Archive for April, 2011


If Saturday blogs are to be about my science fiction civilization, the Jarnian Confederation, I thought I’d start with Jarn, the R’il’nian who in my fiction is a remote ancestor of every Human alive today. Timing? Sometime early in the Last Interglacial, some hundred and twenty-five thousand years ago.

Selections from the Journal of Jarn

Day 1:

 I am alive, which still astonishes me.  I do not know enough about this planet yet to have more than a rough idea of its year length, but no doubt I will find out soon enough.  If I ever get back to where designing another starship is possible, I will design it with a few more of the standard safety features.  Like the block against exiting a jump point too close to a gravity well.

If by any chance I do not get back home, and this record does, perhaps I should introduce myself.  I am Jarn, a R’il’nian and a designer of starships.  Not, I regret to say, as good a designer as I thought, or my third ship would be around me instead of lying in pieces on the bottom of one of this planet’s oceans.  Indeed, it all happened so fast I am still somewhat confused, but I will try to state briefly what happened.

I was aiming for the vicinity of a G-type sun, and I exited the jump-point too close to the third planet’s atmosphere, and heading into it.  All I could do was maneuver into a braking orbit and try to kill enough energy that a water landing wouldn’t vaporize the ship.  No, I could not have teleported to safety.  I never was any good at interstellar teleports, or at going someplace I hadn’t been before. That’s why I went into starship design.

Anyway, not only does the planet have lots of water, it also has land areas with large stretches of chlorophyll green.  A huge one stretches almost halfway around the planet in the northern hemisphere, with an extension into the southern hemisphere at its trailing end, and a pair on the other side of the planet together extend almost from pole to pole.  It looked as if there was ice at both poles, though it could have been clouds, and the readouts as we got into the atmosphere indicated one part oxygen to four of nitrogen.  All this strongly suggested life, and it would be unethical in the extreme to let the ship destroy any more of that life than I could help.

(To be continued next week.)

How did we Learn to Walk?

The OLLI lecture last week was on the origin of tetrapods (that includes all amphibians, reptiles including birds, and mammals) and on the fin-to-limb vs. water-to land transition.

The first land-dwelling animals were arthropods. Millipedes, scorpions, spiders and other creepy-crawlies. No great problems for them—their external skeletons could handle gravity in air, and many could get oxygen from the air with no problem. But the transition from fish to amphibians was a little harder, and was for many years a missing link in evolution.

To start with, there are two kinds of fish. Most of those around today have fins stiffened by bony rays, the ray-finned fish. A very few, the lobe-finned fish, have fleshy structures at the base of their fins. These fleshy structures have bones that are homologous to our own arms and legs. Our arm and hand bones, in turn, are homologous to the wings of birds, bats and pterosaurs as well as the forelegs of every four-legged animal.  This group is called the Sarcopterygii, and it includes not only the coelacanths and the first amphibians, but us.

But how did the lobe-finned fish come onto land? Learn to breathe air? Why did lobed fins develop on the first place? The ray-finned fish certainly seem to outcompete the ones which have stayed in the water today. And why did it seem there was a missing link between the development of lobe-finned fish and the first amphibians?

The lobe-finned fish probably had the advantage in waters where there was something other than water to push on. In terms of today’s habitats, think vegetation-choked estuaries and mangrove swamps. (Mangroves hadn’t evolved yet, but there were probably similar habitats.) Think also warm water—warm water can hold less oxygen than cold water, so these fish (and any fish that lives in warm water) probably gulped air at times to get oxygen. Those lobed fins would have been useful in getting around in something like mangrove swamps, and in climbing to the surface to gulp air when oxygen levels were low.

And fish then, as now, probably ate small arthropods. Some of them had moved to land, and the lobe-finned fish probably followed them.

As to why the transition was a missing link for so long, it turns out that tropical coastal sediments of the right age are not easy to find. The equator at that time passed through land masses now in Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and northern Alaska—not easy places to hunt fossils. For a long time here just weren’t any fossils from the right habitats through about a 50 million year time gap. That’s a long time—dinosaurs died out (except for birds) only  about 65.5 million years ago. As fossil hunters have moved into the right areas, this gap has been filling in, and at this point only about 10 million years are still missing.

Some potential areas for finding more about this transition have hardly been touched. One of them is even in my own back yard—the Brooks Range of northern Alaska. Wouldn’t it be fun if fossil hunters found the transitional forms here?

Old Gods (Poem)

Just for fun, I’m going to put in a writing assignment from Summer Arts Festival (coming again in July!) and the poem it inspired.

The assignment:

Write a poem of seven lines, with an odd number of syllables in each line. The poem must include some form of these eight words: blackberry, raven, canyon, cloud, rock, wall, walk, hover.

My poem:

Old Gods
Sue Ann Bowling

Raven soars high, kiting among clouds.
His shadow slides over rocks,
Plummets down the canyon wall
Hovers over juniper and blackberry,
Paces his brother, coyote.[1]
Raven, do you remember you were a god?
Are those your people who walk below?


[1] This assumes the pronunciation “KAI-ote.”  If you prefer “kai-OH-ti” you can replace the comma with a “the.”

Thursday: “‘Afraid? Why should I be afraid?’ He smiled at us sweetly. ‘You see, I am the ghost.’” Mary Brown. Context? From Pigs Don’t Fly. A very oddly assorted group of travelers has sheltered from a storm in a haunted castle, and just met the ghost—who is fond of stories.

Friday: “There are some things even a vampire has a little trouble recovering from.” Mercedes Lackey. Context? From “Satanic, versus,” in Werehunter. This is a short story with Di Tregarde attending a Romance Writers of the World Halloween party. Andre has just been thrown through the wall by a “tall, dark and handsome” figure conjured up by the guest of honor. (Andre’s a vampire, but he doesn’t sparkle and is very  polite.)

Saturday: “Don’t get stewed. He may want to know where the electrons are kept.” George E. Smith. Context? (WWII era.) From “QRM Interplanetarty,” originally published in Astounding Science Fiction around 1942 and later republished as the first story in Venus Equilateral. The “he” is a businessman sent to make the first communications satellite (manned) more profitable—but he doesn’t understand anything about how it works. Parts of the science are very outdated; the human interactions are not. I might add that the introduction, written by Arthur C. Clarke who came up with the idea of geostationary satellites, gives Smith the credit for the idea of using satellites as communication relays. (The copy I have is older than the one I linked to, and lacks the last two stories.)

Sunday: “You can’t know. You can only believe—or not.” C.S. Lewis. Context? From The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (the book, not the movie.) The Lady (the retired star’s daughter) is speaking to the travelers, who are doubtful about eating the food spread at Aslan’s Table.

Monday: “Because it is knowledge, and all knowledge should be preserved for the future.” Andre Norton. Context? From Dread Companion, as Kilda tries to get Bartarre to add to her history of their strange experience.

Tuesday: “We will not accept, will not resign ourselves, will not permit, will not believe.” Sherri Tepper. Context? From Marianne, the Magus and the Manticore. Almost a mantra of the movement protesting the Manticore.

Wednesday: “Roi had known too many orders in his life.” Bowling. Context? From Homecoming. Lai is trying to get Roi to relate to him, and not having much luck.

Next week I’ll go single-author again, and not even genre fiction. Instead, I’ll tweet quotations from Jane Austin.

Chased by Dinosaurs (DVD Review)

If you enjoy seeing extinct animals in the flesh, thanks to animatronics and computer animation, you’ll probably enjoy this. The addition of people and artifacts such as an ultralight aircraft, a jeep and a sailboat really puts the dinosaurs and sea monsters (ones that really existed) in scale. They are impressive.

On the negative side, the plot (such as it is) is pretty inane. And the explorer, Nigel Marvin …. Well, all I can say is his writers gave him a death wish.

Any reasonable explorer takes precautions. Even a modern camper in bear country knows not to leave food out if you don’t want a tent broken into. I can only suppose that the writers put excitement above being reasonable. I have to say that I was left feeling that this guy was a grade A idiot.

As a bonus, there is a program about the finding of fossils of Argentinosaurus and Giganotosaurus and the argument on whether carnivorous dinosaurs may have hunted in packs. Personally I found some of the against arguments rather doubtful. Carnivores simply do not move as a group the same way a herd of herbivores do. They split up, attack from different directions, and explore. Consequently, a group of carnivores will not leave the kind of trackways a herd does.

This was a BBC science program and overall is well produced, but I have to admit there are very few natural science programs that I do not find errors in. Overall, though, I probably yelled at the screen less often in this than in many other DVDs.

That said, it’s still worth watching for the dinosaurs.

Again, the DVD is Chased By Dinosaurs.

Sunrise at 5:40 am, sunset at 10:00 pm for over 16 hours 20 minutes of daylight. We’re gaining almost 7 minutes a day, now, here at 64° 49’ 33” North. Astronomical twilight will be gone tomorrow — the sun will not get more than 12° below the horizon again until August. There is enough light to drive from 4:34 am to 11:07 pm —18 and a half hours.

The raised vegetable beds are melting out.

Breakup is finally here, and the road has turned into a series of muddy ponds. The snow is melting rapidly. The snow stake shows a mere 4”, down from 14” a week ago. I actually managed to walk out to the stake to photograph it, though I had to use rubber boots. The temperature must have dropped below freezing overnight, because there was an icy crust on the ground – but I could feel the soft mud underneath.

The forecast high temperatures are around 50 and there is no snow (or rain) expected, so most of the exposed snow should be gone by the end of the month.

The raised vegetable beds are showing, and I have herbs growing in the south window. Another week, and I can start the beans. The bike paths have been plowed out, and it shouldn’t take more than a couple of days until I can get the tricycle out of the storage shed. And to my surprise, one of the indoor orchids bloomed. Spring is here!

Horse colors are due to the interaction of a large number of genes, many of which we’ve discussed. These may be divided into base color genes, diluting genes, genes that cause interspersed white hairs and marking genes. One type we have not discussed, because the genetics are not really understood, is interspersed black hairs.

I’d like to point out one thing that Sponenberg does not cover: there are two distinct types of darkening due to the presence of black. It takes a magnifying glass and a great deal of patience to tell the difference, but darkening can be due either to interspersed black hairs (called sooty and it can occur on any base color) or to hairs that are red/yellow at the base and black at the tip (producing a shaded appearance and I think occurring only on bay, wild bay and some seal brown horses.)

For the rest of this discussion I will assume the horse is of one of the base colors, but sooty and shading can occur with any dilution or marking genes, or together with roaning or grey. You just have to remember what the other genes do to red and black pigment, or if they have different effects on coarse and fine hair.

Liver chestnuts are often sooty. It takes careful examination to tell if a chestnut has interspersed black hair, but when I was examining them with a magnifying glass, this was true of every liver chestnut I examined. Even red chestnuts often have a few black hairs mixed into the coat and the mane and tail. Bays can also be sooty, but this may be confused by the presence of shading.

In order to understand black shading, it is necessary to go back and look at how the agouti locus affects mammals in general. The locus got its name from a middle and South American rodent, the agouti. This animal has fur in which the individual hairs are banded in black and yellow. As it happens this is very common in mammals, and a number have banded hair. Unless the hair is very coarse this is not obvious—wild gray mice and rabbits, for instance, really have hair banded in black and light yellow.

The banding may vary from multiple bands on a hair to hair with red/yellow/cream bases and black tips. The banding may also vary with type of hair, with some hairs (often the coarsest) being solid black and others (often the finest) being predominantly yellow.

Remember bay and wild bay are due to genes at the agouti locus. Most bay horses have at least some banded hair on the body, usually with a red base and black tip. This is easiest to see around the edges of the ears, and the banded hairs tend to be most numerous along the spine and spreading down to cover the hips, shoulders and upper barrel. It’s been a long time since I actually looked at individual hairs with a magnifying glass or under a microscope—I was doing this in the late 60’s and early 70’s. But as I recall, just about every bay or buckskin horse I looked at had at least a few black-tipped hairs. In some, the black tipping produced a shaded effect on the body of the horse.

A few horses look black or seal brown in summer coat and quite different in winter. I recall two of these. Duchess was a typical seal brown in the summer—black with tan shading on her flanks, muzzle and under her tail. In winter she looked dark bay. Careful examination of her winter coat showed red near the skin with deep black tips. In her short summer coat, apparently only the tips showed.

The other was even more striking. I first saw him in winter coat, and thought at first he was a blue roan. Careful examination of his coat showed yellow bases with black tips rather than interspersed white hair—a buckskin with deep black tipping. In summer, I knew he was the same horse only because the stable owner identified him—he was a typical seal brown.

This is an area that needs much more research. Unfortunately with the prominence of DNA in genetic research, researchers seem not to be paying as much attention to the distribution of pigment in the hair.

I’ve been taking an OLLI (Osher Life Long Learning institute) class this month, titled Major Evolutionary Transitions. The presenters are two of my favorites: Dr. Sarah Fowell and Dr. Patrick Druckenmiller, who gave a wonderful course on dinosaurs last year. This time we’re skipping the dinosaurs and looking at eight topics, two a week. The first two were the Ediacaran fauna, soft-bodied animals that lived before animals evolved hard parts that are fossilized in conventional ways, and the Cambrian explosion, the first animals with hard parts.

To look at this transition, we have to look at fossils as more than fossilized bone or shells. That kind of fossil does indeed start with the Cambrian, about 542 million years ago. But there are other kinds of fossils.

Anomalocaris.

Chemical fossils are chemicals produced by life processes, and those go back over 3 billion years. Traces resembling microbes can be found in rocks dated to 3.5 billion years of age. Stromatolites — limestone structures similar to those built today by cyanobacteria — date back to 3.5 billion years ago. (Cyanobacteria? Ever had a fish tank? Think blue-green algae, though they’re not really algae.)

By the late Precambrian multi-celled animals were common, but they had no hard body parts. It takes really exceptional conditions to fossilize a jellyfish or a sponge, but rare fossils of these animals can be found. Then, 542 million years ago, there was a rapid increase first is the number of trace fossils—such as burrows or tracks—and then in actual hard parts. What caused this?

Most likely, a change in sensory input. The senses of smell/taste, being chemically based, are probably very old. I have imagined a planet in Homecoming, Mirror, at a very early stage of evolution where the only hard parts are those secreted by the stromatolite-like land corals. At least one of the soft-bodied animals will swim up-gradient to a particular chemical and attempt to ingest the source of the odor. Chances are that some of the Precambrian animals had similar abilities, and enough nervous system to use them.

Light sensing cells might also have been useful, in avoiding excessive light or in seeking light. (Moving up or down in the water column.) But the evolution of lenses and the compound eyes they made possible may well have set off the evolutionary arms race.

Precambrian animals, as far as we know, did not hunt each other. They may well have eaten each other, as anemones do today. But how could they find each other? And what is the use of armor or skeletons if there is nothing trying to eat you and you don’t need to move rapidly?

Then something evolved the first primitive eyes. It probably wasn’t the best-known predator of the Cambrian, the Anomalocaris, though it may well have been one of its ancestors. Once the eyes were there, even in very primitive form, the hunter could find its prey. The prey animals, such as trilobites, had to evolve eyes as well, to see the predators coming, and hard coverings, to make them harder to eat when caught. The prey animals got bigger to avoid being eaten, and the predators got bigger to catch them. The resultant arms race both speeded up the pace of evolution and produced increasingly large hard parts to be fossilized.

It’s worth pointing out that it took a long time for the Anomalocaris to be recognized as a single animal. Initially, the “arms” near the mouth were thought to be a shrimp-like creature, the ring of plates that made up the mouth were seen as a sort of jellyfish, and the body was thought to be a kind of sea cucumber. The animal was not put together until the 1980’s.

The photos are screenshots from an aquarium program, Aquazone Blue Planet which, in addition to conventional aquariums, has several Cambrian animals and backgrounds.

One would think that banks, given all the recent problems they have had (and produced) would at least try to get their software right. Apparently they don’t.

Yes, that's me on my tricycle--and the house I now own.

I had better start out by saying I am one of the lucky ones. I have (or rather had) a fixed-rate mortgage, with monthly payments less than the rent I was paying before I decided to buy the house, and an auto-pay arrangement where my checking account bank automatically sent my monthly payment to the mortgage bank. Once I found my IRA (don’t laugh — as a state educator I went off Social Security to IRA’s years ago, but I didn’t know where mine was) I found I was getting less interest on the IRA than I was paying on the mortgage so I started paying down the principal — especially as I’ll have to start distributions this year. So far, so good.

The beginning of this week I got a phone call from the bank that held my mortgage. I was in arrears. There would be a penalty. Did I want to pay at once? (I don’t think it was meant as a question.)

Needless to say, I have heard the horror stories about people who have actually paid off the mortgage being foreclosed on, of robo-signing, of families being turned out into the streets. “I can’t be in arrears,” I babbled. “It’s on auto-pay.”

“Well, we didn’t get your April payment. It’s 10 days overdue. There must be something wrong with your account. Maybe you’re overdrawn.  Now will you pay up?”

“I’ll check with my bank and call you back.”

Well, I checked with my bank. No, they had not sent funds to the mortgage bank in April. The mortgage bank normally billed them, but they had not received a billing in April. My account balance was fine.

I called the mortgage bank back, of course getting a different person. I explained that they had not received a check for April from my bank because the bank had not received a bill — the account was fine. “I’ll have to check on that.” After a long pause on hold, she came back. “No we did not send out a billing in April. We’ll have to set up the autopay all over. Now we’ll need your account number. But I don’t understand why … Let me check something else.

This time, she sounded apologetic. “We didn’t send the bill because your regular monthly payment was more than you owe.”

“On the whole loan?” I knew I’d paid down quite a bit, but the last statement I could find from the mortgage bank — for the first of this year — still had quite a bit of principal. Still, I had sent in a large check near the end of the year. “Did you post that payment before the end of the year?”

“No.”

In other words, that dunning phone call was because I had almost paid off the loan. Their auto-billing software was not set up to handle the case that the regular payment was more than the outstanding balance. This kind of programming error was frequent in the early days of computers, when it was not uncommon to get a dunning letter saying you owed $0.00 and you’d better pay up. But that was 40 years ago! Surely programmers have learned to cover all the possible outcomes of an if-then branch! I learned that when I was leaning to code FORTRAN, 45 years ago!

Apparently not.

Well, she told me exactly how much I needed to pay off the loan, and I got a cashier’s check and went down to the local offices of the mortgage bank and paid off the loan. (They did cancel the late fee, though they still charged interest between the date they should have sent out the bill and the date I paid.) Given the efficiency of their computer system, I’ll relax a little when I actually have the deed in my hands. But not completely, even then.

Thursday: “The notion that any one person can describe ‘what really happened’ is an absurdity.” Eddings. Context? From Polgara the Sorceress. This is how Polgara starts her account of what she has seen and known in her extraordinarily long life.

Friday: “Jokes as well as justice come in with speech.” C.S. Lewis. Context? From The Magician’s Nephew, one of the Narnia books. Aslan has just given selected animals the gift of speech, and the jackdaw has become (as much as made) the first joke.

Saturday: “Earth’s in the complication stage.” Zenna Henderson. Context? From The People: No Different Flesh. Johannan, one of the People, says to Mark: “See that tree up there? Simplicity says – a tree. Then wonder sets in and you begin to analyze it – cells, growth, structure, leaves, photosynthesis, roots, bark, rings – on and on until the tree is a mass of complications. Then finally, with reservations not quite to be removed, you can put it back together again and sigh in simplicity one more – a tree. You’re in the complication period in the world now.”

Sunday: “I don’t presume to criticize the good Lord, but why did He make the majority of stars type M?” Poul Anderson. Context? From “The Three-Cornered Wheel” in The Trouble Twisters. Martin Schuster, the Master Trader, is stranded on a world circling an M-type star (small and rather cool) and is not happy with the climate. (I’m inclined to doubt that the planet of such a sun could support life, but that’s not part of the story. He’s quite correct about most stars being type M, by the way. One of the interesting things about Type M stars is that their expected life spans are considerably longer than the age of the Universe, so none have died or even come close to old age.)

Monday: “I hope our prospects are somewhat better than poor Hamlet’s.” Turtledove. Context? From The Guns of the South, an alternate history novel in which a time traveler provides the Confederate troops with AK-47 rifles. The speaker is General Robert E. Lee, just before the new gun is demonstrated.

Tuesday: “The writing business, basically sedentary, does have its brisk moments.” Heinlein. Context? From The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. In this case, the writer is running for his life. The book is basically a satirical romp through all of Heinlein’s universes.

Wednesday: “The weak neither survived nor deserved to.” Bowling. Context? From Homecoming. Zhaim is angry about being dragged along on what he considers a wild goose chase and is rehearsing to himself his anger at his father’s attempts to rein in his pleasures.

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