I guess this is a Valentine’s Day story

It’s about snails looking for love.

But I just have to intrude rudely and mention that handedness in snail shell coiling has been studied for a long time, and we mostly know the answer: the direction is specified by a maternal effect gene, so what matters is the genotype of Jeremy’s mother, not Jeremy’s phenotype. Jeremy and Lefty are almost certainly heterozygous, the product of a homozygous left-coiling mother and a mate who was almost certainly (because this is a rare trait) homozygous for the right-coiling allele, and because they carry the right-coiling allele, all of their little baby snails will be right-coiling. He’s going to have to look in their grandchildren to find more left-coiling snails.

Technical details of the genetics aside, it must be frustrating to have to take chirality into consideration when trying to mate. Imagine a world where being left-handed makes sex with right-handers require all kinds of twisty gymnastics to line the bits up just right.

How do we clean up this administration?

General Wackjob Flynn has resigned overnight, and now new old untrustworty people are being considered for the job of national security advisor; David Petraeus among them. Hey, didn’t he resign under a cloud, for sharing classified material with his mistress? He sounds perfect for the job.

We have a crisis here. The president is manifestly incompetent, he is surrounded by malevolently incompetent advisors, and we don’t seem to have a way to extract him from office. The Electoral College was supposed to be a mechanism to block unsuitable candidates before they took office, but that was exposed as a sham. There is supposed to be a way to trigger impeachment proceedings, but the other branch of our government, congress, is packed with cowards, lackeys, and lickspittles who are going to block any action on that front…and even if they chopped off the head of this monster, there’s a line of succession packed with incompetents.

We’re under the clock. A noted historian says we have maybe one year to fix this predicament.

The marches were very encouraging. These were quite possibly the largest demonstrations in the history of the US, just in sheer numbers on one single day. That sort of initiative has to continue. The constitution is worth saving, the rule of law is worth saving, democracy is worth saving, but these things can and will be lost if everyone waits around for someone else. If we want encouragement out of the Oval Office, we will not get it. We are not getting encouragement thus far from Republicans. They have good reasons to defend the republic but thus far they are not doing so, with a few exceptions. You want to end on a positive note, I know; but I think things have tightened up very fast, we have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less. What happens in the next few weeks is very important.

To stop an onrushing tyranny, we need to check presidential power. How? At this point, we shouldn’t be intimidated by the ugly line of succession, because I think it’s more important to send a message that presidents don’t get to be dictators…and that they ought to be competent at doing their job. (That last requirement ought to send a chill down the spines of every Republican, which may be why they aren’t doing something about the rogue gossamer-haired sphincter running amuck in the White House.)

So what are we going to do?

Clear and present danger

Jebus. All it takes to be qualified to participate in discussions of national security with our Resident* is to cough up for a $200,000 membership to Mar-A-Lago? I’m out. I can’t even imagine having that much money, period, let alone be able to throw it away on a country club. But at a dinner with the Japanese president, the American Resident* basically invited everyone at the table to peer at incoming information about a North Korean missile launch. Suddenly, I’m sure, every foreign intelligence agency has perked up at the idea that they can get access relatively cheaply, just by paying this old clown for the privilege.

I am kind of terrified. Didn’t we just have an election where the far right was shrieking about Clinton’s email server and the possibility that spies might compromise its security? I wonder how much it would cost to buy an email account on that server.

And then, christ, one of the hack fat cats and Trump supporters took photos and bragged of having hung out with the security guy carrying the nuclear football. Said hypothetical spy who bought his way into Mar-A-Lago can now look forward to snatching access to the biggest weapons system on the planet, or at least stealing it to prevent a response.

This is totally bonkers. I’m not normally one of those paranoid doomsday-preppin’ kinds of kooks, but maybe I should start pricing guns and giant tubs of survivalist chow.

Nosferatu! <crosses self>

I do not believe in the supernatural, but the evidence is growing that the Trump regime is so desperate for support that they are raiding graveyards — probably Nazi graveyards — to dig up the undead and prop them up on a stage. Case in point: look into the dead eyes of Stephen Miller. He’s horrifying.

He even appalls Joe Scarborough. I think we’re going to have to invade the White House with buckets of holy water and wooden stakes and torches sometime soon.

But…who is going to the stars?


Kim Stanley Robinson wrote an excellent essay on generation ships — the science-fiction concept of building starships designed to take hundreds or thousands of years to fly to their destination, with generations of people living within them — and summarized all the physical, biological, and ecological problems with them that would ultimately doom such a project to failure. His conclusion is that “Earth is our only home”, which sounds depressing if you look at it one way, but really shouldn’t be, if only we could stop trashing the place.

I agree completely with that essay.

Now Kameron Hurley has written her own excellent essay in response, pointing out that there is a path towards making them viable again. I agree completely with this one, too.

If we figured out how to jettison ourselves from the Earth, we can figure out how to alter ourselves to traverse the incredible distances between stars and even galaxies. And here, then, is the difference in ideas that drives my writing as opposed to that of many other science fiction writers. I understand that space travel and expansion is just as much about altering ourselves, our attitudes, our social structures, our very biology, as it is about altering the places we choose to live.

The one problem is that word “ourselves”. Who are “we”? As Hurley says, the only way this works is if we are plastic and willing to change who we are, adapting to radically new circumstances. We can’t expect to simply put New York in a bubble and lift it off the planet — New York in space is a completely different beast from a New York planted firmly in the BosWash corridor with harbors and airports to connect it to everywhere else. The life of the city would have to change utterly.

The Puritans left England in their ships to preserve their way of life. It didn’t work. It changed everything about them in ways they could not predict, and I suspect that if we could go back in time and show the Puritan emigrants a picture of what America would become and how their descendants would live, they would react with horror and decide that there is no point in leaving after all. If your goal is to shelter your identity, your way of life, and the lives of your children, packing up and moving to a wildly different environment with unpredictable elements is probably the very worst idea you could have. If you want to define “ourselves” as a body of beliefs and ideas, well, sorry, those are extremely fragile and tend not to survive in new environments without some major transformations.

What about our biology? Look at the formation of the Panamanian land bridge and the exchange of North and South American fauna. We couldn’t possibly predict who the winners and losers would be, except, maybe, that there’d be a lot of losers. The grand champion of the invasion of North America was…opossums? Really? Come on. If they’d been sapient, those 5 meter tall phorusrhacid terror birds might have been pretty confident that they were going to kick ass and take over and rule two continents, but instead they all went extinct — as did the Astrapotheria, the Litopterna, the Sparassodonta, and other orders of big strong beasties — and it was the marsupial rat-thingies that thrived?

Hurley is exactly right that generation ships could be doable if we didn’t think of them as shells for people in transit and more as self-sustaining ecological islands cast off to grow and change, but then we have to change our notions of what constitute “us”, because for sure what arrives at a distant star a thousand years from now won’t be Americans, and may not even be recognizable as human any more. We could be building a bridge to Tau Ceti that delivers a chittering cargo of marsupial rat-thingies to a brand new world.

Is that acceptable? Is our vision of ourselves sufficiently flexible that we would consider planting a colony of unicellular eukaryotes on a distant planet to be a success? Would we be disappointed if we didn’t at least get mammals off-world, or are we going to insist on a primate exodus? We’re going to have to have an extraordinarly broad sense of identity for this all to work. Hurley seems to get that, I’d just wonder whether she’s gotten weird enough.

This was a concept I explored deeply in my novel, The Stars are Legion. Because certainly, we will change if we create and inhabit a living organism to which we are intrinsically tied. The Earth has shaped our evolution in every way, and our world-ships will no doubt do the same. Perhaps we’ll never be able to leave these ships. But propelling ourselves across the universe inside a self-sustaining world that can repair and reproduce itself solves the problems of distance and reduces the chance of ecological collapse, particularly if the worlds moved together as a legion and included independent layers of systems so that if one began to decline, another would rise. Think of it as naturally evolving back-up systems.

Exactly. People aren’t an ecosystem. It’s going to require establishing a complex, diverse assemblage of organisms to be self-sustaining, and everything will change year after year. And you aren’t going to be able to predict ahead of time how it will change, only that it will change. And the most fungible, protean, fragile elements will be the highest level bits, things like “societies”.

Those who arrive in the next star system, if they have created societies that allow them to change what we currently consider to be the intrinsically human foibles of war and strife and pettiness and bickering, will require time to adapt to a new environment. Consider how symbiotic parasites can chemically change and shape their hosts to suit them. Now imagine a ship is programmed to merge its flora and fauna with a new planet when it arrives, making the world-ship, now, into a living terraforming machine, a bacterial incubator that rapidly adapts the local environment to sustain its hosts. If symbiotic parasites can do this here on earth, why can’t we hurl something like it through space?

There are nightmares nestled in that idea.

Imagine you fill your ship with high-minded idealists, intellectuals and artists, and plan to export the very best of your culture to distant alien worlds…and by the time it gets there, it turns out that the best survivors are Republican neo-Nazis and televangelists.

Or it isn’t even people who last a thousand years in your starfaring arcology, and the survivors are all marsupial rat-thingies. But I repeat myself.

Try flipping the perspective, too. You’re having a grand time on an ecologically restored Earth, living in balance with all of nature, when a legion of ecological arks from an alien world arrive. They don’t want to exercise the cartoon SF prerogative of exterminating all humans or destroying Earth, they want to merge with us allow change to flow from the natural ecological and evolutionary interactions of diverse species. They aren’t going to kill us, no not directly, they’re going to give us an opportunity to adapt and change, like all good species. Never mind that these kinds of interactions are always catastrophic for some. We send probes up to the oncoming giant space island to figure out what we are going to face, and the astronauts look inside and say, “My god, it’s full of marsupial rat-thingies!”

Or Republicans and televangelists. But again, I repeat myself.

But I am looking forward to reading Hurley’s The Stars are Legion. Maybe I’ll get to it this weekend.

Happy Darwin Day, unofficially!


Hey, like, do you remember when congress proposed to recognize Darwin Day, officially, years ago? Yeah, it’s been kind of bouncing around for a long time. Didn’t pass.

Hey, also, remember when Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia, a member of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said a few words about that Darwin stuff?

God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.

Heh. Good times, good times. Hey, didja know this kind of bill has been proposed over and over again, and always dies in that same Committee on Science, Space and Technology? The one that is currently chaired by Lamar Smith, with luminaries like Dana Rohrabacher on board? I wonder how that happens.

Last month, another Darwin Day bill was shuffled off to that committee. How do you think it will fare?

Oh, well, we shall celebrate evolutionary biology in our hearts. Or on YouTube — I’ll be going live here around noon to play “Ask an Evolutionist” for a while, as promised.

Yes, I liked a movie

We just got back from a showing of Hidden Figures.


I know, I usually have something snarky and dismissive to say about the movies I see, but with this one…I just can’t. It’s inspiring and honest and strong, and it ought to win all the awards, and the actors and writers and director need to be rewarded with great careers, and there ought to be more movies made like this. So yeah, go see it.

OK, maybe I can say something rude: the Sixties were truly screwed up. We have gotten slightly better, even if we now have a gang of awful people running the country who want to roll all our gains right back. See it and feel even more inspired to fight back against the Nazis.

Sometimes, justice is served

See this guy? His name is Michael Aaron Strickland.


He’s pulling out a gun that he then pointed at a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon. He claimed he was feeling “threatened” by unarmed and peaceful protesters because they called him a racist, the poor little snowflake. He was arrested and charged on a slew of offenses.

The good news: He was actually convicted. I know, hard to believe.

The funny news: he exploded his own defense.

Jackson said Strickland’s contention that he was in grave danger isn’t believable, pointing out that Stickland reholstered his gun and stepped off the street and onto the sidewalk to give an interview in front of a TV camera just steps away from the scene of the confrontation.

Oh, man. These people are stupid. Stupid and armed.