Monday, July 28, 2008

Got Another One!

Nature published "Hillcrest v. Velikovsky" last week — and the very next day, this cog-sci dude named Mike Meadon posted an erudite and outraged blog entry on the insanity of the kind of world we live in, that such things could actually happen. Evidently he didn't realize that the work was fiction (until the famous PZ Meyers gently pointed it out). And to give the man his due, his subsequent post was all mea culpaey, and he left the original posting intact as an object lesson on the virtues of skepticism about skepticism.

This is not the first time I've managed to get smart people to believe dumb things (although this may be the first time I've done so without meaning to). I used to do it all the time. Back in the day, a friend and I used some judicious if low-tech special effects to convince a visiting Brazilian scientist that the Deer Island house we were staying in was haunted. When all the blinds in her room shot up simultaneously at three a.m., I swear she never touched a single step on her way downstairs and out the door. She not only refused to step back inside the house, she high-tailed it right off the island. Did the rest of her field work out of Grand Manan. (In hindsight, we actually felt kind of bad about that.)

But perhaps my proudest moment was during my doctorate, when I convinced a couple of fellow grad students (in arts, granted, but still) that whenever I went into the field I had to strip naked and glue yellow sponges all over my body, because harbour seals couldn't see yellow wavelengths. (Why not just wear yellow clothes? you ask. Why, because it would have to be yellow rain gear — given the wet field environment — and rain gear is slick, i.e. reflective, i.e. the seals would still be able to see the glare if not the actual colour.) My victims were astonished, and profoundly impressed by my dedication to the cause — "There has to be a better way", they insisted — but when I begged them to name one ("because seriously, those fuckers hurt when you rip them off"), they came up blank. Nice Matisse t-shirts, though.

Of course, the word gets around. These days, all I have to do is open my mouth and pretty much anyone who knows me will accuse me of trying to bullshit them. Still. I'm frequently astonished at how easy it is to Punk the People. I'm finally getting around to reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan, which takes way too long to get to the point but which makes a similar point: we as a species often believe the most absurd things as long as there's some kind of narrative attached. We are pattern-matchers, because patterns allow us to distill the environment into a series of simple rules. So we see patterns whether they exist or not, and stories that tie causes to any given phenomenon (I glue yellow sponges onto my naked body because harbour seals can't see yellow) are a lot more believable than those which simply report the same phenomenon in isolation (I glue yellow sponges onto my naked body). We are engines in search of narrative. Evidently this goes a long way towards explaining the inanity of most CNN headlines.

Not sure I buy it completely, though. If the telling of stories were really so central to the human condition, you'd think those of us who did it for a living would at least get a decent dollar out of it.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I Talk Too Little

So the folks over at SF Signal approached me to answer their latest Mind Meld question, to wit, "Which science fiction or fantasy novels, past and present, do you consider to be the most controversial? Why?" And I answered, but I composed my answer during a couple of spare moments during Polaris, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Doubletree Hotel while that leashed slave chick I mentioned last entry paraded back and forth. So I was a bit distracted, and misread the question so I thought they were asking us to focus on a single book — and while I cited several I ended up going with Delany's Dhalgren, praising its lyricism, its plotlessness, and all that explicit gay porn.

And now I'm a wee bit embarrassed because the other respondents provided answers with far more depth than mine, citing obvious examples I'd missed (The Satanic Verses. The Iron Dream. A Clockwork Orange. Duh.), and occasionally making a good case for less-obvious ones (Sawyer's The Terminal Experiment never struck me as especially "controversial", but evidently its Nebula win provoked a certain amount of outrage back before my time). So if you want some really thoughtful commentary, skip the first paragraph and go from there. (My eye was especially drawn to Tim Holman's shrewd observation that these days, the most controversial element in science fiction is the lack of controversial works it's producing. Amen.)

Anyhow, I'll try to be more verbose in future. Promise.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A guy with a light saber. And his slave girlfriend on a leash.

One guess as to which of those elements I found hotter.

Yup, there's a whole different clientele that shows up at these Polaris things compared to, say, the more literary (those red-staters among us might say "effete") affairs like Readercon. Out of the ten panels I sat on, only three had a literary focus; the rest were all media. And because books is what I do, I'm guessing that such panels figured far more heavily on my schedule than they did on most. (And even most of the literary panels dealt with authors whose books had been adapted for the screen: Tanya Huff, Jim Butcher, that Reeves-Stevens couple. Oh, and some chick called Rowling.)

So, not exactly the joyous reunion of rarely-seen friends that characterizes the usual cons I attend, although there were a few familiar faces: Christian Sauvé, Doug Smith, Derwin Mak (who for some reason spent Friday night dressed up in some kind of historical naval garb, which I strangely found more disquieting than the usual retinue of droids, Daleks, and Klingons wandering the halls). Dave Nickle of course, but hell, I seem him pretty much every day; we clung to each other for comfort over by the marshmallow fondue, when nobody paid any attention to us at the blast-off party.

And there were new faces to scrutinize: the statuesque adrienne everitt, who lives just up the street from my dad, and who rode shotgun on our vampire panel dressed like Milla Jovovich from the Resident Evil flicks (she pulled it off, too). Timothy Carter, who wasn't a completely new face because he did beat up a six-year-old to bring me a can of Coke back in 2002, when he was but a fan and I was a Mighty Author. (He's a mighty author in his own right, now). Declan Dennehy, who hasn't been able to get past the first chapter on Maelstrom in seven years of trying. And Shelly Li from Nebraska, a teenage wunderkind who, despite not having actually published anything yet, is beating off agents with a stick (including a certain former, unlamented agent of mine). I've been in intermittent e-mail contact with her for a few months now, and was just relieved to find that she was pretty much who she claimed to be online (albeit with the social skills of someone fifteen years older); I'd been half-expecting some 43-year-old chain-smoking potbellied dude with a fetish for role-playing.

I met her parents too, briefly. They didn't seem in a great mood for some reason.

And the panels, for all their geeky obsession over the significance of Giaus Baltar's nosebleed in S04E04*, were a lot of fun, and actually got better as the weekend progressed. I do remain mystified, however, by the unconscionable fact that a panel on The Starlost — easily the Plan 9 of televised sf — somehow drew twice the audience of one on The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Someone's going to pay for that.

*Admittedly, it was me who introduced that particular element into the mix…


Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Smell of Fear

So. A mere four days before Polaris is scheduled to begin, I drop them a line to ask what events I'm scheduled for. Oops, say they, I guess we forgot to tell you. You're scheduled for ten events. You're moderating five of them. Guess you'd better start preparing, huh?

It gets better. Some of the panels I'm moderating only have one other panelist. Normally, you'd think that any subject that couldn't reel in at least three enthused geeks would get taken off the table. Not at Polaris. So now, as things stand, looks like I'm gonna be the main guy responsible for an hour's worth of free-for-all on subjects as diverse as the Sarah Connor Chronicles, BSG, and the plausibility of vampires.

All of which I'm more than happy to tangle over with a decent-sized panel, or hash out over beers with one or two confidants. Not so pleased at the prospect of trying to keep things going for a solid hour at the front of an empty room, with one other conscript. So if any of you folks are gonna be showing up at these festivities, you might want to drop by and liven things up. Especially since I'm not going to inflict a reading or a signing on anyone this time around. (If you're really into masochistic appeasement, you might even show up for the BSG:Razor panel, which is scheduled for one fucking a.m. on Sunday morning!)

Anyhow. This is my current Polaris schedule, which might be subject to change but is probably pretty solid at least in its broad outlines. I'm moderating the panels with the enboldened titles. Titles in red are those for which there are presently only two panelists scheduled — that's over half of mine, if you're counting — and which will probably end badly.


  • Minimum 400 Pages (07/11/08 07:00 PM)
    The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is not a long book. A World of Ptavvs is not a long book. Today, it's not certain that a book under 400 pages can even get published. What has changed? Is it us, or the publishing industry? Panelists: Douglas Smith, Peter Watts, Tanya Huff (M), Shannon Butcher, David Nickle
  • Blast Off Party (07/11/08 08:30 PM)
  • Battlestar Galactica: The New Series (07/11/08 11:00 PM)
    What makes Battlestar Galactica so great? How do we feel about it coming to an end? Panelists: Brian Kierans, Geoffrey Gard, Peter Watts (M), David Nickle


  • Battlestar Galactica Season 4.0 Review (07/12/08 10:00 AM)
    A look back at the first half of the last season. How will everything wrap up? Where could the franchise go after it's all over? Panelists: Diane Lacey, Janet Embury (M), Peter Watts, Sheena Callighen
  • The Sarah Connor Chronicles (07/12/08 04:00 PM)
    While far from a perfect show (and in some cases downright dumb), T:SCC has a surprising depth and literacy to it. It routinely riffs off various literary, historical, and scientific precedents ("The Turk", "Lord of the Flies", The Manhattan Project, and even Vinge's Singularity, which is astonishing more for the fact that other shows *haven't* done this than for the fact that this one has.) They're also smart enough to have subtly worked solutions to some really arcane technical problems in a way that makes us geeks go "Cool!", yet avoiding the kind of infodump delivery that would kill the pacing for everyone else. Come and discuss this spinoff from the hugely popular Terminator films. Panelists: Peter Watts (M), Declan Dennehy.
  • The Slow Apocalypse (07/12/08 08:00 PM)
    20th century stories often had the world ending with a big bang and a mushroom cloud. Global warming, over population, crop/fuel failures and diseases are slow catastrophes. How might our world slowly crumble during the 21st century? Panelists: Peter Watts (M), Ian Stuart
  • Plausible Vampires (07/12/08 11:00 PM)
    This one doesn't seem to be on the official program list yet, so let's just hunker down and hope no one notices. If you're reading this blog, you pretty much know what it's gonna be about anyway. Panelists: Peter Watts (M), adrienne everitt.

  • Battlestar Galactica: Razor (07/13/08 01:00 AM)
    The TV movie filled in the gaps from the series, introduced new characters and fleshed out minor ones, and showed a different perspective on humanity's reaction to a Cylon attack. Were you satisfied with the film's contribution to the story? Did Razor raise more questions than it answered? Panelists: Geoffrey Gard, Justin O'Donnell (M), Peter Watts
  • BSG: For the Greater Good (07/13/08 11:00 AM)
    Battlestar Galactica has always been about making decisions for the benefit of humanity that may be to the detriment of individuals' rights. Use of bioweapons, seizure of supplies for military needs, torture of prisoners, the Circle — is it really for the greater good? Panelists: Diane Lacey (M), Peter Watts
  • Science Fantasy? (07/13/08 12:00 PM)
    Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Has cutting edge science gotten so far beyond the understanding of most readers, and writers, that any story is essentially science fantasy? What makes something "Science Fiction" and how much science does it have to contain to qualify? How have attitudes toward the field changed? Panelists: Peter Watts (M), Timothy Carter


The voices that control me from inside my head say I shouldn't kill you yet.

Self-loathing giant squid. Bad-ass fucking fractals. If Randy Newman did the theme for The Passion of the Christ. A furry old lobster and a creepy doll. GLaDOS. An extended dance remix of a contest for the world's best pants. Tom Cruise.

Oh, and your brains.

I just had front-table seating at Jonathan Coulton's first-ever Canadian appearance, backed up by two guys called Paul and Storm who I'd never heard of, but who were pretty fucking clever in their own right.

It was a triumph.

Update: Vaguely Satanic buddy David Nickle has Youtubed some excellent footage of last night, specifically Coulton's ensemble rendition of "Re: Your Brains", courtesy of Karen Fernandez's remarkably steady hand and a Canon Powershot. If you listen carefully, you can hear me in the chorus.


Friday, July 4, 2008

We Have a Pulse

…but not much more than that. I am not dead, but I am snowed under by a variety of contractual and literary obligations, and if anyone out there really wants to free up enough of my time for more frequent postings here on the ol' 'crawl, they'll show me an easy way to calculate the variance of a population estimate based on stratified strip transects of unequal length, when y along each transect has already been converted into a distance-weighted mean-density value prior to the variance calculation*.

But in the meantime, the galleys for Hillcrest V. Velikovsky just came in from Nature, and I really like the (unaccredited) illo by Jason Cook (thanks for the link, Henry) so I'm posting it here as a placeholder, along with a brief excerpt:
Mr Velikovsky was obviously well-versed in placebo effects, having built an erudite display on the subject. What did he think would happen, the Prosecution thundered, when he forced his so-called "truth" down the throat of someone whose motto — knitted into her favourite throw-cushion — was If ye have faith the size of a mustard seed, ye shall move mountains? In telling ‘the truth’ Velikovsky had knowingly and recklessly endangered the very life of another human being.

Velikovsky pointed out that he hadn’t even known Lacey Hillcrest existed, adding that needlepointing something onto a pillowcase did not necessarily make it true. The Prosecution responded that the man who plants land mines in a playground doesn’t know the names of his victims either, and asked if the defendant’s needle-point remark meant that he was now calling Jesus a liar. The Defense objected repeatedly throughout.
I initially wrote this piece as parody. Judging by some of the wacko responses to last month's podcast over on Starship Sofa, however, maybe I should reconsider.

More later. When I have, you know, a life.

*I mean, seriously, what are you supposed to use for n? Number of transects surveyed? The count has already been converted into units-per-square-mile. Number of square miles surveyed? Then how are you supposed to quantify variance between square miles, when each transect covers many miles and there's no way to position sightings within each transect?

And why are these bloody Americans still using "square miles" anyway? Next they'll be telling me to express transect length in furlongs…