Thursday, December 13, 2018

New publication announcement: "Computation in Medieval Western Europe".

I've got a new publication to announce! (It actually came out a week or two ago, but I only got my author's copy on Tuesday, so no author selfie before then.) It's a book chapter in Sven Ove Hansson, ed., Technology and Mathematics: Philosophical and Historical Investigations, on "Computation in Medieval Western Europe":


Practices that fall under the broad umbrella of ‘computation’ in the western European Middle Ages tend to be goal-oriented and directed at specific purposes, such as the computation of the date of Easter, the calculation of velocities, and the combinatorics of syllogisms and other logical arguments. In spite of this practical bent, disparate computational practices were increasingly built upon theoretical foundations. In this chapter, we discuss the theoretical principles underlying three areas of computation: computistics and the algorithms employed in computistics, as well as algorithms more generally; arithmetic and mathematical calculation, including the calculation of physical facts and theorems; and (possible) physical implementations of computing mechanisms.

It was an interesting paper chapter to write because it stretched the boundaries of my comfort zones -- I had to read up a lot on calendrical computation! (Which is super interesting.) But it's a fascinating exercise, to pick a modern concept, such as computation, and then see what, if anything, counts as its historical precursor.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Wot I've Published This Year (fiction edition)

So apparently the thing to do in late November/early December, if you're a fiction author, is to write up a post outlining everything you've published in the last year. As my wonderful friend Heather Rose Jones put it in her such post, this is "Purely for people's curiosity and amusement, of course. Not at all with any expectation or pressure for people to consider our works for award nominations."

Phew! Thank goodness! Because while I do know that there are things out there such as awards (I could even name a few of them, if I thought about it. There's...Hugos. And...Nebulas. And...others.), I wouldn't have the first idea whether anything I've written is "eligible" for them, and it seems like it would be a lot of work to find out. So I'm going to take a leaf from her book and simply do a round up of what I've published this year, fiction-wise. (I hope to do a separate post for my non-fiction.)

2018 has been a pretty amazing year, fiction-wise, according to the stats.

In 2018, I had 13 pieces out on submission. One was a poem that I sent to one venue (rejection), and two were pieces of flash fic written for specific purposes/venues (both rejected). So let's call it an even 10. These 10 were submitted a total of 46 times. 37 submissions were rejected, 1 I withdrew, and 4 are still outstanding. But that means out of the 10 pieces I had in play this year, FOUR were accepted. That's super exciting.

UPDATE!! (4Dec) Got another acceptance! A flash fic piece, "An Orb of Ice-Blue, Held Aloft in a Perfect Hand", will be coming out in Manawaker Studio's Flash Fiction Podcast. I wrote this story in the middle of a March snowstorm, and am super pleased it's found a home.

Of those four, three have been published in 2018 (and one may still make it out before Christmas), and two which were accepted last year were also published this year, for a total of five pieces in 2018:

[no book selfie yet]"Bad Harvest", The Martian Wave (2018).
"Being Human", in Robots and Artificial Intelligence (Flametree Publishing, 2018).Author Q&A with Publisher, part 1;
Author Q&A with Publisher, part 2;
About the story
"The Bargain", in J. Scott Coatsworth, ed., Impact: Queer Sci Fi's Fifth Annual Flash Fiction Contest (Other Worlds Ink, 2018).About the story
"The Platform Between Heaven and Earth", in Jessica Augustsson, ed., Wavelengths (Jayhenge Publications, 2018).About the story
"The Name of the Sword", in Carol Hightshoe, ed., Tales from the Fluffy Bunny (WolfSinger Publications, 2018).

I had the amazing realisation, about a week ago, that the earnings I made selling my short fiction this year were enough to cover the costs of a weekend trip to visit a friend and her son, bringing my daughter along with me. We got back late last night, and since she's a fellow writer and one of my biggest champions, it was so satisfying to have funded the trip in this way. (It also makes me realise just how crazy academic publishing is, via which I have made precisely ZERO income.)

This post also seems to be the right place to mention my reviews of short SFF fiction; SFFReviews hit its 1st anniversary in September, and since it's inception, we've reviewed over 560 short SFF stories, and over 275 of those reviews have been mine. Being able to contribute to the reading, writing, consuming, and enjoying of speculative fiction in this way satisfies me almost even more than having my own stories published! (Almost.)

2018 was a good year. Let's hope 2019 is even better!

Friday, November 16, 2018

Approaching philosophy as a speculative fiction author

Two days ago I had the brilliant opportunity of giving a skype guest lecture in Michael Rea's undergraduate class on Science Fiction and Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Michael invited me to speak to his students not in my capacity as a philosopher but in my capacity as a Real, Live Author (a capacity which I still find a bit boggling that I have!), to speak to his students about the ways in which philosophy feeds into my writing and how my writing feeds into my philosophy. He asked that I speak for 15-20 minutes, and then there'd be a Q&A, both them to me and me to them. It was an excellent hour and a quarter full of living discussion from which I came away with many thoughts about things I'd never considered before, and I thought I'd write up the brief notes I had for my kick-off presentation, as well as put together some lists that I promised the class during the course of class.

In advance of the class, I had them read Kate Elliott's blog post, The Omniscient Breasts, on the problematic internalisation of the "male gaze":

A problem arises when people write and/or read without knowing or realizing they are writing and reading exclusively from the perspective of a male gaze. When this perspective has been internalized as the most authentic or real perspective, it can subsume and devour all other perspectives because it is treated as the truest or only one.

Why does this matter? Because:

Stories told through a female gaze are just as valid, just as true, just as authentic and universal. And they are just as necessary, not just for women but for men, too.


A fortuitious series of events also lead me to read this interview with Sheri S. Tepper in Strange Horizons a few days before giving the talk, and many of the topics discussed in it informed what I wanted to say.

Notes for my presentation

Topic: Why is my reading/writing spec fic relevant/important to my being a philosopher?

  • Brief intro: Who am I?
    • Writer since age 4. 10 year gap while I wrote a PhD/established an academic career.
    • Picked up writing again in 2014; started submitting in 2015. Since then, I've had 9 short stories or pieces of flash fic published or forthcoming. I'm currently in my 3rd year participating in NaNoWriMo
  • Practical aspects: The first way in which integrating the practice of reading and writing fiction into my philosophical research is beneficial is a straightforward practical one: It gives me concrete philosophical research questions to try to answer.
    • What is "creation"? What is being created? "If creation is important to something or someone or is going to become important, then all subcreations of it are also important. Everything is important. There is nothing so unimportant you can ignore it or destroy it with complete impunity." (Tepper interview, op. cit.)
    • What are fictional characters?
    • Truth in fiction.
    • Emotions and fiction.

But this is a rather low-level reason to integrate philosophy and reading/writing fiction: Any of these research questions I could perfectly well engage in without engaging in the production or consumption of fiction; it's just that certain aspects are highlighted or more interesting to me given that I do.

I want to contrast those pragmatic/practical aspects with two other types of aspects which I think are intrinsically tied up in the production and consumption of fiction, and cannot be dealt with separately.

  • Epistemic aspects:
    • Thought experiments: What if?
    • The opportunity to explore ideas (through writing) without having arguments for them.
    • But stories are arguments, and arguments are stories. (see here, here, and here).
    • "Things done in imagination have meaning in the world. Faery is imagination, right? Things done in imagination are transferable to reality. Promises made there can become real." (Tepper interview, op. cit.)
    • We cannot get from here to there without having an idea of what there looks like. We cannot start working towards the future we want to make real until we have a way of conceptualising what the future could be like. Fiction helps us imagine that.
  • Moral aspects:
    • No one is ever persuaded by argument alone. We need stories to persuade people.
    • Every choice matters: In fiction we can chose whether to perpetuate problematic social structures. "The male gaze occurs when the audience, or viewer, is put into the perspective of a heterosexual male." (Laura Mulvey, quoted in Elliott's post, op. cit.). Kate Elliott and the "homosexual agenda": "to him, a sexual gaze was by default a male gaze".
    • "All of the stories are necessary": Necessary how/why?

The Q&A section of the class covered a tremendously wide spectrum of topics, from the very practical questions of how can we shift mainstream media (movies and books) when everything comes down to money; how do we deal with mainstream media where the narratives of the stories (e.g., strong female leadership in the new Star Wars movies) are in conflict with the actual production of the stories (how many women in executive/production roles in the making of the movies?); how do we talk to our friends, families, colleagues about these internalised defaults; how much should we, as writers of fiction, care about how our words might be used against us or misunderstood?

A few specific points came out that I though were really perceptive. One person asked if there were anything like a trans gaze (as opposed to a male or female gaze), and if I could recommend any stories that center that. I'm not sure if it makes sense to speak of a trans gaze (as opposed to, e.g., a nonbinary or genderfluid one), but I could certainly give them recommendations for stories that center trans characters and trans authors. I have elsewhere enthusiastically reviewed a collection of short stories by trans author Ana Mardoll, and I recommend them enthusiastically here. I also recommend the detailed and unending work that that Bogi Takács does, writing, editing, and promoting spec fic by trans authors. They are the editor volumes 2 and 3 of the Transcendent: The Year's Best Transgender Speculative Fiction anthologies (volume 2; volume 3; checkout the rest of Lethe Press's trans and genderqueer fiction), and they also review speculative fiction widely and have a very helpful index of author demographics: Bogi Reads the World. (Follow them on Twitter for more recommendations.)

Another person, who has read enough of my reviews of short SFF fiction for to know of my resistance to 2nd person POV, wondered if there was a connection between that and the problematic centering of the male gaze. I thought that was really perceptive, because I'd never put the two together but I think there's something there: I don't really like 2nd person POV because it feels too often like I am being told what to do and what to think and what to feel, and I resist this very strongly. But in a sense, centering the male gaze when the reader is themself not male is similarly problematic -- I am forced into viewing as an object something that I do not want to view as an object. This is certainly something I'd like to pursue further.

Finally, people asked what, concretely, they can do to fight against the problematic structures that are sadly all too entrenched in contemporary SFF media. My best recommendation there was to read the transgressive stuff and to recommend it widely. SFFReviews (linked above) provides one means of identifying stories to read; but I also promised the class a list of mainstream SFF journals that are publishing stories that push back against problems and are freely available online. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it will give people more than enough stories to start with:

All in all, an excellent experience, and no one seemed to mind too much that -- because I was skyping in from my bedroom -- I got photobombed by two different cat butts and a 7yo.

Monday, October 29, 2018

New publication announcement!

My paper "Names Shakespeare Didn't Invent: Imogen, Olivia, and Viola Revisited" is now available online from Names.

This paper has been in the pipeline least two years, possibly three, long enough that I can't really remember, but I'm really pleased that it's finally published online! Here's the abstract:

Just as Shakespeare’s plays left their indelible stamp on the English language, so too did his names influence the naming pool in England at the beginning of the 17th century and beyond, and certain popular modern names are often described as inventions of Shakespeare. In this article, we revisit three names which are often listed as coinages of Shakespeare’s and show that this received wisdom, though oft-repeated, is in fact incorrect. The three names are Imogen, the heroine of Cymbeline; and Olivia and Viola, the heroines of Twelfth Night. All three of these names pre-date Shakespeare’s use. Further, we show in two of the three cases that it is plausible that Shakespeare was familiar with this earlier usage. We conclude by briefly discussing why these names are commonly mistakenly attributed to Shakespeare’s imagination, and the weaker, but not mistaken, claims which may underlie these attributions.

If you do not have access to the journal and are interested in a copy of the paper, please drop me a line.

Monday, October 1, 2018

"What are the philosophy books that one needs to know to be a philosopher?"

The title of this post is a question one of our undergraduates asked, and which all members of staff were asked to answer. I wrote up my answer today, and thought it would be worth sharing why I think this is the wrong question to ask. (The answer below is written to my fellow colleagues who were asked to answer this question, not to the student who originally asked it.)

I do not think that this question is properly formed. Philosophy is not a discipline of authors and their works but of techniques and concepts and ideas. Putting the emphasis on books and philosophers misses the point, in my opinion, because it is predicated on the idea that our goal in an undergraduate philosophy programme is to teach students philosophy.

"But of course that's what we're supposed to be doing!" you reply. I'm not so sure it's so obvious, and I'll counter with a different proposal for what we should be doing, instead of teaching them philosophy: We should be teaching them how to be philosophers.

Equipping a student to be a philosopher is equipping them with a variety of philosophical tools stemming from different philosophical traditions:

  • The ability to write clearly and precisely.
  • The ability to read a complex article and understand it.
  • The ability to draw distinctions and reason from definitions.
  • The ability to recognise and create counterexamples.
  • The ability to ask appropriate questions.
  • An understanding of how we know things and what counts as evidence.
  • An understanding of what exists.
  • An understanding of what we ought to do.
  • An understanding of praise and blame.
  • (And other things; this list is not complete.)

How we get students to the point where we have all of these doesn't matter; we can do it with any texts and any authors that suit the purposes. Focusing on "required" or "canonical" books and authors reduces philosophy to a set of principles, a set of truths, a set of facts. In my opinion, this misses entirely the point of studying philosophy! Now, if you put concepts and techniques first, then it's likely that certain texts will fall out as "canonical", since certain texts are the first/clearest place in which a specific concept or technique is presented. But often the first place something is articulated is not the best place in which to introduce a student to the subject -- for example, I think students should know about the syllogism, propositional logic, and predicate logic. But I wouldn't advocate teaching any of these via Aristotle, the Stoics, or Frege (at least not as the primary texts!)

I've written more on the difference between teaching philosophy vs. teaching how to be a philosopher (since writing that post, my views have become rather more radical, in that I think the balance should be skewed much more towards teaching them how to be philosophers, even if this means that they end up with "gaps" in their education, e.g., because they haven't read Aristotle, or Descartes, or Russell. Also relevant to this discussion is why I think it is so crucial that we teach logic to our first year students, especially if our goal is to train them to be philosophers.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Advice to new students: Be brave

Dear new student,

It's your first year at university. You may have started classes already, or maybe you still have another week or two to go. But soon, if you haven't already, you'll find yourself in a huge room of people, most of whom you don't know, with someone standing at the front who you don't know and who doesn't know you. It can be terrifying. Everyone around you is nodding their head at what the professor is saying, they're taking details notes (some people even color code them!), while you're still sitting there wondering -- what was that thing the professor wrote on the board, five minutes ago? Is it a word, or a symbol? A mistake, a smudge? Now you've been thinking about that so long, you've missed what the professor said next, and you tune back in to hear, "...and that's why this concept is going to be crucial to what we're doing for the rest of the term." What concept??.

It can be a lonely and isolating place, sitting in a room where you know no one and no one knows you and everyone seems to know everyone else and to have it altogether. But I'm here to tell you, none of it's true: No one comes to university knowing everyone and everything. Everyone is sitting there thinking "I wish I knew more people here than I do." Or "I don't understand what just happened, but I don't want to look stupid in front of everyone else by asking a question."

So here's my advice to you: Own this. Be brave -- be the one who is willing to look stupid in front of a sea of people you don't know, including your professor. Put your hand in the air and ask the questions: "What is the thing you wrote on the board?", "Can you repeat what you just said about that concept?" If you think you sort of got something, but aren't sure, try summarising what you think was said, and ask for confirmation, "Am I understanding this right?" Do it today. Do it again tomorrow. Do it every time you have a question.

Why? Because I can guarantee you that every question you have, someone else in the class is going to have it too, and they're not going to be brave enough to ask, and they will be so grateful to you that you were. They may even come up to you after class and say, "I'm so glad you asked about that concept, I didn't understand it either," and there you are -- your first step towards making friends.

And another reason: Your professor is not a mind-reader. They are not going to know if things are not being understood if no one says anything. One of the hardest parts of standing in front of a group of students -- always nameless, faceless at the beginning of term -- is having no idea if anything you're saying is making any sense. We need feedback when we're going too fast -- or too slow. An inert class who never gives us any response is terrifying.

Now, you're going to get the professor who never pauses for people to answer questions, or who gets irritated when they are interrupted. Be brave, and do it anyway. Put your hand in the air and keep it there until they address you. The purpose of a lecture is for you to learn, not for the professor to pontificate. If you aren't learning, then be stubborn until you are.

You're also going to get the professor who mocks you for your ignorance, and for that, I'm truly sorry. There is no excuse for ridiculing students who ask questions. All I can say is -- we are not all like that. Find the ones who are not, and take advantage of them. Many of us are truly here first and foremost to make sure that you understand what we are trying to teach.

Be brave. Embrace your ignorance and confusion. Be the one in the class who's willing to ask the dumb questions. Your classmates (and hopefully your professor) will thank you for it.

Best of luck,

Doctor Logic, assistant professor, Department of Philosophy, Durham University

ETA: P.S. Martin Lenz wrote an awesome follow-up to this post, with great advice on how to ask questions.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Publication announcement: New short story available!

A week ago Friday, my short story "Being Human" was published in Flame Tree Publishing's Robots and Artificial Intelligence collection. This anthology of short stories combines classic stories by L. Frank Baum, Jerome K. Jerome, and Ambrose Bierce with twenty new stories, including my own! This was my first pro-rate story sale, and I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful venue!

I wanted to write a story that could be read at two levels. On the one hand, it's straightforwardly a classic "robot upgrades from inorganic body to organic body" story, and I hope that read that way it is a rewarding way to read it. Originally I'd intended to have quite a bit more happen after Laura leaves the clinic and meets Asiya and her mother, but when I reached the point of having to write those scenes, they felt forced and awkward and unnecessary. In the end, the story was quite short, but, hopefully, still complete.

But on a deeper level, the story has very little to do with robots at all. A few months prior to when I wrote the story (which was in October 2017), a friend on FB had a link to this What is your gender? quiz, with hilarious results. I took the quiz myself, and was decidedly pleased that my gender came out as "Fine. Seriously, it’s completely fine. Nothing wrong here at all. This is a totally acceptable and normal gender with which to find yourself." But a friend of mine's result was "Robot" which somehow struck a chord with me. "Robot" may not describe my gender, but it does describe how hard it sometimes feels to be a human and to interact with humans. It is so exhausting trying to keep track of where my body is placed, and what I do with my hands and feet, and to pay attention to what people are saying, and what I should say, and how I can time my trips so that I arrive not too soon and not too late, and everything. All of that, I put into Laura. Every single thing she tells herself as she walks down the street she's never walked down before (but which is in fact modeled after Old Elvet, in Durham, England, and the building that she enters is strongly reminiscent of the old shire hall that is across the street from my office) is something that I tell myself as I try to navigate the world. So it is my hope that someone will read the story, and see themself in Laura, in the same way that I put myself into her.

And all the rest of you people, who don't do these calculations, who don't have the running commentary in your heads, have you ever thought that maybe you're the weird ones