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May 30 2018

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xkcd Phone 2000
Our retina display features hundreds of pixels per inch in the central fovea region.

May 28 2018

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Selection Effect
fMRI testing showed that subjects who don't agree to participate are much more likely to escape from the machine mid-scan.

May 25 2018

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By clicking anywhere, scrolling, or closing this notification, you agree to be legally bound by the witch Sycorax within a cloven pine.

May 23 2018

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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.

May 21 2018

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Morning News
Support your local paper, unless it's just been bought by some sinister hedge fund or something, which it probably has.

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.)

May 18 2018

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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.

May 16 2018


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.

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I was just disassembling it over the course of five hours so it would fit in the trash more efficiently.

May 14 2018

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Fatal Crash Rate
Fixating on this seems unhealty. But in general, the more likely I think a crash is, the less likely one becomes, which is a strange kind of reverse placebo effect.

May 11 2018

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During launch, in the event of an unexpected sensor reading, SafetySat will extend prongs in all directions to secure itself and any other cubesats safely in the launch vehicle until the source of the problem can be determined.

May 09 2018

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Research Areas by Size and Countedness
Mathematicians give a third answer on the vertical axis, "That question is poorly defined, but we have a sub-field devoted to every plausible version of it."

April 26 2018


Opera and Inspiration

An assortment of news:

Publisher’s Weekly gave a starred review to Freeze-Frame Revolution, and also listed it among 2018’s Best Summer Reads. Of course, Publisher’s Weekly also gave a starred review to βehemoth, so some of you might want to factor that into your equation…


The Inspirational Listsicle

About two years ago, I was first approached by Jonathan Cowie from the “Science Fiction Science Fact Concatenation“, an SF site run by scientists and engineers. They were seeking out soulmates— i.e., scientist/engineers-turned-SF authors— in the hopes that such folks would be willing to write a brief essay about the Top Ten Twentieth Century Scientists Who Had Inspired Them. I had proved myself worthy, Jonathan said, and asked me to join them at their court in Camelot.

I leaned on my sword and said nothing.

More accurately, I said Sure, but I was kind of busy at the moment and it might take a while. Jonathan assured me that there was no hurry; SFF Concatenation was doing this to commemorate their tenth anniversary in 2017, so I had almost a full year. I figured that should be plenty of time.


Every few months since, Jonathan sent a polite email, saying they were still interested, and that there was still no hurry. After I missed their 10th anniversary there was even less hurry, and yet they were still interested. And I kept saying, Sure, still up for it, and I kept pleading the heaviness of my workload, but in fact my delinquency was at least partly due to the fact that I was having a really tough time finding ten 20th-century scientists who I could describe as personally “inspirational”— at least in the revelatory, shaft-of-dusty-sunlight-through-the-stain-glass-window sense. I mean, sure, I loved the way Feynman cut through the bullshit at the Challenger hearings when NASA kept trying to obfuscate about that damned O-ring, but did that really qualify?

My solution, ultimately, was to cite not Ten Inspirational Scientists, but rather Ten Scientific Inspirations. That widened the net enough to let me include German philosophers and French explorers. The damn really broke when I realized that nobody said my scientific inspirations had to be famous. Didn’t matter if any of you had even heard of them. If I owed my doctorate to the fact that some dick on  my committee said I should be “throwing bombs for Greenpeace” and I set out to prove him wrong, you gonna tell me that wasn’t inspirational?

Anyhow, it’s up now, only two years late. Most of those described therein— well, six out of ten— aren’t even dead yet.


When Science Makes You Wanna Scream Like An Opera

The Engineer (not to be confused with the subject of the Ian Anderson song of the same name).

The Engineer (not to be confused with the subject of the Ian Anderson song of the same name).

I’ve talked about this before— hinted here, gone into a bit more detail here. For want of any third-party collaboration you could be forgiving for wondering if I was making the whole thing up. Which is why I’m pleased to announce that the official Fish To Mars website is live and taking visitors. A few rooms are still under construction, but most of it’s pretty slick: character bios, story lines, librettos, real-world science. There’s even a trailer.

The opera kinda-sorta premieres next month in Bergen, May 22-24 (the BUG and I expect to be in the audience). I say kinda-sorta because it’s only 45 minutes long and ends on a cliffhanger. The full-scale opera, spanning the time from the late Devonian up to maybe five hundred thousand years from now, won’t be ready until 2020. Assuming the Funding Gods are willing.

Anyway, for those of you wondering what the hell I’ve been doing all this time instead of getting off my ass and writing the next novel, this is part of the answer. Check it out.


April 18 2018


“A Quiet Place”: UNCWISHes and Dream Logic.

This column spoils John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place”. (Not to worry, though. The screenwriters got there first.)






A monster movie hailed as serious drama. Ninety-five percent on Rotten Tomatoes. “Deeply affecting.” “A superb exercise in understated terror”. “A bold experiment in fear.” And to top it all off, it’s the beloved brainchild of  the beloved “Jim”. You know, from The Office.

I really wanted to like this one.

A curiously misleading promotional poster, I think.

A curiously misleading promotional poster, I think.

I did, too, at first. The layered, multidimensional, never-quite-silence of the movie’s soundscape grabs you from the first scene. The sight of the Abbott Family creeping through the aftermath of whatever wiped out the rest of us effectively builds suspense and curiosity. And the rapid, ruthless, richly-deserved extermination of that noisy snot-nosed too-stupid-to-live larva had me cheering inside: Yes! Consequences! I thought. No last-second rescue! The little fucker gets what he deserved![1]

Five minutes in— wholesome ‘Murrican nuclear family focus notwithstanding— you knew this was no Spielberg movie.

But the further we got into “A Quiet Place” the less goddamned sense it made.

I’m not talking about obvious things like the fact we never find out where the monsters come from. Another Weyland-Yutani PR fiasco, vermin escaped from the bilge of a visiting UFO— I’m willing to accept their unexplained appearance as a basic conceit of the movie. (Although given the amount of time we spend lovingly panning over whiteboards and old newspapers, it wouldn’t have killed them to at least headline a theory or two.) I’m talking about contradictions and inconsistencies that sink the plot, if not the whole damn premise. I’m not talking about just suspending disbelief, I’m talking about (as someone once said in reference to one of my own novels) breaking its neck and hanging it until it’s dead.

Like f’rinstance:

  • These nightmare creatures have such incredibly good hearing that they can hear rusty hinges creaking outside in a grain silo 500 meters away— and yet somehow they can’t hear a baby crying three meters away in the same room.
  • Kids. Look down. Just look down.

    Kids. Look down. Just look down.

    They can rip a gaping hole through the corrugated steel wall of a grain silo (silently enough to avoid alerting the children trapped inside, so as to not deprive us of an upcoming jump scare), but can’t get into the cab of a Ford pick-up with the windows rolled up.

  • Or maybe that ragged, torn hole in the silo was there all along in plain view, and the children trapped inside were just too dumb to notice until it was filled by a nightmare creature.
  • Anybody living in a depopulated post-apocalyptic landscape patrolled by unkillable nightmare creatures with incredibly sensitive hearing would actually choose to have a baby in the first place, counting on a couple of mattresses to keep the sound down. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more mindlessly strident pro-life message outside of the GOP.
  • A mother who does choose to pup under those conditions— and who then finds herself holding a crying baby in the basement while an unkillable nightmare creature with incredibly sensitive hearing stalks around upstairs— chooses not to offer a nipple to that baby (I mean, why else do babies cry?), but instead hands it off to her twelve-year-old to deal with. (I admit I thought she was being pretty clever at first— way to go, Evelyn, you’re getting rid of the squawling infant and the annoying adolescent in one unkillable-nightmare-creature bite!— but no. It was just bad writing.)
  • These unkillable nightmare creature with incredibly acute hearing (can we just call them UNCWISHes from now on?) aren’t magic— there’s no reason to think they can scale sheer walls or punch through the walls of a reinforced bunker, and we know that they can’t hear softer sounds masked by louder ones— but the Abbotts stay for over a year in their toothpick-and-clapboard farmhouse rather than moving to more solid digs (of which surely there can’t be any shortage, the rest of Humanity being dead and all). Or even setting up camp next to a noisy waterfall.
  • Everyone else is as stupid as the Abbotts. We know there are at least a few other survivors out there— we see their rooftop bonfires in the distance early in the movie, shining like low-budget Torches o’Gondor— and they don’t seem to have moved on either. And if people have been able to stick it out this long in farmhouses, surely others must have been lucky enough to be inside reinforced, UNCWISH-proof structures (what about those deep-rock missile silos in the Rockies, for example?), which leads one to conclude that there must be other pockets or survivors with access to broadcast technology. Why hasn’t Lee Abbott been able to raise any of them on the radio? And speaking of Lee Abbott…
  • Lee Abbott is a dick. Why else would he ban his deaf daughter from his basement lab, where he divides his time between checking the shortwave and trying to improvise a replacement for her broken hearing aid? At one point she explicitly demands to know why she’s not allowed downstairs, and gets no answer. Turns out, there at the very end, the only reason he wouldn’t let her downstairs is because that’s also where he kept the collection of newspaper headlines and whiteboard scribblings he used to try and figure out how to defeat these damned UNCWISHes, and once she lays eyes on that trove it takes her about thirty seconds to figure out what her Dad couldn’t in over a year. And you don’t want her doing that until the very last moment. (Okay, so Lee Abbott is a dumb dick.)
  • Everybody else on the planet is even dumber than the Abbotts. Because nobody, anywhere, apparently wondered if a blind predator who relied on incredibly sensitive hearing might not be vulnerable to acoustic attacks. On the whole fucking planet, no scientists, no Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, no soldiers or back-yard tinkerers or hearing-aid makers ever thought Hey, maybe we can jam them up with sound until fifteen-year-old Regan Abbott starts twiddling the dials more than a year after Armaggeddon? No helicopter gunships ever hung in the sky, safely out of UNCWISH jumping range, blaring out infrasonics alongside Ride of the Valkyries?
  • Oh, and look! Turns out once they open their faces at you, you can just take ’em down with shotguns! Maybe we should have tried shooting into those giant soft-looking tuba-sized earholes they kept flapping open while they were hunting us…
This scene, I will admit, kicked ass.

This scene, I will admit, kicked ass.

Some of these gaffes are so glaring that I’m half-convinced I must have dozed off at a crucial moment and missed some important bit of exposition. (I don’t think I did, though— and that uncertainty isn’t great enough to make me pay for a second viewing.) It’s as though Krasinski, having never seen an “Alien” movie, woke up from a scary dream about fearsome eyeless creatures with big teeth and thought Man, if only I could make a movie that evoked that sense of dread. And he did—the movie works, on that purely visceral level. It really does. The childbirth scene had me on the edge of my seat as much as anyone else.

But it’s also as though, if anyone during production asked Yeah, but what are the actual rules? How does this work?, Krasinski said Who cares? This is a movie about family! Think of the children!

At which point logic went pretty much the way it usually does, when someone says that.

Turns out it was just more Spielberg after all.

[1] I will confess, however, that I felt really bad when the raccoon bought it.

April 11 2018


Minor Revelations

So much to reveal.

Sadly, most of it is either embargoed, and/or so rife with typos that I’m holding off on the link until they’re fixed. What’s left is, I suppose, one of those “cover reveals” people tend to inflate out of all proportion these days— understandably, since that’s the closest your average midlister comes to actual promotion any more— except this cover, or at least a pretty close facsimile, has already long-since been unveiled to anyone who’s been over to the relevant Amazon page.

There are a couple of other things to reveal, though, about The Freeze-Frame Revolution.

Not sure why they went with that generic io9 quote, though. It's from, like, 2014 or something.

Not sure why they went with that generic io9 quote, though. It’s from, like, 2014 or something.

There’s the back cover, for one thing. You’ll notice actual blurbs from some pretty big names (or at least, you will if you have very good eyesight, a very large monitor, or if you just click on the graphic to enlarge).  To my immense relief they continue to trickle in even now; as usual, I’ve stuck the lot of them over on the Pull Quotes page. As of yesterday there were fourteen, only four of which hail from personal friends.

Authors are rarely the most reliable judges of their own work, but based on these advance squees I’m gonna guess that either FFR is a pretty good novella, or that  Tachyon has a lot of dirt on a lot of people. (I will, for now at least, refrain from interpreting Paul Levinson’s blurb to mean that one of the things that makes FFR “one of [my] best” is the fact that it’s “short”.)

Maybe not their best song, but the album as a whole is, I think, seriously underrated.

Maybe not their best song, but the album as a whole is, I think, seriously underrated.



There’s also the section breaks. Freeze-Frame is broken into six large chapter-like things, and Tachyon has graced each with its own title page. Each is simple, each is evocative, each is perfectly suited to the ambiance of the pages that follow. The one on display here steals its name from an old Jethro Tull song, because you can’t copyright song titles. (Although I’m pretty sure ol’ Ian wouldn’t mind; he was cool with me quoting actual lyrics back in Blindsight. Sometimes I still sleep with his one-sentence, manually-typed letter under my pillow.)

I have to hand it to Tachyon; they’ve done a bang-up job on a project that, for all its modest size, cost them way more time, effort, and money than you’d expect for a trade-paper novella. Even the basic printing costs were unusually high, for reasons  which are apparent on almost every page.

There’s a reason for that. But you’ll have to work it out for yourselves.


April 04 2018

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Be advised that small dogs still pose a threat to the livelihood of Megasaki City. Do not underestimate their size.

March 27 2018


Riding the Tiger: or, Flirting with the Antivaxxers.

[PreProda: Yeah, after some really enlightening discussion in the Comments section, I’m walking back about 90% of this post. But I’m leaving it posted both because the comments are so interesting, and as a kind of historical artefact to remind me of what happens when I don’t take the time to think things through.]

[Proda: OK, now I’m having third thoughts, since a big chunk of the following argument derives from a) a discussion conducted over too many beers and b) my apparently-erroneous belief that flu vaccines have grown less effective over time. In fact, they apparently were never very effective. For details, check out the mea culpa down in Comment 43.


I’m having second thoughts about vaccination. [Update: But not just vaccination. See coda.]

Not because of autism or mercury or any of that Gwyneth Paltrow bullshit. Not even because I think vaccination is a bad idea— at this stage at least, we pretty much have to stick with the programs.

I am wondering, though, if it might have been a bad idea to have started down this road in the first place.

It all comes down to beers and budworms.

Beers. I had lunch the other day with my favorite Cassandra and fictionalized antihero, Dan Brooks. He drops through every now and then in the course of his travels, usually bearing bad news. This time was no different; we talked about the future, and the increasing statistical likelihood that by mid-century we’ll have lost both half the world’s species and half the world’s human population (not that one of those things is any great loss). We talked about Cape Town, and Lincoln, and LA— all those places where local water wars are just around the corner. The imminent draining of the Great Lakes to water the gardens of millionaires in Palm Springs. The near-ubiquitous use of mouth guards by climate-change scientists. And by the way, have you heard the news? Cholera’s moved back into Canada.

Dan’s an evolutionary biologist. He takes the long view. (When I pointed out the obvious fact that only a few weedy, super-resilient species are likely to survive the Anthropocene, he shrugged and said “So what? Recovery after every major extinction event starts with only a few weedy species, and they’re always enough to get us back up to high biodiversity in only ten or twenty million years.”) He’s also a parasitologist: comfortable talking about epidemiology, the parameter values of the rolling pandemics that’ll start hollowing out our urban centers sometime in the next ten or twenty years. My own background (putting aside the marine mammal thing) is more along the lines of general ecology— so when Dan started talking about outbreaks and countermeasures it was ecology, not epidemiology, that clicked.

“You’re talking about the spruce budworm,” I said.

A quick backgrounder for those who weren’t around in the back half of the Twentieth Century: the spruce budworm is a kind of caterpillar that wreaked havoc on coniferous forests throughout eastern Canada from the sixties at least through the eighties (it may be wreaking still for all I know, but I unfriended the little beggars once I left grad school). The logging industry of the time, as is the wont of logging industrialists everywhere, responded to the infestation by spraying the shit out of the forests with chemical insecticides. The budworm (as is the wont of fast-breeding life-forms everywhere) counter-responded in three ways:

  1. Most of them died.
  2. The few who didn’t bred back an army of Mk-2 budworms who weren’t quite as easily impressed by malathion.
  3. They cranked up their reproductive rate to compensate for increased mortality.

Before long we were faced with a budworm population that we could keep sort of under control, but only if we never stopped spraying. What had once been a purely intermittent event was now a continual, low-level outbreak kept barely in check by pesticides. The moment we let up on the chemicals, those resistant, faster-breeding budworms would tear through the forest like a billion little chainsaws.

What Dan made me consider was the proposition that mass-vaccination programs have done pretty much the same thing to us.

For generations now, we’ve been vaccinating ourselves against (for example) the flu. It used to work really well; vaccination is just a way of programming the immune system with a target-lock for invaders, and it’s pretty easy to do that when all the invaders have a common immunological profile:

Innocent, naive virus.

Innocent, naive virus.

Of course, the moment you do that, you’ve provoked a Red Queen scenario. The flu doesn’t just sit there like a candyass: you target that peak long enough, it’ll diversify:

Experienced, world-weary, 5th-degree-black-belt-don't-fuck-with-me virus.

Experienced, world-weary, 5th-degree-black-belt-don’t-fuck-with-me virus.

This is how you go from Praise Be It’s A Miracle Everyone Should Get This!  to Well, this year’s vaccine is only about 20% effective but you should get a flu shot anyway because we don’t know what else to recommend. At the same time, vaccination has been protecting people with weak immune systems, people who would otherwise have died. (Of course that’s what we’ve been doing; that’s the whole damn point of vaccination programs.) But since we’ve so greatly reduced the selection pressure that would otherwise weed out the immunological weaklings, vaccinated populations have, over time, become inherently less resistant genetically to the bugs that vaccines protect them against. We’ve outsourced our immune response to the pharmaceutical industry.

Tl;dr? We’ve been making the disease stronger while making ourselves weaker at the same time. It’s the spruce budworm all over again.

And now, like the spruce budworm, we don’t dare stop vaccinating. We’ve built such a tough suite of microbial motherfuckers that if we ever take our foot off the gas, they’ll tear through us like a brush fire. In terms of disease resistance, our genetic load is now far far higher than it would have been if we’d just let nature take its course a hundred years ago. Dan calls it riding the tiger—except we’re talking about a tiger that’s been pumped full of steroids since cub-hood, and a rider that’s turned into a 98-lb weakling in the meantime. It’s only a matter of time before that damn cat throws us off and has us for dinner.

I’m guessing this is partly where the rolling-pandemics-in-ten-years thing comes from. I don’t know what we can do about it at this point. I suppose we could try a CRISPR fix— engineer genetic resistance back into our species before it’s too late. But I don’t know how easy it’ll be to scale that (relatively new) technology up to species-wide deployment.

I suspect Dan’s right. Nature will take care of the problem as it always has. Although there’s one sliver of hope I might summon:

Far as I know, we still have spruce forests in New Brunswick.

Coda: On second thought, I probably shouldn’t have limited this argument to vaccination; I should have explicitly included drug-based countermeasures as well.  They’re different approaches— one targets the invader, the other reprograms the immune system— but in both cases, the next generation favors those who get around the countermeasures (either by being resistant to the drug, or having a shape that differs from the target profile programmed by the vaccine). Different tools, but same principle. That’s the point I’m making. I’m not actually confused about the difference between drugs and vaccines.

It’s just that drug-resistant diseases are old news, hardly worth the alarm. The idea that vaccines are subject to the same processes is one of those things that seems obvious in hindsight, but I’d never thought about it before.

9696 c1cf

‘We’re a pack of scary indestructible alpha dogs.’

March 20 2018


Object Lesson

Baird Stoller never even pretended to be on our side. Aki Sok did her best, then took her lumps when it wasn’t good enough. Ekanga Mosko was a whole other thing. Recruited, committed, trusted with the secrets of the sanctum—then caught copying specs down in the Glade, loading himself up with secrets to buy his way back into the Chimp’s good graces after miraculously coming back from the dead.

Lian didn’t kill him. Didn’t deprecate him either. Waste of good coffin space, she said. She found a small inescapable crevice in some remote corner of the Glade where the gravitic tug-o-war was enough to pull your guts out through your inner ears. She ran a line from an irrigation pipe, set it to bleed a continuous trickle down the rock face. Hooked a portable food processor up to an outsize amino tank, parked it on the lip of the precipice, set it to drop protein bricks into the gap at regular intervals. Woke up every few years just to keep it stocked.



Mosko spent the rest of his life in that crevice. Maybe his stomach acclimated to the nausea before his brain turned to pudding, before he lost the ability even to beg, before he devolved into a mindless mewling thing covered in sores and compulsively licking the rocks to slake his endless thirst. Maybe he only lasted a few months. Maybe he lived for decades, died alone while the rest of us slept our immortal sleep, mummified and crumbled to dust and finally vanished altogether between one of my heartbeats and the next. An object lesson, way past its best-before date.

That’s the story I heard, anyway. I slept through the whole time frame, from recruitment to betrayal to dissolution. I found the crevice—found a crevice, anyway—but the plumbing and the processor had long since been retired, if they’d ever even existed. For all I knew Kaden had just been yanking my chain about the whole thing, got some of hir buddies in on the joke for added verisimilitude. A joke. A warning. That would be just hir style.

There had been an Ekanga Mosko listed on the manifest. Astrophysics specialist. Different tribe, but Eri definitely shipped out with meat of that name on board. The official record said he’d died when a bit of bad shielding had failed around the outer core: a blast of lethal radiation, an emergency vent to spare the rest of the level from contamination.

Of course I asked Lian about it. She laughed and laughed. “I’d have to be pretty damn good to plant evidence that far down without getting burned to ash, wouldn’t you say?”

She never actually denied it, though.

March 01 2018



Spoilers Follow. Spoilers for the movie “Annihilation”.

(The following review might also go down easier if you’ve read the book.)

The novel was a bit less literal about the whole "Annihilation" part.

The novel was a bit less literal about the whole “Annihilation” part.

I’ve always been amazed that Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy became a massive best-seller. Truth is, I’m kind of amazed it even made it past the small presses.

Don’t take this as a criticism of the novels. Take it, rather, as an indictment of the North American reading public. Vandermeer is, after all, one of the pioneers of New Weird:[1] literary, cryptic, unapologetically off-kilter. Have you read Southern Reach? Would you have expected it to climb to the top of a pile that holds up Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Dan Fucking Brown as role models?

The fact that it did fills me with wonder (Awesome! The genre made it without having to dumb down!), and hope (hey, if Southern Reach can own the bestseller lists, maybe I can too), and resentment (WTF? Annihilation is a household word and people say my stuff is too inaccessible for the mainstream market?). Then again, sneer as I might at readers of The da Vinci Code, at least those people are reading books. Most of us don’t even do that much.

Most of us go to the movies, though. So maybe the real test is whether a movie based on the book, a movie that respects the spirit of the book, can make it when thrown into the ring with Marvel and Pixar and LucasFilm and 20th-Century F— ah, let’s just keep it simple: with Disney.

As I write this, it doesn’t look good for “Annihilation” (the movie— henceforth distinguished from Annihilation, the novel). Box Office Mojo reports that it debuted at #4 (losing out to Peter Rabbit at #3)— which makes it a bomb, financially, but no worse than you could expect from a movie that test audiences found “too intellectual” and “too complicated”. That part actually gave me hope; that hope grew when director Alex Garland and producer Scott Rudin stood firm and told Paramount to fuck right off, when the studio wanted to make the film more “accessible”.

Paramount retaliated by cancelling plans for overseas theatrical distribution (except for China) and dumping those rights onto Netflix.  I didn’t care; all signs pointed to a good film, a smart film, and the fact that it was too confusing for your average Transformers fan only proved the point. A lot of people hated “2001” when it came out; “The Thing” nearly killed John Carpenter’s career. And unlike “The Thing” on first release, the critics love “Annihilation”: 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, 79% on Metacritic. One of the few exceptions was science fiction’s own Annalee Newitz , who thought it sucked.

I believe I may fall somewhere in between.

Garland’s movie perfectly evokes the weird, skin-crawling dream-fever I experienced while reading the book. You can feel the air pressing down like invisible treacle. You sense the things watching you from just out-of-frame, you wonder at the skewed strangeness of the things right before your eyes. The acting is top-notch, and the science— well, you don’t go into a movie about an expanding paradimensional soap-bubble-o’doom expecting a list of technical citations. But the movie is science-savvy enough to know when it’s breaking the rules— at least, the rules we talking apes have discovered up to this point— and I’m fine with that.

Actually, kudos to the physicist for even knowing what Hox genes are.

Actually, kudos to the physicist for even knowing what Hox genes are.

Case in point: strange natural scarecrows springing up in lawns and meadows, shrubbery spontaneously assuming humanoid shape. The physicist (not being a biologist) speculates that you’ll find human Hox genes in that foliage, because Hox genes are what tell the tissue how to arrange itself during development. It’s both reasonable (that is what Hox genes do) and wrong. (The plants are not growing, Ent-like, into solid humanoid shapes, as they would even in the unlikely event that the humanoid recipe had somehow been ported between Kingdoms. They’re just the usual tangle of vines and twigs and branches— simply confined, bonsai-like, to a human-shaped jar. There’s some tertiary metaprocess involved here). The biologist immediately responds: “literally not possible”— leaving us not with a scientific boner, but with a scientific mystery that happens to go unsolved (along with pretty much everything else in this movie, admittedly). The idea of genetic refraction— presented not just as mechanism but as metaphor, as literal visual ambiance— kind of appeals to me.

Newitz seems to have missed this deliberate bit of ass-covering when she decries “Annihilation”‘s “painfully bad representations of how DNA works”. Or maybe she got it, but just didn’t buy it. Either way, I think she’s being too harsh. Obviously there’s more than DNA at work here; obviously we’re dealing with alien forces beyond our comprehension.  Kubrick didn’t provide technical specs on how the monolith worked, either— and for all the folks who had trouble with “2001” when it first came out, I don’t remember anyone complaining about that fact.

Which makes this a good spot to talk about the ending, which Vandermeer himself has compared to the end of “2001”. I am not convinced. No matter how opaque Kubrick’s ending might have seemed at first glance, there’s no question that it resolved the plot: a specific thing happened to finish the story, whether it was obvious or not. Kubrick did, after all, have hard-SF maestro Arthur C. Clarke riding shotgun, to keep him from venturing too deeply into the woo. They knew what they were doing, even if audiences didn’t.

Not so sure that’s the case here.

The ending Garland stapled onto the movie is utterly unrelated to anything in the novel. He really had no choice about that. The novel doesn’t even have an ending— at least, not one that leaves us any wiser about all the mysteries laid out in the preceding pages. The book doesn’t so much end as go on hiatus, which is something you can forgive in the first act of a trilogy.

Garland obviously had to stick something before the credits. I’m not entirely sure he knew what it was, though. You’ve got a scaled-down version of the interior of the derelict alien ship from Alien. You’ve got twinkly Human/energy metamorphosis a la “Star Trek: The Motionless Picture”. You’ve got that humanoid oil slick from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”‘s execrable “Evil Skin” episode. And you’ve got some kind of mirror-mode marionette that inexplicably mimics every move our lone survivor makes, while in the process becoming her “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” doppelganger— which isn’t really in keeping with anything we’ve seen in Area X up until now (the Shimmer refracts things, it doesn’t reflect them— this whole pod-person element just comes out of nowhere).

Garland’s a smart guy; I really liked “Ex Machina” (although maybe a bit less than most). He seems to be pretty scrupulous about thinking things through— or at least he learned to be, sometime after making “Sunshine”. But I can’t shake the feeling than in this case, he just grabbed a bunch of random stuff and mooshed it together, hoping against hope that we’d read profundity into chaos.

I have to wonder how much that ending changed the middle, how many vital elements of the novel were jettisoned solely because the movie had to converge on some arbitrary endpoint thumbtacked to Garland’s corkboard. Is that why we lost the inverted tower spiraling down into the earth, the weird mutated Crawler scratching its endless prose into those walls? Is that why we never found how just how massively corrupt the Southern Reach was, why the lies and deceptions and all those unacknowledged previous expeditions never made it into the script? Is that why the very name of the story was changed so utterly in meaning, even if every letter was left in place?

Again: Alex Garland is a smart guy. At this stage in his career, he might not even be capable of making a bad movie, and “Annihilation” is not one. “Annihilation” is, at the very least, a good movie; it is an undeniably beautiful movie. It is even a brave movie, a movie made in defiance of lazy viewers and nervous distributors. I think the ending keeps it from being a brilliant movie, but I can’t be sure after one viewing (I’ll have to catch it again on Netflix).

I can be sure of one thing, though:

“Annihilation” is not Annihilation.

Am I sick, or is this kind of beautiful?

Am I sick, or is this kind of beautiful?

[1] Although it’s been around long enough that we should probably be calling it “Middle-Aged Weird” by now.

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