Human Error

Marcus stood on the catwalk looking over the trucks and airplanes as they were being loaded with vaccine. “Ladies and Gentlemen!” He called, his voice echoing from the walls of the hanger. “We are about half an hour from go time, those of you who have finished loading your transport may want to take this time to pray. Whatever you believe in, whether it’s God , the Devil, or your lucky rabbit’s foot, get them on the horn. We need all the help we can get. Good bye, and good luck.”

Marcus wiped the sweat beading on his forehead, turned around and walked toward the stairs, wanting to say more, but knowing there wasn’t more to say. Nothing more to do. It was all up to the drivers, the pilots, the guards.

“A rousing speech, Marcus.” Hamilton’s crisp, English voice sang from behind him. “May ask what you believe?”

Marcus paused at the top of the steps then continued down. “I believe in the human race, Hamilton. I have to spend all my energy just doing that. What’s going on with the air conditioning?”

Hamilton was quiet for second or so before answering. “The repair man says it will be at least another hour before he can fix it. We’ll just have to endure it, I’m afraid.”

Marcus whirled around facing the retired British officer. “I’m not asking for my comfort, damn it! If those crates of vaccine get too warm, they’ll be worthless.” When he saw the older man’s lined and weathered face, though, he calmed himself. “I don’t mean to snap at you. You’ve been a great help to us.“

Hamilton raised a hand to say he didn’t mind. “I’ll ask the man to put a rush on it as soon as we get back inside. Maybe an extra body on the problem would help speed things along.”

Marcus nodded and turned back around to continue down the stairs. Hamilton had provided the hanger for them.  Of course the Air Force probably wouldn’t have problems with the air conditioning. Of course any of the military divisions would have probably operated with much greater efficiency. But aside from the National Guard, all the military branches were preparing for an extraterrestrial onslaught that might never happen.

Marcus walked down the length of the hanger, to the door that led to the office area. He had to wait for several people to exit before he could enter. The hanger wasn’t meant for this much traffic.  One of the people leaving, a young man with a mop of blond hair, noticed Marcus, though, and stopped him. “Sir! They’ve translated some of the Glitch message!”

The news had started calling the aliens Glitches, because that was what they seemed to be at first. The Glitches had started their siege by co-opting all satellite communications with what sounded like a mix of feedback and whale calls. Then, without any warning, people started coming down with what seemed at first like a new strain of flu, only the victims started feeling pins and needles sensations, then complete numbness. They became paralyzed, locked in their bodies, unable to move as their nervous systems were systematically destroyed.

“What are they saying?” Marcus asked.

The kid shook his head, flinging a bead of sweat from his eyebrow to the floor. “They can’t tell for sure. They can only make out three words. Exist, allow, and cannot.”

Marcus nodded slowly. “Thanks, son. Get out there and help load, we’re running out of time in this heat.”

“Yes sir!”

“What do you make of that?” Hamilton asked once they were both inside.

Marcus shook his head. “I’m impressed we were able to get that much. An alien language… Heck we didn’t know it was a language until a few weeks ago. But I don’t know how those words help us.”

Hamilton frowned. “I don’t like it. ‘Allow’ and ‘exist’ should not be in a sentence together. Puts our position in a rather different perspective.” An uncomfortable moment passed as the weight of what Hamilton said settled in both men’s hearts. Hamilton coughed lightly. “I’ll talk to the maintenance man.” He rushed away at a speed that was shocking for a man his age.

Marcus walked to the first desk he came to. A young woman was just hanging up the phone, her face pale despite the temperature of the room. “Are the police giving us an escort or not?” Marcus asked.

She shook her head. “They can’t, sir.”

“What do you mean ‘they can’t?’”

She swallowed. “Sir, it’s never been this hot. The wheels of all the police cruisers…they’ve burst.”

“What?” Marcus didn’t bother waiting for an answer. He bounded to the nearest window and opened the blind. The light blinded him at first, the intense heat hitting him like an oven. When his eyes adjusted, he saw the air rippling over the tarmac, the grass yellowing and smoldering.

Marcus closed the blinds quickly. He turned around, his heart and stomach feeling like they had switched places. “Everyone,” He started, but it was too quiet. Everyone was continuing their work, unaware of how the situation had changed. Cannot allow exist, cannot allow exist….

“EVERYONE!” Marcus yelled, and this time he was heard. “Radio all drivers, loaders, and pilots. No one leaves this hanger!”

Marcus ran in the direction Hamilton had gone, dodging people and furniture until he reached the air conditioning control room. Hamilton just finished making his case when Marcus approach the man he was talking to, a small, rough looking man with a moustache and beady eyes. “Can you get us to a sewer?” Marcus asked.

The man nodded. “Great,” Marcus said, “lead as many people down there as you can and get to the city as soon as possible. The aliens have turned the heat on us.”

“Are you sure about this plan?” Hamilton asked, “Won’t the people panic?”

“Have faith, Hamilton,” Marcus said, his eyes wide as he grabbed the Hamilton’s shoulder, “Have faith.”

Flagella and Philosophy

Most bacteria, including E. Coli bacteria, which cause food poisoning, move around by using flagella. Under the microscope, flagella look like kinked up hairs sticking out of the cell and undulating rapidly. If you remember high school biology you might already know, or think you know all about flagella. They’re those hairl-like  things that cells whip back and forth to move forward right?

Not exactly. There are basically two kinds of flagella, the ones that bacteria have, and the ones that eukaryotic cells have. The eukaryotic ones do in fact whip back and forth. The bacterial ones, however, actually propel the cells they’re attached to by corkscrewing through the fluid. As I went over in a previous post, the situation bacteria are presented with isn’t the same as a submarine in a ocean. It’s more like a submarine in a large silo filled with vibrating pebbles. Drag is a huge deal. Bacteria need a powerful technique to move around and a corkscrew type action works rather well.

When you use a corkscrew on a wine bottle you basically turn it around in a circle as it progresses into the cork. So here’s a question: how does a bacterium do that? The flagellum has to be attached to the cell with a buttload of strength to pull the cell along, but at the same time it has to be able spin around like a drill bit. If you look at all the different components of the flagellum (pictured below) you can see that the structure is pretty complicated. WTF? Aren’t bacteria supposed to be primitive organisms?

Well, yes and no. You see, the thing that’s easy to forget about evolution is that every thing that’s around has been evolving for just as long as everything else. It’s just that while our cells were busy trying to figure out how to differentiate and work together to get to places where there was better food and water and such, bacteria were hunkering down and learning to live in the environments they found themselves in. They’re just as good at being bacteria as our cells are at being part of a larger organism. Still, the flagellum is so mind-bogglingly complicated and yet robust in its implementation, that it has from time to time been used to prove or disprove the non-existence of God.

The argument runs something like this: “We and the organisms of Earth have to have been created by a God,” say creationists, “because the bacterial flagella is so complicated that it could not possibly have been formed by chance, any more than a hurricane could blow through a ship yard and create an aircraft carrier.”

“But,” say non-creationists, “each protein that makes up the structure of a flagellum looks similar to proteins used in other, less complicated bacterial structures. Furthermore the flagellum of E. coli is only one variant of many, indicating that one Doesn’t it make sense that flagella might have come from mutations that put the proteins together in ways that were somewhat beneficial? If even one bacterium survived a trying situation better than its neighbors, it would quickly begin to dominate. And evolution of bacteria has been directly observed in nature and in the lab. At the very least that seems more plausible than everything getting poofed into existence through some unknown process by a magical man in the sky.”

You can probably tell which side I favor.

Something that you start to notice if you study biology is how complicated and diverse proteins are. Proteins aren’t just little specks that bump into each other in random ways. Each protein has a different shape and different areas that have different properties that interact with other proteins in different ways depending on environmental factors. It’s an imperfect analogy, but you could almost say proteins have personalities. Almost like people, proteins will work together, compete with each other, and even find things in their environment and use them to accomplish a “goal.” A protein may be stuck in a bad position, for example, and it may come into contact with another protein that likes to pry things apart, and then they will help each other out.

So it’s not exactly the same situation as a hurricane picking up a bunch of aircraft carrier parts and arranging them into a complete aircraft carrier. Its more like a bunch of people who don’t know how to make an aircraft carrier getting a steady supply of parts and enough time and resources to try things out. Eventually, given enough time, people in that situation will eventually make something like an aircraft carrier. Though they’d probably start out making houses, cars, and a number of other things out of the parts before hand. In fact you could look at the current real-life production of an aircraft carrier as an example of evolution. Evolution is simply the effect of variation subjected to some environmental pressure. There were many different types of ship before the aircraft carrier came about. For one thing, there had to be aircrafts in order for there to be any use for one. Humans wanted a place to put planes on the ocean and the aircraft carrier fulfilled that purpose

In a similar way, proteins just want to be in equilibrium, and so they will often use things like enzymes to make equilibrium easier to achieve.

If you are doubtful of any of this, you need only see a video of how a flagellum is formed in a bacteria. The formation of a flagellum is a marvelous and awe-inspiring dance and it happens hundreds of times a second in a single organism ALL THE TIME. You don’t need religion for miracles. You just have to look around.

Turd Polishing

Earlier I posted a review of a production of The Great American Trailer Park Musical  in which I basically praised the cast and crew, but made a few remarks about how I didn’t care for the source material. This review was part of a deal I had with a friend of mine where he would post my reviews of local events to his website, so he can get content and I can get practice and/or recognition for my site. However, my review was apparently a bit upsetting to someone involved with choosing the productions . I’ve since gotten rid of most of my criticisms in my review. The way I figure it, I’m supposed to help promote these events so I should leave my issues with them out of it. However combating this idea is the idea that even if I’m promoting something, I should be as frank as possible so that the promotion rings true. Also there’s another layer to this, as I don’t necessarily have to promote all the events if I don’t want to, and in fact maybe I shouldn’t.

I don’t do this professionally. I’ve done a lot of reviews of movies and some books on my livejournal page, but those weren’t done with any real attempt at quality. I’ve done one other review for my friend’s site, and that’s it. I don’t work for a newspaper or a magazine. I might like to some day, but I’m doing this in my spare time, and I don’t really have a lot of that. So I’m not as prepared as some to deal with these moral quandaries. Am I peeing in the punch bowl by giving criticisms in my reviews? Or if I don’t give criticism am I being a soulless shill?

My guess is the answer is yes on both counts. So I try to go middle of the road, but in this case going middle of the road means you get hit by both lanes of traffic.

Anyway, I’m being overly dramatic. Unfortunately or fortunately, we live in a world with other people who we sometimes disagree with. I disagree with the person who chose the musical. I think the players did an admirable job polishing it and making it look pretty, but that ultimately GATPM is a turd. That isn’t to say I’m right and the people who like it are wrong. Just that my opinion, amateur though it may be, is that GATPM is a disturbing example of wish fulfillment and has no moral compass.

The reasons I think this are perhaps unique to myself and a small set of people. First off, I don’t find infidelity to be very funny. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t mind that I don’t get Showtime stations in my cable package (watch an episode of Californication if you don’t know what I’m talking about). I’m not married, but my parents still are, and I have friends who are, and so I see marriage as an overall positive thing. Furthermore, while I don’t believe people who cheat on their spouse are going to Hell or anything of the sort, I do think that a marriage is a contract between two people, and if someone breaks that contract, then they are despicable and cannot be trusted. In GATPM, Norbert cheats on his wife the moment he gets a chance, but it’s the wife’s fault he cheats, because she can’t leave the trailer due to her agoraphobia. It’s sickening to me, and that kind of distracts from the humor.

That isn’t the worst part though. Jeannie, Norbert’s wife, has agoraphobia because the last time she left the trailer, her baby was kidnapped. Her. BABY. Was. KIDNAPPED. So she’s afraid to leave her trailer for twenty years. There is no indication however that any attempt was made to try to find the baby. No police were consulted as far as the audience knows. If it weren’t for the fact that the kidnapping is performed on stage, the audience might miss that it even happened in the first place. Nobody seems to care that a baby has been taken from his home by unknown persons. Maybe I wouldn’t be as upset about this if it weren’t for the trial of Casey Anthony that was recently concluded. Kaylee wasn’t kidnapped, of course, but something about watching a baby get stolen while the audience is supposed to laugh reminds me of stuffing a baby in the trunk of a car to go partying. Again, this distracts from the humor.

Finally throughout GATPM, different characters sniff markers to get high off their fumes. I don’t find this particular funny either. Maybe if I didn’t know that a great number of people in trailer parks are addicted to meth or some other drug I would think this was perfectly fine. But I can’t help thinking sniffing markers is a placeholder for all types of drug use, and to see it be promoted to such degree…well again, it distracts from the humor. It’s difficult to say why I have a problem with this and yet still enjoy movies like the Hangover, which blatantly promote drug use.  The humor of the Hangover arises from the characters dealing with the downside of drinking and taking drugs to excess. Another movie I enjoy that promotes drug use is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and again, its how the character deals with the effects of the drug, and not the taking of the drug itself which is funny.

Perhaps that’s the central issue with GATPM. Sad things happen in the plot, and they’re laughed at, and yet we only rarely see characters dealing with them, which I think is completely backwards. I’ve seen movies about sad subjects from divorce to suicide which were hilarious, but they were funny because of how the characters dealt with the problems, not because of the problems themselves.

GATPM was written by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso. I don’t know what involvement Betsy had in the writing, but I suspect some amount of wish fulfillment on David’s part. Norbert has an affair with a stripper and at some point both his stripper girlfriend and his wife are singing about how much they love him. All is forgiven by the end of the play. There are no repercussions. Granted, this is a comedy, but repercussions can be funny. In fact, I’d say that almost half of comedy is repercussions.

So I think GATPM is a turd. The people who performed it did a good job with it, but that doesn’t change my opinion of the musical.

Yay for digging deeper holes.

 

Goraff the Destroyer

The airport bustled with all manner of biped  from short and hairy to long, thin, and slimy. There were no quadrupeds or many legged creatures, thank Telrok, but a thin miasma of stench nonetheless assailed Goraff’s nasal ducts. Damn earthlings with their toleration of subspecies. Sometimes Goraff wished his government had eradicated them from the outset instead of setting up trade.

Goraff looked up at the gate number. Z-56.  Eighty three more gates to go. What was the use of faster than light travel if one had to walk for eighteen miles to get to it? And all the security! If Earth and the aligned worlds had just obliterated the moon based Quookle colony when they had the chance, they wouldn’t have to worry about the spine covered beasts sneaking in with someone’s luggage now.

Goraff read the time from his left tentacle. It was the hour of Kartam. 2:40 pm Earth time. He was still early, but only by 20 Earth minutes. He stepped on the treadmill boost and gripped the guide rail tightly with his tentacle. He whizzed past the bipeds buying useless trinkets and postcards from the duty free shops and he was all the happier, even with the fetid air that blasted his sensitive face skin. He would be purple by the time he reached his gate, he was sure.

He stepped off at the end of the tread mill onto the decelerator which slowed him to walking pace. He looked up at the gate number. Z-130. Almost there.

An announcement issued from a ceiling intercom in English: “Galactic Flight 34268 to Pamff has been delayed due to foam liberated from the craft on reentry. Please contact the nearest Galactic terminal to reschedule your flight.”

Goraff cursed in his mother tongue. At this rate he’d never make it to his womb-mate’s wedding in time.

Review of The Great American Trailer Park Musical

Last Friday I was able to watch a dress rehearsal of The Gaslight Dinner Theatre’s production of The Great American Trailer Park Musical.  The songs and choreography are great, and this production will make for an entertaining night or afternoon out. In particular, if you like musical comedies, but always wished they could be a little more like reality television, this is the show for you.

The play will start showing July 5 and will continue until July 30, with matinees on Tuesday and Thursday at 12 noon and night showings on Fridays and Saturdays at 6:30 pm at the Gaslight Theatre in the Renaissance Center of Dickson, Tennessee. I would advise against bringing children or people who might be offended by lewd behavior to this as there is some objectionable content. There isn’t anything in the musical that is worse than PG-13 really, but there are references and allusions to things that might be difficult to explain to an innocent or pious soul without blushing.

The story of the Great American Trailer Park Musical takes place, appropriately enough, in a trailer park in North Florida. The main characters are Norbert and Jeannie, a married couple living in one of the trailers and Pippi, a stripper who is on the run from her boyfriend. Throughout the play we also hear from three female characters who act as a sort of Greek chorus, explaining the situation and being a sort-of model audience for what happens. Betty is the landlady; Linoleum, who was born on the kitchen floor, has a husband on death row; and the last is Pickles, a young woman with a penchant for having hysterical pregnancies. Pippi’s boyfriend Duke also plays a fairly large role as a marker sniffing, pistol wielding, truck driving, jealous boyfriend who runs over animals on the street with a devil-may-care attitude. At the beginning of the story, Jeannie is afraid to leave the trailer because the last time she went outside, twenty years ago, her baby got kidnapped and, even worse, she got a really bad haircut. Norbert, frustrated with this situation, has an affair with Pippi. After this, you are left to watch the situation boil over.

The action takes place with a cheerful, even celebratory atmosphere. The original production of the musical has been compared to South Park and to some extent the comparison works. Immoral acts and tragic events are depicted through zany song and dance numbers. However, South Park eventually settles into some form of moral statement, even if it is something a bit askew. GATPM never distinguishes between right and wrong. It’s an unhesitating, hedonistic glorification of human folly, much like the talk shows it lampoons during one of its numbers.

This friendly sign greets you when you first enter the theater, welcoming you to the trailer park that is the setting of the musical.

The Gaslight’s production of GATPM was done very well. During the rehearsal, there were a few problems with the set and costuming, which were probably fixed by opening night, but the music and choreography were phenomenal. During one number, Pippi’s boyfriend is depicted driving a truck while swerving and hitting a number of animals. The three members of the chorus back him up with their singing and move him around while carrying flashlights in such a way that the audience gets a distinct image of a truck driving down the road and swerving almost out of control. During another song “Great American Tv Show” a whole Jerry Springer-like production is set up and acted out  during a dream sequence. The quality of these performances  makes the production seem grander and more over-the-top then you might think such a small, intimate stage would allow.

The Gaslight also uses a live band, led by Nathan Brown. The musicians do an amazing job. Productions with recorded music can work, but they sometimes seem bland and antiseptic. Even if nothing else about the musical appeals, it’s worth it for the band and their music. It makes for a warmer and more energetic experience.

Everyone in the cast did well with their roles. Emma Jordan, who plays Pickles, gives her role a delightful effervescence that livens up the whole production. Jenny Norris-Light, who plays Pippi, also does a remarkable job being comically seductive, a task that requires a fair amount of balance. Jama Bowen and Alan Lee, who play Jeannie and Norbert, hold up the center of the cast admirably well. Chris Egging shows great physicality in his role as Duke. Margie Mills gives her character of Linoleum a good deal of brass that works nicely for her. Last, but not least, Paula Makar does probably the most amount of costume changes of the cast as Betty, and actually plays a number of different characters throughout the production, making each one believable even while allowing them to be larger than life.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical may not be for everyone, but the Gaslight Theater does a remarkable job with it. At the very least, it will definitely be something you’ll want to talk about with whomever you see it with.

Size is Everything

Innerspace is a Steven Spielberg movie that came out in 1987 starring Dennis Quaid, Martin Short, and Meg Ryan. It’s a sort of remake/homage/rip off of a movie that came out in the sixties called Fantastic Voyage, which Isaac Asimov wrote a novelization for. Both movies center on the idea of shrinking people to microscopic sizes and then injecting them into other people to go through the body and fix diseases. This is a really neat idea, and there are some scientists who are finding ways to use microscopic robots to take the place of the humans in the movies and accomplish some of the same things. However, there are two reasons why the scientists are using robots and not Dennis Quaid. First, shrinking people is probably impossible, and second, even if it were possible people wouldn’t be able to do anything once shrunken.

I can show the how true the first point is with common sense for the most part. If humans are made up of cells, how could it be possible to shrink a human to a size smaller than a cell?

Now you could come back with “well, the cells just get smaller!” But cells have to be the size they are. Otherwise they wouldn’t be large enough to hold all the organelles that keep the cell alive and functioning the way it needs to. The organelles themselves are made up of proteins that are in specialized arrangements. A cell has to constantly maintain the numbers of ions it has inside it for example. The cell can use an organelle called an ion channel to do this, but the channel has to be a specific shape. If it is too large it will let all sorts of ions in or out and the cell won’t be able to maintain the right mix of ions. Too small and the channel won’t let anything in, and it might as well not be there. If these channels were shrunk by even five percent, they would no longer function the way they need to. If ion channels don’t work for cells, they die. If all of a person’s cells die, they die too. If a shrink ray shrinks everything equally, a person shrunk even a foot smaller would most likely die within a few moments.

And of course there’s the problem of how it could happen in the first place. In the movie Honey I Shrunk the Kids, the Rick Moranis character says that we are made up of mostly empty space and his shrink ray gets rid of that empty space. First off this idea is based off of the Bohr model of the atom, which has an electron whizzing around a nucleus like a planet orbits around a sun. This isn’t how things are. There isn’t any empty space as such. The more current electron cloud model fits better. The exact location/momentum of an electron cannot be precisely determined and so we can think of it as a sort of cloud around the nucleus. Okay but at any moment we can still say that the atom is mostly empty right? And if we could take out this empty part you could maybe shrink something?  To be fair, there is a real world situation in which this does happen. It’s called the Sun. It’s a lot more bright and ‘splody than what we see in the movie.

To be more precise, and less smart alecky, the reason why the electron is so far away from the nucleus of an atom, is due to its energy. In order to get closer to the nucleus, an electron has to lose energy. When an electron loses energy, it releases a photon. The more energy an electron loses the more energetic the photon is. Photons with a lot of energy, such as X-rays or Gamma rays, are a form of harmful radiation. Never mind that this hypothetical magic device would most likely rip someone apart rather than truly shrink them, the energy released from “removing the space” in all the atoms would be huge, and would likely kill quite a few people.

The second reason why we’ll never have a manned mission to someone’s colon is something called the Rydberg constant. The Rydberg constant is a number you get when you divide inertial forces (momentum, or how long you keep going after you stop trying to move in a direction) by drag forces (friction and viscosity, or how hard you have work to move forward in the first place). The higher the Rydberg constant, the more you are concerned about momentum and the lower, the more drag forces dominate. Generally speaking, the larger you are, higher your Rydberg constant.

We live in a world with a pretty high Rydberg constant.  We can roller skate and ride a bike, coasting almost half the time. When we swim, we pull the water back with our hands and we’re carried forward enough that we can get our hands back into position for another stroke without moving back to our previous position.  These are all situations where the Rydberg constant is high.

We can create low Rydberg constant situations for ourselves if we want though. Imagine a swimming pull full of Jello. If you try to swim in that, you are going to have some problems. For small animals though, they live in this low Rydberg constant situation all the time. An ant that wants to get a drink of water has to be very careful not to get stuck in it.

Even something as large as a cat, experiences a lower Rydberg constant. A cat can fall from many stories up and still suffer only a few broken legs due to the drag forces that act on it as it falls. The cat, being small, has a larger surface area in relation to its mass, and so drag forces come into play more quickly.

For a bacterium, or a hypothetical impossibly shrunken human, the Rydberg constant would be so low, it would be like that swimming pool full of Jello, only worse. You might imagine a vat of gravel that’s shaken up continuously while you’re inside it. Bacteria typically have some sort of flagellum that corkscrews through the stuff they’re in so they can move forward. Why don’t they just use turbines like a submarine would? Well one reason might be that they never developed such a structure in their evolutionary history. The more applicable reason is that in order to combat the drag from the surroundings, a turbine on a bacteria-sized machine would have to be so large, that the drag of the turbine itself would affect the machine’s movement. Imagine trying to use a submarine in a vat of gravel. Or even more ridiculous, an airplane. It’s just not going to work. So you’d have to have a differently shaped vehicle than in the movies. And you can just forget about leaving the vehicle.  You wouldn’t be able to swim around any more than a feather can dictate economic policy.

It often seems like size is just an arbitrary attribute. There are so many stories about shrinking and growing larger because on some level it seems possible. There are a lot of complications hidden under the surface however. An elephant is a very large animal, but it’s bones are thicker in proportion to its size to make up for that. If you shrunk an elephant down to the size of a cat, it wouldn’t be able to move it’s limbs around. If you blew up a cat to the size of an elephant, it would suffocate under its own weight.  Every time you decrease or increase size by a factor of ten, you enter a different world.

Size is everything.

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.

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