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Squirtle Should Not Be At Auschwitz

I swear that title actually means something in context.

Kelly and Zach Weinersmith were at Strand Boooks in Manhattan last night, kicking off their monthlong book tour in support of Soonish. For those of you that don’t want to read, the talk was recorded for C-SPAN and will appear as part of their books series in a couple weeks, and Zach did a solo interview with ABC today that that went over many of the same points. Everybody else, onwards.

Here’s the thing about Soonish that you should know — it was a joint effort that played to both authors strengths (Kelly: scientific interviewing and bibliographies; Zach: wide and deep self-taught curiosity about nerd stuff and also dick jokes), that would have absolutely destroyed a lesser marriage.

Each of the topics that they examined took a solid month of research and writing and interviewing and doublechecking — and keep in mind that they did the full workup on more than the ten technologies that made it into the final book¹. Much of it took place while Kelly was particularly busy². There were Nobel laureates to talk to, agents and editors to keep happy, and a looming deadline.

For those that are interested in the mechanics of making the book and their working process, they’ll be recording a podcast on that topics in New York City tonight, but the short version is (per Zach) For any task, somebody has to be in charge. It doesn’t matter who, and it switched back and forth for each chapter, but somebody has to be the one that make the decision to alter direction, kill the project, take responsibility. That, and recognizing it’s not personal, is how they got through the process.

But when you get to write a book about all the ways that things that look great (spaceflight for US$500/kg instead of US$20,000!) will actually kill us in foreseen (whoever gets it first can just hang out in orbit with a bunch of tungsten rods that they drop onto Earth with the force of nuclear bombs!) or unforeseen ways (and in order to do it, you have to have perfect understanding of the weather patterns of the globe, predict them with 100% accuracy into the future, and build a 100,000 km long chain of carbon atoms with exactly zero of them out of place or it all fails spectacularly!), that process has its perks.

That’s before they get to how humanity will voluntarily let itself be slaughtered by robots in exchange for cheap cookies, or just the reassurance that the robot is trying hard to help while the smoke and toxic gases are getting closer. As a species, we are often not very smart, which means maybe we shouldn’t be allowing people to create their own viruses for fun and profit?

And what do you do when people will inevitably engage in acts like hate crimes in augmented reality, while doing nothing in actual real reality? Then Pokémon Go came along and planted Pokestops at the Holocaust Museum and the sites of concentration camps, and we saw how maybe we haven’t anticipated all the outcomes just yet. I’m not saying that we’re good at planning for unexpected contingencies, but we’re at least starting to get used to the idea that we haven’t thought of all the side effects in our whiz-bang future tech utopias. Like Kelly said, Nintendo did the right thing because … well, you know.


  • The very nice woman that owns the Strand introduced Kelly and Zach, but pretty obviously was not familiar with the work of the Whiner-Schmidts.
  • There were multiple questions about SMBC comics and how Kelly looks grumpy in them, which I should really dispel. Kelly is one of the bubbliest, most excited to share knowledge, funniest people you’ll ever meet. Okay, so she doesn’t get the whole single-use unlubricated monocle thing³, but she is no more the scowling cartoon than Zach is the feral, unclothed crazy person he draws himself as (although, on second thought …).
  • Since Zach got a couple of solo questions about his work, I asked one to Kelly: Favorite parasite and why? After taking a moment to reassure the audience that studying parasites is her actual job and she’s not just a weirdo, she proudly recounted the story of the parasitoid — it must kill its host to complete the reproductive cycle — that her team discovered. Eudurus set, the Crypt-Keeper Wasp, is a remarkably nasty piece of work and Kelly positively shines when describing it.
  • Asked about what they’re working on next, Kelly mentioned getting back to her day job research, and Zach mentioned that he’s teamed up with economist Brian Caplan to illustrate a graphic novel that argues the economic benefits of immigration.

Soonish is available in bookstores everywhere. The book tour continues apace.

Spam of the day:

SqrtnAmy16 wants to know if you’re free this week

No lie, I am running around like an alligator on fire this week. Thanks, though!

¹ They started with 50, but at book length, that didn’t allow any more depth than a mildly amusing Wikipedia article. They chopped down to 25, then 11, eliminating topics that rely too much on magic, or unrealistic economics, or are so far advanced that minor incremental changes will get us there.

The eleventh was quantum computing, which they abandoned late in the game for not being able to do a sufficiently good job explaining it. The longest surviving chapter in Soonish is ~10,000 words, and QC had more than 30,000 that didn’t do justice and would have only grown further in time and word count. Ten’s a good round number anyway.

² Asked in the Q&A how they dealt with news breaking that disrupted what they’d already written — which happened with both Cheap Spaceflight (thanks, Elon Musk!) and Augmented Reality (thanks, Pokémon Go!) — Kelly responded, I’d say drinking, but I was pregnant while we were writing it.

³ You’re buying them in 25 packs! Why? How? I didn’t mention it to her afterwards, but I did in fact make use of such a monocle to look dapper as fuck at my niece’s wedding.

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