Monday, January 26, 2009

The Migration of the 'Crawl

Fellow Mammals:

If all goes well, this will be my last posting on blogger. I have heard your grumbles. I have overheard the prayers offered on my behalf when I went to blogger in the first place. I have taken pity on those of failing eyesight, for whom stark white-on-black is not the nifty-cool computer-screen font I remember from sixties science fiction films, but a migraine-inducing poke in the eyes. (I have taken pity on these folks even though a couple of on-site polls showed that the vast majority of you thought that white-on-black was pretty cool.)

Henceforth I'm here, at Wordpress, along with my past postings and your comments. The new 'crawl is still a work in progress— I haven't tweaked the sidebars, tags, etc. yet— and there's still a lot to do behind the scenes. But the words are there, and the pictures, and that's where you'll find fresh content as of now. I'll be leaving this site active for a while as a backup in case things over at Wordpress go south, and as a signpost for stragglers. But once again:

The Crawl Has Moved. Set your bookmarks to

I'll see you at the new digs.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Rip-Off Alert

Regular visitors to know that most of the stuff I've ever published is freely available in a variety of e-formats on this site (and on some others). I'm a bit worried that this may not be a sustainable approach over the long haul (especially in times of global economic meltdown), but so far the counterintuitive-yet-undeniable truth is that going the Creative Commons route has only helped my writing career, such as it is. (In fact, I believe CC actually saved my career outright, by rescuing Blindsight from the oblivion to which it would have otherwise been doomed.) Anyone who wants to can download my work, copy and distribute it, convert it to other formats, hand it out as party favors, and masturbate in a warm tub to the soft erotic glow of my pixelated words on their e-book readers. Yay me.

There are some restrictions on this license, however. Authorship must be attributed, regardless of format. You're not allowed to rewrite the text, even you think the torture porn was gratuitous in behemoth and you know you can make Blindsight's infodumps less clunky. And you cannot charge money for work that I created and for which you paid nothing. (Or at least, you come to me first and we work out a deal where I get a cut.) The rights granted under my Creative Commons license are strictly noncommercial.

You can imagine, then, my reaction upon discovering this doofus here, selling "The Ultimate Peter Watts Collection" for £4.99 over at The fact that he describes my short stories as "books" makes it pretty obvious this is no fan; he probably hasn't read a word of my stuff, and is in fact selling the works of numerous other authors as well.

Anyone willing to pay for the Ultimate Watts Omnibus will most likely have already dropped by here and taken what they want, so it's not as though I expect e-bookkeeper_norwich to get rich off my efforts. Still, it burns my ass that he's even trying to; so if any of you have an account and ten minutes to kill, maybe you could report norwich-boy using eBay's handy on-line fink menu. (I myself lack that option, having no such account — although I may well report through more formal channels over the next few days).

No biggie. But what an asshole.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

And now for a word from our sponsor...

Anyone out there know someone in Toronto with a used treadmill (or elliptical trainer, I guess) to unload for a reasonable price? I can always go the Craigslist route, but I'd rather do business with someone one of you folks personally vouched for. It's important to have someone other than me to blame, in the event I get hosed.



Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ogling Obama, Defending Dubya

It's pretty hard to escape a feeling of pervasive optimism today. We have witnessed perhaps the first-ever presidential inaugural address to contain the phrase "data and statistics". We heard Obama add "nonbelievers" to the usual Christian-Jew-Muslim litany trotted out in deference to the diversity of the melting pot. We heard the most powerful noncorporate person on the planet speak of harnessing the sun and the wind, heard him describe "curiosity" as one of the traditional values that makes the US great. The Unites States welcomed, in a sense, its very first science-fiction president.

Providing some kind of counterpoint to all this sunlight and joy will be a difficult and thankless job, but I shall do my best.

I could go for the downright petty— dude, you delivered that glorious, extended, soaring speech without missing a beat but you flubbed the bloody oath of office? But no. Unlike his predecessor, Obama is no dyslexic doofus: he was probably thinking, as those words were being read out, that maybe they could stand an edit, a nip and tuck, that they could be improved. Maybe he stumbled over those words because he was too busy rewriting them in his head.

I could go after the hypocrisy of the celebration itself: given a trillion-dollar deficit, does the US really need two dozen official inaugural balls? Where are those who were so vocal when the auto execs flew to their bailout hearings in private jets? At least they weren't spending taxpayer dollars (at least, not yet). How many such flights could have been funded with the money that went into "The Hope Youth Ball" and "A Celebration of Change"?

But again, no: Judas Iscariot raised pretty much the same point when Mary of Magdala blew her wad on perfume for Jesus' feet, and the Christ's rejoinder was succinct and to the point: fuck the poor. They will always be with you. Dote on me instead, because I won't be. If that response was good enough for Jesus, I'm guessing it's got the event planners covered as well.

Besides, as I may have mentioned, this is a day for optimism. So I choose to celebrate the administration to come with a fond look at the administration just passed. I would raise a toast to the Cheney/Bush era: perhaps the most successful U.S. presidency evar.

This may strike some as an odd position to take. After all, the Cheney/Bush years saw the world's most powerful nation descend from surplus into trillion-dollar deficit; saw the prosecution of two unnecessary and (so far) unsuccessful wars; saw the evisceration of civil rights at home and US reputation abroad, the gutting of environmental protection, the relentless remorseless grinding of science beneath the heel of political expediency, and— finally, inevitably— the meltdown of a global economy based, even at the best of times, on consensual hallucination. And yet, criticizing that administration for these things is akin to deriding me as a shitty writer because my novels don't appeal to fundamentalist Christians. You don't impugn the archer for missing the bullseye when he was aiming for a deer; success must be judged against the intended goal.

It's always been pretty clear that Cheney et al never gave a flying fuck about international stature, environmental health, or the welfare of the middle class. Bush's role was never to govern. He was a diversion and a catspaw, the inbred idiot nephew placed on the throne by those safely hidden in undisclosed locations. His job was to dance and caper and keep us from noticing the guys out back, loading up the truck. So if you really want to measure the success of his presidency, this is what you ask: how did Halliburton do during the past eight years? How did Blackwater fare? What about the oil industry, did their fortunes plummet since Bush assumed the position?

We are talking, my friends, about an administration that accomplished exactly what it set out to do, leaving behind a cost that will be borne entirely by others. One has little choice but to stand back and marvel at the sheer scale of this accomplishment. The dearly-departed administration is the very epitome of Darwinian Nature: ruthless, self-interested, and with no foresight whatsoever.

Here's to you, Dick. The degree to which you'll not be missed speaks volumes of your own success.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Consider Yourselves Lucky.

In this particular business, the standard components of a novel pitch are the first three chapters plus two, maybe three pages of synopsis for the rest of the story. The pitch I just sent to my agent— the latest iteration thereof, at least— contains 36 pages of prose; 27 pages of "synopsis"; a two-page bullet-pointed executive summary of thematic arguments; and proposed jacket text, to be splayed across the dust cover if/when this fucker actually sells.

This is easily ten times the word count of the supplementary material usually attached to these things. My agent originally tried to get me to keep it to the usual three pages, and I complied, I really did. It's just that when one tries to synopsize one of my novels in three pages, the result is utterly incomprehensible. (The smart-asses in the audience may now point out that this only proves that such synopses perfectly capture the essential nature of my writing.) So, our experiment complete, the dude let me off the leash and dear God is he about to pay for it.

The rest of you get off easy. I'm only quoting my proposed jacket text here, because I think that it actually does do a decent job of hooking the story in the time it takes to run your eyes down a dust-jacket. (I've been writing my own jacket text for a while now; remind me to show you, some day, some of the fortune-cookie hack jobs Tor tried to slap on my books before I got involved.) So here, in 400 words or less, is the thumbnail for Dumbspeech:
A Different Kind of Singularity.

The eve of the 22nd century. A world where the dearly-departed send postcards back from Heaven, and Jainist evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically-engineered vampires solve problems intractable to baseline Humans, and soldiers come with zombie switches that shut off their own self-awareness during combat. A world under blatant surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself.

Daniel Brooks is a living fossil: an old man in a world of immortals, a field biologist in a world where all biology has long since turned computational, an unwitting catspaw used by terrorists to kill thousands. Taking refuge in the Oregon desert, he turns his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies with every heartbeat. But he isn't hiding from anything; he awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that's about to turn all of history inside-out.

Now he's trapped in a ship bound for the center of the solar system. To his left is a grief-stricken soldier with a zombie switch in his head, obsessed by whispered messages from a dead son half a lightyear away. To his right is an autistic hacker who hasn't quite discovered that Dan Brooks is the man she's sworn to kill on sight. A vampire and its entourage of zombie bodyguards lurk in the shadows behind. And dead ahead, a handful of rapture-stricken monks takes them all to a meeting with something they will only call "The Angels of the Asteroids".

But whatever they encounter, there in the blinding maelstrom above the sun's north pole, is the furthest thing from anyone's vision of divinity. By the end of their pilgrimage the whole world is coming apart at the seams— and Dan Brooks, the fossil man, is face-to-face with the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought itself.

The Singularity's here. It's too late to go back. And all those starry-eyed optimists, the extropians, the transhumanists, the rapture-nerds and technophiles who sang the praises of technology=magic — somehow, none of them realized there'd be no room for humanity in a post-human age …

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Friday, January 9, 2009

I Hate the New Normal.

Tendonitis, they tell me: chronic, and calcified, and apparently dating from the time I dislocated my shoulder while surf-kayaking in 1991. Now, after almost two decades of peaceful dormancy the fucker decides to wake up and turn me into the One-Armed Wonder throughout the holidays— apparently provoked by too many lame-ass bench presses and one catalytic arm-flail while avoiding a faceplant on sheer ice.

It's gotten a lot better on its own over the past couple of weeks, but now appears to have stabilized in Forget all about me until you try doing an exercise and then I will fuck you up mode. Physio, they say, should take off the edge, but I may still have to change my exercise regimen. Bad enough that we're in the depths of that part of the year known as "The Plumpening"; now I've got stalagmites gumming up my rotator cuff. Fuck.

By the way, who was it that left their pants behind on my couch during Squiddance '08? The navy-blue ones with the really skinny legs and some kind of big fabric evagination where the scrotum should be?

Whoever it was, you can pick 'em up any time.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Iterating Towards Bethlehem

Most of you probably know about Turing machines: hypothetical gizmos built of paper punch-tape, read-write heads, and imagination, which can — step by laborious step — emulate the operation of any computer. And some of you may be old enough to remember the Sinclair ZX-80— a sad little personal computer so primitive that it couldn't even run its video display and its keyboard at the same time (typing would cause the screen to go dark). Peer into the darkness between these artifacts, stir in a little DNA, and what do you get?

This hairy little spider right here. A pinpoint brain with less than a million neurons, somehow capable of mammalian-level problem-solving. And just maybe, a whole new approach to cognition.

This is an old story, and a popsci one, although I've only discovered it now (with thanks to Sheila Miguez) in a 2006 issue of New Scientist. I haven't been able to find any subsequent reports of this work in the primary lit. So take it with a grain of salt; as far as I know, the peer-reviewers haven't got their talons into it yet. But holy shit, if this pans out…

Here's the thumbnail sketch: we have here a spider who eats other spiders, who changes her foraging strategy on the fly, who resorts to trial and error techniques to lure prey into range. She will brave a full frontal assault against prey carrying an egg sac, but sneak up upon an unencumbered target of the same species. Many insects and arachnids are known for fairly complex behaviors (bumblebees are the proletarian's archetype; Sphex wasps are the cool grad-school example), but those behaviors are hardwired and inflexible. Portia here is not so rote: Portia improvises.

But it's not just this flexible behavioral repertoire that's so amazing. It's not the fact that somehow, this dumb little spider with its crude compound optics has visual acuity to rival a cat's (even though a cat's got orders of magnitude more neurons in one retina than our spider has in her whole damn head). It's not even the fact that this little beast can figure out a maze which entails recognizing prey, then figuring out an approach path along which that prey is not visible (i.e., the spider can't just keep her eyes on the ball: she has to develop and remember a search image), then follow her best-laid plans by memory including recognizing when she's made a wrong turn and retracing her steps, all the while out of sight of her target. No, the really amazing thing is how she does all this with a measly 600,000 neurons— how she pulls off cognitive feats that would challenge a mammal with seventy million or more.

She does it like a Turing Machine, one laborious step at a time. She does it like a Sinclair ZX-80: running one part of the system then another, because she doesn't have the circuitry to run both at once. She does it all sequentially, by timesharing.

She'll sit there for two fucking hours, just watching. It takes that long to process the image, you see: whereas a cat or a mouse would assimilate the whole hi-res vista in an instant, Portia's poor underpowered graphics driver can only hold a fraction of the scene at any given time. So she scans, back and forth, back and forth, like some kind of hairy multilimbed Cylon centurion, scanning each little segment of the game board in turn. Then, when she synthesizes the relevant aspects of each (God knows how many variables she's juggling, how many pencil sketches get scribbled onto the scratch pad because the jpeg won't fit), she figures out a plan, and puts it into motion: climbing down the branch, falling out of sight of the target, ignoring other branches that would only seem to provide a more direct route to payoff, homing in on that one critical fork in the road that leads back up to satiation. Portia won't be deterred by the fact that she only has a few percent of a real brain: she emulates the brain she needs, a few percent at a time.

I wonder what the limits are to Portia's painstaking intellect. Suppose we protected her from predators1, and hooked her up to a teensy spider-sized glucose drip so she wouldn't starve. It takes her a couple of hours to capture a snapshot; how long will it take the fuzzy-legged little beauty to compose a sonnet?

Are we looking at a whole new kind of piecemeal, modular intellect here? And why the hell didn't I think of it first?

Update 9/1/08: Tarsitano & Jackson published these results in Animal Behaviour. Thanks to Kniffler for the heads-up

1 And isn't that a whole other interesting problem, how this little beast can sit contemplating her pedipalps for hours on end in a world filled with spider-eating predators? Do certain antipredator reflexes stay active no matter what, or does she just count on immobility and local cover to hide her ass while she's preoccupied with long-term planning? I'd love to see the cost-benefit of this tradeoff.

Portia photo: by Akio Tanikawa, scammed from Wikipedia under a CC licence.
Maze illo: scammed from New Scientist, under a nine-tenths-of-the-law licence.

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Picture Worth 178 Words

Some of you may remember this scene at the very end of Starfish — the moment when the chrysalis splits open and Lenie Clarke Mk 2 emerges to wreak vengeance on the world:
A slender, translucent tentacle wraps softly around her wrist. It fades away into a distance utterly black to most, slate gray to Lenie Clarke. She brings it to her. Its swollen tip fires sticky threads at her fingers.

She brushes it aside, follows the tentacle back through the water. She encounters other tentacles on the way, feeble, attenuate things, barely twitching against the currents. They all lead back to something long, and thick, and shadowy. She circles in. A great column of writhing, wormlike stomachs, pulsing with faint bioluminescence.

Revolted, she smashes at it with one clenched fist. It reacts immediately, sheds squirming pieces of itself that flare and burn like fat fireflies. The central column goes instantly dark, pulling into itself. It pulses, descends in spurts, slinking away under cover of its own discarded flesh. Clarke ignores the sacrificial tidbits and pursues the main body. She hits it again. Again. The water fills with pulsing dismembered decoys. She ignores them all, keeps tearing at the central column. She doesn't stop until there's nothing left but swirling fragments.
What I was describing, rs and Ks, was a siphonophore. And if my prose wasn't sufficiently evocative, I invite you to look over here, where the real thing squirms across YouTube for your edification. With thanks to Ken Tango for the link.

No dismemberment porn, though. If you want your 'phores battered and broken, I'm still your go-to guy.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

This is the Way the Year Begins

...Not with a Bang but with a Rant.

Christmastime in the Watts household has always been a time for impotent fury. It is a time to reconnect with old friends seen only during this special season, career biologists who stuck it out and stayed the course and got good steady jobs at universities and federal labs. It is a time to be reminded anew of the price these people pay for their steady paycheques: principles hammered into compromise, compromise flattened down to mushy unmitigated defeat, that grad-school spark of pure delight and scientific curiosity extinguished like a cigarette flushed down the john. It is a time to give thanks, to remember that there are worse fates than poverty; a time to look into the mirror and grin, because baby, you haven't changed.

But it is also a time to raise your voice and rant, because what good is science if its practitioners are forced to wear ball gags, lest they discover things our rulers don't want to hear?

Not so long ago, journalists in this country could actually communicate in a meaningful way with federal scientists. It would work something like this: a reporter would call up a scientist and ask about their research. The scientist — pleased beyond measure that someone else out of the global population of six-billion-plus was actually interested in the lachrymal secretions of herring gulls — would answer. The interview would appear in some newspaper or magazine. David Suzuki would get to be condescending on The Nature of Things. Everybody won.

Then we had an election, and a significant number of Canadians — not a majority by any means, but enough to make the difference — did what people en masse have been doing the world over since history began: they proved to be a bunch of fucking morons. So it came to pass that a sweaty, pallid, insecure, and not-especially bright politician of the neocon variety ascended to the throne. His name was Stephen Harper, and holy shit did he ever change things in a hurry.

For one thing, he tried to dismantle the Canadian Wildlife Service: that part of Environment Canada charged with wildlife habitat, endangered species, and various other conservation issues. He didn't succeed completely — historically the CWS has quite the international rep, and the Tories weren't expecting the backlash that resulted. So Harper settled for mere emasculation. Henceforth the CWS would not conduct "research". It would only be allowed to "monitor" wildlife. Real research would occur under the purview of — wait for it — "Wildlife and Landscape Science" (which is presumably also responsible for the topiary at the Prime Minister's residence, if not the actual Interior Decorating within it)1.

For some time now, federally-employed biologists have been given a script to read when approached by journalists in search of a story: "Thank you for your questions. I will be working with our media relations section and we will respond to you as soon as we can. Please direct any further inquiries to or call 819-934-8008/1-888-908-8008". Journalists are then required to send their questions to the Ministry of Truth Media Relations, who forward those questions they deem admissible on to the actual scientific authority. Said authority's written answers are then reviewed and edited by MR before being sent back to the journalist. On those rare occasions when the scientist is actually permitted to speak directly with his interviewer over the phone, Media Relations monitors the call, one restless finger on the kill switch lest their bitch stray from her assigned script.

This is what passes for scientific openness in the Harper government. And just last fall, we the people once again proved what idiots we are by reelecting this brain-dead shit-sack by an even bigger margin than we did the first time.

Of course, the censoring of science is hardly an exclusively Harperian, or even an exclusively Conservative activity. Canada's previous Liberal government also had a fondness for suppressing politically-inconvenient findings2. But while you'd expect all politicians to mistrust any endeavor based on fact-based empiricism, Harper's naked ideology crosses the line from pragmatic indifference to outright vendetta. The Clintons and Chretiens of the world merely bristle at research which impedes their political agendas. The Harpers and the Bushes, in contrast, seem to abhor science — seem to abhor intelligence — on general principles, unless it feeds directly into the engineering of petrochemical tech.

This is not news. It has, in fact, been going on for some time, and anyone familiar with the sad history of the U.S.'s Environmental Protection Agency is probably singing me a chorus of Cry me a river of tears, beaver-boy even as they read these words. But it is something we should be aware of, and stay aware of, until someone rids us of these troublesome priests.

Harper and Hallmark hope that you spent the past few weeks contemplating the birth of some mythical martyred bastard-child whose primary contribution to western civilization included such tyrant-friendly platitudes as Turn the other cheek and Render unto Caesar. I would ask you instead to think of more important matters. Friends in the machine visit me like the Ghosts of fucking Christmas Past, and remind me of the way we really do "science" in this benighted excuse for a civilized country. They won't object if I remind you in turn.

Just so long as I don't call them by name.

1You might wonder where one would draw the line between "research" and "monitoring". If so, you've got a better grasp of such concepts than Harper's own bean-counters, at least one of which tried to eliminate field work from the CWS's BC offices on the grounds that "You collected field data last year, and the year before. Why do you need to do it again this year?"

2I actually signed a petition protesting one such event, back in the mid-nineties. It was the only time my picture ever appeared on the front page of a major daily— front and center and above the fold, no less— and may have marked the most significant impact I ever made as a biologist. Think about that: scrawling my name on a piece of paper raised a louder noise than two decades of actual research on a variety of threatened, soon-to-be-threatened, and downright endangered species. Either the quality of my research was downright Palinesque or there's something seriously fucked about the way conservation issues are dealt with in this country.

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