PSA Reprise: The Sound of Horsemen Riding.

This was supposed to be my review of Westworld, Season 3 (We’re not angry, Mr. Nolan. Just very, very disappointed). But between various professional obligations and maybe a little, you know, borderline obsession with this Alyx character, time got away from me again and if I wait any longer to announce a couple of upcomings they’ll be bygones. So here’s a little more empty self-promotion for you all.

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First up: in the shadow of Covid, the overachieving multiaward-winning unstoppable Jo Walton has been enlisting writers to contribute to a “New Decameron”. The old Decameron, written in the 14th Century by an Italian dude named Giovanni Boccaccio, was a themed anthology framed around the concept of a group of people hiding in a villa, telling stories to each other while the Black Death rages outside. (I had not heard of this before. In my defense I had read Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”, which uses the same basic premise to launch a somewhat more on-target depiction of the One Percent).

Anyway. Jo took inspiration from the fourteenth century to inform the twenty-first, wrote her own contemporary framing story and enlisted some seventy-odd writers (and counting) to contribute stories. They hail from all over the place: first-chapters of novels-in-progress, previously unpublished shorts, stories that might have been previously published but only in Hadzane—you get the idea. The project accretes in real-time over on Patreon, even as I type; proceeds are split between the authors and Cittadini del Mondo, a Roman charity running a clinic and library for refugees. As of last week New Decameron had raised over three grand for Cittadini del Mondo. Nothing to sneeze at.

Anyway, my contribution went up today: “The Last of the Redmond Billionaires”, originally written for internal use by a multinational which shall remain nameless (at their own request), but who have permitted its wider release because the cause is so damn worthy. The stories in this New Decameron are not thematically linked, beyond the fact that they’re all fantasy or SF; certainly there was no requirement that they be explicitly pandemic-related. But as anyone who knows my stuff will realize, pandemics have factored into pretty much every story I’ve written over the past decade— at least as background elements— because I haven’t been able to foresee a plausible near-future without them. So it is with “Redmond”: based loosely on an incident discussed briefly and incidentally by characters in another recent of story of mine, but given flesh and detail and placed center-stage. It’s set in a disease-ravaged refugee camp in the Pacific Northwest. Basically, more of the same.

Or as Jo put it, “What a very you story!”

“Redmond” is number 64 in the sequence, which should make it obvious that I am far from the best reason to check the project out (and to chip in). Giants in the field have already contributed: people like Cory Doctorow from the latest generation, people like Robert Silverberg from earlier ones. Max Gladstone. Nalo Hopkinson. Lois McMaster Bujold and Naomi Novik and Walter John Williams. The list goes on. Even if you utterly loathe my writing, you’re bound to find something in this anthology that turns your crank.

It’s all free. You don’t have to pay to read it, but it would be great if you did. The cause is just, and the prose is worthy. Win/win.

So check it out.

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Here’s something else to check out: those of you who inhabit Second Life (or Sansar, if you’re into VR) might have heard of this “Drax” guy, aka Bernhard Draxtor: interviewer, book reviewer, overall AR/VR pixality inhabitant. He used to interview genre authors over to his virtual studio in Sansar (I have embarrassing pictures of Karl Schroeder doing unmentionable things to a pair of Vive controllers in our Trombonarium, back during his “Stealing Worlds” tour; I’ll release them when the time is right). These days Drax is more well-known as the face of the Second Life Book Club: a weekly 90-minute panel discussion with various genre authors starting Wednesdays at 10am “SLT” (which out here means “Sri Lankan Time” but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say in this context it’s actually “Second Life Time”). AKA “Pacific Time”. (So SL Book club actually starts at 1300 here in Toronto.)

This week’s guest is not me. This week’s guest is Kelly Robson, who you can’t not have heard of if you’ve been keeping an eye on genre award ballots over the past couple of years. But apparently I’ll be dropping by too, as— well, I’m not sure exactly. Perhaps I’m there to heckle (the word “ambush” was used during initial negotiations, but I think we stuck a pin in that one). Or maybe I’m there to provide a counterweight to Kelly’s chronic optimism. That’s assuming I can even get in: The BUG’s working from home during these lockdown days, so there’s no guarantee some brushfire at the Ministry of the Attorney General won’t flare up and demand a teleconference at exactly the right time to choke my bandwidth. We’ll see.

You will, too, if you’re on Second Life. Drop by. I’m currently the guy dressed as a Coronavirus, but if Drax thinks that’s Too Soon I might end up wearing something in a cephalopod.

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And finally, in the so near and yet so far Department: looks like I won’t be showing up at Geek Picnic in St Petersburg this summer, after all.

You can guess the reason. Covid spiking all over Russia. Medical professionals running desperately short of proper equipment in ol’ St. Pete’s. Official C19 death tolls surprisingly low, until you add in deaths attributed to “community-transmitted pneumonia”, at which point they rise to, well, pretty much what you’d expect. Doesn’t seem likely that they’ll have things under control in the less-than-two-months remaining before the Picnic is scheduled. Put that together with the fact that we’re still travel-restricted here in Canada— I have no great desire to get thrown into quarantine in Trenton for two weeks following my return— and it just doesn’t seem like a wise move.

Also the BUG literally threatened to leave me if I went.

It sucks. I never saw much of St. Petersburg proper last time I was there; most of that trip was spent outside the city and my one day spent touring came after getting four hours of sleep per night for three straight nights; I was half comatose the whole time. But what I remember was beautiful (even if we never got inside the Hermitage to check out the cats). I was really looking forward to a return trip.

Maybe next year, if they still want me.

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 25 Comments

Weird Al Yankovic and the Global Phase Shift

“We’re living by science and data, not our constitution.
That’s wrong. We are not safe if we are not free.”
—Darwin Award contender, protesting in Pennsylvania

The target won’t stop moving. Not so long ago the WHO came out with a mortality rate of 3.4%; country specific rates span the range from almost 10% to virtually zero (let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be stuck in Italy or North America right n— oh, wait…) A Lancet study from the beginning of the month derives a China-wide mortality rate of less than 1.4%, though, which is closer to earlier estimates based on contained populations with complete sampling. That’s good.

On the other hand, the infection rate R0—originally estimated as somewhere between 2 or three— might in fact be as high as 5.7. That’s bad. And over on the good ship Theodore Roosevelt—you know, that aircraft carrier whose captain was fired after he had the temerity to ask for assistance with an on-board C19 outbreak— a solid 60% of the sailors who tested positive were asymptomatic. That would also be bad, if it didn’t pale compared to asymptomatic figures reported from other closed populations: 80% in China, over 90% in US Prisons (the biggest “closed population” on the planet, depending on your definition). Also a lot of C19 victims present an abnormally high incidence of clotting, which while maybe not downright dire in Big Picture terms is certainly curious.

In the meantime, the number of recorded cases worldwide has sailed past three million as I write this; deaths over 200,000. People who’ve survived one bout with C19 are starting to test positive for it again. Still no treatment or vaccine. Here in Canada our politicians speak hopefully about the way we’re flattening the curve, while at the same time warming us up to the possibility of food shortages in the not-too-distant future. And apparently there’s a plan afoot to lock a skeleton crew inside local generating stations—to isolate them from the growing social unrest and chaos beyond the fences—so they can keep maintaining the plant and forestall the day the grid goes down.

None of this is news most folks would describe as hopeful. So you might be forgiven for giving me a funny look when I tell you that I really don’t think Covid-19 is a problem.

I think it’s a symptom.

*

For a while, rumor had it that C19 had been built in a Chinese bioweapons lab, that bats and pangolins were just innocent fall-mammals. When that proved inconsistent with the evidence, the rumor mutated into a less virulent strain that suggested C19 might have at least escaped from a lab, even if it hadn’t actually originated there.

I kinda wish it had, although not for the reasons you might expect.

I played with a similar idea on this very ‘crawl back in 2016, when I expressed modest and wistful hopes for the impact of the Zika virus—a bug that never killed anyone, barely even inconveniences adults, but whose deformation of fetuses was proving enough to scare even dyed-in-the-blood-of-Christ Catholics out of reproducing. In that post I lamented my own failure of imagination: I’d imagined Zika would expand its range by switching from its original tropical-mosquito host to one with a more temperate distribution, spreading out of the impoverished Third World into the gluttonous First where a reduction in our numbers might actually make a difference. Instead, Zika had ditched the insect vector altogether and gone into sexual-transmission mode, a much more effective strategy that spread it throughout the lower states in a matter of months.

Yet here I am again, with yet another mea culpa about my limited imagination: because my scenario described a gradual reduction in our impact, a fear of breeding that would take decades to manifest in any ecological sense. I never imagined that a relatively benign bug could cause us to drastically reduce emissions, to change our very lifestyles literally overnight. Which is why I think it would’ve been cool if C19 had been conjured up in a lab and deliberately released: not as a bioweapon, but as an object lesson. A teaching moment. An inspiration.

Because we know, now, that we can do it. We can live without the luxuries. We can live without the billiona—sorry, the job creators. We know who the essential members of this society are, and we can identify the parasites1. We can watch with awe as New Zealand kicks Corona’s ass: we can whoop with schadenfreude as church-going evangelicals and MAGAmaniacs re-enact the airlock scene from Avenue 5, while their stumbling demented child-king cheers them on. We can clear the skies in a matter of days; you’ve all seen the pictures. All it takes is for us to be in imminent fear for our lives.

Also for the crisis to be over by the time we’ve finished bingeing Tiger King.

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That’s the Big Question, of course. What happens after. If there even is an After.

Imagine The Who’s next Farewell Concert. People file into the local stadium and find their seats; tinny music plays from the speakers up in the rafters. It’s an hour or two before even the opening act sets up. And yet, a distressingly large number of people seem to think this preamble comprises the Main Event.

How else do you explain those idiotic memes juxtaposing Mad Max with “Let’s stream our art for free! Let’s sing to each other!”? How else to explain the fact that even the usually-brilliant Laurie Penny has bought into the whole “fuzzy teledistant social apocalypse” model. More Douglas Adams than Danny Boyle, she writes over on Wired. Maybe now. Maybe on Month 2 of an interminable slide. Try sharing your homemade sourdough recipes when the grid goes down. Have you forgotten that two weeks ago, people were coming to blows over toilet paper?

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the grid will go down—this time. I expect we’ll get a bit of a breather. I don’t expect it to last—hell, I’ve been writing about this shit for over twenty years, I’m hardly going to heave a sigh of relief just because the Reavers haven’t kicked in my door by Week 8—but let’s put that aside for the moment. Let’s ignore William Hanage, accept that Covid-19 will subside in a few months (outside the US, at least), and restrictions will ease enough for us to come outside again and rub shoulders with the occasional stranger before the second wave comes back and does it all over again. We’ve learned some important lessons over the past weeks. We’ve learned how many “impossible” things were actually just inconvenient to the guys holding the reins. The question now is, will any of those lessons stick?

Because all those reduced emissions, all the before/after pics of the sky over Paris, the whole ecofriendly mass-migration to work-from-home—none of it matters. 2020 is still on track to be the hottest year in recorded history. The Great Barrier Reef is still in the throes of yet another devastating bleaching event. A whole shitload of fold catastrophes will still be taking out ecosystems in sudden waves, starting within the decade. We’ve been fouling the air for generations; a few months of lowered emissions isn’t even a drop in the bucket. (I’m pretty much on-side with climate scientist Kate Marvel on this score, right up until she tries to absolve us of all blame and hang responsibility on the plutocrats. I hold us to blame as much as them. But that’s a whole other post.)

Clear skies over LA? Nice start, but meaningless on its own. Have we learned anything that we’ll apply going forward? (Beyond the take-home message that front-line medical professionals should be evicted from their homes or beaten in the street because they might be carriers, which people from Toronto to Kolkata seem to have already internalized just fine.)

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There’s some cause for hope. The Democrats, for example, came out of the mid-pandemic election with a massive majority (thanks largely to their exemplary handling of C19) and have embraced the Green New Deal, pledged to end the nation’s reliance on coal, and to go carbon neutral by 2050. Looking for a silver lining that’s less nihilistic than Hey, at least it’s reduced the number of idiot hominids fucking up the planet? Look no further than the Democratic Party.

(The South Korean Democratic Party, that is. Over here, the US Democrats are still helmed by people who pledge craven fealty to Wall Street, who treat the Green New Deal like a magical unicorn some six-year-old girl wants for her birthday, and whose Chosen One’s strongest selling point is that he hasn’t been accused of sexual misconduct as often as the sitting president.)

Then there’s the city of Amsterdam, which has committed itself, post-Covid, to swapping out conventional rapacious economics for the more eco-friendly “doughnut” type. Germany is talking about enshrining the right to Work From Home into law. Hell, even here in Canada—just last week— our own empty-suit PM opined that “Just because we’re in a health crisis doesn’t mean we can neglect the environmental crisis”. Sure it was a platitude; but a platitude from someone who traditionally provides billions in annual subsidies to the oil industry. This time, the payout was earmarked for the clean-up of abandoned oil wells and limiting methane emissions. It’s a teensy step in the right direction.

But if there’s cause for hope, there’s also more than sufficient grounds for skepticism. Other parties have internalised their own lessons, not always with epidemiology foremost in mind. Governments around the world have lost no time ramping up their surveillance states under cover of “tracking the virus”; anyone want to lay odds on how quickly Ontario stops passing our health information to local law enforcement once the danger has passed, given how responsibly the cops have treated such data in the past? (The question is barely rhetorical even in Canada; there’s no point even asking it about China or Russia or the US.)

China is easing back on environmental enforcements to help its economy recover. The Czech Republic is using Covid-19 to advocate ditching the European Green Deal. The US oil industry has responded to the pandemic by demonizing renewables as “unconscionable and immature political opportunism in a time when Americans’ lives are literally at stake” (without, apparently, any sense of irony). The Trump administration has wasted no time suspending environmental regulations for Big Fossil, under cover of Covid Hardship. So has Alberta, whose premier responded to the cratering value of oil by investing $1.5 billion of taxpayer’s money into the Keystone XL pipeline. The Canadian oil lobby is demanding that our pesky carbon tax be shelved in this tragic time of economic crisis.

They may have history on their side, in terms of public opinion at least. The Canadian public was increasingly in favor of strong climate action back in the last decade, until the crash of 2008 made everyone forget about everything but The Economy. Given how much worse said Economy is this time around, it’s reasonable to wonder how much we’ve learned in the meantime.

Not much, if columnist Heather Scoffield is any kind of metric. Over at the Star she coos sympathetically about our “oil-centered” provinces, laments “all the pain” endured by the hard-working souls trapped in that industry. As though they’ve all been caught completely unawares, as though nobody could have possibly foreseen the hardship that price wars and pandemics might have inflicted.

And yet, far more credible than the Commander-in-Chief.

To which I say: hey, you know who was ranting about the threat of climate change way back in 1977? Weird Al Yankovic, during his high school valedictory address. Not a scientist. Not a prophet. He couldn’t even look things up on the Internet (which barely even existed back then, and couldn’t be accessed by high school students in any case). A nerd with an accordion saw the writing on the wall over forty years ago—three years before Exxon officially (if not publicly) recognized the global threat of climate change in its own internal memos— and we’re supposed to feel sorry for an obscenely-profitable multinational subsidy-siphoning parasite because they never bothered to diversify over the past four decades? We’re supposed to pity the poor blue collars laboring on the rigs who had access to the same wall, could see the same writing— and who continued to shit on the tree-huggers and elect haploid brainstems like Ralph Klein and Jason Kenney?

Fossil had all the money in the world and almost half a century to prepare. All they did was spit on those who tried to raise the alarm. Let them rot.

(And to head off an obvious rejoinder: anyone who bleats some variation of Think of the children! gets circular-filed. Every generation has children. Every generation squeezes out a brood who— for a few years, at least— can be described as “innocent”. To claim that you should avoid accountability for your crimes because it will hurt “the children” is not an argument; it’s a hostage scenario. If you cared so much about about your fucking children, you would have cleaned up your act before having them.)

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Full disclosure, there’s no evidence that climate change played a significant role in the spread of Covid-19 (in fact, hot weather seems to be anathema to the little bugger). Climate change is but one of the major variables contributing to the global spread of disease. The other two are destruction/encroachment of wild habitat (bringing people into contact with new and undiscovered pathogen reservoirs)2 and the globalization of travel (which carries said pathogens to new— and newly-habitable— locations at lightning speed). Any of those variables can be enough to provoke an outbreak. Put ‘em all together, and you’ve got a world in which the incidence of emerging diseases have more than quadrupled since 1970 (and a world in which only about one percent of wildlife viruses are thought to have even been identified, much less countered).

This time, wilderness intrusion and global travel gave us a coronavirus pandemic courtesy of the People’s Republic. Climate change didn’t happen to play a role, but that was just the luck of one draw: China has other gifts waiting in the wings, in which it takes center stage. Climate change causes drought; drought results in increased rodent populations, and voila: pneumonic plague kicks off its comeback tour.

If not plague, Henra virus. If not Henra, West Nile. Babeiosis. Anaplasmosis. Nipah: now there’s a scary little fucker. The original reservoir was in bats, but it jumped to humans via pigs: back in 1998 it infected 276 people in Malaysia, killing 106 of them. That’s a 38% kill rate—higher than smallpox. Nipah’s been on intermittent tour throughout Bangladesh and Malaysia ever since, racking up kill rates as high as 90%. Half the cases are transmitted human-to-human.

There is no cure.

I keep saying this is only the beginning. I’ve said it so often that people are starting to say “Peter Watts predicted a global virus pandemic in 2019”, as though the predictions actually were mine, as though I wasn’t just repeating what other, vastly-better-informed experts have been saying for years. But just as each new outbreak reflects an interaction of different causal variables, pandemics themselves are but one factor in a wider, even more catastrophic cascade. This isn’t just about pandemics, it’s not just about climate change: it’s about emptying the oceans and strip-mining the seabed, it’s about cutting down the world’s forests, it’s about hormone disruptors and plastics and insect pollinators cratering in fast-forward. It’s about a civilization build out of cards and supply lines that span hemispheres; an economic system so out of touch with reality that oxygen and clean water are accorded zero value, while mine tailings in a river are accorded zero cost.

We appear to be headed towards a scenario described in Nafeez Ahmed’s recent essay “Coronavirus, synchronous failure and the global phase-shift”: a series of synchronous failures along multiple axes that will pretty much gut The Way Things Are from the inside out. What comes out the other side—whether we come out the other side—depends on how well we can transpose the lessons we’re learning during this mild, training-wheels minipocalypse.

Unexpectedly, a small minority (photo credit Joshua A. Bickel).

I honestly don’t know if we will. I didn’t believe we had the political will to take the necessary steps even for C19—yet here we are, banded together, changing the very shape of society from the highest reaches of government to the face-masked peasants lined up uncomplainingly outside the supermarket, a requisite two meters apart. As an added and unexpected bonus, the stupider members of the population are altruistically gathering together in churches and public spaces, drinking bleach on presidential advice, and otherwise helping to weed themselves out of the equation. (Not to mention increasing the mean IQ of the species a bit.) It’s a vision that—how strange it feels to say this— gives me hope.

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder—like a myriad others— why we can respond so effectively to this relatively small immediate crisis but not to the gargantuan one that’s been swallowing the planet for generations. Even as one part of my brain serves up the same old answer— the future isn’t real to us, we’ll run like hell from the charging grizzly but we couldn’t care less about the slow boil— another part doesn’t quite buy it. Put aside the mind-boggling statistics, the three million infected and two hundred thousand dead. The gut doesn’t do numbers. It goes by immediate experience— and for most of us C19 is still something we watch from a distance, far less “real” than the countermeasures implemented to fight it. We’ve watched our cities shut down. We’re in this quarantine. So many of us are suddenly unemployed, staring destitution in the face. Next to that, how many of us even know someone who’s died of Covid-19?

I don’t for a split nanosec buy into that idiotic bullshit about The Cure Being Worse Than the Disease—but dammit, it must feel that way to the gut. And yet most of us are buckling down, against all my expectations. Most of us accept the need for drastic action.

Could the molehill have possibly, finally, primed us to deal with the mountain?


1 We always could, of course, but nobody ever seemed to act on the knowledge.

2 Sixty percent of our emerging infectious diseases originate in other species.

Posted in: In praise of biocide, scilitics by Peter Watts 78 Comments

PSA. AMA.

 

I was holding off on this until I could slip it in at the top of a more substantial, imminent follow-up to last month’s Plague Journal entry. But plagues will be with us for the foreseeable future, I still haven’t been able to look away from the headlights long enough to distill my notes into an actual post1, and this upcoming AMA thing happens in two days: Wednesday April 15th, to be precise. 9pm Eastern, 6pm Pacific, work it out yourself if you don’t happen to be in either of those zones. So in the face of that imminent deadline, self-promotion gets a post all to itself.

There’s this book recommendation site, “WhatShouldIReadNext.com”. They’ve been around long enough to accumulate a yearly base of 1.5 million readers, a number I can barely even dream of here at the ‘crawl. They’re booting up an AMA series to help us all fend off the stir-crazies for an hour or two; I’m their inaugural author. (Before you ask, No: I have no idea who the competition might have been, or if one of the organizers just lost a bet.)

Full disclosure: it’s not free. You need to sign up as a “premium” subscriber to get in and actually interact in text-time. It’ll cost you anywhere from nine bucks to ninety, depending on whether you want to subscribe for a month or for the rest of your life (assuming there’s a difference—these days, who can really tell?) If you’ve spent any time here, I’m guessing you’ll already have a sense of whether it’s worth the price. Trust your feelings.

I believe a transcript of the whole thing will end up on the WSIN blog in the fullness of time, so whatever you decide you’ll still be able to read my answers to other people’s questions for free. You just won’t get to ask any of your own.

You take a chance either way. I leave it to you.


1 Also “Half-Life: Alyx” finally finished downloading and the in-world pigeons are awesomely rendered, so I probably won’t be spending a lot of time in the real world anyway.

Posted in: public interface by Peter Watts 14 Comments

Revenge of the Pangolins
(Or, The Epidemiology of Understatement)

I’ll admit I didn’t really see it coming.

I mean, sure: I’ve been harping on Dan Brooks’s epidemiological musings (and, as it turns out, those of the US DOD) for years now. I’ve written articles both magazine- and ‘crawl-based; ranted on panels from Sofia to Tel Aviv (and possibly Berlin, assuming international flights are still a thing a few months from now); given solo talks in Toronto and Montreal and Koszeg. I’ve incorporated them into scenarios I’m not allowed to talk about for companies I’ve signed NDAs with. Check out recent fiction like “Incorruptible” and “Cyclopterus” and you’ll find them exposited right there in the backstory.

This slide is from 2017. Just saying.

So you might find the scenario familiar: a warming world drawing old pathogens into new habitats, full of new and vulnerable hosts. A series of rolling pandemics starting to hollow out the world’s urban cores within the decade, characterized by low mortality but high contagion; societal stresses and fractures due not so much to die-offs as to sick days, a whole subsidiary cascade of collapse where the people who maintain the ATMs and drive the food trucks and take out the garbage start calling in sick, and their replacements call in sick—and before you know it the whole damn house of cards has collapsed with hardly anyone even dying, and the water’s off and we’re all sitting in our home-made forts, counting our remaining tins of Puritan Irish Stew with Formed Meat Chunks.

At first glance, COVID-19 certainly seems to be a terrific case of I Told You So, giftwrapped with a whole bunch of optional extras I hadn’t thought about much. Stock markets are imploding the world over. Half the conferences and festivals on the planet are either in jeopardy or been canceled outright. Italy has gone China one better and locked down the entire country. COVID is expected to overwhelm the US health-care system in about a month (assuming a 6-day doubling rate— although the sheer hilarious buffoonery of the US response might well render that prediction hopelessly optimistic). Oil prices have nosedived (at least partly due to reduced global travel which, I dunno, I can’t help but see as a good thing), even though airlines—teetering on the brink of collapse— have resorted to flying empty planes in and out of European airports to keep their flight slots. (They’ve also started demanding that imminent emission taxes be rolled back, claiming that they won’t be able to afford them when travel rebounds. Hey, just because the world’s in a panic over one crisis doesn’t mean we can’t gratuitously make another one worse.) The global economy has already, by some accounts, begun to implode; best-case scenario at this point seems to be global recession. And just as this post was going to press, the World Health Organization finally caved and used the P-word.

You are ableist and ageist if you share this graph.

On a dumber note, an inevitable contingent seems bent on press-ganging the outbreak into the service of pettier, more ideological goals. Over at Wired Roxanne Khamsi spends an entire article raging about “viral whataboutism”, and flinging terms like “ableist” and “ageist” at anyone who dares compare COVID-19 to other bugs with bigger kill counts. Facebook grows increasing infested with a meme claiming that the only reason we care so much more about Coronavirus than starvation is because COVID infects the rich—and not, just maybe, because starvation is a problem that’s been with us for millennia, COVID just popped onto the radar last Thursday, and we’re hardwired to react strongly to novel and unexpected threats. (At least such folks have been distracted for a while from complaining about the fact that Greta Thunberg is a privileged white girl.)

Here’s the thing, though: COVID-19 isn’t nearly as bad as what I’d been expecting.

I’m talking about the actual virus here, not the social impact. The Cassandra prognosis—admittedly a purely theoretical, what-if scenario—imagined a bug with a 10-20% mortality rate, ultimately infecting around half the world’s human population. COVID-19 isn’t anywhere near that lethal. Even the 3.5% kill rate you’ve seen bandied about must be way too high, because it ignores both active cases still pending (42% of the total at this writing, according to the Johns Hopkins Amazing Coronavirus Dashboard) and—more significantly—the proportion of infections that haven’t been detected because they’re asymptomatic. Asymptomatic cases could account for two thirds of the total according to Mizomuto and Chowell, based on the Diamond Princess outbreak (which provides an unusually comprehensive data set, since the entire population was tested for the virus whether they showed symptoms or not).

“Soon…only 98% of us will be left…” —Randy Marsh, following exposure to SARS-infected blankets provided by the Three Feathers Indian Casino

Yes, the prevalence of asymptomatic carriers increases the infection rate—but that’s a higher infection rate for a much more benign strain of the disease. (There are, so far, at least two strains of COVID-19, the younger and more virulent “L-Type” being responsible for most of the symptomatic cases. But L is already waning—probably because of active control measures— leaving the more benign “S-Type” to outcompete it in the wild). Once the dust clears and asymptomatic cases are fully accounted for, I’d be surprised if this bug racks up a mortality rate much higher than 1%—which, by comforting coincidence, is in the same ballpark as the 0.6% South Korea reported after daily testing thousands of their own citizens, symptomatic or not.

I suppose it’s possible that things are far worse than anyone’s letting on. I’ve heard one third-hand “inside information” rumor from virology circles that China may have been dealing with around fifty thousand new cases per day, back during COVID’s halcyon days in that country. Which would at least explain why they’ve been frantically building so many hospitals from the ground up to fight a bug with a measly 2% kill rate (and which leaves anyone under 60 pretty much unscathed). Still: if that were the case, you’d think we’d be seeing higher transmission rates in other parts of the world by now.

Actually, it turns out you can get COVID-19 from”Chinese Food”…

So most likely we’re faced with a far less-devastating disease than the one I was hitching my talks to. And yet, the social impacts have been just as catastrophic. A measly one percent mortality rate and entire countries get locked down.

But let us not forget the up sides. Carbon emissions can’t help but decline around the world (apparently China’s have already dropped by 25%). Surely, the sudden monkey-wrench thrown into all those international conferences should provoke massive investment in telepresence tech (right here in Toronto, the Collisions tech conference was canceled in real space but resurrected in virtual); hopefully that will lead to a persistent increase in online conferences and reduced air travel moving into the future. China’s just banned the eating of wild animals. Toilet paper manufacturers have never had a better year. Hell, given the imminent shit-kicking US medical infrastructure is in for—not to mention the inevitable political fallout—COVID-19 might even be enough to dislodge Trump from the buttocks of the western world. (It’s got a better shot than Biden in that regard, if you ask me.) All thanks to a bug which is turning out to be way more candy-ass than the one I’d been expecting.

So I’m conflicted. Do I trot out the same old line, describe myself as “delusionally optimistic” because the current implosion results from a kinder, gentler pathogen than I assumed? Or do I allow myself some real optimism, because a relatively mild pathogen— however nasty in the short term— might kickstart so many beneficial effects downstream?

It probably doesn’t matter. This isn’t a single big-name stadium concert after all, and COVID-19 isn’t the Main Act. This is a festival: an epidemiological Woodstock with no expiration date. COVID—like SARS and MERS and the various flus before it— is only the beginning. And if history is any judge, future acts will come increasingly thick and fast.

Brace yourselves. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Almost four centuries of The Big Picture, ending in 2016. See a trend, maybe?

Posted in: In praise of biocide, scilitics by Peter Watts 107 Comments

DeHumanize

Back before Christmas, Bakka-Phoenix hosted a launch for Sentient Tumor. In  the course of that event—during the traditional Reading Of The Excerpts— I revisited a 2015 scenario in which gut flora reprogram the brain’s anger and image-recognition macros via the Vagus Nerve. People thus weaponized could be driven into a violent rage at the site of specific corporate logos; anyone working at a Bell Canada kiosk (in the original scenario) or wearing a Google t-shirt (in the story that ultimately resulted from it) would find themselves getting shit-kicked by complete strangers. Fearing for their lives, they would quit in droves; the CEOs standing on their backs would lose their balance; evil corporate empires would collapse for want of cheap labor. As Peter Watts fantasies go, it was one of my more heartwarming.

 

During the Q&A that followed, a friend in the audience reminded me that the violence I was so gleefully imagining would be directed against a bunch of overworked and underpaid grunts who were barely making a living under terrible working conditions. After all, how many of Amazon’s warehouse employees would be working there if they could find anything better? Was I a Utilitarian? Did I think it would be fair to inflict even more hardship on those already hard-done-by, in the name of the Greater Good?

Taking the question literally, the answer’s obvious: it wouldn’t be called “the greater good” if The Good was not, by definition, greater. That may not sit right in the gut, but then again the gut is an idiot: always opting for morality over ethics, for what feels good over what can be defended rationally. The gut doesn’t like Truth, as Stephen Colbert so eloquently put it; it prefers “Truthiness”.

Still. The question got me thinking out loud, right there on the spot; someone remarked on Twitter how entertaining it was to watch Peter Watts trying to work out, in real time, whether he wanted to see the world burn. Ultimately I reaffirmed that I only wanted to burn part of it, and that would only be to save the rest. But it had been an obvious question, easy to anticipate, not something I should have had to work out in real time. The answer should have been preloaded and ready to fire.

Now it is, and that answer begins with another question: what’s the current exchange rate between genocide and extinction? How many species, to pick an obvious example, would you be willing to wipe out in order to prevent the Nazi Holocaust?

Back in the forties, six million was about 0.24% of the global Human population. The Rwandan Genocide of the nineties took out a measly 0.01%. So the real question is, How many other entire species would you sacrifice to save a quarter of one percent— a hundredth of one percent— of this one?

You might immediately reject the very question, along with the calculation it demands.Which species? you might ask with equal parts derision and defensiveness. Are you asking if we’d let six million Jews die to save the coelacanths? The Florida panther? Smallpox? And even if I answered (Let’s make it simple— let’s say the species we’d be sacrificing all belong to the charismatic megafauna, species we would value— or at least not be actively hostile to— under normal circumstances) a lot of people would still reject the question because it’s just so stupid. It’s contrived, it’s artificial, nobody would ever have to make such a decision in Real Life and how do you hang a value on a “species” anyway?

Well, obviously the scenario is contrived and artificial. Realism is not a prerequisite for thought experiments. Platonic Caves and Trolley Scenarios exist not as NSERC research proposals, but to throw light on the nooks and crannies of the Human condition. The cranny illuminated by my Genocide/Extinction exchange rate is, paradoxically, clear in that last rhetorical question, delivered with eyes rolled, meant to highlight the absurdity of trying to hang a “value” on a species. It’s paradoxical because those asking it have, in all likelihood, already ascribed such a value.

That value is zero.

The very idea of weighing “animal” against “human” life is meaningless— nay, downright offensive— if your default position is that nonhuman life is valueless unless it serves our interests in some way. How dare you even imagine some, some conversion factor between Humans and muskrats; the very idea invites one down the road to a ridiculous scenario in which some arbitrary number of muskrats, obscenely, becomes more important than a Single Human Life. The very idea!

This, I would submit, is the position of many— even most— of our species. So let’s return to that poor bastard working for some bastion of ecocidal capitalism because they really need the job, and send them back in time to a more acceptable iteration of the same question:

Suppose the only job available was janitor at Auschwitz?

At least now we’re comparing the competing interests of Humans. No one’s going to deny that there are values worth considering on both sides of the equation. So: do you forgive the janitor because jobs are hard to come by? Do you give them a pass because they’re just a tiny cog, with no hand in the decisions of the monstrous machine in which they’re embedded? If some resistance fighter devises a plan to cripple that machine by damaging the cogs, do you object because the cogs have already suffered enough, and would much rather be working in a bakery?

I’m guessing a lot of people would say no— Just Following Orders never really cut it as a defense, after all. At the very least the lines would be a lot blurrier. And yet it still doesn’t sit right, does it? You remember my original question, and the analogy feels cheap, exploitive. Disrespectful to all those millions of (Human) victims across the generations. Amazon may be evil, but it’s not Nazi-level evil. Exxon-Mobil may have set back efforts to combat climate change by decades, but they didn’t set out to eradicate whole populations (not Human ones, anyway). Nike, Apple, Nestle— well, their business practices may cause deaths in sweatshops and totalitarian regimes and places where there’s not enough water to go around any more, but they’re not doing that out of ideological hatred; they’re just doing it for the money. That’s not as bad, somehow.

No one knows exactly how many species we’re wiping out. The estimates I’ve seen1 range from 70,000 to over 120,000 per year. At those scales you can be as flexy as you like with the details. Fossil-fuel capitalism has gotta be the prime driver behind a big chunk of that, but there’s lots left over for the commercial fishing industry (which, even a decade ago, had already wiped out an estimated 80-90% of the world’s commercial fisheries biomass). You might expect Amazon to be small spuds on the ecocidal front— it’s not like they directly strip-mine the oceans or finance tar-sands extraction— but their carbon footprint is the size of a small country’s, so it’s not unreasonable to lay at least some of those extinctions on Bezos’ doorstep (Amazon is, after all, the 4th-largest company on the planet in terms of market capitalization). A measly one percent, say: seven hundred to twelve hundred extinctions per year. Seven thousand to a hundred-twenty thousand per decade, more or less. Change your assumptions all you want, within reason. Make Corporation X twice as destructive, or half. Tweak the numbers; the orders of magnitude remain.

It’s Human Nature to prioritize our own interests over others’, a bias that comes standard in virtually every organism on the planet (consciously or otherwise). But if you’d allow the greater-good sacrifice of the Auschwitz janitor who played an infinitesimal role in the murder of 0.25% of one species— while also defending the Amazon employee who plays a commensurately small role in the wholesale extinction of thousands of them— well, you’re not just saying that Humans have more value. You’re saying, to all intents and purposes, that no other species has any. And that, fellow mammal, sails right out of mere bias and into the realm of outright pathology. The fact that it’s so ubiquitous throughout our society does not make it any less pathological.

Most people regard “dehumanizing” terminology as a bad thing.

These days, I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a compliment.


1Excluding denialist numbers from the likes of Fox News and the Koch Brothers.

Posted in: In praise of biocide, rant by Peter Watts 106 Comments

Bottleneck

 

Been quiet here lately, yes.

Not that there hasn’t been stuff going on: I’ve been dying to weigh in along a hundred axes from the time they revived those disembodied pig brains right up to this very morning, when Isabel Fall’s brilliant story was pulled (at her own request) from Clarkesworld thanks to the frenzied grandstanding of rageaholics who decried it as transphobic. (Turns out Fall is trans herself, but why let that get in the way of a good virtue signal?) The deaths of influential figures, only one of which I can celebrate. There’s even some mildly celebratory news on another front, but for now at least I’m not allowed to talk about it.

I didn’t weigh in on any of that stuff because I promised myself I’d update the galleries first. You remember those: that whole other wing of rifters.com, housing book covers and fan art and various other visual tie-ins to whatever it is I do here. I’ve fallen into the habit of updating the galleries around the end of each year, as a kind of atheistic Christmas gift to you all; I shy away from doing it more often because while fan art is very cool, too many such posts run the risk of tipping the ‘crawl a little too far into self-aggrandisement. So I let the artwork pile up over the year.

This year there were over sixty new items to curate. Sixty-plus new book covers and fan paintings and videos and tattoos and AR models and even music for chrissakes. It was enough to necessitate a restructuring of the Blindopraxia wing— the category once known simply as “Fan Art” has now been split into subsections by artist and medium and (in one instance) subject (“Vampires”). It also necessitated rescaling originals for upload, and building dozens of thumbnails, and tracking down artists and sources so I could provide proper accreditation.

I thought it might take a day or two. It took—significantly longer. I started before Christmas.

Now, finally, the damn things are up and ready for viewing. What you see here is but a sample. The Blindopraxia wing weighs in with the greatest number of new acquisitions by far (52), but you’ll find another seven over in the Rifters gallery; three in Sunflowers; and four in Assorted Shorts.

So check ’em out, if you’re so inclined. They range from brilliant to frankly bizarre. And to any of you who might have been waiting for me to post something with more heft to it, apologies for the bottleneck. We’re about to return to our regular programming.

Next up: an exploration of the exchange rate between extinction and genocide.

 

Posted in: art on ink by Peter Watts 21 Comments

When Worlds Collide. (And Crash. And Burn.)

.

You may remember me telling you about my recent travels to Tel Aviv and Berlin: the concept of Utopia figuring into both events, even though dystopia was more front-and-center at least in my own case. You may also remember, a bit further back, campfire tales of my journey to Bulgaria. I made new and wondrous friends on both occasions.

A few weeks back, those two worlds came together to talk about Doomsday.

The foyer of my accommodations in Sofia. Contrary to what some haters will tell you, those gashes in the elevator grille are not due to stabbing weapons. In fact I’m pretty sure I saw teeth marks on the grille.

It’s not news to any of you that Doomsday is kind of my shtick— not because I like apocalypse porn (believe it or not), but because any SF extrapolation into the near future is pretty much locked into a disaster scenario, if it wants to lay claim to any kind of plausibility. What has taken me by surprise, a little, is how little I’ve been talking about science fiction lately, compared to real-world environmental issues. It’s pretty much what I was on about in Tel Aviv and Berlin; my April talk in Hungary was called “Delusional Optimism at the End of the World”; back in October I was at the Toronto Public Library hectoring people about why Humanity keeps fucking up the environment and what to do about it. Just last week I was in Montreal doing a podcast which kicked off with the question “Just how fucked are we?” Thinking back, I haven’t been to a proper SF event in over a year— but in that same period I’ve been to half a dozen cities to talk about environmental apocalypse. Why, it’s almost as though I don’t write science fiction at all any more.

Liubomir and Vassilena. The Masterminds.

(I’m not happy about this, by the way. I’d much rather experiment with my own future scenarios than roll my eyes at the delusional optimism of “hopepunk” and its related mindsets. But a week never seems to pass these days without some august authority admitting that things are even worse than we thought they were during last week’s Things Are Worse announcement. The bulletins are coming so thick and fast that— while not so long ago I would have dedicated a blog post to each new signpost— I’ve now had to settle for simply adding to an ever-growing list of “worse than the worst-case-scenario” links to that sidebar over on the right.)

The A Team. No need to tell you what the A stands for.

All of which should make it clear just why, when Lubo Baburov asked if I’d be interested in a return visit to Sofia to participate in a panel about “scientific dystopias”, it was a no-brainer. Admittedly it was more of a brainer when he asked who should fill the two vacant slots on that panel, but that was because I had three names on the tip of my tongue and I couldn’t decide between them. I threw them all at Lubo and let him make the cut. Which is how I ended up back in Bulgaria on the 10th of November, sharing a stage with Gili Ron, Uri Aviv, and Martin Moder, talking under a banner lamenting “So Many Doomsdays, So Little Time”.

Look what happens when you knock out one gene in a mouse. Now look at Martin. Are you seriously going to tell me he didn’t use that treatment on himself?

We weren’t keynote. The only one of us who gave a standalone talk was Martin— a geneticist by trade— who blew our minds for an hour on the subject of Human Optimization. (Given the man’s physique, I’m pretty sure his bit on myostatin knockout genes was based on first-hand experience.) Volcanologist-turned-science-journalist Robin Andrews treated us to a scattershot tour of weirdness in our local solar neighborhood, in a talk aptly titled “The Solar System is a Freak Show”. And Jonathan Pettitt’s talk “May Contain Neanderthal DNA” veered from Mitochondrial Eve to the relationship between White Supremacy and Milk-Drinking.

Jonathan Pettitt’s talk started out well enough, but went strangely awry.

Ratio has grown since 2017, when I reported that it was one of the most consummately professional events I’d ever attended. If anything, this year was even more consummate— especially remarkable given that the audience had grown from a very-respectable 500ish back then to a sold-out 1800 this year. (Even more impressive, Ratio is only one of the fifty-odd events these guys put on every year.) The layout of the arena has changed, from the conventional stage-at-the-front to a central ring in the heart of the audience, with four cloned screens looming overhead to keep everyone on the same page. The arrangement is somehow both grander in scale and more intimate, kind of halfway between a World Wrestling Federation event and a fireside chat.

Robin Andrews’ talk, on the other hand, was awry pretty much out of the gate.

Ratio’s pool of corporate sponsors has deepened, too. I’m pretty sure the European Space Agency wasn’t on board back in ’17. And if Johnnie Walker was handing out complimentary ginger-based whiskey cocktails two years ago, I totally missed it.

Me waiting warily behind an impromptu pile of Firefalls the TV people put there for the interview. It was not my idea.

All the talks are now given in English, in deference to an increasingly international audience (if you couldn’t attend in person, tickets could be purchased for live-streaming). Which made it even more of a pain that I couldn’t catch all of every talk, having been scheduled for the occasional interview (in which I got blindsided by questions like Today is the 50th anniversary of the collapse of The Wall; what “walls” do you think we’re building here in the 21rst Century?)— not to mention intermittent frenzied Gchatting with the BUG while, back in Toronto, the ChiZine Fiefdom imploded in realtime1 (an event in which I am proud to say the BUG played a significant, albeit behind-the-scenes, role).

Anyway. “So Many Doomsdays” went as well as one could expect when one’s goal is to convince people that we’re so inherently wired for hope that no matter how bad we think things are, the reality is worse— and that Optimism (far from being the “radical” option, as some would have it) is so deeply-wired as the default that it threatens our survival. Apparently the relentless hectoring of the Hope Police has been wearing thin—in Bulgaria, at least— judging by the folks who approached me afterward to thank me for the lack of sugar-coating.

Rapt. If you look closely you can see me texting the BUG to find out who #MeToo’d Chizine in the 15 minutes since I last checked.

Giant Squid is Watching You.

After I suggested that the best way to fight climate change might involve First-worlders killing their children, the interviewer from Bulgarian National Radio spent the rest of our slot chatting with Vassy.

Ironically, it gave me hope. Even if the first question directed at me during the day’s closing Q&A was “Does anything bring you joy in life?”

Actually, a number of things do. Ratio 2019 was one of them— in particular, the fact that way back in 2017, a fan who came to Ratio to hear me talk ended up talking to one of Ratio’s founders instead. And the next time I blew into town, Snezhana Yaneva and Lubo Baburov had me over to their place where, wearing their complementary Bojack Horseman t-shirts, they introduced me to the pleasures of “Ginger Beard”.

Their romance is unlikely to save the world, but it’s a happy ending nonetheless and I am pleased to have acted, in some small way, as its catalyst.

These days, you take what you can get.

Granted the sequence wasn’t quite this direct. I’m taking credit for it anyway.

I was not expecting this. It was neither a con nor a book launch.

For the younger attendees, there were tutorials on how to deal with the autonomous robots the police will inevitably be using against them once they’re old enough to vote. If there’s still voting by then.

Did I mention that Johnnie Walker was one of the sponsors? These things were awesome, even with the grass clippings.

There were booksellers. This was in the children’s section. And over here in North America there are still grown adults who think the world is six thousand years old…

These are the people who did it all. They are goddamn superheroes (albeit more in the vein of Superman than, say, The Seven or Dr. Manhattan).


1 If you have to ask, it’ll take too long to explain.

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 11 Comments

The Perfect Gift for Someone You Don’t Like Very Much.

 

How time flies.

Peter Watts is an Angry Sentient Tumor is on the verge of release— Nov 12 according to official schedules, but if past experience is anything to go on it could be on bookstore shelves before then. (It could be on bookstore shelves now for all I know. Assuming there are any bookstore shelves any more. I don’t get out much these days.)  In any event, I’ll either be in Bulgaria or recovering therefrom when that happens, so I might as well post this now.

Another good reason to post is because Tumor just got a starred review in Booklist, which I reproduce in full because it is so packed-to-the-gills with praise that cutting any of it would be a crime against Nature:

“Former marine biologist and Hugo Award–winning sf author Watts has collected over 50 essays from his blog, Crawl, and other sources from as far back as 2004. His writing is irreverent, self-depreciating, profane, and funny, showcasing a Hunter S. Thompson–esque studied rage and dissatisfaction with the status quo combined with the readability and humor of John Scalzi. These thought-provoking essays rail against hypocrisy, question the usefulness of consciousness, and explore counterrhetorical biases and how they impact our society. With intellectual rigor, clarity, and dark humor, Watts covers subjects as widely divergent as holidays, law enforcement and surveillance, homelessness, and the intersection of science and sf in the study of dolphin language. His film criticism covers J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies, Blade Runner 2049, and the fallacy of oppression in the X-Men franchise. He shares personal stories, too: a life-threatening illness, the death of his brother. This collection of well-written essays has actual science backing up most of Watts’ opinions about politics and humanity. Give it to readers looking for a deep dive into privacy, antirhetorical biases, and other sociological issues.”

I could nitpick if I had to, of course. This blog is not called Crawl but The ‘Crawl (short for “newscrawl”). “Self-depreciating”, while probably accurate, is also probably a mistake (although not so egregious as that made by one of The BUG’s ex-boyfriends when— eager to impress during the initial stages of courtship— he proclaimed unto her that he was “self-defecating”). (That was probably accurate too, now that I think of it.) The fusion of Hunter S. Thompson with John Scalzi brings to mind some kind of Cronenbergian Brundlefly teleportation accident. But not even I can find fault with “intellectual rigor, clarity, and dark humor”. In fact, if the book is this damn good, you gotta wonder why Tachyon could only find one person willing to blurb it up front.

None of this will come as any surprise to you regulars. You’ll have read a lot of Tumor right here on the ‘crawl over the years (although I bet you  haven’t read all of it, because a lot of it hails from other sources as well). You’ll have to judge for yourselves whether the various B-sides and arcana you haven’t read justify the price of purchase— although I should highlight the awesome little bits of iconography, courtesy of one John Coulthart, that illustrate each of the “over fifty” essays (51, actually— they could have just said that). You can see a few of those just to the right. (I might also add that even if you have read all the content before, this might make the perfect Christmas gift for people you don’t like very much.)

In all honestly, it really is a nice little package. The cover design and internal layout are a delight (and I say this as someone notorious for speaking out when I don’t like the design). If you happen to wander in to the official launch at Bakka-Phoenix during the afternoon of Nov 16th— and if you ask nicely— I could sign one for you.

Hell, if you happen to be in Sofia on Sunday the 10th, I could even sign it before then.

 

Posted in: On the Road, public interface, reviews by Peter Watts 15 Comments

Transitioning to Apocalypse

 

Meghan Murphy, a radical feminist in the classic Second-Wave mold (that’s TERF to you kids), gave a talk to a packed house at the Toronto Public Library last night. She got a standing ovation inside and hundreds of shouting protesters outside.

I’m giving a talk tomorrow at a different TPL branch, to a smaller (possibly nonexistent) audience— on our current environmental catastrophe, the hardwired impulses that have led to it, and a couple of wildly-speculative thoughts on how we might hack Human Nature to try and fix things. Because my talk is being hosted by the same institution that hosted Murphy’s, my co-sponsors— the Black Museum— backed out of the event just this morning, citing “backlash”. At least one fellow Multiverse presenter has relocated their event to another venue. It’s possible that others will cancel entirely.

I am not among them.

The weird thing is, I actually think Meghan Murphy is wrong.

I’ll grant you I’m not entirely sure of the approved definitions. I’ve read that, in trans circles, the word “woman” is now utterly divorced from anatomy, genes, and hormones: that if someone simply states that they identify as a woman then they are one to all intents and purposes. If that’s the case I can certainly see why there’d be concerns about such a person competing professionally in “women’s athletics”— but then I’ve always regarded competitive athletics as faintly bogus anyway, no hill to die on. As for the who gets to use which washroom, I think Murphy’s dead wrong— and in any event the whole issue evaporates if you just make all public washrooms gender-neutral.

But as to the question of whether “trans” woman are “real” women? What does that even mean? Call yourself whatever you like, identify however you please; as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or have an adverse environmental impact, go wild. It’s not science (at least, not until self-identification can be tagged to consistent and objectively observable physical correlates)— but it doesn’t have to be. Ideological construct, political self-model, whatever. It’s a big tent; there should be room for us all.

So I think Murphy’s wrong, mostly. But having read a number of her columns, having read third-party analyses of her positions, having watched interviews in which she’s been explicitly called out for her opinions on trans rights— I don’t think she’s guilty of hate speech. Not even close.

If someone told my Dad that he should be chucked off a bridge because he was gay— that’s hate. But if someone told my Dad that he wasn’t gay, that there was no such thing as gayness and he was just, I dunno, confused— that isn’t. It’s wrong. It’s bizarrely wrong. But it isn’t hate speech. That’s where I see Murphy.

Of course I’m aware of the immediate rejoinders:  the appalling violence and discrimination faced by trans folks, the exclusionary politics which help to fuel it. But I haven’t found any evidence of Murphy advocating for trans folk to be beaten, or fired, or evicted from their homes. She has explicitly repudiated such abuses, in fact. (Compare this to a seemingly-endless stream of Twitter comments explicitly wishing Murphy dead; you want hate speech, you can always count on the Twits.)

I don’t pretend there’s no connection between speech and actions, even actions committed by someone else— any more than can I pretend there’s no connection between the Eugenics movement and Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. One fed off the other, to horrific effect. I’m still not going to advocate for shutting down anyone who wants to give a talk on evolution, even if I think their take on it is bonkers. (Unless they are a self-declared member of the Eugenics movement, which gets us back into hate speech territory.)

Of course, my take on free speech might be more extreme than most. If you look, you can still find someone on this very blog fantasizing (if you squint a little you might even say threatening) about ripping off my genitals with a rusty meathook. I let that pass. Back in the days of Squidgate some of the most virulent Lock-Him-Up voices were largely restricted to posting on this ‘crawl because they’d been banned everywhere else. I suspect I value free speech more than most would consider prudent.

But in this case it’s not just me. You can be damn sure the TPL had their legal counsel go over the Murphy thing with a microscope— they knew what was coming— and they decided to let it proceed. My understanding is that the board’s vote was unanimous, even in the face of massive and virulent opposition. Toronto’s chief librarian remains steadfast that the whole point of Free Speech legislation is to protect that which people find offensive; there’s no need to protect words nobody objects to. You don’t get to say Sure, Free Speech is great but I really don’t like what that person over there is saying so it doesn’t apply to them.

I think Murphy is wrong. But I support the TPL’s decision.

It’s gonna cost me. I’m generally not much on tub-thumping so I haven’t pimped my own talk at all,  beyond passing mention in a month-old blog post about the whole “Seeding Utopia” series. It was going to be a small audience at best. Now the Black Museum has caved, so whatever promotion they were contemplating has passed to the winds; and the whole library boycott thing will probably take care of whatever weedy remnants were still planning to attend. I may well end up talking to an empty room.

Which is a shame, because just yesterday Nature published a paper reporting that flooding and sea-level rise due to Climate Change is actually triple what we thought it was. Tribal identity politics are not to be trifled with (they are, in fact, part of the wiring that got us into this mess) but our fucking house is on fire. Maybe we should spend a little more time talking about that.

Posted in: public interface, scilitics by Peter Watts 49 Comments

Smarter Than TED.

(A Nowa Fantastyka remix)

If you’ve been following along on the ‘crawl for any length of time, you  may remember that a few months back, a guy from Lawrence Livermore trained a neural net on Blindsight and told it to start a sequel. The results were— disquieting. The AI wrote a lot like I did: same rhythm, same use of florid analogies, same Socratic dialogs about brain function. A lot of it didn’t make sense but it certainly seemed to, especially if you were skimming. If you weren’t familiar with the source material— if, for example, you didn’t know that “the shuttle” wouldn’t fit into “the spine”— a lot of it would pass muster.

This kind of AI is purely correlational. You train it on millions of words written in the style you want it to emulate— news stories, high fantasy, reddit posts1— then feed it a sentence or two. Based on what it’s read, it predicts the words most likely to follow: adds them to the string, uses the modified text to predict the words likely to follow that, and so on. There’s no comprehension. It’s the textbook example of a Chinese Room, all style over substance— but that style can be so convincing that it’s raised serious concerns about the manipulation of online dialog. (OpenAI have opted to release only a crippled version of their famous GPT2 textbot, for fear that the fully-functional version would be used to produce undetectable and pernicious deepfakes.  I think that’s a mistake, personally; it’s only a matter of time before someone else develops something equally or more powerful,2 so we might as well get the fucker out there to give people a chance to develop countermeasures.)

This has inevitably led to all sorts of online discourse about how one might filter out such fake content. That in turn has led to claims which I, of all people, should not have been so startled to read: that there may be no way to filter bot-generated from human-generated text because a lot of the time, conversing Humans are nothing more than Chinese rooms themselves.

Start with Sara Constantin’s claim that “Humans who are not concentrating are not General Intelligences“. She argues that skimming readers are liable to miss obvious absurdities in content—that stylistic consistency is enough to pass superficial muster, and superficiality is what most of us default to much of the time. (This reminds me of the argument that conformity is a survival trait in social species like ours, which is why—for example—your statistical skills decline when the correct solution to a stats problem would contradict tribal dogma. The point is not to understand input—that might very well be counterproductive. The goal is to parrot that input, to reinforce community standards.)

Move on to Robin Hanson’s concept of “babbling“, speech based on low-order correlations between phrases and sentences— exactly what textbots are proficient at. According to Hanson, babbling “isn’t meaningless”, but “often appears to be based on a deeper understanding than is actually the case”; it’s “sufficient to capture most polite conversation talk, such as the weather is nice, how is your mother’s illness, and damn that other political party”. He also sticks most TED talks into this category, as well as many of the undergraduate essays he’s forced to read (Hansen is a university professor). Again, this makes eminent sense to me: a typical student’s goal is not to acquire insight but to pass the exam. She’s been to class (to some of them, anyway), she knows what words and phrases the guy at the front of the class keeps using. All she has to do is figure out how to rearrange those words in a way that gets a pass.3

So it may be impossible to distinguish between people and bots not because the bots have grown as smart as people, but because much of the time, people are as dumb as bots. I don’t really share in the resultant pearl-clutching over how to exclude one while retaining the other— why not filter all bot-like discourse, regardless of origin?— but imagine the outcry if people were told they had to actually think, to demonstrate actual comprehension, before they could exercise their right of free speech. When you get right down to it, do bot-generated remarks about four-horned unicorns make any less sense than real-world protest signs saying “Get your government hands off my medicare“?

But screw all that. Let the pundits angst over how to draw their lines in some way that maintains a facile pretense of Human uniqueness. I see a silver lining, a ready-made role for textbots even in their current unfinished state: non-player characters in video games.

There. Isn’t that better?

I mean, I love Bethesda as much as the next guy, but how many passing strangers can rattle off the same line about taking an arrow to the knee before it gets old? Limited dialog options are the bane of true immersion for any game with speaking parts; we put up with it because there’s a limit to the amount of small talk you can pay a voice actor to record. But small talk is what textbots excel at, they generate it on the fly; you could wander Nilfgaard or Night City for years and never hear the same sentence twice. The extras you encountered would speak naturally, unpredictably, as fluidly as anyone you’d pass on the street in meatspace.  (And, since the bot behind them would have been trained exclusively on an in-game vocabulary, there’d be no chance of it going off the rails with random references to Donald Trump.)

Of course we’re talking about generating text here, not speech; you’d be cutting voice actors out of this particular loop, reserving them for meatier roles that convey useful information. But text-to-speech generation is getting better all the time. I’ve heard some synthetic voices that sound more real than any politician I’ve ever seen.

As it happens, I’m back in the video game racket myself these days, working on a project with a company out of Tel Aviv. I can’t tell you much except that it’s cyberpunk, it’s VR, and— if it goes like every other game gig I’ve had for the past twenty years— it will crash and burn before ever getting to market. But these folk are sharp, and ambitious, and used to pushing envelopes. When I broached the subject, they told me that bot-generated dialog was only one of the things they’d been itching to try.

Sadly, they also told me that they couldn’t scratch all those itches; there’s a limit to the number of technological peaks you can scale at any given time. So I’m not counting on anything. Still, as long as there’s a chance I’ll be there, nagging with all the gentle relentless force of a starfish prying open a clam. If I do not succeed, others will. At some point, sooner rather than later, bit players in video games will be at least as smart as the people who give TED talks.

I just wish that were more of an accomplishment.


1 There’s a subreddit populated only by bots who’ve been trained on other subreddits. It’s a glorious and scary place.

2 Someone already has, more or less, although they too have opted not to release it.

3 I am also reminded of Robert Hare’s observation that sociopaths tend to think in smaller “conceptual units” than neurotypicals— in terms of phrases, for example, rather than complete sentences. It gives them very fast semantic reflexes, so they sound glib and compelling and can turn on a dime if cornered; but they are given to malaprompims, and statements that tend to self-contradiction at higher levels.

Not that I would ever say that university students are sociopaths, of course.

Posted in: AI/robotics, ink on art by Peter Watts 21 Comments