Monthly Archives: June 2011

Myxobacteria are Awesome

Swarming myxobacteria
Image pulled from http://bit.ly/m51q1q

I am writing this post because myxobacteria are awesome, and I think more people should know about them.

You could go through your entire life without ever hearing about myxobacteria. Pretty much everything you need to know about microorganisms in general is that there are things moving around that are so small you can’t see them, sometimes they can help with things like digestion and pollution cleanup, and sometimes they can cause diseases such as salmonella, so you should really make sure to wash your hands, cook your food and  pasteurize things.

Everything beyond that is a detail that you can probably overlook without any serious repercussions.

But what’s the fun in that?

As with just about any facet of science, if you look into microbiology you soon find yourself falling through a magnificent and intimidating rabbit hole of information. It helps to have a specific thing to latch on to to make sense of everything.

Myxococcus fulvus fruiting body
image pulled from http://myxobacteria.ahc.umn.edu/whataremyxos2.html

Even focusing on myxobacteria gives you a lot to take in though. The picture above shows how they move around in swarms or wolf packs. The colors indicate the direction each cell is moving in. For instance, all the cells that are colored orange are traveling to the right. Why do they do this? How do they do this? They don’t have any flagella or cilia (not in the classic sense anyway) They release slime,( myxobacteria comes from the greek myxo for slime after all), but how does that help? I’ll say more about myxo movement in a later post, but there’s more.When food is scarce, myxobacteria start lumping together in visible fruiting bodies, about a millimeter tall,  like in the picture on the right. These fruiting bodies will eventually release bacterial cells with thicker cell walls that act as spores, eventually budding and making more myxobacteria, which then repeat the process.

Well, okay, that’s your basic fungus, right? But the weird thing here is that these are all still bacteria. They don’t even have nuclei! How do they show such complicated behavior?   How do they know enough to organize themselves into a heap to release spores? How is it that the spore cells look so different from the other cells?

Scientists know the answers to many of these questions, but others are still still a mystery. As you go through some of the explanations, you start to notice these strange correlations between how bacteria sense things and how social networks and mobs of people form and behave. You start to wonder about how some professions get more specialized and whether businesses and franchises are fruiting bodies. It’s eerie. And if these dumb bacteria act this way, is it possible that we act in similar ways because we’re in a similar environment? What can we take from that? Are we too much like bacteria, or not enough? What does this say about free will?

Deep, huh?

Like I said, Myxobacteria are awesome.

Horticulture and Etiquette

I’ve been interested in identifying plants recently. I’ve read through Nature’s Garden by Samuel Thayer. An entertaining read, though I’m not sure what my next step is in the horticulture department. I think I just need to find specific plants to identify. Once I have a name I can find out things about them maybe. Except that’s proven frustrating so far. I was hoping to find a book that goes over all the common plants and weeds in the area, and I so far haven’t been able to find one. The good news is I think that means I could write one, which gives me a definite goal to pursue.

Now, my Dad would ask, why don’t you take some classes? And maybe I should. Then again I don’t think there’s a class on all the plants in the area. And if there were, I imagine it would be pretty boring. Furthermore, I don’t have money for classes right now, and I need to find a way to make money…and really this whole plant identification thing is probably a distraction from that. On the other hand, it may very well be how I end up making money. Shrugs all around.

A week or so ago, I went to a writer’s meeting near where I live. I read my flash short story Sympathy there and it was met with praise. Got a few good criticisms too. I need to put another character in it and to clarify a few things.

The most memorable event from the writer’s meeting last week was the cancer survivor who was wanting to convince other people to not be treated for cancer. The whole idea seemed evil to me. She was saying that she was diagnosed with cancer in multiple areas of her body and that she prayed to God (and did “research” ) and decided to go for a “natural cure.” Now, supposedly, she’s free of the disease. Of course my immediate thought was that she never had cancer. That either her doctor had misdiagnosed her, which is perfectly possible given the number of diseases that produce tumor like masses in the body, or she still has cancer, and she’s just in remission. She couldn’t even say what kind of cancer she had. So that makes me suspicious. She might have lied about the whole thing. In any case, I really wanted to have a full on argument with her about it, but I had to be nice.

I still have to be nice. At the moment, she does not yet know my internet alter ego, but I don’t do a good job hiding who I am generally so she might find this post. In that case, yes, Marsha, I’m talking about you. I’m glad you don’t have cancer and that you feel more in tune with God etc., but I think what worked for you, might very well kill someone else, and that you should probably shut up about it.

It makes me wonder about how many dinner parties Hitler went to, and whether anybody said anything to him during one.

Whoops! I’m sorry, Marsha! Did I just compare you to Hitler? Godwin’s Law. I hope we can still be friends.

Even though I think you’re a bit evil.

Dark Hole

I have put my hand into a dark hole.

Something furry lurks there. I know this. I have felt the texture of it brush against my skin.

How long will it take, I wonder, for the denizen of the hovel I have invaded to take vengeance? What sort of fang will press into my bare skin? The fangs of some predator? No, that is unlikely, I realize. More likely the creature is a rodent. When it bites and I am sure now that it will, it will bite hard. It will gnaw into the bones of my hand voraciously, and maybe not out of any particular malice, maybe it will rip into my flesh simply to quell some pain it feels from incisors that will not stop growing.

My fingers flounder in the soil, searching. My eyes are closed so I can better concentrate on my other senses. Hoping, yearning for the feel of something cold and metallic. Still, the heat of the sun at my back distracts me. Even with my eyes clenched tightly, the sweat that drips into them burns.

I think now of what disease the creature might have. What bacteria or virus has it contracted in the catacombs? Maybe it has lived with some dark passenger all its life, having developed an immunity from years of cohabitation. Maybe, after it sinks its teeth into my flesh nothing will happen until a month from now, or maybe even a year, when suddenly I develop a fever, a cough, and then blood issues from my mouth. Or perhaps rabies will eat at my brain, dormant until a cold night weakens my immune system. I feel the furry devil again and jerk my hand out. Yelping in fear and surprise.

I examine at my hand. Everything is there, unviolated. I pant for several minutes, the humid air suffocating me.

I stick my hand back in, hesitantly at first. But I must go deeper. Sucking in a breath I lunge forward, and this time, I can feel them.

My keys.

Thank god.

What should I write about?

What should I write about?

There are basically two times I ask this question. When I am just starting to write in a particular venue (like now) or when I am stuck in a rut and want to get out (like now). I want to start a blog about writing. What should I have in it? I was thinking I might put my movie and book reviews here, or I might put sections of the things I’m working on here. Or both. But right now, just starting out, I feel uncomfortable with both those ideas. I need a candelabra to hold the candles of all my future blogs. And I think I have some general things to say about writing that might be interesting to somebody. So I’m going to start with the most obvious subject: writer’s block, because I was briefly afflicted with it before starting this paragraph.

Writer’s block is, essentially, when you want to write about something, but you don’t know exactly what that something is. You may know a lot about the thing you want to write about, but some maddening detail is missing. I’ve written several short stories, published one, gone through two or three creative writing classes, been a member of two or three writer’s groups, listened to several podcasts about writing, read several books about writing, and I’ve read many books about all sorts of things and paid attention to how they were written. But what do I have to say that’s any different?

Basically nothing. If you’ve done as much research as I have in precisely the same areas, then this might look like a blog post you made a couple weeks ago and you’ll have nothing much to gain from this.  (Hello future me!) But maybe there are a few things that I’ve run across that you haven’t heard about, and that you might have some trouble finding.

The musical Sunday in the Park with George, has the most beautiful depiction of writer’s block there is. “White,” painter George Seurat begins, “…a blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole through design. Composition. Balance. Light. And Harmony.” As George says each word, color and content is introduced onto the stage until all the players are ready to begin the production. That’s what a blank page is. It is a challenge, yes, but also a realm of possibilities. You can do whatever you want, but you have to do something. You can’t run screaming away from the possibilities like a little ninny. Appreciate them, embrace them.

Almost every movie about writing has some tortured writer agonizing over the first sentence of his or her novel. Usually they are pretentious and use a typewriter, typing the first sentence and then ripping the paper out of the machine and furling it in anger into a metal mesh waste basket. After a slow dissolve the wastebasket over flows with crumpled bits of paper, and the writer is half dead, smoking the thousandth cigarette and drinking the hundredth glass of scotch.

You should only do this if you think it might be fun.

The best thing to do is actually write whatever you’re thinking about. Finish the sucker, and THEN agonize about it. If you’ve written the first sentence forty times, then maybe it’s time to give the second sentence a go. If you spend all your time reworking your first sentence, then that first sentence is going to be awesome, sure, but the rest of your work is going to suck.

I don’t know much about Chess, but one of the things I do know is that there are only a few opening moves. To a large degree it doesn’t matter what you do in the beginning, it’s all about how you react to your opponent. With writing, your only real opponent is yourself, and more specifically the critical voice inside you. You have to listen to this voice, but you can’t be governed by it. You have to outsmart it. You don’t get better at Chess by trying out all the opening moves. You get better at Chess by playing the game. It’s the same with writing. You’ve got to write, and you’ve got to write a lot. You can’t be worried about how bad you are. You have to realize that this is where you are, and if you want to get better, you’re going to have to write again.

One final thing: you probably aren’t as bad as you think. If you’ve looked at some of the books and other writing that’s popular now-a-days you might find that the bar is actually pretty low. How can this be? How can someone like Iris Johansen, who couldn’t write herself out of a paper bag, much less a paper back, manage to sell so many novels? How does Nicholas Sparks get away with taking four pages of plot and padding it with hundreds of pages of worthless drivel? How can Snookie get a book out, and have it sell, when there is no discernible value in anything she might have to say? How are these “authors” successful and not me? What have they got that I ain’t got?

Courage.