Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

Extinction and the Reset Button

 

 

I’ve just finished reading The Re-origin of Species, by Torill Kornfeldt (2016 in the original Swedish). The English translation is just barely out in Australia and the UK; here in North America it’s slated for a November release. (I scored an early copy from a publisher eager for blurbs.) Re-origin is about the burgeoning de-extinction— well, movement seems too coherent a term for what appears to be a few dozen labs scattered around the world, more often than not operating on shoestrings budgets and shoehorned in around the edges of other more respectable projects, laboring towards goals that range from transmuting chickens into velociraptors all the way over to inundating parking lots with bird shit. Maybe cause. Maybe revolution.

Anyway, it’s a good book. It was easy to blurb. I learned a lot of new stuff, and was reminded about a lot of old stuff— because as it happens, I wrote a column for Nowa Fantastyka on this very subject, way back in 2014. Strangely I can’t find it anywhere on the ‘crawl; I don’t think I ever recycled it here.

Until now.

 

The Reset Button

(A Nowa Fantastyka remix, now with Recent Insights!)

Resurrection is a wonderful thing in video games.  No matter how many zombies eat your brains, no matter how many skyscrapers fall on you, no matter how many times the Big Daddy smacks you across the room with skeleton-shattering force, you’re always back in the game for the price of a 30-second reload and the few minutes since your last save. Sure, it may make you a bit reckless— you end up taking chances and trying insane Hail-Mary strategies you’d never risk in real life— but it’s only a game, right?  And what’s the alternative: being cautious, being careful? Acting as though one life is all you’ll ever have? Give me backups, every time. When immersed in a video game, the Reset button is a godsend.

In real life, maybe not so much.

It’s been nearly thirty years since Gregory Benford first advocated the collection of DNA from the world’s endangered species, a genetic Noah’s Ark to serve as a fallback measure for those inevitable and myriad cases when conservation didn’t work (or more likely, when it wasn’t even attempted). It may have seemed fringe then— the essay actually appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction— but these days, so-called “de-extinction” is all over the news. We’re bringing back the mammoth and the passenger pigeon  (something like them, anyway). We’ve already resurrected the Pyrenean ibex— for seven minutes at least, before its collapsed lungs caused it to suffocate in agony. England’s Frozen Ark project is on track to store DNA samples from twenty thousand of the world’s most endangered animals; Norway maintains a vast underground seed vault to do the same for crops. The New York Times had an extensive profile of the whole de-extinction thing in their Sunday Edition a few years back. De-extinction is all over TEDx.

As you might imagine, the very premise is controversial (back in 2014 PLoS Biology reviewed the debate swirling around the subject; it swirls still[1]). Proponents point out the myriad sins that can be undone, the vital ecological nodes that can be restored. The dodo, the sabre-tooth cat, all those species we’ve wiped out over the centuries: brought back not from the brink, but from the very grave. Detractors point to items on their own lists: the thing that comes back won’t be the same as the thing that went away, for one thing. The need to gestate the resurrectee within the womb of a related (non-extinct) creature introduces a host of developmental complications; the injection of its nuclear DNA into the egg of a living relative means that its mitochondrial DNA will belong to the extant mother, not the extinct father. We wouldn’t be bringing back the dead, some argue; we’d be creating some new hybrid of extinct and extant, some bastard fusion never before seen on the planet.

Others point out that ecosystems which have equilibriated to some new state might be thrown out of kilter all over again by the reintroduction of long-absent species (how would the Arctic respond to the reappearance of thousands of woolly mammoths stomping across the tundra?). And what about the ethics of bringing something back using techniques which only work in once in a while? What about the suffering and death inflicted upon all those also-rans who die convulsing at birth because their parts didn’t link up the right way? And perhaps the most profound misgiving: if extinction isn’t forever, why even worry about it? If we wipe something out, we can just hit the reset button; bring it back again.

I’m not convinced by the Hybrid objection. The point of de-extinction is not to recreate a pristine snapshot of the past, but to restore functional ecological relationships; if an elephant-mammoth hybrid occupies the same niche as a purebred mammoth once did, who cares about racial purity? And the Ethics Argument seems legitimate only in terms of the current state-of-the-art, which is bound to improve. Arguing that we shouldn’t ever use these techniques because they cause pain and suffering today is tantamount to arguing against cell phones because you can’t fit a rotary dialer into your pocket.

As for the disruptive effect of of reintroducing old species into extant ecosystems— well, that’s actually the point of the exercise. Extant ecosystems— impoverished, weedy— could benefit from a bit of disruption. Adding predators to a system changes the behavior of the herbivores, motivates them to avoid some areas and frequent others; this allows the untouched patches to go their own way, increasing the overall dimensionality of the habitat. Massive storms of resurrected passenger pigeons would process and redistribute seeds and nutrients all over the place (including your windshield, but we all have to make sacrifices). Mammoths— get this— mammoths would knock over trees, keep forests in check, and allow more productive steppe-lands to make a comeback. (Out in Siberia, even as we speak— according to Kornfeldt’s book— Soviet biologists are joyriding around in an old armored Soviet personnel carrier, bashing into trees as a kind of ecological mammoth-surrogate.)

Multiply by 300,000. Save the planet.

Multiply by 300,000. Save the planet.

The most mind-boggling ecological justification for bringing back mammoths, though, has to be the claim that they could help mitigate climate change. We’re in for a world of hurt when the carbon currently locked in the melting permafrost gets out, you see; and one way to slow that melting is to reduce the insulative effect of the snow that shelters the ground from the bitter cold of Arctic winters. And one way to do that is— wait for it— trample the snow flat under the piledriver feet of thousands upon thousands of mammoths, resurgent upon the Arctic landscapes of Canada and Russia.

(Hey, I’m not saying I buy it. I’m just saying people have put it out there. Apparently they’ve even run the numbers.)

The Reset Argument carries more weight for me— but not because of some video-game scenario where we boot up endless backups to keep things humming along. My fear is the exact opposite— because at some point, extinction won’t be such a big deal any more. So we’ve wiped out another species. So what? Just squirt a dab of DNA from the dearly departed into an egg from a close relative, roll the stone away, command Lazarus to come forth. As one of Blindsight‘s epigraphs puts it: “Species used to go extinct.  Now they go on hiatus.” Nothing dies forever. We can bring it back again, any time we feel like it.

Just not today.

The economy’s a bit weak right now, you see. The mortgage bubble looks like it might burst again; wouldn’t want to start something and then run out of funding halfway through, would we? Or maybe we should wait until we know a bit more about how climate change is going to rearrange our coastlines— no point in bringing back the Florida panther if its habitat is going to be wiped out by rising sea levels anyway. But no problems, no hurry; we have the technology. We’ll get around to it. Eventually.

Here in the real world, I fear, the natural tendency to restore from backup will be the exact opposite of what it is in Fallout or Witcher 3. It’s not that we’ll hit the Reset button too often. It’s that— complacent and comfortable in the knowledge that it’s always there— we won’t use it at all.


 

[1] Be sure to read the comments, in which the scientist Powledge takes her shots at fires back a few of his own.

The Man Behind the Infodump: Denis Lynn, 1947-2018.

There’s a chapter three-quarters of the way through Maelstrom— “Mug Shot”, it’s called. It’s an executive summary of the apocalyptic microbe βehemoth.  It contains such gems as

βehemoth enters the cell via receptor-mediated endocytosis; once inside it breaks down the phagosomal membrane prior to lysis, using a 532-amino listeriolysin analog. βehemoth then competes with the host cell for nutrients. Host death can occur from any of a several dozen proximal causes including…

It goes on like that for almost four pages. Some might even say it stops the plot dead, but after two decades I still kinda like it. Maybe the issue it addresses would only ever occur to one reader in ten thousand— assuming I even had ten thousand readers— but that’s what makes this SF hard, right? Respect for the science. Respect for the fine print. Coming up with cell entry via receptor-mediated endocytosis (thanks to its Blachford genes, βehemoth can fool steroid receptors on the host cell membrane) is actually something to take pride in.

The Man, and one infinitesimal sliver of his legacy.

The man, and one infinitesimal sliver of his legacy.

Or it would be, if I’d come up with it myself. As it is, I have to thank a dude called Denis Lyn for making me even think about it in the first place.

Denis died a couple of weeks ago. Apparently he was collecting samples from a tide pool out on the west coast and a freak wave took him out, which makes no fucking sense whatsoever. He was 71.

Denis assumed a faculty position at the University of Guelph about the same time I arrived there as a student. Rumors kicking around the department said that just a few years earlier he’d been a real hippie— hair down to his ass, marched on Washington at the height of the Viet Nam protests. By the time I met him, though, the man was Dr. Ciliate: he went on to be President of the International Society of Protistologists, and Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology. He was an impossibly nice, generous, helpful guy, strangely out of place in a department loaded with backstabbers and infighters. (At least one online memorializer remarked that they’d never heard Denis utter an unkind word about anyone. I can’t say the same; down at the St. Andrews field course one summer, upon hearing that UoG’s widely reviled president Donald “Ducky” Forster had snuffed it, Denis raised his beer and softly toasted “Ding dong, the Duck is Dead!”. Honestly, though, that only made me like him more.)

I fell out of touch with him when I headed west to do my Ph.D. Fell out of touch with pretty much everyone else when political bullshit sent me screaming from academia entirely.  But Denis looked me up when the release of Starfish was imminent— a mutual friend had pointed him to the first home-built edition of this very website— and I, of course, didn’t hesitate to ask if I could pick his brain about the sequel. And of course he said yes. And his responses to my (frankly naïve) thoughts about my fake microbe were, well…

… what happens once the vesicle is internalized?  Usually, these vesicles are destined for the GERL pathway (Golgi, Endoplasmic Reticulum, Lysosome) and end up fusing with lysosomes and digestion occurs.  Can B subvert the signal molecules on the outside (=cytoplasmic side) of the vesicle so that the vesicles don’t fuse with lysosomes?  This would be a trick much like Toxoplasma uses to survive in the parasitiphorous vesicle…

…detailed.  The man also sent me a free copy of Lodish et al‘s Molecular Cell Biology— a real doorstop, 1400 pages. Twenty years later I still use it.

Denis’s last email to me was sent on January 21, 2002.  It ends: “P.S. I wouldn’t turn down a beer even in the daytime, but NOT BEFORE 1130h.”

I don’t remember if we ever had that beer. All I know is, that’s the last documented contact I had with him. After that he retired from Guelph, moved to the west coast, became an adjunct professor at UBC. And got killed, absurdly, by a stupid wave while sampling stupid mussels from a tide pool, leaving our species— by his absence— just a tiny bit more deserving of extinction.

I can’t claim to have ever been close to the man. That’s kind of my point, though; far as he was concerned I was just another dumb student passing through the system— ultimately, someone who didn’t even stay in the system— and still he bent over backward to lend a hand. He was that way to everyone. Now that he’s gone, I think it’s kind of cool that a teensy bit of his essence has been uploaded into Maelstrom.

And if you find that maudlin, well, I can just say fuck you. Because Denis Lynn never would.

Three Interviews and a Book Launch

For those of you who didn’t already see this over on Facebook, or who haven’t noticed it on the inconspicuous little “Upcoming Appearances” list to the right: Freeze-Frame Revolution is getting an official launch at Toronto’s premiere SF bookstore, Bakka-Phoenix. The announcement on the BP site sets the launch to both June 6 and June 23rd. I’m assuming that first date is a typo (at least, if it isn’t, I’ve missed my own novella-launch so never mind). In either case the time is 3pm.

I will be there, as will various snacks and nonalcoholic beverages.  As will Ben Eldridge, the dude responsible for last year’s Space Vampires symposium at U of T, who has once again flown all the way from Australia to introduce me and possibly interview me and hopefully help me find a short excerpt to read which 1) I haven’t posted here,  and which 2) doesn’t give away too much of the plot. The man is insane. With a hundred more like him I could probably topple the US government.

Anyway: 84 Harbord Street, Toronto. 3pm. Bring your friends. Bribe your enemies. I’m always worried no one’s gonna show up at these things.

*

In related news, I’m doing a few interviews concurrent with this new release. A Q&A with Paul Semel recently went live over here: Paul appears to be an unusually perceptive and intelligent dude, as evidenced by his opening observation that I am a warm and caring person. I’ll be prepping for a Skype interview with Wired pretty much the moment I finish uploading this post. And just this morning I got the first of an ongoing series of questions from Erwann Perchoc over in France, for an interview in BiFrost so extensive and personal that it will apparently take months to conduct:

“When one reads your stories and novels, one might picture you as a misanthropic and aloof person. Having the pleasure to met you—though briefly—at Utopiales a few years back, I saw that it was only an impression. So, before delving into your works, I’d like to ask you a few questions about you in order to dispel this impression…

How was your childhood?”

I’m thinking maybe the set-up was ironic. Either that or “dispel” doesn’t mean what he thinks it means…

*

Finally: a question for my Russian readers.  Does anyone know what this Starfish cover hails from?

 

Is it a legit edition? Is it bootleg? I’m only familiar with cover art for one Russian Starfish and it’s, well, this:

russian-starfish

I have to admit the first illo is somewhat more evocative of the actual novel. I just don’t know if it’s real (although it definitely should be).

Anyone?

5790 3429
Customer Rewards
We'll pay you $1.47 to post on social media about our products, $2.05 to mention it in any group chats you're in, and 11 cents per passenger each time you drive your office carpool past one of our billboards.
3540 f2f4
Attention Span
I didn't even realize they MADE a novelization of "Surf Ninjas." How did you-- Oh my god, it's signed by the author?!

The Freeze-Frame AMA.

I’m doing another one of these Reddit AMA thingies next Wednesday.  Pursuant to that event, I’m supposed to post some kind of evidence that I am not, for example, Hilary Clinton who has seized Peter Watts’s online identity in an attempt to damage his credibility with false posts.

Hopefully this will suffice:

PW-AMA

If not, here’s the introductory passage I dashed off while dabbing Polysporin on my many cuts and bruises:

I’m Peter Watts. This is my second run at one of these AMA things (the first was back in 2014). Tachyon set this up to promote The Freeze-Frame Revolution, but that’s only one novella set in a larger sequence so you might want to wander a bit further afield. For example, I have a complex relationship with raccoons. I am a convicted tewwowist in the State of Michigan. I have a big scar on my right leg. I am part of a team working on a Norwegian Metal Science Opera about sending marbled lungfish to Mars, and the co-discoverer of Dark energy keeps screwing up my autocannibalism scene by inventing radical new spaceflight technology.

Really, the field is wide open. So.

AMA.WR.

Now that it’s all on the official record, I’ll forward it to Reddit so they’ll know I’m serious.  Or at least, who I say I am.  Then, I guess, we wait until Wednesday.

See you then.

Beijing.

My small, timid act of defiance.

Eight thousand kilometers out of Beijing, I already know I’m in China.

The intercom welcomes me to CA962 while the plane’s still taxiing out onto the runway in Frankfurt: “I am the head of the security detachment for this flight. I and my staff have been charged with keeping order. You may suffer detention, sanction, expulsion, and even criminal prosecution if you do any of the following things: Smoke. Grab the seats or the overhead compartments. Interfere in any way with the staff of the airplane. I and my staff will do our duty conscientiously.”

The weird thing is, the guy speaks with an Australian accent.

*

The Hotel. Not bad.

The Hotel. Not bad.

No problem at Customs, unless you count the fact that they fingerprint me on two separate occasions. Evidently the machine confirms that my prints haven’t changed any time in the past 34 minutes. The driver who meets me doesn’t speak English, and that’s fine by me; by this time I’ve been up for nearly forty hours, and would be a shitty conversationalist anyway. Beijing, at first look, seems pretty much like every other big city I’ve visited over the past few years, once you factor out the traffic signs. Same vehicles. Same trees. Same Golden Arches. Maybe a higher proportion of Asians.

My eyes start stinging twenty minutes into the ride— Beijing used to have the worst air of any city on the planet, until Delhi stole the crown back in 2016— but I think that’s probably psychosomatic; they’re fine again by the time I reach the hotel.

*

The Venue.

The Venue.

*

The weekend is an equal mix of chaos and excitement.  For all the glitches, I would do it again.

Vera. I still don't know her last name. (That's Crystal Huff in the background.)

Vera. I still don’t know her last name. (That’s Crystal Huff in the background.)

I will try not to gush.

Vera, one of the con’s top-level commanders, tells me early on that APSFCon is expecting maybe 300 attendees. I am both impressed and dismayed; they’ve shipped in somewhere around a hundred official guests. This is gonna be the highest panelist:audience ratio in recorded history. Also maybe some kind of tax writeoff.

At the Friday Preparty, they announce they’ve sold 1500 tickets. Before noon on the first day, 2000. By the time the guards kick us out of the Science Museum on Sunday afternoon, the number being bandied about is somewhere on the high side of 4000.

I don’t know whether that refers to unique individuals or simply clicks of the turnstile (i.e., someone attending on both Saturday and Sunday would be counted twice). Either way, we’re talking an order of magnitude more attendees than expected. Given the strain that must have put on the network, I’m not gonna complain that their wi-fi’s spotty.

I may complain about a couple of other things here and there. But it’s worth noting that this is FAA’s first-ever stab at running a con. For all the chaos and missed connections, I’ve seen more venerable cons run less smoothly.

*

I believe this may be a form of veneration.

I believe this may be a form of veneration.

*

The guests are from everywhere. I even know some of them.

Nikolai, from St. Petersburg, surprises me in the Green Room. You remember Nikolai; he’s the guy who talked his publishers into letting him translate Blindsight into Russian, then got fired when they actually had a chance to read Blindsight, and then got rehired by those same publishers after Blindsight was a hit and the publishers came crawling back to him on bended knee. He’s here.

I meet another Russian, Katerina, who tells me that we are entwined in history. Back when I was in St. Petersburg, I provided the theme for a local writing contest: “It’s only dark when the lights are on.”  (I do not remember doing this, but the line sounds familiar and I don’t want to call Katerina a liar.) Katerina wrote the winning entry. “Untilted”, it’s called. Its English translation appeared in Apex just last November.

Volodymyr. Me. Blindsight.

I am impressed. Small world. I think forward a couple of weeks, to a time when I will want to read “Untilted” for myself but will have to wait because I have to finish some fucking blog post. I imagine that I will feel somewhat resentful.

Canada is well represented: Derek Künsken, Eric Choi, Gillian Clinton all provide familiar company to tribally shelter with at mealtimes. Others, from other lands, I get to meet for the first time: Crystal Huff (US), Chiara Cigarini (Italy). Cheri Huang and Matt Kimberley, of the Science Museum group in the UK. My Ukrainian publishers have sent someone down too, dude called Volodymyr, with the Ukrainian Blindsight prototype and a bunch of bookplates to sign.

The legendary Terry Bisson and me, listening to a German dude insisting that Quantum Mechanics is wrong and the real story is in “Before the Big Bang”, a book by a guy named Sternglass.

I get to meet Terry Bisson. You know the guy: he wrote “Bears Discover Fire”, and the brilliant “They’re Made Out of Meat”. But did you know he also wrote the “Official Junior Novelization” of Alien: Resurrection?  (Did you even know there was an official junior novelization of Alien Resurrection?) Did you know he was one of the activists credited with catalyzing the student peace movement after a trip to the White House in ’61?

You’re unlikely to learn any of these things from the horse’s mouth, because from what I can tell Terry Bisson is too humble and self-effacing to blow his own horn. (I had to do a bit of Google-stalking to figure that stuff out.) This is a man, I think, who is bigger than his reputation. It is an honor to hang out with him.

This is Ben Hawker's business card, with all the personal stuff blurred. Just to prove that I met him.

This is Ben Hawker’s business card, with all the personal stuff blurred. Just to prove that I met him.

There are also people who seem to know me by my reputation. There’s a whole Kiwi contingent here representing Weta workshop, and one of them tells me that Blindsight  went through  that company “like a virus”. I think he means that in a good way, but nobody from New Zealand has crashed through my door with bags of cash so maybe not.  (I also learn that Weta is not, as I’d always assumed WETA, an acronym. Apparently it’s named for a giant cricket.)

For my part, meeting the people who build those kind of FX for a living was like meeting a bunch of astronauts.

*

The gallery.

The gallery.

*

They warned us, in big all-caps emails, before we ever left our native lands: when in Beijing, never put tap water in your mouth. Not even to brush your teeth. They were quite specific about that.

Nanites.

*

mudpuppy

*

I spent a fair amount of time with my legs crossed.

In Beijing, I spent a fair amount of time with my legs crossed.

You know how Amazon and Microsoft and Google tell you they have to spy on you all the time so they can serve you better? How voice recognition is such a complex and multithreaded exercise that it can’t possibly fit into an Alexa or Cortana, that the only way those little devices can respond to your commands is if they send everything you say back to Redmond or Silicon Valley, where banks of proprietary superservers do the heavy lifting?

This is bullshit. I know this, because of the party favor APSFCon has put into my attendee bag.

Right next to the author badge and the program and the map: a matte-black flattened cylinder, maybe a little longer than a pack of cigarettes, maybe half as wide. One button says “ENG”, the other says something in Chinese. Speak in English while pressing ENG: once you release the button, the box translates what you said into spoken Chinese.  Press the Chinese button and speak in that language, and the box speaks to you in English.

I try it out on “There are no cats on Baffin Isle”. The cylinder hears “There are no cats on bath, in aisle”, which is pretty damn good given the phonetic ambiguity of that line. Other, more conventional sentences are translated flawlessly. I loan this magic box to Eric and Gillian, who will be tootling around the countryside after the con; they report afterward that it was a “lifesaver”.

Totally self-contained. No internet connection required.  And so cheap that the con was literally giving them away.

If something that size can pull off two-way realtime translation between languages as different as English and Chinese, don’t try to tell me that Cortana has to outsource “Play Add Violence, medium volume” to the fucking Cloud.

*

eyeball

*

Of course, given that level of proficiency, you’d expect some kind of translation during the actual panels. We’ve all been assured ahead of time that translation would be provided, either by flesh-and-blood translators or via “realtime AI”.

These are the spikes driven through the tail of the buried dragon which provides Beijing's energy. So it will not escape. Really.

These giant spikes have been driven through the tail of the buried dragon which provides Beijing’s energy, to keep it from escaping.
Really.

I discover later that that did happen on the first two floors. My panels— including the one at which I was supposed to give a twenty-five twenty seven minute talk on delusional optimism aliens— are on the 5th floor. For some reason, apparently, people are just kinda expected to be able to understand English once the elevator takes them past a certain altitude. My slides are bilingual— Chinese front and center for the audience, English smaller and subordinate and meant mainly to let me keep track of my own progress— but my talk consists of more than just reading out the text on the slides (many of which don’t even have text).

The talk itself has been kind of a train wreck from the moment of its inception. I was originally told they wanted 20-25 minutes on “anything you like, as long as it’s not politics or religion in the real world”. So I prepared a talk on the evolution of Delusional Optimism in our species, to be given during the “World in Upheaval” session (which they later changed to “The World is Changing” because— as I may have mentioned in a previous post— they thought it would be “more optimistic”). It was only about a week before departure that they posted the con schedule online, at which point I discovered there was no “World is Changing” panel any more, and that I was instead giving a talk in the “Meeting the Alien” session. So I threw away the first talk and prepared another one from scratch: “The End of Need: Cognitive Trends in Starfaring Species”. (Probably the most upbeat talk I’ve ever given, insofar as it serves as a kind of counterpoint to Cixin Liu’s “Dark Forest” model.  Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime.)

“End of Need” is running pretty smoothly in my head right up until about an hour before showtime, which is when I discover that they expect me to talk not for twenty minutes, but for seven. There is no way to make my argument in seven minutes, even with an hour’s advance notice. There is no explanation for why I have to talk for seven minutes, even when I show them all the back-and-forth emails in which they told me to talk for twenty.

And, lest we forget, there is no translator.

Always start with a pander.

Grimly, I buckle down and talk. For twenty minutes. In English. I cannot tell whether the standing-room-only audience is rapt or merely stone-faced. The guy after me talks for ten, reading off his prepared notes. He too is speaking English, but with such a heavy Indian accent that even I can’t understand most of what he says. God help the audience.

I feel a little better for a moment: at least I had snazzy slides. But then the panel is  over, and the other two people sitting with us have had no chance to speak at all, and I feel awful again.

*

One of the very few selfie-type shots I would be willing to share. If I had even taken it. (In fact, Jane Yang did.)

One of the very few selfie-type shots I would be willing to share, if I had even taken it. (In fact, Jane Yang did.)

The fans cheer me up.

I’m not even expecting anyone to know who I am; I’ve only had one novel and one short story published in China, after all. But I end up signing a lot of books, in several languages. A couple of people even bring copies of Firefall.

There are selfies. Beijingian selfie-takers seem disproportionately fond of photo apps that lay cat noses or rabbit ears onto their subjects’ faces. They seem even fonder of these apps than Japanese were back in Kawasaki. I lose track of the number of pictures that festoon me with whiskers and pointy ears and twitchy pink noses. I hope that if any of these get out, nobody thinks I am, or have ever been, a Furry.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

*

Almost all the fans are awesome. Almost. There’s the inevitable in-your-face guy who wants me to agree that Echopraxia isn’t as good as Blindsight (I do), and tells me that I will never truly succeed as a writer because my ideas are too difficult, and that puts people off, and I should make them simpler like he does. (I tell him I will try.)

Meanwhile, in a distant land…

Someone else takes offense at Blindsight‘s (not entirely original) suggestion that free will is an illusion.  He’s a novelist himself, he says, so he knows: how could beings without free will possibly invent dramatic and compelling fictional characters who live and breathe on the page the way they do?

I try to explain that the ability to write fiction doesn’t have any bearing on the question of free will one way or the other; the fact that something makes a choice doesn’t mean it wasn’t just following a deterministic decision tree, no matter how complex.  “But how do you explain all the people in History who stood up to tyranny if there’s no free will?” he asks.

Reasoned discourse having failed, I resort to punching him in the nose. That seems to do the trick.

*

By an odd coincidence, the woman who is taking me to my next press interview is called “Punch”.

*

Why, yes. Rick & Morty is quite popular over here. Why do you ask?

Why, yes. Rick & Morty is quite popular over here. Why do you ask?

*

Robin Williams is revered as a god over here.

Robin Williams is revered as a god over here.

Vera keeps gently herding me toward WeChat: that gummint-surveilled, unencrypted, ranked-even-lower-than-Facebook-and-Google-in-terms-of-privacy-protection Chinese chat app that scored a perfect 0 out of 11 on Amnesty International’s protect-the-innocent scale. Get a WeChat account and you can talk in realtime with the other guests! Get late-breaking news! Find out which gate the bus leaves from so you won’t get left behind!

I demur. I think I might be the only guest who does. Vera agrees to use email in my case. I feel like I’m being a pain in the ass. But seriously; doesn’t she know? Doesn’t it bother her?

And yet the whole security-state-surveillance thing seems somewhat grayer here than I’d expected. The concomm warned all us foreigners about the Great Firewall before we ever arrived; if you want to access Twitter or Facebook or Google you should install a VPN, the email said. I asked a few folks upon my arrival: you’re not worried about getting into trouble, openly advising people to circumvent government censorship? But it’s no big secret. VPNs aren’t even banned in China, probably because the authorities know such a law would be unenforceable anyway (although granted, that hasn’t stopped the United Arab Emirates). There’s no eyes-down Orwellian keep-your-mouth-shut attitude here that I can see; people on street level have no compunctions at all about political grumbling.

Katerina, on the right, won a contest. Olya, on the left, feels safe here.

Katerina, on the right, owes her success as a writer entirely to me. Olya, on the left, feels safe in Beijing.

And not all of it is grumbling. I meet a charming expatriate, name of Olya (hangs around with Katerina, of writing-contest fame) who swears that she feels safer in Beijing than she ever did growing up in her native— I want to say, Moldova? Back home she’d get assaulted on her own doorstep in broad daylight; here in Beijing, she feels completely safe walking outside alone, night or day. She swears by the place.

I think of a brilliant little dichotomy from The Handmaid’s Tale: “There is freedom to, and there is freedom from.” (I also think: Well, yeah. Moldova’s not exactly the highest bar to clear.) Still. I take her point.

Tibet’s another surprise, apparently. Turns out some Tibetans actually approve of the Chinese presence. Back in pre-invasion days it would take days to get to the hospital if you were sick; now you can drive the distance in a half-hour. I’m reminded of Reg’s rhetorical challenge in The Life of Brian: “apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

One thing you don't see a lot of in the Museum of Science and Technology is rowdy behaviour...

One thing you don’t see a lot of in the Museum of Science and Technology is rowdy behaviour…

And the biggest surprise of all: you know that dystopian Social Credit program China is busy implementing, to be fully installed by 2020? That creepy metric that restricts your ability to travel, or to get into the best restaurants, or to get your kids into decent schools if you bad-talk Big Brother? The metric that punishes you the same way if you even hang around with people who do any of that stuff? Black Mirror made flesh?

I ask maybe four or five Beijingians about that over the weekend. None of them have heard of it.

“Where did you hear about this?” one of them asks me. “A tabloid? Was it credible?”

Wired,” I remember. “New York Times. A lot of places.”

“Well we’ve got a kind of automated credit-rating system. It looks at things like criminal record and bank account. But that’s just to let people know if you can afford a house, that sort of thing.”

I’m not quite sure how to parse this. I like to think I’m properly skeptical of the received Wisdom of the Mainstream, but I’ve read so much about this pernicious Orwellian system— from so many highly-regarded sources (even the more skeptical of which are distinctly disapproving)— that it’s difficult to dismiss it all as western propaganda. But it also seems that the whole point of any system based on intimidation is lost if the people caught up in it don’t even know it exists— and the folks I’m talking to seem in no way cowed or shy about expressing their own political opinions. (Later, Cixin Liu reinforces this: tells me there’s just as much ideological diversity on the streets of China as there is in the west.)

Phocoena (left) and Forcipiger. They fight crime.

Phocoena (left) and Forcipiger. They fight crime.

“So you can post anti-government sentiments online, no problem?” I ask one of the women who interviews me on Friday night. “Sure,” she says. “The post would probably get deleted, but no one would come after me or anything.” Which is not to say that people with actual influence enjoy the same immunity. Souhon SciFan criticizes Beijing and her post is quietly deleted; Souhon journo does the same thing and she might not show up for work the next day. This, too, is openly admitted.

I ask my interviewer what happens if I blog this; could it come back and bite her in the ass? She shrugs. It’s cool, she says. Blogging’s fine. “Just don’t use our real names,” Forcipiger advises, and Phocoena— our translator— concurs.

*

I might have mentioned that Cixin Liu is also in attendance at this shindig.  Vera intuits that I wouldn’t object to the chance to say hello. Maybe it’s because I started off my talk with a slide interrogating the Dark Forest model; maybe she just noticed the three big honking trade paperbacks I’ve been lugging around in my backpack, on the off chance. She sets up a conversation: just me, my man Cixin, a translator, and maybe a dozen people trying to look inconspicuous as they mill around in the hotel lobby, just within earshot.

I pepper him with questions about Remembrance of Earth’s Past, and his views on Human nature. (Like f’rinstance: once aware of the Trisolaran fleet, his characters immediately swing into action meeting a threat that won’t materialize for another four centuries. Here in the real world, climate change is already wreaking havoc on the planet and half the powers that be don’t even admit there’s anything wrong.  I wonder if the difference might come down to the fact that Liu lives in  a nation where the leadership can actually mandate long-term change on a dime, without having to pander to any of those short-sighted electoral distractions that keep others from looking more than a few months ahead.)

Cixin Liu does not shy away from political questions. The more political the better, he says. So I tell him that one of the things I found heartening about The Three Body Problem was the first chapter, set during the days of the Cultural Revolution. It was a pretty scathing indictment of what happens when you elevate political ideology above science, and when I first read it I thought hmmm: if he can be so openly critical of such an attitude and still be lauded as a hero, things must have loosened up over there.

But that was then and this was now, according to what some fans have told me; they’ve claimed that Liu’s trilogy, ten years old now, would have a tough getting published in China today because of the recent change in leadership. Apparently there’s been some backsliding. This new, welcoming environment for SF in China is not quite what it’s cracked up to be. (I’ve been told, for example, that time travel stories are frowned upon by an administration that doesn’t want its citizens reflecting upon— alternatives to the way things turned out.)

Liu rejects this out of hand. Says not only that he wouldn’t have any trouble getting Three Body published today, but that things weren’t even quite so rosy ten years ago. The initial Chinese release of Three Body did not open with the Cultural Revolution chapter; they buried that in the middle of the book, framed as a flashback, because they figured the censors wouldn’t bother to read that far.

Eh? Ehhhhh!?!

Eh? Eh!?!

If I’m really interested in stories that get up governmental noses, he points me to Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing”, which won the 2016 Hugo (and which, once again, I might have already read if I wasn’t writing up this damn blog post). Apparently certain higher-ups did object to that one— and the Chinese government is definitely hardline by Canadian standards. But even their brazenly-named “Department of Censorship” has limited power to squash undesirable material, not least because it frequently falls afoul of other departments with different agendas. Apparently that’s how “Folding Beijing” got away. (The tale reminded me of a time in my own past, when a documentary I’d had a hand in writing won the Environment Canada trophy for “Best Film on the Environment”  while simultaneously being decried by another branch of the same government as “Anti-Canadian Propaganda”.)

And yes, he has read Blindsight. Even claims to have enjoyed it. Wondered how the hell I came up with the whole vampire thing.

I suppress a squee, ask him which book of the Remembrance trilogy is his favorite. Death’s End, he tells me. That’s the one he wrote purely as a fan, the one he wrote unconstrained by any commercial or market considerations, the story he told just because he wanted to and thought it was cool. Not wanting to impose, I haul out only that third volume and ask him to sign it.

He insists on signing the others as well. I don’t object too strenuously.

*

The whole reprobate crew.

The whole reprobate crew.

*

I’m not even back home— still in Bergen, recovering from Fish to Mars— when I get an invitation for a repeat visit.

This time it’s Danzhai, which I’m told is quite different from Beijing.  This time it’s a workshop, not a con; I spend a few all-expense-paid days participating in an SF workshop, then write a 10-15K novelette “inspired by” those experiences. I can pick my time: June, July, or August.

But this time, I have to say no.  The summer’s already spoken for, and I’m headed to Ukraine in the fall. Even if I squeezed in the trip, there’s no way I could put together a novelette in the two months following. I’m glad to have been asked, though, and a little relieved; I honestly wasn’t sure what kind of impression I’d made. Unless Danhai is a good place to dispose of bodies, though, I guess I pulled it off.

I only told them no for this year. Maybe they’ll have an opening in 2019.

 

8053 201e
Sun and Earth
But we don't need to worry about the boiling masses sandwiching the thin layer in which we live, since we're so fragile and short-lived that it's unlikely to kill us before something else does! Wait, why doesn't that sound reassuring?
2872 b6c4 500
Presidential Succession
Ties are broken by whoever was closest to the surface of Europa when they were born.
5904 72a5 500
LeBron James and Stephen Curry
The 538TR attempts to capture a player's combined skill at basketball (either real-life or NBA 2K18) and election forecasting.
4244 8a04
Clickbait-Corrected p-Value
When comparing hypotheses with Bayesian methods, the similar 'clickbayes factor' can account for some harder-to-quantify priors.
6144 32ca 500
xkcd Phone 2000
Our retina display features hundreds of pixels per inch in the central fovea region.
1641 9398
Selection Effect
fMRI testing showed that subjects who don't agree to participate are much more likely to escape from the machine mid-scan.
8502 350b 500
GDPR
By clicking anywhere, scrolling, or closing this notification, you agree to be legally bound by the witch Sycorax within a cloven pine.
6891 d1bd 500
Business Update
Our customers keep sending us their personal information, even though we've repeatedly asked them to stop. The EU told me I'm the heir to some ancient European throne that makes me exempt from the GDPR, but we should probably still try to fix that.

Earth-Moon Fire Pole

My son (5y) asked me today: If there were a kind of a fireman's pole from the Moon down to the Earth, how long would it take to slide all the way from the Moon to the Earth?

Ramon Schönborn, Germany

First, let's get a few things out of the way:

In real life, we can't put a metal pole between the Earth and the Moon.[1]For one, someone at NASA would probably yell at us. The end of the pole near the Moon would be pulled toward the Moon by the Moon's gravity, and the rest of it would be pulled back down to the Earth by the Earth's gravity. The pole would be torn in half.

Another problem with this plan. The Earth's surface spins faster than the Moon goes around, so the end that dangled down to the Earth would break off if you tried to connect it to the ground:

There's one more problem:[2]Ok, that's a lie—there are, like, hundreds more problems. The Moon doesn't always stay the same distance from Earth. Its orbit takes it closer and farther away. It's not a big difference,[3]You may occasionally see people get excited about the "supermoon," a full Moon that appears slightly larger because it happens at the time of the month when the Moon is closest to Earth. But really, the full Moon always looks surprisingly large and pretty when it's near the horizon, thanks to the Moon illusion. In my opinion, it's worth going outside and looking at the Moon whenever it's full, regardless of whether it's super or not. but it's enough that the bottom 50,000 km of your fire station pole would be squished against the Earth once a month.

But let's ignore those problems! What if we had a magical pole that dangled from the Moon down to just above the Earth's surface, expanding and contracting so it never quite touched the ground? How long would it take to slide down from the Moon?

If you stood next to the end of the pole on the Moon, a problem would become clear right away: You have to slide up the pole, and that's not how sliding works.

Instead of sliding, you'll have to climb.

People can climb poles pretty fast. World-record pole climbers[4]Of course there's a world record for pole climbing. can climb at over a meter per second in championship competition.[5]Of course there are championship competitions. On the Moon, gravity is much weaker, so it will probably be easier to climb. On the other hand, you'll have to wear a spacesuit, so that will probably slow you down a little.

If you climb up the pole far enough, Earth's gravity will take over and start pulling you down. When you're hanging onto the pole, there are three forces pulling on you: The Earth's gravity pulling you toward Earth, the Moon's gravity pulling you away from Earth, and centrifugal force[6]As usual, anyone arguing about "centrifugal" versus "centripetal" force will be put in a centrifuge. from the swinging pole pulling you away from Earth.[7]At the distance of the Moon's orbit and the speed it's traveling, centrifugal force pushing away is exactly balanced by the Earth's gravity—which is why the Moon orbits there. At first, the combination of the Moon's gravity and centrifugal force are stronger, pulling you toward the Moon, but as you get closer to the Earth, Earth's gravity takes over. The Earth is pretty big, so you reach this point—which is known as the L1 Lagrange point—while you're still pretty close to the Moon.

Unfortunately for you, space is big, so "pretty close" is still a long way. Even if you climb at better-than-world-record speed, it will still take you several years to get to the L1 crossover point.

As you approach the L1 point, you'll start to be able to switch from climbing to pushing-and-gliding: You can push once and then coast a long distance up the pole. You don't have to wait to stop, either—you can grab the pole again and give yourself a push to move even faster, like a skateboarder kicking several times to speed up.

Eventually, as you reach the vicinity of the L1 point and are no longer fighting gravity, the only limit on your speed will be how quickly you can grab the pole and "throw" it past you. The best baseball pitchers can move their hands at about 100 mph while flinging objects past them, so you probably can't expect to move much faster than that.

Note: While you're flinging yourself along, be careful not to drift out of reach of the pole. Hopefully you brought some kind of safety line so you can recover if that happens.

After another few weeks of gliding along the pole, you'll start to feel gravity take over, speeding you up faster than you can go by pushing yourself. When this happens, be careful—soon, you'll need to start worrying about going too fast.

As you approach the Earth and the pull of its gravity increases, you'll start to speed up quite a bit. If you don't stop yourself, you'll reach the top of the atmosphere at roughly escape velocity—11 km/s[8]This is why anything that falls into the Earth hits the atmosphere fast enough to burn up. Even if an object is moving slowly when it's drifting through space, when it gets close to the Earth it gets accelerated up to at least escape velocity by that final segment of the trip down into the Earth's gravity well.—and the impact with the air will produce so much heat that you risk burning up. Spacecraft deal with this problem by including heat shields, which are capable of absorbing and dissipating this heat without burning up the spacecraft behind it.[9]People often ask why we don't use rockets to slow down, to avoid the need for a heat shield. You can read this article for an explanation, but the bottom line is that changing your speed by 11 km/s takes either a tank of fuel the size of a building or a tiny heat shield, and the tiny heat shield is a lot easier to carry. Thanks to heat shields, slowing down is much easier than speeding up—which requires the aforementioned giant fuel tank. (For more on this, see this What If question).

Heat shields only work for slowing down; if there were a way to use the same heat shield mechanism to speed up, space travel would get a lot easier. Sadly, no one's figured out a practical way to build a "reverse heat shield" rocket. However, while the idea seems silly, in a sense it's sort of the principle behind both Project Orion and laser ablation propulsion.
Since you have this handy metal pole, you can control your descent by clamping onto it and controlling your rate of descent through friction.

Make sure to keep your speed low during the whole approach and descent—and, if necessary, pausing to let your hands or brakepads cool down—rather than waiting until the end to try to slow down. If you get up to escape velocity, then at the last minute remember that you need to slow down, you'll be in for an unpleasant surprise as you try to grab on to the pole. At best, you'll be flung away and plummet to your death. At worst, your hands and the surface of the pole will both be converted into exciting new forms of matter, and then you'll be flung away and plummet to your death.

Assuming you descend slowly and enter the atmosphere in a controlled manner, you'll soon encounter your next problem: Your pole isn't moving at the same speed as the Earth. Not even close. The land and atmosphere below you are moving very fast relative to you. You're about to drop into some extremely strong winds.

The Moon orbits around the Earth at a speed of roughly one kilometer per second, making a wide circle[10]Yes, I know, orbits are conic sections which in the case of the Moon is technically not exactly a circle. It's actually a pentagon. every 29 days or so. That's how fast the top end of our hypothetical fire pole will be traveling. The bottom end of the pole makes a much smaller circle in the same amount of time, moving at an average speed of only about 35 mph relative to the center of the Moon's orbit:

35 miles per hour doesn't sound bad. Unfortunately for you, the Earth is also spinning,[11]I mean, unfortunately in this specific context. In general, the fact that the Earth spins is very fortunate for you, and for the planet's overall habitability. and its surface moves a lot faster than 35 mph; at the Equator, it can reach over 1,000 miles per hour.[12]It's common knowledge that Mt. Everest is the tallest mountain on Earth, measured from sea level. A somewhat more obscure piece of trivia is that the point on the Earth's surface farthest from its center is the summit of Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador, due to the fact that the planet bulges out at the equator. Even more obscure is the question of which point on the Earth's surface moves the fastest as the Earth spins, which is the same as asking which point is farthest from the Earth's axis. The answer isn't Chimborazo or Everest. The fastest point turns out to be the peak of Mt. Cayambe, a volcano north of Chimborazo. And now you know.[13]Mt. Cayambe's southern slope also happens to be the highest point on Earth's surface directly on the Equator. I have a lot of mountain facts.

Even though the end of the pole is moving slowly relative to the Earth as a whole, it's moving very fast relative to the surface.

Asking how fast the pole is moving relative to the surface is effectively the same as asking what the "ground speed" of the Moon is. This is tricky to calculate, because the Moon's ground speed varies over time in a complicated way. Luckily for us, it doesn't vary that much—it's usually somewhere between 390 and 450 m/s, or a little over Mach 1—so figuring out the precise value isn't necessary.

Let's buy a little time by trying to figure it out anyway.

The Moon's ground speed varies pretty regularly, making a kind of sine wave. It peaks twice every month as it passes over the fast-moving equator, then reaches a minimum when it's over the slower-moving tropics. Its orbital speed also changes depending on whether it's at the close or far point in its orbit. This leads to a roughly sine-wave shaped ground speed:

Well, ready to jump?

Ok, fine. There's one other cycle we can take into account to really nail down the Moon's ground speed. The Moon's orbit is tilted by about 5° relative to the Earth-Sun plane, while the Earth's axis is tilted by 23.5°. This means that the Moon's latitude changes the way the Sun's does, moving from the northern tropics to the southern tropics twice a year.

However, the Moon's orbit is also tilted, and this tilt rotates on an 18.9-year cycle. When the Moon's tilt is in the same direction as the Earth's, it stays 5° closer to the Equator than the Sun, and when it's in the opposite direction, it reaches more extreme latitudes. When the Moon is over a point farther from the equator, it has a lower "ground speed," so the lower end of the sine wave goes lower. Here's the plot of the Moon's "ground speed" over the next few decades:

The Moon's top speed stays pretty constant, but the lowest speed rises and falls with an 18.9-year cycle. The lowest speed of the next cycle will be on May 1st, 2025, so if you want to wait until 2025 to slide down, you can hit the atmosphere when the pole is moving at only 390 m/s relative to the Earth's surface.

When you do finally enter the atmosphere, you'll be coming down near the edge of the tropics. Try to avoid the tropical jet stream, an upper-level air current which blows in the same direction the Earth rotates. If your pole happens to go through it, it could add another 50-100 m/s to the wind speed.

Regardless of where you come down, you'll need to contend with supersonic winds, so you should wear lots of protective gear.[15]For aerodynamic reasons, this gear should probably make it look like you're wearing a very fast airplane. Make sure you're tightly attached to the pole, since the wind and various shockwaves will be violently battering and jolting you around. People often say, "It's not the fall that kills you, it's the sudden stop at the end." Unfortunately, in this case, it's probably going to be both.[17]If it helps, people have survived supersonic ejections before—and even a supersonic aircraft disintegration—so there's hope.

At some point, to reach the ground, you're going to have to let go of the pole. For obvious reasons, you don't want to jump directly onto the ground while moving at Mach 1. Instead, you should probably wait until you're somewhere near airline cruising altitude, where the air is still thin, so it's not pulling at you too hard—and let go of the pole. Then, as the air carries you away and you fall toward the Earth, you can open your parachute.

Then, at last, you can drift safely to the ground, having traveled from the Moon to the Earth completely under your own muscle power.

(When you're done, remember to remove the fire pole. That thing is definitely a safety hazard.)

8075 ccbb 500
Morning News
Support your local paper, unless it's just been bought by some sinister hedge fund or something, which it probably has.
0026 5c42
MC Hammer Age
Wait, sorry, I got mixed up--he's actually almost 50. It's the kid from The Karate Kid who just turned 40.

Just So You Know.

My destination. Just maybe, my doom.

My destination. Just maybe, my doom.

Yeah, pretty quiet here lately. Those of you insecure and craven enough to be on Facebook (like, for example, me) might know it’s because I worked for a few weeks on this talk about the evolution of delusional optimism in Homo sapiens, to give at this weekend’s Asia-Pacific SF Con in Beijing. It was originally supposed to lead into a panel called “The World is Changing” (which had originally been called “A World in Upheaval”, only they changed it because— wait for it— they wanted it to sound “more optimistic”). Except last Tuesday I discovered that whole panel had been scrapped, and all along the organizers had been expecting me to talk about Extraterrestrial Intelligence instead.

So I’ve spent most of the past week desperately trying to build a new talk around a bit of fevered inspiration that struck me while I was on the toilet at 3a.m. It’s called “The End of Need: Cognitive Trends in Star-Faring Species”. It’s about evolving past natural selection. It’s, um, upbeat. Or hopeful. Or at least not completely nihilistic (I’m not especially familiar with the words that describe things at that end of the scale). It kind of hinges on survival instincts being tautological, and how there’s no real reason for them.

It’s more of an improv thought experiment than a rigorous argument— and I probably don’t buy it myself— but that’s okay. They say it’s good to get out of your comfort zone now and then, right?

Anyway, I’m dashing this off in the Departures Lounge, just before embarking on a 21-hour flight to the opposite side of the world. I’ll hopefully be in Beijing until the 21st, at which point I depart for Bergen and the World Cliffhanger premiere of Fish To Mars from the 22nd to the 24th.  Sometime during that interval I also have to finish a story for Spacing Magazine that’s due in two weeks (I finally found a plot to hang my weaponized yoghurt idea off of). Probably won’t be blogging much during any of that time.

After that, though, I’m just going to breathe. And lie around. And play video games for a solid month.

Because I will have earned it.

0033 2e81 500
Repairs
I was just disassembling it over the course of five hours so it would fit in the trash more efficiently.
Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl