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ConFusion 2015, Panel 2: Science vs. Fiction

on Sat, 01/31/2015 - 08:40

John Scalzi interviewed Dr. Cynthia Chestek about the state of human/machine neural interfaces.

This was a fun panel. I had heard of Scalzi's legendary moderating style, and here he did not disappoint. He laid out the rules right up front and whenever someone from the audience tried to speak out of turn, he pounced!

The content of the panel was mostly Dr. Chestek talking about her work in the field of neural interfaces. In particular, implanting extremely fine wires in human brains to allow them to control machines or prostheses. Some random points from the talk

* The wires are very fine, on the order of 8 microns in diameter. For comparison, a human hair is between 40 and 50 microns in diameter. The wires need to be so thin so that they can match up with individual neurons, and thus receive discrete signals. Dr. Chestek said they slide into brain tissue "like butter".

* The bit rate across one of these wires is very slow - in the neighborhood of four bits a second. This rate is per wire, though, so the more wires attached to a brain, the more information can be gathered. The down side is that for and significant amount of resolution and control, you need to have, at minimum, hundreds of wires.

* The advantage of using individual wires attached to neurons as opposed to, say, a mesh laid across the surface of the brain to pick up electrical signals is this: Given the complexity and density of the brain, it is extremely difficult to target the exact neurons producing the electrical signals. Direct contact is much more precise than close proximity.

* Also, the contents of the brain are not rigid. The brain itself is quite soft. It has "plasticity". Neurons move around; not a lot, granted, but when your work is measured in microns any movement at all is huge. This increases the difficulty of mass-producing an implant by several orders of magnitude.

* Dr. Chestek was very firm on the point of "prosthetics, NOT augmentation". For her this is an ethical point. Her work is meant to allow people to regain abilities they have lost through illness or injury. It is not meant to be used for powered battle exoskeletons or the like. Not that it ultimately couldn't be used for such.

* One of the first uses might well be simple telepresence. Given the (relative) ubiquity of wireless broadband and cellular signals, a person confined to a bed could control a communication system of some kind in another room, or another building, or indeed almost anywhere on the planet. The more fidelity and the more senses engaged, the more bandwidth becomes an issue - not just in getting the signal from point A to point B, but in the amount of control a (for instance) completely paralyzed person has over the interface itself.

* John Scalzi's latest book Lock In addresses some of these issues. Also, it's a great read!

* I asked what the advantages were of inserting electrodes directly in the brain, instead of at the ends of the nerves in amputees. Dr. Chestek said she would be addresing these issues at another panel. Unfortunately I did not attend that panel.

That's all I have for this panel. Click here for the introductory article of this series, as well as links to the other articles.

ConFusion 2015, Panel 1: What About Peaceful Societies?

on Fri, 01/23/2015 - 20:46

The moderator for this panel was Kameron Hurley. Panelists included Annalee Flower Horne, Saladin Ahmed, James Frederick Leach, and Steven Erickson.

"What is a peaceful society?" "Is it possible to write an engaging story about a peaceful society?" "Where do we find the conflict necessary for a good story when we write about peace?" These are some of the questions the panelists addressed during this, the first talk I attended at ConFusion 2015. It turned out to be quite a complicated topic. It also underscored the point that THESE PANELS NEED TO BE RECORDED!

These are some points brought up by the authors, roughly in order from my notes. Interspersed are my thoughts on the subjects mixed with what I remember of the conversations.

S.E. Peace as a survival mechanism

This was an interesting take on the question. Peaceful societies would necessarily be more robust than those which are continually in conflict. Though conflict can drive progress, that presupposes the not-necessarily-accurate idea that progress is objectively good or necessary. Note that this doesn't necessarily equate peace with passivity. And it is contextual. A society which is internally peaceful may have arrived at this state through extreme violence. Which brings us to...

S.A. Peace is the quieter moments of empire. In "peaceful" times, what violence is being ignored?

The example here was the Clinton years, when America was prosperous and we were not involved in any particularly large wars. For the U.S., it was a peaceful time. For everyone else, not so much. And in that time there was extreme violence worldwide. Crime here in America, wars and battles and massacres all over the globe. We had just finished an excursion to the Middle East and were not far away from doing it again.

A.F.H. positive and negative peace

There is the peaceful community which is often represented in fiction as idyllic, utopian, often populated by hippie analogs. And there is the totalitarian regime where dissent is not tolerated, but society is peaceful. Another way to look at it: Did the people choose peace, or was peace chosen for them?

J.F.L. Can any society be peaceful? Also, Conflict vs. violence

The answer here was left open, as it was too big a question to give the necessary attention to in an hour-long panel. As with so many other points in this panel, a large part of the answer came down to the scale at which the question was asked, and the lower boundary for "peace". A household may be peaceful, but it is located in a crime-ridden neighborhood. That neighborhood may be in a quiet, prosperous city. That city might be in the middle of a country that is at war with its neighbors. So depending on the spatial and temporal boundaries of "society" the answer here was "maybe?" 

K.H. Is the default state of humanity one of violence?

Wow, what a depressing thought. A couple of ideas got tossed back and forth, talking about specific cultures, going all the way back to the Neanderthals. But we quickly realized that...

S.E. We have no basis for comparison.

We have not (yet) been able to observe another civilization as advanced (?) as ours. We have only humanity as the yardstick by which to measure humanity. We have committed a tremendous amount of violence against ourselves over the last couple hundred thousand years, yet in aggregate the percentage of people in violent conflict at any given moment is quite small.

S.E. We haven't reached a post-scarcity state.

Another interesting idea from Steven Erickson. As long as resources are scarce, there will be conflict. The only post-scarcity society in SF that comes to mind is the Federation in Star Trek. Of course few of the civilizations they encounter are post-scarcity, and this may drive some of the in-universe interactions. Assuming territory expansion is a driving force, no civilization in the universe ultimately lives in a post-scarcity  

S.A. Not enough dystopian literature deals with scarcity. Thus a lot of S.F. conflict feels trite or trivial

This is a very good point. Retrieving a stolen amulet or seeking revenge for a courtly slight may make a good story on the face of it, but it feels like, well, there are other ways to resolve the issue. If your people are starving and desperate to the point that invading your neighbors is an improvement over the statis quo, that makes the story feel real. For instance, in a plurality of kung fu movies from the 70s, the first fight starts with the line "Hey. You lookin; at me?" That's a mighty small base on which to build a compelling story.

S.A. Why doesn't Fantasy address scarcity?

I wracked my brains for a long time after this comment. I can't think of any fantasy novels which deal with scarcity on a societal scale as a major plot point. Sure, half of all fantasy novels start out with $character, who is a starving beggar in $city, discovering his or her true identity. But once $plot_hook kicks in, there is no more talk of scarcity or resource management.

K.H. Discovering society through story, rather than story through society

The idea here was that authors generally seem to do a large amount of world-building, then go into the world to find the story. Hurley's idea was that it is equally valid, and often preferrable, to come up with a story and see what kind of society would coalesce around that story. For writing about peaceful societies, it is difficult to imagine a peaceful society, because there are so few around which are larger than e.g. an Amish village.

J.F.L. Coming of age as conflict. Fragmentary frames of reference.

Put this another way, it is possible to outgrow a peaceful society. The problem with any ostensibly utopian community is that it is made up of people who are constantly changing and evolving. What was the ideal situation one day may not seem so on the next. And peace/lack of conflict may exist in a temporary bubble in the middle of turbulent times. 

A.F.H. "War is the price of peace" is ingrained into the American mythos

This ties back to Saladin Ahmed's remark about peace being the quiet moments of empire, and could be said to lay behind it.

A.F.H. Conflict is contextual. The more alike we are, the more the small differences matter to us.

This is demonstrated every time a stable population is disrupted by infighting. Also because people are human. No matter how small or homogenous the population, they seem to inevitably divide into "us" and "them".


And this is the (unsurprisingly short, considering the topic) list of books which were mentioned by the panelists:

Dan Abraham - A Shadow in Summer from the Long Price Quartet
Molly Gloss - The Dazzle of Day
John KnowlesA Separate Peace
Paul ParkStarbridge Chronicles
Kim Stanley Robinson - Pacific Edge


ConFusion 2015

on Mon, 01/19/2015 - 22:04

This past weekend I attended the ConFusion science fiction convention in Dearborn, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. I have not been to a con in thirteen years; the last one was ConFusion 2002, when Heather Alexander was the musical guest of honor.

I attended this year for two reasons. First as a great big science fiction geek, and second as a representative of Caffeinated Press. My plan was to track down some successful authors and ask them what they looked for in a publisher, and any stories, good or bad, they cared to share about their publishing experiences. As it turns out, famous authors at a science fiction convention are a much-sought-after commodity, so that plan kind of fell flat.

I arrived at the Dearborn Doubletree Hilton just after 3:00 on Friday. I checked into my hotel room, changed my shirt, and wandered down to the main lobby. A large group of science fiction and fantasy authors were sitting around a table eating chocolate cake and taking photos of each other eating chocolate cake. I recognized Jim C. Hines from a talk he gave at the local Thank God It's Over party at the end of NaNoWriMo, back at the beginning of December. I introduced myself and we talked for a minute, but I quickly realized I was interrupting something, so I left the cake and explored some of the convention rooms.

Things hadn't officially started yet and the only action was in the gaming areas. People were setting up for Dungeons and Dragons (5th edition), several different card games, and a number of board games I didn't recognize. Of course I haven't played board games (other than The Settlers of Catan) in many years, so this was not surprising.

As 5:00 pm approached more and more people filed into the hotel, and finally it was time for the first round of panels. I went to one called "What About Peaceful Societies?", which explored the notion of nonviolent science fiction books. There aren't many out there. One of the panelists was a Quaker. After the panel I spoke with her and her husband. I said that I thought it was unusual to see Quakers at a science fiction convention, and they said that all the Quakers they know are big fans. That never would have occurred to me.

I went to a couple of more panels, then hit the bar for dinner and a beer. I struck up a conversation with some folks, one of who turned out to be Michael Elliott, author of Descent Into Redemption. This conversation, along with about a dozen similar over the course of the weekend, made me realize that practically every attendee was a writer to some degree. Several had been published - some by traditional publishers, and many had self-published through Amazon or Smash Words or one of an ever-increasing number of similar platforms. So I shifted my focus. I would leave the bigger-name authors alone and talk to people who were still forging their way.

I have to admit here that, as an as-yet-unpublished writer myself, there was an element of self-interest to these conversations.

On the way out of the bar I happened across John Scalzi and his wife eating dinner with some folks. I introduced myself and he was polite but glared quite ferociously, so I quickly excused myself. I later learned that interrupting authors at meals and such is Frowned Upon by the convention staff. Noted. Won't happen again.

The whole weekend went this way. I attended thirteen panels, each of which will be discussed here in a separate blog post. I talked briefly with several of the more established authors - Karen Lord, Tobias BuckellSaladin Ahmed, Steven Erikson, and Wesley Chu, among others.

Saturday evening, again in the bar, I struck up a conversation with a couple who were not in the hotel for the convention. They had arrived during the costume contest. That was an interesting conversation. I explained what was going on, and pointed out some of the famous people who were literally within arm's reach."You see that guy? He's had several books on the NYT best sellers list. The woman over there? Won half a dozen awards. And him? He's published about thirty books."

Afterwards, on the way to my room, I ran into Dr. Philip Kaldon browsing through a pile of old issues of Locus Magazine. We ended up having a forty-five minute conversation about the ins and outs, the ups and downs, of getting into publishing, and getting published. He was a superb source of information and ideas, and extremely friendly. And he's a West Michigan local!

ConFusion 2015 was a great experience. I learned a lot about writing, editing, and publishing, and came away inspired to get Caffeinated Press up and running and maybe look at publishing some of my own work.

Here are the notes I took for each of the panels.

  1. What About Peaceful Societies?
  2. Science vs. Fiction

2015 Reading List

on Sun, 01/04/2015 - 17:26

This post is a space where I will list all the books I read in the 2015 calendar year. I last did a list like this back in, oh, 2002 or 2003. Back when I was young and feckless. Now that I am in my mid-40s, and have more feck ("feckful"?), I am more likely to keep current on a project like this. And because the feck is strong in me, I will limit myself to only listing those books I actually read a substantial portion of; say, 50% or more. Not just books I buy or borrow from the library. And I will only list books I have not read before. Otherwise Cryptonomicon would show up here three or four times.

Feck it.

Anyway. THE LIST, in reading order:

Buckell, Tobias - Hurricane Fever
Lord, Karen - Redemption in Indigo
Ahmed, Saladin - Throne of the Crescent Moon
Kowal, Mary Robinette - Glamour in Glass
Cascade Writers' Group and The Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters - Imagine This!: An ArtPrize Anthology
Datlow, Ellen (ed.) - Fearful Symmetries
Harrison, Jim - The Big Seven
Collins, Brigid - Singer
Collins, Ron - Glamour of the God-Touched
Tillich, Paul - Dynamics of Faith


ConFusion 2015 Attending Authors, With Links

on Fri, 01/02/2015 - 12:05

This is an expansion of the list of authors and other Guests of Honor attending and participating in ConFusion 2015 in Dearborn, Michigan. The list as it exists on the ConFusion site does not have any associated links, so I took the liberty. This is likely a work in progress.


[UPDATE 1: added Shanna Germain and Monte Cook]


[UPDATE 2: added Peter V. Brett]


[UPDATE 3: added James Frederick Leach and Annalee Flower Horne]


Joe Abercrombie [website, twitter, goodreads]
Saladin Ahmed [website, twitter, goodreads]
Scott H. Andrews [website, twitter, goodreads]
Bradley P. Beaulieu [website, twitter, goodreads]
Robert Bennett [website, twitter, goodreads]
Leah Bobet [website, twitter, goodreads]
Peter V. Brett [website, twitter, goodreads]
Tobias Buckell [website, twitter, goodreads]
Rowena Cherry [website, twitter, goodreads]
Cynthia Chestek [ profile]
Ted Chiang [goodreads]
Cinda Williams Chima [website, twitter, goodreads]
Wesley Chu [website, twitter, goodreads]
Myke Cole [website, twitter, goodreads]
Brigid Collins [website, twitter]
Ron Collins [website, twitter]
Monte Cook [website, twitter, goodreads]
Heather Dale [website, twitter]
J.C. Daniels [website, twitter, goodreads]
Delilah S. Dawson [website, twitter, goodreads]
Seleste deLaney [website, twitter, goodreads]
Michael J. DeLuca [website, twitter, goodreads]
Susan Dennard [website, twitter, goodreads]
Tom Doyle [website, twitter, goodreads]
Steven Erikson [website, goodreads]
Shanna Germain [website, twitter, goodreads]
Janet Harriett [website, twitter, goodreads]
Carrie Harris [website, twitter, goodreads]
Merrie Haskell [website, twitter, goodreads]
Jim C. Hines [website, twitter, goodreads]
Annalee Flower Horne [website, twitter, goodreads]
Douglas Hulick [website, twitter, goodreads]
Kameron Hurley [website, twitter, goodreads]
Philip Kaldon [website, twitter, goodreads]
Christian Klaver [website, twitter, goodreads]
Mary Robinette Kowal [website, twitter, goodreads]
James Frederick Leach [websitegoodreads]
Karen Lord [website, twitter, goodreads]
Brian McClellan [website, twitter, goodreads]
Courtney Allison Moulton [website, twitter, goodreads]
Peter Orullian [website, twitter, goodreads]
Cindy Spencer Pape [website, twitter, goodreads]
Christine Purcell [twitter, goodreads]
Cherie Priest [website, twitter, goodreads]
Laura Resnick [website, twitter, goodreads]
Diana Rowland [website, twitter, goodreads]
Jason Sanford [website, twitter, goodreads]
John Scalzi [website, twitter, goodreads]
Catherine Shaffer [website, twitter, goodreads]
Ferrett Steinmetz [website, twitter, goodreads]
Amy Sundberg [website, twitter, goodreads]
Michael J. Sullivan [website, twitter, goodreads]
Aaron Thul [twitter]
Patrick S. Tomlinson [website, twitter, goodreads]
Michael R. Underwood [website, twitter, goodreads]
Doselle Young [website, twitter, goodreads]
Lara Zielin [website, twitter, goodreads]