Thursday, November 30, 2006

Humans, the hors d'oeuvre tray of evolution

By and large, people are just meat on the hoof. This has been true for our entire history, and it's still true today, the Enlightenment, iPods, and global warming notwithstanding. Nature looks at us and smacks her slavering lips hungrily, and even in our fortress of industrialization we are not secure. Need proof? Check out the Animal Attack Files.

Here are my current favorites.

Lakeland, FL - 30 Nov 2006: Alligator Attacks Man, Rips Off Arm

"We don't know whether he'll make it or not," said Polk Sheriff Grady Judd. According to wire reports, the man admitted to 'using drugs', which might explain why he waded, naked, into a gator-infested pond in the middle of the night.

So really it's not so much "alligator attacks man" as "dumbass puts his drug-addled carcass in path of alligator, which behaves perfectly naturally".

London, KY - 7 Nov 2006: Woman Fatally Bitten by Snake in Church
A detective with the Laurel County Sheriff's Office said that Linda Long, 48, was attending a service at East London Holiness Church, which reportedly practices serpent handling. Handling reptiles as part of religious services is a misdemeanor in Kentucky, punishable by a small fine.

Yeah, punishable by a small fine or DEATH! Once again, the story is really "dumbass deliberately places self in path of reptilian destruction". That's what you get at the Holy Shrine of St. Bubba the Late Rattlesnake-Smooching Half-Tard.


Image stolen from here.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Fountain: no spoilers

To his credit, Mr. Aronofsky does not explain too much, and “The Fountain” leaves a tantalizing sense of puzzlement in its wake. Parsing its logic and arguing about its premises will be among the main activities of the small, devoted cult of admirers that is likely to gather around this movie, protecting it from the derision of the uninitiated.

I am a devoted admirer, but I don't want to protect "The Fountain" from the derision of the uninitiated. Although some movie critics don't seem to have tried very hard to understand it. It's like when The Matrix came out and some critics talked about the action taking place in various dimensions. Sorry, morons. If you can't grasp the concept that the Matrix is a program, not an alternate dimension, then you're too culturally ignorant to be paid to critique movies.

I didn't really want to talk to anyone afterwards, either. I just wanted some time to take it in....If you expect to have this completely spoon-fed to you, you may leave the theater disappointed....If someone dismisses this film with a cursory "weird," my guess is they weren't even trying to pay attention.

Similarly, some critics can't seem to get anything out of The Fountain because no one has pre-chewed it and regurgitated it for them. Trying and not liking it is fine; it's the people who are paid to try but clearly didn't that piss me off. And you know, just as I was composing that sentence, I realized that there is a great deal of chewing and regurgitation in movie criticism. A movie like The Matrix will come out and be critically reviled because many critics are just too damn dumb to get it. Then later it gets put on "Best of" lists and glowingly eulogized by the same people who once damned it. Either they finally found someone with some cerebral activity to explain it to them, or they sensed the zeitgeist and decided to play along whether they really got it or not.

There you have it: "The Fountain," a film that defies description, summation, expectation or any other -tion. Exquisitely beautiful and almost unbearably sad, it is also -- no way around this -- truly strange. However strange you think it is, it's stranger....This is one outlandish film, and many viewers will hate it. Hate. It. ... It's nevertheless a transcendent work of art, a vision of undying love that finds hope in grief, epiphany in death and life in the loss of Eden.

I won't go into details now, because I can't rebut some of the more obvious lunacy surrounding the movie without saying something about what really is going on. Of course you see parts of this movie and think, "What the fuck?" It's that kind of movie. The pleasure is in figuring it out. I don't think the movie is endlessly deep, but there's plenty there to ponder.

Imagine the last 10 minutes of “2001: A Space Odyssey” stretched to feature length. But I can’t stop thinking about it, a good indication that this beautiful, frustrating film is tapping into something I can’t put my finger on.

But anyway, to return to the beginning and to my main point: I don't want to protect "The Fountain" from criticism (of the informed, non-stupid variety, anyway). What I want is someone to talk about the movie with. My head has been resonating from it for almost a week now. I've done plenty of taking it in. Now I need to do some letting out.

It's not the best movie of the year like I'd hoped, but it's certainly the best post-movie discussion of the year.

See, I want a piece of that. If you've got some to spare, gimme a taste.

My new favorite quote about a movie:
Director Darren Aronofsky recently made an appearance at an L.A. press screening and confessed it was best “just to let [The Fountain] do you.”

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Speed demons of the galaxy

I had no idea that some stars are careening through the galaxy like pinballs while the rest more or less behave. The first I heard of the existence of these things was on the Astronomy Picture of the Day site, which is where I stole the above image from. APD has this to say: "Like a ship plowing through cosmic seas, runaway star Alpha Cam has produced this graceful arcing bow wave or bow shock, moving at over 60 kilometers per second and compressing the interstellar material in its path." By comparison, the New Horizons probe that launched earlier this year is headed to Pluto at 16.2 km/s, which makes it the fastest spacecraft ever launched*, but it's still doing just over a quarter of the speed of Alpha Cam.

*Voyager I will leave the solar system doing just over 17 klicks per second, but it launched slower and picked up a good chunk of that velocity from gravitational slingshots around Jupiter and Saturn.

Anyway, following the links from the APD page took me to Wikipedia and eventually to this article on hypervelocity stars, which make even runaway stars look slow. One such star, with the delightfully poetic name of HE 0437-5439, is moving at 723 km/s. How fast is that? Pluto is about 4.5 billion kilometers from Earth. New Horizons, which launched this spring and is already almost to Jupiter (it will pass Jupes in about three months), will take 9 years to get there. Alpha Cam would make the same trip in a little under two and a half years. And the fast mover mentioned above would get there in 72 days. In other words, if HE 0437-5439 passed Earth right now, it would pass Pluto a couple of weeks before New Horizons passes Jupiter. And New Horizons is hauling ass.

Hold onto your butts--New Horizons takes off on an Atlas V delivering more than two million pounds of thrust. ROCK.

Anyway, does anyone know if any of these hypervelocity stars have shown up in science fiction stories? The closest thing I can think of is H.G. Wells's story "The Star", about a rogue star that passes through the solar system and wrecks shop. The story is very short and you can read it for free here or here. If you know of any other occurrences, let me know.

UPDATE: It turns out that we're the speed demons of the universe. Forget about hypervelocity stars, how about hypervelocity clusters of galaxies? The galaxies in our local group, including our own home-sweet-home Milky Way, are moving at about 600 kilometers per second relative to the cosmic background radiation. Read all about it here.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The land of the free

On the right you'll see a list of links to open-access biology and paleontology resources. They are centered around things I care about, such as phylogeny, vertebrate morphology and evolution, and paleobiology. If you know of other things in that vein that are not listed here but should be, please leave a comment and let me know. If you have papers in relevant subject areas posted somewhere on the web where they are free to all comers and you'd like to be included in my link list, please leave a comment and let me know. I reserve the right to not include stuff that I don't find personally compelling. Polychaetes are pretty sweet animals, but they don't make the cut. HOWEVER, if you don't make it onto the sidebar I will at least paste your link into the body of this post, and I'll put a link to this post on the sidebar, so you'll get at least a little exposure from my blog and your effort in writing me will not be in vain.

If, on the other hand, I linked to you and you'd rather I didn't (perhaps because of the scattershot nature of the blog, or my propensity for using the F word), leave a comment and I will de-link you.

And if you have published papers but you don't have a website of your own where you can post them for the edification of all, consider getting one. Mike Taylor runs my page (in exchange for the promise of sushi at our next meeting), and it is hugely useful to be able to give people one URL where they can get PDFs of all of my papers. Also, if you've never done a big reprint mailing, consider taking a week and sending reprints to everyone you know--or know of--who you think might be interested. Old folks who have been giants in the field for decades still appreciate getting free reprints from noobs like you. I did a big mailing with reprints of my first two papers a few years ago, and since then I've passed out copies of each year's productions at my society's annual meeting. Now I've got all the PDFs online. Each step has earned me citations that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. Go thou and do likewise.

UPDATE: The indefatigable Jerry Harris sent me approximately a fudillion links to add. I will get them up soon. Stay tuned, true believers.

UPDATE: It's January 17 and I still don't have Jerry's links up, but I am making progress. Check it out on the sidebar.

FINAL UPDATE: It's all in place now. Go to sidebar. Live free or die.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Hellboy online

At some point I ought to blog about my deep and abiding love of all things Hellboy. Comics, movie, art, mythos, the whole shebang.

In the meantime, here are some e-comics featuring HB.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Wikipedia find-and-replace biography scramble #1: John Lennon

Who was John Lennon? What has modern science learned of this mysterious person and his times? With some help from yours truly, Wikipedia has this to say:

John Lennon (405–453), also sometimes known with the nickname as Lennon the Scourge of God (Flagellum Dei) or just Johnny Boy, was the final and most powerful king of the Huns.

He reigned over what was then Europe's largest empire, from 434 until his death. His empire stretched from Germany and the Netherlands to the Ural river and from the Danube River to Poland and Estonia. During his rule, he was among the most dire of the Western and Eastern Roman Empire's enemies: he invaded the Balkans twice and encircled Constantinople in the second invasion; he marched through Gaul (modern day France) as far as Orleans before being defeated at the Battle of Chalons; and he drove the western emperor Valentinian III from his capital at Ravenna in 452. He was regarded as sacker of cities.

Though his empire died with him and he left no amazing legend, he has become a legendary figure in the history of Europe. In much of Western Europe, he is remembered as the epitome of cruelty and rapacity. In contrast, some histories lionize him as a great and noble king, and he plays major roles in three Norse sagas.


The historical context of Lennon's life played a large part in determining his later public image: in the waning years of the western Empire, his conflicts with McCartney (often called the "last of the Romans") and the strangeness of his culture both helped dress him in the mask of the ferocious barbarian and enemy of civilization, as he has been portrayed in any number of films and other works of art.

In the Divine Comedy, he appears in the seventh circle of Hell, immersed in a river of boiling blood, and is called "the scourge of Earth". Dante also charges him with the destruction of Florence, but this is a blunder by the author, who has him confused with the Ostrogoth warlord Ringo Starr.

The Germanic epics in which he appears offer more nuanced depictions: he is both a noble and generous ally, as Etzel in the Nibelungenlied, and a cruel miser, as Atli in the Volsunga Saga and the Poetic Edda. Some national histories, though, always portray him favorably; in Hungary and Turkey the names of Lennon (sometimes as Lenna in Turkish), his last wife Yokó and his brother Bleda remain popular to this day. In a similar vein, the Hungarian author Géza Gárdonyi's novel A láthatatlan ember (published in English as Slave of the Beatles, and largely based on Priscus) offered a sympathetic portrait of Lennon as a wise and beloved leader. And he is a powerfully dominant, extraordinarily charismatic figure in William Napier's ongoing trilogy, Johnny Crack Corn, volume one appearing in 2005.

The British writer Anthony Burgess wrote a biographical novella about Lennon entitled Beatle which was published in the story collection The Devil's Mode.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Machine love

I know that humans are not good for the biosphere. I know that giant open-pit mines are hideous scars on the landscape. I know that burning the world's coal reserves over the next century or two is going to have global repercussions that we can't escape.

Still, wrecking the planet doesn't seem so bad when you get to have badass giant machines like this one to do it with. I stole the pictures and the stats from here. Thanks to Katie for the tip.

Oh, the picture above has jack all to do with giant mining machines, I just think it's cool and I hadn't had an opportunity to use it yet. It's a painting by Donato Giancola that I stole from someplace on the web a long time ago.

~ The mover stands 311 feet tall and 705 feet long.
~ It weighs over 45,500 tons
~ Cost $100 million to build
~ Took 5 years to design and manufacture
~ 5 years to assemble.
~ Requires 5 people to operate it.
~ The Bucket Wheel is over 70 feet in diameter with 20 buckets, each of which can hold over 530 cubic feet of material.
~ A 6-foot man can stand up inside one of the buckets.
~ It moves on 12 crawlers (each is 12 feet wide, 8' high and 46 feet long).There are 8 crawlers in front and 4 in back.
It has a maximum speed of 1 mile in 3 hours (1/3 mile/hour).

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Dr. Vector sets 'em straight: giant squid edition

One thing that always bugs me is how much misinformation is perpetuated by so-called science shows and websites. Take this FAQ on the giant squid. It's riddled with outdated ideas, dogma, misconceptions, and lies. So I'm posting a corrected version. Please send this link to anyone you know who is preparing to mount an expedition to find the giant squid, or who might go in the water in the near future.


1. How big do giant squid get?

Most forms of life, in fact most objects in the observable universe, are limited by the Universal Formula for Length, which states that their length is twice the distance from the center to one end. But not squid. Their length can be up to four times that distance. How, you ask? Because of the tentacles. Just think about it.

2. What do giant squid eat?

The giant squid is the most vicious man-eater in the sea, surpassing even the Death Slug of Hora-bora for sheer rapacosity. A giant squid that was rammed by the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in the Antarctic sea had a stomach full of pirates, animal rights activists, old Buicks, and the brains of innocent children.

3. How do giant squid capture their prey?

Many people think that the giant squid uses its tentacles to capture prey. This is a misnomer. The giant squid catches most of its victims by entangling them in an elaborate web of lies.

4. How do giant squid see in the depths of the black sea?

They don't! This is a trick question. There are no giant squid in the Black Sea. Ha ha, sucker!

5. How big do the suckers get?

P.T. Barnum once found one that was eight foot five and took 20 bucks off him, so pretty big I'd say.

6. What are the predators of the giant squid?

The giant squid fears only three things: the Death Star and entropy.

6b. Wait, that's only two things.

I know. I can't tell you the third one. That's how scary it is.

It's a common misnomer that sperm whales eat giant squid. That's wrong. First of all, the giant squid is the giant squid, you know what I'm saying? I've seen 'em eat, like, a million pirate ships. I don't see any whale putting the smack down on that. Also, sperm whales are basically big dolphins, and everyone knows that despite their negative impact on the world's fisheries, dolphins are basically big streamlined hippies. If a sperm whale ran into a giant squid, they might wrestle, friendly-like, but afterward the sperm whale would probably bang on a drum for a while and maybe give the squid some weed.

7. Where do giant squid live?

Wherever iniquity blossoms and the prayers of the righteous go unheeded.

8. What is the geographic distribution of giant squid?

Oh, all right, if you're going to pin me down. The giant squid is found in all of the world's major oceans, which include the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Ural, the Circumpolar, the, uh, Asiatic, and the one with the boot in it.

9. How old do giant squid get?

Pretty damn old. My grandpa saw one when he was working on a shrimp boat in the Great Depression, and that was like a hundred years ago.

10. Are giant squid dangerous?

Not at all. You should slather yourself in chopped-up herring and go for a swim. But first remember to sign your earthly goods over to me, just for safe keeping.

11. Are you afraid the giant squid will attack the submersible?

Are you afraid of asking a coherent question?

12. Why is the giant squid considered a sea monster?

Because it is one, moron.

13. Where are the best places to find giant squid?

Do we have to go through this again? Oceans, people. The Atlantic, the Copacetic, the Merovingian, the one at the corner of the map with the happy clouds blowing on it, and a couple of others. I saw a book called Oceans of Kansas that had a bitchin' shark on the cover, so you might want to check there, too.

14. What technology is used to help you find the giant squid?

The most useful tools when hunting the giant squid are sonar, depth charges, alcohol, and human sacrifices.

15. What happens if you don't find the giant squid?

Three possibilities:

A. You didn't spend enough money. Get a bigger grant and send more ships next time.
2. Sasquatch said, "Cheese it!" and it's laying low.
D. It finds you.

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Kunstformen der Natur

If you're into this sort of thing, the complete text and plates of Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms in Nature) are available here.

Here's some weirdness for you. My German sucks, but I attempted a translation anyway.

Plate 56. Multifarious horrors. At the top, the Cosmic Worm, Necrolator Incarnadon, who slakes his unholy thirst with the tears of the mighty. Below, his consort, Sarcolestes Mephistoma, a medusaform pyrokraken, who wafts the smoke of Armageddon with her gladiolinguan fronds. Around them, their guards (clockwise from upper left):
Erythrotep, the comet-rider, whose path is slick with blood;
Basatu Mordax, who vomits forth pestilence;
The Xoaculan megagorgon, whose leprous polyps drip poison into men's souls;
The Tharkkadian phobopod, who corrodes the fabric of sanity;
Octoreme Dolog, continent-swallower, bringer of sorrow;
and Nur-Omnoth, the all-rotting, whose carapaceal grottoes reverberate with the screams of the damned.

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Colliding galaxies

Sometimes it's good to remember that your problems don't matter. Although if you're just trying to get some perspective, this might be overkill.

Image and story here.

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