Your Brain on Gore.

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

Animal mutilation.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terrorist Creep.

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

—John J. Miller


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stolen from Dennis Meneses, I think...

Stolen from Dennis Meneses, I think…

Call it “Terrorist Creep”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe they’d have a point.


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

Announcements, Appearances, and Add-ons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climbing Mount CanLit.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Presented without comment.


Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 25 Comments

Psychotic Dreams and Strange Extremes

Where do you start with dreams?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, though— sometimes dreams are positively inspirational.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What’s wrong with this picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SF me says, Prepare to pillage.

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

Data Dump

Rorschach15-01I put up a bunch of new stuff over the weekend: a mix of covers and fan art in the Miscellaneous and Blindopraxia galleries (Angus McIntyre’s digital Blindsight renders— to the right, at the bottom, and at the end of the “Fan Art” matrix— are especially nice), along with a couple of links to multimedia installations based on “The Things” (check the Miscellaneous Gallery under “The Things” or the Backlist page under “Multimedia). The A/V remix of Kate Baker’s performance over on Youtube has been up since 2012, and was made completely independent of me; but Jesús Olmo sent me his digital coffee-table book even earlier (2010, was it?). I’ve been sitting on it all this time, saving it for the unveiling of the new website.

Anyway, check the Updates page for details.

BeyondtheRiftEchinoidCoverAlso over the weekend, Locus posted another review of Echopraxia, this time by Gary K. Wolfe. Locus does that sometimes— posts multiple reviews of the same book— and like his August counterpart Paul Di Filippo, Wolfe invokes the works of other authors when he looks at mine: “Kress’s scientific rhetoric is in support of her plot, Watts’s is in dialogue with his plot, and Rajaniemi’s is the backdrop of his plot.” (I’ve really got to check out this Rajaniemi guy.)  Wolfe isn’t quite so enamored of my infodumps as Di Filippo was— “Watts makes sure we understand the biology and neurology behind both vampirism and zombieism, whether we want to or not”— which, well, fair enough. And he adds his voice (in the nicest possible way) to the growing Pessimism Chorus that seems to go on tour whenever I have a new book out.

“[Watts’] famously dismal brilliance … stuns you with its barrage of smart ideas and cutting-edge research, then disarms you with its grim determinism and unsympathetic, semi-posthuman characters, and ends up, pretty much, by just making you want to crawl under a rock. This is not a novel that wants to invite anyone in for tea.”

He does, though, there at the end. Compares Echopraxia to both Childhood’s End and I am Legend, calls it “undeniably powerful” and “surprisingly humane.” You can almost hear the good china tinking against the stirring spoons.

I’ll take that, and gladly.

That's Bowie in the middle, right?  That's not my imagination?

That’s Bowie in the middle, right? That’s not my imagination?

Posted in: art on ink, reviews by Peter Watts 43 Comments

Echopraxia Q&A

icarus-smallIt’s been barely a month since I did that AMA thing at reddit.  Tomorrow I’m doing it again, only this time it’s an AMAE, which is pronounced exactly the same but  stands for Ask Me About Echopraxia. People have had a chance to actually read that book since the last time I reddited; apparently some of them have questions about it.

I can’t imagine why. It all seems pretty clear-cut to me.

The AMAE will go down the same way the AMA did. In the morning I’ll log in to as The-Squidnapper (because the more-concise handle “Squidnapper” has been taken by some other doofus). I’ll write an introductory post to kick off the exchange, and go away. Throughout the day, those of you with questions can pose them in that thread; I’ll come back later and answer as best I can.

Notice that neither of the A’s in AMAE stand for “anything”.  There are some questions I won’t be answering, beyond stating that they are meant to go unanswered (for now). Anybody wanting to know if Siri really underwent a sex-change operation out in the Oort, or if his dad is still alive at the end of Echopraxia, can save themselves the carpal. On the other hand, if you’re mystified about something that would have been clear if I’d just run the manuscript through one more edit, I’ll do my best to clarify (and apologize when necessary).

At least one reader opined that Portia was an irrelevant distraction because it never appeared, or figured into the plot, after Icarus. The rest of you were clear on that, right?

Well, if not, tomorrow’s your chance.

Posted in: Dumbspeech, public interface by Peter Watts 46 Comments

Peter’s Burg: A Fragmentary Reminiscence.

Translations welcome.

This traditional honey cake was about the size, shape, and moistness of a deflated football, until you got to the honey core which was great. Sadly, I only got halfway through before I had to abandon it; it would never had got past Customs.

At 2 a.m., on my last night in St. Petersberg, a small coterie of Russian SF fans pounded on my door and offered me balls of meat on a plate (not to be confused with meatballs, which are minced; these were not). I don’t know where they came from— the language barrier was pretty formidable— but I think there’d been some kind of late-night BBQ happening somewhere on the grounds.  I think they were inviting me to join them.

I couldn’t, sadly. The reason I was up at that hour in the first place was because I had a web site scheduled to go live in less than two weeks and a half-dozen pages yet to build (also because the wedding party across the pond was still belting out “Venus” and “Money for Nothing” at 50db, so it would have been a restless night in any event).

That gesture of carnivorous cross-cultural goodwill kind of epitomizes the whole St.-Petersburg trip for me.  Not quite sure why.


As usual, click to embiggen most of these pictures.


Google Earth map of The Village: my place was second red blob from the right, upper right quadrant

Google Earth map of The Village: my place was second red blob from the right, upper right quadrant

I had thought this thing was going to happen in St. Petersburg, Russia’s “Gateway to Europe”.  It did not. It happened deep in a forest full of totem poles and sculptures and strange pedestals big enough to accommodate sacrificial offerings. There was a pond stocked with ravenous fish, frequented by a happy couple being photographed on the afternoon of their wedding (and a mere nine hours before the newly wed bride stormed from the honeymoon suite in a rage, telling her friend that her drunken husband was “a complete asshole”).  There was a giant outdoor television embedded in stone; pools and fountains and petting zoos full of small children (none of whom I petted). There was a glorious bar with low ceilings and tree drunks and stuffed animals on the walls; conference halls full of weird angles and steampunk chandeliers.  There was some Lovecraftian variant of the Scandinavian sauna, some new strain that involved beating yourself with dead branches between the scorching air and the freezing water.  I think the concept mutated on its way across the Baltic (Which is not surprising; I read some papers about Baltic heavy-metal levels back in grad school. Nobody crosses that sea without suffering an inversion or two.)


This bar was awesome.  Contrary to popular conception, I didn't see a single person drinking vodka the whole time I was in Russia.

This bar was awesome. Contrary to popular conception, I didn’t see a single person drinking vodka the whole time I was in Russia.



I swear, I kept expecting Patrick McGoohan to appear around the corner.

Much higher production values than the Blair Witch Project.

Much higher production values than the Blair Witch Project.


The KGB was always close at hand, keeping an eye on things.

The KGB was always close at hand, keeping an eye on things.

I’ve only seen two Russian movies in my life. At least, only two stick out in my mind. One of these is Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (and while it has it’s charms, sorry, I think Soderberg did it better in 2002).  The other was an obscure post-apocalyptic downer called Letters from a Dead Man, which I saw in 1986 at a foreign film festival in Vancouver.  It blew me away. In a decade when nuclear war was being soft-pedaled with rosey-eyed sitcoms like The Day After, Letters had the unflinching balls to deny us any hope whatsoever.

Over in St. Petersberg I got to meet one the screenwriters for that movie, Vyacheslav Rybakov. We sat together on a panel discussing religion and state surveillance.

I think he was in favor of both.


There was a 2-hour Q&A. There were interviews: a couple of homegrown Russian magazines, and an iteration of Popular Mechanics that took root on these shores somewhere around the turn of the century. One of the locals asked me a question I’d never heard before, pointed out that I— a notoriously hard-SF writer— was married to a fantasy author. He wanted to know if that caused any discord on the home front; it was almost as though he was asking a card-carrying member of B’Nai Brith what it was like to shack up with the Treasurer of Hamas.

It was a good question, because it let me answer a different one; it let me air my thoughts on Fantasy in relation to SF in general. To my mind, there are two kinds of fantasy: the kind that uses the all-bets-off aspect of the genre as an excuse to be lazy, because everything’s just magic anyway; and the kind that regards that same element as a challenge to build new worlds rigorously and from scratch, without even the pre-existing scaffold of real-world science to help them out. I look down on the one with contempt; I look up at the other with awe. Basically— if you scale quality/merit along the vertical axis—  I regard SF as the filling in a fantasy sandwich.

It was during the Popular Mechanics interview, however, that I discovered that Russian chairs have it in for me.

It’s not just that they were defective blobs of cheap molded plastic.  That’s what I assumed when the first one collapsed under me. Nikolai, who must weigh at least as much as I do, offered me his, thinking that I must have simply chosen a defective unit. Except his collapsed under me too, after about ten seconds, despite the fact that it had been bracing his ass against the force of gravity without any trouble. As did the next. It was like some kind of antiCanadian autoimmune response.

I suspect smart matter, gene-locked against use by all but specific ethnic haplotypes.


It turned out okay, though.

It turned out okay, though.

Blindsight got my translator fired.

I learned this over a potato latte in the airport Starbucks, on my way back to London.  Apparently Astrel got sold on Blindsight solely on the strength of Nikolai’s own rabid enthusiasm; only after it had been bought and translated and put irrevocably into production did his bosses (who didn’t read English) have a chance to read for themselves what they’d bought.

Apparently they fired him on the spot. What the hell did you do to us? People will hate this book! It’s too complicated! Nobody will be able to make any sense of it unless they’re logged into a bunch of science journals at the same time! We’re completely screwed! Begone!


How To Make Friends By Insulting Them: My keynote speech was an updated iteration of Hive Minds, Mind Hives from a few years back, which incorporated my usual derogation of economics. You know the spiel: Dungeons & Dragons for geeks with MBAs, a beautiful model with little connection to the real world, There’s no such thing as Klingon and no matter how fluent you are, eventually the Laws of Physics are still going to beat the crap out of you and steal your lunch money. Followed by the token admission that A real economist would probably accuse me of horrendously mischaracterizing their profession

At which point a very pleasant gentleman with whom I’d been conversing prior to the talk stood up wearing a faint smile and said “Actually, I’m an economist…” Which is something that had never happened before, although I probably should have been expecting it.

It all worked out for the best, though. I even got his email, so I can run ideas past him while writing my next (economics-related) novel.  It’s an unexpectedly effective way of getting actual experts to help you out.

During my next talk, perhaps I’ll describe all neuroscientists as a bunch of New-Age witch doctors.


Breakfast, lunch, dinner.  Not necessarily in that order.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Not necessarily in that order. As I may have mentioned on facebook, the Russians are a stoic people.

The holding pen. The proximity of this picture to that of those nourishing meat dishes above is purely coincidental.

The holding pen. The proximity of this picture to that of those hearty and nourishing meat dishes above is purely coincidental.

Blindsight got my translator hired back.

It didn’t tank after all.  Turns out there were lots of people willing to hit the science journals. Turns out Blindsight actually became something of a cult hit, to Astrel’s astonishment— and after the numbers came back, Nikolai gets a phone call: So, how’s it going? Good, good— say, we’ve been thinking that maybe we were a little hasty before, we were thinking that maybe if you wanted to come back…

And Nikolai says Well, maybe, okay … but only if you publish this book about a bunch of misfits at the bottom of the sea…

I’m told that Blindsight‘s completely unexpected success opened a door for other N’Am authors, on whom Russian publishers wouldn’t previously have taken a chance: Cory Doctorow and Rob Wilson, among others.  Which would inspire me to gloat over the fact that Cory now owed me one, were it not for the fact that he’s already pimped my work and saved my ass so many times that this really doesn’t do anything but reduce the debt I owe him by some fractional amount.

Nikolai (translator/guide-dude), Vlad (translator), Елена (photographer).
Nikolai (translator/guide-dude), Vlad (translator), Елена (photographer).


I was planning on writing much less— impressionistically— about this trip.  In fact, I’d jotted down extensive notes both during the con and on the flight thereafter, so I’d have a solid basis for the narrative. I’ve been trying for the past week and a half to find any trace of those notes, on any of my laptops, or on any of the external hard drives we keep as backups (one always physically offsite), because no one in this house is stupid enough to trust The Cloud.

But I can’t find so much as a word. This is all from memory.  Draw whatever moral you can from that.


There was this war with the Swedes. I learned a little bit about it during a walking tour during  my last morning in Russia, between four hours of sleep the night before and three hours of jetlag induced after.  (Details are fuzzy. I think I remember a Burger King in the shape of a flying saucer.) But beyond the armories, the immortalized microcephalics, and the bronze mutant rabbits, the waterfront of St. Petersberg is decorated by these, well, totem poles: studded by the stylized bows of vanquished warships, each memorializing Russia’s triumph over the dastardly Swedes.

Such monuments seem fairly common in St. Petersberg. I asked if Russia ever built monuments  commemorating its defeats.

“The Poles commemorate defeat,” they told me. “Russians commemorate tragedies.”

The Petersberglians do seem to have a thing for rabbits, though.

The Petersberglians do seem to have a thing for rabbits, though.


This is The Hermitage Museum, one of the biggest cultural repositories on the planet:

Click to embiggen

Actually just the left-hand side, but it’s still pretty big. That column in the square is not fastened to its plinth by anything except weight and gravity. Pray that Bruce Banner doesn’t take the St. Petersburg walking tour. Click to embiggen.

The building itself is massive, the size of city blocks. We didn’t dare go inside; it would have taken days just to find our way out again.  But I knew about this place. It’s famous. I’d read an article in the New Yorker:  it’s the home of a colony of feral cats down in the basement with its own staff of feeders and veterinarians, charged with keeping the seventy-odd furballs in good shape.

“This is the place with the cats?” I asked.

My guide shook his head. “This is one of the largest museums in the world. It was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, and it’s got more da Vinci’s in its collection than any—”

“Yeah, but it’s famous for the cats, right?”

“No, it’s famous for being one of the largest galleries in the wor—

“But aside from that—”

Ultimately, we agreed to disagree.


The Petersburglians do like their cats, though. I’m given to understand that during and after the Siege of Leningrad they literally shipped them in by the truckload, as a vital anti-vermin strategy. They like their spiders, too.  Spiders are considered good luck here.  It’s nice to see arachnids getting a break.  I approve.

I do not approve of the (apparently Russia-wide) superstitious hatred of snakes, on the other hand. Snakes get demonized in Russian culture, much as they do elsewhere throughout the world. I blame the fucking Christians and their idiotic serpentophobic creation myth.

I’m pretty sure the Russians blame the Swedes.

This deeply disturbing piece of public art  commemorates either a famous Russian microcephalic or a sculptor raised on the early films of David Lynch.

This deeply disturbing piece of public art commemorates either a famous Russian microcephalic or a sculptor raised on the early films of David Lynch.

This is a bookstore. It sells actual paper books, and it's proud of the fact. Can you imagine anyone in North America gilding their bookstores so elaborately?Hell, can you imagine anyone in North America having a bookstore?

This is a bookstore. It sells actual paper books, and it’s proud of the fact. Can you imagine anyone in North America gilding their bookstores so elaborately?

Hell, it’s getting increasingly difficult to even  imagine anyone in North America having a bookstore.

"The Bronze Horseman", a tribute to Peter the so-called Great (although "great" is not the word that springs to my mind when I contemplate someone who deliberately crushes the skull of an innocent and utterly undeserving reptile beneath the hooves of his horse).

“The Bronze Horseman”, a tribute to Peter the so-called Great (although “great” is not the word that springs to my mind when I contemplate someone who deliberately crushes the skull of an innocent and utterly undeserving reptile beneath the hooves of his horse).

In St. Petersburg's Field of Mars gutters this "Eternal Flame", which I'm told has been burning continuously since the year before I was born. Having been raised by a Baptist minister in the heart of Alberta's Bible Belt, I've long been familiar with the prospect of eternal flames. I have to say, when you actually encounter them they're a lot less intimidating than their rep would have you believe.

In St. Petersburg’s Field of Mars gutters this “Eternal Flame”, which I’m told has been burning continuously since before I was born. Having been raised by a Baptist minister in the heart of Alberta’s Bible Belt, I’ve long been familiar with the prospect of eternal flames. I have to say, when you actually encounter them they’re a lot less intimidating than their rep would have you believe.

This is Nataly, who got me there and back again. I wish I spoke Russian.  Or she spoke English.

This is Nataly, who got me there and back again. I wish I spoke Russian. Or that she spoke English.

And finally, St. Petersberg Cathedral. I could not stop taking pictures of this, it was so amazing. It just about broke my camera. It's as if a Greek Orthodoc Church fucked a Fabergé Egg.

And finally, St. Petersberg Cathedral. I could not stop taking pictures of this, it was so amazing. It just about broke my camera. It’s as if a Greek Orthodox Church fucked a Fabergé Egg.
Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 18 Comments


sunflowers-onassorted-onFor those who haven’t been checking the Updates Link to your right, The Shorts Gallery went up a few days ago; it gathers assorted illustrations (of varying quality) based on a number of my stories (likewise) which have appeared in various publications around the world.

The one popularly-reprinted story which is not represented in that gallery is “The Island“, which gets a wing all to itself. That gallery just went live today: a motley collection of “The Island” illos and concept art deriving not just from the story, but from occasional aborted attempts to translate it from print into the digital-interactive realms.  I haven’t heard anything new about any of those projects for at least a year now, so I’m assuming they’re all dead. Still, for all I know some ragtag fugitive fleet of indie designers is yet working away in a cave somewhere.  That’s the dream, anyway.

Someone emailed me the other day to ask if I could stick an rss feed into the Updates page.  Which I probably could, but having looked over the online tutorials and taken a quick stab at reverse-engineering the relevant files from this blog, I figure it’d take about a day for my obsolete squidly brain to work out the kinks and get it running properly.  And that is a day that will not arrive before 1) my e-mail backlog is significantly smaller; 2) I have fewer PRy things hanging over my head, and 3) I don’t jam out on running quite so often as I seem to be now. In the meantime, though, the rss feed for the ‘crawl works just fine, so I’ll post updates here instead.  Much as I’m doing now.

Next post will be more substantive.  Promise.  Probably I’ll do Russia at last.

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 16 Comments

Casting Call

rifters-onYeah, I’ve been quiet lately.

Still working on the site, for one thing; finally got the Rifters and Blindopraxia galleries up and populated (Sunflowers and Shorts still to go): it’s a much cleaner layout than the old Gallery, and there’s a bunch of new material, so you might want to check them out. (Also, it’s worth keeping an eye on the “Updates” page linked to the right; I’ll announce any significant site developments there, which comes in handy if you want to keep up even though I can’t be bothered wasting crawlspace on every new bit of chrome that gets bolted into place.)

So site work is ongoing.  I’m also keeping my eyes on my feet as I haltingly try to relearn the steps of the New Release Rumba: the essays and interviews and what-if scenarios that come your way when you’ve just delivered. (One such interview just appeared in the latest issue of Albedo, in fact). It’s one of these what-ifs that I could use your help with, again.

blindopraxia-onSome of you know about this “My Book, the Movie” thing; as I recall there was some serious love on these pages for Ellen Page in the role of Lenie Clarke, back when I did it for the rifters books. I’m doing it again. The idea is to propose a dream team— mainly cast, but feel free to nominate a director or screenwriter if so inclined— for a hypothetical movie production of Echopraxia. Someone once suggested that Billy Bob Thornton  would make a decent Brüks, and I could see Edward James Olmos as Jim Moore if he lost a few kilos. Maybe Andy Serkis in a mocap suit as Portia.  Beyond that, I am bereft of clue; do you guys have any ideas?

Oh, and anyone who nominates Ridley Scott for director is banned for a week.  I still haven’t forgiven him for “Prometheus“.

Posted in: interviews, writing news by Peter Watts 94 Comments