Monday, August 27, 2007

WoW! Pandemic!

Today's post comes on the heels of a) me answering backlogged questions from XFire's gaming community, and b) grumbles from the peanut gallery about the recent lack of shiny techy science-speak on the 'crawl. It just so happens that today's subject combines elements of both, and holy shit is it cool: a paper in Lancet describing the epidemiology of an unintended plague that raged through the World of Warcraft back in 2005 (and thanks to Raymond Nielson for the heads-up). The figures presented in this paper — which, I emphasize, appears in one of the world's most prestigious medical journals — includes a screen shot of corpses in WoW's urban areas.

The plague itself was a glitch: a disease whose original range was supposed to be limited only to areas where high-level players could venture, and which was — again, to high-level players — merely a nuisance. The problem was, the plague cut down low-level players like kibble in a cat-food dish, and as Crichton once observed, Life Will Find A Way.

The bug hitchhiked out of it's original home turf in the blood of high-level characters teleporting back to their hearthstones (analogous, the authors point out, to airline travel in a real-world outbreak). Player's pets got infected, and spread the disease. NPCs, built strong for reasons of game play, acted as infectious reservoirs, not dying themselves but passing the germ on to anyone they came into contact with.

Whole villages were wiped out.

Lofgren and Fefferman point out that this completely unintentional "Corrupt Blood" outbreak was in many ways more realistic than dedicated supercomputer simulations designed to model real epidemics, simply because a real person stood behind each PC in the population. While real-world models have to use statistical functions to caricature human behavior, WoW's outbreak incorporated actual human behaviour (for example, a number of healers spontaneously acted as "first responders", rushing into infected areas to try and help the sick — and in the process spread the bug to other areas when they moved on). It's true that the ability of WoW characters to resurrect introduces a certain level of unrealism into the picture; but it's also true that players generally get so invested in their characters that they don't throw even those renewable lives away unnecessarily. More to the point, the new paradigm doesn't have to be perfect to be a vast improvement over the current state of the art.

L&F suggest that what happened once as a mistake could happen again by design — that MMORPGs could be a valuable tool for real epidemiological studies, by incorporating plausible plagues with known parameters as part of the in-game experience. Players are already used to sickness disease, and death; that's what makes the game so much fun. Do this right, and you could do population-level doomsday studies repeatedly, under controlled conditions, incorporating levels of behavioural realism far beyond what any purely statistical model could manage. Even Mengele didn't have this kind of sample size.

I can see a lot of research being done this way, and not just epidemiological. There are martial and economic possibilities, too. I can see Homeland Security getting involved. I can see national policies increasingly based on insights gleaned from fantasy simulations — and I can see such policies being played from the inside, by mages and blood elves who might have their own agendas to pursue...

Damn. The story almost writes itself.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Lost Chat: Gaming Edition

  1. LightSol: Have you ever larped or role played any other way in your life? Got into AD&D in a big way during grad school.
  2. LightSol: Has one of your novels made into a game? Not professionally. Once, a long time ago, some fan made an online Starfish sexual-abuse role-playing game with rules like "No character shall rape or kill another character without approval from the CEO or the victim's player." I don't think it ever went anywhere, though.
  3. LightSol: Do you hate the managers of homeworld for scrapping your sequel? Nah. There was so much turnover during that time that the guys who scrapped the sequel were a whole different crew than the ones who took me on board in the first place. And while there were certain internal politics that I could have done without, I really had a blast overall. I'd do it again in a second.
  4. Quinion: What level is your girlfirend in wow Last I checked, she was high-forties. Must be over fifty by now.
  5. [Xfire] Artaxs: Yeah, and what race / class does she play? Blood elf. Paladin. She tanks a lot.
  6. AnThRaX: i like the wow questions
  7. █▓▒ ShoTDeaD ▒▓█: yeah artaxs
  8. Cynosure EPR: and whats her name In-game, Khevvren, or Kevlar, or something.
  9. Cynosure EPR: lol
  10. Quinion: and number I don't know any more. I suspect she had it changed when the restraining order came down.
  11. MÖטζєя: Do you support the horde or the alliance Horde.
  12. Quinion: I wish my gf played wow tho. No you don't. Believe me. You really don't.
  13. Hirmetrium: When its crunch time - Sex or writing? Depends on whether it's with someone or — nah, who am I kidding. It's sex. It's always sex.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Back in the Saddle

I guess it's kind of official — my short story "The Eyes of God" is going to appear in that Solaris anthology I was cringeing about the other day. Dave Nickle thinks it comes a wee bit close to being pro-pedophile, but hey — at least I'm officially writing again. I wonder if NAAMBLA publishes fiction...

More Questions from the Queue:

  1. romripper: have you ever written a book, and at the end thought it was rubbish and started again? I always think a book is rubbish when I'm finished. Except for Starfish. Unfortunately, I've never had time to start again, because every book (except, again, Starfish) has been written under deadline. There's a famous quote — offhand, I can't remember the attribution — to the effect that we writers never finish a story. We only abandon them.
  2. ^*(ĞØã+)*^Ħ€ΛΛЇ~┌╦╤─: have you ever gotten sort of "attatched" to some of your characters and not wanted to end the story? I got kind of attached to Lenie Clarke. That was Tor's fault, actually; I had originally killed her off at the end of Starfish, but my editor thought that was too much of a downer ending for an American audience, so I had to keep her going. Which led to two sequels. I rather like the way Lenie's arc progressed throughout the course of those books, although I know at least one guy who laments her metamorphosis from bad-ass to pussy in Behemoth.
  3. Quinion: What profession did you want to be in when you were growing up? Marine biologist, and science fiction writer. I kid you not. I even remember the moments at which those ambitions sunk in: I was five when I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist, and I was seven when I decided I wanted to be a writer. In hindsight, given my obvious ability to stick with goals long-term, I probably should have just decided to be rich. But noooooo.
  4. .:>TN<:MüÐVª¥Ñê9³™: has a dream u've had at night given u an idea for a book ? Once, long ago, I dreamed of a perfect engineering solution to the problem of putting feet on beachballs so that they could walk autonomously. I still remember that solution to this day. Sadly, I have been unable to interest anyone in any story in which beachballs with feet play any kind of role. Prejudice and intolerance still thrive, even in these supposedly enlightened times.

Next time, maybe some gaming questions. And no, I will not be handing out her phone number.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

You Take What You Can Get

Snagged from some online promotional pdf from Tor; looks like the trade paper is officially set for March '08. The lurid red border seems to be absent this time around, and the title font actually looks quite cool; one can only hope they gave it a different colour than the split-pea soup tint of the hardback. Unfortunately the Buck Rogers spaceship is still in evidence, but I'll take what I can get.

XFire has posted last week's official chat transcript here; you don't even need to be a member to check it out. I apologise for the various misspellings. My fingers were going a mile a minute and haste made me sloppy. (It's supposed to be "trouser eel", for example, not "trouser ell".)

Here's a few more questions that didn't make it on there:
  1. MÖטζєя: Peter Watts, in your book Blindsight, you wrote I really liked that opening sentence, were you inspired by someone to write this ? I was, actually. Someone I was involved with for a few months during the copyedit stage: a very smart, possibly-borderline sociopath pharmawhore (I mean, let's face it, you pretty much have to have sociopathic tendencies to thrive in the biotech industry these days) who happened to be a masochist. It was one of those things you know are doomed going in — you know you're going to destroy the friendship you had for the sake of a few electric moments — but you do it anyway because those moments are worth it. (They were, too. Ah well.)
  2. Vanderdecken: Peter Watts, what provoked you to describe yourself as a 'reformed' marine biologist? "Reformed" sounded better than "failed".
  3. LightSol: Do you get high or drunk to get ideas?
  4. LightSol: Do you get blanks while writing a book and feel a need for marijuana or any other mind affecting drug?
  5. Xfire Moderator: Lightsol, please refrain from asking those questions. No, no, that's okay, really. Being drunk or high has never given me ideas — or at least, they never gave me any ideas that proved worth putting in a story after the hangover had cleared. However, it's given me lots of experiences, so that I can write about being drunk or high with a certain amount of authority if the story calls for it. (For similar reasons, when reading certain unnamed sf writers, I sometimes wish they had had more sex.)

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Friday, August 17, 2007

We Don't Need No Steenkin' Carbon

Okay, now here's a paper to kick your paradigms a little off-kilter: self-replicating, mutating complex structures built from inorganic dust, kick-started into a form of rudimentary "metabolism" by charged plasmas.

For want of a better word, Life. Inorganic life. Spawned from starting conditions reasonably common in deep space, if I'm to believe the commentary.

Of course, the results are just out, and so is the jury. We don't want to get too carried away; lots of nonliving structures superficially resemble life in a variety of ways (ball lightning, Fox's microspheres from the fifties — I even wrote a children's story once premised on the thought that fire might be considered a life form under the right circumstances, although the logic of that argument was about as feeble as the story itself). And for every thought-provoking Hoyleian thought-experiment into sentient clouds, there are ten third-rate episodes of Star Trek and Space: 1999 that trotted out the ol' energy-being trope for no better reason than that a blob of blue light was even cheaper to render than a guy in a rubber mask. There's a certain hokey taint to the whole concept.

Still. Those of you who read Maelstrom may remember the definition "Self-replicating information shaped by natural selection", based on (and slightly mutated from) a line I stole out of Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker. Tsytovich et al's "inorganic living matter" seems to meet that standard, at least. And since I'm presently gearing up to build a deep-space lifeform or two of my own, I for one welcome the arrival of our new dustbunny overlords...


Wednesday, August 15, 2007


In between not doing the paying stuff I'm supposed to be doing and checking out the various articles and links you folks have sent my way over the altruism essay (thanks for all of that, btw — there was a lot of good stuff in there and it actually changed my thinking somewhat), I managed to add a few bits of chrome to the ol' website: three Blindsight blurbs (one from Challenging Destiny — complete review here — and the others from SFRA Review, thanks to Prof. Dom Grace) and a late-breaking blurb for ßehemoth: ß-Max (also from SFRA Review). More importantly, though, one Brian Gilbert has very kindly converted all of my online novels into Mobipocket format. You can download them at the appropriate sub-pages over on my Backlist

And now, a couple of questions that never got answered over on XFire the other day:

  1. Peter Watts i have read one of your short stories last night, the flesh made word, what inspired you to do such an immersful script ? I had this cat, dying of a liver tumour. Everyone was telling me how much suffering she was going through, how euthenasia would be the most merciful option, how horrendously-expensive and most-likely ineffective surgery would be. And I would have killed her in a second if I'd known that was true — but the fact is, organisms are programmed to want to survive, right? How much pain would you have to be in before you'd rather be dead? And when you're deciding whether to kill a friend, how do you decide what she wants if she can't tell you? These were the questions that inspired that story. (I got off easy, btw: I committed to the surgery even though I couldn't afford it, but Zombie died two hours before the operation was scheduled to begin. I got to feel as though I'd passed the test without having to pay the price.)
  2. Do you support gay marraige? Dude, I don't even support straight marriage.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

XFire PrePostMortem

I'm just decompressing after one hellaciously frenetic hour answering questions, along with Mssrs. Vinge and Stross, on XFire. The way it worked was, attendees asked questions in one chatroom; XFire staff selected some to paste in a separate room; we authors selected the ones we wanted to answer from that room, and posted said answers in a third room. Plus there was a separate room for "unofficial chatter". The questions were flying thickly enough in the high-graded zone that I never once got a chance to look in on Unofficial Chatter or The Raw Question Room (Charlie did — just once — and caught sight of a question about whether we supported gay marriage, which sadly never got high-graded.) So I grabbed everything in all four before logging off, to glance at later.

Man, there were a lot of questions directed at me that I never even saw, either because I just didn't notice them in the hi-graded blizzard or because they never got hi-graded in the first place. And some of those questions were pretty damn good, and I feel bad for having not answered them. The official transcript will be posted back on XFire before too long, but because those won't include unanswered questions, I will be answering those here in dribs and drabs over the next little while.

So if any of you guys have come over from XFire and didn't get your questions answered, watch this space; I'll rectify that shortly.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Selfish Bastards, Every One

Now and then I've fielded questions — in interviews, private e-mails, maybe even here in the 'crawl — about my reductionist take on human nature. In particular, a lot of folks are not comfy with my dissing of altruism, which (if it ever does arise in a population) is likely to get weeded out real fast because Hey, who's going to leave more offspring to the next generation: the selfless doof who gives up his life jacket on the Titanic or the selfish bastard who takes it for himself?

Seems pretty straightforward to me, but it seems to give pause to a lot of folks (I even recently received an e-mail on the subject from the legendary Ted Chiang). What about Mothers who rescue their babies from burning buildings? some of the most egregiously out-clued might ask (A: Kin selection, dummies). What about people who willingly die for their countries or for their religious beliefs? (Yeah, and if Christ had said "Do unto others, turn the other cheek, walk the second mile and in the end you'll go to hell anyway", I'm sure the Christians would've just been lining up to go one-on-one with the lions.) What about people who just act out of the goodness of their hearts and help out those who are not so fortunate, even if they're athiests or unrelated to the beneficiary? (Ah, you mean reciprocal altruism. That's done in expectation of a payoff somewhere down the road— and remind me to scribble a post at some point reviewing what we do to people who accept our kind gestures and then don't reciprocate...)

Yeah, well, um— yeah, what about people who give to panhandlers, or volunteer for good causes even though there's no way some rubby or Malawian foster-child will ever be able to return the favour?


This last challenge never really shook my position much. I can rattle off "status enhancement/increased mating opportunities" as fast as the next guy. Still, I wasn't aware of any actual studies on humans that backed it up. But now there is one, courtesy of the niggardly cocksuckers at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, who — despite my online access privileges as a postdoctoral fellow at a major academic institution — still want to charge me $30 before letting me see any more than the abstract. Screw that. Fortunately there's a layperson-friendly summary in The Economist. So here's the he-said/she-said version:

Men, like most male mammals, like to acquire resources. When they're not especially horny, they're as likely to go for furniture and big-screen TVs — i.e., major, nonportable items that remain in the home — as anything else. When they're horny, however, they'd rather buy bling and fast cars — flashy stuff they can take on the road to attract mates. Also, when in a horny mood, they're more likely to give publicly to panhandlers (also to indulge in risky/heroic behaviour). In other words, both conspicuous consumption and conspicuous generosity are just ways of attracting mates: hey baby, lookit me! I've got so much money I can just give it away!...

Women are no better. They aren't so much into resource acquisition as they are into volunteer work and do-gooding social causes — and once again, when they're not thinking about sex, they don't really care what kind of good they're doing. When horned up, however, women show a distinct preference for conspicuous do-gooding (working in a homeless shelter, for example), while shying away from other kinds (e.g., going off on their own and picking up garbage in a ravine).

So once again, behaviour that seems noble at first glance turns out to be stone self-serving upon closer examination: another brand of faux altruism that has far more in common with peacock's tails and wattles on chickens than with any spark of divine generosity. What's more, the nature of our displays breaks down along the same stereotypic r/K selection lines that have always (understandably) driven feminists up the wall because seriously, who really wants to believe that sex-is-destiny shit anyway?

Not that this should come as news to anyone. (Have any of the men in the audience ever been targeted by a street vendor with an armload of overpriced roses when they weren't in the company of a woman?) Still, it's nice to see actual data backing up the just-so story.

Now, anybody know of any cases of Human altruism that haven't been exposed as kin selection or sleazy get-laid strategies?

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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

I'm not dead yet.

Just another couple of placeholders while I shovel sand against the tide.

Placeholder #1: the observation of a certain correlation in the skiffy community:

Group A: "Blindsight would definitely be my choice for the Hugo, if I were voting. Which I'm not."

Group B: "Blindsight is good/crappy/great for wrapping fish, but it didn't get my vote."

I suppose I should take some pride in the evident fact that my biggest fans tend to not be joiners. I like having independent readers. ('Course, I wouldn't've minded having the Hugo either...)

Placeholder #2: the observation of a certain brick-shittingly scary page on Amazon:

Right here. The new anthology from Solaris. Click on the cover image, and — oh, look. There's my name.

These guys haven't even seen my story yet. I was supposed to send it yesterday, but they gave me until Friday because I told them it was 7K's worth of steaming crap. (Which was marginally better than the 9K's worth of steaming crap it had been two days earlier, but still.) And I'm still so unhappy with the way it reads — you ever write a story where each individual scene works fine, but the overall result looks like disjointed fragments of "Red Dwarf", "Law and Order", and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" jammed haphazardly together like fortune cookies in a wood chipper? — that I'm thinking now the only way to salvage this mess is to jettison two thirds of it and reduce the narrative to a single stream-of-consciousness unfolding as the protagonist waits in a checkout line to buy chicken bullion cubes. (Yes. You read that right. That would be a massive improvement.)

As for the Solaris guys, their faith in my abilities is either so great it borders on religious mania, or so small that they've faked up an Amazon cover just to light a fire under my ass. What are they gonna do if I hand in something completely unusable?

In fact, what am I writing this for? I gotta get started.