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

Seeding Utopia. Like, Today.

Hey, Torontonians:

The official “Seeding Utopia, Fighting Dystopia” series poster, by Annette Nedilenka.

There’s this local thing I’m a part of: “The Multiversity Collective” (which might not strike some of you as the coolest name on the block, until you learn that we narrowly avoided being called “Multiversity Our Strength”). Remember that “Toronto 2033” book that came out from Spacing a while back? That was the the Collective’s public debut, under the leadership of local Renaissance Dude Jim Munroe.

Well, we’re at it again: the Collective’s sophomore effort is “Seeding Utopias and Resisting Dystopias“, a series of workshops, demos, and lectures starting this—

Oh crap.

I thought it was starting on the 26th. I’ve just visited the website and discovered it’s starting tonight at 6pm, i.e., about two hours from the time I’m typing this (and significantly less counting from the time this post goes live). And in fact, Jim has managed to wangle some names much bigger than any of us actual Collective members: Cory Doctorow, for one, who is kicking things off mere minutes from now at the Oakwood Village Library and Arts Centre.

Sorry about that.

All is not lost, however. If I’ve given you unforgivably short notice about Cory, here’s a heads-up weeks in advance for the appearance of one Charlie Jane Anders, appearing at the same location on October 17. In fact, the series includes a solid dozen events stretching all the way into December and ending with my buddy Karl Schroeder on the 5th.

Head over to the Multiversity Collective Home Page for all the gory details. Here’s the executive summary:

  • Sep 23 2019: Seeding Utopias & Resisting Dystopias Launch with Cory Doctorow, Jim Munro, and Madeline Ashby (again, sorry).
  • Sep 26. Create Your Own Sci-Fi Podcast Show with Maggie MacDonald [Workshop]
  • Oct 3 2019 BIPOC Utopian Dreams with Zainab Amadahy [Workshop]
  • Oct 10 2019 Science Fiction from Elsewhere with Paul Hong [Discussion]
  • Oct 17 2019 Never Say You Can’t Survive with Charlie Jane Anders [Talk/Reading]
  • Oct 24 2019 Time Capsule: A Writing Workshop with Elyse Friedman [Workshop]
  • Oct 31 2019 Horrific Ways to Save the World with Peter Watts [Talk]
  • Nov 7 2019 Apocalypse Prepping Workshop with Kristyn Dunnion [Workshop]
  • Nov 14 2019 Whorestories: Sci-Fi Futures Edition [Performance]
  • Nov 21 2019 Sky Lab Revolution with Hillary Predko and Lee Wilkins [Discussion]
  • Nov 28 2019 Everyone Makes Choices: Creating Choice-Driven Games to Re-Imagine our Civic Future with Tanya Kan [Workshop]
  • Dec 5 2019 Scaling to Fit: Making Art in the Anthropocene with Karl Schroeder [Talk]

All events start at 6p.m. All events are free of charge. All events take place at the OVLAC. (I would also like to point out that all events except tonight’s take place on a Thursday, so maybe my screwing up isn’t unforgivable after all.)

Jim’s slotted my appearance in for Hallowe’en, which is not entirely accidental. I suspect I might be the least Utopia-seeding-minded participant on the roster, so it only makes sense that I appear in the context of mass death and resurrected corpses. If you happen to be in the area, drop in.

Hell, drop in on all these events. You’re bound to find something that reaches you.  As you can tell from the roster, it’s a pretty diverse collection of topics. What else would you expect with a name like ours?

Oh, and about a week later I’m going to be in Bulgaria again. Details to follow.

Debunking the Debunkers: Free Will on Appeal.

Not a bad visual metaphor for the credibility of Gholipour’s argument, now that I think of it…

If you read The Atlantic, you may have heard the news: A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked! Libet’s classic eighties experiments, the first neurological spike in the Autonomist’s coffin, has been misinterpreted for decades! Myriad subsequent studies have been founded on a faulty and untested assumption, the whole edifice is a house of cards on a foundation of shifting sand. What’s more, Big Neuro has known about it for years! They just haven’t told you: Free Will is back on the table!

Take that, Determinists.

Three or four times, tops.

You can be damn sure the link has shown up in my in box more than once (although I haven’t been as inundated as some people seem to think). But having read Gholipour’s article— and having gone back and read the 2012 paper he bases it on— I gotta say Not so fast, buddy.

A quick summary for those at the back: during the eighties a dude named Benjamin Libet published research showing that the conscious decision to move one’s finger was always preceded by a nonconscious burst of brain activity (“Reaction Potential”, or RP) starting up to half a second before. The conclusion seemed obvious: the brain was already booting up to move before the conscious self “decided” to move, so that conscious decision was no decision at all. It was more like a memo, delivered after the fact by the guys down in Engineering, which the pointy-haired boss upstairs— a half-second late and a dollar short— took credit for. Something that comes after cannot dictate something that came before.

Therefore, Free Will— or more precisely, Conscious Will—  is an illusion.

In the years since, pretty much every study following in Libet’s footsteps not only conformed his findings but extended them. Soon et al reported lags of 7-10 seconds back in 2008, putting Libet’s measly half-second to shame. PopSci books started appearing with titles like The Illusion of Conscious Will. Carl Zimmer wrote a piece for Discover in which he reported that “a small but growing number of re­searchers are challenging some of the more extreme arguments supporting the primacy of the inner zombie”; suddenly, people who advocated for Free Will were no more than a plucky minority, standing up to Conventional Wisdom.

Until— according to Gholipour— a groundbreaking 2012 study by Schurger et al kicked the legs out from under the whole paradigm.

I’ve read that paper. I don’t think it means what he thinks it means.

It’s not that I find any great fault with the research itself. It actually seems like a pretty solid piece of work. Schurger and his colleagues questioned an assumption implicit in the work of Libet and his successors: that Reaction Potential does, in fact, reflect a deliberate decision prior to awareness. Sure, Schurger et al admitted, RP always precedes movement—  but what if that’s coincidence? What if RPs are firing off all the time, but no one noticed all the ones that weren’t associated with voluntary movement because nobody was looking for them? Libet’s subjects were told to move their finger whenever they wanted, without regard to any external stimulus; suppose initiation of that movement happens whenever the system crosses a particular threshold, and these random RPs boost the signal almost but not quite to that threshold so it takes less to tip it over the edge? Suppose that RPs don’t indicate a formal decision to move, but just a primed state where the decision is more likely to happen because the system’s already been boosted?

They put that supposition to the test. Suffice to say, without getting bogged down in methodological details (again, check the paper if you’re interested), it really paid off. So, cool. Looks like we have to re-evaluate the functional significance of Reaction Potential.

Does it “debunk” arguments against free will? Not even close.

What Schurger et al have done is replace a deterministic precursor with a stochastic one: whereas Libet Classic told us that the finger moved because it was following the directions of a flowchart, Libet Revisited says that it comes down to a dice roll. Decisions based on dice rolls aren’t any “freer” than those based on decision trees; they’re simply less predictable. And in both cases, the activity occurs prior to conscious involvement.

So Gholipour’s hopeful and strident claim holds no water. A classic argument against free will has not been debunked; rather, one example in support of that argument has been misinterpreted.

There’s a more fundamental problem here, though: the whole damn issue has been framed backwards. Free will is always being regarded as the Null Hypothesis; the onus is traditionally on researchers to disprove its existence. That’s not consistent with what we know about how brains work. As far as we know, everything in there is a function of neuroactivity: logic, emotion, perception, all result from the firing of neurons, and that only happens when input strength exceeds action potential. Will and perception do not cause the firing of neurons; they result from it. By definition, everything we are conscious of  has to be preceded by neuronal activity that we are not conscious of. That’s just cause/effect. That’s physics.

Advocates of free will are claiming— based mainly on a subjective feeling of agency that carries no evidentiary weight whatsoever— that effect precedes cause (or that the very least, that they occur simultaneously). Given the violence this does to everything we understand about reality, it seems to me that “No Free Will” should be the Null Hypothesis. The onus should be on the Free Willians to prove otherwise.

If Gholipour is anything to go on, they’ve got their work cut out for them.

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 23 Comments

The Senior Emissary from Moo.

She hated me on sight. I don’t know why. Her compatriot, Nutmeg, was a furry little slut who climbed into my lap the moment we met and wouldn’t stop talking (still hasn’t, actually). But Minion— back in the early days, Minion would hurtle towards the front door at the sound of someone entering the house (obviously assuming that her beloved mom was home at last) only to slam on the brakes at the sight of me. It was like something out of a Warner Brothers cartoon. She would screech to a halt and give me a glare of pure green hatred— You!— before turning and heading back downstairs.

I hardly ever saw her those first weeks. Neither did Caitlin, for that matter: Minion, ever-loathing of the intruder, basically retreated to the basement and would not come out while I was around. I swear, I did nothing at all to piss her off.

Eventually, she relented. The BUG nudged me awake early one morning to see Minion creeping ever-so-slowly onto the bed between us. I remember my bladder filling, my back increasingly stiff as I lay there like a statue, loathe to move lest I fuck up this tiny bit of progress and startle her back down the stairs again. She basically got me to torture myself for an hour by the simple act of of snoozing at my side.

Looking back, of course, she knew exactly what she was doing. That cat was a fucking genius.

She was unremarkable to look at: your standard subcompact tuxedo, who always looked perfectly dignified and not a little reserved whether imitating a loaf of bread or a table lamp. (She did, admittedly, look like a complete goof when drinking water from the bathroom sink.) But she was smart: you could see her sizing up every room, every situation, before stepping into it. She was one of only two cats I ever knew who figured out the Sliding Window Principle on her own; the only cat who kept that discovery to herself.

We’ll never know how long she was sneaking out to explore the world while we innocently continued regarding her as an Indoor Cat; she would make her clandestine exit after we’d gone to sleep and return before the alarm went off in the morning. Sure, I could’ve sworn I’d closed the window the night before, but the BUG was always going on about fresh air; she must have slid it back during the night. Clearly none of the cats were getting out; they were all present and accounted for every morning (and it’s not like a slip-of-a-thing like Minion would be able to leap the eight feet from patio to windowsill anyway). The BUG and I were so oblivious we thought we were sharing the same dream, thought we were psychically bonded through Love: Honey, I dreamt that Minion was coming in from outside— Really? I had the exact same dream!

It wasn’t until we noticed the muddy paw prints all over our sheets after a rainy night that the truth finally sank in. By then, Minion was already Mistress of the Ravine— and once she knew we knew, she dropped the pretense. She started going outside during the day, spent her evenings sleeping with us.

She was a bit of a dictator about that. She would stand on the headboard, staring at us until we flipped over on our backs and pulled up the sheets[1]. Then she’d step down and try each of us on for size, pipping each chest, bonking each face, walking back and forth and finally settling on whichever thorax she wanted to use as her mattress that night. And while she generally selected The BUG and me with equal frequency, I could not help but notice that when she slept on the BUG she would stretch out across her shoulder, cheek to cheek, purring happily. When she chose me, she would usually turn the other way around and I’d end up spending the night with Minion’s butt in my face.

Caitlin kept calling her a “Moo”, which I’m given to understand is a habit endemic to people with a background in the Humanities (and which at least was consistent with her insistence on calling the household rabbit a “Boo”). As an empiricist with a strong scientific background, I could not let such mushy cutesiness stand. If the BUG insisted on using the term, it would fucking well mean something. Which is how “Minny Moo” became “Min of Moo”— or more formally, “The Senior Emissary From Moo.”[2]

She was master of the proportional response. If, for example, you were to mime the use of her nose as a button on a NORAD missile-control panel, she would first meep her objection. If that didn’t work she would nip, but gently: Seriously, Can Opener, you do not want to continue down this road. Only if both those warnings went unheeded would she resort to the nuclear option— at which point you would find yourself walking gingerly around the house with a cat balled around your hand, anchored to your flesh by four sets of claws and a mouthful of teeth. And you would not be able to claim you hadn’t asked for it.

She was impervious to rain. She would rejoice in the snow. She’d freeze our asses off at 3a.m. in the dead of winter, hopping onto the sill above our bed, hooking her paw around the edge of the windowframe, leaning into it with her shoulder and pulling until it was open far enough to leap away into the night. Frigid air would cascade into the room and I’d reach up and pull the window shut and growl That’s it, she’s out for the night and the BUG would say She is not and sure enough, 5 minutes or two hours later, Minion would be back on the windowsill knocking (no gentle paw-tap here— the previous owner had installed a metal security grid across the window, secured with a padlock that Minion had learned to bat to get our attention). I would heroically try to ignore the incessant clacking of metal on glass but eventually I’d give in or the BUG, exasperated, would climb over me and open the window and Minion would nonchalantly hop back inside and do whatever cat things she did at 3:30 in the morning until deciding she wanted to go out again.

She stalked the night. She prowled the day. She ruled the roost. (She was, admittedly, kind of a bitch to Swiffer.) She somehow managed to be both the most aloof of our cats and the most affectionate. There was a nobility to her. It was not enough to merely love this cat: you had to admire her.

It was Caitlin who first noticed, of course. After we came back from Tel Aviv: something different about Minion. She wasn’t sleeping in the sock drawer any more. She was a little more— withdrawn, somehow. We took her in and the blood work came back— kidney disease, stage 3; then Stage 4, just a few weeks later. Weeks, the vet told us over the phone, and I didn’t believe her, and we looked up the literature and the literature said weeks and I still didn’t believe it. I’d lost a cat to kidney disease years before, you see— but not without a fight. Special diet, sub-q fluids, and you could buy a whole year of high-quality life, easy. I’d seen it. I’d done it. Fuck your median survival 35 days post-diagnosis.

So we stocked up on Ringer’s Lactate and k/d diet. The BUG and the Meez learned how to tent the skin between shoulder blades, slide the needle into that gap between skin and muscle, feel the hump of saline growing under the fur once a day, then twice. Minion bore it all stoically, even when we fucked up, even when we had to stab two or three times to get it right.

Thirty-five days came and went and we cheered. But Minion was— disappearing, piecemeal. She slept on our chests. Then she slept on the bed. Then she slept outside. She receded from us in concentric increments as the disease ran its course.

All those behaviors so uniquely hers, that suite of Minionisms that made up her interface with the world. She stopped leaping onto the ledge ringing our porch pillars; stopped leaping onto the windowsill. She stopped racing to the bathroom whenever anyone went for a pee. That high-speed patter of paws, the leap onto the sink, the steady demanding stare until you cranked the faucet just enough to let her lap from the stream: inevitable, then intermittent, then a memory. Her appetite faded. Where once she’d line up with everyone else for brekky and dins and elevensies, now we’d seek her out in the garden or the ravine, tempt her with tuna when she turned her nose up at the k/d, try her on IAMS when the tuna lost its appeal, on salmon when she turned her back on IAMS. She was spending almost all her time outside now, she built little nests and hideouts to curl up in: in the back garden, in the tall grass by the oak out front, in the copse across the fence or under the hostas our neighbors had planted in their guerrilla garden on city lands.

She diminished. At first you’d just notice the shoulder blades sticking out like they never had before; then you’d scoop her up and she was light as twigs. Once or twice she’d go a whole day barely eating anything, barely even present in our lives. We’d brace ourselves and fear the worst (and I would rage inwardly because I’d been here before for fucksake and it wasn’t supposed to go like this. She was supposed to get better, we were supposed to get a few more months at least, a year or more, not these short fucking days. Not just days).  And then things would seem to turn around: Minion would jump up on the patio table and purr and bonk and eat half a tin of k/d in ten minutes, snarf a divot right down to bedrock. (And my gut would unclench because the trajectory had finally bent back in the right direction, and the reprieve was on again.)

“It’s like she’s pissed off,” the Meez said. “Like she knows she’s sick and she refuses to give in and she’s going to keep doing what she’s always done no matter what.”

Caitlin and I had a wedding to attend last week, out in Vancouver. Right up to the last day we weren’t sure we were going to make it. We’d warned the happy couple that our beloved Minion was ill and we might have to jam on the celebrations. But the day before departure we saw her rolling in the ravine, stretched out in all her bony glory and squirming in the way of cats doing their sun-worshiping thing. She accepted our scritches with hedonistic purrs. “This is a quality-of-life moment,” Caitlin told me. “If this is the last time we see her, it will be a good memory.” And I thought What do you mean, the last time? She’s happy, she’s eating, we’re only gone for a few days. I swear she’s even gained back some weight.

Sure enough, when we arrived in Vancouver, Emma had good news: Minion had hung out downstairs with them. She’d eaten “with enthusiasm!”. She’d even leapt up onto the porch pillar, something she hadn’t done for weeks.

Twelve hours later she was dead.

We know when, almost to the minute. Emma couldn’t find her in the morning; she checked all the places we’d mapped out— at 6a.m., again at 9—  and found them empty. But Minion reappeared sometime before noon, curled up in our back garden; she’d stayed away, stayed hidden, until just before she died. Then she came back to that first little retreat she’d made for herself all that time ago, and she curled up in the sun and closed her eyes. She twitched, just once, when Emma found her and picked her up. Then she was gone.

Emma’s dad came over and dug the grave, in that same spot. The in-laws and Emma’s partner arrived for the burial; the BUG and I Skyped in from the coast, watched through chunky low-bandwidth video as they laid to rest something wrapped in a towel. They poured a little half’n’half into the hole, a ritual we’ve observed ever since Banana died seven years ago. All the while I couldn’t stop thinking: it was like she’d planned it.

And that’s the irony of all this. It was the best way Minion could have ended. She didn’t die on some veterinarian’s table, surrounded by disinfectant smells and strange noises, pumped full of lethal chemicals. She didn’t starve to death; she was skinny and emaciated but she never stopped eating, never had any trouble keeping her food down, never spent horrible days or weeks unable to eat or move or take any pleasure from life. The last time we saw her— less than 24 hours before she died— she was happy, I swear it. When she’d had enough, she took herself off to some unmapped spot where she could be alone— and at the very end she came back home to die in the sun. I’ve lost a lot of cats over the years. This was the best death of the lot, by a long shot.

So why does that make it worse, somehow?

Maybe because it implies a kind of awareness that I wouldn’t wish on any dying creature. It’s so hard not to project, not to anthropomorphize; who knows what goes on even in another Human mind, let alone a being of an entirely separate species? But she was a being, no more a machine than any of us. And a cat strong enough to snarf, socialize, leap six times her body height in the evening shouldn’t be weak enough to die twelve hours later. Maybe she pushed herself, maybe she knew she was under deadline and she had a list: spend quality time, say goodbye, ensure you won’t be disturbed by well-intentioned but pointless harassment and indignity. Finally, when there’s nothing else to do, come home to your favorite spot to die.

I don’t pretend to know how much abstraction these creatures are capable of. There’s no end of experts who’ll smugly assure you that “animals” cannot contemplate their own mortality, although none to my knowledge have ever explained  how they could possibly know that (and it’s been eight years since a different cadre of prominent neuroscientists opined that everything from parrots to octopi experience “near-human levels of consciousness”). All I can say is, it’s as if Minion knew something was coming, and chose to handle it her way. She controlled her narrative, as Caitlin put it. And if she was capable of such foresight, then the dissolution of that bright little soul is an even greater loss.

She took no shit from anyone. Even dying, she was defiant in her love of life. She handled her own death better than I probably will, when the time comes. She was the very incarnation of Michael Joseph’s observation: a cat’s friendship is not easily won, but is worth having. Now she’s gone away.

They always go away. You’d think I’d be used to that by now.

Drawing up plans.

I think at this point she was starting to learn to close windows as well as open them.

The BUG gets Shoulder Cat. I get Butt-in-Face.

The Senior and Junior Emissaries from Moo.

Diplomacy was especially difficult when dealing with prey species who would fucking end you if you crossed them.

In her element.

Tell me that isn’t a relationship based on mutual respect and affection. I dare you.

Dignity under the most challenging circumstances.

Some times dignity was tougher to pull off than at others.

Well? What are you waiting for?

Half’n’half. On her Exclusive h&h delivery platform. On demand.

The Meez and The Min.

Two of the most beloved mammals in my world.

Declining. Dying. Defiant.

 

[1] There always had to be sheets, or at clothing involved. She would never settle on naked skin. To this day I don’t know what  made her such a prude.

[2] Due to the Law of Alliteration, Meggles was also “of Moo”, necessitating a ranking of emmisariness.

Posted in: eulogy by Peter Watts 28 Comments