate nerd trap.

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  9. Y;: Subnautica is nice, but it doesn’t have working ecosystems. Not one game has that, not even Dwarf Fortress.

    There’s a limit to the complexity of a simulation you can run on mass market consumer grade hardware, at least to still have it be playable and responsive. Persistent worlds are generally done with smoke and mirrors, rather than all the behind the scenes calculations you would need to really simulate an ecosystem. Dwarf Fortress has the most robust simulation that I’m aware of with things like its real time fluid physics, and players frequently complain about the performance burden it adds. You can still find neat illusions here or there, like in Rimworld, where if you over-hunt the smaller game, the larger predators get hungry and are more likely to attack your colonists.

    That’s not really the draw of Subnautica though. It’s more about the exploration of a giant exotic aquarium. It’s also, at times, the most terrifying game I’ve ever played. I experience fear on a mammalian level when I go too deep, and see something enormous swimming around in the darkness. I thought our resident marine biologist might get a kick out of building his own Starfish style deep sea station at the bottom of the ocean.

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  10. Sounds awesome!

    Just take care, i somehow doubt the chinese authorities are as “lenient” as the US-Guys. Altough they are probably more polite while they beat you up.

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  11. DA: There’s a limit to the complexity of a simulation you can run on mass market consumer grade hardware, at least to still have it be playable and responsive. Persistent worlds are generally done with smoke and mirrors, rather than all the behind the scenescalculations you would need to really simulate an ecosystem. Dwarf Fortress has the most robust simulation that I’m aware of with things like its real time fluid physics, and players frequently complain about the performance burden it adds. You can still find neat illusions here or there, like in Rimworld, where if you over-hunt the smaller game, the larger predators get hungry and are more likely to attack your colonists.

    That’s not really the draw of Subnautica though. It’s more about the exploration of a giant exotic aquarium. It’s also, at times, the most terrifying game I’ve ever played. I experience fear on a mammalian level when I go too deep, and see something enormous swimming around in the darkness. I thought our resident marine biologist might get a kick out of building his own Starfish style deep sea station at the bottom of the ocean.

    I’d kinda hazard a guess Dwarf Fortress has atrocious coding in it.

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  12. While you’re relaxing…

    Further idea for trilogy2.3. Going backwards. As far as possible or almost. Cavemen. Crazy ass, club-wielding cavemen. Yeah, I know…monolith and the jawbone of a donkey or whatever. But still…what comes after? More. Probably. Maybe they’re also deaf or something to complete the monkey cycle. A world without sound. What replaces music? Probably flashy powders. “Fireworks.”

    Throw in a cat and now you’ve got something. Kidding. Enjoy.

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  13. >Y;: I’d kinda hazard a guess Dwarf Fortress has atrocious coding in it.

    Compared to? DF, while prone to the problems that any Winchester Mansion style project of perpetual add-ons to a code base has, also has the virtue of being unique. It’s not as if you can compare it to some other game that encompasses the same scope as DF, yet does it better. All any other game can do is claim to ape *certain aspects* of DF. Of these, Rimworld is probably the most successful, yet still only delivers a portion of the DF experience.

    So yes, DF by the nature of its perpetual incremental development, is likely inefficient. Yet it’s more efficient than any other game at being * DF.* There is no other game that boasts the same feature list for comparison.

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  14. Looking forward to the new book! Safe travels!

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  15. @DA> I actually made the mistake of digging into the code of one of their other games*.

    The badness of bay12 code is fractal. It is not merely a Winchester Mansion style architectural mess, but all the small parts are terrible as well.

    The programmer did not appear to know that int, size_t and int32_t are not the same thing. The file saving and loading code were incompatible with one another and the underlying data structures on everything but 32 bit systems.

    I did finally get it to the point where it would build & run correctly on a 64 bit machine but promised myself I would never touch any of their source again.

    *Liberal Crime Squad.

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  16. @dpb

    If you say so. As a non-coder, my only point was that if a simulation with the depth of DF in the gaming space were easy to do with *better* code, someone would have done it. So it at least has the merit of doing what it does better than anything else comparable, if one favors depth over accessibility or elegance, which I personally do.

    Back on point though, the DF critique came about in response to Y’s complaint about Subnautica not having an “ecosystem”, which Ill interpret as “many persistent actors with complex inter-dependencies”–something by his own admission no other game really has.

    I’m not sure that’s true. There are games with systems that could pass for a simplistic “ecosystem” if you squinted at them. The Sid Meier’s Pirates style of game like Mount & Blade with their procedural cities spawning armies that constantly swarm and gobble up other armies or cities, causing changes in ownership or economic conditions could almost look like a petri dish ecosystem. Sims like Simcity also feature a choreography of actors with a lot of interdependency. Sandbox style MMOs are often pointed to as being an ecosystem of a sort.

    So I’ll assume his objection is that these sort of systems lack the complexity or scope of the sort of ecosystem he wants to see simulated in an interactive game. But if you’ve played any of the above style games, you know that even rudimentary ecosystems like those will quickly start a consumer CPU to chugging past a certain number of persistent actors, no matter how “well coded” they are. So I doubt whether that a Skyrim where all the animals are persistent and dynamically interacting even when the player is out of cell is currently feasible.

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  17. After that, though, I’m just going to breathe. And lie around. And play video games for a solid month.

    Because I will have earned it.

    Sounds like a solid plan. 😉

    Though personally, just lieing around, reading and especially listening to music from my not so ill-spent youth seems somewhat better. No idea about you though.

    And interacting with the somewhat more sane parts of my family, tried to get the 4-year old daughter of a cousin into dinosaurs with some Zdeněk Burian, building on some artistic interest of hers.

    Somewhat funny, I sucked at art later on, but I remember spending hours with one of his books as a child. And I quite liked finding an exhibition of his in Prague when on a school trip there. No idea if that was on the same day I smoked a whole load of hash in a bong at once, let’s just say the evening got, err, interesting. Of course I knew the Dickinsonia floating through the room were not real. And I guess giving my brain some rest saved my High School record…

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  18. Maybe you need to take one of those survival camping things. The reason for survival instincts is to survive. Survival being geared towards reproduction. Unless you mean people, and you’re doing a kind of neo-Darwinian modernist take on things, “we no longer need those instincts” well, yeah, we do. Well, if nothing else, the piece will be interesting.

    Delusional optimism. Aint something you want to say to anyone in a crisis situation. Optimism (from the perspective of someone who has dealt with depression for long time) serves an interesting, and in my humbly arrogant opinion, useful purpose: mental fuel.. It gets one going. So does a more buddhist approach, not concerning oneself with results, but optimism works wonderfully a s a fuel. The brain is a literalist -tell it that optimism is delusional, and it will comply by shutting down any neural pathways that may support an optimistic viewpoint – such as observing external consensus reality with an awareness towards using external consensus reality to navigate and make maps of the world.

    I live with someone who not only deals with poverty, but a variety of debilitating medical conditions. If this person did have delusional optimism, survival would be difficult. And this person ensures their own survival by making positive contributions to the world at large.

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  19. Bryce Rasmussen: If this person did have delusional optimism, survival would be difficult.

    I’m going to assume there’s a typo in there, and that you meant to say “if this person did not have delusional optimism”. This is exactly my point: optimism is adaptive, not objective. Evolution doesn’t care about Truth with a capital T; it just wants to trick you into perpetuating your code. There are myriad cognitive biases that are (or at least, were) adaptive, and every one of them— almost by definition— distorts your view of the world. People who are “clinically depressed”— people we think of as being afflicted with a pathology— are empirically more objective at assessing their personal situation when compared to the self-serving self-assessments of so-called “healthy” people. Which is why some prefer the term “depressive realism”.

    The corollary to this is that the more you value your own life, the more unrealistic your view of reality tends to be.

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  20. “The Freeze-Frame Revolution” is available now!

    May it joy you.

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  21. Weird. I thought it wasn’t out until the 12th.

    Nobody tells me anything.

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  22. Looks like it’s just the Kindle edition that’s available today. June 12 for the paperback in the US; June 22 for the paperback in Canada.

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  23. They (stores) might be releasing physical pre-orders early? I was able to pick up my physical copy over the weekend even though the book is still listed as a pre-order on my local bookstore’s* website.

    Granted, it’s /also/ possible them releasing it early to me was just a screw up . . .

    *name omitted to protect the innocent pre-release date pushers of fiction.

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  24. Actually, now that I think back, it’s not unusual for books to appear in bookstores a couple of weeks before the “official” publication date. In fact, that was the crux of one of my earlier disputes with Tor about royalties…

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  25. The kindle version of FFR doesn’t highlight the red letters :'(

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  26. Just bought it from Kobo, so it’s available there, too…

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  27. Oge Nnadi:
    The kindle version of FFR doesn’t highlight the red letters :'(

    Are you certain? Because I’m looking at the Amazon Kindle preview right now, and the red letters are (perhaps too) obvious.

    You’re not using a monochrome reader, are you?

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  28. “You’re not using a monochrome reader, are you?”

    I am. Is there anyway to tell on one?

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  29. Peter Watts:
    Actually, now that I think back, it’s not unusual for books to appear in bookstores a couple of weeks before the “official” publication date. In fact, that was the crux of one of my earlier disputes with Tor about royalties…

    Does this cause people to buy in store and cancel their Amazon pre-orders? Just curious how Amazon feels about hardcopies being released too early in stores and potentially losing pre-order sales.

    Amazon did send me an updated release date on FFR, its June 12th now. Not sure what it was before.

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  30. I can distinguish the “red” letters from the regular text on my monochrome Kindle. It’s just hard. They are a bit paler and a bit fuller.

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  31. The red letters are annoying as hell (very in your face, blood red and bold) in the kindle app for IOS. Otherwise I have no complaints, great read as always, Peter. Thank you.

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  32. Johan Larson,

    Good to know – thanks.

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  33. Phil: I am. Is there anyway to tell on one?

    Johan Larson:
    I can distinguish the “red” letters from the regular text on my monochrome Kindle. It’s just hard. They are a bit paler and a bit fuller.

    Anton: The red letters are annoying as hell (very in your face, blood red and bold) in the kindle app for IOS.

    He, don’t blame me for that— I thought the red letters were way too obvious. If I’d have my way they’d have been identical to the rest of the text except maybe half a point smaller. Then the only people who figured it out would be OCDs with really good eyesight.

    Now that would have been subtle.

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  34. livens: Does this cause people to buy in store and cancel their Amazon pre-orders? Just curious how Amazon feels about hardcopies being released too early in stores and potentially losing pre-order sales.

    I don’t know, but either way I’d be surprised if Amazon was worried about it.Far as I can tell, they have the publishing industry by the balls.

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  35. Off topic, but FYI:
    Author Neil Gaiman’s advice on Audiobooks;
    https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/1815467-audiobooks-a-cautionary-tale

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  36. Peter Watts,

    The tourist teaser is brutal. Serious hooks.

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  37. High-5, seruko.

    But seriously, Peter, why do you need AAA game developers when you’re already capable of rendering your game worlds onto our BUDs? :)

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  38. Wasn’t able to get into your panel on the 19th, unfortunately — it was so packed that they were telling people heading for the elevators not to bother. Any chance that your original presentation might end up on here at some point?

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  39. The K wrote: i somehow doubt the chinese authorities are as “lenient” as the US-Guys>

    From my experience. much politer and considerably more lenient.

    Imagine a Chinese tourist wandering around in a restricted military zone with a camera — and when questioned, refusing to cooperate. Would they be politely told to leave, or would something more emphatic happen?

    That was me in China. (The refusing to cooperate part was a bad translation — our translator managed to mistranslate both the police requests and our responses so that, as we discovered later, a statement that we were not resisting and would cooperate because ‘the foreigners are refusing to register and will not cooperate’.)

    I doubt I’d get the same consideration from US authorities right now, as a white Anglo-Saxon — and considerably less if I was Chinese.

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  40. Peter Watts:
    Weird. I thought it wasn’t out until the 12th.

    Nobody tells me anything.

    Well i have it on my E-Reader right now..i preordered a physical copy too, that did not yet arrive, but even in Germany the E-Book is out since June the 6th. I really hope this does not screw you out of royalties again. In any case, i will still buy the physical copy too.

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  41. Robert:
    The K wrote: i somehow doubt the chinese authorities are as “lenient” as the US-Guys>

    From my experience. much politer and considerably more lenient.

    Huh. Colour me surprised. Then again, that seems like a much more practical and efficient approach. As long as you are a harmless tourist, they let you be, if you are actual an enemy of the regime you just disappear at night, i guess. Or find that you can no longer get a job, shelter, etc..

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