Shared posts

04 Nov 18:27

The True Name of the Bear

Thank you to Gretchen McCulloch for fielding this question, and sorry that as a result the world's foremost internet linguist has been devoured by the brown one. She will be missed.
02 Dec 18:58

Transportation tech bros need to listen to the Vision Zero folks

by Tricia Wood

When we talk about Smart Cities, which seems to be all the time now, we hear about tensions between public governance and corporate interests. It is important to understand the gap between public and private interests in the city, and to make sure that decision-making remains in the hands of democratically elected bodies.

There are other gaps which make the governance question relevant. An important one is the big one between the transportation-tech conversation (especially around automated vehicles) and the vision-zero conversation. It is critical that we bridge it.

When I was at the International Transport Forum Summit (ITF) in Germany last May, I heard presentations by several experts at the forefront of these issues. The two conversations are both about the future of roads. Both conversations are full of smart people, too. But they are not talking to each other, and in many ways, they are working at cross-purposes.

When the tech crowd talks about the future of city streets, they see cars. Ride-hailing or automated vehicles. Or both. And they are not talking about slowing traffic. Here’s some of what I heard from experts at the ITF summit:

I heard someone speak hopefully about the ability of automated vehicles to travel faster in cities, because they could handle turns better.

I heard someone talk about the “mistakes” kids make because they do not behave “rationally,” and how we need to focus on changing their behaviour.

I heard someone wonder aloud about the need to “monetize road safety,” because “someone has to pay for that.”

I heard a serious pitch to reduce the time cars spend waiting at traffic lights because it would reduce their CO2 emissions.

I heard someone suggest that pedestrians could all be tracked by our cell phones: to be advised, for example, if a car is about to drive straight through the crosswalk we’re using. Automated vehicles rely on a fully digitized landscape, with constant communication between the vehicle and its environment.

Surely it’s easier to just chip everyone at birth? If we’re fair game without carrying a phone (like many seniors, children, and people just out for a walk), then it’s effectively the same thing.

Of course, it is (or should be) a ludicrous idea. We shouldn’t need to be tracked in order to use public space safely. But from a tech point of view, it is a logical system. When a member of the audience tried to challenge the speaker on this, he didn’t understand the question.

Some of the difference between the conversations arises from the “business bubble.” Those developing new machines and software need start-up capital, materials, labour, and then markets where money can be made in terms of selling tech (mostly software), or where tech can enable more money to be made by creating efficiencies. These businesses negotiate regional, national and global markets as well. Safety and the environment are selling points. That doesn’t mean they are empty phrases, but they are the means to the end, not the end goal. The end goal is money.

Some of the difference between the groups is gender. The tech side is largely “boys and their toys.” What they work on is inherently interesting to them, and they are motivated by challenge and curiosity. They want to invent a cool thing and find a place for it in the world. That is not a bad thing, in and of itself. But city-building needs more than the shiny new thing.

The vision zero group is a more diverse collection of people. Men, women, trans; old, young and in-between. They work in their neighbourhoods and cities. Many of their projects are focused on children, because they know that as many as 250,000 children die every year in road collisions and that it is the leading cause of death for those between the ages of 5 and 14. 2.2 million more are injured. And this is before we count the illness and death from automobile pollution. The vision zero group wants to make sure there is room in the city for everyone.

This video  shows a project in Kerpen, Germany, presented at the ITF summit in May that involved children in street redesign for safety outside their school. It is a fantastic example of policy education, citizenship engagement, road engineering and urban studies. The kids were involved in everything, including actual construction.

The two groups have different vulnerabilities. Tech is worried about privacy, hacking breaches and how their work can get held up for a long time when things go wrong. The death of a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona froze AV development in the United States for a year. Vision zero is worried about the vulnerability of road users, and their own difficulties getting policymakers to pay attention to the research.

Why does the gap matter? It matters because if governments go where tech goes, then tech will build the city. And the policy conversations tech has are simply not inclusive enough to build a good city.

Cities can benefit from technical innovation in transportation. Trains move faster than horses. Knowing when your bus will arrive is a helpful thing. Unfortunately, at the moment, the innovators are not listening to the road safety experts and they are not including a diversity of road users in their considerations. Often, they seem completely unaware of the problems vision zero programs seek to solve.

Sometimes tech wants a better city, but sometimes what it wants is an impossibly perfect city. Humans are often imperfect and unpredictable. Sensors and signals can make us safer, but if we want a city we can all live in, the vision zero conversation must lead and the tech conversation must follow.

The post Transportation tech bros need to listen to the Vision Zero folks appeared first on Spacing Toronto.

22 Nov 19:35

MUKHERJEE: Why has Toronto police stopped enforcing traffic safety?

by Alok Mukherjee

Does one call it callous disregard for human life or rank incompetence? Or a combination of both?

I am referring to the deaths of 48 people — pedestrians and cyclists — so far this year due to traffic accidents. These were largely preventable deaths, provided there had been effective traffic enforcement.

A report by Toronto police chief Mark Saunders for the November 21 meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) admits as much. The board asked for this report in July, 2018, following a request from the City, which itself was prompted by public pressure as a result of the senseless killing of an elderly bicyclist by a careless car driver.

There is no explanation as to why it took Chief Saunders over a year to respond when, under the board’s rules, reports in response to its decisions are due within six months — or sooner if so directed.

Could it be because Saunders is now proposing to make a U-turn, implicitly admitting that the approach used since 2016, that downgraded traffic safety as a priority and replaced police enforcement with an over-reliance on technology, has been a total failure?

A key feature of law enforcement culture is that police leaders do not admit easily to failure or mistakes. Typically, the November 21 report provides no explanation for the inordinate delay.

But then, there is no evidence either that the board or Mayor John Tory ever followed up and demanded that Saunders expedite his response. No one appears to have shown a sense of urgency.

At least the board or Tory should have done so, since the withdrawal of police from traffic enforcement was the direct result of the Tory-led TPSB’s modernization plan, loudly touted as “The Way Forward,” as well as his largely hollow Vision Zero initiative on street safety.

In the end, then, it is not only Saunders and the police service he runs that have shown a callous disregard for human life and incompetence. So has both the TPSB and the mayor, to whom Saunders reports.

Much has already been said about the essentially symbolic nature of Tory’s Vision Zero plan — if plan is the right word to describe it. It has had a negligible impact on enhancing traffic safety through changes to city planning, road design, street lighting, etc.

Vision Zero relies on the police for enforcement and education.

Yet, by Saunders’s own admission, Toronto police has not had the capacity to carry out these duties because it does not “currently have a complement of officers that are solely dedicated to enforcement duties on a daily basis.” According to his latest report, while the TPS’s Traffic Services officers are responsible for all traffic-related incidents in Toronto, their work is restricted to “collision investigations, alcohol and drug impaired driving investigations, photo evidence support, collision reconstruction and highway patrol assignments.” Investigation of major collisions is the TPS’ main priority while traffic enforcement is a supplemental role.

This is a stunning admission. What it means is that when it comes to traffic safety, our police get involved after the fact; they play no or very little role in preventing deaths or serious injuries.

We see the results daily on our streets in terms of the troubling rise in dangerous, aggressive driving which is one of the four big risk factors identified by the police and the City.

At the very busy intersection of Bathurst Street and St. Clair Avenue in my own neighbourhood, pedestrians cross the street at their own peril. It has become a common occurrence over the last few years for cars to drive through after the light has turned red. Not just one laggard, but several drivers enter the intersection when they should have waited.

Even more dangerous, perhaps, are crosswalks. Too many drivers speed up instead of slowing down and looking out for pedestrians waiting to cross, except for those few hours when a crossing guard is on duty.

It is clear from other anecdotal evidence, as well as the data in Saunders’s report to the board, that my local experiences are not unique.

So, the question arises: why is Toronto police not enforcing traffic safety, even though Vision Zero assigns it that responsibility exclusively? After all, for as long as I can remember, the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists had been a priority for the police board and the police.

I believe the culprit is the modernization plan jointly introduced in 2016 by the board and its newly appointed chief. The then-chair of the board and John Tory’s close ally, Andy Pringle, boasted that “The Way Forward” was a bold, action-oriented plan and had gone further than any such strategy developed previously. I had acknowledged that the plan had some positive features.

“The Way Forward,” was developed by a group of corporate heavyweights working under the joint leadership of Pringle and Saunders. It was the culmination of a process began in 2010–2011 when then- chief Bill Blair was directed by the TPSB to conduct a comprehensive organizational review to find savings in policing costs. In a discussion paper for the board’s consideration, I, as chair, spoke about developing a new model of policing consistent with contemporary needs and realities.

“The Way Forward” may have been intended to achieve this objective. Two of its key elements were the deployment of policing resources based on high priority as well as the extensive use of technology. Saunders presented himself as a strong believer in technology, including for traffic enforcement. His report for the board marks a turnaround.

So, what happened?

A couple of things. Implementation of the plan began right away, with a complete moratorium on any new hiring along with deployment of police personnel restricted to emergency calls. Technology has not filled the gap for the simple reasons that it takes time to identify appropriate systems. There are also budgetary, technical, training and regulatory implications – and, above all, proper planning with attention to impact of change and need for mitigating steps is critical.

As Saunders now admits, he lacks sufficient staff while the technology is filling only a small part of the gap created by a hastily and poorly implemented plan.

Way forward or way backward? Callous disregard for human life or incompetence? Or all of the above?

Take a guess.

Alok Mukherjee was chair of the Toronto Police Services Board from 2005 to 2015, and a candidate for the federal NDP in this fall’s election. Follow him on twitter at @Vote4Alok.

photo by Ricky Thakrar (cc)

The post MUKHERJEE: Why has Toronto police stopped enforcing traffic safety? appeared first on Spacing Toronto.

01 Oct 18:07

The Big Idea: Ashley and Leslie Saunders

by John Scalzi

They say write what you know, and thus twins Ashley and Leslie Saunders and have written The Rule of One, a novel about twins. But there’s so much more to writing than writing what you know. Here’s how the Saunders imagined in stereo.


What would make a country like the United States adopt a one-child policy?

That’s the central question we asked ourselves when we started brainstorming The Rule of One. We knew we wanted to tell a story about twin sisters and we wanted it to be an adventure with high stakes. What’s higher stakes than twins being born into a world where their very existence is a crime?

Using China’s former one-child policy as inspiration, soon our minds were swimming with a future that included a planet that has reached well beyond its carrying capacity, bloated metropolises, crippling limited resources that drives the U.S.’s class system to a dangerous breaking point, and constant government surveillance with microchips implanted inside every citizen’s wrist.

We had our dystopian setting, now we needed our central theme: identity.

Our Big Idea: twins who have to pretend to be one person in order to survive.


Ashley: Our story is told from dual perspectives; being the eldest twin, I wrote all of Ava’s chapters, who is also the older sister. Ava is the one who gets the life-validating microchip implanted into her right wrist at birth. She is the identity that both sisters build their entire lives around– Ava is the only one to truly exist in a Rule of One America.

In real life as children, Leslie and I would come home from school and tell one another every single tiny detail of our days. We became such experts on each other’s lives that we could sub in for each other if someone got us confused. Pulling this from our own lives, we amplified our nightly ritual with Ava and Mira. If they aren’t perfect when it’s their “turn” above ground (the other sister must stay hidden in the basement), they will lose everything. As the first born, Ava sees it as her duty to ensure the safety of her sister– a large portion of her identity is tied up in being the designated guardian.

Writing Ava’s chapters, I always held foremost in my mind how I would react if it was me who was branded a traitor and forced to leave my childhood home, fleeing into the unknown, all while trying to protect my twin sister, the person whom I love more than anyone else in the world.

Halfway through writing the novel, Leslie and I took a pause and decided to travel the exact cross-country journey our characters take in the book. While researching a location in Palo Duro Canyon, we were stalked by a bobcat and those thought-experiments suddenly became reality. Isolated in the wilderness, I felt sheer terror, and on instinct we decided to run. I had no weapons, just like Ava, and the entire three-mile sprint back to our car the bobcat was growling, and I envisioned the animal attacking my sister. We made it (or else I wouldn’t be writing this) and drenched in sweat, I immediately wrote down every emotion I was feeling. I’ve never felt more connected to Ava as I did in that moment, because the terrifying experience revealed to me that just like Ava, I would do anything to protect my sister. And just like Ava, in that life-threatening ordeal I saw myself as the leader, the one needing to do the saving. But when I looked over, Leslie had a razor-sharp rock in her hand, ready to do her own protecting.

I knew then why it was so important for Mira to step out of Ava’s shadow to become her own woman. Free from the necessity of mirroring Ava’s identity, Mira could be the hero of her own story.


Leslie: Like Mira in our story, I am the youngest twin. I therefore took the reins writing all of her chapters, using my experience growing up as the second born, infusing my own personal experience into Mira’s desires, arguments and character arcs.

Have I ever been jealous of my twin sister, Ashley? Yes. Have I ever thought that she was better at something than me? Sure. Do I ever grow tired of being compared to her? It depends what kind of day I’m having, but let’s go ahead and say absolutely. To imagine these questions in a future world where my very existence was illegal, and I was forced to share an actual identity with my twin sister really got the wheels in my mind turning. Like at top speed.

What if I not only shared clothes, the same interests, and most importantly, identical features with my twin, but in order to have any life at all, I had to be my sister. We had to share a name, a personality. An existence. The love I have for my twin knows no words- like Ava and Mira, we are inseparable. But I am a fierce individual and I have my own identity. To infuse a character study of twin sisters with my love of high-stakes adventure was really a dream project for me. Writing the POV of a youngest twin who goes on a journey of self-discovery was both exciting and cathartic.  I don’t think I’ll ever write something more personal. Yes, it’s set in a near-fi America about twins being chased by the government. But Mira feels like me: a young woman trying to discover who she is.

As Ava and Mira’s story expands beyond the first book, it’s been a fun ride shaping their individual identities while still remaining true to their inseverable bond. No matter how much they change, they will always be identical twin sisters. Two bodies, one soul.

Fighting to survive in a world they don’t belong.


The Rule of One: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the authors’ site. Follow them on Twitter.

07 Mar 22:06

The lost streets of South Parkdale

by Chris Bateman
toronto gardiner construction

No Toronto neighbourhood paid for the Gardiner Expressway quite like Parkdale.

Before construction of the lakefront highway in 1958, the land south of Springhurst Avenue and the rail tracks was just like the rest of Parkdale: residential, consisting of mostly detached homes on spacious lots.

At the time, Dunn and Jameson Avenues passed over the rail tracks south to the waterfront and a tangle of smaller streets such as Laburnam and Starr Avenues, Empress Crescent, and Hawthorne Terrace intersected them.

South Parkdale was distinct enough to have its own railway station near the present-day foot of Close Avenue.

The first major road to penetrate the neighbourhood was Lake Shore Boulevard, which snaked south of Exhibition Place along the waterfront toward the Humber River in the 1920s.

In South Parkdale, Lake Shore Boulevard was created by merging and widening a number of residential streets, including Laburnam Avenue and parts of Starr Avenue.

There are subtle clues to the existence of these old streets. Lake Shore Boulevard subtly winds in the area north of Marilyn Bell Park, mirroring the former the routes of these lost streets.

The clearest example of this is where Lake Shore Boulevard turns sharply north to avoid the Toronto Sailing and Canoe Club near Dowling Avenue.

toronto parkdale lake shore

The planned path of Lake Shore Boulevard (then known as Boulevard Drive) through South Parkdale, December, 1920. Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 724, Item 166.

For the next few decades, South Parkdale remained relatively stable. Lake Shore Boulevard was five lanes wide and often busy with traffic, but houses and driveways still lined the route. The eventual destruction of the neighbourhood came in 1956, when construction began on the Lakeshore Expressway.

About 150 homes and 400 people were forced to make way for the expressway when the route was announced in 1954. For Dorothy Wood, who lived on the south end of Jameson Avenue, it was just history repeating itself. When she was young her parents’ home was expropriated for Lake Shore Boulevard.

“When they pulled down our house for Lake Shore Boulevard, we moved into this house,” she told the Toronto Star. “I like the location. It is cool in the summer—I don’t know where I could find another place like it in Toronto.”

Mrs. K. B. McKellar of Starr Avenue expressed similar feelings. “I love it here. I don’t want to move,” she said. “We have a very nice garden and a very pleasant view of the lakefront.”

Mr. C. L. Ellis, who operated a tourist property in the neighbourhood, took the news with a shrug. “If they hand us a big enough cheque for this property, we won’t kick too much,” he said. “But we’ve been here four years, we’ve put a lot of money into the place and we like the location.”

In 1956, photographer James Salmon pictured the condemned streets shortly before construction on the expressway began. The roads and sidewalks were empty and the yards overgrown and strewn with leaves. Within weeks, it was all gone.

Empress Avenue looking west from Dunn Avenue in 1956. Construction of the Lakeshore Expressway began the same year. Image: Toronto Public Library, S 1-4093.

To make a path for the Gardiner through South Parkdale, almost all the streets south of King and west of Dufferin were demolished. The houses on Starr Avenue, Laburnam Avenue, Empress Crescent, and others were all torn down and the trees, sewers, and fire hydrants removed.

Workers dug a trench for the new highway to the south of the rail corridor, creating a stark landscape that captured the imagination of a young novelist, playwright, and poet Milton Terrence Kelly.

“Parkdale was a construction site. All the Victorian homes, including the one next door to where my best friend lived, were being torn down for apartment houses,” he recalled.

“The great trench of the Gardiner went through, cutting us off from the Lake. While it was being built, we played there, pretending we were wolves; the ramp led up and fell off, as eerie and windswept as a desert.”

The Toronto Star interviewed residents of South Parkdale in 1954 about the impending destruction of their neighbourhood. Some were sad, others were happy with a cheque. Image: Toronto Daily Star, May 4, 1954.

The area didn’t stay quiet for long. When the road opened in 1962, cars and trucks filled the highway and its access roads. Lake Shore Boulevard bloated to its current proportions, essentially acting as a second parallel expressway.

The former location of South Parkdale is now so dense with highways, feeder roads, overpasses, and traffic noise it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was anything like the rest of Parkdale.

Toronto mayor John Sewell and Metropolitan Toronto chairman Paul Godfrey announced a plan with the potential to bring back South Parkdale in 1979.

At their direction, city planners studied the feasibility of covering over the Gardiner and rail corridor between Dowling Avenue and Exhibition Place, creating about 40 acres of new land for residential development.

toronto south parkdale

Artists impression of the never-built expressway and highway deck that could have brought South Parkdale back to life. Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 335, Item 9.

Drawings from the resulting report showed mid-rise buildings on a restored South Parkdale street grid north of Lake Shore Boulevard.

“To encase the rails and road would indeed be grandiose,” wrote Globe and Mail columnist Dick Beddoes. “We’d have a mile-long covered corridor, which presumably, we’d call the Godfrey-Sewell Secret Passage. Or Tunnel Job.”

He clearly didn’t think much of the idea.

The tunnel plan was projected to cost somewhere in the region of $25-million, according to Parkdale councillor Barbara Adams, but nothing much came of it save for some paperwork.

South Parkdale will have to wait for its return.

The post The lost streets of South Parkdale appeared first on Spacing Toronto.

04 Feb 18:19

The Internet of Things Will Be the World's Biggest Robot

by schneier

The Internet of Things is the name given to the computerization of everything in our lives. Already you can buy Internet-enabled thermostats, light bulbs, refrigerators, and cars. Soon everything will be on the Internet: the things we own, the things we interact with in public, autonomous things that interact with each other.

These "things" will have two separate parts. One part will be sensors that collect data about us and our environment. Already our smartphones know our location and, with their onboard accelerometers, track our movements. Things like our thermostats and light bulbs will know who is in the room. Internet-enabled street and highway sensors will know how many people are out and about­ -- and eventually who they are. Sensors will collect environmental data from all over the world.

The other part will be actuators. They'll affect our environment. Our smart thermostats aren't collecting information about ambient temperature and who's in the room for nothing; they set the temperature accordingly. Phones already know our location, and send that information back to Google Maps and Waze to determine where traffic congestion is; when they're linked to driverless cars, they'll automatically route us around that congestion. Amazon already wants autonomous drones to deliver packages. The Internet of Things will increasingly perform actions for us and in our name.

Increasingly, human intervention will be unnecessary. The sensors will collect data. The system's smarts will interpret the data and figure out what to do. And the actuators will do things in our world. You can think of the sensors as the eyes and ears of the Internet, the actuators as the hands and feet of the Internet, and the stuff in the middle as the brain. This makes the future clearer. The Internet now senses, thinks, and acts.

We're building a world-sized robot, and we don't even realize it.

I've started calling this robot the World-Sized Web.

The World-Sized Web -- can I call it WSW? -- is more than just the Internet of Things. Much of the WSW's brains will be in the cloud, on servers connected via cellular, Wi-Fi, or short-range data networks. It's mobile, of course, because many of these things will move around with us, like our smartphones. And it's persistent. You might be able to turn off small pieces of it here and there, but in the main the WSW will always be on, and always be there.

None of these technologies are new, but they're all becoming more prevalent. I believe that we're at the brink of a phase change around information and networks. The difference in degree will become a difference in kind. That's the robot that is the WSW.

This robot will increasingly be autonomous, at first simply and increasingly using the capabilities of artificial intelligence. Drones with sensors will fly to places that the WSW needs to collect data. Vehicles with actuators will drive to places that the WSW needs to affect. Other parts of the robots will "decide" where to go, what data to collect, and what to do.

We're already seeing this kind of thing in warfare; drones are surveilling the battlefield and firing weapons at targets. Humans are still in the loop, but how long will that last? And when both the data collection and resultant actions are more benign than a missile strike, autonomy will be an easier sell.

By and large, the WSW will be a benign robot. It will collect data and do things in our interests; that's why we're building it. But it will change our society in ways we can't predict, some of them good and some of them bad. It will maximize profits for the people who control the components. It will enable totalitarian governments. It will empower criminals and hackers in new and different ways. It will cause power balances to shift and societies to change.

These changes are inherently unpredictable, because they're based on the emergent properties of these new technologies interacting with each other, us, and the world. In general, it's easy to predict technological changes due to scientific advances, but much harder to predict social changes due to those technological changes. For example, it was easy to predict that better engines would mean that cars could go faster. It was much harder to predict that the result would be a demographic shift into suburbs. Driverless cars and smart roads will again transform our cities in new ways, as will autonomous drones, cheap and ubiquitous environmental sensors, and a network that can anticipate our needs.

Maybe the WSW is more like an organism. It won't have a single mind. Parts of it will be controlled by large corporations and governments. Small parts of it will be controlled by us. But writ large its behavior will be unpredictable, the result of millions of tiny goals and billions of interactions between parts of itself.

We need to start thinking seriously about our new world-spanning robot. The market will not sort this out all by itself. By nature, it is short-term and profit-motivated­ -- and these issues require broader thinking. University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo has proposed a Federal Robotics Commission as a place where robotics expertise and advice can be centralized within the government. Japan and Korea are already moving in this direction.

Speaking as someone with a healthy skepticism for another government agency, I think we need to go further. We need to create agency, a Department of Technology Policy, that can deal with the WSW in all its complexities. It needs the power to aggregate expertise and advice other agencies, and probably the authority to regulate when appropriate. We can argue the details, but there is no existing government entity that has the either the expertise or authority to tackle something this broad and far reaching. And the question is not about whether government will start regulating these technologies, it's about how smart they'll be when they do it.

The WSW is being built right now, without anyone noticing, and it'll be here before we know it. Whatever changes it means for society, we don't want it to take us by surprise.

This essay originally appeared on, which annoyingly blocks browsers using ad blockers.

EDITED TO ADD: Kevin Kelly has also thought along these lines, calling the robot "Holos."

EDITED TO ADD: Commentary.

24 Apr 14:36

The Big Idea: Daryl Gregory

by John Scalzi

Sounds interesting.

Your brain: Is it your friend? Or is it something else entirely — something maybe a little less chummy with you than you thought? Ask Daryl Gregory, because he’s given it some thought (with his brain!!!!) for his newest novel, Afterparty.


Your brain is lying to you. Not just about the small stuff, like when it makes you fall for an optical illusion, messes with your sense of time, or creates a gorilla-size gap in your perception when it’s busy concentrating on something else.

Your brain is also lying about the big stuff, the most fundamental aspects of being human. It starts with the illusion that there’s a “you” behind your eyes, and independent “self” that has something called free will. Folks like Daniel Dennett argue that free will is just a feeling of control. And Dan Ariely, the guy who wrote Predictably Irrational, can supply plenty of examples of how our “rational” decision-making can be shaped by things as simple as changing the design of a form at the DMV.

But evolution has also shaped our brains to affect the way we make moral decisions. Consider the well-known thought experiment, the Trolley Problem. A runaway trolley is coming down the track toward five people. You can pull a lever to divert the trolley onto another track, where a single person is standing. Do you kill one person to save five?

The answers people give can vary simply by the story you tell about the singleton who would die. Is he a fat man you’d have to push onto the track yourself,  a villain who “deserves it,” or an unsuspecting guy sleeping in his hammock? Because we evolved as social apes, some actions just feel more wrong, even if the moral calculus is the same.

Your brain, basically, is Mr. Liar McLiarpants. And that’s the big idea behind Afterparty.

The story takes place in the very near future. (If you want to write about the present in a way that won’t feel quaint in ten minutes, write near-future SF. It’s just mainstream fiction with the sell-by date scraped off.)  To show what life is like a few years into the designer-drug revolution, I made up a few technologies that are pretty much doable now, chief among them the ChemJet.

Here’s how you build one. Take something like a 3D printer. Replace the input material with packets of pre-cursor chemicals (phenethylamine’s a good building block) that you buy semi-legally online. Next download recipes for smart drugs from a vibrant community of bio-hackers. Or make your own, and beta test the results on you and your friends.

Obviously there are going to be some interesting consequences of desktop drug design, some of them horrible.

Lyda Rose, the main character in the book, is a good example of both sides of that bio-hacking coin. She’s a former neuroscientist who discovers that the drug she helped create ten years ago, and thought she buried, is back on the streets, being printed by underground churches.

The drug goes by the name Numinous, and for good reason. Take a little, and you get that mystical feeling that William James described in The Varieties of Religious Experience, and that’s been experienced by humans throughout history. (Some people with temporal lobe epilepsy have it every day.) It has many qualities, but the main one is that you feel like you’re in contact with something wholly outside your self—a divine other.

That’s what happens if you take a little Numinous. Overdose on the drug, however, and you might wake up with a deity permanently installed in your brain—your own personal Jesus.

Ten years before the story starts, Lyda and the co-creators were all given a massive dose of Numinous against their will. (Who did that to them, and why, is one of the mysteries in the book.) Each of the survivors now has their own “divine” presence living with them, and Lyda’s is Dr. Gloria, an angel in a white lab coat. Lyda, as a scientist, knows that Dr. Gloria’s a hallucination. But the other side of the coin is that the good doctor is also good for her; Lyda’s a better person when Gloria is advising her and soothing her.

That’s the main question the book asks: if someone invented a drug that made you technically insane, but helped you to be kinder and more connected to your fellow humans, would you take it? And what happens when other people decide they should convert you for your own good?

If you don’t want to wait for the future to get your dose of chemical evangelism, you can always take the long road. Every day, millions of people meditate, pray, sing whirl, and chant, chasing that feeling of the numinous. Whether it’s God (or some other higher power) communicating with them, or whether it’s just the brain fooling them with its own recipe of chemicals, that’s a question that each person—and his or her brain—has to work out for themselves.

As for me, I trust my brain about as far as I can throw it. (Which isn’t far, because skull.) But I think of it as living with a charming sociopath. Some of the stories it tells become more interesting when you know they’re lies.


Afterparty: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBoundPowell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

29 Jan 16:32

The Big Idea: James L. Cambias

by John Scalzi

I can say this with some authority: I’ve known longer than anyone else working in science fiction today that James Cambias is a terrific writer. I know this because when I was editor of my college newspaper, James turned in some fantastic articles about the history of the university and of Chicago, the city our school was in — so good that I was always telling him he needed to write more (he had some degree program that was also taking up his time, alas. Stupid degree program). After our time in school, James made it into science fiction and has since been nominated for the Campbell, the Nebula and the Tiptree.

So it comes as absolutely no surprise to me that James’ debut novel, A Darkling Sea, is racking up the sort of praise it is, including three starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist, and comparisons to the work of grand masters like Robert Silverberg and Hal Clement. He’s always been that good, in science fiction and out of it.

Here’s James now, to tell you more about his book, and how one of the great tropes of science fiction plays into it — and why that great trope isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. 


Small groups of people can have a huge impact on history. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought by two “armies” which could easily fit into Radio City Music Hall together, without any need for standing room.

I wanted to tell the story of a tiny, remote outpost which becomes the flashpoint for an interstellar conflict. But I had a problem: most of the reasons for interstellar conflicts in science fiction are actually pretty lame.

Seriously: who’s going to fight over gold mines or thorium deposits when the Universe is full of lifeless worlds with abundant resources? And even if we find worlds with native life, it’s fantastically unlikely that humans will be able to live on them without massive technological support.

So there’s not going to be range wars, or fights over the oilfields, or whatever. The sheer size of the Universe makes conflict difficult and unnecessary.

Which means a war with an alien civilization has to be about something other than material wealth. It has to involve the most dangerous thing we know of: ideology.

In my new novel A Darkling Sea, a band of human scientists are exploring a distant moon called Ilmatar. Like Europa, Ilmatar has an icy surface but an ocean of liquid water deep below. The humans have built a base on the sea bottom in order to study Ilmatar’s native life forms, including the intelligent, tool-using Ilmatarans.

But they aren’t allowed to make contact with the Ilmatarans, because of another star-faring species called the Sholen. The Sholen are more advanced scientifically than humanity, and have adopted a strict hands-off policy regarding pre-technological societies. A policy which they insist the humans follow — or else.

That’s all very well, but there’s a problem with that attitude. The native Ilmatarans aren’t passive beings. They are curious and intelligent. One group in particular are very interested in preserving and expanding scientific knowledge, and it’s that band of scientists who come across a reckless human explorer. He winds up advancing the cause of science in a very unpleasant way, and the violation of the no-contact policy inflames the Sholen suspicions of the humans.

The humans resent what they see as bullying by the Sholen. The Sholen suspect the humans have imperialist ambitions. Tensions keep rising and eventually explode into outright war — a war fought by two dozen individuals on each side, at the bottom of a black ocean under a mile of ice.

Alert readers may notice that the ideology which creates this powderkeg in the first place is nothing less than Star Trek’s famous “Prime Directive” — a noble ideal and a hallmark of science fiction optimism.

I’ve always hated the Prime Directive.

The Prime Directive idea stems from a mix of outrageous arrogance and equally overblown self-loathing, a toxic brew masked by pure and noble rhetoric.

Arrogance, you say? Surely it’s not arrogant to leave people alone in peace? Who are you, Cortez or someone?

No, but the Milky Way Galaxy isn’t 16th-Century Mexico, either. The idea of forswearing contact with other intelligent species “for their own good” is arrogant. It’s arrogant because it ignores the desires of those other species, and denies them the choice to have contact with others.

If Captain Kirk or whoever shows up on your planet and says “I’m from another planet. Let’s talk and maybe exchange genetic material — or not, if you want me to leave just say so,” that’s an infinitely more reasonable and moral act than for Captain Kirk to sneak around watching you without revealing his own existence. The first is an interaction between equals, the second is the attitude of a scientist watching bacteria. Is that really a moral thing to do? Why does having cooler toys than someone else give you the right to treat them like bacteria?

“But what if they come as conquerors?” you ask. “That’s not an interaction of equals!”

That’s entirely true. And of course an aggressive, conquering civilization is hardly going to come up with the idea of a Prime Directive. It’s a rule which can only be invented by people who don’t need it.

Which brings me to the second toxic ingredient: self-loathing. I’d say that only post-World War II Western culture could come up with the Prime Directive, as that’s about the only time in human history we’ve had a civilization with tremendous power that’s also washed in a sense of tremendous shame. Previous powerful civilizations felt they had a right, or even a duty, to conquer others or remake them in their own image. Previous weak civilizations were too busy trying to survive. Only the West after two World Wars worries about its own potential for harm.

The Sholen in my novel have that same sense of shame. Their history holds more horrors than our own, and their civilizational guilt is killing them. They’re naturals for a “Prime Directive” philosophy. For them, humans are an ideal object for their psychological projection. They see all their own worst traits in humans, and assume the worst about the motives and intentions of humanity. The result confirms each side’s fears about the other.

As to what happens then, well, read the book.


A Darkling Sea: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog

03 Jan 03:15

January 1: Ecce Foreskin

by davenoon

According to Christian tradition, January 1 marks the eighth day of Jesus’ life. Among other things, it is the day on which — following Jewish custom — the Son of Man would have been circumcised. And while the rest of his body would presumably have ascended to heaven on the third day after his gruesome execution, early followers believed it quite possible that he had neglected to retrieve his long-excised foreskin before taking a seat at his father’s right hand.

For medieval and early modern Christians, Jesus’ foreskin remained an object of peculiar veneration, with as many as eighteen different reliquary nubs of flesh competing for attention and honor. Charlemagne allegedly offered one to Pope Leo III as a gesture of gratitude for being crowned emperor in 800. Another, purchased from a vendor in Jerusalem at the end of the 11th century, was brought back to Antwerp as a souvenir from the first Crusade.

Nearly 300 years later, St. Catherine of Siena purported to wear the foreskin as a ring, while the 13th century Austrian mystic Agnes Blannbekin had an even more unusual relationship with the sacred relic. By Agnes’ own account, she tasted the carne vera sancta — the “true and holy meat” — numerous times during communion. As she revealed to an anonymous Franciscan scribe, she had long pondered the whereabouts of Christ’s foreskin until she experienced a revelation one year on the Feast of the Circumcision.

And behold, soon she felt with the greatest sweetness on her tongue a little piece of skin alike the skin in an egg, which she swallowed. After she had swallowed it, she again felt the little skin on her tongue with sweetness as before, and again she swallowed it. And this happened to her about a hundred times . . . . And so great was the sweetness of tasting that little skin that she felt in all limbs and parts of the limbs a sweet transformation. 

Similarly graphic, often erotic accounts helped assure that Agnes’ Life and Revelations would remain unpublished until the 20th century.

Like most Catholic relics, the Holy Prepuce was believed to possess extraordinary powers, including (not surprisingly) the enhancement of fertility and sexuality. And so in 1421, the English King Henry V retrieved one of the rumored foreskins from the French village of Coulombs to aid his wife, Catherine of Valois, in the delivery of their first son. Alas, while the relic may have helped bring the future King Henry VI into the world, it did his father little enduring good. The king died less than a year later, felled by dysentery.

The Reformation helped to undermine Catholic traditions of all kinds, including its centuries of speculation on the provenance and status of Christ’s foreskin. In 1900, the Church issued an edict than any discussion of the Holy Prepuce would result in excommunication and shunning; since the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, Roman Catholics have not officially recognized the Feast of the Circumcision, though it continues to be observed in some Anglican and most Lutheran churches. The last public appearance of one of Jesus’ alleged foreskins took place in the Italian village of Calcata, which had hosted the tip of the Redeemer’s penis since 1557. Residents of Calcata and Catholic pilgrims continued to celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision until 1983, when thieves absconded with the foreskin and the jewel-encrusted box that contained it. Neither it nor any other alleged foreskins have ever turned up.