Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life

Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of LifeBiopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life by Marcus Wohlsen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first heard about this book on Wisconsin Public Radio's "To the Best of our Knowledge". The idea of an underground movement of geeks and brains working on gene splicing in their kitchens and garages intrigued me and the subject matter dovetailed nicely with my in-progress science fiction novel. In true DIY fashion, I borrowed the book from the library and gave it a read.

The subject of the book is romantic and intriguing: imagine self-trained scientists mimicking and refining larger-scale, more expensive endeavors usually undertaken by well-funded research institutions and corporations. Now imagine that these experiments are done not only on the cheap, but that the greatest desire of these scientists is not to make a profit (though some do) but to share the knowledge they've gained for the betterment of the world. It's like a hippie-biologist utopia.

By and large I enjoyed the book. I did note, however, one chapter that strayed a little too far into the corporate and out of the homegrown science that Wohlsen seems to admire so much. This really tested my patience - just when I thought we would get further down into the specifics of some experiments, the author took what I felt was a side-turn into an example that was largely corporate, rather than DIY.

Other than that one flaw, I greatly enjoyed the book. I'm not a scientist, but would have enjoyed going a bit more in-depth about the specifics of *what* these DIY scientists were doing, rather than dwelling so much on the how or the why, but I was able to learn what I needed to for my own research and with a little poking around on the internet, learned enough to tackle the problems of my own novel. Worth a read, and good for what it is, but to give it five stars it would probably have to be significantly longer, with more examples of what the biopunk movement is *doing* and how their results may or may not affect the larger world. Maybe this is good, since it forces me to extrapolate my own ideas of what might be possible in a world of my own creating.

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Addendum: A very interesting article on programming cells' DNA as if it were a circuit. The next frontier in Biopunk???

Monday, May 28, 2012

Conned, Yet Again!

I've just wrapped up my time at Wiscon, the world's largest feminist speculative fiction convention. Wiscon is a well-regarded gathering of science fiction and fantasy readers, writers, fans, and academics who come together to discuss speculative fiction and, more particularly, how the form relates to issues of gender inequity, power relationships, and gender identity. But Wiscon is far more than that. I am continually amazed by the high quality of the panels and presentations at Wiscon, and I've been attending regularly for ten years now.

Of course, I've made many friends at the con, and was delighted to unexpectedly see some old friends there. It's always good to reconnect and the convention, by its very nature, is a good place to pick up tips and tricks on writing, marketing, and so forth. And I love, love, love finding new visual artists in the art room.

But what I really enjoy the most (outside of my friends) is the opportunity to hear panels of incredibly talented, intelligent people speak on subjects of interest to me. Two panels stuck out to me this year, one on biology and engineering and one on anarchy. I won't go into detail on these (it's Memorial Day and I have steaks to grill . . . mmm, steak . . .), but I came away from the biology and engineering panel with some questions. I had planned to attend to get some grist for the science fiction novel I'm (very slowly) working on. The panel ended up being more of a discussion of AI and consciousness than what I had hoped for, but it still proved fruitful and stimulating.

My questions, in short, are these: I hear a lot of talk about machine consciousness and the point where machines will or might become self-aware. The way the panel members were talking made it sound like they thought that there was one set of criteria by which we would judge whether or not a machine had become self-conscious (either spontaneously, or by human design) but no one seemed to know what those criteria were. The fact that each panelist seemed to speak in a uniform way about self-consciousness rubbed me the wrong way. I asked: "How does personality enter into this? Doesn't each human being have their own consciousness and isn't that consciousness manifested through personality? Why would we expect one kind of consciousness to be the same as any other?" I have to admit that the answers never really addressed the questions directly, save for one panelist's throwaway comment that "personality is an aspect of psychology, not self-awareness" That just sits wrong with me, but I didn't want to be that obnoxious person who hogs everyone's time (she was sitting just across the walkway from me), so I let it go.

Several audience members and panelists talked about what a newly-aware self-conscious machine would want, in terms of a physical housing. Would they want to live in an anthropomorphic robot body or would they want to be housed in a factory environment, say, so it could do more than the average human? I question the assumption that the machine would want anything in particular at all. More importantly, if the newly self-aware machine wants something where does this want come from? How does the self-aware machine get desire? And since desire largely determines actions, shouldn't we be really, really concerned about what is informing this machine's desire? Furthermore, if the desire came as a result of the way the machine was programmed for self-awareness, what does this say about agency? Can the machine ever be an agent for itself, given its programming?

These are my questions. Mars needs women, I need answers.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Feeling Kinda Snarky from the Evening Walk

I'm a busy guy. When I can multitask, I usually will. Take tonight, for example. I'm researching for what I think will be my first full-length science fiction novel (working on chapter 8 of the first draft now and have a loooong way to go). As a part of said research, I am reading Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life. It was already getting dark as I set out on a walk (you know, to maximize my use of time - exercise and read at the same time!), but I figured I could get some good reading in, shut the book when it was too dark to read, and finish my walk home. Well, the need to read over-rode the dark. I occasionally popped my eyes up from the book when both the streetlight behind me and the streetlight ahead of me were too far away to shed enough light to make words intelligible. The stars were out. How cool is that? Reading by starlight. Not to mention that, out of nearly 500 songs on my mp3 player, the random shuffling musical brain chooses this song not once, but twice! Statistical chances of that happening randomly? I can't remember how to figure that out, but I'm guessing it involves factorials. Listening to Devo from the Heavy Metal soundtrack, reading a book about the future grandfathers of the Blade Runner geneticists, all under a starry sky. Seriously got my geek on. And then, to top it all off, random mp3 player selects Ozzy Osbourne's Diary of a Madman for the last song of the walk. So appropriate. It felt like home. Oh, and special props to the guy in the SUV on Waunona Way who kept his brake lights on for far longer than was necessary. You got me through another paragraph of the Watson and Crick story, bro. And the red light didn't spoil my night vision when I peeked up at Ursa Minor after you finally shut the vehicle down. Thanks for looking out for me. Don't worry: I was too busy reading to be stalking you.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Very Slight Change of Plan

In my last post, I announced that I would be publishing an e-chapbook containing several of my "object fictions". This is still true, but rather than using the "Curios" title or some variation on that, I've chosen to use the title of one of the stories as the title of the book. Having said that, I'm pleased to announce that Fossiloctopus is now available on Smashwords as a $.99 e-chapbook (That's less than 1 US dollar, folks. Skip the fries at lunch, it'll be worth it!). Here's the cover, for those interested:
These were some of my favorite fictions to write. I hope you enjoy them!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

We've had a lot of rain here lately, followed by warm weather. So I'll be morel hunting tomorrow (wish me luck), meaning I won't have my usual Friday to complete what I've begun. But what I've begun is a little e-chapbook entitled Curios.

For those who have read my more speculative work, this collection of stories is . . . well, a touch less speculative, but no less strange. Let's call the ouvre "literary surrealism". Each story is about, or at least centered upon, certain objects, everything from kaleidoscopes to blue oranges to a set of impossible keys to the very tattoos on the skin of a philosophical hedonist. I guarantee your fill of strangeness for the time it takes you to read this little collection of the unusual, the silly, and the sublime. These were some of my favorite stories to write, truth be told, next to my novel, Heraclix & Pomp and my Italo & Vincenzo novellas (available at Smashwords).

There are eleven stories which first appeared in Notre Dame Review, Gargoyle, Exquisite Corpse, American Letters & Commentary, 3rd Bed (note: My favorite literary magazine of all time and now, sadly, defunct), Polyphony, Prague Literary Review, Cafe Irreal, Diagram, and Pear Noir!. Hopefully, I'll have time to work all the backstage magic over the next few weeks. You'll need $.99 to buy this one, so save those virtual pennies! Maybe you can quit smoking and celebrate by buying a copy. You'll still have plenty of money left over to get one of those expensive sodas to enjoy while you read!