I See Sedona’s Still Silly

For a brief and all-too-memorable two years of my life, we lived in Sedona, Arizona.  It’s a beautiful place, red rock country that will dye your white socks a nice shade of rust whilst hiking.  It’s also a total magnet for oddballs.

When we first moved there, back in the late 80s, an alarming number of the populace was convinced a space ship was going to emerge from Bell Rock, which to those who don’t think it’s shaped like a bell believe it’s shaped like a UFO.  This, of course, meant there was a UFO in it, and if you had the right crystal, you could summon the space ship that was to emerge on an auspicious day, and the aliens who had (for reasons I never learned) parked their ship under that mass of old sandstone would pick you up and give you a lift to some sort of very spiritual destination somewhere out in the universe.

Vendors set up roadside markets where quartz crystals lay on tables, sparkling in the sun.  I found myself browsing at one on a fine day, because I love crystals and was hoping to find a bargain.  Alas, all I found were overpriced rocks and one woman waving a fistful, exclaiming to her friend, “This one was cold, and this one was kind of warm, but this one’s hot!”  The fact that relative warmth may have been due to the fact there was a sun shade over part of the table didn’t seem to occur to her.  No, she was after something that would vibrate at just the right frequency for thumbing a ride with extraterrestrials. 

I gave it up as a bad job and left.  Perhaps that day in my tweens was a harbinger of my future skepticism.  Or maybe I’d just been exposed to too much New Age schlock.

The Great Day came, but the spaceship didn’t, and all those who had paid far too much for some decent quartz, sold their earthly belongings, and camped out in the desert waiting for Bell Rock to open would have had to slink despondently home if they hadn’t sold said home.

But even that rather spectacular fail didn’t shake their faith.  They still babbled on about wise aliens from other worlds and crystal magic and vortexes like the one by the Post Office that caused all the horrible car crashes.  No, cars didn’t crash because it was a badly designed, extremely busy t-shaped intersection with the worst visibility in town.  No, silly skeptics!  It’s obviously the malign influence of a bad vortex, not at all like the good vortexes out in the hills, where one could – well, do whatever it is New Agey folk do when communing with good vortexes.

Psychics and so forth continued selling their New Age kitsch downtown.  I should have got round to telling them to aim a sun lamp at the trays of crystals so they could sell more “hot” ones.

Years later, after I’d moved away, a pagan friend came to visit from parts east.  His friends had told him he had to see Sedona.  “It’s so spiritual,” said they.  They babbled on and on about its mystical powers and so forth, and sent him out on a mission: he just had to go, and report back.

He’s skeptical enough he took my warnings to heart, and tried to steel himself against disappointment, but his jaw still dropped when he saw what the spiritual mecca really was: no more than commercial kitsch slathered thick along the main drag, a tourist trap laid for the sensitive soul.  Nothing I’d said could quite capture the shock of the reality.  It’s really that bad.

Sometimes, I wonder if it’s still that bad.  And to my vast amusement, I discovered that it most definitely is (h/t):

On December 21, 2012 Mr. Peter Gersten plans to hurl himself off of Bell Rock in Sedona, AZ. It is his belief that a cosmic portal will open at this time and in this place, and that he will be delivered into a new, unfathomable opportunity. He is fully willing to die if he is wrong about the portal.

Ah, yes, I can say with some certainty that “he will be delivered into a new, unfathomable opportunity.”  It’s not every day the local coyote population has a smorgasbord plop down from the top of Bell Rock.

Let’s just hope all of the negative vibes from all the skeptical people laughing at him cause him to change his mind.  I mean, you know what negativity does to portals.  I mean, look what happened when a few locals poked fun at the idea a spaceship would emerge – no spaceship.  You can’t tell me that’s a coinkydink. 

We’ve already broken your portal, Mr. Gersten.  I’m sorry.  It won’t open due to all those bad vibrations.  You might as well stay home.

Writing is My Science

When people find out I’m a writer, they sometimes venture into uncomfortable territory.  They sometimes have the audacity to ask how I write.

What is an easier question.  I can fend them off with a mumbled “I write speculative fiction.”  Alas, that sometimes means I have to explain what speculative fiction is, which means I don’t get to flee for a few minutes.  (I’ll tell them to look it up on Wikipedia henceforth.)  When I’m not wishing to give away the fact that I am, in fact, writing a novel, with all of the uncomfortable questions that entails, I just tell them I blog and give them the URL.  They’ll find out soon enough I do more than babble about science, occasional pollyticks, the Universe and everything, but by then they’ll be out of questioning range and online, where I can just direct them to explanatory links.

Anyway.  Most people stop at what.  My answer usually leaves their eyes slightly glazed, and they discover they really weren’t that interested after all.  But a few curious sorts go on to ask prying questions, and when they do, a few get around to the how, and I am at a loss.  How the fuck do I explain how I write?  They’re expecting an easy answer.  They end up looking a little frightened when they discover that the process entails holding long conversations with imaginary people.  Oh, yes.  I’m clinically sane, and yet I can babble for absolute hours with people who aren’t there.

The majority of questioners remember a previously forgotten appointment at this point in the proceedings.  It’s amazing how quickly you can clear a room by informing the people therein that you talk to figments of your imagination, and that they talk back.

Those who haven’t fled are genuinely interested in the process, often because they’re just beginning the long struggle with it themselves, or because they love learning how authors’ brains work.  I can’t answer that.  I can tell the aspiring folk the tricks of the trade I’ve learned, point up my Dojo posts and several useful books.  But as far as those wanting to know how I, Dana Hunter, write, that takes more time to explain than a casual conversation will allow.

And I don’t think they shall understand when I tell them my recent realization, which is that for me, writing is very like doing science.  And that’s not just because I have to study a lot of science in order to build worlds.

It didn’t used to be this way.  In the past, before I had the whole shape of things in my mind, I’d just scribble.  I wrote tons of stuff – short stories, an actual complete novel, scene after scene, free-form journaling in which I explored people and relationships and plot points.  Quite a lot of it was like taking dictation: my characters told me what happened, and I wrote it down.  I studied a little science, mostly physics and psychology, just the stuff I needed to get a general understanding.  As time went on, I found myself doing a lot more research: on war, on autism, on cultures, on art, on myth, on a great many various bits.  The more research I did, the better the stories seemed to get.  I went from hating research to loving it.  Fell in love with our world, in fact, by attempting to create my own.

Everything I write revolves around the core series of novels; every short story is another piece of that puzzle.  Somewhere along the way, exploring avenues I thought were at best side trips, I began to see the shape of the whole, and discovered that it was something quite different than I’d had in mind all those decades ago when I first got started.  Things suddenly settled into a specific form, a history of events that stretched out well over sixteen thousand years.  I knew the beginning, and I knew the end, and I knew quite a few bits in between.  I realized that I would have to know a fuck of a lot more science in order to accomplish what I’d set out to do.  So I dove in.  Science blogs, science books, articles, papers, the lot.  And as I became familiar with the way scientists work, I started applying some of those methods to my own writing.

You see, I have this enormous body of work, all of these events that feed in to each other.  Things are tremendously interconnected.  And I have a lot of things that don’t quite make sense.  They fit in, they must make sense, but they don’t.

This is where writing starts to look like science, for me.  I look at my worlds the way they are and ask why.  Why are things this way and not another?  How did this happen?  What causes it?

I’m not talking about things like character interactions, per se.  That stuff’s easy enough to figure out, once you know how people think.  It’s things that I took for granted before.  I’ve got quite a few aliens created.  All right, then, so why are they the way they are?  What is their evolutionary history?  Why do they think the way they do?  It has to make sense.  It has to hang together.  So I look at a feature, and I try to explain it, not by making shit up but by building from what I’ve learned of biology and neuropsychology.  We’re still in the early stages of that, but it’s been instructive so far.  And my aliens will be all the richer for having their own evolutionary histories.

Same thing with geology.  There are certain features that are clear in my mind: the way a valley looks, what the weather’s like.  So what caused it to be this way?  I have to look at the totality.  I have to know the geology of a place.  I have to know the plate tectonics of that world.  I have to know the strata, which tells me about its geologic history.  I have to know geography: latitude, longitude.  I have to know something about astronomy, because where a planet is in a solar system, what its tilt is, rotation, orbit, the kind of star it orbits, its place in its galaxy, all of those things dictate certain features.  Imagine going to a place on Earth no geologist has been to.  Imagine being taken there without knowing where on Earth you are.  You can sort some of it out from the clues around you, using science.  I do the same thing with the major planets and cities that popped into my mind and have been a certain way in my mind since very nearly the beginning.  I don’t build worlds from the basics.  I build them around places on them I already know.  But the whole has to hang together.  It has to be a place that’s plausible.

Things I used to take for granted, I can’t take for granted anymore.  “God did it” is not a valid explanation in my universe.  I need a particular kind of crystal not seen on Earth.  It’s vital for the end of the series.  What is it?  How does it form?  Why can’t it form on Earth when it formed on this other earthlike planet?  Answering those questions takes me down entirely new and interesting paths, far more interesting than they were when the answer was, “Because the author said so.”

And the more I know of science, the more interesting things can become.  I used to think science was a straitjacket to the imagination.  I know now it’s the key that opens an entire universe.  Explaining something with physical laws doesn’t make it mundane.  Supernatural, believe it or not, is a hell of a lot more boring than natural.  Because the universe does things we could never imagine.  It does things we didn’t imagine. 

And when I apply the principles of science to things I’ve written, things I can’t change because they’re too vital to the shape of the story but seem to make no scientific sense, I find them becoming far more interesting.  I can tweak them a bit in ways that brings them more into line with the possible rather than the totally-made-this-shit-up, and suddenly I’ve got stuff that’s no longer derived from all the similar stuff fantasy authors have done.  It’s at home in its own universe.  It opens up ways of getting to the end of the series that I never considered before.  Same journey, far more fascinating route.

Like a scientist, I can even run experiments, of a sort.  Set the parameters, run the experiment (i.e., write the scene), fail miserably.  Tweak the parameters, run the experiment again.  Often fail miserably again.  But out of failure comes inspiration, new hypotheses that can be tested until they earn the status of theories.  Only difference is, I can change the world, at least a bit, if I don’t like it.  Scientists, on the other hand, are stuck with the world they’ve got.  But even though I can change the world, I can’t change it solely for my own convenience.  It has to make sense.  It has to fit with what comes before and after.

So that’s part of the how.  A scene burns like a meteor across my mind: I sit, I write it down, then I stare at it for weeks or months or years after, asking questions of it, just as scientists ask questions of the world.  Why is it this way?  How did it come to be that way?  How does it work?  Does this fit with what else we know? Is there some other explanation for what we’re seeing?  What are the implications?  How does it affect everything else?

I imagine that sounds intimidating to people thinking they’d like to be writers.  It’s a hell of a lot of work.  It’s difficult.  It’s sometimes frustrating.  Well, the good news is, not all writers write this way, and they frequently still get published.  The even better news is, this isn’t really work, no matter how hard you work at it.  It’s too enjoyable to be work.  If you don’t believe me, ask any scientist if they think their work is work.  Bits of it are, and they’ll probably have plenty to gripe about, but you’ll have a hard time taking them seriously since they’re grinning like kids set loose in the biggest candy emporium in the world.  Same thing with writers, even those who, like me, put in endless hours researching, plotting, pondering, writing, rewriting, tearing down, building up, researching and rewriting again.  Hell, no, it’s not easy, but if it was, it wouldn’t be any fun, now would it?  And it is fun.

There is nothing more rewarding than finding out how the world works.  That includes made-up worlds.  And I think that if more people realized that science is this amazingly adventurous enterprise that turns the entire universe into a wonderland, if they only knew how much richer it makes your life, that it can be such a boon to the imagination, they wouldn’t fear it.  They wouldn’t hate it.  They wouldn’t do their level best to avoid it.  They would dive in, drink deep, and their only complaint would be that a human lifetime is far too short to explore it all.

They would look at a world, whether real or imagined, and delight in asking, “Why are you this way?  How do you work?  What does this bit of you tell me about the rest?”

They’d do science, and they’d like it.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Carl Sagan

…No scientist on Earth knows how a planet might blow itself up, which is probably just as well.

-Carl Sagan

Dearest Carl.  Reading Cosmos changed my life pretty much forever, and this is one of the lines that did it.  He knew there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy a good laugh while you were reading your science.

If you haven’t read Cosmos, go do so forthwith.  Then follow up with Pale Blue Dot, and top it off with The Demon-Haunted World.

Los Links 2/18

Damn you, Twitter!  So much delicious stuff lately that I’ve been dedicating myself very nearly full time to reading all the wonderful stuff linked.  Even when I try to cut down on the number of links I click, I still end up opening too much.  I can no more resist the pull of an intriguing link than I can resist a good chicken tikka masala.  And if you’ve ever seen me in an Indian restaurant, then you know that’s about equivalent to anyone’s ability to resist a gravity well.


So yes, lots of Los Links, and as always, I got so busy opening links I forgot to note who tweeted them, and so a blanket “Thank you for these, all you folks I follow!”,  pathetic as it is, shall have to do.  I am Bad.


(And a special note to all those people whose emails are still sitting in my inbox unanswered: I still love you, and I will reply as soon as I can!)

Conservative Science: Yur Doon It Rong: “In plain language:  it’s really hard to do empirical research or construct complicated proofs in a wide range of fields if you have a deep commitment to something that denies a mountain of physical evidence and logical argument.  By way of analogy:  you slouch your whole life (towards Bethlehem?) it becomes increasingly difficult to stand up straight.  Same things go with habits of mind.

“The shorter:  you can’t hide the crazy forever, and when it emerges, it makes your colleagues (justifiably) nervous about anything you say.” (Balloon Juice)

Relearning the “Beautiful Basics” of Science: “This is a lesson that all science communicators could learn. Just because something’s old hat to you, it can still be new and exciting to everyone else. We just need to take care to present it in that way!” (This View of Life)

Rosa Parks’ Other (Radical) Side: “‘If we had a larger sense of who she was, a radical activist and warrior for human rights,’ instead of a powerless individual struck by chance, said McGuire, it would show the work and the time she put in over many years.” (The Root)

Vaccine Council of Vaccination: “Of course these are all courageous mavericks, including a brain surgeon with a Galileo-like understanding of The Truth (big T) and are fighting against a corrupt and blind authority who are protecting their turf at the expense of you and your children. As an aside, I often find it odd when Galileo is used as an example. I just realized his first name is Galileo.  In that respect he was like Cher or the Donald.  Galileo was a man of science oppressed by the irrational and superstitious.  Today,  he (Galileo, not the Donald)  is used by the irrational and the superstitious who say the are being oppressed by science.  So 1984.” (Science-Based Medicine)

10 Historical ‘Facts’ Only a Right-Winger Could Believe: “6. Teddy Roosevelt was a socialist.

“Theodore Roosevelt was a naval theorist and war aficionado, a lawman in both the Dakota Territory and New York City, and a cheerful imperialist. You’d think conservatives would appreciate him better. But Glenn Beck has helped turn that around, lambasting TR at last year’s CPAC and denouncing his words as ‘a socialist utopia‘ which ‘we need to address … as if it is a cancer.'” (AlterNet

Drying Out in the West: “The sad fact is, every few years, a report like this comes out, with excellent scientific and economic analysis showing that water use in the American West is unsustainable and that climate change will only make it worse. And it gets a lot of buzz–and then nothing much happens. And when the next report comes out, the only difference is that we’ve inched closer to crisis.” (Tooth & Claw)

Journalists angry over the commission of journalism: “That these establishment journalists believe that pointing out the lies of powerful political leaders is ‘not their role’ — indeed, is a violation of the rules that govern what they do — explains a large part of the failings of both America’s media class and its political class.  Ironically, David Gregory is ultimately right that doing this is ‘not his role'; he’s not paid by NBC News and its owners to alert the American citizenry to lies told by the U.S. Government (i.e., he’s not paid to be an adversarial journalist).  He’s there to do the opposite:  to vest those lies with respect and depict them as reasonable statements to be subjectively considered along with the truth.  But it’s in these moments when they are so candid about what their actual role is — or when they attack people like Cooper for the rare commission of actual journalism — that they are at their most (unintentionally) informative.” (Glenn Greenwald)

The Joy of Road Tripping…with Geologists: “My apologies for waxing philosophic.  I’ve got all this on the brain after returning from a long weekend of road tripping through the Cascades with two close friends—one a structural geologist and the other a seismologist.  What better way to see the mountains, right?  It’s like having a backstage pass: you get the insider’s scoop, far more interesting than the average self-guided tour.” (+/- Science)

The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article: “I found it! I announced on Twitter yesterday. ‘It’ was the generic Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators article. I said it had everything, meaning: every identifying mark and mandatory cliché needed to lift a mere example to the exalted status of genre-defining classic.” (Press Think)

Shut Up Already: “Because today it was announced that a U.S. reporter was sexually assaulted covering the revolution. And everybody appears to have felt a need to say something about it, even though the vast majority of people have…not just nothing intelligent to say about rape, but a lot of actively stupid, hurtful shit to spew.” (Almost Diamonds)

Feminist hypersensitivity or masculine obtuseness?: “I’ve got a simple suggestion for my fellow men. Learn to shut up and listen. Seriously. You want women to find your organization pleasant and interesting and worth contributing to? Then don’t form panels full of men trying to figure out what women want, talking over women who try to get a word in edgewise, belittling women’s suggestions with jokes, and trying to determine how We Well-Meaning Men can give Those Women what we think they want. You are assuming an authority and presuming that it is in your power to give it to the minority, when what you should be doing is deferring to that minority and giving them your attention, letting them speak and shape your organization.”  (Pharyngula)

The NIH threatened: “If you have a blog, blog this. Call your Representatives. As P.Z. Myers and Paul Krugman put it, we’re eating America’s seed corn in science, and there will be a steep price to pay someday. Worse, in the scheme of things, the savings are minimal and symbolic. The real problem is entitlements and defense spending, and with those off the table, all we have left is nonsense like this. The bottom line is that all the changes in peer review, whether to allow two grant application resubmissions instead of one, won’t make one whit of difference when funding levels fall this low.

“But it’s worse than that. It’s not just the NIH. It’s nearly every major government science agency, and, because the cut would come in the middle of the year, after half of the budget has already been spent, these proposed cuts are in essence double the numbers.” (Respectful Insolence)

“Strengthen the family” just means “get your ass back into the kitchen, woman”: “This is about having a single, very narrow model of what constitutes an acceptable family, one built around female subservience and dependence.  And making sure that anyone who veers from that path is punished severely.  Even—and especially, I’d say—in cases where they don’t have a choice, which is true of most working mothers who need the income, full stop.  Republicans, as those who didn’t realize before are quickly learning, really enjoy the idea of adding more burdens to the already burdened to punish them for the sin of not being rich.” (Pandagon)

Friday focal mechanisms: Chile’s persistent seismic gap: “On February 27th last year, the subduction zone ruptured again, with the epicentre only 115 km northeast of Concepción, Chile’s second largest city. The magnitude 8.8 earthquake that ensued – together with the tsunami generated by movement of the seafloor above the rupture zone – killed more than 500 people and caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage. It also occurred in a section of the plate boundary that had not ruptured for almost 200 years. In 1836, Charles Darwin experienced a large earthquake, with an estimated magnitude of 8.5, that destroyed Concepción. Since then, the plate boundary to the north has ruptured in large earthquakes, in 1928 and 1985, and a 1000 km stretch to the south was involved in the 1960 magnitude 9.5. But until 2010, the portion of the plate boundary that ruptured in 1836 remained stuck, producing a ‘seismic gap’: a portion of the plate boundary where significant strain has been accumulated, but has yet to be released in an earthquake. This particular seismic gap is sometimes referred to as the ‘Darwin gap’, in honour of the scientist who recorded its last significant activity.” (Highly Allochthonous)

Highway8A Introduction I: “This field book, the one I am writing right in now, is being written from the perspective of my future; it is being written by my future self, my self as an old woman — an old geologist — an old geologist with a long memory. My long memory has mixed the past, present, and future into one package the way some geologic rock formations have been pushed, shoved, and squeezed — even sliced and diced — into stratigraphic or tectonic packages where every resulting contact between individual rock formations involves some kind of geologic activity: deposition, mountain building, erosion, folding, and faulting. Because of my geologic memory — my intricate, enduring memory — most of the things I’m writing about happened long ago when I was young and clambered over the rocks and hills freely and easily: like a mountain lion or coyote, like a desert fox. Now I’m a silver fox with the long memory of an elephant, the memory of an ancient mammoth.” (Looking for Detachment)

Oregon’s Geyser Geysing Again: “Lakeview is remote (though it is on a major north-south route, US 395), out of the way, and unless you’re looking for it, the resort and thermal area aren’t hard to miss. But I doubt many people have even heard of this spot, let alone visited it. It really is special, and even after a dozen or more visits over the years, a spot I don’t get tired of seeing again. If you’re going to be in the OR-CA-NV borderlands, it’s an especially delectable little morsel in a veritable smorgasbord of tasty geology. It’s future is uncertain. I definitely recommend seeing it while you can.” (Outside the Interzone)

 

An activist scientist for women’s health: “The reason it’s so important to me that I be that activist scientist – someone whose work is informed by an understanding of the biases inherent in the process of science, and who promotes a deeper understanding of science to the general public – is that women’s health is something that many non-experts opine about, providing sometimes dangerous disinformation. I’ll give you just three examples.” (Agora)

Religion: the ultimate tyranny: “If you value freedom, you should flee from religion as the antelope flees the lion. Religion is the very antithesis of freedom, insisting on our complete subjugation to the unachievable demands of an invisible but supremely powerful overlord.” (On Faith)

Culture differences matter (even within Islam): “What is the point of these comparisons? There’s a lot of stress and worry about the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States. Some of this is because of their specific historical associations with Hamas, as well as the history of Islamist radicalism in Egypt (Al-Qaeda is in large part an institutional outgrowth of Egyptian radical movements). But the fixation on the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood misses the bigger picture that secular and Islamist mean very different things in different Muslim nations.” (Gene Expression)

Social animals evolve to stand out among the crowd: “There’s a wonderful cartoon by Gary Larson where a penguin, standing amid a throng of virtually identical birds, sings, ‘I gotta be me! Oh, I just gotta be me…’ As ever, Larson’s The Far Side captures the humorous side of a real natural dilemma. Social animals spend time in large groups, but they still have to tell the difference between individuals so they can recognise mates, young, leaders and rivals. As the groups get larger, so does the scope of this challenge, and some species meet it by evolving individuality. As groups get bigger, their members become more distinctive.” (Not Exactly Rocket Science)

Pleasure, reward…and rabbits! Why do animals behave as they do?: “Jackson and Dutchess seem to know that there is a good chance that they will get food when they see me open the refrigerator – at least, they act like it. They seem to really want the treats, and because of this we can infer that they must really like to eat the treats. This all seems very simple and intuitive, but the field of behavioral neuroscience, which studies how the brain contributes to and controls an animal’s behavior, has a long history of studying the not-so-simple ways that the brain makes animals – humans included – like and want things.” (Scientific American Guest Blog)

The Strong Anthropic Principle Song: “You may not want to hear it, but it’s true

The universe is not here just for you.

You really think you’re special, I’m aware

But the universe itself, it doesn’t care.” (The Digital Cuttlefish)

Juanita in Winter

I only ever really get out in summer, so I’ve seen very little of my favorite Seattle-area stomping grounds in winter.  But when we abandoned Darwin Day festivities early, we decided to have a wander down by Juanita Bay.  It wasn’t peeing down rain and we were close by.

This summer, I’ll take some comparison shots so you all can see the stark difference between winter and summer, but for now, we’ll just have a bit of a photo essay on one of my favorite places.

Believe it or not, some trees are already budding:



Getting a head start on photosynthesis, I see.  Some trees up here have figured out that the chances of a hard frost after February are about nil and sun in short supply, so they rush things.

Trees I’ve only seen decked in foliage look quite different bare:



Normally, I don’t get much chance to see the lichens and mosses that grow on them.  But without all those leaves in the way, matters become simpler:





There’s an extraordinary beauty in that.  I think one of my projects this year shall be figuring out just what those humble plants adorning the trees are.  They have a story to tell, but I haven’t yet learned their language.

(Which brings me to one of the things the microbiologist I was chatting with at the Darwin Day shindig was saying: science is like a language.  When he encounters people who believe they can never speak it, he asks them if they think they’d be able to speak Mandarin Chinese after several years’ study.  Yes!  There ye go.)

About the only green thing was the English ivy infesting one of the trees:



Well, that and the moss.  And some evergreen plants here and there.  The Emerald City never completely loses her emerald hue.

These were all taken from a boardwalk through the wetlands that dead-ends at Juanita Bay, which is at the north end of Lake Washington.  It’s a beautiful and inspiring place, but if you get there round feeding time, you may find yourself staring at nothing but duck’s arses:



And some amorphous white blobs who, with the help of 10x optical zoom and when they’d finally lifted their heads from beneath their wings, turned out to be swans having a bit of kip in the bay:



Do you know, I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen swans in the wild.  I’ve encountered domesticated ones a time or two.  I hear from Jerome K. Jerome and P.G. Wodehouse that they can be right bastards, but these just floated serenely and looked nice.  They remind me of my cat, who also looks serene and nice up to the moment she explodes into homicidal violence.  Unlike the swans, she has never been caught floating.

On the way back, we passed a field of cattails that charmed me immensely:



And this tree, growing very oddly, with mosses all over it:



A few moments later, as we proceeded toward the boardwalk that leads around the head of the bay, we came across the first flowers I’d seen this season (not counting the hothouse ones planted miserably out to make signage look perkier):



They looked like berries till you got up close and realized they were buds.  I’m not sure what sort of plant it is, but I likes it.

For my next shot of said plant, I’d just like to point out that it was near sundown on a thoroughly overcast day, and my camera still managed to shoot a macro shot so sharply with nothing but the ambient light that you can see the teeny tiny gnat perched on a leaf.  If you click to embiggen, you shall see it on the leaf between the buds:



Have I told you lately that I love my camera?

Along the boardwalk, this rather magnificent moss-covered tree limb caught my attention:



Makes me like trees, that.  Even though they get in the way of the geology.

Forbes Creek finds its way to Lake Washington in a series of streams through the wetlands here, and there’s a wonderful little waterfall that’s heard but not seen in summer.  This time, I got a good gander at it.  Feast your eyes upon this delightful little plunge pool:



I’m not sure what it’s falling over just there.  Perhaps a bit of shale.  It’s certainly not the typical soft sediment one normally sees round this part of the lake.  Not much bedrock’s exposed up this way, but there’s patches here and there, along with glacial erratics.

A few steps farther on, we came upon this fascinating fungus:



No idea what it is.  It’s very yellow-orange, and it’s shiny, and it looks pretty, and that’s about all I can say of it.  I need to start hanging about with local botanists.

At one point in its history, Juanita Bay had a large wooden pier sticking out of the end of it.  All that’s left now are rotten bits of pilings sticking up from the water, upon which perch some of the local birds:



I’ve never gotten a close enough look to identify them.  They look like some sort of heron, but they’re not blues:



They’re almost always out there, making the pilings look taller.  I tried to get shots of them swimming later, but by then the light was so bad and the distance so great that I only got blurs that suggest birds swimming and taking off like water planes.

For our finale, a view down Lake Washington from the head of Juanita Bay, with little bits of the old dock littering the shore:



One thing nice about being here in winter is the distinct lack of boats.  But I’m excited for summer.  The colors of the lake at sunset are just exquisite – azure and aquamarine and pale pure blues like Montana sapphire, all blended together under a salmon sky.  Although this steel gray with just a hint of blue was lovely, too, and with the lake levels lowered to hold extra runoff from winter storms and the vegetation not rioting, there’s quite a few fascinating things you’ll see now that will vanish from view in the summer.

Have I mentioned lately I love it here?

Shocked! Shocked, I Tell You!

I’ve been struggling with this month’s Accretionary Wedge topic:

What geological concept or idea did you hear about that you had no notion of before (and likely surprised you in some way).

I mean, there’s a lot.  All the hijinks that go on in subduction zones, that constantly astonishes me.  The idea that rocks in the mantle flow without being actually molten, and that rocks have any sort of elasticity to begin with – incredible.  I had no idea when I first started out just what temperature and pressure could do to minerals – I knew there was such a thing as a metamorphic rock, but my eyes popped when I learned more of the details.  It seems like every time I read a book on geology, there’s something new and astonishing.  I’m reading a book on caves in the bathroom right now, and the other night, I found out there are places in the world with natural caves formed in salt.  I had no idea that happened.

So yes, I’m spoiled for choice.  But I think the one thing that’s made my eyes pop the most is the idea that plate tectonics affects climate.  That shouldn’t have taken me by surprise, but it surely did.  Sure, I knew about rainshadow effects – I grew up in the American Southwest, which is deep in the rainshadow of the Sierra Nevada.  Moving up here to Washington State, I could see an even more dramatic example of rainshadow.  Here’s the western side of the Cascades:

Cascades from Lord Hill

And here’s the eastern side:

Cascades from Ryegrass Summit

That’s a profound difference between one side of the mountains and the other, people.

So yes, I knew mountains had a huge affect on climate.  And I also knew that where you are in the world matters – Washington State would be a much different place if it straddled the Equator.  But for some reason, I didn’t carry that idea to its logical conclusion: that as the continents go sailing around the world due to the vagaries of plate tectonics, they change everything.

In the first place, plate tectonics creates these mountains that have such an impact on local and regional climates.  And haven’t I heard that the Himalaya may have changed the world?  All because India decided to take a quick trip north and didn’t watch where it was going.

As continents move, they affect ocean circulation.  And ocean circulation affects global climate.  Could you imagine what would happen if some bit of land deflected the Antarctic Circumpolar Current?  You don’t have to imagine it all by yourself – go play with a paleoclimate animation and watch the climate change.  Look at it on a map.  It matters where land is, and not just for the view.

It shocked me to learn how intimately rocks are connected to climate.  We didn’t talk about rocks when we discussed global warming in school.  We talked about rainforests and fossil fuels and atmospheric gasses.  There was some vague talk about how volcanoes could impact climate, but nobody mentioned the Deccan Traps, so I thought it was all small-scale, temporary stuff.  And nobody said shit about rocks.  They didn’t talk about limestone and other carbonate rocks.  Nobody bothered to tell me just how much CO2 was stored up in those rocks, or said a word about how subducting carbonate rocks contribute to the CO2 outgassing from volcanoes.  Boggles my mind, that does, and makes me look at the world in a whole new light.

You know what I think surprises me the most about all this?  It’s how interconnected all this world is, what an intimate whole all of the different scientific disciplines make.  We break them down into categories for convenience, and sometimes forget that you can’t have geology without chemistry, physics, biology, hydrology… and you don’t get climate without a heaping helping of geology thrown in.  You can’t understand one thing until you realize it’s just a component of a much larger whole.  Nothing exists in isolation.  It all relates.

It didn’t seem that way in school.  Nobody ever taught it that way.  So making these discoveries, seeing the way geology affects everything on earth, has been a tremendous surprise.  More than that: a delight.  It’s delicious.

And I can’t wait for the next surprise.

Dana’s Dojo: Getting Emotional

Today in the Dojo:  How do you “show” emotion”?

An emotion is suggested and demolished in one glance by certain words.
-Robert Smithson

You would think that something as emotional as… emotion… would be easy to show.  And it is, until you actually get down to showing it.  Adjectives and nouns parade their wares, promising you how easy it would be to just use one of them instead of reaching for examples.  Why waste all those words describing somebody’s emotional state when there’s an easy shorthand?  If a character is angry, why not just say so?

Impact.

Allow me to demonstrate:

Dana was getting really irritated with the web page she was designing.

vs

Dana’s hands darted toward the computer as if to strangle it.  “Stupid clip art!  Why won’t you export?”

If you chose Example One as the stronger, please put down your pen and leave the Dojo.  You need to meditate on “modifiers don’t make an emotion stronger” before you’re ready to become a samurai writing master.

So we’re going to show emotion.  It’s got to be done.  No easy way out here.  Shut the door on those salesmen pitching “angry, love, happy, sad,” kick the purveyors of adverbs like “sorrowfully” and “joyfully” off the porch, and don’t even let their singsong “But wait, there’s more – just use a modifier!  I’ll throw in very, really and extremely for free!” reach your ears.

Tack a sign above your computer: “If it’s easy to write, it probably sucks.”

There.  Now we’re ready to clear the first major hurdle in showing emotion: How do you know what they’re feeling if you don’t say it?

First, let me just say that a touch of uncertainty isn’t a bad thing.  It’s life.  Your readers will have a better experience if you don’t bludgeon them over the head with the precise emotion your characters are feeling every time they experience one.  The story will feel more real if there’s a bit of ambiguity.  One of the true delights in reading is finding an author who’s willing to admit that half the time we don’t even know what we’re feeling, much less the person we’re with.

Of course, you don’t want to be too ambiguous or you’ll annoy your readers to death.  They’ll demonstrate an emotion, probably by scowling at your book, snorting in disgust, and then tossing it out.  Or giving it to someone they really despise while gushing over how emotive your writing is.

So how does your reader figure out what your characters are feeling if you don’t tell them?  Give them the same clues we use to figure out what people around us feel:

Actions


Expressions


Words and tone


Thoughts


What others say

  Think about it.  Your significant other usually doesn’t have to tell you “I’m angry.”  You’ve got it figured out by the time they tell you, and in fact probably respond with something like, “No, really?  I never would have guessed” in appropriately sarcastic tones.  On the opposite side, imagine if they’d been acting like nothing was wrong, face perfectly meek and mild, no raised voice or slamming cabinet doors, and they suddenly chirped, “I’m so pissed off.”  You wouldn’t believe them, would you?  Even if they’re so mad they’re homicidal, without evidence, you won’t take their word for it and their mood certainly wouldn’t raise your blood pressure. 

We want blood pressures raised.  We want the readers’ hearts to pound, and not in annoyance at us for explaining how everybody feels rather than demonstrating.  So we’ve got to take those cues and clues we use to negotiate emotional minefields in the physical world and translate them into prose.

Let’s go down the list:

Actions

Under this category, I’m including everything from what the character does to how they do it, with a lot of nervous tics thrown in.  Observe the following:

He rushed to the door.


He sauntered to the door.


He dragged his feet all the way to the door.

You got an idea of how this person felt just by the way they moved, didn’t you?  Context will define the exact situation and emotion: the first example could be eagerness, fear, or anger, but you know it’s not boredom (although he may be fleeing boredom).  The second example gives you the idea of a guy feeling smug, self-confident.  The last is someone who obviously doesn’t want to face what’s on the other side.  I didn’t have to tell you, “He dreaded answering the door.”  I showed you he did.

Simple, isn’t it?

So that goes with action and how that action is presented.  You can get across a lot of emotional information whether that action is complex or simple, just by the way you present it.

Nervous tics and habits can convey just as much.  You can go with something most people do – pace, twiddle thumbs, what have you – but it has even more impact when you establish a personal quirk of a particular character, unique to them.  Not that you want everybody to be a raging bundle of unique nervous mannerisms, excluding all common nervous traits, but a few personalized ones here and there enhance what you’re doing.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of this is in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  When Nyneave grabs her braid, you know it means she’s pissed and probably frustrated as well.  The degree to which she yanks tells us how angry she’s feeling.  Another of his characters drywashes his hands when he’s nervous.  When he’s really nervous, the drywashing becomes pronounced and there might even be a tongue touched to lips.  No need for Jordan to say, “Nyneave felt angry” or “Balwer was anxious”.  We know.  We saw.

Figure out what mannerisms tell us the most about a character’s state of mind, and use them.

Expressions

This is one of the hardest things to convey succinctly in writing, but it’s too important to ignore.  Our faces announce to the world what’s going on inside, even when we try to hide it.  Smiles, grimaces, batting eyelashes…  they’re common to us all.  We know what they mean. 

The challenge is to find a fresh way to say it.  You can only talk about smiles or glowing eyes so much before it gets annoying.  My best advice here is to look for subtle signals that might substitute for the obvious, support such things with other cues, and freshen up the description as much as possible.  The more you can personalize those expressions, the better, but keep it in check.  You don’t want to spend the next four sentences saying, “He grinned.”

Words

What we say and how we say it speaks volumes about our emotions.  You won’t have to tell your readers that one character worships another if you let the worshipper babble about the virtues of the worshipped for a paragraph or two.  Same thing with anger, love, doubt, excitement, fear… any emotion you can name causes certain words to emerge in certain ways.

For instance:

“I can’t believe he actually looked at me!  He looked at me!”


“I can’t believe he actually had the nerve to look at me like that.  Who does he think he is?”

Do I have to tell you that the first is breathless excitement, and the second offended anger?  I didn’t think so.

On the other hand, words may not convey the emotion they seem to.  Tone can change meanings entirely.  And you can convey a character’s tone without resorting to a lot of flowery adverbs:

“I’m not mad at you,” he laughed.


“I’m not mad at you!” he shouted.

Change one word, and you change the entire meaning.  This is one instance where I might let you get away with a dialogue tag other than “said.”  Just don’t abuse the privilege.

Thoughts

This can be much fun and extremely enlightening, especially if the train of thought clues your reader in to something the character doesn’t even realize.  It’s pretty easy to convey: the words, the speed of those words, the obsessiveness of the thoughts – all can lead your reader to the right conclusion regarding the emotion driving those thoughts.  It’s important to keep in mind a simple Shakespeare quote here: “The lady doth protest too much.”  If we’re trying to think ourselves into hating someone, there’s probably love there somewhere. 

What Others Say (or Think) / How They’re Affected

Having your characters comment on what others are feeling is usually more tell than show, but it can be effective when added to other clues.  It’s especially useful when the character in question isn’t demonstrating typical behavior for someone experiencing that emotion, or when you want to emphasize that emotion. 

One person’s emotions affect everybody else’s.  I’ve seen too many stories by established authors that tend to forget that.  Don’t make the same mistake.  If Johnny’s going off like a bottle rocket, don’t have Julie sitting there like wood.  She’s going to have some react
ion to his rampage, whether it’s fear, annoyance, amusement, or satisfaction. 

So those are the basic ways and the basic rules.  Like so much else in writing, it’s not all that basic: what looks easy on the surface is damned tough in practice.  And now I’m going to load you down with a small armful of warnings.  (I know you’re annoyed because you’re glaring at me, and your foot keeps twitching like you want to give me a little kick.)

Emotion should be appropriate to the situation and the character.  I’m going to stress the latter, because everybody should know the importance of the former.  Emotion is a spectrum, and everybody will respond to the same situation with a different level of emotion and have different ways of demonstrating it, but they’ll tend to stay within the same spectrum: fearsome situations cause fear, enjoyable situations happiness, and so on.  But certain things change that.  A cop will show less fear in the middle of a gun battle than a prep school kid would.  That’s not to say the cop won’t be more afraid than the preppie – it could be quite the opposite, with the preppie also feeling some excitement over being caught up in something so Hollywood, while the cop’s feeling impending mortality because she recognizes the sound of an AK-47.  But the cop’s going to be keeping that fear contained, while the preppie might be screaming her head off, or scrunched into a silent ball, or anything but responding the way a trained police officer would.

It’s the character that’s most important, though.  If you’ve shown that preppie handling life-threatening situations with aplomb, and suddenly have her dissolve in helpless terror during the gun battle, your reader is rightly going to think you’ve pulled a dirty trick, or are simply incompetent, or just don’t care about integrity.  If your cop’s been through a dozen gun battles without turning a hair and during this one is too scared to think, much less counterattack, and there’s no reason for that reaction, you’ve got problems.  Your man-hater can’t suddenly be compassionate to one man just because you like him, too.  Your grumpy old geezer can’t randomly start singing in the rain and spreading love and joy among the masses.  Unless your character is a nutcase, don’t have them bouncing around emotionally without good reason.

If you do decide to have your character experience emotions entirely outside of what we’ve come to expect, you must show why.  Maybe in real life, we don’t know why our significant other came home happy and suddenly ended up snapping our heads off, but in novels and stories that’s a ticket to obscurity.  There’s a reason why people feel the way they do, no matter how unusual for them.  Present some explanation, or at the very least have the character involved or the people around him/her be as surprised and disturbed as we are by the unexpected.  The rule of thumb here: the more out of character and the more impact it has on the story, the more you must make sense of it.

Finally, remember that none of these things happen alone.  If someone’s nervous, they’re not only going to sweat; they might babble, pace, have obsessive thoughts, wring hands, look like they’ve swallowed an electric eel, and annoy everybody around them.  Mix and match as many as you wish, as much or as little as it takes to get the job done.

Emote away!

Darwin Day Shenanigans

I dragged my intrepid companion out to the big Northwest Freethought Coalition’s Darwin Day bash on Sunday.  Neither one of us is much for large groups, but I never get to see the Seattle Skeptics – they’re always having meetings when I’m working.  Besides, festivities included a birthday cake and Phylum Pheud, so it seemed essential to go.

Loved it from the moment I laid eyes on it:



Charles Darwin his own self was scheduled to attend, but excused himself on account of being dead.  I felt he was there in spirit, however, his august countenance gazing benevolently down upon us from a corner of the room.



There was a massive spread of food.  People who believe only church groups know how to put on a good Sunday feed, take note: atheists and humanists have officially kicked your arses.  ZOMFSM.  It’s a good thing they had a break between the nosh and the cake, or I wouldn’t have had room. 

The organizers put on a panel discussion discussing the War on Evolution.  I’ll do a proper write-up of it when I’ve got more time.  I took notes and everything, just for you, my darlings.  For now, let me just say this: meeting Jen McCreight in the flesh was something akin to meeting PZ Myers for the first time, and all the more overwhelming because I hadn’t had a clue she’d be there.  She was on the panel.  Look!  I haz proof!



The other two are Bob and Geoff.  I didn’t get their last names because I’d been too busy finishing nosh to fish out me notebook in time, but I’m sure somebody somewhere will have that info, and when I do the proper post on the panel, I shall be able to tell you more than just, “These two are Bob and Geoff, and they are nearly as awesome as Jen.”

After the panel came cake.  We all sang Happy Birthday as it was brought out, of course.  Just because a man’s been dead for nearly 130 years doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sing Happy Birthday to him.  Or waste the excuse to have a really good cake.



Whist acquiring cake, I was able to actually speak with Jen McCreight for a moment!!!11!1!! – in a group with others, o’ course, but still.  We had two actual biologists and two bloggers who are science fanpeople.  It’s always good not to be the only layblogger in the group.  Although, thanks to you, my darlings, I am no longer so embarrassed by my layblogger status.  I’m not a scientist, but the fact I was adopted by the geobloggers means I do a decent job with the science blogging, and therefore, I can hold my head high even when standing right next to Jen McCreight.  (However, I am not a graduate student in genome sciences who started Boobquake, so I reserve the right to be a bit starstruck, mkay?)

Anyway.  Jen was pure teh awesome.  Now that she lives here, I hope to somehow lure her away from graduate studies long enough for a good chat, but I’m not sure how to lure a genome biologist.  If she were a geologist, I’d know just what to use: beer.  Does anyone here know the proper offering for a biologist?

The only thing that distracted me from Jen’s awesomeness was the microbiologist next to me, a very nice and engaging gentleman who tossed a bomb: he likes PZ Myers’s blogging, but doesn’t think PZ’s in-your-face call-stupid-what-it-is style is helpful.  Who’s convinced by someone getting up in their face and yelling at them?

And so, my darlings, I’m afraid I had to raise my hand and say, “Well, me, for one.”  I’ve only seen one other person look so astonished this week, and that was my coworker, who tried to toss me a test phone and ended up plonking me in the forehead with it. 

But yes, ’tis true.  Granted, I’d already given up on God by the time I ran across Pharyngula, but I still halfheartedly attempted to believe in Odin or perhaps Buddha or something spiritual, because I’d been told all my life that life didn’t mean nothing without faith.  The furthest I’d go is to call myself an agnostic, because only extremely unpleasant people were atheists, and you could NEVER EVER disrespect religion because religion was good, QED.  Sure, you could poke fun at fundamentalists (doesn’t everybody?).  But that’s where you should leave it.  And as for “other ways of knowing,” weren’t there a billion valid ones?  And as for science, it was a useful tool and very interesting but no replacement for spirituality, probably on account of NOMA.  And alternative medicine was just hunky dory.  My darlings, I still believed in Woo.  With a capital W.  Then along came PeeZee thundering onto my computer, spitting fire in defense of science, attacking weak and wobbly and credulous thinking without mercy, giving absolutely no quarter to religion, proclaiming himself a Proud Atheist, and wielding a rapier wit that cut deep indeed.

Most of the ideas I’d ever held dear, he called stupid.  Ridiculous.  Ignorant.  Dangerous, even.  But I didn’t feel he was attacking me, or my intelligence, only these ideas.  He was funny and fascinating and a good person.  He had moral values.  He cared for people.  Cared enough to spare no feelings.  Combine him with the fact that I’d just learned how concerted the creationist attack on evolution was, and my thinking changed very nearly overnight.  I’d been an idiot.  I’d thought I’d understood science, but I hadn’t; my thinking on religion had been hopelessly muddled; I’d been lying to myself; I’d fallen like a fool for foolish things.

So yes, the short, sharp shock sometimes works.  Mealy-mouthed accomodationism would have allowed me to go right on being fuzzy and fluffy and very crunchy indeed.  It wouldn’t have hooked me on science.  You see, PZ showed me how entirely awesome science, even biology with it’s squidgy bits, was.  He made me fall in love with it with a fierceness and passion I’d never before felt.  And science was under attack.  That shook me out of complacency.  It made me focus on science, really see it clearly for the first time in my life, and vow to defend it.  More than that, understand it.  It wasn’t comfortable any longer to be fuzzy and fluffy and crunchy.  PZ forced me to rethink assumptions and wrestle with some very difficult truths.  He showed me it was okay to examine where, exactly, my belief trajectory had been going, and on that night I calculated my God Delusion Index and had to face up to the fact that, yep, I surely was an atheist, because of PZ, I didn’t feel that was a bad thing to be at all.

PZ’s the reason I found out about Seattle Skeptics, because of a talk he gave in Seattle.  He’s the reason I became a science blogger rather than staying with the potty-mouthed politics I’d begun with.  He, more than anyone else, made me the skeptic and atheist I am today.  And it’s because of that style of his, which so many otherwise wise atheists and skeptics seem to think will drive absolutely everyone away.

So, as I told the microbiologist (forgive me, I forgot your name): there’s a place for a PZ Myers.  Different people respond to different things.  I happen to be in the subset who can watch people call very nearly everything I’d thought of the world wrong and heap scorn on the remnants of cherished beliefs, and instead of getting all defensive, go, “Hmm.  You know what, he’s right.”

It doesn’t work for everyone, though.  There’s a place for the friendly types.  Just don’t try to tell me that friendly and unconfrontational is the only way to win hearts and minds.  My heart and mind would still be stuck firmly in woo if I’d only been surrounded with people singing Kumbaya.  I’d have thought there was no problem with all my mushy-gushy beliefs and my appalling misunderstanding of science, because no one was up in my face telling me I’m a fool.  The most that would’ve happened is that I’d have thought atheists weren’t so evil, after all.  And then I’d have gone right on wasting my life in search of the supernatural, hence missing out on the mind-boggling awesomeness of the natural.

(I feel it necessary to insert Orac into the discussion here.  PZ did a lot to firebomb ignorance out of me, but Orac’s the one who delivered the death blow to my appreciation of alternative medicine.  And he did it by being a complete dick, not by being all nice and politely disagreeing.  But I wouldn’t have found Orac without PZ.  Funny how that works.)

My goodness.  That turned into a longer rant than I intended, but I’m just fed to here with people thinking PZ is driving people away in droves and that shouting never accomplishes anything.  I’m going to have to purchase a Gnu Atheist t-shirt and start wearing it to these functions, along with something squid-related.  Perhaps I should have a button designed with some pithy slogan. 

Right.  Well.  That was fun, and then it was time to return to the table to munch cake and watch Phylum Pheud for a bit, which was hysterically funny.  My intrepid companion amused himself with the party favors.  I present to you his masterpiece: dinosaurs fleeing the surging cake glacier:



So that was a little bit of all right, then.  We did, however, scarper off early, so I don’t know if Mollusca kept its early and overwhelming lead, or if Chordata stiffened their backbones and beat them out later.

We had a wonderful ramble round Juanita Bay, which I shall share pictures from a bit later.  All in all, a wonderful way to spend Darwin’s 202nd.

Random Acts of Kindness Week

Apparently, there’s a special week devoted to pouncing on people and doing something nice to them.  And since I don’t blog about Valentine’s Day, this seems a suitably sappy substitute.

I learned about this happy event from Steve Schimmrich, who thought he might be mugged but was handed a badly-needed dollar instead.  And it got me to thinking about other random acts of kindness, either performed by or performed on me.  I’ve been the beneficiary of more random kindness than I dare to believe I deserve.  You, my darlings, do me more kindness than I have a right to expect.

You started out strangers, but became my friends, all because you started out by doing something randomly kind: giving a nice comment, or offering advice, or including me among the geobloggers as if I was a really real geoblogger myself.  You’ve done me wonders, and I’ll probably never be able to repay your kindnesses back.  It’s a good thing there’s such a thing as paying forward.

Complete strangers have swooped down in times of dire need and done things they’d probably laugh off as inconsequential if I tracked them down and thanked them.  I’m sure the waiter at Denny’s all those years ago, who made me laugh at one of the darkest times in my existence by presenting a ketchup bottle as if it were expensive champagne, didn’t think he was doing anything particularly meaningful.  Just goofing off.  He threw me a lifeline, got me one foot up on a climb out of a deep black hole, and all it took was something so silly.

There were the people in Chicago, a whole crowd of them, who gathered round me in a store when I frantically asked after the location of some particular venue, and ensured I knew exactly how to get there in time to see Neil Gaiman and Will Eisner for the first time in my life.  They changed my mind about big city downtowns.  They made my day.

A thousand other things, big and small, done to a stranger by a stranger, that have kept me from believing humanity is beyond hope.

George sent me a rock hammer.  Suzanne performed rescue operations.  Cujo invited me to the theatre.  Lockwood volunteered for field trip duty. And there have been 10,000 other things, great and small, that you’ve done, things that make me a big squidgy mass of gratefulness and love.
I’ll probably never know most of the things I’ve done.  I don’t tend to think of myself as a random kindness person.  But I suppose I’ve done a few – there’ve been group photos taken in special spots, which probably count.  There was one gentleman who was placing an order with me, who had the most mono of monotones, until I asked him what was wrong.  He told me I wouldn’t want to hear his problems.  I told him to fire away, if it’d make him feel better, and by the time he finished I was very nearly in tears – he’d had The Worst Year Ever.  At the end, he sighed, said he did in fact feel a little better, and his voice gained a bit of animation as we finished getting his business forms ordered.  I’ll never forget him.

The point of all this rambling is, stuff like this isn’t hard, and it’s not expensive.  A dollar here, a listening ear there, a moment of time to snap a group photo or give directions or elicit a smile.  Most of us do these things already.  But at least having a week devoted to it means we can actually think about the kindnesses we do.  And perhaps we’ll find ways of doing even more.  More kindness = a better world.  It’s worth aiming for, especially for us cynical bastards who find it too easy to accentuate the negative. 

I just want to tell the men something important, here: if you’re swooping down on strange women to do them a kindness, try to avoid doing so if there’s no one else around.  We’ve read about too many serial killers, you see.  You might offer to help with carrying grocery bags and find yourself maced out of paranoid self-defense.  And ladies: random acts of kindness should also be done in public wherever possible.  Remember how Ted Bundy lured his victims.  And all of us should probably be careful to ensure parents understand what we’re up to if we’re performing a RAK for a child.

Have I mentioned I’m a bit cynical?

Anyway, those caveats in mind, go forth and do good, just as you already do, whether you know it or not.

Dear Mr. Darwin

Let’s pretend, for just a moment, we can send a letter to the past.  And yes, I know this is being posted the day after his birthday, but the Seattle Skeptics et al are celebrating it today.  Shall have pictures up from that happy event in the not-too-distant future, but what is future or past for those of us who can send letters to Victorian England, eh?

Dear Mr. Darwin;

Greetings from the year 2011!  I hope this letter finds you well, perhaps enjoying a lovely day on the Sandwalk, and that the sudden appearance of my missive hasn’t startled you too badly.  I know this is highly irregular.  However, I felt it important you know that your many long years of work have not gone unappreciated.

Other, more capable, people will be writing you to show you what your theory of evolution has become.  Needless to say, it’s grown and flowered, and is now the major unifying concept of biology.  It’s allowed us to make enormous strides in our understanding.  It’s been used to save lives, unlock the mysteries of our origins, and has proven to be one of the most powerful theories in any scientific discipline.  You, sir, would be astounded to see what came of your ideas.  And I hope you would be pleased.

I wish I could report that you’re universally appreciated, but alas, the forces of ignorance have not yet raised the white flag of surrender, although they’ve suffered an embarrassing number of decisive defeats.  I have to thank them, though.  Without them, I may never have become interested in evolutionary biology, or read your beautiful book.  I’m ashamed to admit that I knew little more of you than your name.  I knew some basics of evolution, and I knew that you had put the basics in place.  I knew you had discovered natural selection.  But I didn’t much care.  Biology, you see, was full of squidgy organic bits, and I didn’t much like squidgy organic stuff.

But then, while suffering from one of the worse cases of influenza I’ve ever experienced and looking for things to distract me from the misery, I stumbled across some information on the people fighting to keep evolutionary biology out of schools.  I discovered people who disparage your name and intend to drive all trace of your theory from the classroom, in favor of creationism, which some people have tried to dress up by calling “intelligent design.”  I can assure you there’s nothing intelligent about it.  It is, in fact, creationism’s Trojan Horse, and the arguments marshaled against your elegant theory of evolution are tiresome to the extreme.  They like to pretend, but they really haven’t advanced their arguments past William Paley, whereas scientists have built skyscrapers on the foundations you provided.

Well, I’m a writer, and I’ve always loved a good conflict.  So I abandoned my original purpose, which had been to fill some holes in my own appalling ignorance, and gleefully jumped into the fray.  I read everything I could find.  By the end of it, I’d learned more of evolutionary biology than I’d ever suspected I would, and I’d discovered you.

No one in my education had ever told me about your life.  I didn’t know your origins, the fact that you’d started out destined for the clergy, or the circumstances behind that famous voyage on the Beagle.*  Some bare facts had been given, but all the romance, the thrill of discovery, had been drained from them.  I learned of your adventures, your doubts, and the dawning of your understanding, and I became enthralled.  I’d never known you were such an interesting man.  I’d never known how hard it was for you to gather the evidence needed to verify your theory.  And I’d never realized you were such a talented writer.

At last, I picked up your On the Origin of Species, and read it cover to cover.  True, evolutionary biology has advanced far beyond what’s contained in those pages.  We now know the answers to many of the things that perplexed you.  But to appreciate how very far we’ve come, it’s good to understand where the journey started.  Besides, the Origin is a pure delight, a tour de force, a beautifully reasoned tale of discovery.  Your arguments are elegant, your evidence copious, and everything laid out in a clear manner.  No wonder T.H. Huxley exclaimed “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” upon hearing of natural selection.  It takes an act of willful blindness not to see the truth in those pages.

Alas, all too many people seem to delight in stabbing their eyes out.  But for every one of them, there are thousands who, because of you, can see this world in all of its infinite complexity with new eyes.  As one of them, I can tell you that you’ve made it possible for me to view even the humblest of creatures with wonder and delight.  What a story they all have to tell!  How far we’ve all come from that warm little pond (although we’re not altogether clear on whether it was a pond, exactly – it might have been a hydrothermal vent, or something else we’ve not yet imagined.  We’re still on a voyage of discovery, and someday, one or more of your intellectual descendants will find their own Galapagos, I’m sure).

And to think geology had something to do with it!  Geology is one of my especial delights.  Imagine, then, how thrilled I was to learn that Mr. Lyell’s Principles of Geology accompanied you on your voyage, and assisted you in your discoveries.  I hadn’t imagined, back when I was still toiling along in near-ignorance, that things so seemingly different as geology and biology are so intimately connected – and in more ways than just sharing two giants who revolutionized our understanding of those fields.  I have only to think of limestone, for instance.  But just as our understanding of evolution has advanced since your time, so has geology advanced since Lyell’s, and you would, I’m sure, be fascinated by the theory of plate tectonics and how the movements of continents have affected evolution.

Without you, Mr. Wallace and Mr. Lyell, none of that would be known to us.  I grant you, someone else probably would have made these discoveries in time, but how long would we have had to wait?  Long enough, I fear, that the scientific vista I enjoy now would have been much smaller.

Mr. Darwin, I feel it’s important for you to know just what a profound impact you’ve had.  It’s not a stretch to name you as the father of modern biology.  (And yes, I know you will say Mr. Wallace deserves no small share of the credit, and indeed he does, but today is your birthday, and so we are celebrating you.)  You are a remarkable scientist.

There is, indeed, grandeur in your view of life.  I thank you, sir, for giving us the eyes to
see it.

A happy birthday to you, and many happy returns!

I remain, ever your admirer,
Dana Hunter

 There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

-Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

*Special thanks to The Beagle Project Blog for this link.