Monday, December 31, 2007

Tunguska centennial

Got a big interest in the famed Tunguska event? Got any plans for June 26-28? Hankerin' for a trip to Moscow? If so, then I've got the event for you:
"100 years since Tunguska phenomenon: Past, present and future"

June 26-28, 2008.
Moscow, Russia

The Conference is organized by

* Russian Academy of Sciences - Institute for Dynamics of Geospheres
* Lomonosov Moscow State University - Sternberg Astronomical Institute, Institute of Mechanics
* Meteorite Committee of Russian Academy of Sciences


The Conference is devoted to the 100-year anniversary of the Tunguska
phenomenon. The purpose of the conference is to integrate the efforts of
inter-disciplinary experts in understanding the Tunguska event and
similar impact phenomena.

Problems for discussion

1. Mathematical modeling of trajectory, dynamics and explosion of Tunguska cosmic object
2. Search of material of Tunguska object
2.1. Analysis of particles in soil, tree trunks and resin
2.2. Separation of cosmic dust input and aerosol sources from the background
3. Effects of global scale
3.1. Light nights
3.2. Ionosphere perturbations
3.3. Search of anomalies in Arctic and Antarctic
4. Regional and local effects
4.1. Analysis of eyewitness reports
4.2. Study of tree fall and state of forest after the Tunguska event
4.3. Investigation of magnetic properties and thermoluminescense of soil and rocks at the site
5. Ecological consequences of the Tunguska event. Genetic aspect of the problem
6. Historical, ethnographic and sociological issues connected with the Tunguska catastrophe

Exploration of asteroids and comets

1. Significance of exploration of asteroids and comets for understanding of evolution of the Solar System and exoplanetary systems
2. Problems of origin and evolution of comets and asteroids
3. Studies of minor bodies of the Solar System (asteroids, comets, meteoroids) by means of spacecrafts

Hazards due to comets and asteroids

1. The role of the Tunguska event in the problem of asteroidal and cometary hazards
2. Investigation of impact craters on the Earth and other bodies of the Solar System
3. Means of mitigation of asteroidal and cometary hazards

If you go, be sure and tell them I sent you.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Historical Documents

While recovering from Christmas, I decided to watch the classic Trek episode 'Bread and Circuses', in which the Enterprise visits an Earthlike world where the Roman Empire survived into the 20th Century - complete with television (including executions televised live), internal combustion engines (and the resultant smog), gladiatorial games, sub-machine guns, and slavery.

What astonished me about the episode, this time around, was a throw-away line delivered by runaway slave Flavius Maximus. He explains to Kirk that slave revolts had been quelled by giving slaves more rights, including government-paid old-age benefits and medicine. It would seem that when this was first aired in 1968 (appropriately enough, on the Ides of March), Americans considered medical care a right.

How times have changed. Happy New Year to all our readers.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tunguska revisited

Uh-oh. A new study suggests that the asteroid/comet that caused the infamous devastation at Tunguska in Siberia a century ago may not have been as large as previously thought. There are a lot more small rocks floating around out there than there are big ones...
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The stunning amount of forest devastation at Tunguska a century ago in Siberia may have been caused by an asteroid only a fraction as large as previously published estimates, Sandia National Laboratories supercomputer simulations suggest.

"The asteroid that caused the extensive damage was much smaller than we had thought," says Sandia principal investigator Mark Boslough of the impact that occurred June 30, 1908. "That such a small object can do this kind of destruction suggests that smaller asteroids are something to consider. Their smaller size indicates such collisions are not as improbable as we had believed."

Because smaller asteroids approach Earth statistically more frequently than larger ones, he says, "We should be making more efforts at detecting the smaller ones than we have till now."

The new simulation - which more closely matches the widely known facts of destruction than earlier models - shows that the center of mass of an asteroid exploding above the ground is transported downward at speeds faster than sound. It takes the form of a high-temperature jet of expanding gas called a fireball.

This causes stronger blast waves and thermal radiation pulses at the surface than would be predicted by an explosion limited to the height at which the blast was initiated.

"Our understanding was oversimplified,' says Boslough, "We no longer have to make the same simplifying assumptions, because present-day supercomputers allow us to do things with high resolution in 3-D. Everything gets clearer as you look at things with more refined tools."

There's a good bit more at the other end of the link. As if global warming wasn't enough to worry about.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Lost Books, Part V: a ripper of a vampire novel

If you ever see a Kim Newman book for sale, buy it - before it softly and suddenly vanishes away.

Newman may well be the living lord of the literary landscape of lost books. Perhaps in some parallel universe, his books stay in print for as long as they deserve, but I had a difficult time choosing which undeservedly out-of-print Newman novel to enthuse about. I considered Back in the USSA (co-written with Eugene Byrne), which only appeared in hardcover (though in the aforementioned parallel universe, it was probably a bestselling paperback in the USSA… sorry about that). And The Quorum, which is not only a writers’ nightmare comparable to Stephen King’s Misery, but probably the scariest novel ever based on a Shakespearean comedy. In the end, I opted for the first in his amazing Anno Dracula series.

Anno Dracula is a parallel world story which combines Victorian-era fictional and historical characters, somewhat a la George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman saga or Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen… but rather more so. The basic premise is that, Lord Godalming fails to destroy the boxes of Transylvanian soil that Dracula retreats to, enabling the count to remain in London, marry the widowed Queen Victoria, and turn her.

Vampirism becomes fashionable in England as Dracula places his distant undead relatives in positions of power. Lord Ruthven becomes Prime Minister, Varney the Vampire governs British India, the nosferatu Graf Orlok is appointed as warden of the Tower of London. Others allow themselves to be bitten so they can claim to belong to the Dracula bloodline, from the aristocratic Godalming down to streetwalkers such as Catherine Eddowes and Lulu Schon. Those who resist are either consigned to concentration camps such as Devil’s Dike, or executed by impaling. Sherlock Holmes and Bram Stoker have disappeared, while Van Helsing’s skull rests on a pike outside the palace. Quincy Morris has been killed by Dracula (his last words a quote from The Wild Bunch); Jack Seward survives, but has been driven mad; when not working in a Spitalfields refuge with Montague Druitt and vampire Genevieve Dieudonne, he prowls Whitechapel disemboweling vampire prostitutes with a silvered scalpel.

Among those investigating the murders are Inspector Lestrade, Inspector Abberline, and an agent of the Diogenes Club, Charles Beauregard. Doctors Jekyll and Moreau theorize about the killer's nature, while London’s crimelords also attempt to catch the man who has brought so much police attention to Whitechapel. Things become even more heated – and complicated – after a news agency receives a letter signed “Jack the Ripper”.

The cast of characters also includes the Elephant Man, Mina Harker, Dr Griffin, Raffles, Oscar Wilde, Danny Dravot, Count Iorga, Algernon Swinburne, and enough Ripper suspects (Druitt, David Cohen, John Netley) and possible or fictitious victims to delight any Ripperologist. Even if you're not a lover of fantastic Victoriana, read it once for the plot and don’t worry if you think you’ve missed any of the references: you’ll enjoy reading it again. (Assuming, of course, that you can find a copy in the first place.)

Anno Dracula would be an excellent thriller even without the mélange of literary, historical and horror movie in-jokes: with its twisted conspiratorial plot, cinematic fight scenes, gore, transformations, gaslit setting, goth (sorry, Murgatroyd) fashions, and other delights, it would make a wonderful movie – unless, of course, it was made by the people responsible for LXG.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

In which Michael Jackson demonstrates the proper method to purchase science fiction paperbacks

The Daily Mail reports on a recent sighting of the pop star on a late night bookstore run in Las Vegas. He apparently purchased a large quantity of SF. Begging the important question: what is Michael Jackson's favorite literary science fiction? I'll bet you dinner at Picasso that right now he's curled up in the overstuffed armchair of his penthouse suite at the Bellagio, giggling at The Atrocity Exhibition.

Who knew such an activity could be subtly transformed into a bit of media jamming performance art? MJ's continued pushing of the boundaries of the new weird, straddling some unexplored territory between late Marlon Brando and The Man Who Fell to Earth, is appreciated. Can you think of a more science fictional figure in the contemporary celebrity landscape?

"My evolution has reached the stage where I must now modify my physical body in order to maintain its harmony with my spiritual self. It took me ten years to achieve racelessness through a combination of skin peels, hair removals, and treatment with pigmentary dyes, but I am confident that I have attained a truly neutral form, simultaneously presenting in all aspects of my anatomy the vestiges of all races and the protean form of a human without race.

"More difficult has been the process of achieving sexlessness. Only six months ago did I recover from Dr. Chandra’s last procedure, which eliminated my masculine and feminine sex characteristics. This has obviated the necessity of clothing, and I have begun to make occasional public performances via audio-visual transmission in my natural form.

"This state of permanent, hairless naturalism requires a certain regimen that is entirely suited to my purposes. A quarter of my day is spent in meditation in the flotation tank conceiving the evolution of my projects. The furniture must all be covered in fine silks or other non-abrasive materials. The doctors, working with my designers, have developed a wonderful cloak of carefully tanned seal skin for my nightly ramblings in the desert. They have also concocted an aromatic balm for my rubdowns by the staff. These aggressive massages are enhanced by the alteration of my nerves, which allows me to feel pleasure but not pain.

"In time, Dr. Chandra believes that, after the dietary transition is complete, I will be able to cease production of bodily waste. This will enable him to begin the next stage of my physical transformation: my ascendance from worldly humanity into a truly universal being. He is already working on the gradual elimination of color and contrast from my eyes, and tapering back my ears and nose. The goal is a complete streamlining of my features — metamorphosing me into an abstract model of molten, Promethean gold, both proto-human and super-human."

-- from "Immaculate Perception," in Argosy # 3, Spring 2005.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Song of the Teakettle

I have a new teakettle. It's the whistling kind. This particular teakettle is an unpredictable singer, often overcome by shyness, laryngitis or an insufficient head of steam. But sometimes it does sing, with a strong sustained tone, not so high as to be shrill; a tone pleasant to the ear. Thanks to teakettle engineering, an inanimate object sings.

You could say that human beings are the way the universe's inanimate matter finds its singing voice, in everything from teakettles to pipe organs. We're also the way the universe marvels at itself. And the way it emotes about itself. That's part of our job description as sentient beings: to inject meaning and song into things, to reflect on the cosmos. To make wonders.

Then there are—especially at this time of year—our holiday lawn ornaments. I suspect that they may be the universe laughing at itself. How else to explain a serried flock of lawn flamingos, each wearing a little red flannel cap trimmed with cotton, in a harness made of colored lights, pulling Santa in a sleigh?

And then, there is a certain small, shiny, orange, gold-capped aerosol can which recently appeared in the Library's basement Ladies' restroom. That restroom is frequented by Library staff. The counter is often graced by surplus hand lotion or other smellgood, unwanted at home but too pricey to toss out. The gold-capped aerosol can is Pumpkin Concentrated Fragrance Spray. It's concentrated, all right. After I made an experimental squirt in the air in front of the sink, the scent clung to my clothing and reeked there. It is the most determinedly cloying fragrance I've ever encountered.

Could this shiny little device be the universe, via human inventiveness, playing a practical joke on itself?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Mr. Speaker, end this discrimination against cyborgs!

I have never been a baseball fan (and not much of a sports fan generally). So maybe that's why, when I read about the findings of the Mitchell report yesterday detailing the pervasive use of performance-enhancing drugs among major league baseball players, I am nonplussed and kind of puzzled.

My reaction is to say, aren't we all pharmaceutically-enhanced, biomechanically assisted, technologically mediated cyborgs anymore? Do the distinctions made by the Powers that Be between certain kinds of medical performance interventions really hold up the the scrutiny of any kind of analytical rigor? If I can have all my joints replaced, and my pain tranquilized, why can't I pump up my hormone levels? Okay, sure, there's a legitimate difference between injury repair that never fully restores function that was once there, and artificial biochemical enhancement using drugs that can kill administered by underground physicians (you've got to admit, there's a kind of compelling narrative zing to the idea of the underground physician that performs medico-scientific sorcery for people outside the law). But at its heart, isn't this all a bunch of nostalgic Field of Dreams fantasy? Don't you suppose that athletes have *always* used whatever was available to help them win? Opportunity is not exculpation, and I'm glad to see a set of rules and ethical principles being enforced at last. But the pervasiveness of the violations shows the extent to which it was implicitly endorsed by the authorities.

And for a professional sport that has so completely whored itself to capital to express shock at the corrupting effect dangling obscene amounts of money in front of athletes has, and to indict the athletes while continuing to tolerate the moral debasement inherent in such a system? The essence of hypocrisy, in my view.

Interestingly, while today's headlines were incubating, I was working on a story for this weekend's Turkey City Writer's Workshop, which postulates in the backstory of one supporting character what I consider a more likely ultimate outcome:

"Crile scratched his silvery buzzcut, flexing a bicep that pulsed with the texture of manufactured tendons and polymerically enhanced blood vessels. He was one of the alpha generation of real celebrity cyborgs, a Texas star college quarterback who was among the first to go straight to the UFL. The Ultimate Football League was the first to abandon professional athletics’ anachronistic insistence on the prohibition of performance enhancements, be they pharmaceutical, bio-mechanical, or genetically engineered. It was a genius stroke by the founders. The audience was far more interested in superhuman performances than fidelity to nature, and the athletes were addicted to the potential of even greater power. Crile hadn’t played in a decade, but was still a public figure, famous for his stamina in withstanding fifteen-plus years of pounding on behalf of the Los Angeles fans, by defensive linemen morphed into raging anthropomorphic hippos and bipedal Mack trucks made of pink flesh and steel bones."

Now *that* might even get a nerd like me to turn on ESPN.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Where there's glass, there's life

Well, not really. But something has to go in the headline space. What we have here is a patch of pure silica on Mars which most likely formed in wet conditions hospitable to life.
SAN FRANCISCO - Researchers using NASA's twin Mars rovers are sorting
out two possible origins for one of Spirit's most important discoveries,
while also getting Spirit to a favorable spot for surviving the next
Martian winter.

The puzzle is what produced a patch of nearly pure silica -- the main
ingredient of window glass -- that Spirit found last May. It could have
come from either a hot-spring environment or an environment called a
fumarole, in which acidic steam rises through cracks. On Earth, both of
these types of settings teem with microbial life.

"Whichever of those conditions produced it, this concentration of silica
is probably the most significant discovery by Spirit for revealing a
habitable niche that existed on Mars in the past," said Steve Squyres of
Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the rovers'
science payload. "The evidence is pointing most strongly toward
fumarolic conditions, like you might see in Hawaii and in Iceland.
Compared with deposits formed at hot springs, we know less about how
well fumarolic deposits can preserve microbial fossils. That's something
needing more study here on Earth."

Is it just me, or does it seem that every week a new discovery and/or interpretation of Mars rules out the possibility of the planet ever having been warm and wet, only to be followed a week later by additional data that suggests the place was lousy with water? Olivine, hematite... each study contradicts the next, apparently. What do you want to bet that when all is said and done, these disparate pockets of observations and evidence all turn out to be correct in some manner of speaking?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Stockhausen ist Tod

Gute reise.

NYT reports:

Karlheinz Stockhausen, Influential Composer and Avant-Garde Guru, Dies at 79

Published: December 8, 2007

Karlheinz Stockhausen, an original and influential German composer who began his career as an inventor of new musical systems and ended it making operas to express his spiritual vision of the cosmos, died on Wednesday at his home in Kuerten-Kettenberg, Germany. He was 79.

His death was announced on Friday by the Stockhausen Foundation; no cause was disclosed.

Mr. Stockhausen had secured his place in music history by the time he was 30. He had taken a leading part in the development of electronic music, and his early instrumental compositions similarly struck out in new directions, in terms of their formal abstraction, rhythmic complexity and startling sound.

More recently, he made news for his public reaction to the attack on the World Trade Center. Not widely known outside the modern-music world in 2001, he became infamous for calling the attack “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos.” His comments drew widespread outrage, and he apologized, saying that his allegorical remarks had been misunderstood.


Too bad they got him to waffle on that unspeakable truth.

Stockhausen always mainlined the Zeitgeist with more honest fidelity more than most contemporary composers, in my view. Witness the amazing Helikopter Streichquartett (Helicopter String Quartet), the performance of which requires:

- One string quartet
- 4 helicopters with pilots
- 4 sound technicians
- 4 television transmitters
- 4 x 3 sound transmitters
- 1 auditorium with 4 columns of televisions and 4 columns of loudspeakers
- 1 sound projectionist with mixing console
- 1 moderator (ad lib.)

Video (mandatory - ~2 minutes, and you will definitely get the idea): The Austrian Ensemble for New Music performing the Helikopter Streichquartett with military helicopters over Salzburg in 2003.

The composer's explanation, from the liner notes of the Arditti cd:

"Early in 1991 I received a commission from Professor Hans Landesmann of the Salzburger Festspiele to compose a strong quartet. The Arditti Quartet was to play the world premiere in 1994.

"And then I had a dream: I heard and saw four string players in four helicopters flying in the air and playing. At the same time I saw people on the ground seated in an audio-visual hall, others were standing outdoors on a large public plaza. In front of them, four towers of television screens and loudspeakers had been set up: at the left, half-left, half-right, right. At each of the four positions one of the four string players could be heard and seen in close-up.

"Most of the time, the string players played tremoli which blended so well with the timbres and the rhythms of the rotor blades that the helicopters sounded like musical instruments."

That's my kind of dream.

If you want to stage your own performance, here are the composer's instructions, again from the liner notes of the Arditti cd:

"A performance is staged the following way:

"First, the four string players are introduced to the audience by a moderator -- who may also be the sound projectionist. He briefly describes the technical aspects of the forthcoming performance. Then, the players walk to the helicopters -- or are driven there -- while being constantly followed by video cameras which transmit to the television monitors. The moderator (at the mixing console) explains over the loudspeakers what is happening.

"From their embarkation into the helicopters until they disembark, each string player and his helicopter is transmitted via camera, television transmitter, three microphones and sound transmitters to his *own* group of monitors for the audience. Each string player should be constantly audible and always visible close-up -- face, hands, bow, instrument -- without any camera changes and without the fading in of other pictures.

"Behind each player, the earth can be seen through the glass cockpit of the helicopter. The ascent lasts about 5 minutes from the ignition of the turbines to bar 1. Until the world premiere, the measured music of the score (starting at bar 1) lasted 18 1/2 minutes. Due to a later addition, it now lasts circa 21 1/2 minutes. Descent and landing last about 5 minutes each.

"The microphone transmission from each helicopter should be such that the sounds of the rotor blades and that of the instrument blend well, and the instrument is heard *slightly* louder. To achieve this, at least 3 microphones per helicopter are necessary: 1 contact microphone on the bridge of the instrument, 1 microphone in front of the mouth of the player, and 1 microphone outside the helicopter which clearly picks up the sounds and *rhythms of the rotor blades.*

"The 4 x 3 microphone signals can be transmitted by 12 individual transmitters -- possibly via satellite relay -- and received at the concert hall as well as at further localities, then balanced and mixed to 4 mono signals at a mixing console using 4 x 3 faders.

"From the moment the synchronous playing begins (0'00") until it ends (21'37.8"), the four helicopters circle within a radius of circa 6 km above the performance venue, individually varying their flying altitudes. They should fly so high that the direct sound of the rotor blades is much softer than the sound coming from the loudspeakers, or even better, inaudible.

"After the landing, cameras follow the the string players and the four pilots as they disembark from the helicopters and walk (ride) to the concert hall. Once in the auditorium, the pilots are also introduced by the moderator. The players and pilots are asked about their experiences, and finally the audience is invited to participate in the discussion. In the afternoon, at least three flights should take place in succession with an appropriate period of time between flights, and with different audiences.

"The composition is thought-structured to the tenth of a second. The players are sychronized using a click-track which is transmitted up to them in the helicopters, and which they hear over earphones. Since the four strong players usually tremolo in criss-crossing glissandi, I had to draw their pitch lines and curves on top of one another in four colours, so that the melody trajectories could be followed."

We are organizing a special holiday performance here in Austin later this month, with the only variation being that the string players will wear the attire of Santa Claus and three of his elves.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Goodbye Nest Smell

Loss can be like a meteor crater on the landscape of your life: the unwelcome footprint of a destructive force of nature, but with fascinating scientific and aesthetic details.

My mother has Alzheimer's. She's declining—a graceful synonym for her mind falling apart around her. I recently spent a very busy two weeks orchestrating her move into assisted living. For her to continue to live in her house alone was not a good idea. The assisted living facility offers the kind of social life, structured activities, nourishing food, and daily oversight that may give my mother's final years some real quality of life. She won't accidentally burn down the house; won't fall down in the house or yard and lie hurt for hours. Not attempting to manage her own finances, she won't make mistakes of judgment to the effect of hundreds or thousands of dollars. She wanted to stay in Columbus, Georgia, and that is a good idea. She had friends and family and she knows the climate and the birds there. She won't feel uprooted like she would if I insisted that she come to Houston where I live.

The down side—one of them—is that my mother moving to assisted living means I lose my ancestral home. I'd wondered what her house would be like after a year of being inhabited by a person with Alzheimer's. Well, when I went back to Columbus for Thanksgiving, the housekeeping was poor, and the clutter worse than ever, but the "nest smell" still the same. It's a comfortable olfactory fabric woven out of the scents of an old wooden frame house plus the cleaning agents, laundry detergent, and air fresheners my mom has used for years, and her favorite perfume. I think the nest smell of her house is very much like what I knew in my early years, when my grandmother lived with us, in a different but similar rented house in the same neighborhood. In the next few months I'll have to clean out and sell the house. In the end I'll miss that nest smell. And miss the battered but long-familiar furniture in my old bedroom, and the self-respecting blue-collar neighborhood with trees much taller than the homes, pine-tree-tinged breezes, and firefly summer nights.

I feel lucky that my mother stayed put in the neighborhood where I grew up, in the same kind of house, and even kept of lot of the stuff that was there in my grandmother's day. Every time I visited her for decades, I got to greet all of that. American society is terribly transient. When children are relocated, either elsewhere after a divorce, or up the ladder of increasingly respectable housing as the family prospers, or from one state to another in the wake of parental job changes, it may not occur to anyone to help the kids say goodbye to the old place. Then it's gone for good. I have very few friends who can ever experience the same light, the same trees, some of the old furniture, and the nest smell of childhood. In losing our early places, many of us are like refugees from a past we can never go home to. People whose families fled from wars in Bosnia or Viet Nam lost whole countries along with their childhood homes. No wonder it can be a profoundly emotional experience for them to return to visit relatives years later. Americans, though, have a real knack for just casually misplacing the places of childhood.

Speaking of saying goodbye, I said goodbye to my mother several months ago, in a dream, while I was staying with friends in Tulsa. What an odd place and time for a heartfelt goodbye. But Alzheimer's is a long stair-stepping slide downhill, and it can be hard to pinpoint when you lose the person. In my mother's case it's particularly hard to say when I lost her. In a way I lost her when I was three, and she was 38, when she divorced my father and spiraled down into a quarter-century of depression and social withdrawal. After she retired from teaching school, though, she came back to life. She took up walking and dancing. She made friends. She never regained enough emotional competence to be good at mothering, but I am profoundly glad that she was a social human being for a full twenty years of retirement. As her best friend puts it, my mother "came out of her shell" in her old age.

Last December was when her Alzheimer's became obvious and scary. Was that when I lost her (again?) Not exactly. In the twelve months since then, during which my first novel was published, she became more cognizant and more supportive of my writing career than ever in my entire life. Granted it's easier to conceptualize my daughter wrote a book than my daughter has been writing short stories, novelettes, and articles and doing editing and teaching creative writing for years. But the whole emotional tone of her feelings about me, or at any rate the feelings that she was able to express, changed enormously. During the past year she informed as much of the world as she had the opportunity to talk to that I has written a book and she was proud of me. She also told me—on the phone, while I was in Tulsa, before my goodbye dream—that I'm a smart, hard-working and ambitious woman. A lot of my friends over the years might vouch for that, but I'd never heard such words from my mother's lips in my entire existence. For decades, her favorite line in dialog with me was "Are you OK?" (Yes, dammit, and in fact I'm usually better than just OK!)

Did the Alzheimer's knock out some of the dysfunctional circuitry in her brain? Maybe. One of my friends had such an experience. After her entire lifetime of being unfavorably compared to an older sister, their Alzheimer's-afflicted mother somehow turned into the sympathetic, companionable mother my friend had always yearned for. It's a mysterious malady, Alzheimer's. It inexorably destroys the brain and it blasts an emotional crater of loss in the hearts of loved ones. Yet it has intriguing and, very rarely, wonderful details.

Anyone who's responsible for an aging parent or friend should get the book ELDERCARE 911 by Susan Beerman and Judith Rappaport-Musson (Prometheus Books, 2002.) It's authoritative yet compassionate, and tremendously helpful. Another remarkable book is Aging with Grace by David Snowdon (Bantam, 2001.) Snowdon is the scientist who conducted the Nun Study of aging brains. The Nun Study brought fame to Snowdon, but in reading his book one gathers that working with the elderly religious humanized him.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Won't you blog about this song?

This one's for Chris Nakashima-Brown, who I suspect hasn't had his dose of pop-culture overkill today. Behold, the Richter Scales:

I particularly like the Firefox crop circle...

Of bishops and compasses

If you're like me (and really, who isn't?) your jaw dropped to the floor and you went ga-ga over the lush, juicy visuals and copious worldbuilding that literally oozed from every frame. Will the film be any good? Will it be faithful to the books? I have no idea, but I knew from the first shot of that golden zeppelin flying over the city that this movie would be a priority for me.

But wait, you say. Isn't this movie raving anti-Catholic propaganda? That's what William Donohue of the Catholic League says:
"New Line Cinema and Scholastic Entertainment have paired to produce 'The Golden Compass,' a children's fantasy that is based on the first book of a trilogy by militant English atheist Philip Pullman. The trilogy, His Dark Materials, was written to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism. The target audience is children and adolescents. Each book becomes progressively more aggressive in its denigration of Christianity and promotion of atheism: The Subtle Knife is more provocative than The Golden Compass and The Amber Spyglass is the most in-your-face assault on Christian sensibilities of the three volumes.

"Atheism for kids. That is what Philip Pullman sells. It is his hope that 'The Golden Compass,' which stars Nicole Kidman and opens December 7, will entice parents to buy his trilogy as a Christmas gift."

Well, gosh. I guess I'd better not see it then. After all, who's more of a moral authority than William Donohue? Certainly not the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for which the film was recently screened:
Whatever author Pullman's putative motives in writing the story, writer-director Chris Weitz's film, taken purely on its own cinematic terms, can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism.

To the extent, moreover, that Lyra and her allies are taking a stand on behalf of free will in opposition to the coercive force of the Magisterium, they are of course acting entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching. The heroism and self-sacrifice that they demonstrate provide appropriate moral lessons for viewers.

There is, admittedly, a spirit of rebellion and stark individualism pervading the story. Lyra is continually drawn to characters who reject authority in favor of doing as they please. Equally, only by defying the powers that be, can a scientist like Lord Asriel achieve progress. Pullman is perhaps drawing parallels to the Catholic Church's restrictive stance towards the early alchemists and, later, Galileo.

Later in the review:
Will seeing this film inspire teens to read the books, which many have found problematic? Rather than banning the movie or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.

The religious themes of the later books may be more prominent in the follow-up films which Weitz has vowed will be less watered down. For now, this film -- altered, as it is, from its source material -- rates as intelligent and well-crafted entertainment.

What a novel idea--parents discussing books and ideas with their children! Who would ever have thought of such a thing? Apparently, such concepts are foreign to Donohue, who seems to view any concept outside of his personal belief system a threat to universal harmony. In a few years, when they're old enough to express interest in reading the Golden Compass books (or disinterest, as the case may be) I won't have a moment's hesitation in letting my children do so. In fact, I'll encourage it--and not because I'm an atheist (Catholic, actually, which I suppose in some circles is viewed as equally suspect).

Last Christmas season, I was reading Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, along with Lost Scriptures which included fragments of Gnostic gospels, orthodox yet non-Biblical early church writings and the like. I eat this stuff up, you see, and Ehrman's an engaging writer even if he does tend to be a little superficial at times. Around this time, one of my wife's friends stopped by for a visit. A nice enough person, but very conservative in her religious views. Fundamentalist, I believe, although we've never actually discussed it. She viewed my reading material with an undisguised mix of bafflement and horror.

"Why are you reading that?" she asks.

I explained that I found the changes in meanings, the changes in actual words through error and intent, the lost context of many passages--all of this was fascinating to me. I was disappointed that Ehrman discussed the origins and source material of the Gospels without once mentioning the elusive "Q" document, but the long and short of it is that these books give me a deeper understanding of my belief tradition.

"I could never do," she answered. "If there were mistakes in the Bible, I couldn't believe anymore."

That statement, unadorned, unelaborated, yet absolute, dumbfounded me. That a mis-copied word or a well-meaning but erroneous correction by a weary monk with a cramping hand 1,500 years ago could utterly destroy everything she believes in? Any person with faith that tenuous and fragile has far more serious issues to worry about than a movie with talking polar bears and zeppelin-flying cowboys attacking the notion of God and religion. God (or at least the concept of a supreme deity) has survived far worse slings and arrows over the course of human existence. Personally, I can't think of a better person to watch The Golden Compass with.

I'll even spring for popcorn and drinks. My treat.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Have yourself a very Banksy Christmas

While your local city elders are busy hanging chintz over Main Street,Banksy just hit Bethlehem and spray painted The Wall for your holiday viewing enjoyment. When is he coming to Washington?

Official site here: Santa's Ghetto.

'Bethlehem banks on Banksy to boost tourism'
posted by Rob Maguire on December 3, 2007

'In a creative bid to boost Bethlehem's sagging economy, Banksy has brought his seasonal "Santa's Ghetto" exhibition to this Palestinian town that has seen few tourists in recent years.

'The infamous stencil artist joined several others in creating over a dozen works on the concrete wall surrounding the town, turning a hated symbol of Israeli occupation into an massive open air art gallery. Another dozen or so works are on display in a former chicken shop in Manger Square.

'In more peaceful years more than 100,000 tourists would pour into Bethlehem during the holidays. Last year the town saw a mere tenth of the traffic. Having visited Bethlehem in December a few years back I can personally attest to the recent drought of visitors. With over 70 percent of the workforce depending on tourism, signs of a wounded economy are everywhere.

'“You wouldn’t worry about Christmas becoming too commercial in Bethlehem – they couldn’t afford it. There’s more festive lights in the window of your local Woolworths than you’ll find in this entire town,” Banksy told The London Times. “It would do good if more people came to see the situation here for themselves. If it is safe enough for a bunch of sissy artists then it’s safe enough for anyone.”'

Happiness is a profitable foreclosure

In the signs of the times department, this perky sign for a seminar on how to find financial happiness in the misfortunes of others was seen in the conference lobby of a business hotel in Austin this afternoon. In the post-Hindu caste system of 21st century American capitalism, where do realtors fit?

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The biggest jump

Another ghost of the rapidly receding recent past is gone, suspended eternally mid-jump over the Snake Canyon of the mind.

Video: Evel Knievel jumps Snake River Canyon!

Though Evel Knievel is dead, his action figure will live forever, something about the ingenious engineering of his bike's plastic gearing.

Video: Some kid's butt-kicking action figure sidewalk jump videos.

The Invisible War

Today's NYT reports the latest on James Stevenson, the Galveston bird-lover tried for shooting a cat, now apparently being pursued by cat-loving assassins.

'Texas: Bird-Watcher Leaves State
Published: December 1, 2007

'A prominent bird-watcher who was tried for shooting a cat to death said he left the state after someone shot at him. The bird-watcher, James M. Stevenson, founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society, said he had received death threats since his trial on animal cruelty charges. A judge declared a mistrial last month when the jury failed to reach a verdict. Mr. Stevenson told the police that he was standing on his porch Wednesday when someone shot at him. In his trial, Mr. Stevenson admitted shooting the cat but defended the action because he believed it was threatening endangered birds.'

As reported earlier, Stevenson, a leading regional amateur ornithologist, shot a cat under a toll bridge in an effort to save piping plovers who liked to hang out in the same shallow spot:

'Mr. Stevenson, 54, does not deny using a .22-caliber rifle fitted with a scope to kill the cat, which lived under the San Luis Pass toll bridge, linking Galveston to the mainland. He also admits killing many other cats on his own property, where he operates a bed and breakfast for some of the estimated 500,000 birders who come to the island every year.

'In her opening statement, Paige L. Santell, a Galveston County assistant district attorney, told the jury of eight women and four men that Mr. Stevenson “shot that animal in cold blood” and that the cat died a slow and painful death “gurgling on its own blood.”

'She said that the cat had a name, Mama Cat, and that though the cat lived under a toll bridge, she was fed and cared for by a toll collector, John Newland. He is expected to testify.

'Whether the cat was feral is the crucial point in this case. Mr. Stevenson was indicted under a state law that prohibited killing a cat “belonging to another.” Prompted by this case, the law was changed on Sept. 1 to include all cats, regardless of ownership.

'Ms. Santell argued that because Mr. Newland had named, fed and given the cat bedding and toys, the cat belonged to him and was not feral.

'Mr. Stevenson’s lawyer, Tad Nelson, admitted in his opening statement that his client went to the San Luis Pass toll bridge with “an intent to kill.” but that he had planned to kill a wild animal that was preying on endangered piping plovers. “This man has dedicated his whole life to birds,” Mr. Nelson said, pointing at Mr. Stevenson.

'The case has prompted emotional commentary on the Internet. Cat enthusiast blogs have called Mr. Stevenson a “murderous fascist” and a “diabolical monster.” Birding blogs have defended his right to dispense with a “terrible menace” and have set up funds to help pay for his defense.

'In an interview in a courthouse elevator during a break in the trial, Mr. Stevenson said heatedly that cat fanciers who have condemned him and sent him hateful correspondence “think birds are nothing but sticks.” “This is about wild species disappearing from your planet,” he said, adding, “I did what I had to do.”'

"I did what I had to do." And now have to flee the state, a fugitive from unknown snipers. Posing interesting questions about just how it is we are supposed to interact with, and intervene in, the dysfunctional ecology we have created.

This war between cats and songbirds continues, in your backyard. And only one side is armed. Have you taken a side?

I am a bird-lover myself. But I also love the groovy cat that shares my house, a Brooklyn stray now fat and happy after her transplant to balmy Austin. In the mornings I always find mysterious downy feathers in the yard.

Should I care? Isn't the interaction between these species the essence of what's natural? I understand, domestic cats are a byproduct of man's interaction with nature over the millennia. But haven't we also had a huge impact on the urban bird population? Isn't it a typical expression of our hubris to think that our degenerative impact on our local ecology can best be corrected by our further intervention? We are His stewards, right? Do you buy it? No easy answers.

As biodiversity continues to decline, one can foresee the emergence of secret bands of armed humans serving as self-appointed vigilante guardians of of the species that would otherwise be left to fight it out with each other. Al Catta. I may take on the chipmunks as my personal project. Or the voles, who tunnel in the thick weedy grass under freeway bridges.

For some reason this imbroglio brings to mind the amazing work of the brilliant comics artist Anders Nilsen. I recently discovered his work through Biq Questions #10, a beautiful bit of graphic slipstream in which a dazed human interacts with the detritus of his civilization and the sarcastic observations of the hardier avians that live off our trash. And are especially keen on donuts.

Check out this PDF excerpt from Big Questions #9, then spend some time watching what's really happening in your yard and your alley, and consider what your role in it is, and what those other creatures might be thinking about.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Peter Parker ne connait pas

They're rioting in France again.

And being French, they rebel with a certain elan. Burning cars now elevated to burning garbage trucks. Maybe not the healthiest way for frustrated youths in Ballardian ghetto suburbs to work out their boredom and rage, you say? Check out this amazing video of some Slavic immigrant kids turning the abandoned concrete shells of their banlieu into a giant skate park. You know, without the skateboards. Just sneakers and gymnastic dexterity and total commitment. Parkour. (bear with the slow start -- it's worth the wait)

Which for some reason reminds me of that obscure Kirby villain, Batroc the Leaper. From Marseilles, probably of North African origin. Maybe that's one of his illegitimate kids torching the Renault, bouncing off the housing project, and getting ready to kick Spidey's ass.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Things to do on a cold day off

By way of observance of this year's Buy Nothing Day, stay away from the stores, consider this wonderful James Stegall essay in Nerve concerning the sublimated homemaker eroticism of the Lands' End catalog, and use it as a launching point to crack open the rest of the glossy catalogs in your mail bin with an eye toward better exploring the covert semiotic archaeology of your mental landscape.

And then go make something of your own.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Blade Runner: The Borges Cut

Tonight I caught the new print of Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Which causes me to wonder how many different versions of this film I have seen. The encyclopedia claims there are seven versions, of which I have seen at least five. The original 1982 theatrical release, with the expository Marloweian voiceover and the happy ending driving through the pines (apparently stock footage stolen from Kubrick's The Shining). The myriad hacked up television broadcast versions. The 1991 unofficial director's cut. The 1992 official Director's Cut. And this new "Final Cut," with a spiffy unicorn dream sequence that, tied up with Gaff's tinfoil origami in the final scene, definitely resolves the issue of Deckard's status as a replicant. At least, until the next cut comes out, perhaps around the time of the movie's setting in 2019.

The media barrage over this latest edition, shilling DVDs to put under the tree of your favorite middle-aged veteran of Reagan's first term, confirms the movie's status as canonical. As did the crowd at the screening at Austin's own WWI-era downtown movie palace. A full house of wired Bohemians, many of them born after the film's release, the rest of them applauding and cheering the opening credits like some post-cyberpunk Rocky Horror experience. Make it a double feature with The Road Warrior and you would pretty well cover the cinematic zeitgeist of my late adolescence. I took my 12-year old son and his buddy, figuring at this point the thing qualifies as an educational experience. While their whispers revealed they had the plot's punchline telegraphed well before the first unicorn, the pixel-free cinematography and old school effects blew their minds.

It holds up well despite a number of viewings that approaches my Stairway to Heaven listening count. The early exposition, as Bryant explains the setup to Deckard in a baffling mandatory science fictional As You Know, Bob, gets creakier every time, but the thing sails from there, carried by style and details that dress up the pulp skeleton of the plot. Like the three-dimensional photos from 1187 Hundertwasser, Deckard's suit and tie, Roy's fingernails, Pris's airbrushed harlequin mask, Zhora's political homicide dossier, Rachel letting down her hair, the backwash of blood into a battered man's shot glass. And the city, the movie's real star, in all its smoking, gasping, damp, drizzly, dark, Adbusted, multiculti, grimy, run-down L.A. meets 1979 NYC by way of 1980s Tokyo and future Shanghai. Old school soundstage and gnomic models inventing imminent dystopia through noir lighting and Vangelized muzak flickering on a big screen: the essence of cyberpunk, like Neuromancer being written on a typewriter.

Which makes you wonder why no one has really pulled off anything similar since, in the cinematic varietal of the genre. Robert Longo's Johnny Mnemonic, anyone? I think I now understand the answer. Blade Runner is the only true cyberpunk film, and there need be no others, for there will continue to be infinite cuts, each with subtle variations, same wines of different vintages. Like a Borgesian Heavy Metal cartoon, its attentive custodians and itchy auteurs forever modulating the space between the panels.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Halo Effect

This morning, I felt stressed out. This stemmed from packing to travel to Georgia to move my mother into assisted living, while having more than plenty to do in Houston. My mother might have picked a worse year to manifest the symptoms of Alzheimer's. She also could have picked a better one, as far as my own life is concerned.

Stressed out, I resorted to the very brief but exquisite order of individual morning prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. Felt slightly better. Then dragged a basket of dirty clothes out through my front door toward the apartment laundry room. And saw a sundog in the southern sky.

It pushed the reset button on my outlook on life.

A sundog or parhelion is a bright rainbow patch in the sky not far from the sun. Houston is long way from Antarctica, which is the best place in the world for the sundogs, solar halos, tangent arcs, and other optical phenomena that stem from ice crystals in the daytime sky. But I notice these phenomena rather often. And they delight me every time. This morning was the first time I had a digital camera handy. Here is a sundog, above, and to the right a halo with what may be a blurred tangent arc (the brighter blob at the top of the halo.)

Readability level

Okay, so this is the new test/gadget/meme/thingy sweeping the blogosphere this moment. And since Chris Roberson and John Klima have already taken the plunge, I'm sort of honor-bound to submit the blogs I participate in, right? So how does No Fear of the Future hold up?

cash advance

Oh. My. I'll give you three guesses as to why this humble blog has achieved such a high-falutin' rating (here's a hint: It's not yours truly).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Lost Books, Part IV: Evolution's Darling, by Scott Westerfeld

Last weekend, I was Guest of Honour at a small cyberpunk-themed con, Night's Edge, and speaking on a panel titled "I'm Only Interested in Her Mind: Love and AI", at which we spent much time enthusing about Scott Westerfeld's Evolution's Darling - which is, like too many excellent sf books, out of print, though there are second-hand copies available through

Evolution's Darling is a 'bootstrap', an AI who has achieved sentience despite frequent downgrades by its last owner. Under the laws of the Expansion, any machine that reaches a Turing Quotient of 1.0 legally becomes a person, rather than legal property - and needing to replace the shipboard computer would wipe out a year's profits for Darling's owner, Isaah. Darling is also the tutor and companion of Isaah's fifteen-year-old daughter, Rathere, and after Isaah disconnects Darling's sensors, Rathere re-connects them to save her friend, who then becomes her lover. He buys himself a humanoid body, then he and Rathere leave Earth together.

Two centuries later, Darling has become one of the Expansion's most astute dealers in artworks, collecting originals and ideas and sex-related body modifications. When a new sculpture allegedly done by fellow bootstrap Vaddum comes onto the market, years after Vaddum's disappearance, Darling and many other dealers rush to see it. While some are prepared to murder their rivals to own the piece, Darling is more interested in its origin. Is Vaddum dead? Can robots actually die? Can intelligent software be copied, and if so, is the copy a forgery or the real thing?

Evolution's Darling contains some wonderful inventions: as well as the Turing Quotient as a solution to the ethical questions of owning intelligent machines, Westerfield gives us a wide range of very individualistic robots, from the fiercely competitive hyper-intelligent starships writing anonymous academic papers on passenger service when they're not hurling insults at each other ("Number-cruncher!" "Intuitionist!"), to Vaddum, the robotic laborer turned sculptor, to the sub-Turing Wardens, cunning but rigid justice machines. I also loved the lithomorphs, alien statues on a thousand-century-long migration towards their breeding grounds. Along with this sparkling inventiveness comes a beautiful prose style: the only flaw, and that a minor one, is the erratic pacing, with two-hundred-year jump cuts and a fistful of flashbacks disguising a very simple and straightforward plot.

Aldiss and Wingrove's Trillion Year Spree defined science fiction (in part) as "the search for a definition of mankind and his status quo in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge". By this definition, Evolution's Darling is uncommonly pure science fiction, because of the questions it raises about the nature of humanity. When machines can score higher than biological humans on Turing tests, which is really human? Are two beings with identical Turing ratings actually the same person, and is the art they produce equally authentic? Is there a difference between justice and aesthetic considerations? What is alive? What is dead? What is original? What is a copy? Will any of these concepts still be relevant in a few centuries? Westerfield quotes Wilde's essays frequently - and it's Wilde the philosopher, not just Wilde the wit - as well as Wittgenstein and Locke, plus sly nods to Alfred Bester and Samuel Delany... but the book sparkles with ideas and questions, rather than being weighted down with pontification. It manages to combine character-driven and ideas-driven science fiction, and even begs the question of whether there's any real difference between the two.

P.S. Last week, I was informed that there's a Lost Books website, specializing in science fiction, formerly a tributary of Orson Scott Card's Hatrack River. It's worth checking out, though in the interests of strict accuracy, I should say that many of the books that it lists are not exactly lost: R. A. MacAvoy's Mayland Long novels are back in print (well, there goes two columns), Grimwood's Replay is a Gollancz Masterwork, and John Marsden's Ellie books are bestsellers here in Australia. Wizard of the Pigeons, alas, is still MIA... but that's another story.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

New! Diet Soap!

Daydreaming of revolution while you sip on your latte and admire the grey carpeting on your cubicle walls? I have just the prescription: from metafictional mad bomber Doug Lain and company, issue 1 of the new zine Diet Soap, featuring work by Doug, Tim Pratt, Darin Bradley, Brendan Connell, and others. The theme: Surveillance. A feast of food for thought as you walk under the obscured eyes of the security cameras. From Doug's intro --

"[T]he cameras are there to maintain the viewers' mastery, to provide scopophilic domination, but these cameras are also symptomatic of the viewers' weakness. The fact that we are kept under surveillance means that the people behind the cameras do not consider us passive spectators of a world we did not create. The cameras suggest that they expect us, eventually, to act. And some of us do."

For a spiffy printable PDF of your own, email the good folks at:

P.S. If you are not familiar with Doug's work, it is mandatory that you get yourself a copy of his recent collection from the fine fellows at Night Shade Books, Last Week's Apocalypse.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Kapton, Salt, and Bubbles

Pretty, isn't it?

NASA's Genesis Discovery Mission returned particles of solar wind to Earth a couple of years ago. You may recall that Genesis had a rather hard landing. Most of the solar wind collectors broke into larger or lesser pieces. But the collectors had solar wind particles embedded in them; Genesis did bring back its prize. In so doing, it opened up fascinating questions. How do you tell the difference between genuine extraterrestrial material and unwanted contamination in consequence of a crash landing in the Utah desert? How do you document and distinguish atoms of solar wind from traces of a) spacecraft, b) Utah, or c) the residue solvents used to clean off a) and b)? Inventive NASA scientists are developing incredibly sophisticated techniques to document the contamination and clean the pieces.

Starting early on, choice pieces of collector material with embedded solar went to scientists around the world. The first Genesis science results were announced at the Lunar Planetary Conference in 2006. The last results could unfold in the mid 21st century or even later. The beauty of curating extraterrestrial material is that it's safely tucked away while analytic instrumentation evolves and the planetary science community hones new questions and approaches. The Apollo moon rocks have whispered their secrets to scientists for almost 40 years.

The Genesis samples are a lot smaller than moon rocks and the contamination issues orders of magnitude more subtle. Thus there's been a lot of high resolution microscopy. Here, courtesy of the Genesis Discovery Mission's contamination control lead scientist, are some interesting images.

1. Above and one below are two takes on a scrap of Kapton tape. At the macroscopic level, this is translucent, light-gold-colored tape that's ubiquitous on American-built spacecraft, especially securing dark gold sheets of mylar. Kapton is like masking tape for spacecraft. In microscopy in the wake of a spacecraft crash, it this is what it looks like. This stray bit of tape resides on silicon carbide collector material.

2. The blue stuff is salty Utah mud with a cementlike consistency. Cleaning it off silicon carbide is a challenge.

3. The bubbles haven't yet been conclusively identified. But they look cool.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

First thing we do... beat the crap out of all of the lawyers? Being one myself, I have to say there is something rather awesome about seeing a lawyer in a black suit lobbing a tear gas canister back at the riot police. What do you suppose it would take for that to happen here? (Earlier this year, I wrote a story of domestic revolt that featured BMWs burning in the middle of the golf course -- maybe that could still happen!)

Like a cross between Tianamen Square and an old Robert Longo print -- definitely an image with some legs.

[Image: Robert Longo, "Dancing Trio I, from the 1980s "Men in the City" series.]

Meanwhile, in other news, NYT reports on the crazy hijink's at Iraq's Police Academy.

According to IMdB, there hasn't been a new installment in the wacky Police Academy series since 1989's "Police Academy 6: City Under Siege." So here's the pitch for a perfect writer's strike scab job: "Police Academy 7: Back to Baghdad." Think Leslie Nielsen does Ahmad Chalabi.

Friday, November 2, 2007

El Chupacabra unmasked!

As promised, the mystery of our age revealed! In any event, this result is far more sensible than that awful chupacabra-is-a-fungus-from-outer-space episode of the X-Files.
Texas State researchers solve mystery of Cuero chupacabra

Biologists at Texas State University-San Marcos have succeeded in identifying the strange, hairless, doglike creature that gained fame throughout South Texas this summer as the mythical chupacabra.

Reality, it turns out, is far more mundane than the exotic origins one would expect for a supernatural creature: It’s a coyote.

“The DNA sequence is a virtually identical match to DNA from the coyote (Canis latrans),” said Mike Forstner of the biology department at Texas State. “This is probably the answer a lot of folks thought might be the outcome. I, myself, really thought it was a domestic dog, but the Cuero chupacabra is a Texas Coyote.”

The odd-looking beast turned up this past summer on a ranch outside of the small town of Cuero, Texas, and almost immediately people began comparing it to the bed-time horror, chupacabra.

“Not often do we have genetic material available from an animal that has been linked to a legendary myth,” Forstner said. Normally, the only evidence available consists of blurry photographs, low-light video or other “untestable” pieces of evidence. This time, a south Texas rancher, Phyllis Canion, found a dead animal and preserved the head of the beast in her freezer, creating the opportunity for DNA testing. Hairless, odd beasts have turned up before in South Texas, and this time the stage was set for some scientific work to help solve the mystery. Forstner viewed this as an opportunity, not just to solve the mystery, but also to help people understand how science answers questions.

“This is fun, not scary, but if people are worried about the chupacabra, it is probably even more important that we explain the mystery,” he said. “Folks can fear what they don’t understand, and a big part of the goal in science is to explain the natural world.”

Joe Conger of KENS 5 news provided a tissue sample from Canion’s preserved animal to Texas State’s director of the Wildlife Ecology program, John Baccus, and Baccus passed the sample on to Forstner’s lab, which normally does DNA testing on a large number of different kinds of animals from bats to toads. Forstner assigned doctoral student Jake Jackson and master’s student Jim Bell to the project, who viewed this as just another lab project--albeit with a pop-culture twist.

“DNA tells a story. It allows us to determine the difference between animal species, and while I thought it was a canid (one of the members in the dog family), I could not tell from the photographs which one it might be,” Forstner explained, pointing out that KENS 5 financed the testing. “From my perspective, we were interested in providing a direct answer from the DNA, testing the best guesses of experts by using the evidence from the animal itself.

“Jake extracted DNA from the sample, then we used PCR to generate template DNA and a Beckman Coulter Automated DNA sequencer to read that sequence,” he said. “We choose a part of the mitochondrial DNA genome that is very informative in mammals, called the D-Loop. Once we had the sequence, it was very easy to make an initial ‘match’ of the Cuero sample using the online genetic database, GENBANK. We also completed other analyses, but really, that first match told the tale.”

The main mystery might be solved, but the DNA match doesn’t explain the other looming question: Why does this coyote look so un-coyotelike?

“That is the best part about science--the first answers often lead to more questions and then better explanations of the world in which we live,” Forstner said. “We’ve taken additional skin samples and we will try to determine the cause of the hair loss.

“Texas State is a great school with excellent facilities for genetic work and this has been a very... different experience for my students as they worked on this with all the media attention,” he said. “It’s been remarkable for them, seeing both the power of the media and their work on this project come together.”

No word yet on whether Jimmy Kimmel still wants a bite of "chalupacabra."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Pumpkins and Tiggers and Scares, Oh My

The neighborhood I live in and the adjacent neighborhood where I like to walk came through again this year for Halloween. Pumpkins galore. Real pumpkins; plastic pumpkins; a string of orange pumpkin-lights strung around a palmetto palm. Then there was the inflatable yard art ranging from the cute (Pooh and Tigger) to the usual (ghosts, still more pumpkins) to the macabre: a darn near life-size, inflated hearse driven by a ghastly skeleton in a tux.

My favorite in the inflatable category was the humongous snow globe with a haunted castle inside it and - thanks to the motorized blower - scads of bats flying around the castle.

We also had the annual infestation of spiders. Huge inflatable purple ones one with red eyes, and others that are smaller but look meaner because they're hairy. One particularly hairy black spider was artfully positioned on a weblike rope hammock in a front yard. Very effective. My crocodile brain said, no way are we getting near that thing.

One house had a nifty front yard witch outlined in green and orange lights. There was a grim reaper to keep the witch company. But upon closer inspection of the grim reaper, he was actually an extra from the Christmas light show - a Manger scene shepherd, complete with a staff, but with the addition of an improvised sickle blade on the staff. The pink lights outlining grim reaper guy's robe were a dead giveaway. So was his bland, bearded face. Oh, my.

But the scariest scare of the year was a yard sign with a cartoon of a vicious-looking high rise building.

It's a 23-story structure intended to be shoehorned into a Rice University-area corner where the surrounding houses are nice and old and the trees are taller than the houses. In other words, it's a monstrosity of a development that would ruin the look, feel and traffic flow of that neighborhood for blocks around. Fortunately the residents who would be most adversely affected by this thing are fighting mad about it and well-off enough to hire good PR and top-notch attorneys. And I hope they win.

Houston lacks zoning ordinances. It's the largest US city without same. As a result, development is out of control. Whole neighborhoods can lose their historic character almost overnight. Historic homes or movie theaters get razed without fanfare and replaced with highrises, pretentious commercial centers, or even pawnshops and parking lots.

Unlike most of the Halloween yard art, which looks quaint in the light of November 1, that Ashby High Rise sign is every bit as scary today as it was yesterday.