Wetmachine Blog: Wetware

Stories about biotech and convergence

Synthetic biology legend George Church & I talk about science and civilization

In March of 2015, George Church (whose accomplishments in biology (and visions of the future) are too numerous and significant to for me to recap here, so just go read about ’em here or here or here) & I sat down to talk for about an hour an a half on topics ranging from the Stuxnet cyberwarfare weapon to civilization (and its foes) to surgery on Mars. I edited the discussion into four segments of 17 or 18 minutes each, conveniently gathered here for your edification, amusement, and enlightenment. As a special bonus, at the end of this blog I’ve included the new Foreword to my novels that George was generous enough to write, just in time for the SynbioBeta Conference taking place in San Francisco this week, where I’l be hawking my wares, as is my wont.

Read More »

Also posted in I Fear These Things, Memology, podcast-my-thoughts-exactly | Comments closed

Farewell Aaron, and thank you

On behalf of the Wetmechanics of Wetmachine, I express our condolences to the family and friends of Aaron Swartz. I did not know the man, but I know of his work, for which I am deeply grateful. Aaron’s contributions benefited me personally, because I cherish and depend upon a free and open Internet, and he championed the same causes that we tend to champion here on Wetmachine. But in a much larger sense his work benefited everyone who believes in democracy, fairness, and civilized society. He was evidently not a perfect man, which should come as no surprise, since as far as I know there is no such thing. But he fought the good fight in search of a more just world. His heart was good, and he was effective. By that I mean he was a doer, not a pundit. We need more people like him.

Cory Doctorow has written a very beautiful and nuanced remembrance of Mr. Swartz. I recommend you take a few moments to read it if you haven’t done so already.

We wish for the family and friends of Aaron Swartz whatever solace they may find in the knowledge that he was loved and appreciated by people of goodwill all over the earth.

Also posted in "A Republic, if you can keep it", I Fear These Things, My Thoughts Exactly, Software | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

Cyberpunk Pioneer John Jurek’s nanotech-powered programmable KaeLF Skin finally arrives

Photo from Endgaget of nanotech "artificial skin"

Jurek's KaeLF Skin seen in the wild


I see from Engadget that some wacky scientists at a “defense”-related (quasi?)-governmental research laboratory have invented a “cyberpunky” electronic skin using nanotechnology:

Researchers working for the Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab have figured out how to create relatively inexpensive “electronic skin” comprising carbon nanotubes enriched with semiconductors. Their process involves an enriched single walled carbon nanotube (SWNT) solution embedded in a honeycomb pattern of hexagonal holes. . .

The article goes on to say that this is a development reminiscent of the novels of William Gibson et al. But Gibson’s not the cyberpunk author that this story brought to my mind. I thought of John Jurek, whose 2000 self-published novel KaeLF Skin was about just such an artificial skin and the various fun and vicious uses it could be put to.  If I remember right, Jurek’s KaeLF Skin was invented at a quasi-governmental research lab — perhaps even Berkeley itself; I can’t seem to find my copy of the book right now to fact-check. But in any event, much of the book concerns Berkeley Laboratory-type doings. The Engadget article could have been ripped from KaeLF Skin’s prologue, that’s how close Jurek’s book is to this story.

I forget how John and I discovered each other’s books, but since we had both written and published cyberpunky thrillers based on nanotech themes, we agreed to do a book swap: he sent me an iUniverse (printed) copy of KaeLF Skin and I sent him a copy of my Acts of the Apostles.  He wrote a glowing review of my book for the Midwest Book Review,(alas, since confined to oblivion), and an abbreviated version of that glorious review for Amazon. I wrote a positive but somewhat less glowing review of his book and posted it on Amazon. After that we exchanged emails for a few months, and I remember that he was pretty down about the poor reception that his book gotten– like most self-published novels KaeLF Skin didn’t sell many copies and got few reviews.

My original review of KaeLF Skin, which I posted on Amazon, is below. Read More »

Also posted in I Fear These Things, Memology, My Thoughts Exactly, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

Attention DEFCON planners! I’m your huckleberry!

Sometime last week the @_defcon_ twitter account of the Defcon annual hacker’s convention put out this tweet:

“who should we invite to DC 20 as a special guest? Which actor, Sci-fi writer, famous scientist, or uber hacker, who would you like to see?”

So I immediately responded that they should invite me. (Or, failing that Donald Knuth or George Church.) As far as I can tell, only a few other people responded to the tweet.  Suggestions included David Hasselhoff & Douglas Hofstadter. (There’s probably more discussion going on over on the Defcon Forums. . . remind me to check that out.)

But as much as I would love to hear Knuth or Church speak (among others) I really do think they should make me John Sundman the Defcon 20 special guest. Why? See below the fold. Read More »

Also posted in My Thoughts Exactly, Software, Writing | Comments closed

Strange Looping

I write & publish fiction for hackers and geeks. I’ve written a novel and two novellas and I have another novel in the works. The baseline genre is cyberpunk/biopunk thriller, although I approach the subject matter in a kind of David Foster Wallace/Pynchonian way. So I’m actually kind of a postmodern metafictiony cyberpunky technothriller novelist. All my books concern hacking of both silicon-based and carbon-based systems.

As I discussed in Adventures in Self-Publishing, there’s no reasonable way for me to get my books into bookstores (all the tech bookstores that used to carry me have gone under). Therefor I use other ways to get my books in front of readers. Sometimes I go to places where hackers and geeks and congregate & there set up a table whereupon I put out copies of my books & glowing reviews from geekoid websites & start carnival barking like Billy Mays, selling my books for cash.

I’ve done this for more than ten years. (Here’s an account (from which the two preceding paragraphs were lifted), of my adventure selling books at the giant hacker convention Defcon.)

Next month I’ll be at the StrangeLoop convention in St. Louis, pimping my warez and also taking in as many sessions as I can. This prospect has me psyched. I don’t know if I’ll sell enough books to cover my expenses, but if you were to ask me “who’s the ideal audience for your books?” I would say something like “people who care about literature, are fans of Douglas Hofstadter, and are comfortable with high-geek computer & science stuff”. I expect that everybody at Strangeloop will meet at least a few of those criteria; some may meet them all.
Read More »

Also posted in My Thoughts Exactly, Software, Writing | Comments closed

Pynchon, Hofstadter, David Foster Wallace and Me: Note on the Frustration of Trying to Create a Pre-Singularity, Post-Postmodern Literature

A little while ago I put out a tweet on twitter asking for advice about how to make my books known to readers who gravitate to writers like Stanislaw Lem, Douglas Hofstadter, Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire in particular), Borges, Pynchon, etc.

Of course my tweet had a purpose and a meta-purpose; the purpose was to actually solicit ideas about how to make my book known to readers of those authors, and the meta-purposed was to advertise my books to people searching for tweets on Pynchon, Borges, Pale Fire, etc. In other words my question was merely a hook into which to insert keywords — a cynical, albeit widespread, practice. In fact, my trolling for tweet-stream readers was my primary aim, I suspect. I didn’t really expect much in the way of answers, or at least of original answers.

But one fellow replied with words to the effect, “Blog about those authors and what you find compelling about them, then tweet about your blog post. People will follow the connection to your novels.”

Now, that is not a dazzingly original suggestion, but oddly enough it turns out that in my hundreds of posts here on Wetmachine and elsewhere, I’ve hardly ever written about what it is in literature that I think is important, and what I’m trying to do with my books.

So, below the fold, a few observations.
Read More »

Also posted in Memology, My Thoughts Exactly, Writing | Comments closed

Remembering Tom West, the Original Geek Rock Star

I was saddened to learn of the passing last week of Tom West, the engineer/hacker who was the main focus of Tracy Kidder’s 1981 book The Soul of a New Machine. Tom was 71. Boston.com published a nice obituary; there were also notices in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other places.

From the Boston.com article:


Thirty years ago, Tom West was thrust into a category of one, a famous computer engineer, with the publication of “The Soul of a New Machine.’’

Tracy Kidder’s book, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and is taught in business classes and journalism schools, chronicled Mr. West’s role leading a team that built a refined version of a 32-bit minicomputer at a key juncture for the computer industry and his employer, Data General of Westborough.

The book’s success turned a quirky, brilliant, private, and largely self-taught man into a somewhat reluctant guru.


I call Tom by his first name because I knew him, and that’s what I called him. In fact for a short while early in my career I worked quite closely with him — at the tail end of my four year stint at Data General.

As Soul of a New Machine amply demonstrates, West was a compelling figure. Everybody agrees he was quirky and brilliant; some people have mentioned his  being difficult or “prickly”. I have to say that I don’t remember a prickly side to the man. He could be abrupt, sure. Direct. Economical of speech. But if he had a temper or was harsh or unfair, I either never saw it or have since forgotten about it. I just remember that I really liked him.

Although I can’t claim to have been great friends with the man — I don’t know if he would even have remembered my name — he made a deep impression on me. When I wrote the novella Cheap Complex Devices in 2003 — about twenty years since I had worked with Tom West at Data General — a quirky, brilliant and (I think) extremely funny character named Tom Best showed up all through it. I can’t take much credit for Tom Best’s funny lines, however, since I stole most of them from Tom W. Read More »

Also posted in Hardware, Memology, My Thoughts Exactly, Software, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments (Comments closed)

Self-aware programs? Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread.

According to a status update on the facebook page of a friend of mine (which means it must be true), this quote:

‎”At this point we get into such difficult questions as whether a computer program can have purpose, or consciousness, or free will, or even a soul. I do not propose to address those issues now, because I am still chewing on the same questions concerning myself.”

is attributed to Guy Steele (whom fellow Wetmachanic Howard Stearns once told me he wanted to be when he grew up) in the book Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About by (“The Legend”) Donald Knuth, whose fondness for ligatures in TeX among other things, were oh-so-gently lampooned in the book to be mentioned in the next paragraph.

Of course such “difficult” questions are precisely the (ostensible) subject of the famous & brilliant novella Cheap Complex Devices, which you can read portions of right here on this very website, or better still, buy a copy!  Any of y’all needing a nudge can start with this review, which gets to the heart of the matter quite nicely.

Also posted in My Thoughts Exactly, Software, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

“I felt like I was in Church”

That’s a line attributed, if I recall correctly, to Eddy Vedder when asked about how he felt the first time he played with Neil Young (whose “Cortez the Killer” is playing through my headphones right now, now that you mention it, as it often does when I’m digging into basso philisophico depth of my own poor over-mined skull).

I didn’t feel like I was in church when I met uber-scientist George Church in his Harvard Med School lab/office six weeks ago, but I did feel a little bit awed and of course impressed. Turns out Church is a nice guy and we had a lovely chat. (How we met & what we talked about is a story for another day; all you CCD buffs might want to brush up on The Bremser Spam; that’s a hint.) I left behind a set of my books, and, somewhat to my surprise, he read them, and what’s more, liked them, and we’ve since become email buddies and we talk about this and that — subject to time constraints, of course, inasmuch as I’m an unemployed sometime novelist and he’s a world-famous scientist in charge of several important projects at various laboratories, not to mention being on the boards of too many companies to count, so sometimes I don’t have as much free time on my hands as he does. Read More »

Also posted in I Fear These Things, My Thoughts Exactly, Software, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

DNA Robots — another “Acts” technology sighting

According to this release from the BioDesign Institute at Arizona State University,

A team of scientists from Columbia University, Arizona State University, the University of Michigan, and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have programmed an autonomous molecular “robot” made out of DNA to start, move, turn, and stop while following a DNA track.

The development could ultimately lead to molecular systems that might one day be used for medical therapeutic devices and molecular-scale reconfigurable robots—robots made of many simple units that can reposition or even rebuild themselves to accomplish different tasks.

Or for creating the Overmind and repairing and reanimating the thawing head of Fred Christ, the frozen god, according to diabolical villain Monty Meekman, the power behind the throne at Digital Microsystems, Inc., and chancellor of the University of New Kent, as chronicled in my famous novel Acts of the Apostles and famous novella The Pains.

Also posted in I Fear These Things, Memology, My Thoughts Exactly | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments (Comments closed)
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