Not exactly a New Year’s resolution, but…

This is about the time when people start to revel or reveal, with regard to how they’re doing with their New Year’s resolutions. I haven’t made any for years but I did take on something for 2011 that is turning out to be rather similar.

Back in November I came across the concept of “365” groups, on flickr. Members commit to taking photos every single day, and posting one of them to the group, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. At the end of the year one has 365 photos, each taken on a different day of the year—it’s not permitted to take and post 2 pictures today to make up for none yesterday. On impulse I signed up for one of the groups; when late December rolled around I questioned, did I really need one more thing to do, but decided to stick with it and see what happened. I was pleased to see that my group, 365: the 2011 edition, had only 805 members, as compared to one 365 group with over 20,000. It’s conceivable I’ll get a look at some of the photos of each member in my group before we reach Day 365.

My impulsive choice has had significant results. I always carried my camera, a Canon PowerShot, with me in my bag or coat pocket wherever I went but most of the time it just went along for the ride. In case of something dramatic I was ready, but nearly all of my subjects were predictable: our dogs, forest, flowers, sky. Now the camera is increasingly in my hand either because I’m on the lookout for a good subject or because I’m using it. I’m more observant, looking up and around, and looking at things with conscious attention to light, composition, color, pattern.

Looking upward in a country store that sells everything, which I’ve gone into regularly for 15 years, I saw a high-up display of taxidermy specimens I had never noticed before. Never noticed before?

BlackBird taxidermy display 1.jpg

How could I have missed it? There’s a black bear behind the leaping bobcat, and on the other side of the display a dozen trophy heads including a moose. Actually I had noticed the moose head, behind a daunting display of rifles, but that’s all I’d been aware of until now. Obviously, I have been in the thrall of fixation on my immediate purpose and suffering tunnel vision as a result.

BlackBird taxidermy display, bobcat leaps for grouse.jpg

I think the bird is a Chukar Partridge (Alectoris chukar, an Asian species introduced in Oregon). Bobcat and lynx are pretty similar, but the cat making this one-footed leap for its dinner lacks the lynx’s black ear-tufts and furry snowshoe feet so I’ll go for the smaller and more common bobcat, Lynx rufus or Felis rufus.

My strengths as a photographer are patience and an attunement to pattern and composition. The latter is getting good exercise as I apply it more widely, beyond rocks and bark and such.

bottles at liquor store.jpg

plastic glasses.jpg

Taking photos of new subjects, and doing it every day, means lots more for me to look over and critique. What was I trying to do, how did it work, how could it work better, should my purpose have been different for this subject—these are some questions I’m asking every day now as I look at my day’s work. And then I look through other peoples’ photos with enjoyment and an eye to learning from them. I bookmark some individuals’ photostreams because of their skills, or because I find their places and subjects interesting.

Perhaps I can use the 365 project to help me conquer my shyness about asking people if I may include them in my photos. That would certainly open up a new world photographically, but it will not be easy. I noticed a post on the 365 forum by someone who has had a special business-type card made up for this purpose: it bears his name, email address, and flickr link, and he gives it to people as part of asking permission to photograph them. His 365 photos are all portraits—he’s working on lighting and composition as well as becoming more extroverted. Maybe I should try the card idea myself; props can be good, and this one is considerate and makes sense.

What I’ve learned about building a new skill or habit (of which New Year’s resolutions are a particular case) would not surprise any behaviorist:

Commit to a specific action, every day

Choose an action that’s not too difficult

Keep a record and/or tell others about your commitment

Whether it’s putting stars on a calendar for an exercise program, or posting a photo for each day, there’s a lot of power in getting the new habit out of the realm of intellect and intention and into a visible form. I had only about a dozen photos on flickr, and now I’ve added a 365 set that has all my “photos of the day” in it. It’s satisfying to see the set grow, and to notice how my repertoire is expanding. The group’s explicit purpose is improvement of one’s skills rather than posting masterpieces. Inclusive rather than exclusive.

I’m learning to pay more attention—and a different kind of attention—to what’s around me, and try new things with the camera and my eye; I’m into a daily discipline; and maybe I’ll even use the photo project as a means of building confidence about talking to others. Not bad for what I thought was an impulsive commitment!

Bowdlerizing Huckleberry Finn: Cowardice does what Aunt Sally could not

to expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar; to modify by abridging, simplifying, or distorting in style or content. An eponymous word referring to Thomas Bowdler, publisher in 1818 of
The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes; in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family. [More on this helpful fellow in the notes at the end of the post.]

Huckleberry-Finn-cover painting.jpg

[Cover painting from the HarperFestival 2005 edition of Huckleberry Finn.]

There has been a great deal of commentary this past week about NewSouth Books‘ plan to publish an edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which all the instances of nigger are replaced with slave (and Injun with Indian). It’s the work of Professor Alan Gribben at Auburn University, who says that “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.” It’s not just some public school teachers motivating Gribben; he too shies at the word in the classroom: ”I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer,” he said. ”And I don’t think I’m alone… I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone.”

What betrayal of a writer can be worse, than to change his words? And not just any words, but one particular word that occurs 219 times in Huckleberry Finn and is central to the book’s meaning. Twain shows Huckleberry Finn as an ignorant boy, a product of his time and place without pretense. He, and the other characters, speak as people of their age and place in life would have spoken; in fact, the second of Twain’s two short prefatory admonitions deals with speech quite firmly:


IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro
dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the
ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last.
The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork;
but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of
personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would
suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not


The words used are carefully chosen to be authentic, and to show us the attitudes of the characters. When Jim first appears, Huck describes him as “Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim”. As the story goes along, with Jim a runaway slave rafting down the river with Huck Finn, the boy’s sense of Jim changes. This is plainly expressed in chapter 31, when Jim’s been caught; Huck is tempted to save him though he knows he’ll certainly go to hell for helping a runaway to escape his lawful master.

…I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and
I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then
says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”…

It’s a change of heart, not of mind; Huck doesn’t decide that slavery is wrong but that Jim is his friend. Jim’s still a slave but no longer a nigger, no longer some inferior being beyond the pale of friendship.

Professor Gribben has chosen to replace nigger with slave, but the two words aren’t at all equivalent. Slave is a legal term describing a human being who is legally deemed to be property of another. It might apply to a person of any race, and certainly has, historically. It is a condition, not an immutable element of identity. A slave can be freed, as some occasionally were by their masters, and the children born to freed slaves are free themselves. All slaves in the US were freed in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But to most whites in the 19th C. South, a nigger was a nigger, whether he was a slave or free. If some French white man who’d been captured and enslaved by the Turks (like Candide) had visited, he might have been described as a slave or ex-slave but never as a nigger.

Huck Finn’s evil father holds violent views on this very subject, and goes into them in detail when we first meet him.

“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio–a mulatter, most as white as a white man. … And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me–I’ll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger–why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?–that’s what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn’t be sold till he’d been in the State six months, and he hadn’t been there that long yet. There, now–that’s a specimen. They call that a govment that can’t sell a free nigger till he’s been in the State six months. Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and–“

How will this “free nigger” be described in the new version of Huck Finn? As a “freed slave”, I suppose. Try making that substitution in this passage and see how much difference it makes. “Freed slave” is a neutral phrase compared to the repetitive angry utterance of nigger.

We must presume that Professor Gribben does understand the difference between race— defined by unchangeable color, and legal condition—alterable by legal action. But he thinks that current unease over the word nigger justifies removing this word which is in fact the center of the book. Huck Finn is about nigger, it’s about deciding a person’s worth and status based on his color.

Twain was no fan of the farrago of falsehoods, taboos, and blind spots that make up much of “civilization”. He chooses as his protagonist a shiftless superstitious barely educated boy, who hates the prospect of being “sivilized” and having to wear shoes and not curse, the son of a violent drunk (“He used to lay drunk with the hogs in the tanyard, but he hain’t been seen in these parts for a year or more,” says another boy about Huck’s father)—and then he shows us this boy weighing the evidence of his eyes and heart vs. what he’s been taught about niggers, and choosing to honor the former. Even if it means he’ll burn in Hell, even if he has to take serious personal risk to get Jim away from those who’ve captured him. They have the law, and local “civilization” on their side. Twain doesn’t exactly say what Huck has on his side, that’s for the reader to figure out.

Huck’s final words to us, with which the book ends, are “I reckon I got to light out for the
Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.“ I can imagine the bitter smile of Huck’s creator hearing that, 126 years after he was brave enough to publish a book about nigger, we aren’t brave enough to figure out how to teach something that contains that word. So we’re going to sivilize it to suit us.

TWAIN, MARK, undated photo.jpg

[Undated photo of Samuel Clemens]


According to some estimates, Huckleberry Finn is the fourth most banned book in the US. Mark Twain really had us pegged.

From the pen of Thomas Bowdler ((1754–1825):

“I acknowledge Shakespeare to be the world’s greatest dramatic poet, but regret that no parent could place the uncorrected book in the hands of his daughter, and therefore I have prepared the Family Shakespeare”

“Many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased.”

‘”If any word or expression is of such a nature that the first impression it excites is an impression of obscenity, that word ought not to be spoken nor written or printed ; and, if printed, it ought to be erased.”

Sample “bowdlerizations” of the texts:

Ophelia’s death in Hamlet is referred to as an accidental drowning, not a possible suicide.
Lady Macbeth’s “Out, Damned spot.” is changed to “Out, Crimson spot.”

The prostitute Doll Tearsheet is completely written out of Henry IV, Part 1.

Mercutio’s “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” is changed to “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon”

Juliet’s “Spread thy close curtain, love performing night” is changed to “. . . and come civil night”.

And so on…

It is not commonly known that Bowdler also prepared “family” editions of parts of the Old Testament and of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, completing this edition just before his death in 1825. [this, quotations from Bowdler, and examples, from source]

Twain would have found confirmation for the hypocrisy of “civilization” in the fact that “[t]he editions were actually edited by Bowdler’s sister, Harriet, rather than by Thomas. However, they were published under Thomas Bowdler’s name, because a woman could not publicly admit that she understood Shakespeare’s racy passages.” [Wikipedia]

Billboards for the Democrats

If you live in a state with hotly contested elections, your mail was full of wretchedly negative and misleading flyers last month. But, around here at least, we rarely see political billboards. When I did see one, it was this:

Billboard for conservatives.jpg

and it made me wonder why the Democrats hadn’t used billboards to get out simple positive messages about issues where there was great potential public support.

Here are some I made up, just quick mock-ups of a campaign for single-payer health care, but they give you the idea. If Obama had gotten people thinking along these lines, instead of ceding the issue to the Republicans, we might have a true universal health care system by now.

Health care for all means healthier kids billboard.jpg

“The United States provides health care to all senior citizens although children are the least expensive and most cost-effective group to cover.”

Single-payer health care for all means not losing your home to catastrophic health costs billboard.jpg

“Half of all respondents (49%) indicated that their foreclosure was caused in part by a medical problem, including illness or injuries (32%), unmanageable medical bills (23%), lost work due to a medical problem (27%), or caring for sick family members (14%). We also examined objective indicia of medical disruptions in the previous two years, including those respondents paying more than $2,000 of medical bills out of pocket (37%), those losing two or more weeks of work because of injury or illness (30%), those currently disabled and unable to work (8%), and those who used their home equity to pay medical bills (13%).

Altogether, seven in ten respondents (69%) reported at least one of these factors.” [from abstract of Christopher T. Robertson, Richard Egelhof, & Michael Hoke, “Get Sick, Get Out: The Medical Causes of Home Foreclosures” Health Matrix 18 (2008): 65-105.]

Billboardready to learn.jpg

Growing numbers of uninsured children have made it harder for educators to focus on classroom achievement without first addressing the medical needs of their students who lack health insurance or dental coverage. Instead of notifying parents when their children are ill, school officials increasingly must help find health care, arrange transportation for sick children and often advise beleaguered parents about the health consequences of their inaction. Schools that don’t accept the extra responsibility can lose those students to prolonged absences that jeopardize their academic advancement.“

And children who lack health insurance are unlikely to get help for conditions that interfere with learning, such as learning disabilities or vision and hearing problems.

Billboard “Single-payer health care for all…ask someone who already has it!”.jpg

An article about how people get happier as they get older, says it’s partly due to “resources that contribute to happiness, such as access to health care, Medicare and Medicaid”.

Billboard Single-payer health care for all…a healthier workforce”

Inadequately treated health problems result in lower productivity, greater absenteeism and turnover, and become more severe over time. Concern about losing job-related health insurance causes individuals to stay in jobs for which they are unsuited when they could be more productive and successful at other work (a situation called “job lock”).

Billboard, Universal Health Care means no more bake sales for kids with leukemia.jpg

It’s shameful to see contribution jars and raffles in local stores collecting for sick people who would otherwise be untreated. Mostly these are for kids, since we are all more sympathetic toward sick children, but there are also spaghetti feeds and various benefits put on for adults who have brain tumors or other acute and potentially fatal illnesses. And every year at this time brings those holiday campaigns in the newspaper, raising money for individuals or families, and often there’s a medical need there. One of the ones I remember was a local young man who’d lost a leg to bone cancer when he was 11; now he was working full time at a job (with no insurance) that was mostly standing, and since he was off his mother’s insurance he could not get a replacement for his outgrown prosthetic leg.

“It’s estimated that 9 million children are completely uninsured. But the new study says 11.5 million more kids end up without medical care for part of the year. And another 3 million can’t get a ride to the doctor. That’s more than 23 million children.” (2008 figures)

And finally,

Billboard Universal health care, it just amkes sense, and it’s the right thing to do

I don’t have a picture for this one. What I’d like it to be is not yet invented, some visual-mental device that reflects back to the viewer’s brain an image of him/herself, struck by a wasting disease well before the age of 65 when Medicare begins.

I do have a few more bits of information about the effects of not being insured. “Two large national studies of hospital admissions found that when the uninsured are admitted to a hospital, it is for a more serious mix of diseases and conditions, based on expected mortality, than the privately insured.…A study in California found that uninsured newborns with medical problems had significantly shorter stays (by 1.8-5.9 days) and received significantly less care (measured by total hospital charges) than privately insured newborns for several specific medical diagnoses. Another study found that the uninsured are at much greater risk of substandard hospital care due to negligence or poor quality: 40.3 percent of adverse events among the uninsured were due to negligence, compared to 20.3 percent for the privately insured who experienced adverse events.“ [source]

So the uninsured person, who is likely to be sicker when arriving at the hospital, is twice as likely to be the victim of negligent care during the stay. (Maybe it’s a mercy that the stay itself will be shorter than for the insured patient.) And the uninsured receive less treatment, whether for injury in a car accident, heart attack, or being born prematurely. More of them die, than insured people with the same conditions.

It’s a national disgrace and a drag on the economy; it’s contrary to our ideals and a terrible waste of the possibilities of human lives; it condemns many, from birth or before, to short and painful lives. It’s not open to compromise, Mr. President. You should have stood up for it and the issue should have been fully discussed before the people. If you think our attention spans are too short for extended discourse, you’re welcome to my billboard ideas.

More merry than other Christmas gifts

Each year friends give us a subscription to Funny Times for Christmas, and we get 12 months of laughs from it. And also sanity, I have to say, because when I read it I often think: only here (never in the newspaper) do I regularly find people puncturing the jumbo-sized blimps of jargon and pretense that take up so much space in news and politics. Reading the newspaper, I want to say “Are you all crazy?” Reading the cartoons and columns in Funny Times, I know someone else agrees with that.

But don’t think the humor is all political; the latest issue has a column about the new combo camera/Barbie Doll, by Lenore Skenazy; Dave Barry on severance gifts from Wal-Mart, Garrison Keillor on Christmas; and cartoons that skewer pretensions, make visual puns, and are just plain silly. Sylvia always makes an appearance, so do Tom the Dancing Bug, the always-askew Piraro, Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man), the K Chronicles, Lynda Barry, and about 50 others .

As if all that—24 tabloid-size pages full—weren’t enough, there’s a whole page of what we all really want from our newspapers: News of the Weird. You know, the reports of actual events, too stupid or bizarre to believe, in categories such as “Bright Ideas” and “Least Competent Criminals”. If you hold your brain just right while you read these they can make you feel better about the level of idiocy in your own locale, a real morale-builder!

But wait, there’s more! Harper’s Index! Winokur’s Curmudgeon! And if you call now, well, then you won’t procrastinate, what else can I say.

I wanted to include a sample of cartoons but I’m too lazy to scan them from our issue so here are some by the same great cartoonists, that I just got off that internet thing. In Funny Times they are mostly in black and white but just as funny.

Oh, and a full year’s subscription is only $25 at or 1-888-386-6984.

It’s the perfect gift for friends and family, anyone with a sense of humor. So I guess you just have to shop for your relatives now. Because why would you have friends who don’t have a sense of humor?

Bizarro cartoon, adult spelling bee.jpg

I like this one because whenever I see that a movie contains “adult themes” my mind always has a flicker of literalism, “Oh, a discussion of the limits of rationality, or what it means to lead a good life, or…”.
Dan Piraro, Bizarro.

Sylvia cartoon,  devil.jpg

Thanksgiving, Pilgrims and Santa Claus.jpg

rhymes with orange.jpg

Freeze my head (but not yet)

After reading the latest issue of New Scientist, I think I may leave instructions to freeze my head when I die. It’s not because of any terrific new cryogenics method revealed by the magazine, but because of their series of short articles on extremophile organisms. You know, the thermophiles that can survive boiling temperatures (one microbe lived through a spell of 130° C (266° F), like the North American Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) hatchlings, and Woolly Bear caterpillars (Pyrrharctia isabella, which turn into the Isabella Tiger Moth) that can be frozen solid or nearly so and come to life again. Then there are the ones that can survive being dried out by “replac[ing] water molecules [in and around the cell] with sugar, turning their cytoplasm into a solid called sugar glass”. (New Scientist, 13 Nov 2010, p. 41). These are mostly small invertebrates. One in particular takes the survival prize: the tardigrade or water bear.

microphotograph of tardigrade or water bear,  phylum Tardigrada, part of the superphylum Ecdysozoa. They are microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs.jpg

Microphotograph of tardigrade or water bear, in the phylum Tardigrada, part of the superphylum Ecdysozoa. They are microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs. Unlike lots of microscopic animals, they do not seem to live by choice on or in humans, so you can study the photo without getting itchy. Photo source.

Because it is directly related to why I might want to freeze my head, let me quote from Wikipedia’s article on the tardigrade’s survival feats:

More than 1,000 species of tardigrades have been described. Tardigrades occur over the entire world, from the high Himalayas (above 6,000 metres (20,000 ft), to the deep sea (below 4,000 m) and from the polar regions to the equator.

The most convenient place to find tardigrades is on lichens and mosses. Other environments are dunes, beaches, soil, and marine or freshwater sediments, where they may occur quite frequently (up to 25,000 animals per litre). Tardigrades often can be found by soaking a piece of moss in spring water.

Tardigrades are able to survive in extreme environments that would kill almost any other animal. Some can survive temperatures of −273 °C (−459.400 °F), close to absolute zero, temperatures as high as 151 °C (304 °F), 1,000 times more radiation than other animals, and almost a decade without water. In September 2007, tardigrades were taken into low Earth orbit on the FOTON-M3 mission and for 10 days were exposed to the vacuum of space. After they were returned to Earth, it was discovered that many of them survived and laid eggs that hatched normally.

Below, a tardigrade in cryptobiosis (dried-out state) waiting for wetter conditions. Photo source.

a tardigrade in cryptobiosis (dried-out state) waiting for wetter conditions. The condition is called cryptobiosis.jpg

What the tardigrade means to me

The greater likelihood of…Life on Mars!

Areologists have found evidence to support the presence of surface water on Mars in earlier times (1, 2). On Earth, the one condition life seems to require is water in the environment. It can adapt to other conditions of astonishing harshness, as the extremophiles show. Therefore, if life developed upon Mars during the time of surface water, it is quite possible it has adapted to the new conditions.

One place to look for water and surviving life forms would be in the deep chasms of Mars, including Valles Marineris which is 1,860 miles long and in places reaches five miles in depth (five times the depth of the Grand Canyon). None of our probes has landed near chasms because we haven’t designed ways to explore them robotically. This is a job for human beings, and I am extremely disappointed that it hasn’t been done yet.

When I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon in 1969, I felt confident that the US and other nations would build on this accomplishment in what seemed a logical progression: space station, lunar base, a manned mission to Mars. I would not have believed that, 40 years after reaching the moon, only one of these elements would be up and running. That one, the International Space Station is a testament to the dedication of a few, but it’s not the robust establishment I expected; it seems to be on a precarious footing in mechanical reliability, and in international support. The other two are as far from reality as they were in 1969—no, farther, because the momentum of the 1960s has drained away, and the world faces more serious problems than it did then. What was justifiably affordable then, may not be now.

I don’t view space exploration as a luxury, or as an activity that merely satisfies our curiosity. It has much more to offer the species than that. We cannot say what we would have learned, what technologies we would have developed, had we followed the path I expected. Perhaps we would even have reached a slightly greater degree of wisdom about ourselves and or treatment of the planet, or maybe not.

But I do know how badly I want to see some questions answered, including “What life is there on Mars?”

And if looks as if, even if I eat my vegetables and exercise diligently, I may not live long enough in the normal course of events to find this out. So, freezing my head may be the only possibility. How can I let a bunch of tardigrades hear the news about Martian life, and not hear it myself?


1 Jakosky, Bruce M. et al. Mars’ volatile and climate history. Nature 412, 237-244 (12 July 2001).

2 Bowen, TA and Hynek, BM. Mars’ climate history as inferred from valley networks on volcanoes. Lunar and Planetary Science XXXIX (2008).

Etymological Notes

Rana sylvatica
rana, from Latin rana (frog); sylvatica from Latin sylvaticus (growing in the woods, wild)

Chrysemys picta
chrysemys, from Greek chrysos (gold) and emys (freshwater tortoise”)

Pyrrharctia isabella
Pyrrharctia, from Greek pyr– (fire) and arktos (bear—the animal, also used to refer to the north; here probably alluding to the hairy caterpillar, the “wooly bear”)
isabella, a word used to denote various vague colors: greyish-yellow, sand color, pale fawn, pale cream-brown or parchment; etymology uncertain but see here.

Tardigrada, from Latin tardigradus (slowly stepping), from tardus (slow) and gradior (step, walk)

Ecdysozoa, from Greek ekdusis (a stripping off) and zoon (a living being, animal; plural zoa)

Bonus for sticking with me to the end…

There’s one caterpillar just about everybody can identify, if only because of its supposed ability to predict the severity of the winter:

Woolly bear caterpillar, which becomes Pyrrharctia_isabella, the Isabella Moth.jpg

The Woolly Bear, of course, and the narrow band of brown on this one indicates a very tough winter to come. Photo by Rhys Alton from flickr.

But who among us knows what the Woolly Bear looks like when he or she grows up? Like this,

Pyrrharctia_isabella, Isabella Tiger Moth, which develops from the Woolly Bear caterpillar.jpg

the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), found in much of North America and Central America. The caterpillar overwinters, hence the ability to withstand freezing temperatures. The Woolly Bear has another distinction: the first insect known to self-medicate. It eats leaves from ragworts, groundsels and other plants that are rich in alkaloids, and these help rid it of parasites; infected caterpillars eat more of such leaves than uninfected ones. Yes, everything it seems has parasites; “Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum”. And I, driven by the desire to know things, doubtless will need to know something else once my thawed-out brain has assimilated knowledge of our first manned mission to Mars.

Comments on some books recently read

A Whole New Mind, why right-brainers will rule the future, by Daniel Pink
Silly, puffy, fuzzy, wrong. Because of Asia, Automation, and Abundance, we are all going to prosper by being artists, designers, musicians, gestalt-masters.

Breaking Clean, by Judy Blunt
A fine book, powerful and honest and sometimes very hard to read. The author comes of generations who survived ranching in what must be one of the toughest spots in the US. She writes of her experiences growing up there, informed by her later insights. The privations, the endless work just to have a chance of doing the same next year, the way human beings grow into strange shapes to fit what is demanded of them.

A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright
Published a year before Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and follows a similar plan: by narrating the decline of earlier cultures due to hubris and systemic faults, the author hopes to convince 21st century homo sap to shape up and avoid disaster. Wright finds errors in Diamond’s earlier book Guns, Germs and Steel, and I found some things in Wright’s book to question. I would suggest that in general it’s very iffy to found a line of reasoning upon a particular cause for the decline of a premodern civilization. Historians of Sumer or Rome cannot agree upon causes; what hope has a non-specialist? Answer: make your case look good by cherry-picking arguments and data from authorities old and new. Give it up. But it does sell books. And yes, our civilization’s got one foot on a banana peel—conveying that message seems to be the raison d’etre for these books—and we love to read about it, witness all the sf dystopias, but I cannot believe that efforts to convince the intellect will help much, since little power is governed by that human faculty.

Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue
London, c. 1750: barely a teenager, the daughter of a desperately poor family becomes a prostitute. A hundred years earlier, Hobbes famously described the life of humans in a state of nature, without government, as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Such is the life of Mary Saunders, despite the existence of a government, because there were at the time few significant efforts to help the poor or restrain the depredations of the rich, while the legal system severely punished even small criminal acts. Rich in period flavor and well-drawn characters, though I felt that the protagonist was not as full as I’d wish: her behavior at the end seems abruptly imposed. A study in desperation. It is disgraceful to realize that one could write something not too different these days about a runaway on the streets of any large American city.

Hogarth engraving of street life among the poor.jpg

William Hogarth (1697–1764), engraving of street life among the poor.

Darwinia, by Robert Charles Wilson
Science fiction, in that subset of alternative histories where some portion of the earth’s surface is suddenly switched out for the corresponding portion from another history or universe. Same topography, but everything else is different. Interesting, but I think it fell between two stools, to use an antiquated phrase (visualize someone beginning to sit down who can’t decide which of two stools to land on, and falls in the middle, to the bar-room floor). There’s the standard adventure/discovery plotline as characters from the “old world” (ours, interrupted prior to the first World War) explore the strangenesses of the apparently uninhabited “New World”. And then the New World turns out to have a connection to some sort of Lovecraftian Other Reality. Didn’t quite connect up for me, but nonetheless I’m currently reading this author’s Mysterium, which won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1994 and turns out to have a similar plot device. [Later. Yep, about the same. ]

Solar, by Ian McEwan
This guy sure can write, in one sense of the word, but I just could not care about the characters or the plot. Since the plot had to do with developing a revolutionary system of generating electricity from solar power, I should have wanted to see what happened. But the scientist protagonist was so unlikeable. Venal and boring. I was a third of the way through, with nothing much happening on the solar electricity front, and the main character still as clueless and mopey as ever…I gave up. Three demerits to me, but art (and my list of books to read) is long and life is short.

The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller
Recently I posted about how Young Adult books are sometimes well worth adult attention. Here’s one from the adult fiction shelves, that should have had the YA label; as an adult I found it simplistic and disappointing. The author is a Grand Old Lady of science fiction.

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova
A woman discovers, at about age 50, that her increasing mental lapses are early onset Alzheimer’s, which progresses much more quickly than the Alzheimer’s of the elderly. Perhaps for the sake of irony, she’s a professor of psychology, specifically at the intersection of cognition and language. The author is a neuroscientist herself, who works with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Moving and informative, but maybe you should wait to read it until you are past the age at which early-onset Alzheimer’s begins.

Ship Breaker , by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
See earlier post on YA fiction, the category of the first of these. Two looks into a post-oil, post-Big Crash future. Recommended. I liked Ship Breaker better, myself.

Platinum Pohl, by Frederik Pohl (1919- )
Short fiction by one of the masters at the top of his form. Sf.