The boffins have invaded! The Quantum to Cosmos Festival has kicked off, and there are interesting events all over the place.

Exhibits like Physica Phantastica in front of Waterloo Town Square, showings of classic sci-fi films like Tron at the Princess Cinema, and lots of lectures at Perimeter Institute itself.

And all the video from the presentations will be online for your enjoyment. (Accessible via the links I’ve posted for each of the presentations below.)


Sherry, Andrew, Melissa, and I have partaken in a number of lectures this week. I am done now, having attended one panel discussion, two individual presentations, and two tapings of TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paiken.

Nothing on my schedule was hardcore science, really, which is how I like it. I’ve experienced a blend of science, sociology, literary culture, history, and application (i.e. using this stuff in the real world the rest of us inhabit). I’ll leave the hardcore stuff to Sherry and Andrew. 🙂

On Sunday, all four of us went to Seeing Science Through Fiction, with Lee Smolin (awkwardly and fidgetingly) moderating a talk with Neal Stephenson and Jaron Lanier.

It was fairly engaging, and there was some interesting back-and-forth and bouncing around among science, writing, and both of those seeping into culture, etc. I got up to ask a question towards the end, but got cockblocked and sent back to the minors when Julian Barbour, who was up before me, went all Third Earl of Ramblyborough.

As Sherry noted, that was somewhat ironic, given that before Q&A started, Lee warned us he’d get “mean” if anyone asked something that wasn’t short and concise. But then Julian got up and Lee got all fanboi and nearly squeed, and it was downhill from there…

Aaaaaanyway, after listening to the discussions peripherally about writers’/authors’ lives and scientists’ lives, I was wondering what they thought of declaring parallels between them. Specifically things like the needs/requirements for isolation vs. socialization, the elusive creative muse, and the elating crapshoot of discovery.

Tuesday Andrew and I attended our first taping of The Agenda on the topic of Wired 24/7? with Neal Stephenson and Jaron Lanier again, as well as Tara Hunt and Neil Gershenfeld.

I think this was probably the weakest presentation I attended. Maybe because of the personalities onboard; maybe because of the near-binary nature of the topic at hand. Being wired all the time is good. Being wired all the time is bad. Being wired can be good or bad; it depends how you control it. The end.

Unsurprisingly, the local Mennonite community came up several times, which was unsurprising, though the extremely superficial nature of any of the panelists’ knowledge of said community was disappointing. Their arguments were a bit skewed by ignorance, and would have been vastly more interesting had they understood the Mennonite community and technology better. (More on that in a moment.)

Tara Hunt had plenty of experience and perspective on the topic, but the way it played out was a bit unfortunate, though not surprising. She came off as more of a cautionary tale than anything else, but then, the social side is a highly relevant one to the equation, and one we’re grappling with already societally.

My question for that evening related to the comments about Mennonites, and the reality that they don’t reject technology wholesale. Certainly Old Order Mennonites use very little technology compared to, say, me, but many sects use a great deal of it — some manufacturing operations have extremely high tech shops, for example.

The biggest difference in Mennonite circles is that the attitudes towards tech and the uses of it are governed above the individual level, i.e. by the culture and the church. So my question, as a result, would have been whether they thought there was greater potential and productivity with technology when there was some kind of “higher power” directing its adoption and use, rather than the mainstream society free-for-all we have (at least in Western cultures these days).

I also had an amusing run-in with Jaron Lanier after the presentation finished. When the Mennonites were brought up early in the proceedings, he mentioned that he’s staying in the local Mennonite community while he’s here. Being a) a local, and b) a Mennonite, I was curious as to who he’d be staying with, and just how that got arranged.

So after the presentation I went up and asked. Oh, no, he’s not staying with an actual family or anything. He (and the other guests of the Festival) is staying at the St. Jacobs Best Western, and doncha know, it’s so cool that horses and buggies just go rolling by. Riiiiight. (And yeah, he managed to sound just as patronizing as everyone else does who thinks it’s so novel.)

He didn’t look at me the entire time he was talking, and seemed a bit “I’d rather be elsewhere”, though I suspect that was just personality. Could have bugged him that I accidentally called bullshit on his anecdote, I guess. And then he wandered off while I was in the middle of asking him something else, so clearly I am the Least Interesting Girl in the World. 🙂

On Wednesday afternoon Sherry and I attended Sean Carroll’s presentation on Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species (his book is of the same name). This was perhaps my favourite of the presentations I attended, blending, as it did, science, history, literature, and several cracking good yarns.

Professor Carroll told stories from his book, in honour of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

He followed the exploratory adventures of Darwin, Alfred Wallace, and Henry Walter Bates, great explorers and naturalists from the mid-19th century, as well as co-discoverers of evidence of evolution and collaborators, somewhat, on the publication of these world-changing ideas.

I mildly regret not attending last night’s The Agenda taping of Whose DNA is it anyway?, which Professor Carroll also participated in, but hey, that’s what online video is for. 🙂

Today’s presentations were all Doctorow, all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. This afternoon Andrew, Sherry, and I attended Copyright versus Universal Access to All Human Knowledge and Groups Without Cost: the state of play in the global copyfight, which has a title so long you’d think Neal Stephenson wrote it. (Zing!)

There was some overlap with the presentation I attended at UW back in September (still can’t find the video, sorry). But it was fresh enough, and he always seems to manage to have additional things to say or other interesting anecdotes that it didn’t matter.

It was all about how we create and share different kinds of information, and how that’s evolved, and what’s legal about it and what’s not, and if that matters, and what governments and big business would LIKE to be legal or illegal about it… you know, Doctorow stuffs.

This presentation started out a bit stiff and notes-read-y, but he quickly loosened up, started walking around, and started talking a lot more than just reading, which made things much more interesting.

As always it was fascinating hearing bits of all the different kinds of things he knows about, and he’s good at explaining ways things are applicable to you, even if he’s talking about legal shenanigans or government hush-hush initiatives.

And then finally (for me), this evening Melissa and I went to another taping of The Agenda: Robotics Revolution and the Future of Evolution. Cory Doctorow was on that panel as well, along with Hod Lipson, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Michael Belfiore.

Doctorow was the social guy among boffins on this one, and I think his divergent perspectives — definitely the human side of it all — came off really well. He had no trouble holding his own against the AI guy, the military research guy, and the robotics guy (to oversimplify it…)

I enjoyed this talk better than the first taping of The Agenda we attended. The discussion was well balanced among the participants, and everyone was more than smart and savvy enough to hold their own. There was also no black or white pronouncements like in the “Wired” presentation.

Though somewhat annoyingly, the same woman (a volunteer) asked questions at this presentation and this afternoon’s presentation that were long-winded and dumb, which sucked since it prevented others from asking.

But hey, yours truly got to ask a question (my fame starts around 47:02). Not sure why I look vaguely pissed off. Maybe just cuz I was nervous and was trying to look nonplussed. Or maybe I always look like that. 🙂 I should have said “medical” where I said “social”, but it still made sense.

Interestingly, a good part of what led me to ask the question was thinking about robotics and AI, but also about nanotech from the perspective of Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which I’m a big fan of, and which was the second book of his I read. (Nanocites! In our bodies! Doing stuff like teeny, tiny doozers!)

Though I’d seen him on that very show earlier in the week, he wasn’t on the one where he’d have been one of the most interesting people to ask my question.

Anyway, that’s my Q2C Festival experience (unless I decide to go to something else last minute). We did have “Worlds Beyond Earth” booked for Saturday, but had to give up the tickets because we’re going to Body Worlds at the Science Centre. (So stoked!)

If you’ve had any interesting experiences at the Festival, lemme know!

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