Friday, March 26, 2010

Of Interest

(Picture from here.)

I've been working pretty hard this week and haven't been able to give much time to blogging. Sorry about that.

It doesn't help that the health care hoopla has generated an enormous amount of crap, drivel, hogwash, lies and profound observations. Some of them are below.

Have a nice weekend.


Health Care: Too many to categorize.
Lies about health care legislation and here and here and here and here
Weird crap about health care: Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here.
Attorney generals of Florida, Alabama, Texas, South Carolina, Utah, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Washington, North Dakota and South Dakota as idiots
"Employers for a Health Economy" as idiots"
Tea Baggers as idiots
American Future Fund as idiots

The more normal Wall of Idiots
Jerry Day
US Chamber of Commerce
Lies about Michelle Obama
Lies about Obama
Dick Armey
China moves ahead on clean energy-- while we sit around
2012 Survival Shelters

Links of Interest
Burmese vine snakes feeding
V: Fibonacci Series: Go see
Strange Tokyo signs
CO2 Extinctions
Early man already bipedal. In trees.
New hominid found
T. Rex cousin found in Southern Hemisphere
V: The great sperm race
Flickr of the seasons
Web seer
V: Datavisualizing music

On Disposibility

(Picture from here.)

One of the big issues facing people in the coming years is what to do with waste. I don't mean just industrial waste. I mean waste of all sorts: industrial, residential, medical, personal. Essentially, over the last couple of thousand years, we've taken advantage of disposability.

This isn't so surprising. There's a lot of utility in it. The Romans on occasion diverted streams to run through toilet systems. It was bad for those downstream but great for those using it. Physiologically, disposability is built into our systems. We dispose of CO2, urine and feces. We trust the rest of the world to use what we've produced.

Disposability has been extraordinarily helpful in medical procedures. We used to have to sharpen and sterilize scalpel blades. Now they're disposable just like shaving razors.

We are now in the position of being the primary producer, consumer and disposer of material on the face of the earth. There's nobody out there to pick up what we leave.

So: we're going to have to do it.

Part of the problem is the way we dispose of things. Disposability in the natural world implies there's some organism downstream that's going to pick up the material and consume it, likely producing something we like. Bacteria consume urea and sewage, turning it into plant consumable material. We consume plants. This is a good thing.

But bacteria haven't really stepped up to the plate for used syringe needles and Clorox bottles. We're going to have to do it ourselves.

One approach to this is a life cycle energy analysis. Simply put, such an analysis is intended to describe the total energy required for a product from manufacturing to recycle. This is often discussed under the rubric of green manufacturing.

In the natural world, there is a trophic cycle for energy, waste products, etc. But the energy levels between trophic levels are comparatively small. Antelope eats the grass, tiger eats the antelope, bacteria degrade the tiger is just a small piece of the puzzle and a fairly tight ecology. Consider the ocean where sunlight drives the phytoplankton which are eaten by the small mesozoans, both of which are eaten by the small crustaceans and animal larva. These are then eaten by small fish or other small sized organisms, then eaten by larger fish, etc. It takes a while to get to the barracuda or the shark.

Humans come along leaping entire trophic levels in a single bound: we take a dredge net and pick everything up anything larger than a thimble and discard what they don't need. This is horribly inefficient. But, as I said, unsurprising considering our heritage.

Now, we have to grow beyond that heritage. Can we?
Wall of Idiots
Texas Board of Education
Link between food stamps and obesity
US District Court in Boston vs Table Saws
Antibiotics and farm animals
Arizona Legislature vs. Used Tires
Centralia, PA. Well, much of PA, actually.

Links of Interest
Museum of Unworkable Devices
Warm Jupiter found
Psychology of the Taboo Trade Off
Lithium in Bolivia
Magnetic solder
UAV use in science
Building an audience in the digital age

Lightning globe
Upgrading 1984 Mac to run OS X

Thursday, March 25, 2010

BVC News

On Wednesday, March 24th, Book View Café welcomes Jay Caselberg as its newest member. Caselberg is an Australian author currently based in Germany. When not writing, he can be found in various countries around the world for his dayjob. His four volume future noir series appeared from Roc Books, but he also has many short fiction appearances in venues such as Interzone, Aurealis, The Third Alternative, Polyphony, Electric Velocipede and many others. He is more inclined to depict himself as a short fiction writer who just happens to write novels.

For his debut, Caselberg is offering chapter one from his novel Binary. Watch for subsequent chapters from Caselberg on Wednesdays at

Visit Caselberg’s bookshelf at at where you can also find his short story “The Cabinet,” and his novelette “Iridescence.”

Monday, March 22, 2010

On "Holding Pattern"

Holding Pattern was published in the July 2006 issue of F&SF. I wrote it sometime in 2004, the year Kerry lost to Bush. Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003. He was executed in December of 2006.

Holding Pattern goes up on Book View Cafe today. Go read it here.

I've written two stories that derive from Iraq. The first one, Whistle in the Dark, was published in the June 1994 Asimov's. Clearly, it was inspired by Iraq 1. It will appear over at BVC one day.

The world of Iraq 2 was very different from Iraq 1. Even so, the seeds for Holding Pattern were laid down in the first war. I was spending a lot of time in Cambridge at the time and I remember walking down the street and seeing pictures of Hussein in the window of a discount store, each with a target painted over it. I remember thinking that if we saw a picture of George H. W. Bush with a target painted over it in a store in Baghdad we'd be irate. But it was okay to put a head of state as a target in a Cambridge discount store. Still, it's a step up from the images of World War II.

When we went to war in Iraq for the second time, and won, and took the country (sort of) and lost Hussein for two years, the inspiration behind the story was quite different. Iraq 1 filled me with despair that we couldn't manage to make a world that seemed to work. Iraq 2 filled me with a bitterness that we had chosen not to make it work.

As is typical of my stories, neither Saddam Hussein nor Iraq appear in either story.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Understanding Evolution

(Tree of life graphic here.)

I talk about evolution a lot. If you read by regular blog, it comes up regularly in both text and links. Sometimes I talk about it with respect to religion but not always.

As an SF writer, I think about evolution all the time. To me, it's not just where the rubber meets the road, it's the road, the tires and most of the automobile.

For example, I saw Cameron's Avatar a few weeks back. I knew immediately that the aliens (the Na'vi) were not native to the planet.

Why? You might ask.

Because the wild life had six limbs and the Na'vi had four. Because the wild life had two pairs of eyes and the Na'vi have one-- like humans. Look at chimps, gorillas, horses, giraffes, lions, tigers and bears: all have the same tetrapod form, four limbs, two eyes, head in the right place. Because we all evolved from the same ancestor. When you leave that tetrapod form you make a huge jump to jelly fish, cray fish and flies. Very different animals. The Na'vi had very little resemblance to any of the other wild life. Therefore, either they were a unique species either in adaptation or heritage or they weren't from around here. I vote for the latter.

Evolution is important. But understanding evolution is very, very hard.

The problem comes not from evolution, of course. But our inability to encompass it. The principles of evolution aren't hard to grasp and are not original in evolution at all. They derive from Adam Smith's ideas of capitalism. You remember capitalism, don't you?

In a nutshell, Adam Smith's idea was that in a free marketplace competition would drive goods and services. Charles Darwin read this and applied it to biology. He realized that individual members of species competed against members of their own species and against other species for resources. Innovation was the currency of competition between them. The field of play was reproductive success. Most of us have some kind of understanding of capitalism and this sort of evolution-lite. But, like in capitalism, things get interesting when you get into the details.

The first problem in evolution is sheer scale. Every organism competes for resources of some kind or another. Pick up a handful of soil and all of the trillion organisms there are competing against one another and, likely, you for air, food, water and space.

Scaling up to all of the organisms of the planet and the task of figuring out the webs of competition is daunting. Scaling backwards in time to figure the nature of these webs in the past makes your brain hurt.

So we do what humans always do when faced with an intractable problem: we subdivide the problem to get to a manageable scale and abstract the problem so we can glean operating principles.

It turns out living organisms do something similar.

First, organisms subdivide their resources into niches where they specialize. They no longer have to defend the entire landscape of resources; just their own area. Niches are interesting in that the narrower the niche is the less stable it is. In addition, niches can overlap. For example, cats (felidae) are obligate carnivores-- they must eat meat. They are specialized for individual hunting. Dogs (canidae) are also obligate carnivores but are specialized for pack hunting. There are pros and cons for both. Individual hunting puts all of the burden on the individual animal but the needs are no more or less than that of the individual animal. Pack hunting shares the burden and risk but a pack eats much more than an individual animal. Pack hunters need a large territory or a broader range of food stuffs they're willing to eat. The niches of the two animals overlap.

In contrast, consider the koala that is not only an obligate herbivore but is also is specialized to a single sort of leaves: eucalyptus. The koala has little competition from other animals but is totally dependent on the stability of eucalyptus species over time.

Human capitalist mechanisms are similar: we have vertical markets and horizontal markets. Vertical markets are analogous to specialized animals like the koala-- they specialize in a narrow band of services or products. Horizontal are broader niches more similar to cats and dogs.

In evolution, one of the interesting aspects is determining the actual nature of competition and innovation. We think we know what competition is-- "nature red in tooth and claw" and like images. However, think back to human beings. Without a doubt, our single best skill, the absolutely most fundamental talent by which we define ourselves is our ability to cooperate with other humans. It is the most basic means by which humans have covered and conquered the globe. So, in our case, did we become who we are by competing to be the best at cooperation?

Such conundrums abound in evolution. For example, it has been shown that bacteria have exchanged DNA across "species" boundaries. (See here.) Clearly, if bacteria evolve (which we know they do), evolution must have favored this process.

Another truly odd way of looking at evolution is what I've started calling recursive adaptation. Nobody else is using this in biology yet so if you hear it elsewhere, you heard it here first.

Some time back, you might have heard of Walter Gehring's work on the eyeless gene in fruit flies. Essentially, eyeless is a gene that turns on and off the creation of eyes. By turning on the gene in different places you can make a fruit fly with eyes on its legs, abdomen, wings, etc. Where it gets truly crazy is you can take the same eyeless gene from a fruit fly, implant that gene in a developing frog and get frog eyes in the leg, abdomen, etc. This gene has been termed a "master control gene" in that it acts as a switch to create a major structure.

I read this and thought wait a minute: this is an evolutionary mechanism. This is a mechanism to facilitate innovation. It is the evolution of evolution. I.e., it is a mechanism allows direct genetic selection of structures. For example, it creates a situation where a single mutation could remove eyes in the equation-- creating a situation where the absence or presence of eyes are a selection criteria. Think eyeless cave fish. Think eyeless crayfish. It's a means by which eyes can be reintroduced after they've been lost. (Think snakes.)

So that has to be included in the evolutionary bag of tricks.

And then, there are transposons.

Transposons are sequences of DNA that can move around the genome. Since location is one of the means by which DNA is actually expressed, transposons are one more mechanism of creating novel combinations in the genome-- presenting the opportunity for those combinations to be selected.

And that's just the genetic component of evolution. What about epigenetics, inherited traits outside the genome or how physical conditions of one generation affect inheritance in the next?

More on that another time.

Wall of Idiots
V: Plastics
V: Marc Thiessen
Misreading the IPCC
V: The Famous Bollywood Horse Slide
Japanese home fuel cells->Europe
Selling soup with... science!

Links of Interest
Stealth in space
Should art be censored?
Project Rho
Robots on the farm
Chilean earthquake power distribution
How thalidomide worked
Solar collision imminent. Sort of.
21 Lutetia
V: Cute overload
V: Goldbergian goodness and here
V: 1975 SF Artist's Soapbox Derby
V: The best stats you'll ever see
Redefining the chess set
Pitcher plant == shrew toilet and here
Live cam into NASA clean room
The Secret of Kells
Let's print buildings. A monstrous fab machine.

Star chasing camera
Buying sustainably managed lumber
iPhone stand from cutlery
V: No sew toolbelt
V: Ball bearing rollercoaster
V: Saw blade that cuts and sands
Ice cream
Saw horse
Compression bookshelf
Bread pudding
Spot welder from a battery charger

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

BVC EBook Goodness

On Tuesday, March 16, Book View Café will release the latest edition of their ebook anthologies. DRAGON LORDS and WARRIOR WOMEN (Ed: Phyllis Irene Radford; illust: Ursula K. Le Guin) is a collection of fantasy stories written by group members. Contributors include, Deborah J. Ross, Katharine Kerr, Sherwood Smith, Pati Nagle, Steven Harper, Vonda N. McIntyre, Jennifer Stevenson, Brenda W. Clough, Judith Tarr, Chris Dolley, Madeleine Robins, Ursula K. Le Guin, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Sarah Zettel, Irene Radford, Nancy Jane Moore, Amy Sterling Casil, and Katharine Eliska Kimbriel.

To celebrate the release, DRAGON LORDS contributors will host a chat at on Tuesday, March 16, 8:00-11:00pm EDT. During the chat a drawing for a free copy of the ebook will be held.

For a limited time Nagle’s story in the collection, KIND HUNTER, will be posted for free on the front page of the website:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

DIY Festival

(Picture from here.)

Today, it's all links, all the time.

These are a bunch of DIY links and interesting things people have done. No commentary. No Wall of Idiots. Just fun stuff, subdivided for your amusement.

And you thought I was just ticked off all the time.

People Doing Things
Plastic plywood substitute
1984 300 lbs 1 ton lifting hexapod
Biomechanical steampunk taxidermy
V: The City at Night is Made of Light
V: Stop Motion Animation Software
V: Television Pixelbots
Letters from the Fab Academy: Part 4
V: Wire Trees
Underfull tablecloth

General Fun Ideas and Projects
Magic lanterns
Crumb disposing cutting board
Paper/Plastic Table
Reusable teabags and coffee filters
Bubble push pins
Old window picture frames
Wooden ring
Building an aquarium
Stained glass heart
V: World's best and cheapest writing pen
Cast aluminum entwined hearts
Sofa bed
Coconut bowl
Roll up card game surface
Earbud replacement covers
Chalkboard table
Cigar box guitar
Wooden airplane
PVC laundry sorter
Custom candles
Compass table
Edge lit desktop nameplate
Teleidoscope (kaleidoscope of sorts)
Walnut kalimba necklace
Collapsible bed frame

Tools and Techniques
Wood whittling 101
Lockring pliers
Drilling glass
Adjustable hotwire foam cutter with fence
Substitute cylinder micrometer
Fit the Watch Band
Scratch holograms
Black epoxy

Ski sled
Roof rack
V: Backyard shackitecture: The Hickshaw
Cold frame
How to move a tree
Clone a tomato plant
Sand fire garden

Fingerless glove mittens
Couch scarf and flapper hat
Fold a T-shirt
Storm proof messenger bag
Snuggley dog bed
Fabric flower hair clip
Arm warmers/ponytail holders
Heated cuddle buddy and here
Slipper sock
Shearling hat
Crazy hats

V: Seven flowers popup card
Heart popup post-it note
Soft leather sketchbook
Softcover pamphlet
Quick book cover
Popup cube card
Handmade greeting card "factory"
Binding repair
Scratch off business cards

Removing & rehousing your Apple hard drive (data saving)
LED cube night light
LED Car Headlights
Wearable 3D glowing heart
Membrane matrix keypad
Color changing digital PC fan controller
Bubble mailer for laptop sleeve
Light switches
Steampunk 4 gig USB drive
Parallel port CNC driver
Digital micrometer comparator

Fruit bouquet
Sprouted wheat berry bread
Cincinnati chili
Cranberry cookies
Jasmine tea truffles
Vegan "beef" stew
Jelly donuts
Olive oil wheat crackers
Tofu jerky
Rocky road cookies
Emergency breakfast cake

Friday, March 12, 2010

News from the Book View Cafe

Chaz Brenchley (wikipedia entry here.) is joining the publishing cooperative I belong to: The Book View Cafe.

Brenchley is the author of nine thrillers, most recently Shelter, and two major fantasy series: The Books of Outremer, based on the world of the Crusades, and Selling Water by the River, set in an alternate Ottoman Istanbul. As Daniel Fox, he has published Dragon in Chains and now Jade Man's Skin, the first volumes of a Chinese-influenced fantasy series. A winner of the British Fantasy Award, he has also published three books for children and more than 500 short stories in various genres. His time as Crimewriter-in-Residence at the St Peter's Riverside Sculpture Project in Sunderland resulted in the collection Blood Waters. His first play, A Cold Coming, was performed and then toured in 2007. He is a prizewinning ex-poet, and has been writer in residence at the University of Northumbria, as well as tutoring their MA in Creative Writing. He was Northern Writer of the Year 2000, and lives in Newcastle upon Tyne with two squabbling cats and a famous teddy bear.

For his debut, Brenchley is offering chapter one of his ‘90s novel, DEAD OF LIGHT. Subsequent chapters of the novel will post on Thursdays at

Visit Brenchley’s bookshelf at


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Send Money to the Democrats

The Huffington Post quoted Limbaugh as saying he would leave the country if health care legislation passed.

Go. Go send money to the democrats. Go now.

Addendum: I just found out that Costa Rica (where Limbaugh said he might go) has had single payer health care for 60 years!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

5 Reasons to Drop Fossil Fuels other than Global Warming

(Picture from here.)

It continues to boggle my mind that Americans resist the whole global warming issue. I mean, we're no longer a scientifically literate country so I understand how emotions can trump rational thought. But there are so many reasons to pursue the course required by global warming I'm surprised to find people raring back on their heels and sticking their faces in the mud.

Remember, moving away from fossil fuels means moving away from energy dependence. It's not like we're going to run a big undersea extension cord to Saudi Arabia. When you look at it that way, global warming is just one of the reasons we should run, not walk
For the moment, let's just presume that there is no global warming. Let's look at moving away from fossil fuels:
  1. The USA becomes energy independent.
  2. The USA becomes politically independent. (Hint: follows from #1.)
  3. Issues of air and water pollution become much more manageable.
  4. Gasoline price spikes become a thing of the past.
  5. The USA becomes a leader of something-- as opposed to just watching our intellect and capabilities waft over to Europe and China.
All five of these goals are shared by progressives and conservatives. Even the air and water pollution. Nobody wants to breathe smog or drink bad water.

You'd think they'd embrace these. Forget the global warming-- these are still good goals and ones that we should target.

But we don't.

The only thing I've come up with is that the political theme park that is DC has no time for actually attacking problems that they, themselves, have said are important.

They just have time for attacking.
Wall of Idiots
Politics and wind power
Sinking Minnesota
Health Care Summit Inflation and here
WWE and politics
League of American Voters
Judicial Watch
Former Nevada state senator Sue Lowden
V: Lies about Obama and guns
Danish newspaper Politiken and here
Eric Massa
Liz Cheney

Links of Interest
10 Best Places for Donuts
10 Privacy settings every facebook user should know
A guide to the Origin of Species
Behavior drives energy efficiency
Why vibration drives worms to the surface
Where HIV hides
Afghanistan's endangered species list
Artificial islands
Ultra efficient gasoline engine
Physics and time
Science and tech. of air traffic control

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Rest Day: Of Interest

(Picture from here.)

I've been pretty busy lately and I haven't really been tracking some sites. So here are a bunch of links that I found quite fun but haven't had the time to put up.

I strongly recommend the Rube Goldberg video below.


Wall of Idiots

Links of Interest
V: Bloom Box and Energy
V: Superconductor levitation
V: Destroying a laptop with liquid N2
V: Rap about glycolysis
V: Flying Panty Ornithopters
V: Japanese space elevator video. Maybe.
V: Powerline vs Treebranch
V: Tin pest
V: Rube Goldberg is so last generation and here
V: Will a lava lamp work on Jupiter?
V: Lego animations
V: Xyloexplosion. For those beyond dominos.
V: North American Handmade Bike Show
V: Heat storage technology from MIT
Aliens vs Predator vs Mega Shark
V: Jetlev. Sheer Awesomeness.
US Manufacturing is not dead
Backpack hydroelectric plant
Project Noah
Kiriko MothMIT Center for Bits and Atoms
V: Sign painting
Spokeless bicycle
Coffee kiss

Beam Camp
Google map envelope
Label etching glass
The Rolleron
V:Biodegradable plastic
Fabbing in clay
Letters from the Fab Academy: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.
Listening cup
Steel can hydrophone
Vortex tube
Music instrument kits
Perfectly centered holes with a drill press
Free woodworking books
Recycling office paper into blank books
Gourd lanterns. And here.
V: Making glowstick chemical
V: Waste oil foundry
V: LED light brick
V: Cut a wine bottle in 30 seconds
Cigar box guitars and here.
Kids' dining footrest
Hedra from hangers

Monday, March 8, 2010

Doctor Couney's Island, Redux

(Picture from here.)

Doctor Couney's Island
goes up over at Book View Cafe today. You can read it directly from here or go over there and read it.

Back in 1993, my friend Madeleine Robins was working at Tor. She sent me an email telling me about the anthology Coney Island Wonder Stories being put together by John Ordover. So I went down to the Newton Public Library and did some reading.

Coney Island is a pretty strange place.

I found two characters I wanted to write about: John Y. McKane and Martin Couney.

John McKane made Coney Island the corrupt place it became. Both Grover Cleveland and William Harrison carried New York on McKane's falsified election returns. His fall from power in 1894 enabled in the age of the amusement parks there.

Martin Couney was one of the developers of the premature baby incubator. (More controversial material is here.) Couney had what was to all accounts a very tasteful exhibit of premature babies in incubators. The exhibit paid for the incubators and the children benefited. He started at Coney Island in 1903 and finished in 1943. If you click on the picture above, you can see the entrance of the exhibit.

So, I wanted a story to tie these two characters together. Add into this mix I didn't want to use either of them as a character. Both were larger than life figures and would overpower something as small and fragile as a short story. The fact that McKane fell from power nearly ten years before Couney came to Coney Island figured in, too.

I wrote the story using two old men as characters. Old friends on hard times. Their lives spanned both McKane's period and Couney's. That way I could use both McKane and Couney as backdrop.

I'd been kicking a story idea around in my head for a while involving reincarnation so I put that in, too. Then I dropped it in the workshop.

I'd used camellias in the story as a medieval plant. I think Alex, who seems to know pretty much everything important to know in this world, that pointed out the camellias were imported to England much, much later than medieval times.

Uh oh, I thought. That stopped me for a bit.

I have this theory that one should be able to spin the straw of mistakes into gold. So I took advantage of the problem given me and it made the story better.

A thanks and a tip of the hat to Alex Jablokov.

More than that I can't say without spoiling the story for those who might not have read it.

Go there and enjoy.
Wall of Idiots
Atarazine, a herbicide, turns male frogs female
Python hunting season in Florida
Cyberbullying of climate scientists

Links of Interest
V: hovercraft that flies
More ice on the moon
The personalities of fish
Project Green Vax
Mighty solar boat
More on the K-T meteoric event
Green gadgets and e-waste
Earth microbes can live on Mars
Evolutionary history of the polar bear
Why pubic hair?
Dinosaur eating snake

String pendant lamp
Magnetic spice rack
Chain hand
Bicycle projects
Home gardening projects
Dead PC->Aquarium
Pipe bed
Light switches
Bicycle rollers
Solar panel projects

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Aliens Among Us

(Picture of Odontodactylus scyllarus, from here.)

Popkes' third rule: If under examination it appears simple, you probably haven't examined it closely enough.

Corollary to Popkes' third rule:
If under examination it appears that something is too complex to understand, you certainly haven't examined it closely enough.

First, a little history.

I took my undergraduate degree in Zoology with a minor in chemistry. Later, I went on and took a MS in Neurophysiology. It was a hard decision.

The problem arose out of a course I took in Invertebrate Zoology and came out of the first sentences of the first lecture: "Humans like to think they're important and so we divide the animal kingdom into vertebrates and invertebrates, animals with and without backbones. I.e., like us and not like us. The fact that nearly all the world of animals is not like us has no bearing in our attempt to divide the world in half."

Studying animals and their existing relationships is, essentially, natural history. Studying how they work is physiology. Studying where they came from is evolution. Eventually, I chose to to try to figure out how they work and eventually left biology entirely, ending up in software engineering.

But my heart still lies in biology.

I write mostly science fiction and I like to write about aliens. It's not a coincidence that many of my aliens (notably Bishop 24 in the Future Boston anthology) are based on invertebrates.

Evolution determines the range of possibilities an organism has. Remember, evolution favors the most fit organism in a local environment. It has no real clue on what comes later. Therefore, paths that have been taken by an organism in its past become a limiting factor in its future. The streamlining of a parasitic organism's organs, such as a tapeworm, are extreme. Such an organism has no need of a true gut, eyes, brain, etc., and sheds those as expensive luxuries. But, once shed, the organism cannot simply regrow them under different circumstances.

That said, evolutionary reversals can happen (See here and here.) and the degree of which depends on the method by which the original structures were suppressed. But that is not our subject for today.

The aliens I've developed have often been extensions of life here on earth-- a biological "what if" scenario. What if invertebrates were not limited to the structural strength of chitin but were able to biologically synthesize stronger materials? (The Bishop, mentioned before.) What if the dominant life form descended from a Parasaurolophus ancestor? (Whistle in the Dark, Asimov's, June 1994.)

How alien can life on earth be? Let's find out. Let's talk about mantis shrimps.

Mantis shrimp are neither related to mantids or shrimps, except that mantids, shrimps and mantis shrimps are crustaceans. That is, they comprise a group of arthropods that have an exoskeleton, a ventral nerve cord, compound eyes, etc. Flies, crabs and barnacles are all crustaceans.

Mantis shrimp the only existing group of stomatopods. There are other groups in stomatopoda but they're all extinct. (See here.) They've been around for nearly 400 million years. Stoma means mouth and poda means foot. Stomatopoda have abdominal gills, hence the grouping.

This ordering of mantis shrimp puts them square in the invertebrates and fairly far from the crustaceans (insects and shrimp, for example) that we normally see.

Mantis shrimp have a number of common names: prawn killer, thumb splitter. They are aggressive predators on smaller crustaceans. They are often inadvertently found in salt water aquariums (here). They get the term "mantis shrimp" from the claws. (Picture from here.) The different species within the group are differentiated largely by how they use the claw: spearing or smashing. We're going to talk about smashing.

Here's a video of a Odontodactylus scyllarus smashing its prey. Here's another. Notice you can hear it through the glass. Outside. There's no mike in the tank. Given that the sound is audible, you can imagine that the force involved is fairly strong.

You have no idea.

The acceleration of the blow for a mantis shrimp is on the order of 10,000g-- similar to the acceleration of an artillery shell. What's more, it hits with about 1,500 newtons. A newton is the force required to accelerate a mass of 1 kg 1 meter/second. To put it in perspective, a newton is the force of gravity on something of a small mass-- 102 g-- like an apple. 1,500 newtons is the force of gravity on an apple on a planet about 1/2 the mass of the sun. (See here.) The "club" of the mantis shrimp has evolved to take this. In the picture at left, the brown limb is the mantis club compared to a non-striking species. (Picture from the evolution article from Berkeley here.)

But wait. There's more.

The force applied by a mantis shrimp is so great that it causes the creation of vacuum bubbles next to the surface of the prey, a phenomenon known as cavitation. (See here and here.) The collapse of the bubbles approximates 1/2 the original force of the blow. The energy released is so great it can heat the water to the point it glows with visible light. (Here's another video.)

How does it do this?

We might do it with an explosive or a rocket. Animals who pack this sort of punch (fleas, pistol shrimp) do it by storing energy in a limb or muscle, cocking the limb like a trigger and then releasing it all at once. Fleas store the energy in resilin and then release it for their hops.

Mantis shrimps use a saddle shaped piece of chitin that is bent by muscular energy and then released. (Additional mechanisms are discussed here.) Because of the lever action, the striking limb (called a dactyl) moves much faster than the releasing chitin and attains the tremendous acceleration. The dactyl degrades over time but is rebuilt when the shrimp molts and creates a new skin. (See here, as well.)

Since the stomatopods are a single surviving group, we have only fossil stomatopods to compare to. However, an analysis of the full mechanical mechanism (here) show that the spearing mantis shrimp and the smashing mantis shrimp have similar anatomy. The smashing mantis shrimp have increased the amount of energy they can store in the chitin. The specifics of how the energy mechanics first evolved in the stomatopods aren't well known as yet.

Mantis shrimp aren't just alien in their mechanics. They see differently as well.

Humans have three retinal pigments that approximate red, blue and green colors. A good discussion of human color vision is here. But I'm just going to talk about pigments for a bit.

If, say, we saw colors as on or off we could represent the field of color vision as three bits. Red would be on, no red would be off. Red and Green would be red bit on and green bit on with blue bit off. Etc. With this sort of representation we would only be able to see 8 colors: 8 possible combinations of bits to represent a color. This represents base 2 to the third power. On/off is binary-- base 2-- and 3 bits represents the power. If we were able to see 10 values for each color we would have a 1000 colors: 10 cubed. In point of fact, we can see many more gradations of color than 10. Humans see about 7,000,000 colors. The cube root of that is about 191. So, let's say in our model that humans can see about 191 gradations of pigment color.

(In point of fact this is wildly wrong since color vision is extremely complex. But this is just to make a point.)

Mantis shrimp have 16 pigments, twelve of which have been attributed to color vision. (See here.) Let's say, for the moment, that the same 191 grades of sensitivity apply to mantis shrimps. That means 191 to the 12th (not cubed) power. Or:

2, 357, 221, 572, 577, 185, 690, 065, 114, 881 colors (2 * 10**27)


336,745,938,939,597,955,723 as many colors as we have.

These numbers don't make any sense, do they? Clearly, the mantis shrimp doesn't see colors the way we do. Even if it was on/off representation, as we discussed a moment ago, that would be 4000 colors. Some scientists believe that mantis shrimp do hyperspectral imaging and don't see color as we do at all. Instead, they perceive color patterns rather than colors.

However, mantis shrimp vision is even weirder. Mantis shrimps have a compound eye. Each eye in effect has trinocular vision and depth perception. (A full discussion is here.) They see into the ultraviolet and down into the infrared and can even see polarized light. (See here, here and here.)

Remember these creatures evolved. What would cause such a radical approach to vision?

One idea has to do with the prey of mantis shrimp. Many of the species the mantis shrimp preys on are transparent-- at least they are to our eyes. But to the mantis shrimp they may not be. Also, the speed of the blow may require high precision eyesight.

However, there's an interesting correlation. The shrimp with the most advanced color vision are also those who are themselves most colorful, suggesting that the vision and coloration are sexually selected.

I think probably all of these factors contribute. Traits aren't just selected for by a single selection criteria. The same color vision that lets us detect red hair allows us to detect red lights. The same could be true for mantis shrimp. Predation and sexual selection could both be in play.

So: here's an animal that has been on the earth a long time-- longer than land based vertebrates. As truly alien to us as anything from another star system.

Living in our aquariums.

More on mantis shrimp:
Evolution of Mantis Shrimp
Mantis shrimp shattering aquariums.
Mantis shrimp see all forms of polarized light.
Mantis shrimps show us a new way to make DVDs. And here.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Discovering the Ephemeral

(Picture from here.)

When I was first living in Boston I heard a lecture on Neanderthals. It was filled with the normal human arrogance of the time. It so angered me I ended up writing a story about it-- which was first published way back in 1986.

The gist of the argument was that since later man had this huge tool kit, used colors and buried his dead in some way analogous to we of the present, he must have been smart like us. But the blighted Neanderthal didn't show any of these things and was therefore stupid by comparison.

The problem is that we like to view the evidence we have as complete. Nothing is further from the truth. Our only evidence derives from things that last-- spear points, fossils, bits of color when things are buried or hidden caves. Anything out in the elements is gone forever.

The opposing view point (in the story A Capella Blues) was that Neanderthal was just as smart as people but expressed it in ephemeral things. This would be true of any human culture that gloried in the ephemeral.

Recently, engraved ostrich eggshell fragments have been unearthed in South Africa-- not Neanderthals, of course. But an ephemeral art form none the less. This makes it the "earliest evidence of a graphic tradition".

Frankly, I'm not surprised.
Wall of Idiots
Not listening to scientific retractions
American Family Organization
New Jersey
Sarah Palin
Tea baggers
Global warming: What we're committed to
Faux and Friends

Links of Interest
Non-dinosaur preys on dinosaurs
Superconducting hydrocarbons
Mitochondria implicated in SIRS
Federal investment and renewable energy
Crustacean taxonomy
Mars in 39 Days
Mainly monogamous modern man
Tiny origami
Myrtle Beach
Ancient standing stones

Free and easy fabric dye
Magical experiments in science

For those who like free books

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For a chance to win a free copy, visit the SFSignal contest page:

Available formats include .prc, mobi, epub, or pdf. Contest ends Tuesday, March 9th, 11pm CST.