Category Archives: Hmmm

Gibson on Ellis on Harrison on Worldbuilding

Via William Gibson’s blog, a quote about a quote about obsessive worldbuilding:

M John Harrison, absolutely brilliantly, as quoted by Warren Ellis :

“Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.”

Cafe Scientifique: 2007-03-17

Cafe Scientifique Poster for 2007-03-17So I made it to Cafe Scientifique again this month. I’m two for two since I started going; here’s hoping I make it to more.

The topic this month was “Nature vs Nurture Revisited: New research is changing the age-old debate.” The expert panel was Robert Gerlai, Ph.D (Dept. of psychology, UofT) and Christopher E. Pearson, Ph.D (Dept. of genetics and genome biology, SickKids Research Institute). I expected there to be more talk about specific issues of NvN, like sexual orientation or intelligence. Instead, the talk mostly dealt (as far as I saw) with the biological mechanisms that come into play.

IANAEB, but in a nutshell there are two processes being discussed here: Darwinian evolution and Lamarckian evolution1. Darwinian evolution is of course the process by which a gene or group of genes that produces a phenotype conducive to its own propagation will tend to be better represented in the gene pool, beating out its allele rivals. Lamarckian evolution is the theory that an organism can pass on traits it has acquired during its own lifetime.

Sounds weird, right? Our DNA sequence is fixed — how could we possibly pass on genes we weren’t born with? Well, it turns out that cytosine (the “C” in GATTACA) can be methylated or de-methylated by the introduction of certain substances, and that this new form can have different phenotypic effects. This process is referred to as epigenetics. So what happens is, someone eats a diet2 containing a substance that toggles the methylation state of a certain sequence in some of their cells, including germ cells. It doesn’t affect them, or not much, because they have already developed into a human. However, the new methylation state is persistent. So when one of those germ cells becomes another person, there is a chance that the altered sequence will trigger some aberrant effect.

This has all sorts of implications, some good and some bad. On the one hand, we might find that certain diseases are caused or exacerbated by a certain methylated state on a certain gene, and that simply making sure that the population gets a certain amount of some nutrient will reduce the incidence of that disease. On the other hand, this may increase the amount of medicating that we do. Drug companies and “alternative medicine” manufacturers may jump on the band wagon, marketing products that claim to “de-methylate your cancer genes” or whatever, playing on people’s ignorance and fear to get them to eat more pills. What’s more, there may be even more pressure than there already is on women to treat their bodies like baby machines and to make sure that even before they start thinking about reproducing they maintain a diet that will produce the optimal methylation state in their bodies.

Just as with any new technology or discovery, the recent findings in epigenetics contain potential for a lot of good and a lot of evil. The talk today was very informative, and I’m grateful to the two panelists for taking the time to make it out. Today I learned about a facet of evolution that I would never have imagined existed.

1 Note that these are not competing theories, although they could be seen as competing processes. Like Darwinian evolution, Lamarckian evolution has been observed and measured, though it is more difficult to reproduce and control than Darwinian evolution for various reasons.

2 This could also be the result of other environmental influences, such as atmosphere composition, but diet seems the most effective since we actually have in-built mechanism for distributing food’s components around our bodies.

“Three Questions” meme

From Facebook, here is a daring little meme: You get to ask me three questions about myself, and no matter how inappropriate or embarrassing, I have to answer truthfully. The winner is the first person to ask a question I refuse to answer (not as easy as it sounds). I will veto questions that go against safety and security concerns, such as “where do you keep your spare key” or “what is your root password”. I also won’t answer questions that seek to reveal information about other people.

First day of school

Edit: there are a couple of clarifications in this post stemming from Amy’s misinterpretation of what I wrote

I’m about to leave for my first day as a student at UTSC. Yay! Go me! And stuff. The past couple of weeks have been seriously hectic, what with the moving and dealing with all that shit, tidying up the new place and unpacking stuff, getting it set up so that it’s livable. Plus all the extra work that needs to be done as part of living with someone: agreeing on a division of work and so on.

But it’s going well. We didn’t manage to get everything unpacked inside of a week as we had hoped, but we’re doing pretty well. We’re doing massive amounts of cooking on the weekends so we have meals all week without having to work much cooking into our schedules. This is working better than I thought it would. It means we only eat two or three different dishes per week, but as it turns out that’s just fine. Partly because it means we always have a good dinner regardless of how tired or lazy we feel: no “ugh, I don’t feel like cooking, let’s just have noodles and chick peas again.”

And now… back to school. Weirdness! I know two people at UTSC so far: Jake’s sister (R) and his dad (M). R is in her second year, while M is a prof. In fact, his is the class I am going to in about an hour and a half. There is someone else there as well, who is sort of related to me by marriage. If I understood correctly, he is a postdoc teaching math of some sort, and his wife is the sister of the wife of a man whose mother has the same last name as me. So this guy is my third cousin’s wife’s brother in law, I think. I don’t know what my family tree looks like in that branch, but that sounds about right. So I know his last name, and he’ll recognize mine when he hears it, and I am supposed to go and curry favour with him or something. Fuck that. I’m weirded out enough about having my partner’s dad, who I know fairly well, teach me; I’m not going to go up to a stranger and say, “Hey, your wife’s sister’s husband is my cousin. How about some special treatment?”

But that’s the way these families work. I’m sure it’s the same with many nationalities, but to me it seems especially prevalent in the jewish branches of my family: due to my family’s sense of ethnic entitlement getting ahead of others based on your family connections is not only accepted, it’s the expected way to behave. There is even an attitude among my father’s family of “as a Jew* you deserve to be ahead, so we’ll help realize that.” Personally, I find it distasteful.

But university. Woo… I don’t really know what to expect. I keep seeing images from TV and movies, trying to convince me that all the classes are either 500-student amphitheatres or 12-student discussion groups. I’m sure I’ll do well, but it’s a little whelming.

Oh, and speaking of whelm… I need to get some gaming on! And I need to find a Go club at UTSC. And I need to apply for a job at the computer labs. Oh, so much to do, and so much time wasted blogging instead. Arg! Bye.

* Never mind that I’m not one

Ownership Sucks

There was a great article on Worldchanging a little while ago discussing the wastefulness and increased cost of owning things like cars and power tools rather than borrowing or renting them. As the owner (actually lessor) of a car I don’t need, this resonated especially well with me.

So for instance: someone figured out that the average power tool gets used for ten or twenty minutes in its entire lifetime. So let’s say that instead of having 400$ of tools around the house you pay a few bucks a day to borrow tools from a power tool library. Plus you don’t have to worry about upkeep of the equipment and you can be reasonably sure that the equipment you’re borrowing is of decent quality, assuming capitalism does its job and motivates the providers to offer a good service.

Someone was telling me that his folks eventually realized it was cheaper to rent a car whenever they needed one — a few times a year — than to own their car and pay for insurance and upkeep. There are a few organizations around that provide short-term loans of vehicles. Streetcar, in the UK, comes to mind, as well as Communauto, here in Montreal and Flexcar, in eight cities around the US. All are very generous about charging for gas — Streetcar gives you 30 free miles per day and Communauto and Flexcar just pay for all the gas themselves!

The net effect of increasing the availability of borrowed resources would ideally be a change in the way we see “stuff”. Currently we are taught that owning stuff reflects our self-worth. People have started movements to divest oneself of stuff, but without a system set up to borrow stuff as needed this is unattractive. So coupling the desire to divest oneself of stuff with the ability to obtain, on a temporary basis, whatever stuff we need moves our focus from “what we have” to “what we use.” The stuff itself loses importance and what we want to do with it gains. It really doesn’t matter that I don’t own a table saw because any time I need to use one I can either bring my project down to the local community woodshop or borrow a table saw for a weekend.

Obviously there are people for whom it is better to own certain stuff. If I use my table saw every weekend it may be more cost-effective for me to just buy one, and it avoids the hassle of transporting stuff all the time. But I should think that the vast majority of people would do well to subscribe to a stuff-lending service.

Fast Forward

I’m really behind on almost all the blogs and news sites I read. This is partially due to the trips I’ve taken, where I’ve not had as much access to the internets as I would like. Every now and then I’ll read about three or four days’ worth of posts to try to catch up a bit, but my backlog remains. Every now and then I’ll laugh out loud and say some thing like “WTF! PK put cheese in his nose?” and Jake will stare at me and say “wow, you really are behind.”

So today I read about two weeks of RSS feeds. I have pretty much had the second half of May’s news and ranting crammed into my head in one day, and I’ve got a feeling of being outside of time, like watching a TV show a season at a time. It’s a weird feeling.