Archive 017 (MAR 2005 - )

a dusty old archive by chris lawson


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Shaun Tan gets another Spectrum
K.J. Bishop on Campbell ballot
Damien Broderick lauded
Mystery insect identified
Scot Snow vs. Ticonderoga
Tangled again
Good news, bad news
Sapphire coast album #9
Sapphire coast album #8
Sapphire coast album #7
Sapphire coast album #6
Sapphire coast album #5
Sapphire coast album #4
Less than the sum of the parts
Sapphire coast album #3
Sapphire coast album #2
Sapphire coast album



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Shaun Tan gets another Spectrum

29 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

It's a little late, but I'd like to congratulate Shaun Tan for racking up yet another award. Tan is the artist behind The Rabbits and, in my opinion even more impressive, The Lost Thing. Now he's got yet another Gold Spectrum for Editorial work. Unfortunately I can't find an image of the winning work to link to, so I've just put below an image of his surreal mobile sculptures from the Fremantle Festival. I have signed copies of a number of his books and I'm not a collector by nature.


     

K.J. Bishop on Campbell Award ballot

29 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

The 2005 Hugo shortlists are out. Australian author K.J. Bishop is a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Talent. It's a terrific achievement, and it's largely on the back of her marvellous debut novel The Etched City. She's a big chance given the critical reception her novel generated. I know I shouldn't be so parochial, but...Go Kirsten!


     

Damien Broderick lauded

29 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

In another belated entry, I'd like to congratulate Damien Broderick for winning the Distinguished Scholarship Award of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. Damien is that rarity: a respected academic who can write good fiction. A thoroughly deserved award.


     

Mystery insect identified

29 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

The giant aggressive insect that bailed us up at Mimosa Rocks has been identified. E-pal Tamara emailed an entomologist friend of hers between contractions. Don was a CSIRO entomologist and he checked the pictures and identified the thing as a king cricket. The king cricket is a predator that lives mainly off caterpillars, but it can even go up to frogs!

I discovered a story about a forester who ran across a king cricket in Taree and was just as astonished as I was to be charged by an non-venomous insect a thirty-thousandth our size, with all the restraint of the Black Knight from Monty Python's Holy Grail. At least mine didn't hiss.

Typical Australian fauna. Even the crickets are madly aggressive carnivores...

Thanks to everyone for their help. And congratulations to Tamara on the arrival of baby Kirk.


     

Scot Snow vs. Ticonderoga

27 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

This is a very difficult entry for me to write.

Ticonderoga is a small press outfit run by Russell Farr that moved online a year ago. It publishes short fiction, reviews, and non-fiction. Its editorial committee now includes Lee Battersby, Liz Grzyb, and Lyn Triffitt as well as Russell. To declare my own interest, Russell is a personal friend, and I have a friendly relationship with Lee. Also, I have contributed to Ticonderoga Online and will be writing another piece for the site in the near future. Because of my close relationship to Ticonderoga, I would have preferred to leave the matter alone, but that would leave friends in a difficult position.

Last week, a writer called Scot Snow wrote an entry on his livejournal page that ran as follows:

ticonderoga online asked for then bounced a story. Wow. My first rejection in ... years.

Not my best ever story mind, but you know, not actually bad. Apparently it wasn't "disturbing" or "weird" enough, which is fine (I thought they wanted "loopy" as that's what they asked for and that's what I sent). Interestingly, the fact that I was having a piss-take of those bad, old, very clunky English lit writers who would occasionally try their hand at writing fantasy -- badly -- failed to pass with the editors.

I worked bloody hard to get that clumsiness in there, not to mention the occassionally inappropriate changes in tone. To no avail. Oh well.

I remember when Harlan Ellison wrote "The Toad Prince or, Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure Domes" he was excoriated for regressing to the bad old days of pulp sci-fi and writing something so puerile and ... bad. The editor flatout failed to appreciate the intent (it's a great story BTW; very funny).

Let this be a lesson: be a smart ass and editors won't appreciate it. They really really won't. Twenty years of honing your craft, perfecting your art won't mean spit if they think you're just writing badly.

Lucky for me ARGOSY went bugfuck for the story and knew exactly what I was attempting right from the git-go.

The very large cheque they're sending won't hurt my feelings at all.

There are two problems with this. The first is that Scot is criticising Ticonderoga for rejecting his story. Now I have nothing against writers publicly discussing their rejections. I do it myself. But I would be very careful about claiming that editors are too stupid to recognise great writing, especially by comparing oneself to Harlan Ellison. Now, it's not exactly a withering criticism of Ticonderoga, but Snow is saying that his great story was misunderstood by the editors (who are therefore not at his refined level of artistic sensibility), and backs this up with by saying that Argosy, the highly respected journal, has accepted the story. Wait, not just wanted it, they went "bugfuck" for it. Snow is rubbing salt into the wound: so you people at Ticonderoga didn't recognise my brilliance, well the crew at Argosy think I'm a freaking genius.

Which leads to the second problem. This is an outright lie. Argosy has been closed to submissions for over a year and has no plans to reopen. I also seriously doubt that Argosy would be interested in a story that was "having a piss-take of those bad, old, very clunky English lit writers who would occasionally try their hand at writing fantasy – badly." That is just not an Argosy story.

There's another lie in it. There is no way that Scot Snow, who claims to have over a hundred story sales, has not had a rejection "in years." A little further research reveals that Snow claims to have won a Slesar Award, when in fact he was only an honourable mention, not even a place-getter, for what turns out to be a pay-for-entry award run by a small press mystery magazine. He claims to have been runner-up for best radio play at the BAFTA Awards, even though BAFTA does not and has never has had a radio play category (that's why it's the British Academy of FILM AND TELEVISION Arts). Also, many of the stories he had listed as being "forthcoming" in major journals turned out to be inventions, too, and Snow's livejournal carried letters from three publishers denying that they have received submissions from him, let alone accepted them: you won't find these letters now because Snow has taken them off his site, closed his livejournal to external mailings, and claimed that he must be the victim of a malicious prank. Now he says has to chase up all these editors to prove his publication record (obviously it never occurred to him to file his acceptance letters or contracts).

Scot Snow has genuinely published stories in Westerly, Rhizome Factor, and several other magazines, and he has a story to be published in the next Borderlands issue, so his bibliography is not entirely fabricated. Why he would feel the need to exaggerate his achievements I cannot fathom. I do not know Snow personally. I cannot comment on his motives. I have no wish to cause him personal distress. In normal circumstances, I would treat him like a perpetual-motion inventor or circle-squarer, that is, ignore him and let him enjoy his fantasy world.

It would be easy to claim that this posting is a public-service announcement to protect gullible readers from believing what he says about the publishing industry, but I'm afraid I can't posit such noble reasons. If any of Snow's readers have any literary talent, they will soon discover the realities for themselves, and if they do not have talent then he's not going to be damaging their potential anyway.

When it comes down to it, I am responding because Snow insulted Ticonderoga, a publishing outfit that has done a thousand times more for the readers and writers of Australian genre fiction than Snow ever has, and in the process has insulted friends of mine and put them in the difficult position of wanting to defend themselves without looking like they've got a mouthful of sour grapes. If it hadn't been for Scot's decision to denigrate others in public, I would never have taken up cudgels.

Ticonderoga has not yet responded to Snow's comments, and I am hoping that if enough people stick up for Ticonderoga, then they won't have to.

Note: Ben Peek, who also has been published in Ticonderoga, has written a far more pointed response here.


     

Tangled again

26 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

My March 18 blog entry on Paul Davies's New Scientist article has been collected on the most recent Tangled Bank Carnival.

This is now the second time I have been entangled, I am happy to report. I also have to pull together a new essay for Ticonderoga Online. Following on from the Tangled Bank post, I'm thinking of writing a piece on the limits of knowledge. Will ponder for a while.


     

Good news, bad news

26 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Had a great trip. Got back yesterday. The accumulated mail of two weeks contained a cheque from Gardner Dozois for a reprint of "Written in Blood" in a new anthology called Galileo's Children.

On the other hand, my most recent story, "Heironymus Boche" was rejected by Ellen Datlow. I half expected it as the story isn't quite right for Sci Fiction, but I like sending things to Ellen. Even when she rejects my stories, she tends to make me feel not so bad about it. And it's worth a crack at Sci Fiction. Next stop: F&SF. I'm not sure it's David Hartwell's cup of tea, either, but since it's a fantasy story (sort of), it's more up his alley.

Other good news: Simon Brown tells me he is working on the second half of a story I couldn't finish called "The Reconstruction." It's set in Vienna just after WWI. It has a great start (well, I think so anyway) but I couldn't get the ending to work. Simon pointed out that the problem was I hadn't really ended it at all. He's kindly offered to salvage my mess. It fits roughly in the same thematic territory as our previous collaborative effort, "No Man's Land" from Gathering the Bones. We have a sequence of stories in mind to follow on from that. "Heironymus Boche" sort of fits in the same thematic stream but slightly to one side. Whether "The Reconstruction" is a core part of that story sequence or sits to one side as well, I'm not sure. I'll have to wait to see how it pans out.

I also have to talk to Simon about splitting one of our story outlines. It's overloaded, and I think the ideas need to be cleaved in two.

More good news: Realms of Fantasy and I have exchanged contracts for "Countless Screaming Argonauts." So now I know it's been accepted. (Of course, until I have the magazine in my hands, it could still be killed.)

Not so good news: the damn novel continues to elude me. I keep having great ideas about how to solve problems, but these are problems in other novel outlines, and they come unbidden.

News neither good nor bad: I've enrolled in a human genetics course through Macquarie University. It's part of a very long-term plan. (It's costing me far too much. I wouldn't mind paying these rates for my education, except I'm also paying horrifying taxes on a slightly-better-than-average income. If I lived in Scandinavia, I'd be happy to see my taxes sucked out of me, because it gets pumped back into the community in highly visible ways. In Australia, the government has been raking in record levels of taxation at both state and federal levels, and at the same time services are being suffocated for lack of resources. I know because I work in one of the under-resourced sectors, health, and I have two children in another, education.)


     

Sapphire coast album #9

25 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Tathra, March 23

Alex's drawing of Myanba Gorge.

Bithry Inlet, March 24

Sequential images of a burrowing crab. The crab lies sideways and turns in circles, using its body as a drill bit.

10 km east of Lakes Entrance, March 24

Home, Melbourne, March 25

While we were away, autumn arrived.


     

Sapphire coast album #8

23 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Mt Tantawangalo, March 23

It has been a great day for spotting wildlife. This was one of three wallabies we saw, along with one kangaroo, one kite, one wombat, dozens of parrots, currajongs, rosellas, and lorikeets, and amazingly, two lyrebirds. We have never before seen a lyrebird in the wild, even though we live near one of their major habitats. To see two in one day is just extraordinary.

Cathcart, March 23

Myanba Gorge, March 23

These pictures do not do justice to Myanba Gorge. I'd need a much better camera and a lot more skill to capture this place. It is quite simply the most spectacular landscape we have seen this trip. I took dozens of shots of the gorge, but none of them could reveal the perspective, the dizzying drop, and the sheer wall of granite. It's moderately hard to get to Myanba, and I hope it stays that way.


     

Sapphire coast album #7

22 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Twofold Bay, Eden, March 22

Boyd Tower can be seen across Twofold Bay. It was used as a spotting tower for whalers. Orcas would herd big whales into the bay in return for the discarded offcuts from the carcasses. Collaborators, in other words...

The tower was built by Ben Boyd, a Scots businessman responsible for Australia's first great corporate collapse. With wild promises, he raised half a million pounds in 1841, the equivalent of over a billion pounds today (using the GDP method), and floated the Royal Bank of Australia. Boyd's financial exuberance came to grief in 1848 when the whaling station was not nearly profitable enough to justify the original investments, several uninsured ships were lost at sea, and the bottom fell out of the livestock and properties owned by the bank. The collapse nearly bankrupted the colony of New South Wales. Ben Boyd seems to have been the model for several Australian entrepreneurs in the 1980s.


     

Sapphire coast album #6

21 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Bithry Inlet, March 21


     

Sapphire coast album #5

20 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

It's a big one today. Apologies for the bandwidth...

Moon Bay, March 20

Mimosa Rocks, March 20

This crab appeared to have his claw trapped in the shell. Monkeys and jars...

This seemed like a large locust-like insect. When we got closer, though, it didn't run away. It charged at us and bared its fangs. You can see it in its aggressive stance below (sorry about the picture quality below -- it was out of focus and needed a lot of tweaking and sharpening). I'm not sure what it is. It looks like some sort of Orthoptera. Something like a giant cricket with the abdomen of a weta and the head (and attitude) of a bullant.


     

Sapphire coast album #4

19 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Mumbulla Falls, March 19

Mumbulla Creek Falls is a sacred place to the Yuin people. In 2006, the Federal government will hand the land back to be managed jointly by the Yuin and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.


     

Less than the sum of the parts

18 MAR 2005 | source New Scientist | permalink

The March 5 issue of New Scientist has, as usual, a number of wonderful articles. But there is a glaring exception in "The Sum of the Parts", an article by Paul Davies which is memorable as one worst pieces of argumentation I have read in a respected journal. It is a world away from the writing he was capable of in such books as The Ghost in the Atom.

The argument Davies puts forward, in essence, is this: (1) there is a limit to the computational capacity of the universe; (2) this means that there is an upper limit to the complexity of the calculations we can imagine; (3) therefore some calculations will be impossible; (4) this means that it is impossible to calculate the future of the universe even if one was to know its exact state at a given time; (5) so reductionists can never hope to make a complete model of the universe; (6) this means that it is possible that non-reductionist models are true; (7) so hooray to "self-organising principles" and "emergence" and nyah! nyah! to reductionists.

This chain of argument is full of flaws. The first one is very simple: the computation limit is only one of many limits to our knowledge of the universe. Other scientific-mathematical limits of knowledge can be found in chaos theory, quantum theory, information theory, thermodynamics, epistemology, and Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. The computational limit certainly does confine our total potential knowledge, but Davies never says why it should add any philosophical weight to the limitations we already know about.

But more importantly, Davies is playing a God-of-the-Gaps argument. Because we can't know everything in physics, he says, there is room for "self-organising principles" to govern the universe. Well, sure, this is certainly true. There may be large-scale organising principles that we are unaware of. But then, there is room for a lot of weird ideas if the only justification is that we can't know everything.

Why does Davies assume that any theory of self-organisation won't have to justify itself in terms of the limits of knowledge? What makes him think that self-organising principles won't also be beyond the computational limits of the universe? What makes him think that we need perfect knowledge for physical theories to be sufficient? (In fact, current physical theories aren't sufficient, but that's because we have (i) evidence of cracks in the Standard Model, and (ii) axiomatic incompatibility between general relativity and quantum theory – nothing to do with the computational limit of the universe.)

But the worst thing Davies says is so utterly stupid as to leave me flabbergasted that an educated scientist could say it. I'm going to have to quote him because otherwise you wouldn't believe me...

A prime example [of emergent principles] is living organisms. Consider the problems of predicting the onset of life in a prebiotic soup. A simple-minded approach is to enumerate all the possible configurations of the basic organic building blocks, and calculate their properties to discover which would be biologically efficacious and which would not.

Calculations of this sort are already familiar to origin-of-life researchers. There is considerable uncertainty over the numbers but it scarcely matters because they are so stupendously huge. For example a small protein is a chain molecule made up of about 100 amino acids of 20 varieties. The total number of possible combinations is about 10130, and we must multiply that by the number of possible shapes the molecule will take, because its shape affects its function. This boosts the answer to 10200, already far in excess of the Landauer-Lloyd limit [the computational limit of the universe], and shows how the remorseless arithmetic of combinatorial calculations makes the answers shoot through the roof with even modest numbers of components.

The foregoing calculation is an overestimate [I think Davies means an underestimate] because there may be many other combinations of amino acids that exhibit biological usefulness – it's hard to know. But a plausible guesstimate is that a molecule containing somewhere between 60 and 100 amino acids certainly couldn't have been divined in the age of the universe by any demon or computer, even with all of the resources of the universe at its disposal. In other words, the properties of such a chain could not – even in principle – be traced back to a reductionist explanation.

About now, anyone reading this with any knowledge of evolutionary theory is holding their head together to stop it from exploding. Davies has added a basic Creationist fallacy to his previous God-of-the-Gaps argument (only in Davies's case, we can substitute "emergent principle" for the Creationists' "God"). The idea that the universe had to somehow calculate the biological properties of various proteins before they could come into being is sheer, unadulterated stupidity at work. By neglecting the process of evolution, Davies has left himself open to ridicule – and he deserves it.

The icing on the cake, though, comes from the next paragraph:

Strikingly, small proteins possess between 60 and 100 amino acids. The concordance between these two sets of numbers, one derived from theoretical physics and cosmology, the other from experimental biology, is remarkable.

What concordance? The smallest proteins are called peptides, and the smallest functional peptide is thyrotropin releasing hormone with all of 3 amino acids. On the other end of the scale, the largest mammalian protein is titin, a muscle molecule made from 28,000 amino acids. From the range of 3 to 28,000, Davies has plucked 60-100 amino acids as some sort of "concordance." Statisticians have a term for this. They call it "the Texas sharpshooter." Why Texas? I've no idea. But the principle is this: a shooter wishes to impress people with his shooting skills. On the side of his barn are dozens of little targets, and a bullet hole smack bang in the middle of each target. What the sharpshooter hasn't told his clients is that he fired at the barn first and painted the targets later.

Davies has always had a leaning to the more mystical interpretations of physics and cosmology. Should anyone ever develop a good theory of self-organisation, it would be a major achievement. But whatever the theory, it will still need the standard scientific accompaniments of observable evidence and theoretical coherence – two pillars of science that are the natural enemies of mysticism. Should self-organising emergence ever achieve scientific acceptance, I have no doubt that Davies would come to perceive it as just another reductionist theory.

It is exceedingly sad to see such a clever and educated writer allow his mental processes to be rotted by magical thinking. And I don't think much of New Scientist for making it the cover story, either.


     

Sapphire coast album #3

18 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Goodenia Forest, March 18

Attacked by leeches!


     

Sapphire coast album #2

17 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Wolumla Peak, March 17

This walk was labelled an easy 500 metre stroll. It took us nearly an hour return. Sure it was easy. For goats. There's another walk we didn't attempt where it's advised to set aside 4 hours for a 3 km track. They breed 'em tough in these parts.

Thought it was dead until I saw it moving. Nothing to worry about, though. The black snake is only #21 on the list of the most venomous snakes in the world. By Australian standards, it's a wimp.


     

Sapphire coast album

16 MAR 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Lakes Entrance, March 10

Goanna in Wallagaurah Forest, March 11

Nelson Beach, March 15

Mount Tantawangalo, March 16

The children here are all blonde and very good at solving puzzles...