Spring! At Least According to the Trees

Oh, how I’ve missed using the macro mode on my camera.  I’d been hoping for a nice sunny day coinciding with a day off, but alas, twas not to be.  But it wasn’t peeing down rain, so we ventured out to have a look at the flowering fruit trees anyway.

I think you’ll like the results.  But we begin with ducks.

Friendly Neighborhood Ducks

There’s a little nature walk across the street from my place, with a wee wetland, and these two were hanging about in it.  When they saw us on the path, they ambled over for a look.  I believe they wanted breadcrumbs.  No luck, but they’re getting their 15 minutes of fame.

And a few steps along, the first flowers I’ve photographed this spring:

First Flowers

Not sure what sort of tree these are on.  Story of my life.  Botany isn’t my strong suit.  But they’re beautiful, and they’re just the beginning.

Further on down, there was a fine representative of the family corvidae having a bit of a bath:

Bafftime!

Don’t ask me why I find bathing birds so charming.  I just do.

The path goes on along behind some office buildings.  The cherry trees are still in bloom, and there was this branch against the windows that reminded me of Japanese woodblock prints:

Cherry Blossoms and Window

This, people, is why I love cherry trees.

The roads by my house have little islands of life in the medians, where they’ve planted plum trees.  I’m fairly sure they’re plum trees.  They’re some sort of fruit tree, and they bloom a bit later than the cherries, anyway.  And those delicate blossoms against the rough, moss-covered trunks are just ethereal:

Blossoms, Buds and Trunk

The faint sunlight coming through that tiny bud just delights me.

On the street corner, there’s a lovely old cherry tree whose blossoms are ideally placed for admiring. Some of the young branches are reaching up the trunk, framing themselves perfectly.

Cherry Blossoms and Trunk

Then a tiny cluster on a tiny twig, right at eye level, just begging to be loved.

Cherry Cluster

And the sun peeked out for just a few moments, and the results – well, see for yourselves.

Cherries in the Sun

Glorious!

Down the road, more medians, more plums, and branches hanging against a stormy sky.

Plum Storm Sky

And branches crossing each other, weaving a canopy.

Crossed Branches

This is the view I have driving to work, every spring day, and a major part of the reason why I’ve lived here so long:

The Road Home

One of the most beautiful places on earth, this.  And just you lot wait ’til the rhododendrons bloom.

Geology in Odd Places: Insurance Building

When I stopped off to pick up my insurance check, I noticed something odd about the floor tiles.  They were all sort of shiny and wrinkly and lumpy.  I paused for a closer look, and very nearly shouted out two words in a paroxysm of glee: “Garnet schist!

Garnet schist tiles

I’m a sucker for schist.  And garnets are near and dear to my heart, being my birthstone and all.  Put the two together, stick them in an unexpected place, and what you’ve got is a very happy Dana indeed.  One who goes back to the insurance building toting a camera and begging the staff not to think her insane for photographing floor tiles.

Here they are in context:

Tile strip

How awesome is that?  I didn’t even know such things existed, but they indubitably do.

So that led me to start asking what, exactly, is garnet schist all about?  I know it’s a metamorphic rock, and I know it’s pretty.  That about sums up my knowledge.  So I threw the question out on Twitter, and got this reply from our own Ron Schott:



That sound you heard just then, rather like a blimp with a catastrophic failure in its air tanks roaring past at Mach 10, was nearly everything he’d said flying right over my head.  There were words there I recognized.  Problem was, I’d never seen them strung together like that.  And Elli Goeke was off at a conference, so this really wasn’t the time to turn to her and say, “Hey, Elli – my ignorance is total.  Halp!”

This is one of those moments when one frantically turns to Google.  Search “garnet schist,” and you get bugger-all.  Search something like “greenschist to amphibolite facies,” and suddenly you’re cooking with Sterno.  Or possibly with vast tectonic forces.

I found Barrovian metamorphism.

I’ll leave it to that link to explain in clear, succinct detail just what the hell that is.  Basically, if you’ve got major tectonic excitement like a volcanic arc or an orogeny, you’ve got Barrovian metamorphism going on.  In the context of our delightful garnet schist tiles, this gives us a recipe for their formation.

Let us begin with the garnets.  What sort of garnets are we dealing with here?  The Hudson Valley Geologist can point the way with this wonderful post on garnets.  He says, “Almandine is the most common type of garnet and typically the garnet found in garnet schists.”  Almandine ’tis, then: we’ll work on an assumption since the insurance company might get a tad upset if I dig up a tile to haul off to the lab.  What’s almandine, then?  It’s Fe3Al2(SiO4)3.   So we’ve got iron, aluminum, silicon, and oxygen.

Right, then.  Let us begin with a shale containing said elements.  Maybe our tiles began life on a nice, quiet continental shelf, as clay particles and quartz and all that other stuff gently settled out of suspension and got compacted.  It’s nothing particularly special.  Not yet.

Then, let there be an orogeny.  Continents collide!  Squish!  Squeeze!  Temperature and pressure rising!  And something interesting begins to happen:

From shale to gneiss

As our continents collide and our mountains build, our perfectly ordinary shale starts to change.  We’re at greenschist facies: 700-900 degrees F (400-500 degrees C) and 5-31 miles down (8-50km).  If our poor shale had stopped feeling the ol’ squeeze-and-burn right round there, it might have been fated to be a blackboard, or maybe a nice slate roof.  It might have ended up an unremarkable phyllite, at the farther end of that scale.

So what’s happening?  All that pressure-cooking is changing its mineral composition.  At greenschist facies, the index mineral formed is chlorite.  That mineral, in the absence of others formed under conditions of great heat and pressure, tells us just what sort of metamorphism our rocks have been subjected to.  So far, so not schist.  Until we increase the heat.

Now we’re entering amphibolite facies territory.  And things get very interesting indeed.  We’re cooking our former shale at temperatures of around 950-1200 degrees F (500-700 degrees C), and maybe we’ve buried it bit deeper.  Our index mineral becomes amphibole.  Here be schist – and possibly garnets.

Detail of garnet schist tile

What do those garnets tell us?  Well, it was hot.  We’re dealing with regional metamorphism on a convergent plate boundary, most likely.  Think the Alps, or the Himalayas.  Way down beneath the bulk of the mountains, the former phyllite was busy cooking into schist.  Minerals were lining up in a nice, platy structure, leading to future foliation.  You can rather see that in the tiles, all those lovely linear streaks there.  And deep in that hot, ductile rock, iron, aluminum, silicon and oxygen were busy forming garnets.  These beautiful crystals grow from microscopic dimensions up to something that can be centimeters (and, believe it or not, if conditions are just right, up to meters) across. 

The ones in these tiles are fairly small.  Look, I’ve even remembered to put a nickel in for scale!

Garnet schist tile, nickel for scale.  I iz fotograffing domestick geology rite!

They look a little like raisins in a pastry, don’t they just?  But if you could move a mountain and pluck out the schist underneath while it’s forming (here’s hoping you’re wearing the best oven mitts in the known universe), you wouldn’t be pulling out a sticky, tacky, half-baked and malleable rock.  This stuff can deform, but not on a human time scaleYou know how stained glass “flows” over hundreds of years, eventually bulging a bit at the bottom, over a time frame so long we never saw it moving?*  It’s an Olympic-caliber sprinter compared to this rock.  And the pressure it’s under is like nothing we’ve ever experienced.  Lockwood put it like this: “This truck weighs 60 tons. Imagine one parked on every square inch of [your] body. Not something I can picture.”

Yeah.  Yeow. 


On top of that, only some of the minerals will act plastic.  Some will remain brittle.  But if you add water to the equation, you might get some melting at upper amphibolite facies.  How exactly all that behaves under such extreme conditions is a question I’ll have to leave to experts like Elli.  

Whatever the details, ultimately, the rock’s “soft” enough that those lovely little garnets don’t get their style cramped as they form their faces.  They laugh at the pressure.  They bask in the thousand-degree heat.  And, after millions of years of high-quality pressure cooking, you end up with something like my pride and joy, a gorgeous garnet embedded in schist:

Mah beautiful garnet in schist!

But you’d probably like to see the full context, wouldn’t you?  Here she is, in all her glory:

So glad she didn’t end her life as a floor tile

So, there we are.  An orogeny’s cooked up a nice batch of garnet schist, but it’s just down there, miles and miles under the earth, where it can’t show off.  Until erosion removes the mountains.  And then it’s bold and beautiful and just waiting for some enterprising bugger to quarry it, where it will spend the next phase of its life prettifying the floors in a Seattle-area insurance company office.

Garnet schist tile with one thin dime for scale

There’s just something incredible about this.  You don’t walk into an office building expecting to see dozens of millions of years laid out ready to tell a story.  But I guess it’s appropriate.  This stuff formed in a continental collision, and they pay out claims for collisions of a different sort.

Remarkable.

As a special added bonus, here’s another garnet I’ve got.  In rhyolite, in fact.

Pretty in pink rhyolite

Yes, garnets are opportunistic little buggers who believe an eruption’s as good as an orogeny. But that’s a story for another day…

(With special thanks to Lockwood and Ron, without whom I wouldn’t have got a start and would have later ended up embarrassing myself.  I’m still likely to have spectacularly screwed up somewhere along the way.  Mistakes, misrepresentations, misunderstands, and general mis-es are my sole responsibility.  You metamorphic petrologists in the audience are welcome to kick my arse, and corrections shall be made as necessary.)

*Okay, so nevermind.  Let this be a lesson in the perils of not fact-checking the stuff you learned in grade school.

Dana’s Dojo: The Writer as Chameleon

Today in the Dojo: Why a completely unique fictional voice may not be possible nor desirable, but slavish imitation can be avoided.

There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.

- E. B. White

A long time ago, my writer friend Glynis asked me a question to which I gave a totally wrong answer:

“Do you find your writing style affected when reading fiction at the same time as writing fiction?”

To which I blithely answered, “When I first started writing, yes, but not now.”  Or something to that effect.  Which was me talking out of the nether regions again, self-deceived because I hadn’t been writing much fiction, and the fiction I had written had been composed under the influence of non-fiction for the most part.

Hubris is an ugly thing, my darlings. 

There was a horrifying moment afterward when I realized that I’d read so much Terry Pratchett that I was now writing like him.  Which isn’t so awful – he’s a brilliant writer – but not quite appropriate for something that was supposed to be life-or-death serious.  Snarky, dry British humor does not quite lend to the epic mood.  It would be like Jon Stewart writing Beowulf.  John Candy doing the Iliad.  Juvenal writing the Aeneid, even.  Of course, if you don’t know that Juvenal is the Roman who wrote the Satires, that joke just flew over your head.  If you haven’t read Juvenal, by all means give him a try.  As far as non-stuffy classics go, his are the non-stuffiest.  It’s kind of like studying the Onion’s Our Dumb Century in a political theory class.  You know it’s a joke that the rest of the world’s taking too seriously.

So anyway, there I was, realizing that I was writing something that sounded awfully damned close to Pratchett and going, “Doh.”  But I didn’t lie to Glynis.  I wasn’t actually reading Terry Pratchett while I was writing the book.  I’d read him a couple of weeks before.  But when you give yourself that concentrated a dose of one person’s fiction (four books), and when the only other fiction you’d read also sounded like Terry Pratchett a bit, and outside of that you hadn’t read any fiction for some time, and then you go to write some of your own…. let’s just say that the other author’s style tends to creep in whether you will it or no, especially when you’re writing over two thousand words at a time.

So yes, Victoria, there is a style problem.  I mean, Santa Claus.  I mean – hell, I don’t know what I mean anymore. 

That experience with pseudo-Pratchett style kind of made me consider a few things, which I shall now share with you.  This is one of those times when it’s an advantage to be a struggling joe just like everybody else, because the authority factor goes up while the bullshit factor goes down.

If anybody’s bullshit detector just went off, recall the sign at the door that said PLEASE TURN OFF ALL CELL PHONES, BEEPERS AND OTHER ELECTRONIC DEVICES.  Bullshit detectors come under the heading of “Other Electronic Devices,” FYI.

And now I shall claim to speak with authority without being revealed as a total charlatan… 

Right, then.  So, style.  What is this “style” and why should it be so affected by other “styles”?

I won’t even attempt to answer that in depth.  To me, an author’s style is no more and no less than the way they write that makes them recognizable as them.  I mean, give a reader a page of Anne Rice and a page of Danielle Steele and they’ll know instantly which one’s which, even if they don’t know the authors that well.  Danielle is the fluffy one, Anne is the wanky gothic one.  Throw a page from John Grisham in, and they’ll instantly say, “Ah-ha!  That rich bastard who wrote all those damned lawyer thingies.”

Simple enough on the surface.  We’re all unique human beings.  We should have no problem with sounding like it.

However.  Humans are born chameleons.  You know what I mean.  No snarky jokes about four legs and forked tongues.  I mean that we’re good at imitation.  Imitation leather, fur, crab… we created it, baby.  We’ve done it since birth.  Babies imitate adults, kids imitate each other while imitating (or perhaps gently mocking?) adults, and adults, it need hardly be said, are the biggest imitators of all, including imitating uniqueness to the point where they form clubs.  Corporations imitate each other and their betters.  Little guys imitate big guys.  And so on.  Innovation and uniqueness are treasured, but they remain so for about 2.2 seconds before everybody else jumps into the mix and the solo performance becomes a conga line.

What I mean by all of the above is, we can’t help but imitate.  That’s what people do and always have.

If you don’t imitate, even if you are truly unique, some bastard of a critic will come along and compare you to somebody else.  I mean, for gods’ sakes, Terry Pratchett has been compared to Tolkien.  The only thing they have in common is that they’re Brits and the write things with dragons and elves in them.  That’s it.  But Pratchett is apparently just like Tolkien.

In fantasy literature, this is becoming something of a joke.  You’re not writing fantasy unless a critic reading your advance copy has commented, “Strongly reminiscent of Tolkien.”

In fact, one of my favorite bands, Leaves’ Eyes, is Strongly Reminiscent of Tolkien.  It’s based on Norse Mythology and has some strings that sound a bit like the Lord of the Rings soundtrack in places.  Never mind the fact that no one like Liv Kristine sang in the film, or that Tolkien never heard of heavy metal, or that there’s no Ring in sight: if this were a book, some critic would have said…

You know what’s coming.  I don’t have to say it.

So that’s my first point.  Sounding like somebody or other is unavoidable.  So an author in chrysalis is doomed if s/he is trying to be unique.  By virtue of being a human being writing a book, you are not unique.

But there are degrees and then there are degrees.  “Reminiscent” is not the same as “Exactly like”.  And authors, really great authors, do put their individual stamp on their writing style.  The thing is, I don’t believe that’s conscious.  Style seems to me, from what I’ve experienced and what I’ve heard about others’ experience, to be something cobbled together from bits of influence and a little touch of what makes you yourself.  A chameleon may end up resembling a plaid throw rug, but you won’t shake him out and put him in front of the door, so to speak.  Not unless you want PETA to come and speak very sharply to you.

Neil Gaiman unapologetically wrote something that sounded an awful lot like “Neil Gaiman’s Take on Being Terry Pratchett” – read Ananzi Boys and tell me I’m wrong.  But at core, you could easily tell the difference.  Take heart from that while you’re struggling with style.  Even the megasuperstars don’t always sound precisely like themselves.

That is Dana Hunter’s “No Worries!” school of style development.  Quit worrying about who you sound like and just let the story sound like what it needs to sound like.  As long as you’re not setting out to write Just Like So-and-So, you’re probably okay.  I mean, Neil Gaiman didn’t set his novel Ananzi Boys in a cheap imitation of Discworld – call it Plateworld, ha ha – he set it here on Earth, with its own unique characters.  And that made it Gaiman, despite some situations and phrases that sounded a lot like Terry Pratchett.

If, on the other hand, you sound just like the author you’re currently reading because the plot, characters, world and all else are renamed and thinly disguised versions of the book you just read, then you’ve got worries.  That’s when you need to ask yourself why you’re regurgitating someone else’s story rather than telling your own.

Of course, you must also keep in mind that many people *coughTerryBrookshack* have begun  long and lucrative careers by closely imitating other, more creative, authors, so maybe you shouldn’t worry so much after all.

However, I see you are still worrying and so am I.  So let’s see what’s to be done about it, as none of us want to sound just like other people.

The first path to finding your style is, of course, writing endlessly.  Every writer I’ve ever read about has gone through a long phase of sounding just like their favorite authors, but after writing something on the order of a billion words, they found themselves sounding like… themselves.  Even *ackTerryBrookschokeptah.*  Write enough, and you’ll stop sounding like other writers out of sheer boredom, possibly, or because you’re so busy writing you forget to be self-conscious about it.

The second path is to mix up your reading.  Don’t spend a week reading nothing but books by one sort of author and then attempt to write your own magnum opus (or magnificent octopus, as the case may be).  You’ll end up like me, sitting there reading over the last paragraph and going, “What the sod is Terry Pratchett doing in here?  ACK!”  A variety of fiction and fictional styles will prevent some of that.  I’ve found that sometimes it’s best not to read novels while I’m writing novels), nor short stories while writing short stories.  Instead, if I’m really trying to keep my style purish, I’ll read the opposite of what I’m writing at the time, and I’ll go from non-fiction to humorous fantasy to hard science fiction to mystery and all over the place.  That seems to keep my brain confused enough that when I write, I write like Dana Hunter.  Whoever that is.

A corollary to that is to read something opposite in tone to what you’re writing.  I’ve discovered that if I’m writing something serious, best to read humor.  Humorous, the most depressing stuff I can get my hands on.  And so on down the list of emotions.  It’s really hard to draw on Robert Jordan for style when you’re writing something funny, even unconsciously, let’s put it that way.

The hell of the above is, sometimes you have to read stuff that mirrors what you’re doing to keep you inspired.  That’s when the trick of variety comes in.  If I need science fiction to inspire sci fi thoughts, I’ll bounce around among Connie Willis, Harlan Ellison, Ken MacLeod, C.S. Friedman, and the like.  All of them are different enough that, again, I get the overall spirit without getting unduly influenced by particulars.

If you find that you’re one of those people who is b
asically Water and will take the shape of whatever you’re reading at the time no matter how hard you try not to, you have a few choices.  When I’m in a particularly impressionable phase, I’ll put down the fiction and pick up non-fiction for my reading edification instead.  Such as just after the Hubris Fiasco: to cleanse my palette from an overdose of Pratchett, I went through the entirety of Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God.  And watched a hell of a lot of television.  Eventually, all of that (somewhat) rid me of the tendency to let Jiahrkah sound just like Sam Vimes or Vetinari or any of Pratchett’s more snarky passages of prose.  (Unfortunately, it turns out that the problem lies not just with me but with the fact that Jiahrkah likes sounding that way and resists all efforts of mine to make him stop.)

That aside, I know of famous authors who declare that they refuse to read anything but non-fiction while writing fiction, because otherwise they, too, end up imitating their heroes.  So there you go.

If all else fails, give up worrying about it during the first draft.  I’ve discovered after much pain and gnashing of teeth that once the first draft’s been sitting quiescent on the old hard drive for a while, I’ve figured out how to get rid of the Other-author-isms and turn it into mostly-pure Dana on the second or third.

The final path that I’ve identified is to slow way the hell down.  When I’m writing slowly and really thinking in-depth about what I’m writing and how I want to say a particular thing, it comes out totally me.  But that means that a short story can take months and a novel, more years than it should.  However, if you wish to follow that path, it’s a valid one.

In all this, it’s important to remember that everyone’s style is cobbled together from bits and pieces of your own personality, things you admire in other writers, half-remembered influences from yesteryear, and funky turns of phrase that your friends and family or that stranger on the bus uttered.  True uniqueness is not really possible, nor desirable.  If you’re truly unique, then not many people are going to understand you, and that’s not the best way to tell a story.  If your writing is denser than James Joyce’s and your readers need an advanced degree, schizophrenia, drugs, Cliff Notes, or all of the above to understand it, what good is it really doing other than giving a few some snobbish delight and the rest a headache?

Remember, my darlings: whatever else a chameleon ends up looking like, in the end it looks just like itself.  Your style will do the same thing.  Don’t worry overmuch if it starts to blend a little with its surroundings.

Topics, People! I Need Topics!

I’m insane.  Right round the bend.  Gone straight for a madman.  Loco (well, in my case, loca).  I’m trying to write a month’s worth of blog posts within the next four days.

Topics.  I need topics.

So, if there’s anything you’ve been burning for me to write about, now’s the time to mention it.  I don’t care how crazy it sounds, or if you think it will only be interesting to a minority of circus performers, or if you think you’re the only one who could possibly care.  Pitch it.  You never know when you’re not the only one.

Got a question about atheism?  Ask it.  Want to know something about this life as a writer?  Inquire within.  Some aspect of Arizona or Pacific Northwest geology intrigues you?  Do tell!  Those are just a few suggestions to get your topic synapses firing.  

And if anyone’s been itching to post a guest post right here on ETEV, now would be a good time to raise your hand and squeal, “Ooo, me!  ME!”  Send it along to dhunterauthor at yahoo dot com and you might just see your name in lights.

Right, then.  Fire away.  I’m off to continue preparing for the last month o’ the winter writing season….

I’ll Take Wonder and Awe Over Mystery, Thanks

Seems it’s time to talk about science and beauty again.  You see, several people tweeted this XKCD:



And then, on the same day, Eric MacDonald has this post up:

This morning, in the The Independent, Michael McCarthy has an article entitled “Mere Science cannot account for beauty.” And while it may be true that mere science cannot account for beauty — there may be no strictly scientific account in terms of chemistry or physics of why we respond as we do to things that we find beautiful — I wonder why he felt the need to say it. Science has, in fact, revealed many beautiful things. Some of the pictures that Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers have put up from time to time on their blogs — close-up pictures of insects, the amazing variety of squids and octopuses, eagles’ nests, and eaglets — or the pictures of stars and galaxies and supernovae that Carl Sagan included in his books — show that scientists, far from negating beauty or awe at the wonder of nature, celebrate and revel in such things. The deeper they probe, the more they study and come to know, the more wonderful and beautiful nature seems.

Motion carried.

I used to be one of those woo-woo idjits swanning around mourning the fact that science takes the mystery out of things.  I also used to be one of those woo-woo idjits swanning around perplexed by the fact that an ostensibly benevolent universal consciousness took such delight in creating really ugly shit.  Inordinate fondness for beetles is only the tip of it.  Tended to ignore the ugly stuff, then, in favor of pretty things.  Oh, and I really wanted to believe in magic and faeries.

There had, I told myself, to be something more to this universe than just plain boring ol’ matter.  And why were those meanie scientists so intent on taking the mystery and magic out of life?  Sure, some of what they did was made of awesome, but did they have to be such bastards about it?  Did they have to make it impossible for me to believe in faeries?

For a while, I had this weird split-personality.  One side of myself read and reveled in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World while the other gobbled up books on Celtic magic.  I thought the world wouldn’t be quite so pretty without the possibility of mysteries beyond science’s ken.  I still liked watching science spank assorted silly people, like UFO conspiracists and fundies, but hands off my faeries, damn it.

Then, somewhere along the line, I grew up. 

And I found out something.

Science solves mysteries, yeah, but mysteries aren’t half as much fun unsolved as they are when they’re being solved.  That thrilling sense of mystery was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the numinous sensation of gazing upon a mystery solved.  What I mean by that is, having things explained didn’t lessen them a bit.  I mean, let’s go back to Eric’s post, where he demonstrates Mr. McCarthy wanking about butterflies:

With science, McCarthy tells us, he can explain that

it was an insect; that it belonged to the butterfly family Pieridae, the whites; that it had overwintered as an adult, one of only four British butterfly species to do so (the others pass the winter variously as eggs, or caterpillars, or pupae); that in its caterpillar stage it had fed on the plants buckthorn or alder buckthorn; and that it had hibernated disguised as a leaf, probably in an ivy clump, until the first warm day in March woke it up.

But that, he says, just “doesn’t remotely get it.”

Dude, McCarthy, you don’t remotely get it.  What has science told us about that butterfly?  Without science, we have a wee pretty little insect fluttering around, yes, okay, “like a piece of sunlight that had been loosed from the sun’s rays and was free to wander, announcing the spring.”  I get that, it’s very nice.  You can throw a bit of animism in there if you like, and talk about butterfly spirits if you’re feeling particularly frisky.  Whatever melts your butter (or flutters your butterfly).  But you, O wanker who recites some science facts whilst totally missing the point, aren’t seeing the real majesty here: science tells us that we and that butterfly are related.

That’s right.  Not closely related, mind.  The butterfly might not get invited were we to throw a family reunion, but trace the family tree back enough, and you’ll see that little brimstone butterfly and ourselves share a common ancestor.  We’re kin.  That may not be mysterious, but that leaves my jaw hanging, that does.  That gets me all giddy inside.  And we never would have known that if it wasn’t for boring ol’ science out there solving mysteries and banishing ghosts, gods, and all sorts of nature spirits.

Here’s another thing you might see, looking at that little butterfly: it’s made of star-stuff.  Literally.  All of the atoms in it got cooked up in stars or supernovae at some point in the universe’s history.  It’s not just that we need sunlight to survive: we needed gigantic exploding stars to make this planet possible in the first place.

If the two above facts do not induce a sense of awe and wonder in you, then you are bloody well hopeless.

Mysteries are nice, yeah, but they’re too easily ignored when they can’t be solved.  What really gets the awe and wonder going, what leaves me stumbling round in slack-jawed amazement, occasionally bursting into gales of giddy laughter, is the sheer magnitude of what science has revealed about the workings of the world.  It makes everything huge.  Back when I thought goddidit, I could just shrug stuff off.  ‘Course it’s pretty, God made it that way, or the faeries or the spirits or whoever.  But you can’t shrug off the beauty of the natural world so easily.  Not when it comes down to the intricate interplay of physics and chemistry and geology and biology, some or all of them combining in any one moment to unconsciously create something of extraordinary beauty.  It’s like a really good magician’s trick, the kind where seeing how it was done only makes you appreciate the illusion more.

Oh, and did I mention how science makes ugly things lovely?  Even slime molds that look like dog barf.

You woo-woo lot can go into agonies of ecstasy over the first butterfly in spring.  I shall sing odes to the slime mold, and the mud flat that could tell me a once and future story about its birth in the heart of a star, its wander through space until it became part of a primordial planet, its journey through the Hadean earth and its incarnations as, perhaps, a bit of magma or a solid bit of shell before erosion weathered it away to become what it is now, a home for the oysters, on its way to an eventual date with lithification once more, cycling ever onward.

Some Brief Thoughts on Death and Dying

Diana Wynne Jones, outstanding fantasy writer and Neil Gaiman’s friend, died. She lived a long life, and a good life, and left a lot of magic behind.

I found myself standing on the balcony after hearing the news, staring into the sky at the stars, and caught myself thinking, “I hope Death came for her.”  Those poor, deprived people who aren’t fans of Neil Gaiman won’t understand why that’s a happy thought.  Maybe this will help:

Death of the Endless

There are worse last sights than a cute, perky Gothic chick taking you on one last adventure.

Of course, I laughed at myself a little for the thought.  Death exists only in the imagination.  There’s no actual being who’s going to drop by and haul anybody’s arse off to the Summer Lands.  There’s no afterlife.  There’s life, and then there’s not.  People seem to think that’s terrifying.  They can’t face that death is the end, that there’s nothing beyond to look forward to.  I get that.  Not as much as I used to, but I understand some people desperately need to believe there’s no end to us.

I used to need that.  I used to fear dying quite a lot, actually, and worried about the quality of the afterlife.  But then I read Sandman, and met Death, and thought that while life was preferable to death, there wasn’t any real reason to fear Death herself.  I didn’t want to meet her too soon, but it wouldn’t be so bad.  She put a spring in my step.  She dispelled the shadows.

Still.  I worried.  What if I didn’t accomplish everything I’d set out to do?  That’d be me, moping around the Summer Lands, regretting the things I hadn’t done.  I’d get what everyone gets: a lifetime.  But would it be enough?

Then I became an atheist, and suddenly, the fear was gone.  Seriously, totally gone.  I no more want to die now than I ever did, I still want to accomplish things and leave something of lasting value behind, but I’m no longer afraid of the fact of death.  Why should I be?  I won’t have regrets.  I’ll know nothing about it.  There will be no me left to fret or regret.  The end of consciousness used to be a terror, but for some reason, a day came when I could fully accept it.  I think it’s because I realized there’s no use in fearing it.  And now, I could dedicate all of me to this life.  It’s the only one I’ve got.  No do-overs.  Do I really want to spend it in perpetual panic?  No.  So.  Live a good life, and a full life, as long as I can, and enjoy it.  One day at a time, with no eternity staring me accusingly in the face.

But.

There’s a chance that, at the end, I’ll see Death.  Near death experience, y’see.  Got to thinking about those tonight.  The last imaginings of the hypoxic brain.  Some people see Jesus.  Some people see – well, whatever their culture’s conditioned them to see.  So it’s quite possible that the last fitful firings of my synapses will present me with a tunnel, and a cute perky Gothic chick, and with the last instant of consciousness, I’ll be able to take her hand and let her walk me off the stage.  It won’t matter a bit that it’s not real, or that it won’t be remembered.  It’s still a hell of a nice way to go.

A last instant of happiness.  Don’t know.  Could be.  A last, delightful little hallucination as the grand finale. 

I hope that Diana Wynne Jones’s brain did that for her.  I hope that the last synapse fired off a happy ending, a fitting tribute to a wonderful life richly lived.

Los Links 3/25

Reading’s still a bit sporadic.  Okay, a lot sporadic.  Creative juices flowing and all that – it’s been hard to focus on everything else.  But, thanks to the excellent folks I follow on Twitter, I got a few bits for ye.

Thurs-Demo: The one with the Earthquake Machine: “I named mine ‘El Temblor!’ I need to find some images of mexican wrestlers to paste on the sides and the brick to liven it up, I think. I designed mine to be easy to watch the brick, simple to construct, and cheap. Sort of a minimalist Earthquake Machine that I then loaded up with electronic sensors to graph some data (it’s not SCIENCE until you graph some of the data…).” (Research at a Snail’s Pace)

Reverberations of the Honshu tsunami: “Whatever the warning time, the sheer magnitude and force of the tsunami greatly exceeded anything the Japanese people had experienced since modern record keeping began. Approximately, 40% of the Japanese coast is lined with sea walls of varying heights, but as the New York Times describes, these sea walls provided little barrier to the March 11 tsunami. Worse, these seawalls may have lured coastal dwellers into a false sense of security and obscured their views of receding waters in advance of the oncoming tsunami. As a hydrologist, I was struck by the similarity of the problems with sea walls to the ones associated with levees along flood-prone rivers. The combination of under-engineering and complacency is a deadly combination when a major tsunami, flood, or hurricane strikes.” (Highly Allochthonous)

Ignoring tsunami records: hubris, complacency, or just human nature?: “The earthquake that struck Japan may have been the largest since historical records began (and the fourth largest ever recorded), but the tsunami had many precedents – bigger ones – in the historical and geological record. The size of a tsunami is related to the displacement of the seafloor, not necessarily the magnitude of the earthquake, and significantly smaller events than the one on March 11th have generated larger tsunamis. This raises two questions: given the size and devastation of past events, why should this have been a surprise and why were ‘defences’ so woefully inadequate? And, are there, realistically, such things as ‘tsunami defences’ at all? (Through the Sandglass)

How to (and how not to) talk about earthquake hazards in the media: “This isn’t to say a magnitude 8 earthquake isn’t a very serious future hazard for California. But to argue that it would be more ‘scary’ than what we witnessed a couple of weeks ago is pushing it a bit. To argue that this horror is imminent is borderline irresponsible – there is no scientific basis for stating the risk of a ‘Big One’ in California is any greater than it was a month ago. The same is true of the arguably much more scary Cascadia subduction zone to the north – which can potentially produce a magnitude 9 earthquake, and will produce a tsnuami when it does so. We know that both of these faults will rupture at some point in the future, and people need to be aware of that. But claiming we’re in some period of extra-special risk right now is, to put it bluntly, just making stuff up.” (Highly Allochthonous)

Will radiation hormesis protect us from exploding nuclear reactors?: “That reputable scientist, Ann Coulter, recently wrote a genuinely irresponsible and dishonest column on radiation hormesis. She claims we shouldn’t worry about the damaged Japanese reactors because they’ll make the locals healthier!” [There follows an epic scientific beating.  Pass the popcorn and enjoy!] (Pharyngula)

What A Disaster Really Means: “Disaster management on this scale is rather like being an invading army, minus most of the weaponry. To be successful, an invader has to assume that there will be nothing of use in whatever territory it conquers. The U.S. Army has a whole command dedicated to figuring out the logistics of such things, because, as they put it, prior planning prevents poor performance. They literally figure things down to how much to give a soldier to take with him each day. They have to.” (Slobber and Spittle)

A Message From Christchurch On The Value Of User-Generated Content: “In a disaster, UGC is not here for your entertainment. It is not competing with network news for ad dollars. It does not care whether you think it should be pitted against the professionals for a journalism award. It is a way for people experiencing the most significant event of their lives to bear witness, to cry out their pain and their suffering and their need, to connect with people close by who are sharing the experience and with people far away who, but for their voices, might mistake these events for a blockbuster movie filmed on a sound stage. No human can fail to be moved by the horrific tragedy of Japan, made so real by the user-generated content coming from that ravaged coastline — its very lack of professionalism making it so abundantly clear that there is no difference at all between us and them. In these turbulent times, we cannot afford to distance ourselves from the humanity at the other end of the camera, and from the reality that there but for the grace go we.” (Online Spin

Don’t forget Evelyn’s ongoing interview series with her father, a nuclear engineer, about the damaged nuclear plants causing so much trouble in Japan. 

Why Can’t I Ever Dream Up Scams Like This? “I received an email from a fundie crying that some commie-liberal puppy-raping Jesus-hating atheist doesn’t like the national motto (‘In God we trust’). He wants me to sign a petition to Congress to get them to vote yes on some unconstitutional legislation to waste tax dollars promoting his religion.” (Bay of Fundie)

Dressing the meat of tomorrow: “The first piece of in vitro meat grown for human consumption was not produced by science or industry, it was produced by art. More specifically, it was created by the artists Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben Ary in 2003 as part of their ongoing Tissue Culture and Arts project. The meat was cultured from frog cells and was subsequently eaten by a group of invited guests at a gallery in France.” (SciAm Guest Blog)

The Physics of the Flower’s Bloom: “Not content to just watch flowers dance in the breeze, Harvard physicists have described for the first time how flowers generate the forces needed to curl open come springtime. In the asiatic lily (Lilium casablanca), this poetic blossoming is driven by skewed growth at the edges of petals, the team reports online March 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” (Wired Science)

Impacts and Geology: deep peace? “Metamorphic rocks typically come from deep in the earth and form slowly. Simple physics shows that transferring heat into large volumes of rock (a key driver of many types of metamorphism) takes millions of years. Rocks that form the deep crust of stable cratonic areas lead the most placid of lives. They are heated for so long that they become annealed; they have achieved complete chemical, textural and thermodynamic equilibrium, like some sort of silicate-based Buddhist monk.

“Some deep crustal rocks in South Africa were once in granulite nirvana and might still be there, if only they hadn’t been hit by the biggest impact known on earth. The slow and calm world of the deep crust was violently attacked from Outer Space and the shocking results are visible in the a thin-section.” (Earth Science Erratics)

Frivolous Research?: “In 1955, a $250,000 grant was awarded to researcher E.F. Knipling to study the sex life of the parasitic screwworm.  Senator William Proxmire (a Democrat) later awarded this study – The Sexual Behavior of the Screw-Worm Fly – his infamous ‘Golden Fleece’ award which was given to projects he believed were a ridiculous waste of taxpayer dollars.  Proxmire, whose degree was in Business Administration, turned out to be rather poor judge of biological research projects since this project is estimated to have had a payback measured in the billions of dollars.” (Hudson Valley Geologist)

Soldier, Dad, Whistleblower: Atheist in a Foxhole Takes on Evangelistic Military Hierarchy: “The big stuff that’s coming down from the top, that’s different. There are existing rules in place that are being violated systematically. For instance, soldiers are very vulnerable when they come out of basic training, and evangelistic organizations take advantage of that to target them. Look at the picture of the five hundred soldiers being converted by the Billy Graham people. It’s 200 here, 150 there on stage in uniform. It’s epidemic, and I find it outrageous. The amount of money being spent by American citizens to support Evangelical proselytizing activities is substantial. The smokescreen about spiritual fitness having nothing to do with proselytizing is just that–smoke.” (Truthout)

Hugs From Libyans: “Doubts are reverberating across America about the military intervention in Libya. Those questions are legitimate, and the uncertainties are huge. But let’s not forget that a humanitarian catastrophe has been averted for now and that this intervention looks much less like the 2003 invasion of Iraq than the successful 1991 gulf war to rescue Kuwait from Iraqi military occupation.” (Nicholas Kristof, NYT)

News flash: creationists distort science: “What I’m going to do is put up an analysis by a professional systematist of how duplicitious this ICR article is.  Christian creationists won’t, of course, be swayed by scientific counterarguments, but perhaps it will be instructive to see how creationists distort data in a field that’s unfamiliar to most laypeople: systematics.” (Why Evolution is True) [And for bonus hilarity, you’ve absolutely got to watch this video of two corvids getting cats to fight.  This, my darlings, is why I laugh at the people who tell us we should imitate the harmony of nature.)

The Difference Between Guys and Gals

I sometimes worry, when writing from male points of view, that I’m getting it all wrong.  Okay, so, granted, I took some BBC quiz thing once that was supposed to measure the relative gender of your brain and came out strongly on the male side.  Spent most of my childhood running wild through the neighborhood with the boys and seemed to hold me own.  But still.  I’m a girl.  Got the parts to prove it.  Got the damned monthly agony to prove it, too, though I wish I didn’t.  And I sometimes wonder if my boys are turning out too much like girls.

Livia Blackburne’s post On Writing Realistic Male Characters is a bit of a help there.  So is seeing stark yet subtle examples of the differences in the way men and women view the world.

For instance, I’ve just finished Doctor Who Series Four (for the second time), and something about the end of it was bugging me.  What I’m about to discuss has spoilers, so for those of you who haven’t yet seen the show, but plan to, and want their viewing experience to be spoiler-free, I’m putting the rest below the fold.

Right.  All present and accounted for, aside from the non-spoiler sorts?  Good.  Great.  Let me set the scene: in Series Two, The Doctor’s companion, Rose Tyler, ended up trapped in a parallel universe.  Considering how close the two of them were, it was terrible for both.  She loved him, he loved her, and twas sad stuff all round.

I mean, just look at the two of them and tell me they weren’t something special:

Source

At the end of Series 4, Rose finds her way back.  And it’s one of those hugely touching moments where they see each other, and break into this flat-out run, and just as The Doctor’s about to reach her BAM! Dalek shoots him.  Which isn’t much of a problem, really, what with the whole regeneration thing.  But Russell T. Davies had her wanking about how he can’t change, not after all she’s gone through to find him, as he lays there unconscious and dying on the Tardis floor.

Drove.  Me.  Nuts.

One, she’s already been through one of The Doctor’s regenerations, and that had turned out great, so why would she worry about it?  Two, he was dying, she loves him, and she should’ve really been screaming at him to get on with the whole regeneration thing before it’s too late, not sitting there wanking about him changing.  Three – oh, fuck it, I’m tired of pummeling Russell T. Davies.

So that weighed on me.  Worried at my mind for a few days.  It was like having a tiny little rock in my sock, driving me absolutely mad.  And then I had it, the reason he hadn’t got it: he’s being a stereotypical boy.  Physical appearance means a lot to a guy.  Whereas a woman, meh.  Yeah, ladies like the good looks.  But we aren’t quite as fixated on them.  If the person we’ve fallen for is still going to be pretty much the same in mind and emotion, we can get over the physical package.  But apparently, that never occurred to Russell T. Davies.  So he had Rose being a wanker.  Argh.

Contrast that with a story arc from Series 3, “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks.”  These were written by Helen Raynor.  And they didn’t lack for kick-arse action – the lady, ladies and gentlemen, is fucking brutal.  But she’s also a she.  And so we have a bit of a mirror element in here, with two of the supporting characters, Laszlo and Tallulah.  In the beginning, we see that they’re sweethearts.  Then the Daleks snatch him away and turn him into a pig-slave (long story).  His mind remained intact, but he wouldn’t win any beauty contests now.  He hid himself away from Tallulah, convinced she could never love a monster.  But when she found out, though she was a bit squigged at his appearance, she loved him still, and they go on to what we can expect was a long and happy life together.

That, my darlings, is the essential difference between these two episodes.  Helen Raynor got both the guy and gal right – the guy afraid that physical deformity would ruin the relationship, the gal too much in love to care.  Russell T. Davies, on the other hand, got the gal absolutely wrong.  And he made Rose Tyler a little bit less of a character because of it.

The moral: men and women are similar, but not the same, and a writer would do well to always remember that.  Make sure that when you’re running your work by your Wise Readers, you’re asking them to point up the bits where you got the other gender willing-suspension-of-disbelief shatteringly wrong.  But also keep in mind that generalizations about gender differences are just that – generalizations.  You can have shallow women and deep men when it comes to the whole body vs. mind thing.  Real people aren’t 100% stereotypical, and neither should your characters be.  The most important thing is to stay true to the character you’ve built.

All that said, I’ll forgive Russell T. Davies anything after what he did with “Midnight.”

Oregon Geology Bonus Features: Geologic Art Interlude

Did I say last week it was the end of Oregon Geology?  Well, consider this the DVD collection, complete with extras!

We stopped over at Washington Park the morning we were in Portland, and found some delicious geologic art. 

Les AuCoin Plaza

One of the most striking is Les AuCoin Plaza, near the MAX station.  You like light rail, thank former Rep. AuCoin, who was instrumental in making it happen.  This plaza does him total justice.  It’s beautiful, for one thing.  The enormous columns of basalt (say high to our old friend the CRB!) are just wonderfully worked in.  You can really get up-close and personal, inspect them, get a feel for how massive they are.

And there’s so much more.

Here’s another view of columns, above the Plaza:

Columns and Benches

This is in a sandy sort of amphitheater.  You can sit on the stone flag benches, or on the columns, and just feel the solidity of the rock around you.  Definitely recommended for a geology buff.  There’s nothing quite like sitting with solid geology in an urban setting.  And those of you who fell prey to the columns meme will adore them.

Down by the World Forestry Center, across the way from the MAX rail station, you’ll find some enormous chunks of petrified wood.  I mean huge.  It’s hard to tell because I didn’t bloody put anything in there for scale, but these things are at least waist high.  Here’s the biggest:

Enormous Hunk o’ Petrified Wood

And a closeup:

Delicious Ancient Wood!

I love the colors.  It’s like a sunset captured in stone that used to be a tree.  Amazing stuff, that.

There’s another one there that isn’t so much about color as texture:

Looks Like a Crocodile

Wish I knew what it was, but I love that it looks so much like crocodile skin. 

And, of course, this being the Northwest, there’s plants growing in it:

Ivy and Ancient Tree

Stuff like this really delights my synapses, especially when it’s unexpected.  We’d only gone down there to see the geologic core.  We had no idea we’d be running into geologic art at every turn.  Really, really beautiful stuff.

Right, then.  There’s that.  And if I can tear myself away from Doctor Who and fiction writing long enough this week, I’ll get my research done for the next installment, in which you’ll finally get to see the reason why we were at Washington Park in the first place: the geologic core displayed at the MAX rail station.  You’re going to go “Squee!”  I guarantee it.