Tuesday, September 25, 2007

You Won't Get Elected If You Don't Speak Klingon.

Sounds stupid, doesn't it? Too bad it's pretty much the way we do things in this hemisphere.

Here in Ontario, we face the imminent prospect of double-barreled elections: one provincial, one federal. The leader of our provincial Conservative Party recently allowed that his plan to publicly fund religious schools would include taxpayer support of those teaching creationism because, after all, evolution is "just a theory". Our prime minister Stephen Harper, whose denial of climate change was unswerving until polls revealed that at he'd pick up a few extra votes by paying lip-service to reality, has just frozen the budget of the Canadian Wildlife Service — that branch of government responsible for monitoring inconsequential things like, oh, pesticide bioaccumulation and the destruction of wilderness habitat. (Just before this decision game down, one of Harper's hatchet-wielders showed up to "assess" the labors of a CWS biologist of my acquaintance. She wanted to know why he had to keep going out and collecting all this data; after all, hadn't they already collected data the year before? Couldn't they just stay in their offices and play with that?) And of course, the whole lot of them not only admit to being superstitious, they trumpet the fact — because here in the twenty-first century, nobody has any public credibility unless they take their marching orders from an Imaginary Friend. (As long as you call him God or Allah. Call him Harvey and they'll lock you away.)

Who are these people? What are their qualifications for running a country of thirty-three million people?

The majority of politicians have backgrounds in either law or business. Human laws — The Law, as it likes to be known — is fundamentally predicated on presumptions of free will which we know to be neurologically false (evidence to this effect has been accumulating for well over a century now. Google Phineas Gage if you don't believe me). In some cases The Law verges on recognizing as much; that convicted pedophile was, after all, released when his violent behavior was shown to result from a brain tumor. But it won't take the next logical step — if we aren't responsible for behavior induced by a tumor, how can we be held responsible for the wiring that turns us into sociopaths? How can anyone be held responsible for any behaviors arising from neural circuitry over which we have no control? That road leads to such dark and unpleasant places...

Then there's the business community. Economics. The "science" that tells us that oxygen has no market value, the spreadsheets proving the Exxon Valdez spill was the best thing to ever happen to the Alaskan economy, the models that shrug at deforestation in Brazil and mine tailings in Howe Sound because hey, dead ecosystems don't show up on the ledger. Does anyone outside the stock market really believe that the utility, abundance, the real value of copper fluctuates hourly based on Wall Street rumors? Are stock brokers transmuting the stuff with their minds?

Both Law and Economics, in other words, are human artifacts. They're like Gibsonian cyberspace, a consensual hallucination that only works because everybody agrees to stay inside the playground. They're Klingon Summer Camp, they're Dungeons and Dragons for geeks with MBAs: beautifully arcane, deeply developed, honed and crafted by decades of game play. But they're arbitrary. Lo, the DM changes The Law, tweaks interest rates: watch all the PCs dance to the rules of the new edition!

Try that in the real world, though. Try repealing photosynthesis or gravity and see where it gets you. Anyone who thinks The Economy has anything more than a tangential relationship to the real world is an idiot.

So, why is it always suits making these decisions? Why so few scientists in politics? Why isn’t the real world governed by those practiced in studying the real world, instead of geeks who can't admit that Klingons don't actually exist?

I think it's because science is nasty. It is a methodology that recognizes the prejudices and blind spots of its practitioners, and drags us kicking and screaming to unpleasant truths we'd rather not recognize. It's the only approach designed to be self-correcting — to the point that it's responsible for conceptual advances even among its self-proclaimed alternatives, be it neuroeconomics (in the dismal science) or a heliocentric solar system (in the Christian church).

Science starts from the assumption that the things we believe are wrong, and tests them to destruction. One does not "prove" scientific claims; one only fails to reject them. This is why relativity, evolution, and dark matter remain "theories"; we must always allow for the possibility that they could be subsumed by a better alternative, as Newton was subsumed by Einstein. But by the same token, there is no such thing as "just a theory" in science. To become a Theory is to achieve an exalted state, accorded only unto those few hypotheses still standing after being hammered by the most unforgiving attacks that colleagues and rivals can muster. Anyone who seriously utters the phrase "just a theory" is too ignorant for anything beyond the scrubbing of test tubes and the picking of noses.

And it is that strength, I think, that explains why science is so routinely ignored — nay, downright disparaged — by those who insist they know what's best for us. It explains why John Crosbie could dismiss as "demented" the urgings of federal biologists that cod quotas be cut, only to blame the "arrogance" of those same scientists for the inevitable collapse that occurred a few years later. It explains the routine gag orders muzzling government scientists on every subject from cod to climate; because for a myopic pest species six billion strong, Truths are the last thing anyone wants to face. And if you think only one of them happens to be inconvenient, you probably did get the government you deserved.

We'd all just rather follow the fat guys waving the Battleths.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

New Agent. New Sale. Same Old Attitude. And One Unsubtle Highlander Reference.

Got me a new agent. Howard Morhaim, about whom everyone raves (Jeff Vandermeer told me he'd gladly get into a knife fight for the man— I remain undecided as to whether this implies fierce loyalty, or just a sick desire on Jeff's part to get into knife fights at the slightest provocation). It was actually a pretty tough call. I would have gladly gone with three or four of those on the short list, all of whom came universally praised, all of whom were candid and insightful during our dates, and all of whom I'm sure would have been honorable and stalwart allies. But in the end, there can be only one. Howard it is. And I shall seek out the others at cons, and buy them beers for their time.

I am also pleased to report that my "evil Jew" story has sold to Nature — they have this on-again, off again feature called "Futures", in which sf writers try to cram a bit of plot and some hard-sf extrapolation into 950 words or less. Henry Gee, the editor of the series, began his e-mail to me thus:

I won't say I enjoyed your story "Repeating the Past" very much. Nonetheless I'd like to publish it in Futures.

which is pretty spot-on. "Repeating the Past" is not a story to be enjoyed. It is a prospect to be troubled by, and it grows inevitably from technology already gestating in R&D labs throughout the gaming and neuroimaging industries. It also makes a nice companion piece to the "Good Pedophile" story that Solaris picked up a while back.

And at <1000 words, it's the shortest thing I've ever written. I didn't know whether I could pull off any story at that length, and I'm actually quite proud of the result. But the real payoff in this sale is not the literary feat, nor the (very respectable) per-word-payment. The real payoff, as before, is being able to sit back and tick off the various tenure-track colleagues who looked down their noses at me as I slouched away from academia, and who have since devoted an unhealthy number of waking hours trying to get their work into Nature.


Friday, September 14, 2007

Done Deals & Fair Warnings

So, two more sets of negotiations concluded, two more contracts signed and sent: Arabesque (a new imprint of AST Publishing) is now officially putting out a Russian edition of Blindsight, and Bibliopolis is tasked with the Spanish translation.

Both have promised me input on cover layout.

Ominously, the editor at Arabesque — after having seen the author photos I sent him — mused tentatively about using one of them as an actual cover-art element. Not sure how that would work. I suppose my nose could stand in for Big Ben, if the light was right...

The crawl might be going down briefly over the next couple of days. Apparently, by keeping all its files at rifters.com, I'm depriving us all of cool things like Polls (which would allow me to learn how many of you really do think that this tiny white-on-black motif blows goats and would rather that I went with yellow on chartreuse). I think I can move everything back to the Google server while still retaining the appearance of a rifters.com URL — if I can't, fuck it, it's staying put — but who knows what's gonna happen? So if your bookmarks suddenly take you to 404via, wait a bit. If they still don't work, go to my Updates page; any new architecture will be reported there.

See you on the other side.

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Skiffies...

Being the selection of a recent science item, hitherto unreported on this 'crawl, most near and dear to my heart.

Oddly, most of the items I've noticed recently seem reminiscent of my second book Maelstrom — from this tell-us-something-we-don't-know piece in the NY Times about the increasing fragility of complex technological systems to Naomi Klein's new book "The Shock Doctrine". Squinting at the news I can almost see the Complex Systems Instability-Response Authority gestating in the bowels of Halliburton; reading Klein's take on "disaster capitalism" I'm reminded of Marq Qammen's rant to Lenie Clarke about Adaptive Shatter: "...When damage control started accounting for more of the GGP than the production of new goods." Starfish may have been a more immersive novel; Blindsight may have had chewier ideas. But Maelstrom, I think, is way out front in terms of decent extrapolation.

Or there's this too-good-to-pass-up story out of Nature Neuroscience by way of the LA Times, in which a study combining button-pushing with the letters "M" and "W" showed that liberals are better at parsing novel input than conservatives, who have a greater tendency to fall into inflexible knee-jerk behaviors. (This would tend to explain, for example, how the inability to change one's mind in the face of new input can be regarded as a strength — "strong leadership" — while the ability to accommodate new information is regarded as "flip-flopping".) (Surprisingly, these findings have not been embraced by those who describe themselves as right-wing.)

But today's Skiffy has to go to this story in the Guardian, simply because it reflects so many facets of my own life (such as it is): marine mammals (in particular harbour porpoises, upon which I did my M.Sc.) are being infected by the mind-affecting parasite Toxoplasma gondii (whose genes were a vital part of "Guilt Trip" from the rifters novels, and which has been cited in this very crawl — May 6 2005) contacted from household cats (of which whose connection to mine own life you should all be aware by now).

Marine Mammals. Rifters. Cats.

No other contender comes close.

Labels: , ,

Monday, September 10, 2007

Bosum Buddies

The good folks over at SF Signal have pointed me to results of a post-Hugo poll on their site, suggesting that a strong majority of their 72 respondents seem to think I was robbed. (This is especially gracious of them since they themselves didn't like Blindsight all that much.) What's really interesting about this poll, however, is not so much Blindsight's straw-first-place-finish, but the fact that "No Award" came in second, with twice as many votes as third place got. To me, this casts the poll itself into question: a quarter of skiffydom thinks there were no award-worthy titles on the whole slate? I'm doubtful.

On the other hand, one element does remain consistent between this wouldashouldacoulda poll and the actual vote at Worldcon: in both, "No Award" and Blindsight hung out side by side. Granted, they were at the bottom of the list for the Hugos and at the top over on SFSignal — but wherever they show up, they show up together.

Me and "No Award", we're just like that.


Friday, September 7, 2007

Remedial Gigerology

Okay, I need to tell no one here how very cool it is that moray eels have a second set of accessory jaws that leap out of their throat to handle difficult prey. You all know the obvious movie reference.

What I don't know is, there are a couple of hundred species of moray eels out there. We've known about them for centuries. So why the hell are we only discovering such an obvious anatomical feature now? Hasn't anyone dissected one of these things before?

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Do-It-Yourself Zombiehood

New to me, old to the lit: a paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, which came out last November (just a month after Blindsight was released): "Attention and consciousness: two distinct brain processes".

Let me cherry-pick a few choice excerpts: "The close relationship between attention and consciousness has led many scholars to conflate these processes." ... "This article ... argu[es] that top-down attention and consciousness are distinct phenomena that need not occur together" ... "events or objects can be attended to without being consciously perceived."

Yes, part of me shouts in vindication, while the rest of me whispers Oh your god, please no.

It's a review article, not original research. As such it cites some of the same studies and examples I drew on while writing Blindsight. But what especially interested me was the suggestion of mechanism behind some of those results. Both Blindsight and Blog cite studies showing that being distracted from a problem actually improves your decision-making skills, or that we are paradoxically better at detecting subtle stimuli in "noisy" environments than in "clean" ones. Koch and Tsuchiya cite a paper that describes this as a form of competition between neuron clusters:
"attention acts as a winner-takes-all, enhancing one coalition of neurons (representing the attended object) at the expense of others (non-attended stimuli). Paradoxically, reducing attention can enhance awareness and certain behaviors."

I like this. It's almost ecological. Predators increase the diversity of their own prey species by keeping the most productive ones in check; remove the starfish from a multispecies intertidal assemblage and the whole neighborhood turns to mussels inside a month. This is the same sort of thing (except it happens within a single brain and therefore tastes more of Lamarck than Darwin). Different functional clusters (the different prey species) duke it out for attention, each containing legitimate data about the environment— but only the winner (i.e., the mussels) gets to tell its tale to the pointy-haired boss. All that other data just gets lost. And the static that paradoxically improves performance in such cases — white noise, or irrelevant anagrams that steal one's focus — play the role of the predator, reducing the advantage of the front-runner so that subordinate subroutines can get their voices heard.

I wonder. If we trained ourselves to live in a state of constant self-imposed distraction, could we desentientise our own brains...?

Labels: , ,

No, not the pigment around the nipples. The award.

So barring the possibility of some cruel hoax, Blindsight is now on the final ballot for the Auroras. They haven't posted it officially yet, but my buddy Karl's just announced that he's on the same ballot for Sun of Suns, so I guess I'm not breaking any embargoes. For the nonCanadian among you (and probably for most of the Canadians too, now that I think of it), the Auroras might best be described as a Canuckian Hugo, albeit much smaller of scale and a bit more threadbare at the knees (as befitting the modest and self-effacing nature of the Canadian people). The award itself looks pretty cool, like something out of Delany's Dhalgren. I doubt anyone's been able to carry one onto a commercial flight since 2001.

Oh, and I've also just been told that Starfish is going to be translated into German — presumably by the same guys who are translating Blindsight, although I have no details. I was younger and even dumber when Starfish sold, and I let Tor retain all the overseas rights, so this is basically their deal. Hopefully I'll get a few more spoils out of it than I did from Blindsight's SFBC edition...


Monday, September 3, 2007

Wolbachia cronenbergium

My, the folks over at the Venter Institute have been busy lately. First they changed one microbe species into another by physically replacing its entire genome. They did this in their quest to create a synthetic organism, basically a chassis with the absolute minimum number of genes necessary for life, which could then be loaded up with other customized genes designed to act for the betterment of humanity and the environment the good of Venter stockholders. Now they've discovered that Nature herself has done them one better, by incorporating the complete genome of a parasitic bacterium called Wolbachia into the code of fruit flies: two complete genotypes for the price of one (original article here: much more accessible press release over here).

Some of you may remember ßehemoth, from the rifters books: it was basically mitochondrion's nasty cousin, and like mitochondria it brought its own genome into the host cell. This is a big step further: Wolbachia's code isn't just hanging out in the cell, it's been incorporated into the nuclear DNA of the host itself. The host is not infected with Wolbachia; there are no bacteria cruising the cytoplasm. Rather, the complete recipe for building the bug has been spliced into the host's code— and since the odds of such a big chunk of data (over a megabyte) getting thus incorporated without playing any functional role are pretty small, chances are that this embedded genotype is doing something for the host organism. This is assimilation: the dicks of Borg drones everywhere should be shriveling with collective performance anxiety.

Two major implications come immediately to mind. The first is that conventionally-derived genotypes sequenced to date might be all washed up, since bacterial DNA is routinely scrubbed from such results as "contamination"; but if this new phenomenon is widespread (and Wolbachia is one of the world's most abundant parasites of invertebrates), a lot of the bathwater we've been throwing out might actually be the baby. And the second implication, well —

Anyone remember David Cronenberg's remake of "The Fly"...?

(Illo credit, as far as I can tell, goes to the University of Rochester.)

Labels: , ,

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The End of the Rainbow

Rainbows End took home the Hugo, coming from behind to unseat Novik's Dragon opus in the fourth round. Congratulations to Vernor Vinge; the first story I ever read by the man was "Bookworm, Run!", back in the mid seventies — it actually first ran in 1966, from Analog — and after forty years in the business, the dude still has it. If my stuff proves to have half the legs, I'll have done well.

Judging by these results, though, that may be doubtful. It wasn't even close; Blindsight started in last place and suffered a quick and violent death. I was not surprised that it didn't win, but I was surprised at how poorly it did. I thought it would at least come in ahead of the Flynn — not because I thought it was a better book by any means, but simply because I haven't seen much Eifelheim-related buzz online. But Blindsight did even worse than I expected. In future I should probably dial down that sunny optimism for which I am so well-known.

It's a shame from a pure story perspective, though. After the difficult pregnancy, the painful birth, the neglected childhood — wouldn't it have been cool if my stunted baby could've come from behind and scaled the heights in true Hollywood fashion? Wouldn't that have made a heartwarming little in-your-face, bitch! kinda story?

Ah well. At least I kicked "No Award"'s Ass.

Labels: ,