Sunday, December 30, 2007


Hey, anybody out there use Internet Explorer to read this 'crawl?

If so, are you finding the entries peppered with hacked up fragments of javascript that are supposed to be invisible? Stuff like

< !--[if !supportEmptyParas]-->

just thrust all ugly-like between paragraphs?

I don't suppose someone could have just, you know told me that my newscrawl looked like a botched abortion in IE? (Not to mention that the font is way too large in that browser). Because I've just been plunking along in Firefox all this time, assuming that it wouldn't be too much to expect Google's Blogger code to render gracefully in the most popular bloody browser on the planet. But nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo...

Or is it just fucking up here on my local machine? Please, IE users. Tell me it's the local machine. When was the last time I asked you for anything?


Monday, December 24, 2007

"God is Gonna Kick Your Ass You Infidelic Pagan Scum"

A few parting links, in keeping with the Christmas Spirit:

...because honestly, combining 2001 with domestic shorthair cats is about as close to the truly divine as I'm ever likely to come.

So as Mr. Garrison sang with such unrepetant gusto: Merry Fucking Christmas. Try to ignore that idiotic pap about Christmas Choirs the CBC is wasting its bandwidth on, and try to survive the season.

(Me, I've just introduced my Dad to Blade Runner. Went pretty well. Except he didn't get the unicorn.)


Friday, December 21, 2007

Benthic Baptisms

So it begins (actually continues, but let's not let accuracy get in the way of a good cliché): the race to exploit the deep sea. A couple of choice quotes:
"deep sea mining ... has the potential to explode ... The hotspots are ocean floor geysers known as hydrothermal vents ...

"...we know almost nothing about the microbial life or their ecology."

So, yeah. Bring on βehemoth! Let's get this apocalypse on the road!

And — in a nice bit of timing — one Bernd Kronsbein has just pointed me to the Amazon page for the upcoming German edition of Starfish (which evidently translates does not after all translate as Abgrund, but as another word entirely!). The cover steers away from the rifter-collage design that Bruce Jensen so effectively rendered for the Tor editions, instead giving face time to the more conventional preshmesh armour that Yves Scanlon lumbered around in for a couple of chapters:

I'm guessing they were looking for something a bit more space-suity, to maintain thematic consistency with their Blindflug cover. Anyway, I like it.

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The God-Shaped Hole

Previously, on No Moods, Ads, or Cutesy Fucking Icons...

Many religious people are idiots. My Dad's religious, but he's no idiot. There are some other smart religious people out there too. Maybe they're right and I'm wrong. But they can't be, because I'm a scientist and they're not! But real scientists have to allow for the possibility that they can be wrong about anything; otherwise they're just another breed of fundamentalist. Oh, look, here's a scientist called Francis Collins. He is much smarter, more prominent, and way better-paid than I ever was. He says I'm wrong. He says he has evidence for the existence of the Christian God. He uses many scientific-sounding words to convince me he might be on to something.

Teach me, Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, arch-nemesis of the evil Craig Venter! Show me the way!

Here it is. Dr. Francis Collins' Big Reveal. Actually, his Big Reveal was a personal epiphany he had while looking at a bunch of icicles; this is his Evidence That Demands A Verdict, and it is, wait for it:

The warm fuzzy feeling you get when you "Do The Right Thing".

Yup. That's it. A dopamine rush, elevated to the status of "The Moral Law". Universally extant in every Human culture, he says, and unique to Human culture as well. "Evolution will never explain The Moral Law and the Universal Search for God", he assures us, will never explain that uniquely, universally human urge to help those in need, even if they don't share our genes, even at our own expense. We are beyond evolution — for if the evolutionists were right, we'd never do anything except selfishly try to spread our own genes. Collins actually uses the word "scandal" to describe the way in which we "evolutionists" regard altruism.

He invokes C.S. Lewis's faux-adaptationist argument to induce God's existence from these warm fuzzies:

"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Pedophiles feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as alter boys*. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

After which Collins cuts in and asks "Why do we have a 'God-shaped vacuum' in our hearts unless it is meant to be filled?"

Where to start. (Beyond noting that while some sort of vacuum does seem to persist in one Francis Collins, it is unlikely to reside in his thorax...)

Let's start with a general observation. Collins' understanding of natural selection appears to be a woefully-ignorant caricature in which every organism always behaves optimally to promote its own fitness, and every instance in which this doesn't happen constitutes a failure of evolutionary theory calling out for Divine intervention. What he doesn't seem to understand (or perhaps, what he's hoping you won't) is that the whole basis of natural selection is variation. Organisms differ; some do better than others; the losers leave fewer offspring. Nature, in other words, is chock-full of creatures who do not selfishly spread their genes, who benefit others at their own expense. Conspecifics might call such organisms "unsuccessful competitors". Parasites would call them "hosts". Predators would call them "food". The Archdiocese calls them "parishioners".

Perhaps you're thinking that's a cheap shot; prey may not successfuly spread their genes, but that's not for want of trying. I would counter that the same could be said of all those good folks who turn the other cheek expecting a grand payoff in the Kingdom of Heaven. Either way, this Collins guy needs to be taught the basics — not just of biology, but of elementary logic. To claim that non-selfish acts contradict evolutionary theory is like claiming that blow jobs contradict the orgasm's role in reproduction.

But fine: he's talking about the knowing and voluntary sacrifice of one's own interests to benefit another. That's what he defines as uniquely human. Except it isn't. Empathy for nonrelatives, efforts expended to help others (even members of different species), have been documented in nonhuman primates and cetaceans. The concepts of fair play and justice don't seem to be uniquely human either. Contrary to Collins' claims, sociobiologists don't have any real trouble reconciling such actions with evolutionary processes; in fact, the neurochemistry underlying empathy is a pretty basic social-cohesion mechanism. And while Collins has a field day hauling out Oskar Schindler and Mother Theresa as examples of selfless service to a greater good, he's only cherry-picking one or two convenient outliers from a cloud of data. Readers of this obscure little newscrawl may remember that there is a data cloud, statistically quantifiable, and it shows that people tend to engage in risky heroics or acts of altruistic generosity primarily when it improves their chances of getting laid. (And don't bother pointing out that Mommy Theresa's chances of that were pretty much nil — we both know the basement circuitry works the same way regardless of motivational overlays. Besides, she was expecting a whole other kind of payoff, just as Schindler more likely than not feared some kind of payback.) You may also remember that this "Moral Law", such as it is, is inconsistent and often downright wrong, that the truly altruistic — those who'd unhesitatingly sacrifice two of their own children to save four of someone else's, for example — suffer from a specific and precise form of brain damage. The truly moral are those with lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex; not, so far as I've heard, a "universal" aspect of the Human condition.

And that's not even getting into the self-sacrificing behaviour of those who have merely been tricked into furthering someone else's agenda. How many Christians would have marched in the Crusades, how many jihadists would have strapped bombs across their bellies, how many missionaries would have risked disease and death in darkest Africa if they'd actually believed that eternal damnation was waiting at the end of it? (Now that would be altruism.) Is Collins really so blind to the workings of his own religion that he can't tell the difference between true selflessness and the manipulation of selfish motives by parasites wielding imaginary payoffs?

Which leads to another, and mind-bogglingly obvious failing of Collins' argument: the ubiquity of the "Moral Law". His claim that we all share the same standards of right and wrong would, I expect, come as news to all those cultures throughout history who kept (and keep) slaves, who mutilate the genitals of their women, who regarded (and regard) foreign races, beliefs, and behaviours as things to be avoided at best and hammered into extinction at worst. The ongoing genocides of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries provide eloquent testimony to the ubiquity of Collins' Moral Law, and while he leaves himself a bit of wiggle room (we all have the Moral Law, you see, but some of us choose to ignore it), he cites nothing to justify the claim that this sense of right and wrong is universal beyond the one-two punch that a) he feels it and so do all his friends, and b) C.S. Lewis told him so. (In fact, reading The Language of God, you get the sense that Francis Collins has anointed himself C.S. Lewis's Official Corporeal Sock Puppet.)

For all his talk of agape and altruism, Collins may be the most profoundly self-centred human being I've read. The possibility that everyone doesn't feel just the way he does seems completely beyond his grasp.

The search for God? I'm a pretty introspective dude, and I can say with a high degree of confidence that I don't have anything like that gnawing away inside me. I recognise that many people do— but I also recognise that our brains are hardwired to see patterns even where none exist, to attribute agency even to purely indifferent phenomena. It's a small enough step from the "Theory of Mind" that allows us to suss out the agendas of the creatures and conspecifics we encounter day to day. So the very clouds can look angry to us, or benign; and who hasn't wanted to put a brick through that fucking laptop and its fucking Blue Screen of Death which always, malevolently, crashes your system when you're six hours from deadline and have forgotten to save?

Apply equal parts ignorance, pattern-matching, and the attribution of motives onto nature's canvas: angels and demons sprout like Spears sprogs behind every rock (much as they appeared to Collins in his frozen waterfall). But Collins doesn’t even admit that such neural circuitry exists, much less contemplate its potential relevance to human superstition. No mention at all of Persinger's work, or Ramachandran's. Not a word about the brain's God Module. And once again, no credit whatsoever to the guys with the mitres and crosses — not to mention the iron maidens in their basements — and the role they might have played in inculcating a sense of the divine into the culture (albeit granted, a form of the Divine that seems chronically in need of alms).

So Collins' central, most rigorous argument for a personal god — who created heaven and earth and made us and only us in his image — is that everybody shares the same sense of right and wrong (except they don't); that everybody seeks God (speak for yourself, buddy; I'm happy if I can just find a decent pint of Rickards); that Human beings are unique among all species in being altruistic and moral (except we're not); and that there's no other explanation but the God of Abraham for any of this (except there sure as shit is).

Let me repeat: this is his strongest argument.

It's not his only one, though. Collins commits numerous other sins, easily recognised by anyone with even a passing familiarity with the moves of flat-earthers and climate-change deniers and spin-doctors the world over. Statements initially introduced with all the right caveats ("If we accept the possibility of the supernatural, then it is possible that...") reappear later, unsubstantiated but nonetheless miraculously transmuted into statements of absolute fact (believers are "right to hold fast to the eternal truths of the Bible"). Legitimate objections to his positions (e.g., that religious beliefs are irrelevant to the study of Nature) are dismissed for no better reason than that Collins finds them unpalatable ("that doesn't resonate with most individuals' human experience", he writes). In the manner of fundies everywhere, and in the spirit of that book he holds most holy, he contradicts himself whenever it suits him. At one point he argues against the God-as-wishful-thinking model by pointing out that a product of wish-fulfillment would be cuddly and indulgent, not demanding and judgmental as the God of Abraham is wont to be. (Oddly, the prospect of an intimidating God invoked not for comfort, but as a way for folks in funny hats to exert control over credulous followers, never seems to occur to him.) But when facing off against those who'd claim that God scattered photons and fossils across heaven and earth to test our faith, he decides that a little wishful thinking is just fine: "Would God as the great deceiver be an entity anyone would want to worship?"

He rejects a naturalistic universe because after all, something had to kick-start the Big Bang (it couldn't have just booted itself, that would be silly) — then changes the rules to exempt his own model from the same criticism (oh, nothing had to create God, God just booted Himself). (As I would too, hard in my own ass, if I'd created a sentient being as wilfully stupid as Francis Collins). He hauls out the old atheism-is-faith-based-too chestnut, because after all, nobody can prove God doesn't exist, so if that's what you believe you're just taking it on blind faith, right? (Of course, nobody can prove that omnipotent purple hamsters aren't partying it up in the Pleiades either; I guess Collins must believe in those too, or he'd be just as blind as the creationists.)

He quotes Hawking's Brief History of Time out of context, in a way that portrays ol' Wheels as a believer; he makes no mention of Hawking's explicit denial of religious belief in the same book. He tries to tell us that creationism and Intelligent design are different things, and goes so far as to state as a scientist that the ID movement "deserves serious consideration" — evidently unaware that the IDiots got caught passing their creationist textbook through a global search-and-replace to turn every instance of the word "creationism" into "intelligent design", as a way to get around legal proscriptions against religion in science class.

I don't care if this guy did nail the gene for cystic fibrosis. If this book exemplifies his cognitive skills, I gotta wonder who he slept with to end up running the HGP.

Once, many years ago, Francis Collins claims he was an athiest. Maybe he still is, at heart. Maybe he's just lying through his teeth with this book. Maybe he's a player with an agenda, a guy who wanted to climb up the ranks and figured that atheism would keep him off the guest lists for all the best parties. I have no evidence of this, but I hope that's the case. I hope that he's merely an opportunist. I really do.

Because judging by this self-righteous, irrational, and contemptible book, the only other explanation that comes to mind is that Dr. Francis Collins is a fucking moron.

(edited for style 22/12/07)

*Okay, maybe Lewis didn't use this particular example. But you take my point. NAMBLA's gonna have a field day with this rationale; according to Francis Collins, God wants them to be pedophiles...

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Father, His Son, and the Holy Ghost

It should be no secret that I am one of that ever-growing flock of empiricists who've been touched by His Noodly Appendage*. And while I generally have little patience for religious beliefs of any stripe — I just can't see any explanatory utility in them at all — my feelings about religious believers are somewhat more nuanced. Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that I was raised not only by devout Baptists, but by an actual Baptist minister/scholar/high-falutin' bureaucrat in the Baptist church. (I'm not sure exactly how highly placed, but I have this vague sense that "general secretary" was something like a cardinal/union-boss, except without the sodomising of alter-boys or the beating-up of strike-breakers.) Maybe it's because, having gone through occasional dark hours of my own, I know how absolutely wonderful it would be to know, deep down in my heart, that death is not the end, that there is a place where all my beloved dead cats still chew on liquorice (and cannot climb the trees), that there is more to existence than a few decades of ranting vainly against the imbeciles who keep treating the planet like a toilet bowl. Or maybe it's just that I've encountered a fair number of believers over the past decades, and I can't honestly dismiss all of them as complete idiots.

Not that there aren't an awful lot of idiots in those ranks, you understand. Almost half the human population on this continent thinks that Humanity was created pretty much in its present form six thousand years ago, that evolution is a fraud, and that the sky is swarming with angels. Those people are fucking morons; there is so much overwhelming evidence to the contrary, so readily available to anyone with even rudimentary reading skills, that the only plausible alternatives to fucking-moronhood would be brainwashing or mental disease. But I can't put people like my dad into that basket: Baptist leader and teacher in the heart of the Alberta bible-belt of the sixties, who — catching me at age twelve reading a James Bond novel — sat me down and told me that Ian Fleming didn’t really have the most respectful attitude towards women, and there were other books I might want to try out if I wanted insight into how to treat my fellow human beings. Who, as I lay spinning on my bed in the dark at seventeen, vomit dribbling down my chin and exhaling enough ethanol to ignite the whole bloody house if my chain-smoking older brother happened to light up, sat on my bed and asked me about my day, and told me about his, and didn't even mention my inebriated state until I brought it up myself (and then just rolled his eyes and quoted Shakespeare — something about the devil than men put into their mouths to steal away their brains. But I could feel him smiling in the dark when he said it.) My dad, who never had any problems at all with science in general, or with evolution in particular.

When I asked him — years later still — if he would at least stop believing in this Easter Bunny of his if presented with indisputable, convincing evidence of God's nonexistence, he thought for a moment and admitted that no, he most likely would not. He lost some serious points with me then. But still; this man, and thousands more like him, are not idiots. I cannot lump them in with the Falwells and the Bushies and the — well, with the 47% of the N'Amian population who are fucking morons. I just can't.

I prefer to think of most of them not as stupid, but lazy.

Most people acquire their beliefs through osmosis and observation, not investigation. We'd rather observe than derive. Raised in a society awash in certain ubiquitous beliefs, you tend to accept those beliefs without thinking. I think most people come to their faith in the same way they come to believe that not wearing a tie is "unprofessional office behaviour", even though ties are a prerequisite for very few office duties. (There are good evolutionary reasons for this. Who's going to get ahead fastest; the guy who reinvents every wheel from scratch, or the guy who looks around and copies those wheel-thingies all the grown-ups are using? I mean, of course you should just do what the grown-ups do; they did it, and they were obviously fit enough to spawn...)

But what if I'm wrong? One of the reasons science kicks religion's ass is that we always have to allow for the possibility that we could be wrong. About anything. Who was it remarked that science offers proof without certainty; religion offers certainty without proof?

So I'm always on the lookout for bright people, scientifically-inclined people, non-fucking-moron people, who have religious beliefs. Because maybe they've thought of something I haven't. Maybe they're right and I'm wrong; and man, wouldn't it be great to be wrong about this? Wouldn't it absolutely kick ass if there actually was an afterlife, and a stigmatized Easter Bunny?

So Dad hands me this book: The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief by one Francis S. Collins. Director of the bureaucratic half of the Human Genome Project, for Chrissakes. And here's the kicker: the dude started his university career as an atheist, and then converted to Christianity. Is that ass-backwards or what?

So here, say I, is a guy both smarter and better educated than me, who obviously knows all the arguments that led me to my own apostasy, because he started out there himself — and he's found something better! He has found evidence for belief!

I bet you're just dying to see what it was, hmmm?

*And if you don't know what that means, friend, you are in the wrong place. Come back when you've done your homework.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

AfterImages of I Am Legend

Praiseworthy Things:
  • Opens with the Best Bitter Irony Jump Cut evar.
  • Will Smith's spot-on performance as a repressed, guilt-ridden failed-saviour-in-denial ratcheting inexorably towards catastrophic meltdown.
  • Nature Takes Back Manhattan (and glad to see some decent soul opened the cages at the Brooklyn Zoo before devolving).
  • Sam the Dog.

Eh-worthy Things:
  • You'd think a military epidemiologist would know enough to give experimental antivirals more than five minutes to work before writing them off as ineffective.
  • the hysterical-vampirism shtick of Matheson's novel has been replaced with a clone of the Rage virus from 28 (Insert Unit of Time Here) Later.

Craptacular Things:
  • the gratuitous and idiotic sop to the biblethumper demographic in the closing minutes of the film. (Granted, in these enlightened times when people get the shit kicked out of them for wishing people "Happy Hannukah", or forced to resign from school boards for mentioning evolution — or killed for actually advocating it — probably the only way you can get away with an athiest protag is if he learns the error of his ways before the final curtain. Pity.) (On second thought, 15/12/07: that isn't necessarily true. Witness the unflattering view of Christian behaviour — hell, of human behaviour — in "The Mist", which also has one of the most admirably and unrepentantly downbeat endings I've ever seen in a Christmas release. Almost makes up for "Cujo".)
Bottom line, though: not bad. Not bad at all. Although I do wish Neville had worked up the nerve to have sex with the mannequin in the video store...


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Gospel According to St. Peter

Oooh, lookey here: Extrapolation doesn't embargo. So, for any who actually want to read even more of my opinions, a pdf of Szeman and Whiteman's whole damn interview is available here, at Imre Szeman's web page out of McMaster University. It's a rifters-heavy piece, but it also goes into my childhood plagiarism, the inadvisability of letting scientists write science fiction, and the reasons for my arms-length distance from the Canadian Science-Fiction Community. (Hint: air quotes around that last word).

Go. Read. Wallow. Even if boingboing and Icanhascheezeburger are vastly more infortaining.


Monday, December 10, 2007

A Plea to the Locals

Hey. Ontarions. Help.

Can anybody recommend a decent landline phone carrier that isn't Rogers or Bell or Telus, and that hasn't been engulfed by any of those guys? For the next few months at least, it ain't economical for me to go purely cell — but all the Big Three landline vendors seem to suck equally hard. Is there some small third-party reseller out there that I might be happy with? Or even less-unhappy than I am with Rogers?


A Lack of Focus

Been a while since I posted, I know. Not for lack of material. I've been meaning to post a few more I, Robot-type findings — more hardwired-aesthetics, this time centering around the "Golden Ratio"; more unsurprising evidence of a developmental basis for pedophilia, along with the (even-less surprising) preemptive disclaimers by the researchers that oh no, this shouldn't let pedophiles off the hook, no sirree. (I can't shake a certain sympathy for the kiddy-diddlers on this score. Biology seems to let everyone else off the hook: teenage brains are wired differently than adults, so we have a Young Offender's Act with different standards of culpability; jealous lovers are blinded by fight/fuck circuitry, so "crimes of passion" tend to carry lighter penalties than those that come precalculated. There's no end to the shit we're expected to put up with from victims of dementia, because hey, they "really can't help themselves". But pedophiles? Societal revulsion for those poor bastards is so strong that we don't even wait for the peasants to grab their pitchforks, we trip over ourselves insisting that no, the neurology doesn't matter for these monsters, they just need to exercise more self-control...)

Then there's this godsend from the University of Colorado — batteries, built from kidney cells! — that fits perfectly into a hole I've been trying to plug for the SquidNet novel. A seriously-overhyped item suggesting that a chatroom spam sex-bot has passed the Turing Test (I dunno— didn't Turing specify some minimal intelligence for the person the AI is supposed to be fooling?) I'm also reading this book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief, by one of the leading lights of the Human Genome Project, and you can be damn sure that's gonna get it's very own extensive posting over the next little while. (Current opinion, at the ¼ mark: this guy is the Harriet Miers of gel jocks. How the hell can a top-flight geneticist be so abysmally ill-informed about basic biology? How can he be so utterly unfamiliar with basic logic?).

But it's fucking Christmastime, don't you know, and the obligations of this season eat at one's waking hours like a cancer. And I have four or five pitches/outlines, all in various states of (in)completion, that I gotta get done before my new agent writes me off for dead and eaten by cats. So for now, I'll just hand off with another excerpt from the imminent Szeman/Whiteman interview " Wildlife, Natural and Artificial: An Interview with Peter Watts ":

IS/MW: Dark, troubled, disturbed, heroic: Lenie Clark is one of the great characters of contemporary science fiction writing. A sympathetic protagonist despite her outward coldness—and the fact that her rage at the Grid Authority leads her to seed βehemoth across North America. Ken Lubin, too: a character about whom we know almost nothing beyond his capacity to expertly assess situations and to act on the results, but whom readers nevertheless see as on their side against the threats of the world. How did you come to create Lenie? What are the special challenges (if any) of writing about characters like these?

PW: Lenie Clarke was my attempt to imagine what was going on inside a woman I was briefly involved with back in grad school. It was one of those relationships that lasts maybe two months, tops, tosses you around like a pebble in a cement mixer full of broken glass, and then spits you out in the certain knowledge you’ll never see your partner again. You know all this going in, of course. You know the relationship has no future. And you do it anyway, because hey: what does have a future, these days? And at least you know you’re alive in the meantime.

The special challenge, of course, is that I probably got her completely wrong. But I rather suspect she’s been dead for some time, so she’s not likely to contradict me. And other people, who hail from similarly dark places, tell me that Lenie feels real to them. This honours me. I haven’t been fucked over nearly as much as these people have, I’m basically a pampered poser playing let’s-pretend-we’ve-been-sexually-abused. But if my prose can convince people who’ve actually been there, that’s something.

Unless, of course, they were just sucking up to me. That happens too. Not as much as it should, sadly.

The whole interview (which I've previously excerpted here, when I was first muddling through the questions — just scroll down to April 5) weighs in at well over 7,000 words and is slated to appear in the journal Extrapolation 48(3): 603-619. (And I mean really appear, which is not so common as I might have expected. Regular visitors may remember my mention of extensive interviews with the likes of Locus and the online editions of The Wall Street Journal, way back in spring/summer of this year. Don't know what's up with those, but I grow increasingly skeptical of either's appearance.)

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