Phobos, Chariot of Fear

Phobos

The title of this posting is no hyperbole. The “Chariot of Fear” is the ancient Greek personification of the mythological God Phobos, described by the ancients as horror riding his chariot across the night sky.

In reality, the diminutive moon Phobos, almost skimming the surface of the warrior planet Mars, is a potentially innocuous place to visit assuming you have a pressure suit and oxygen to breathe. Like Earth’s much larger moon, there is no atmosphere on Phobos. There is also no appreciable gravity.

NASA and Japan are planning a joint unmanned mission to the moons of Mars in 2024. The joint venture is called the Martian Moons eXploration Mission, or MMX. Those unmanned missions may be a prelude to later manned landings since NASA has considered landing astronauts on Phobos before landing on Mars, due to the lack of atmosphere and ultra low gravity of that moon.

Using the Hubble telescope, NASA generated a short video of Phobos as it orbits around Mars.

NASA video made from 14 Hubble Space Telescope images.

While researching a new novel, I was looking for a view of Mars from Phobos. Using the astronomy software Starry Night Pro 8, I found it.

Further more, I was able to make a 3 minute video of Mars going through an entire rotation, sped up of course some 150 times.

While the above video is aesthetically pleasing because of the background stars and the entirety of Mars being in the field of view (FOV), in reality Mars is too far away in this simulation. As the NASA movie suggests, the surface of Mars is much closer (about 6000 km away from Phobos), and thus in reality Mars fills a quarter of the celestial horizon as seen from Phobos. In other words, from Phobos the FOV of Mars is about 45°, which yields a more accurate view as shown in the following video, also made using Starry Night Pro.

Mars at a realistic distance.

The shadow of Phobos can be seen racing across the surface of Mars, to the left of center of the Martian equator.

From a writer’s perspective, thanks to affordable but sophisticated astronomical simulation software and a bountiful database of space objects and trajectories, both near and far, there is no longer an excuse for science fiction writers not getting their scenes setup correctly, assuming their stories are based on the observable universe.

As for the unobservable universe, well that’s where this thing called imagination comes into play. In an imaginary universe, there’s no fact checking allowed.

Hydrogen Diving – A Very Good Year for Fiction

Susan R. Kayar

It is incredibly unlikely that two scientist colleagues, Susan Kayar and myself, separated by large amounts of time and distance, would independently publish two novels about deep hydrogen saturation diving, in the same year. Unlikely or not, it happened in 2017. Neither author was aware of the other’s intentions, or even their whereabouts.

Some things are inexplicable.

Hydrogen diving is, to use an over-used analogy, a double edged sword. On the one hand it makes truly deep diving possible, yet it can cause bizarre mental effects on some deep hydrogen divers. And that dichotomy is grist for any novelist’s mill.

I had previously written  about hydrogen diving and the pioneering role a Swede named Arne Zetterström had in developing it. Unfortunately, perhaps because he was a bold diver, he did not survive to become an old diver. Ironically, his death while diving wasn’t the fault of the hydrogen, but of his inattentive tenders. But as they say, that’s another story.

Once the remarkable, serendipitous co-publication of these two hydrogen diving novels became known, Kayar and I decided to post reviews, each about the other’s book. After all, if we didn’t, no one else would.

Quoting from Dr. Kayar’s biography listed on her Goodreads site, “Susan R. Kayar holds a doctorate in biology from the University of Miami. Her research career in comparative respiratory physiology spanned more than twenty years. She was the head of a research project in hydrogen diving and hydrogen biochemical decompression in animal models at the Naval Medical Research Institute, Bethesda, Maryland. She currently resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband Erich; they met when they were both performing research at NMRI. Dr. Kayar was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2001 for her contributions to the study of diving physiology and decompression sickness.”

As for me, my bio is included in the About page of this blog.

My review of her book, Operation SECOND STARFISH: A Tale of Submarine Rescue, Science, and Friendship, is repeated here, and her review of mine is at the bottom of this post.

“Submarine deep sea “black ops” can be risky business even when everything goes well. But when things go badly, submariners’ lives are in peril, and everyone is praying for a miracle, and a savior. This well written novel drops you into the middle of such a desperate situation, and the potential savior, or potential scapegoat, is an unexpected protagonist, a female civilian scientist who knows the Navy way, knows how to motivate Navy divers, and unconsciously toys with their affections. This is a sensitively written account with a focus as much on interpersonal relations as on the technical aspects of hydrogen diving and biological decompression, or “Biodec.” Some of the greatest themes in this story are of the personal heroism of divers willing to risk their lives in the cold, foreboding darkness of the deep sea in an improbable effort to save fellow sailors.

The story may be fictional, but the science is not. In fact, for all the reader knows, everything written could have happened, or perhaps will, the next time the Navy has a submarine stranded on the bottom. The author, Susan Kayar, Ph.D. has pursued with Navy funding the very technology exposed in this story.

Amazingly, this is one of two novels published independently by scientists in the same year concerning record breaking deep hydrogen dives conducted on super-secret national security missions. That is a rare coincidence indeed, since to my knowledge no other novels about deep hydrogen diving have ever been written.

The other book is a sci fi techno-thriller called Triangle: A Novel, the second volume of a trilogy published by one of Kayar’s fellow scientists and colleagues, this reviewer. In both books, the hazards of deep diving are very real, and the tension is palpable. If you want to learn of the possibilities and perils of deep hydrogen diving, and experience the heroism of exceptional men and women in extraordinary circumstances, you now have two books to both entertain and painlessly inform you.

Kayar’s book will leave you wishing you could ride along with Doc Stella as she rides off into the sunset on her Indian motorcycle. What a ride it is.”

 


Kayar’s review of my novel, Triangle, the second in the Jason Parker Series of science fiction thrillers, follows.

“I thoroughly enjoyed Triangle, the second novel in the Jason Parker Trilogy by John Clarke. It is a fun and engaging mash-up of diving science and science fiction. John and I worked together in diving research for the Navy in Maryland years ago. He continues to this day to perform diving research for the Navy in Florida (while I moved on to other activities and then retired). As one would expect, his details in diving science and Navy jargon are impeccable. But it is impressive that his characters are well drawn and his plot twists are creative and bold.

My favorite part of Triangle has to be the ultra-deep hydrogen dive sequence for admittedly personal reasons. John and I, friendly colleagues though we were, had not been in contact with each other for a couple of decades or more. And yet my own diving novel, Operation SECOND STARFISH, was published in the same year as Triangle, and also contains an ultra-deep hydrogen dive sequence. Mutual friends had to tell us that the other had published a book for us to re-establish contact. I would imagine that our two books are the only novels ever to describe a hydrogen dive, which is a huge technical and physiological challenge, as readers will discover. John’s hydrogen dive works out (if I dare say so without revealing too much of his excellent plot) about as well as such a dangerous scenario ever will. My hydrogen dive is a lot rougher, in keeping with the more aggressive compression rate chosen to respond to the disabled submarine rescue that forms the basis of my story.

Any readers truly interested in dives well beyond 1000 feet of seawater will find a lot to learn and marvel over in Triangle. Readers just along for the exciting sci-fi ride will be equally happy to have spent time in John Clarke’s imaginative world. I look forward to his predicted December release of the third novel in this series.”

 


Anyway you look at it, these two fun novels contain a cram course in the rarest type of diving there is, diving with hydrogen as a breathing gas.

 

Cosmic Coincidence

Almost exactly a year ago, I began writing one of my third novel’s introductory chapters. I am sharing a sample of that chapter at this time because of what seems to me to be a recently discovered coincidence.


“There is never an end to a thing once it is started, according to astrophysicist Peter Green. We can call it an end, but that doesn’t make it so.

A person can be born, grow old and die, but his or her energy goes on, somehow. It may not be recognizable, but physics says it must be that way.
Even a universe is born, grows for a seeming eternity, yet eventually it too must die. Some say in its end, there is a new beginning.

Dr. Peter Green knew those facts better than most. As an astrophysicist working with colossal machines of physics research at CERN, Switzerland, machines that have the power to peer into the beginning of the universe, he’d often thought about not just the beginning, but the ending, the ending that precedes what comes next.

His specialty was dark matter, and something perhaps related, dark energy. We can’t see either, but physics says they must exist for the universe to be what it is.

Either that, or physics is wrong, and neither Green nor his scientist colleagues had ever found physics to be in error.

But he did wonder, if a universe dies, does it leave behind a ghost, unseen but somehow there, with mass that exists at grand scales, but nonexistent at human scales?

And if so, must not the nature of our universe, the shape of our galaxies, depend on an ever-growing graveyard of dead stars, galaxies — and people?

Where does it end? Well, it doesn’t, not really. At least that’s how Dr. Peter Green saw it.”


Arguably, that’s a pretty unconventional thought, Dr. Green had, even for cosmologists who, as a whole, are renowned for unconventional thinking. And at the time that I wrote it, I thought it was a good way to illustrate that the character Peter Green was brilliant, but a bit odd.

Well, he is odd no longer.

I say that because just today I saw a LiveScience article, from which I quote:

“Physicists have found what could be evidence of ‘ghost’ black holes from a universe that existed before our own.

The remarkable claim centers around the detection of traces of long-dead black holes in the cosmic microwave background radiation – a remnant of the birth of our universe.

According to a group of high-profile theoretical physicists including Oxford’s Roger Penrose (Ph.D. in mathematical physics), these traces represent evidence of a cyclical universe – one in which the universe has no inherent end or beginning but is formed, expands, dies, then repeats over and over for all eternity.

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Roger Penrose

“If the universe goes on and on and the black holes gobble up everything, at a certain point, we’re only going to have black holes,” Penrose told Live Science. “Then what’s going to happen is that these black holes will gradually, gradually shrink.”

 When the black holes finally disintegrate, they will leave behind a universe filled with massless photons and gravitons which do not experience time and space.

 Some physicists believe that this empty, post-black hole universe will resemble the ultra-compressed universe that preceded the Big Bang – thus the entire cycle will begin anew.

 If the cyclical universe theory is true, it means that the universe may have already existed a potentially infinite number of times and will continue to cycle around and around forever.

Penrose is clearly one of the great minds of the world, as you can perhaps appreciate from this YouTube clip.

As a reminder, this is also what the fictional cosmologist in the upcoming novel, Dioscuri, believed.

“He did wonder, if a universe dies, does it leave behind a ghost, unseen but somehow there, with mass that exists at grand scales, but nonexistent at human scales? And if so, must not the nature of our universe, the shape of our galaxies, depend on an ever-growing graveyard of dead stars, galaxies — and people?

Where does it end? Well, it doesn’t, not really.” 

Pretty interesting coincidence, don’t you think?

Read the LiveScience article here.

 

DNA: A Matter of Trust

In combat, we trust our buddies with our lives. We have their back and they have ours. When submitting to surgery, we trust the medical team with our lives, and usually that trust is not betrayed. But should we be willing to trust strangers with our very essence, our DNA?

Recently I was trying to solve a plot problem in the science fiction thriller, Triangle. The storyline relied on a particular individual being singled out by the government for monitoring, not for what he had done, but for who he was.

After finishing the novel, I went back to tie up loose ends in the plot. One such loose end involved a question: How could the government know that this one person out of millions had an unrecognized super power? He was a main character in the book and so I could not ignore that question. Certainly it helps the reader suspend disbelief if the plot elements are plausible, at least superficially.

I did not have to puzzle over that question very long before an advertisement for Ancestry DNA popped up on my computer screen.

That was it!

And so the following text flowed quickly.

The characters in this conversation are Sally Simpkin  (AKA Pippi Longstocking) and Joshua Nilsson, identified below by their initials. She was trying to explain to Nilsson why she and her employers had been monitoring him.

SS: “[The government] detected that you had a high probability of having certain prescient capabilities.”
JN: “Forgive me for being a bit skeptical. Why can’t you tell me [how]?”
SS: “I’m not even cleared to know the process. I just took the assignment. It had something to do with a DNA sample you submitted.”
JN: “DNA? The only DNA I’ve submitted was for genealogy research.”

Triangle was published on May 21, 2017. On May 25, the following BBC headline appeared in my browser.

Ancestry.com denies exploiting users’ DNA. “A leading genealogy service, Ancestry.com, has denied exploiting users’ DNA following criticism of its terms and conditions.”

So, is this author also prescient like Nilsson? Or is this blogger merely a bit jaded.

Genealogy services have a difficult time competing in the world market. After all, there are only so many retired folks trying to trace their family history and solidify their genetic place in the world before their demise. Speaking for myself, I started my genealogy research years ago, picking it up from my grandmothers who told tales of Civil War Colonels and Carpet Bagger treachery, and murder. In fact, I’ve posted on this blog before about some of my discoveries.

With the advent of computers and the availability of free records from the Mormon Church, the ease of doing genealogical research exploded. Some of the software and services were either free or inexpensive. Of course, “free” doesn’t do much for a service provider’s cash flow. So, into each CEO’s mind comes, sooner or later, thoughts of monetization. How could Facebook’s Zuckerberg and others turn a free service into something that can make them gazillions? In the case of genealogy services, they started by charging a monthly access fee, and in one case, by enticing viewers to keep paying fees by waving images of fig leaves to attract their attention. That was a strange but brilliant ploy that worked very well on this researcher.

The next step in monetization is now universal: sell ads to companies who want access to the growing body of amateur genealogists. The final ploy, and by far the most ethically troubling, is selling information about users of computer services. First there were those pesky cookies, but now there is blood, or saliva more exactly.

For some companies, it is not enough to know what users search for. There is now a market for information about who you are, your very genetic essence, which is hidden even to you. But some companies like 23andme, Ancestry, MyHeritage, GPS Origins, Living DNA, and Family Tree DNA, let you take a peek into your genes, for a price.

The ironic thing is, this most personal information is not only freely given, but people actually pay the DNA harvesters to harvest their most sacred self. And of course, once that has been done, your genetic-identity can be sold (read the fine pint). While we are urged to protect ourselves from identity theft, isn’t it odd that we are at the same time being enticed into giving away our most precious identity of all, our DNA? And we seem to be doing so gladly, blithely unaware of the implications for us and our progeny.

But don’t let the natural skeptic in me show through too strongly. I do, after all, have faith that everything we’re being asked to store in the “cloud” is actually as secure as cloud storage facilities (whatever those are) claim. And I’m sure the secrets buried deep in our genes are forever kept private, and safe from hackers.

But then, there is that troubling Orwellian Consent Form.

Oh well, Sally Simpkin’s monitoring assignment in Triangle is purely fictional. Surely, no government would really have an interest in our genes.

Or would it?

 

 

 

Where Things Move Quickly and Darkly

I came across a great article from the New Yorker with an interesting title. In fact, my interest lasted all the way to the end.

Spooked: What do we learn about science from a controversy in physics?

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)
“Albert Einstein (Nobel)” by Unknown – Official 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics photograph. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

If you get the feeling that science is not as pure of thought and logic as it pretends to be, then you will find some comfort in Adam Gopnik’s approachable review of the deeply hidden controversy surrounding what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Spooky action is the weirdest of all science, and makes telepathy and clairvoyance seem almost banal by comparison.

In my opinion, parts of Gopnik’s none-too-technical article remind me of the quote by Dr. Jason Parker, the protagonist in the science fiction thriller, “Middle Waters“. In a supposed speech to the open-minded Emerald Path Society, Parker said, “There are regions between heaven and Earth where magic seems real and reality blurs with the surreal. It is a place where things move quickly and darkly, be they friend or foe. The hard part for me is knowing the difference between them.”

Gopnik expressed that thought more prosaically by the following: “”Magical” explanations, like spooky action, are constantly being revived and rebuffed, until, at last, they are reinterpreted and accepted. Instead of a neat line between science and magic, then, we see a jumpy, shifting boundary that keeps getting redrawn.”

Gopnik goes on to say, “Real-world demarcations between science and magic … are … made on the move and as much a trap as a teaching aid.”

To be honest, I did leave out Gopnik’s entertaining reference to Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam. Again, if you have ever been suspicious of the purity of science, the New Yorker article is well worth the read.

Unlike the concerns of Einstein, Neils Bohr and the rest of the cast of early 20th century physicists, the anxiety of Jason Parker, the fictional hero, is not cosmological; it’s personal. It’s every bit as personal as it is for each of us when we sometimes question our sanity.

Yes, real life can be like that sometimes, when things intrude into our ordered lives, as quickly as a Midwest tornado, but with less fanfare and warning. But every bit as destructive. And it is at those points, those juxtapositions with things radical, unexpected, that we end up questioning our grip on reality.

After all, what could be more unexpected and unreal seeming than the notion that cosmological matter we can’t see, dark matter, could send comets crashing into the Earth, as Gopnik mentioned, and the  Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall wrote about in her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.

So, Jason Parker had every reason to be wary of things that move quickly and darkly. They can be a killer.

Sometimes, as in the case of Parker, those internal reflections do end up having a cosmological consequence. But even if they don’t, it’s a good idea to occasionally reexamine our lives for the things which may seem one day to be magical, and the next day to be very real.

In short, the magic should not be dismissed out of hand, because, after all, just like “spooky action at a distance” and “dark matter”, it may not be magic after all.

 

 

Remote Viewing – Stretching the Limits of Science in Fiction

puthoff_lg
Laser physicist Harold E. Puthoff.

I once met the Father of the U.S Remote Viewing program, unawares.

A decade ago, at the request of a Navy engineer who ended up being a character in my novel Middle Waters, I invited Dr. Harold E. Puthoff into the Navy Experimental Diving Unit to give a talk on advanced physics. He had attracted a small but highly educated and attentive crowd which, like me, had no idea that the speaker had once led the CIA in the development of its top secret Remote Viewing program.

Of late, Puthoff’s energies have been directed towards the theoretical “engineering of space time” to provide space propulsion, a warp drive if you will. Although strange by conventional physics standards, similar avant-garde notions are receiving traction in innovative space propulsion engines such as NASA’s EMdrive.

Puthoff is the Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Austin, in Texas, but before that, and more germane to this discussion, Puthoff was a laser physicist at the Stanford Research Institute. It was there that the CIA chose him to lead a newly created Remote Viewing program, designed to enable the U.S. to maintain some degree of competiveness with Russia’s cold war psychic spying program.

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6800 feet down in the Desoto Canyon

Psychic spying was purportedly the method used by the two superpowers to visualize things from a distance; not from a satellite, but from what some call the highly developed powers of the mind’s eye. If we believe what we read on the subject, Remote Viewing was eventually dropped from the US psychic arsenal not because it had no successes, but because it was not as reliable as signal intelligence (SIGINT), satellite imagery, and spies on the ground. But, it has been argued, it might be ideal in locations where you can’t put spies on the ground, such as the dark side of the moon, or the deep sea .

Serendipitously, as I started writing this blog post, Newsweek published a review of the Remote Viewing efforts of Puthoff and others in a November 2015 issue. The article seemed fairly inclusive, at least more so than other articles on Remote Viewing I’ve seen, but the Newsweek author was not particularly charitable towards Puthoff. Strangely, the strength and veracity of Puthoff’s science was reportedly criticized by two New Zealand psychologists who, as the Newsweek author quoted, had a “premonition” about Puthoff.

“Psychologists” and “premonitions” are not words commonly heard in the assessment of science conducted by laser physicists, especially those employed by the CIA. The CIA is not stupid, and neither are laser physicists from Stanford.

To the extent that I am able to judge a man by meeting him in person and hearing him talk about physics, I would have to agree with Puthoff’s decision to ignore his ill-trained detractors. Every scientist I know has had detractors, and as often as not those detractors have lesser credentials. Nevertheless, I have the good sense to not debate the efficacy of remote viewing. I don’t know enough about it to hold an informed opinion. However, there seems to be some evidence that it worked occasionally, and for a science fiction writer that is all that is needed.

Enrico%20Fermi%20chalkboard
Nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi.

As my curiosity became piqued by the discovery of the true identity of my guest speaker at NEDU, and as I learned what he had done for the U.S. during the Cold War, I thought of another great physicist, Enrico Fermi, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. In the midst of a luncheon conversation with Edward Teller, Fermi once famously asked, “Where are they?” The “they” he was referring to, were extraterrestrial aliens.

What became known as Fermi’s Paradox went something like this: with all the billions of stars with planets in our galactic neighborhood, statistically there should be alien civilizations everywhere. But we don’t see them. Why not? “Where are they?”

In most scientists’ opinions, it would be absurdly arrogant for us to believe we are the only intelligent life form in the entire universe. And so ETs must be out there, somewhere. And if there, perhaps here, on our planet, at least occasionally. And that is all the premise you need for a realistic, contemporary science fiction thriller.

But then there is that pesky Fermi Paradox. Why don’t we see them?

Well, they could indeed be here, checking us out by remote viewing, all the while remaining safely hidden from sight. After all, as one highly intelligent Frog once said, humans are a “dangerous species” fictionally speaking of course.

That “hidden alien” scenario may be improbable, but it’s plausible, if you first suspend a little disbelief. If we can gather intelligence while hiding, then certainly they can, assuming they are more advanced than humans. A technological and mental advantage seems likely if they are space travelers, which they almost have to be within the science fiction genre. Arguably, fictional ETs may have long ago engineered space-time, which could prove mighty convenient for tooling around the galactic neighborhood.

So, if in the development of a fictional story we assume that ETs can remote view, the next question would be, why? Is mankind really that dangerous?

Well, I don’t intend for this post to be a spoiler for Middle Waters, but I will say that the reasons revealed in the novel for why ETs might want to remote view, are not based on fear of humans, but are based on sound science. From that science, combined with a chance meeting with Hal Puthoff, the basic premise of a science fiction thriller was born.

So, to correct what some of my readers have thought, I did not invent the concept of “remote viewing”. It is not fictional; it is real, and was invented and used by far smarter people than myself, or even that clever protagonist, Jason Parker.

 

 

A Novel – A Song Just Waiting to Bust Out

SAM_0557One of the most memorable quotes I’ve heard from a child came from his experience listening to classical music. I don’t remember who said it (Google comes up empty-handed), but I’ve never forgotten it.

“A symphony is music with a song waiting to bust out any minute.”

Those words were the child’s response to listening to a symphonic piece. The little listener kept expecting to hear a song, but no sooner did the musicians seem to be closing in on a melody, than the music changed and darted off down another musical path. I suspect that was a little frustrating to the kid; but at least it kept him listening, expectantly.

Being a musician, I can fully appreciate the correctness of his innocent comment.

Classical music is technical; in fact, highly so. Orchestration is a wonderment to those of us who aren’t both talented and trained in the art. The printed lines for a solo instrument, like the clarinet I file0001662840435play, are defined by strict mathematical relationships between frequencies of sound. If the math is not precise, then the sound will not be precise and melodic. That is to say, the sound will not be music, but rather noise.

I consider myself a technical person. As a scientist, I understand the technical rigor and precision which is required for composing and orchestration, but also for scientific and engineering calculations and publications. Indeed, I’ve spent decades writing technical papers, many with a fair amount of mathematical basis. I kept the creative, the musical side, bottled up, because it’s not publishable. Technical publications are, well, technical. They are neither pretty nor tuneful.

But as I mingle vicariously with other technical writers, I find that some of them also have a pent-up desire for creative writing. With a somewhat guilty feeling, they have actually penned very good, non-technical prose. And even a few poems.

Now that I, a scientist, have released my first novel, Middle Waters, hugely imaginative compared to my day-to-day paid technical writing, I feel I have birthed a bastard child.

Oh, but how I love that child.

Now let the song begin…

 

Blood, as a Delicacy, Is Underrated

Those words earned me a first place prize of $20 in a contest for the best first line in a comic vampire novel. The contest was held during the 2010 Ozark Creative Writers’ Conference in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Not that I would ever write a vampire novel, comic or otherwise, but I guess it proved I can be succinct – from time to time. I admit that comes as a shock to those who know me best.

What amazed me about that line, and winning, was that it was my first submission for a writing competition. Now, if I can just keep it up. Let’s see, that was $3.33 per word, so a 100,000 word novel would earn me …

 Holy Mackerel! What am I doing wasting time blogging?

OK, seriously, what is it about the European cultures and blood? Have you ever had blood pudding?

I once stood in a working man’s cafeteria line in Geesthacht, Germany, on the Elbe River, paralyzed before a large stainless steel pan filled with — blood, or at least something really, really bloody. It wasn’t like rare steak. It was more like a pan from an autopsy table.

My German friends told me the “pudding” was really fresh. Did that mean there was a meat packing plant close by? Maybe it’s just me, but any recipe that starts off with one quart of pig’s blood is just not that appetizing. I know, it’s a cultural thing.

I didn’t gag, but I also didn’t eat much of anything for lunch that day. Maybe some very white bread, and milk — nothing with shades of pink — that’s for sure.

Which brings me to the observation that perhaps I could write the first line of a comic vampire novel, but I would probably throw up before finishing the first chapter.

Guess I’m just squeamish.

The Return of Souls – A Science Fiction Theme

“I believe we don’t stay dead long”, said Robert Forbisher, a talented composer created by David Mitchell for his epic novel, “Cloud Atlas”.

cloud-atlas

I recently watched for the second time the complex and potentially disturbing movie adaptation of “Cloud Atlas”. The first time I watched it I simply held on for the ride, trying to make sense of the action and changing plots and characters. On second viewing, it was still a page turner, so to speak.

During my second viewing I noticed, apparently for the first time, that short sentence uttered by Robert Forbisher; “We don’t stay dead long”. It was an introspective comment in a letter directed to his lover, and pretty much summed up the entire movie.

In spite of the perplexing current interest in a zombie apocalypse, the “Cloud Atlas” book and film is not about the undead. It’s about reincarnation.

In my opinion there are two themes in science fiction that make for almost limitless possibilities — time travel and reincarnation.  “Cloud Atlas” uses the latter theme as a platform for topics far more meaningful than the tired theme of man meets giant worm, worm eats man, man’s friend kills worm, and so on. Regardless of what I or anyone else thinks about souls or reincarnation, they do make for interesting theater.

Another bit of narration from the movie, this time from Zachry Bailey (played by Tom Hanks) struck a chord with me for it accurately reflected a seriocomic theme in one of my previous posts, Conversation with a Cloud.

In Bailey’s words, “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow?”

In my own less artful words, quoting a sentient and telepathic cloud that knows it will die at the end of the day, “I am not a cloud. I am moisture. A cloud is my physical appearance, but that changes throughout my life. And regardless of how I look, what I am, vapor, still exists.” 

Fire in the skyIf we accept that almost all religions propose the survival of a soul after death, then the essential question raised by David Mitchell’s story is whether or not an eternal soul is granted only one chance to incarnate.

If you accept the concept of a soul, then you may accept the concept of a God who created  souls. And I would be a very presumptuous man to decide what God would or would not do with one of his creations throughout an eternity of time, an eternity that I cannot even imagine.

Unfortunately, there is no data with which to debate the return of souls. That is, there isn’t if you ignore what seems to be documented anecdotal accounts such as a recent one involving a three-year old Druze boy who seemingly identified his murderer, with supposedly witnessed proof of the crime.

That story, and others like it, make for interesting and mind challenging reading for those steeped in western religion, like myself. As I understand it, in Eastern and Middle Eastern regions such stories are rather commonplace.

Of course the story of the Druze three-year old could be fictitious, an elaborate deception. Regardless of the truth of the existence of souls, and soul mates (a currently popular meme with a subtle assumption of reincarnation) there is a literary aspect to consider. To state the obvious, fiction does not have to be true to be entertaining.

If I were capable of writing a sequel to “Cloud Atlas”, (which I am not), I would be unable to resist adding Karma to the mix. The notion that you get what you deserve, in this life or the next, is simply too enticing to ignore, whether it be truth or fantasy.

For instance, suppose a chapter in a sequel covered the life of Jack the Ripper, of both historical infamy, and future infamy; except in the future, his would-be victims are packing heat (carrying a gun). Jack’s story of infamy would end abruptly.

Based on such a karmic premise, the literary possibilities are endless. With the proper writer in control, they could also prove endlessly entertaining.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Create a Motorcycle Salesman in Five Easy Minutes?

I used to own a Honda 350 motorcycle and drove it about 35,000 miles before I sold it. But that was long ago.

But still, there was a history. Such a good history, in fact, that of late I’ve been admiring a fellow’s 175 cc Honda of the same style and vintage as mine. But I’m not at all in the market for a motorcycle not in the least.

Nevertheless, I was not too surprised last night when I found myself in a dream, in a motorcycle store, looking at motorcycles. I hadn’t been there long before a salesman asked me, “What range are you looking for?” My answer: “I used to have a 350, so a 350 to 500 would be about right. I’m not interested in a big Harley.”

The last bit of conversation from that clerk I remember before I awoke, was “Well, we have an old black and blue junker we could get for you.”

It didn’t occur to me until I was awake that the store clerk thought I was talking price range, in dollars, not engine displacement. He was really confused. And then I thought, “This is my dream, I created that store clerk, so how could he and I not be communicating? How could he be confused?”

And I still wonder that.

The ancients used to think that characters in dreams were embodiments of spirits or actual characters from life, and through dreams we communicate with them. And on the surface, that would seem to fit the data from this dream. But being a modern, educated man I don’t at all believe that. Still, why the confusion within a dream?

Could it be that life itself is so confusing that we simply expect it to be that way, and therefore inject confusion into the characters we create in our dreams? I suppose a dream without confusion would not be a dream.

As a writer of sorts I am tempted to think that in dreaming I’m creating somethingan experience. And as I wake and lay down words, I am truly creating. But as a rule my characters and I always understand each other. I know their needs, desires, and weaknesses.  They don’t surprise me because after all, I created them.

So maybe that is what I should heed from this dream. Perhaps our best creations should surprise us. Perhaps, when we allow ourselves to loosen control of our characters just a bit, they are free to do the unexpected.

Sounds nice, like something a creative writing instructor would say, but predictably, the letting go is the hard part for a technical writer, one who writes as a career scientist, with precision and concision. You can not let go: You have to throttle your writing to best explain sometimes difficult ideas in as simple a way as you can.

Your characters are equations: they have no freedom, they are defined, immutable. Nothing is left to providence. Even chance must be carefully defined, with probability ranges that are known, and in conventional terms agreed upon by the scientific audience at large. Writing like that is a conversation I suppose, between the writer and the audience, but it is never surprising, not if it is to be believable.

Creative thinking, on the other hand, like dreaming, can be surprising. It can lead you were you least expect it. For instance, I thought this little blog post would be about dreaming, but it turned itself into a post about writing. Funny how the mind works some times.

And now that I’ve expanded my mind a bit, I think the dream was right. A buyer thinks of what he wants, a salesman thinks of what commission he can get from the transaction, based on the buyer’s pocket book.

Hmm … guess I created a pretty good motorcycle salesman character last night after all.

 

Disclaimer: the motorcycle salesman created in this dream does not reflect in any way upon any other salesman, real or imagined. It was just a dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Have All the Letters Gone?

SONY DSC
By Petar Milošević (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
When is the last time you wrote a letter to a family member or loved one?

I’m not talking about email, or text messages; digital communications do not count. I mean a letter on a piece of paper, placed in an envelope with a stamp, and mailed at a mail box or post office; or in a very private way, lovingly slipped underneath someone’s door.

In the hurry up, speak sparingly Twitter generation, there seems to be little value in penning an honest-to-goodness letter. Compared to instant communication, letter writing with an ink-filled pen seems agonizingly slow, sloppy and so twentieth century.

I recently opened a grey metal box that had lain dormant, ignored, for up to 50 years. It was a time capsule, holding remnants of this young man’s life in 1964 and before. In it were letters, letters my Dad had written to me during my college years.

My parents have been gone for many decades now, and reading those letters after such a long time was a joy. Unlike emails and tweets, those letters told a story, a story of how my parents were reacting to and appreciating my new found freedom and expressions of individuality.

My father, a physician who practiced medicine for 50 years, wrote words that are even deeper in meaning now than they seemed at the time. “We are glad that you seek the places that are apart, such as the mountains and the sea,” he wrote. “It is so easy to rush past the beauty and truth of life, especially in this age. An older and wiser one once said, ‘Let us not hurry, not worry, and let us take a moment now and then to smell the flowers along the way.’ ”

And then there were the words I puzzled over briefly before realizing what it meant.  “Their being and meaning will never know the obsolescence of most of that which is taught.”

Frankly, that was a lesson that takes a life-time to understand, for in time we come to know that many things we are taught while young will eventually be found wrong, or at least inaccurate. In other words, so-called truths change.

In 2064, fifty years from now, how will you or your descendants be reminded of things you said, or things your parents and other loved ones thought way back in 2014? How will memories of 2014 be renewed?

Wooden_hourglass_2
Hourglass. By S Sepp (Own work) [GFDL] via Wikimedia Commons
Even now, the concept of writing love letters seems sweet but archaic to those in their twenties. So I wonder, will there be such a thing as love letters in the future?

Facebook posts certainly won’t be preserved for fifty years. In fact, both Facebook and Twitter will be long forgotten, replaced by more culturally relevant trends. And let’s face it, have you ever said anything on Facebook that deserves to be preserved for fifty years?

I suppose that as my father saw his time on earth becoming increasingly limited, he realized that time, the time to enjoy life, was a precious commodity, yet one not well appreciated until the sand in the clock is half run out. That is an important lesson that I, with my own sand ebbing away, have at last come to appreciate. But if I did not have my Father’s letter to read now, fifty years later, it would be a lesson long forgotten.

In a tweeting, Facebook society, how will we hold pages and memories in our hands when our parents and other loved ones are gone?

Sad to say, I don’t think we will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Half Magic

1033282 Long before J. K. Rowling began writing the wildly popular Harry Potter series of books on children and magic, Edward Eager wrote a similar themed book in the 1950s. In my child’s mind at that time, Eager’s book, Half Magic, was one of the most remarkable and memorable books I’d ever read. In fact, it is currently rated by some as #54 among the top 100 children’s books.

The fact that it was featured in our elementary school’s library did nothing to detract from the read. After all, that was the joy of school libraries — the ability to browse through the rows of books waiting for discovery.

There was another library book I remember, about a barnstorming pilot who for one reason or another kept crashing, and yet somehow surviving. It was exciting reading, and surprisingly did not deter me from my love of flying. But I digress.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I was able to identify Half Magic and download it, and read it. Presto, change-o, just like that!

But, it’s not at all what I remembered.

Here’s the thing about memory; it is ever so malleable, especially in children. All I really remembered in my teenage and adult years was that there was something in it about people who were half white and half black. Frankly I’d forgotten the whole magic theme.

What had colored my memory was the power of a vivid image found on the cover of that book, and the fact that it was popular during a time when racial integration was a frequent topic in the news. Somehow, those mental bits merged into what I believed the book to be. Many years after reading it I had the curious impression that it was a morality play of sorts, where people were in fact half black and half white.

Well, if that happened, racial profiling would be nonexistent, wouldn’t it? If you were of mixed race, with your body literally halved by distinct racial characteristics, then you obviously couldn’t be bigoted. And for that reason I held that book in high esteem. But due to my fragmented memory, I despaired of ever finding it again.

And then there was Google. While I may razz Google a bit for their intrusiveness, I do consider it a blessing to be able to Google the words “half black and half white” and see before me a panoply of related images. There, buried in the search results, was the image of a book cover that I instantly recognized from so long ago.

I had no conscious memory of it, but yet I recognized it among all the other less relevant images. (Yes, there really is such a thing as  subconsciousness, just in case you wondered.)

Happily, the 50th anniversary edition of that book was recently published, so the book is available for another generation of young minds looking for magic with a moral. And indeed, it really is a morality play of sorts. But sadly, someone felt the need to modernize the cover, which is now far more visually complex. But I wonder; is it memorable? HalfMagic

If I had a book cover, I’d want that cover to be memorable enough to transcend the decades, and jump out of my seemingly inaccessible memory like a Jack-in-the-Box long after all other memories of the book had faded.

I am patiently waiting for my 6-year old grandchild to be still long enough to let me read her this book. As for the rest of you, real childhood magic as portrayed in Half Magic may not be as fantastical as Harry Potter, Hogwarts School, and the dark Lord Voldemort, but it seems a lot more believable.

For more information on this memorable book:

http://magicvalley.com/lifestyles/relationships-and-special-occasions/summer-book-club-half-magic/article_b1414bf4-d895-5800-8f16-169da042a889.html

 

The Positive Side of Internet Data Gathering

There is a good reason why God and aliens (of the extraterrestrial variety) use telepathy to communicate. It is the only secure form of information transmission. Everything else is subject to capture, storage, and retrieval.

There is currently a frantic paranoia spawned by national and international agency’s collection of virtually everything we say and do. The only thing not open for capture are our thoughts and dreams, at least for now. (Yes, the Army’s working on that).

But governments aren’t alone in information spying — commercial industry is perhaps outpacing governments in their data collection efforts. Their motivations may be different, but the frenetic pace and implications are every bit as invasive. Privacy, as we’ve known it, is dead.

I’ve previously written about Google Noodling , which is a way of catching Google in their data-mining efforts. And like the tone of that article, you have to take a lighthearted view of such efforts. It is not going away. And if we don’t “get over it”, we may, in my estimation, go a little crazy.

But there is a positive side to all this, and a large and growing number of people are finding this side to be personally satisfying. That has to do with family connections, or genealogy. I’ve written about that topic as well.

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My brother and I. He was five years older.

Last night I solved a very personal family puzzle through the help of Ancestry.com. Both my parents had brown hair and brown eyes. Both their younger children, sons, had blond hair and blue or green eyes.

I’ve spent a lot of time of late with my brother before he passed from a prolonged illness, and I was struck as never before with the purity of the blue color in his almost iridescent eyes. (I’m the one with the green eyes.) When young, both of us had blond hair, which eventually darkened with age. My brother was tall and thin. I was thin, but vertically challenged.

In the next generation, both my children have green eyes, perhaps because I married a green-eyed girl. Our daughter has blonde hair, and even a granddaughter has greenish-brown eyes. And a new grandson baby seems to have blue eyes and blond hair.

I have never ceased wondering, as did my parents no doubt, where those light colors came from. Having believed strongly in my mother’s fidelity, I kept assuming that someday I would discover the source of the blue/green eyes and blond hair.

That happened last night, thanks to the technology of digitization and data mining. I discovered a World War I selective registration document from my Grandfather who died in a hotel fire many years before my birth. At the age of 34 he had blue eyes and “light” hair. He was both tall and “slender”, pretty much a perfect description of my brother.U.S.WorldWarIDraftRegistrationCards1917-1918ForAlbertSidneyJohnstonClarke

 

The next morning I was able to go through unidentified family photos, and there he was, identified at last, the Grandfather I never knew. So apparently it wasn’t the mailman after all!

ASJ Clarke scan crop

 

Obviously this discovery is of interest to no one except my cousins and other relatives. However, it does point out the value of computers, computer databases, and the sharing of information that large databases make possible. There is a tangible reward, for both the company providing the product (the database) and the customers who benefit from the data shared.

I’m sure that when my Grandfather filled out his draft card in 1918, he had no idea that the digital image of that card would end up in the hands of his unborn grandchildren and great grandchildren 95 years later.

Which makes me wonder, what will the world know about each of us 100 years from now? We’ll be long gone, but the record of our existence will survive somewhere in the depths of a digital storage facility. Without a doubt our descendants will enjoy reading about the inane things which pleased or troubled us in 2013, and which we so freely posted thinking that no one was listening, and no one really cared.

Believe me, some people will care. And apparently, everybody’s listening.

 

 

The Day the Gorillas Were Stopped at our Door

I think one of the reasons I enjoy my grandchildren so much, and vice versa, is because they know  they won’t always get a serious answer from me. They sometimes call me “silly”, but they do so with a smile. Silly is fun.

Children will assuredly get an answer to any question they ask me (within reason). However, that answer may be weighted more on the side of creativity and fantasy than on reality.  They understand that, and delight in it. My instincts tell me that there cannot be too much fantasy during the playtime of young children.

As for my choice of an answer, it’s not at all a conscious decision to alter reality. I simply abhor an uninteresting answer, to anything.

Case in point: My five-year old found two bottles of the popular foaming adhesive, Gorilla Glue, next to our back door. “What are these for Granddaddy?” Gorilla_glueBD070901053L6_tcm10-18065

Well, the stock answer would have been that I was gluing adapter ends to some polypropylene drainage gratings, and the Gorilla Glue would hold nicely until I could embed the gratings in concrete.

But I sincerely believe that if a writer can build on a play of words, he should. In fact it’s almost an obligation of adults to pass on an appreciation of the joy of words.

So my answer to her was as follows: “I use Gorilla Glue in case gorillas come into our backyard to scare us. I’ll run out into the yard and glue their feet down.”

That answer was very well received.

“Why is one bottle white and one bottle brown?”

“Well of course the white gorilla glue is for white gorillas, and the brown is for brown gorillas.”

Silverback Gorilla at London Zoo, Wikimedia Commons
Silverback Gorilla at London Zoo, Wikimedia Commons

“Let’s go try it!” she yelled almost ecstatically.

Looking out the window I saw no gorillas, or any other animal wild or tame. “Well, I think the gorillas are hiding from us now.” Thinking like an adult, I didn’t want her to be disappointed.

“No they’re not. We’ll just pretend,” she said with a sly wink that seemed to say, You do remember how to play, don’t you?

And with that the five year old  sprinted outside, paused at a spot where the threatening gorilla hoard was standing, and squirted pretend glue on pretend feet. She was fearlessly immobilizing at least six gorillas, and by my reckoning, three were white, and three were brown, because she selected just the right bottle for the proper gorilla.

As proof of the effectiveness of her defensive strategy, no gorillas entered our house that day.

snowwhite
Snowflake the Gorilla, Wikimedia Commons

Now, to be fair to all gorillas, I do plan to take my granddaughter to the zoo one day and explain to her what an intelligent and peaceful, and threatened, species gorillas are.

And then I’ll probably explain the real reason Gorilla Glue is named as it is. Gorillas undoubtedly use it to glue their nests together so gorilla babies won’t fall out of the trees at night.

Gorilla_nest (1)
Gorilla night nest. Photo courtesy of Jefe Le Gran, Wikimedia Commons.

Makes perfect sense to me.

 

 

 

What Are Spammers Thinking?

I’ve noticed that from time to time normal, rational people comment on my blog posts. Unfortunately, their comments are usually lost in the noise. Where is the noise coming from?

Well, spammers.

Spam on blog posts is one of the most bizarre human or computer behaviors I have ever seen. And frankly, it makes no sense at all.

When some computer fills up one or two paragraphs with wildly random characters or words, I think it’s a good bet that no intelligent life form is behind the keyboard. If I had a monkey, it could probably do a better job.

And though I appreciate it when some comments praise my work, when they quickly lead to an ad for Viagra I become suspicious that they aren’t actually insinuating that my posts are leaving the readers flat. I suspect they haven’t read a word, and some computer is inserting an ad which the programmer hopes will automatically get posted. I hate to disappoint, but my posts having nothing to do with the pharmacology of impotence, and therefore such obviously slanted ads will get no traction with me.

As a matter of fact, any reader with more than a microwatt brain will notice two things. 1) there are no ads on my site, and I strongly resist any outside efforts to get me to “monetize” my wed site. I figure if I can’t afford to keep the web site up without selling ads, then I’ll shut it down. 2) The name of the blog strongly implies I am a man, and upon reading a few posts you see that I have an attraction to men’s toys. So why do I see a preponderance of spam trying to get me to push handbags and women’s boots?

If I was going to push ads, they would be for man-toys like motorcycles, airplanes, high definition video cameras, arctic survival gear, wing suits and diving gear. You know, guy stuff. But the purveyors of those specialty items have the good-sense and integrity not to spam me. Fur-lined boots and handbags do not occupy even a cubic nanometer’s  worth of space in my brain. So why would I link to spam sites selling those things?

You would think that the fact that I have dumped thousands of spam attempts for completely unnecessary fashion accessories would catch someone’s attention in the respective marketing departments. Their money is being wasted. But that fact is seemingly never appreciated by the spammers.

Also not appreciated is that I never publish anything in Japanese. I have been to Japan, but I can’t read or write kanji or hiragana. In fact, one of Goshindo-Kanjithe most disorienting experiences of my life occurred in a Japanese bus station where there was not a single character from the Latin alphabet. So why would spammers send me lengthy spam in Japanese writing? Are they completely clueless? Or do they think I’m a renaissance man who acquires languages like some people acquire DVDs? I’ll confess, I’m not that man. I have a hard enough time with American English.

The irony of it is that before long I’ll likely receive one or more spam comments based on this posting. It will probably read something like this:

“You hit the actual fingernail in the head regarding this gleam… This information is so hard to find I will link to your feed and tell my friends who have been searching. Buy Viagra cheap online.”

How about that for a non sequitur!

 

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If you have an interest in the psychology of spammers and spamming, there are a couple of articles, one scientific and one lay press that I can recommend. Another article, classified by Google as being scholarly, reportedly has a bad habit of infecting computers with viruses and other malware. According to the recommendations of my security software, I will not be recommending that site.

 

 

 

I am Neanderthal, Pt. 2

The gleam in my father’s eye came in 2013. That is when it all started for me, years before my birth. I am more than a little annoyed by that.

In my searching of the archives trying to learn of my roots, I came across a 2013 article discussing the debatable morality of recreating the Woolly Mammoths through genetic tinkering. It would be immoral, was the scientist’s opinion.

So, how do you think that makes me feel, the only Neanderthal on Earth? No one bothered asking my opinion.

Morality, I think, is based on the profit motive; on hidden agendas. It is arguably immoral to create a solitary herd animal when there is no financial reward for creating an entire herd. A herd animal is lonely without a herd. I know; I am a herd animal too, in the strictest sense. If there was financial gain involved, I can guarantee you a herd would reappear, like magic.

Other than a tourist attraction, what could the incentive be for creating a herd of mammoths? The novelty would quickly wear off, I’m sure.

At least it did for me. The curiosity and wonder I invoked in the public as a child began to wane as I grew ever more body hair, and began to assert my independence, and hormones. Quickly I became yet another difficult, and apparently not very attractive, adolescent. I was seen as boring; old news.

But curiously, at the same time the morality of creating a single previously extinct herd animal was being discussed, the Russians uncovered liquid blood from the underbelly of an ice-bound Mammoth. Almost immediately, that miraculously preserved blood became a siren of inescapable beauty to geneticists. The most pious of them wondered, so I read, why God would reveal this magic pool of genetic mystery after so many millennia if in fact humans were not fated to recreate the Mammoth.

And almost in the same breath, Neanderthal. After all, Mammoths and Neanderthal are forever linked through folklore, originating in the cave art of my ancestors.

mammoth hunters
Mammoth Hunters: from arthursclipart.org.

 Which brings me to a dream I had. It is true that supposedly primitive people put stock in dreams; but I digress.

I dreamed that Armageddon came suddenly, with nuclear weapons unleashed from Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia, China, and the United States. It was horrifying, and true to prediction a nuclear winter ensued. Virtually no humans survived.

But there were survivors who actually thrived in the dark and cold. They were a large band of us Neanderthals who had been bred in secret locations in Siberia. After the holocaust, we Neanderthals were able to escape and pillage the remains of a devastated Earth.

And once again, herds of recreated Woolly Mammoths were also released in Siberia and fell prey to our kind, once again providing us sustenance.

Unwittingly, geneticists had secretly and unwittingly ensured the survival of a race of hominids, not exactly human, but close.

When the surviving humans and Neanderthals met, there was once again romance in the air.  Beggars can’t be choosers when genetic survival is at stake.

 But like I said, it was only a dream. I’m sure it could never really happen.

Could it?

To be continued.

I am Neanderthal

neanderthal-human-456
CREDIT: Neanderthal Museum (Mettmann, Germany)

I suppose it was inevitable that I would be different; the ultimate “n” of one, the rarest species in the universe, the only Neanderthal on Earth.

By human standards I am very spiritual; I can remember my time before incarnation. I was told that I would be given a unique opportunity to excel in this lifetime. Of course, I had no idea what that truly meant. But there are no “do-overs” in life. I’m stuck for as long as I am here; so I might as well make the best of it.

Since no one knows how long Neanderthals live, I’m starting my memoirs now, at age 25. This way, if some violence or illness claims me, I’ll leave behind a record of what some would call a curious life. But it’s the only life I’ve known.

It all began in March 2013 when my ancestral genome was completely identified. Far as I can tell, that work was only a matter of curiosity. Actually, I would classify it not as curiosity but as mischief.

They tell me I was born in 2018. My earliest memories are of being tested and prodded. My body’s supply of blood has been withdrawn at least 10-times over, finding a home in just about every laboratory in the world.

You’re welcome.

I never signed a consent form for that testing, but apparently I have no more rights of consent than any other non-Homo sapiens. I am, apparently, guinea pig.

IQ tests seem to be of particular interest to academic scientists. There is a never-ending line of psychologists trying their particular flavor of IQ test on me. But the truth is, I am Neanderthal, not Homo sapiens. As someone once said, “A cat is a genius at being a cat.” I am a genius at being Neanderthal. I am the smartest one there is.

I have been asked what I think about the “Caveman” videos. Well, my ancestors, like yours, lived in caves; that’s true I suppose. However, the caricatures I see are as repugnant to me as blackface is to an African-American. Enough said.

As an adolescent I was constantly pitted physically against older boys. I’m proud to say I whipped their butts; every single one of them.

Starting at age 14, the U.S. Army began running me through endurance and strength tests. They found my limit, for sure, but never told me how I compared. But I did overhear someone in a grey suit once say, “We need lots more like him.”

I guess that means someone likes Neanderthals.

Speaking of liking, I’ve often wondered if I’ll ever find a girl. They tell me that humans and Neanderthals once interbred, but based on my experience, that seems highly unlikely now. Besides, who would fall in love with a guinea pig, even a well-endowed guinea pig. I am, after all, not human.

At least, that’s what they keep telling me.

 

To Be Continued

A Conversation with a Cloud

clouds2I lay on the summer grass with a young lady friend of mine. We were holding hands affectionately, talking softly about nature, love, and a future that was fated never to happen. As we talked about nothing of lasting importance, I pointed to a dying cloud. All of the clouds drifting lazily overhead were dying as the day’s heat was dissipating and the air was becoming calm, preparing for evening.

I suspect it’s an infrequent event when someone points out an act of nature that had always been visible, but had never been noticed. Indeed, we watched, not saying a word, as the first of the day’s puffy clouds ceased to exist.

I was pleased with myself; glad that my prediction had been proven true, and pleased with her reaction. In fact, I was so pleased that I still remember that incident, many years later, even though the face of the girl has mercifully faded from my memory.

However, now that I have matured enough to ponder the imponderables of life, I realize there is more to the story. As I replay the event in my mind I realize that the cloud talked back to me.

I know that sounds bizarre, but all I can say is that my memories, perhaps having been repressed due to their strangeness, are finding their way back into my consciousness. Perhaps there’s a reason for their reappearance at this stage in my life.

I am not dying; the cloud closest to me seemed to be saying.

I was at first taken aback. After all, who’s ever heard a cloud speak.

I said I am not dying.

OK, if a cloud is willing to talk to me, I suppose I should respond. That would only be polite.

“Yes you are,” I argued, politely of course. “You’re getting thinner by the minute. In fact, you’re disappearing before my eyes.”

I’m not dying; I’m resting.

I laughed, with Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch in my mind.

“Well, resting or not, you’re quickly disappearing.”

But I’m still here.

“You’ll be long gone, any minute now.”

I am moisture; water vapor. That will still exist. It just won’t be visible to you.

“But your whiteness, your cloud, what you are, will be gone.”

I am not a cloud. I am moisture. A cloud is my physical appearance, but that changes throughout my life. And regardless of how I look, what I am, vapor, still exists.

“Well, you’re looking very anemic now.”

I am not anemic!

Apparently the fading cloud had feelings, and perhaps a little bit of a temper.

“Well, you are at least looking very benign right now.”

Like I said, I am resting. Today my mission is to provide shade. Today is an easy life for me.

“So, does that mean you’ll be reborn tomorrow?”

Of course.

“And you’ll look different?”

No two clouds are ever alike.

Strangely, I was beginning to understand that cloud, just a little perhaps, through some seemingly impossible way. And then I had an uncharacteristically profound thought, for a young man.

“You say the true you is nothing more than water vapor. Would you call that your soul?”

By now the cloud had completely disappeared, but I could still hear its voice in my head.

It is what I am. It is always there; it does not change. If that is what you call a soul, then so be it.

By now the voice of that thing that used to be a cloud was fading as the invisible vapor moved on.

Needless to say, I did not discuss what I was hearing with my then girlfriend. She moved on to another boy soon enough.

The next day dawned with building cumulus. There was instability in the air, and clouds were pregnant with moisture. Wishing for confirmation of what had happened the day before, I turned my attention to the nearest cloud.

“You look full of life this morning.”

I heard nothing.

I tried again, “You look very full of life this morning.”

You talkin to me boy? The cloud was growing vertically as well as horizontally.

“Well, I was trying to.”

Yes, I thought I heard you thinking I was pregnant.

I sincerely hoped that no one else could hear this … uh… conversation, if you could call it that.

You’re right, though. I’m about to give birth.

“To rain?” I wondered out loud.

Rain? Oh no. That’s the process, but not what is borne.

“I don’t understand”.

I give birth to puddles, ponds, lakes and oceans; any container that my rain falls into.

“Containers? Really?”

Tell me little man, do you have a mind?

I laughed. “Last time I checked. What a strange thing for a cloud to ask.”

OK, then where is it?

“In my head of course. In my brain.”

Oh you silly little man.

“What?”

Your brain is the container. Your mind is shaped by the container, but it is not the container.

It seemed very strange getting a lesson — well, maybe I could charitably call it a philosophy lesson — from a cloud. But then they tell me all knowledge is being stored in clouds. I wonder if this is what they mean.

Pay attention. I’m telling you important stuff here.

“I’m sorry; my mind was wandering.”

Minds do that. They don’t like being kept in containers; it’s too confining.

“Do tell.”

Do you know your mind survives even when your brain does not? Your mind can leave its container just like my water can leave its containers.

This was beginning to sound suspiciously like the ancient mind-body problem. Is the mind the brain, or vice versa?

Except that could not possibly be. After all, I was talking to a — cloud.

“So if we have a soul, you’re saying our soul retains its mind?”

You like that word, “Soul”. You used it yesterday.

“How do you know that?”

If you can believe it, that cloud chuckled, in a vaporous sort of way… I swear it did.

All information is shared in the clouds. That’s why I’m talking to you.

But to answer your question, yes. Your soul retains its mind. Actually, humans have been taught this for thousands of years. Yet most of them still don’t seem to understand. Which puzzles me — it’s really not that difficult.

“You know, I hate to be skeptical, but you seem way too smart for a cloud.”

Oh come now, do you really think clouds can talk?

For some inexplicable reason I was shocked by that question. Apparently I had already suspended disbelief as this second day’s conversation had become more and more interesting.

Having been forced back to reality, I answered. “Well … no. Not really.”

They’re a parable. It’s Me whose talking to you.

“Me who?”

There was no answer. I asked again, “Me who?”

 

That question has never been answered.

Would You Rather Face a Cunning or Relentless Foe?

Suppose you find yourself on an alien planet, battling with indigenous species. On your side, you have smarts, both natural and technological. The alien defenders have nothing; no technology. Well, they do have slime, but that’s all.

Brains against the brainless: Who do you think will win?

Blithely headed into tick-infested woods.

I spent a summer weekend with my family in a cabin in the Virginia mountains a few years ago. It was nature at its finest, until we discovered after a short walk in the woods that ticks seemingly rained down upon us and were invading our bodies as fast as their little legs could move. We were food, and they were hungry. Human-sized meals didn’t come around those woods very often, apparently.

The entire family, adults and children, stripped down to our underwear on the porch of the cabin, trying to rid ourselves of the invaders. Modesty took second place to the fear of miniature arachnids.

Once the imagined itching had abated and the baby was asleep, we soothed our nerves with puzzles and games, or reading from a well-stocked bookshelf. I picked a book with an interesting cover; it was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.

I cannot say enough good things about Scalzi’s debut novel, a futuristic science fiction, other worlds story. Suffice it to say, it features combat between Earthling soldiers and all sorts of bizarre and ruthless alien life forms. Although Scalzi didn’t write about invading armies of ticks, per se, I could easily envision such a terrifying encounter.

This author devouring Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War”.

I also think and write about extraterrestrial aliens. Like most writers, I assume ETs are sentient, and calculating. Depending upon the writer, those ETs may have either high morals, or no morals at all, but they always have a brain.

Lately, I’ve had to rethink potential plot elements dealing with intelligent life forms. The reason is, scientists now claim that a single celled animal, a slime mold, acts with a shocking degree of intelligence. The kicker is, being a single celled organism, slime mold does not have a brain.

Slime mold knows a good thing when it finds it. (Photo credit: SB_Johnny)

Intelligence without a brain?

Compared to slime mold, ticks are geniuses if we count the gray matter cells contained in their single-minded heads. However, according to a Japanese researcher the brainless slime mold can solve problems even scores of engineers could not easily solve.

Sounds like science fiction to me.

So now imagine the following storyline. Your spaceship lands on a verdant planet that has no higher, brain-possessing life forms, at all. However, what it does have in abundance is slime mold. And of course the threat from slime mold is easy to ignore — until it is too late. The mindless protoplasm senses all sources of food, and fans out in all directions, following the scent.

The ship’s science officer tries to warn the mission commander, but the arrogant and miscalculating commander responds with a volley of lead rounds into the nearest slime; which of course is not in the least bit deterred from its food-finding task.

And when the crew sleeps, as of course they must, the brainless mold finds the food sources, one by one, absorbing the human nutrients.

Human-sized meals don’t come around those woods very often, apparently.

 

Being brainless, slime mold cannot be considered cunning. But, one could argue, it’s not stupid either: it can’t be tricked. It is, if anything, relentless.

From a cinematic perspective this is not an entirely new theme. The 1958 movie The Blob starring Steve McQueen popularized the idea of mindless organisms devouring humans. But at that time there was no real science behind it. Now there is.

Some interesting science facts about slime mold are found in this link and the following Scientific American – NOVA video.

[youtube id=”lls27hu03yw” w=”700″ h=”600″]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Space Wars

I had a dream, and it troubles me.

I had a dream a couple of weeks ago and awoke knowing I had seen something very disturbing, but couldn’t remember what it was. Then on February 21st I had a lucid dream where I realized that what I was seeing was what I’d seen the previous week. Then I understood why I was disturbed.

It was a scene from a vantage point in space. It was cinematic in quality, big screen, IMAX, at least. I was there.

The troubling part was observing a space vehicle moving up to the space station, then seeing the vehicle suddenly yaw its nose away from the station as if slammed by some powerful but invisible force, followed a split second later by the white paint on the space station charring before my eyes. Not all of it, just the part closest to an out of view source of blistering heat. The curved portion on top of the station was spared; from a thermal radiation standpoint it was very realistic.

Curiously, the station was not the ISS: it was much smaller but the markings on the white paint were clearly U.S.. I overhead two men talking on the coms, supposedly ground control, saying the heart rates of the station occupants soared.

It woke me, and I realized the entire dream sequence had lasted about five seconds, at most. It must have been the sauerkraut from the night before.

But what struck me as startling was the news article the next morning about the Chinese preparing for war in space. http://freebeacon.com/dia-director-china-preparing-for-space-warfare/

To quote, “Beijing is developing missiles, electronic jammers, and lasers for use against satellites…The Chinese, as well as the Russians, are also developing space capabilities that interfere with or disable U.S. space-based navigation, communications, and intelligence satellites.”

Suddenly, the thought of either space-based or ground-based attacks on manned vehicles or space stations becomes a frightening possibility.

Then tonight I read that a NASA notebook computer containing codes for controlling the Space Station was stolen.

http://washington.cbslocal.com/2012/03/01/nasa-laptop-stolen-with-command-codes-that-control-space-station/

“These incidents spanned a wide continuum from individuals testing their skill to break into NASA systems, to well-organized criminal enterprises hacking for profit, to intrusions that may have been sponsored by foreign intelligence services seeking to further their countries’ objectives,” Martin said. “Another attack involved Chinese-based IP addresses that gained full access to systems and sensitive user accounts at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.”

We tend to think of space as a neutral environment where brave souls put their lives at risk to be part of man’s push away from our planet. It is an environment for scientific pursuit. Of course we have raised a generation or two on images of space battles where humans are fighting to preserve humanity. There is lots of death and destruction, but it is heroic in scope and detail. If death can be glorious, then dying to protect Mother Earth from Klingons is a glorious way to die.

But what I saw in those five seconds of searing imagery left me with a profound sadness. I had witnessed, so to speak, the end of our honeymoon in space. Man’s evil nature was reaching way beyond our stratosphere.

I put no stock in dreams, at least not  my own. But that particular dream did serve to increase my awareness of the not-so-subtle signs that man is determined to extend his malevolent reach into what was once considered hallowed ground; the firmament, the very heavens we have for so long dreamed of reaching.

And now we would spoil it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children of the Middle Waters

Children of the Middle Waters (working title) is a science fiction/thriller that has been completed and is being submitted today for consideration by Tom Doherty Associates, New York. My friend and mentor, the writer Max McCoy, has provided literary criticism and encouragement for the manuscript. Max, who works primarily in the Western genre, wrote a diving-related thriller called The Moon Pool, which happens to involve in its closing chapter the Navy Experimental Diving Unit, and someone a lot like me.

Below is a blurb briefly describing Children of the Middle Waters.

In the deep-sea canyons and trenches of the Earth lie thousands of alien spacecraft and millions of their inhabitants who have to leave soon or risk being stranded forever, or being destroyed. Due to their physiology they have been unable to directly contact humans, but they are adroit at mental contact and remote viewing, when it suits them.

They need the help of two humans to assure their safe escape, an experienced Navy scientist and a beguiling graduate student.  But introductions through mental means are slow and suspect, as you might imagine.

The U.S. government is well aware of this deep sea civilization, and is desirous of the weapons the visitors possess, which puts the two unsuspecting scientists in the middle of a conflict between powerful
military forces and powerful intergalactic forces. Things could get messy.

Even worse, jealous friends turn on the unlikely duo and put their lives at risk.

Children combines two separate Native American beliefs and legends with current events. It is a complex thriller with science fact and science fiction mixed in with military action and government intrigue. Also revealed are romantic possibilities that far exceed the capabilities of the mundane, everyday world.

Early American Indian beliefs create an ending for this story that no one could anticipate. It is an ending that causes the protagonist to realize everything he has held dear is wrong, in one way or another. At the same time he discovers a reality that is the greatest blessing that man can receive.

 

Computer Simulation as Art — or Rorschach Test

No one has ever confused me for an artist.

I might have been visually gifted as a 3rd-grader, as my parents told it, at least compared to my peers. However, I never seemed to progress beyond that point. I think my progress slowed about the time I saw my first Rorschach test.

I realized then that some people’s art is someone else’s diagnosis. After all, it is no fun to look at an ink blot abstraction, to voice an opinion about it, only to have an authority figure nod his head and write in his notebook as he says, “I see,” when obviously he didn’t.

Clinical trauma aside, I now know that all humanity looks instinctively for visual patterns and searches for meaning in patterns whether they be random or not. There is a survival aspect to that of course; if we detect a tiger’s stripes partly hidden in a confused background of woodland scenery, that offers a potential survival benefit.

Sometimes, even the most mundane things turn out to be “pretty”. Such were the images I saw being formed on my computer screen the other day. The more I looked at them, the more interesting they became. They were like my own Rorschach test, in a very literal way. They were random patterns based on random processes, but my brain refused to look at them that way. They appeared to me as images of natural things, representing anything except what they truly were.

The image to the left, for instance, looked to me like a view through a telescope of a star field with at least one galaxy situated near the center axis.

Or in a very biological way, it might be the view through an immunofluorescence microscope.

The next image looked to me like a view of a placid star seen in ultraviolet light. I could almost feel the blistering heat radiating through space.

Alternatively, it might be a view of a human egg waiting patiently for fertilization, an altogether different interpretation, but like the first, being a necessary component of creation.

The final image looked to me like a cooler star but with clearly visible solar prominences, magnetic storms arcing over the hellish nuclear surface.

I have no idea what others might see in these images, if anything, but I’m guessing each image can be interpreted differently based on one’s own life experiences.

And that after all is the whole point of art, and Rorschach tests.

 

 

The above images were created as part of a random, or stochastic, simulation of rebreather scrubber canisters. They are a view of the upstream end of an axial canister, and shows the state of the canister as heat producing carbon dioxide absorption reactions are beginning.

The cooler looking the canister, the less the amount of exhaled carbon dioxide entering the canister.

The simulation tracks chemical reactions and heat and mass transfer processes in an array of 272,000 finite elements making up a simple absorbent canister. Slicer Dicer and 3VO software (PIXOTEC, LLC) were used to visualize the three-dimensional data set acquired during one moment in time shortly after the simulated reactions began.

 

 

I Dreamed about Flying Last Night

I rarely dream about flying, but I did last night.

I seem to have a propensity for thinking about flying. I’ve written about flying hybrids, as in James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series about a flock of flying kids, which is, as I’ve said before, “some of the most interesting reading a bird man (aka aviator, pilot) is likely to find in an airport bookstore.”

I’ve written about flying whales, and I’ve written about flying airplanes. But until now I haven’t written about flying dreams.

One reason is simple: no one wants to hear about other people’s dreams. But flying dreams are part of our collective experience. Everyone has them at some point, usually when young. As I grow older I find them occurring less frequently, and therefore find them all the more enjoyable for their rarity.

Flying dream artwork by Joseph Kemeny (www.josephkemeny.com)

Last night my arms were initially wings, but I quickly realized that I lacked the strength to fly with wings like a bird, or like Maximum Ride. I solved that problem by reverting back to my old dream style, flying with outspread arms, effortlessly.

I was standing on a 3rd story window ledge in a home where a young boy was close by, and I accidentally knocked a small pumpkin sitting on that ledge to the ground. It splattered.

Feeling some sense of responsibility for the child’s welfare, I told him not to try what I was about to do, for his head would splatter like the pumpkin. And then I stepped off the ledge and flew.

It was foggy, but instinctively I knew how to get where I was going, without aid of charts or GPS. I knew I could navigate based on some primordial signal in my brain, like a migrating bird.

It was wonderful.

It was undoubtedly a lucid dream because I was aware of a certain biological need that I consciously resisted because I did not want to break out of the dream. I knew I would never regain the dream once it was broken.

The strangest flying dream I had was only seconds long but memorable. I was viewing a glass city, with tall glass spires reaching far into the sky. It was clearly not of this earth, and I can’t swear that I was even human. But I launched myself from near the top of one of those tall glass buildings, and swooped downward, gaining speed, then glided on without effort, like an eagle.

In my college days I told my roommate about a flying dream where I was trapped underneath trolley lines in Atlanta (yes, they used to have electric trolleys downtown in the 60’s) and he found that amusing, but I did not. It was peculiar, but frustrating.

Reportedly it’s common to encounter barriers like electrical wires, and this time I sure enough found those blocking my way at one point, but unlike before I was able to ascend vertically till free of them, then continue on my way.

Sigmund Freud made much ado about dream interpretation, and would no doubt see physical barriers in flying dreams as symbols of psychological barriers existing in the dreamer’s waking world. But the fact that flying dreams are so common, even archetypal in a Jungian sense, and typically so enjoyable, makes me wonder if they might be more than some complex mental fiction that requires a highly paid professional to interpret. Perhaps they are nothing more than memories.

While you digest that thought, I suggest you enjoy the wonderful flying sequence below, generated by a computer game. For full effect, play it in high definition and full screen.

 

 

If Whales Could Fly

When Ottorini Respighi wrote his symphonic poem Pines of Rome, he was not imagining flying whales. Instead, the last movement of his work invokes the imagery of a Roman Legion marching along the Via Appia Antica.  When I would listen to the drumming and droning of the orchestra I never imagined whales flying either, at least prior to the year 2000.

But somebody at Disney Studios did, as evidenced by Fantasia 2000. The flying whales animation, accompanied by Respighi’s score, is now one of my favorite segments of the Fantasia 2000 DVD.

With a name like Fantasia, we should fully expect fantasy, fantasy being defined as an art form devoid of any requirements for plausible scientific foundations.  And Fantasia has always delivered that art form in abundance.

In contrast, science fiction may have fantastic elements in it, but there is an expectation that the writers’ creations be somewhat defensible on the basis of known scientific principles. So, what if whales could fly? What would be the real world consequences of such an improbable occurrence? What does science have to say about it?

For one thing, flying whale babies would not have to worry about being eaten by Orcas, as mentioned in my last posting. So whale populations would increase, unless the inexperienced calves flew into wind farms and airplanes.

As a pilot and airline passenger, my first concern would be whether airborne whales could be detected on radar. Is the whale’s smoothly rounded shape, it’s tough but flexible skin and potentially radar absorbing blubber stealthy in the same way that stealth bombers elude detection by radar?  If so, the air traffic control system would have real problems. Sure, flying whales would be easy to see in day light, but can you imagine encountering them at night or in clouds without benefit of radar? I shudder to think.

And yes, whales migrate continuously, night and day, so they would be a gargantuan risk to air traffic in low visibility conditions. Compared to a whale strike, bird strikes would be a minor affair.

What if flying whales blunder into restricted air space, like over the White House? There are missiles there, I hear, capable of shooting down intruders. But would I want to be the one to pull a trigger that blows a whale to blubbery bits all over Washington D.C.?

Perhaps whales would be granted an exempt status, like migrating geese. But what if terrorists took advantage of that and managed to bring down an intact whale in the middle of the White House Rose Garden? I haven’t calculated the kinetic energy of a full grown falling Gray Whale, but at a weight of 40 tons or so, I doubt anything trapped under the  whale would survive the impact.

Unfortunately, a science fiction writer envisioning flying whales can’t avoid the inevitability of whale poop. While bird poop is an inconvenience, falling whale products of digestion would likely prove lethal. What a lousy way to die. (OK, I admit I was thinking of using a different adjective.)

The Achilles’ heel of any flying whale story would have to be buoyancy. It has been estimated that approximately half of a grown whale’s weight is derived from blubber. What if a whale replaced all of its blubber with hydrogen? [While I could choose helium as a buoyant gas, helium is not produced biologically, whereas hydrogen is, as a product of flatulence.]

Hydrogen has a specific buoyancy of approximately 71 lbs per 1000 cubic ft, so a 20,000 lb whale (stripped of all blubber) would need about 282,000 cubic feet of hydrogen to be neutrally buoyant (to float in air). To put that into perspective, the Goodyear Blimp weights 12,840 lbs, and has a volume of 202,7oo cubic feet. So a flying whale would have to be roughly 50% larger than the Goodyear blimp. [I leave a more exact calculation to high school physics students looking for an imaginative problem to solve.]

From a science fiction standpoint, that is entirely conceivable. Buoyant whales would be much larger than modern whales.

As for a means of propulsion, I don’t think whale fins would suffice; they don’t look enough like wings.  But with a little imagination, I bet most school kids could think of a means of propulsion that would be akin to, dare I say, jet propulsion.

I think I now have the makings of a science fiction novel. I’ve got the science figured out: all I need now is a plot and some interesting human characters.

To be continued, perhaps …

Battle of Titans: Orcas vs Gray Whales

It is an ageless story, mothers banding together to protect their young from instinctive killers. The fact that it was a battle between behemoth Gray Whales and Killer Whales (Orcas) made it all the more epic in scope, and worthy of the telling.

A fellow scientist and I had driven south early one springtime morning from Anchorage, Alaska to Seward. At 11 AM our glacier view cruise boat left the docks at Seward and headed for the glacier fields at the Kenai Fjords National Park where the glaciers sliding slowly down from the mountains calved into the Gulf of Alaska.

Heading south from Seward.

From there we motored on until we were attracted to a near-shore area by the blowing of water and foam from a group of migrating Gray Whales. The rapid pace of their exhalation was a sure sign that something was wrong. We had stumbled upon a battle involving another type of calf just as the combatants were taking their positions on the battlefield.

A female Gray whale weighing between 30 to 40 tons had birthed her baby during the winter in Baja California and now the mother, quickly growing baby, and two female caretakers (often  called “aunties”) were almost through with their migration to the Bering Sea. But as they swam beyond Prince William Sound, not far from their final destination, they were attacked by two adolescent transient Orcas who wanted that baby whale.

Our boat stopped far enough from the battle to not hinder the fight, but close enough for us to witness the events. Our biologist guide warned us that if we had a weak stomach we might not want to watch because often times the Orcas succeed in killing the baby Gray.

I don’t think anyone on the boat averted their eyes as the three massive females arranged themselves head to tail into a triangular defensive formation, with the baby in the middle. There was no way for the Orcas to get past the females on or near the surface, so they made repeated dives trying to enter the center of the triangle from underneath and attack the baby. But with each dive, the wily Grays maneuvered to block the Orcas.

The Orcas were nothing if not persistent. Perhaps sensing that, the whales started moving closer to a rock cliff face, and then they did something clever, but potentially risky. There was an opening in the rock wall and the baby whale had been nudged into that opening. One whale, probably the mother, was completely blocking that opening with her body. The Orcas tried repeatedly to find a way past her to the baby, but between the blocking action of the other two Grays and the blubbery plug of the cave entrance by the mother, there was nothing the Orcas could do.

We of course saw the riskiness of that defense. It looked to us like the baby was trapped underwater. Even a whale has to breathe sometime.

The other boat was too close to the action, but provides scale for the "cave".

But as I look at the photo I realize now that the cave was tall enough and just deep enough to allow the baby to breathe even with water access cut off. Obviously, the Gray Whale mother had made good use of her 4.3 kg brain. Nevertheless, from our elevated vantage point we could see over the mother whale, and we saw that the baby remained submerged. I’m guessing it was wedging itself in as tightly as it could. The anxiety on our boat grew perceptively as the minutes ticked down with us knowing the baby was holding its breath.

The tactic worked, for the Orcas eventually tired of the game, and after making one or two leaps out of the water they moved away from the whales and headed north toward seal colonies we passed on the way south. The seals would be easier pickings than those highly protective Gray Whales.

There was jubilation on our boat. I think we’d all been holding our breath like the baby, at least a little.

When the coast was clear, literally, the Grays moved back into the open water near where the battle had begun and caught their breath, heaving great geysers of watery air as they panted. They had obviously been very stressed, but their cleverness and strategic cooperation saved the day, or at least the moment.

Two Orcas. Copyright by Rolf Hicker. Used under fair use.

Things could have been different, both better and worse. Local Orcas were so-called residents who don’t attack Gray Whales. Residents tend to be fish eaters. Fortunately for the Gray baby, the more lethal transients were not as experienced with the local geography. They were also adolescents, not as experienced as adults, and there were only two of them. A pack of them, with adolescents being guided by adults, might have been more succesful. Transient Orcas, genetically different from Residents are reported to kill a third of the baby Gray Whale population each year.

Interestingly, the Grays seem to know where transient Orca populations are the most active, and in those regions they tend to stay close to shore. In this case that strategy paid off by allowing the baby to be protected by a rock wall and its mother.

On the boat we celebrated all the way back to Seward; we had witnessed a frightening conflict with, for us and the whales, a happy ending.

To learn more about Orcas attacking mother Gray Whales and their calves, see the excellent photos and story at the following website. http://creagrus.home.montereybay.com/MtyBayOrcaattack.html

Scalloping – What If the Tide Turned?

It’s scallop season in the fertile waters of the Florida Panhandle. Almost completely surrounded by a peninsula called Cape San Blas sits a shallow body of clear water and sandy bottom that is an ideal location for bay scallops. Unfortunately for the scallops, the shallow water makes a yearly harvest of scallops by boaters and waders almost too easy.

Recently my extended family of eight descended on the unsuspecting bivalves as if our lives depended upon them. We spent most of a day in a hunter-gatherer mode, reaping the benefit of a bountiful crop, imagining an earlier day when local tribes did in fact depend on the local scallops and oysters for their survival.

I had been scalloping in Saint Joseph’s Bay once before, but this year the scallops were larger, and seemingly more bountiful. They attempted to hide in the sea grass, and I suppose those that hid well were passed over. But fortunately for us, many could not hide from the practiced eyes of determined snorkelers.

Usually scallops react to being picked up by snapping their shells together in an attempt to protect their vulnerable innards. However, one large scallop which had apparently lived long enough to be the equivalent of a wise scallop, or perhaps simply an inquisitive scallop, started to close his shell, and then stopped. We remained locked in a gaze, me with my green eyes staring through a diving mask, and it staring at me with its multiplicity of luminous, iridescent blue eyes.

Photo credit: Bill Capman, 2002.

I know this is blatant anthropomorphism, but it seemed like it was saying, “Well, hello. What’s this? Are you a deity? I’ve heard about you, but you’re not at all what I was expecting.”

I must admit I stared back quizzically, surprised by this little fellow’s bravado. He truly seemed to be checking me out.

It was bad luck for him that his telepathic powers of communication didn’t make a dent in my determination to eat him, or at least to eat his adductor muscle after discarding the rest. So into the bag he went with the growing collection of other scallops. In the end, his bravado did him no good at all.

It was somewhat of a pitiful sight as the captives were poured in a heap on a wooden platform just above the water of the bay. I bet they could smell it, the safety of water so close, and as the cliché says, so far away. They all tried to escape, to jet away, sounding like a chorus of  castanets. Of course, in air, jetting just doesn’t work for them. They were stranded. I could almost sense their collective panic.

I suspect the mechanics of scallop butchery came as quite a shock to this little guy. I’m just glad that this year I didn’t have to do it — my son took my place at the sacrificial altar. After all, shucking is, at its best,  tiring and a little bit gross. Beer helps of course.

In the unlikely event that now jaded scallop had seen me, had watched me with its sixty or more eyes as I began to take a shucking knife to it, could I really do what my family was expecting of me? Probably, but I don’t know for sure.

Well, I didn’t have to face that, and I will confess, I felt only pleasure, no guilt, as I finished off the last of those pure white scallop muscles, sautéed with butter, garlic and a dollop of lemon juice.

It was about 48-hours later, when the delicate flavor of those fresh scallops began to fade from my memory, that I had a sobering thought. Could those bivalves in fact be more sentient than we assume? After all, I’ve been mistaken before about the intelligence of invertebrates.

I’ve heard that scallop eyes can’t really see shapes, only shades of light, and movement. Arguably there is not enough neural matter for them to generate anything like a thought — at least in human terms.

But what if we’re wrong? Even worse, what if a highly advanced alien species, hungry after traveling interstellar distances, encounters humans? Would they consider us with the same lack of respect that we consider scallops? Could we be considered to have too little cerebral grey matter to create an organized thought — at least in alien terms? Would we be considered insentient and therefore unworthy of pity as we’re “shucked” and sautéed for dinner?

In Stephen Hawking’s opinion, that is a real possibility. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/space/article7107207.ece

So, maybe we shouldn’t be trying so hard to attract the attention of extraterrestrials. If they show up hungry, maybe our communication, telepathic or otherwise, would do us no more good than it did that inquisitive scallop.

He sure was tasty.

If You Were a Human-Animal Hybrid, What Would You Want to Be?

James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series about a flock of flying kids is, for me at least, some of the most interesting reading a bird man (aka aviator, pilot) is likely to find in an airport bookstore. What a fun way to spend a cross-country flight!

Even though Patterson’s series is written for adolescents, it fulfills in me an inner need to fly.  What could be better than flying with your own magnificent wings? At the same time, it poses ethical questions about science and genetic experimentation. The flying kids despise their evil scientist creators, but the ability to fly sure gets them out of some tough scrapes, just in the nick of time of course. Up and away! (If you’ve read the books, you know what I mean.)

Now comes news that animal-human embryos have been created in secret, apparently for several years. (See the link, below). While the cries from ethicists and the public are a rising crescendo, and probably overstated once you understand all the facts, the hybridization concept raises an interesting personal question. If I was a hybrid, what would I want to be?

Without a doubt, being a human with wings, with the ability of flight, would be my number one choice. Of course, that does bring some hazards; collisions with aircraft being foremost. I don’t think being ingested by the engine of a passenger jet would be a fun way to go. Or being sucked into the updrafts of a potent thunderstorm and spit out, frozen, unable to fly, at the top of the storm 43,000 feet up. That would be a long fall for a bird-human ice-cube.

And of course you have the ever aggressive hunters and cryptozoologists anxious to get a piece, or more, of you. But if you’ve read any of the Maximum Ride series, you’re familiar with those human threats. It’s always the humans who seem to be the meanest and most determined.

Moving from the avian world to the aquatic, there are lots of options. But I think foremost would be my choice to be a top predator. After all, big fish eat little fish, so who wants to be a little fish?

Dolphins rank right up there in predatory prowess, although they’re not a fish, but a mammal. And they’re cute and smart. No one wants to be even part of a dumb, ugly animal.

For land animals, polar bears are undoubtedly the coolest predator, in an emotional temper sort of way. They don’t seem to fear anything, certainly not humans, who they consider dinner. But they never get to migrate to the tropics for vacation, so I consider that to be a real negative for any potential hybridization. And besides, their favorite food, seals, are cute, especially the baby ones. What humans, even part humans, would want to eat cute food?

Of course, I suppose if you’re hungry enough …

I think it is easier to think of being all animal than to think of being an animal with human traits like intelligence, speech, artistic and scientific creativity. Nevertheless, Planet of the Apes provided one well-known artistic example of that possibility. Another is a muscular, arguably intelligent walking frog, as seen here, borrowed from a now-obscure internet site (meaning I can’t find where it came from*). You’ll read more about such creatures in Children of the Middle Waters, when that book becomes available.

One unfortunate consequence of being an animal is that most animals are short-lived. There are exceptions of course, like the tortoise, but the 100-year or so life span of a tortoise must seem to drag on forever for them.

Certainly a long life span offers some advantages, like the odd mixture of mirth and despair we get from watching our fellow humans repeat the same mistakes over and over. For me, I think the blessed part of it is watching the generations of our offspring growing up and generating offspring of their own.

The more I think about the choices for being part animal, the more I think about what it is to be human; all human. As I ponder that thought, I keep returning to the simple fact that, to me at least, being human means we are able to love our spouses and children and parents with a pure unadulterated, non-judgmental,  joy; sort of like a dog welcoming its master home.

Well, actually, maybe we’re not so different from some animals after all!

In case you missed it, the news of the human-animal hybridization efforts was cited at the following link, and elsewhere

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2017818/Embryos-involving-genes-animals-mixed-humans-produced-secretively-past-years.html

*My apologies if you created the walking frog drawing. Send me your information and I’ll give you proper credit. Same thing for the other graphics which I believe to be in the public domain.

My Pathway to Writing – Learning from Max McCoy’s “The Moon Pool”

This is not some random book review. I have a personal investment in Max McCoy’s underwater thriller, and to be honest, Max is a friend and mentor.

As the Scientific Director and Senior Scientist of the Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU), I get some unusual calls from time to time. One of the most memorable was from a novelist, Max McCoy.

Not being an avid reader of Westerns, I had never heard of Max, but he had an interesting question. He wanted to know if our large, high pressure chamber, called the Ocean Simulation Facility, could be used to depressurize a small submarine. He gave me the dimensions of the submarine, and little other information to go on.

The unequivocal answer was yes, it could be done fairly easily. With that affirmation, Max traveled to NEDU. After touring our facilities and meeting with our Commanding Officer, engineers, scientists, and submarine medical officers, he began sketching out a closing chapter of his manuscript, the Moon Pool. NEDU would be prominently featured.

During his visit, over lunch, we talked a little about my non-fiction writing project, a spiritual/supernatural collection of carefully filtered anecdotes. He encouraged me in my efforts, and even shared an amazing story of his own. But what Max did not know was that I was stuck in the style of science writing that had been the mainstay of my scientific career. It was hard writing, and frankly, hard reading as well.

When Max returned to Kansas, he sent me his manuscript, which I devoured. The Moon Pool was a change of pace for Max as well. He had been an avid diver for years, and had a diving related story brewing in his mind for some time. For him, The Moon Pool was a welcome, if temporary, release from the Western genre for which he was so well-known.

When I finished the manuscript I began an almost maniacal writing session of my own — an all nighter — writing how I thought the NEDU chapter should read. Since no one would see it, I featured myself and my buddies, inserting our characters into the story, and with a plausible and action-filled story line. I had never had so much fun writing — the words spilled out of my head onto the keyboard.

I sat on that secret product for probably a week before I told Max what I had done. He asked to see it, and much to my surprise, he and his publisher liked it. Even more to my surprise, my character and those of my friends ended up in the last chapter of Moon Pool, modified of course to meet Max’s needs. That book, published in 2004, has a treasured place in my office at NEDU.

On the back cover is my blurb, “A one-of-a kind underwater thriller. The sinister beauty of the underwater world is painted in hues that only an avid diver and inspired novelist could capture.” On the front cover, my dear friend Bob Barth, the Navy’s first Aquanaut, wrote, “A great book! Compelling stuff.” By the time Max visited us, Bob had authored his own book on the Navy’s historical Sea Lab program.

I owe a great deal to Max, for he taught me just how fun creative writing can be, and how, with proper guidance, it can be turned into a commercial product. I have since written two books, one written in record pace, for me at least.  The novel, working title “Children of the Middle Waters” is a mixed military-science fiction story that involves my favorite things, flying and diving, with a pinch of top-secret government intrigue;  just another day at NEDU.  After a long gestational period, I used the creative writing skills developed in the novel to improve the style of the spiritual/supernatural manuscript. Both Children of the Middle Waters, and the spiritual book have yet to be published. But I’m optimistic that will happen in good time.

I will discuss those works more in upcoming blog posts.

By the way, Max’s Moon Pool begins with a supernatural event that is tantalizing in its originality. Furthermore, my spiritual book contains an anecdote of a supernatural experience Max experienced when young. Finally, as a tribute to Max McCoy, he is the inspiration for an investigative journalist in Children of the Middle Waters.

In retrospect, that was quite an auspicious phone call I took one day eight years ago.

Below are links to Max’s web site and his writer’s blogs.

http://www.maxmccoy.com/

http://www.maxmccoy.blogspot.com/

http://www.signalsandnoise.net