Category Archives: Philosillyphizing

Pursuing the never ending quest for knowledge.

What Dreams Etc., Tempus Fugit, and so on

Misdemeanor the kitten
Ignore the kitten. The kitten is meaningless. Like most dream imagery is.

Whew. I had a doozy of a dream last night.

I won’t go into too many of the details because dreams are mostly boring except to the dreamer. In summary: my bicycle was stolen (by the employees of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland), along with my credit and bank card. When I got to the bank to replace my card, I discovered that it had been turned into a paycheck cashing store, and had a wait time of eight hours. They were more than willing to let me in and give me expedited service because it was just a bank card I was replacing, but instead they kept me at the desk asking meaningless questions for hours upon end, and when I finally realized they were meaningless, they kicked me out.

Well, whenever I think about time passing, David Bowie’s song “Time Will Crawl” gets into my head, so here it is:

Oh, David Bowie. Too pure for this world.

I don’t really buy into dream analysis or interpretation too much; I believe dreams are mostly best interpreted in a gestaltish sort of way, taking into account everything that the dreamer thinks and believes and knows. “What did the red table in my dream mean?” “Well, what do tables mean to you?” I don’t know, this may be oversimplistic, but it’s a useful way of thinking about my own dreams.

So last night’s dream, what with the troublesome bank manager and the thieving Disneyland employees, was, I think, about wasting time, and that’s something that’s been on my mind a bit lately. In my last post, I wrote a wee bit about my angst surrounding starting library school at age 52 and about the length of time it will take me to get my degree.

Here, I’ll just talk about angst surrounding my writing, because I don’t talk about that nearly enough.

Cover of The Heroine's Journey by Gail Carriger
The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture

I’ve been reading The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger. It’s a fantastic book, a nice rebuttal of the tired Hero’s Journey that so dominates and pervades most writing. I highly recommend this book, especially to my writer friends.

Unfortunately, this book also has me thinking about writing. Not that this is inherently a bad thing, of course; it just makes me think of all the novels I’ve written, and the ones I’m writing, and the ones I want to write. The Heroine’s Journey is a perfect model, for example, for The Outer Darkness trilogy that I want to write someday, a space opera with heavily religious overtones (based on a role-playing game that I created with some friends back in the late 90s). It’s also a great framework for The X of Doom, my pirate trilogy. Unfortunately, it’s not as good a match to my work in progress, And the Devil Will Drag You Under. And that’s the problem.


I’ve written a number of novels. Here’s a partial list:

  1. Unfallen. A reporter uncovers mysterious goings-on in San Francisco and explores a vast supernatural conspiracy. Based loosely on a World of Darkness RPG I ran.
  2. The Outer Darkness. Wherein a woman whose husband is killed in a mining accident on the planet Anchorage gets involved in an interplanetary war. This has little to do with the above-mentioned trilogy.
  3. The Toymaker. A toymaker in 1850s San Francisco who turns out to be a powerful mage hooks up with a young widow from Boston, and they form a conspiracy to protect a group of supernatural people from being hunted.
  4. The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster. Once upon a time called Fred Again. Madmen and elder gods vie for control of the Earth in a funny sort of way.
  5. Code Monkey! A Love Story with Occasional Monsters. The subtitle says it all.
  6. Love in the Time of Cthulhu. I only vaguely remember this one. Something to do with two people falling in love in a world which has been taken over by Cthulhu and other cosmic horrors, I think.
  7. Padma. A medical resident comes to terms with death.
Me, getting caught looking at a new project by my work in progress

So why weren’t any of these published? They never made it beyond barf draft, sadly, with the exceptions of nos. 4 and 6. Those two (and parts of 5) got to my critique group. I’d get to the point where it’s time to start revising and then I get caught up in a new project. It’s  tragic, I tell you. And very frustrating.

And the worst part is knowing that if I’d gotten my act together in 2001, when I decided to take writing seriously and wrote Unfallen, I could have finished all of these projects and more and gotten something published.

The biggest danger is that I will give up on my current work-in-progress for either The X of Doom or The Outer Darkness, and abandon And the Devil Will Drag You Under. I definitely don’t want that to happen. I want to be able finish a novel and say that it’s written enough, to the point where I at least do not fear shaming my ancestors when submitting it in queries to agents. None of the novels I’ve listed above are at that point. They are all regretful.

Ah well. What could have been is not necessarily what would have been, as they say. Still, if anyone has any tips for sticking to one thing and not getting distracted, I’d love to hear them.

“The Quest” and Clarke’s Third Law

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

-Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

The Quest is a reality show of sorts that runs on Thursday nights on ABC. It’s not a typical reality show like The Biggest Loser or The Bachelor or Survivor XXIV: Pebble Beach. Instead of twelve contestants locked in a gym or on a desert island or in a room with a narcissistic bachelor, the contestants are placed in a pseudo-medieval setting, complete with a queen, a Vizier (whose job is apparently to sneer at everything), mages, monsters, and so on. Challenges involve tasks such as hunting down dragon tears for the antidote to a poison that has been administered to the queen and swordfighting. Really, it’s more like LARPing than like a real reality show. It’s a very silly show, but Jennifer and I are actually enjoying it.

Watching this has made me think of the “Three Laws of Prediction” as formulated by science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the third of which I’ve quoted above (I had to look up the first two laws, which hardly anyone knows, but the third one is pretty famous). In “The Quest” there are a few elements of anachronistic “magic” which are really just commonplace technologies. The “fire orbs” which the participants had to hunt for in a recent episode were magical devices that glowed with an inner light, but in “real life” they were simply glass jars with a fluorescent liquid inside of them. In the Hall of Fates (where the participants must be judged for their actions and one of them voted off the show), the visages of previously banished contestants hover against a high, dark wall; though they are obviously just projections from a hidden source.

I find this use of modern technology to replicate magical effects pretty fascinating. It puts me in mind of an amusing post I saw on Facebook some time back. I wish I could track down the source, but like all things Facebook, the source is sadly lost to history. The post goes something like this:

How would you describe modern technology to a visitor from, say, the 1800s?

“I possess, in my pocket, a device which allows me access to all the world’s knowledge at the touch of a finger. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”

When you consider that you can actually speak to Siri in your iPhone, or to Google in your Android device, it becomes even more fantastical. With ChromeCast or AppleTV you can use your phone to control your television or other devices. In short, your pocket device makes you the equivalent of a wizard.

Amazing, isn’t it? I can’t imagine describing modern technology to someone from the 1800s (or even the early to mid 1900s), let alone someone from medieval Europe. If a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then what would such a time traveling visitor think of our times? And what sorts of technology are yet to come that we can’t conceive of, that we would think magical ourselves?

All this, of course, has made me come up with an idea for a new novel. This annoys me, because it’s a very shiny idea, and I am already committed to finishing Code Monkey. No, you cannot have this idea. I’m hoarding it. Someday — probably in 2016 — I’ll be able to write it.


What DO women want, anyway?

I have my own theories about what women want, having actually asked them, but let’s put that aside for a moment.

I’d be surprised if Freud really was the first man to ask, even in a professional capacity, what women want. I don’t know for sure what he came up with, having given up on Freud after learning about the whole castration fear thing, but I gather he determined that women are “un-understandable”.

And the question seems to permeate society. Mel Gibson was in a film entitled What Woman Want, and this week’s Newsweek features a white cover with the words “What Do Women Want?” written in red lipstick. (The cover story has something to do with gender politics as well as Sarah Palin, so I pretty much tuned out from that, and it’s beside my point anyway.) And I have heard it said, sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously, that humanity has been searching for the answer to what women want for millennia.

I’m curious about this, about the notion that “humanity” has been trying to find that answer. It’s almost as if the 49% of the population that wants to figure it out are the only ones that matter. So we men learn that women are incomprehensible, that no one (by which we mean “other men” of course) can figure them out; and since so much media out there is really men just talking to other men, I can’t help wondering whether women find themselves buying into this concept as well. Do women internalize the broader message, that they are incomprehensible and even if they think they know they want, they’re still too mysterious, even to themselves, to know for sure? Or do women feel left out because 51% of humanity knows the answer to the stupid question, yet the other 49% feels they are the ones who matter? I sometimes think that if I were a woman, I’d find myself feeling left out of society when these questions are put forward. It also implies that everyone knows what men want, so the question isn’t worth asking.

I personally don’t find the question particularly mystifying — at least, no more than the question, “What does your buddy Keith want?” Keith’s been a close friend for over ten years now, but sometimes I just don’t get, say, his love of the Pittsburg Steelers… Or his love of football in general. You take people one at a time, and try to figure them out on a one-by-one basis. So it seems that women just want the same things that men want, but it’s more useful to ask the question on a person by person basis, and not on a gender-wide basis.

So, do you think these questions are valid? Or am I just exaggerating the the whole thing out of proportion?

World Philosophy Day

Apparently today is World Philosophy Day (or maybe yesterday was, or tomorrow will be… it all depends upon a host of epistomological questions which have been investigated for thousands of years but which have never been resolved). In honor of the event, BBC News Magazine has an article featuring four philosophical conundrums which will make your brain hurt. I, of course, answered them all quickly and earned a perfect score, but I won’t share my answers with you, because that would be cheating, and cheating is wrong… Or is it?

Now, one of my favorite philosophical conundrums is the “Omphalos Hypothesis“, otherwise known parodically as “Last Tuesdayism”. The notion here is that the world was created by a deity in its current form with all its information and fossils and geological formations and all at one point in the recent past. All evidence that the earth is older than, say, 4,000 years, was placed in situ by God at the event of the world’s creation. Some philosophers raise this to “next Tuesdayism” by saying that God may as well have created the world last Tuesday, and every evidence that the world is older than that, including our memories, were created at the same time.

Really, though, the hypothesis doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and is ultimately irrelevant. If the universe really is no older than a few days, the best approach to understanding it is still to approach it with the observable evidence on hand.

Just for the fun of it, though, I like to say that I actually adhere to “Next Tuesdayism”, the notion that the world and everything in it won’t actually be created until next Tuesday. That includes your memory of reading this hypothesis; you may think you’re experiencing it right now, but your only proof that you are doing so will be your future self reflecting upon the experience, even if that future self is only a few milliseconds away. So who’s to say that what you’re experiencing now isn’t just a memory that you reflect upon later? In short, can you disprove that we don’t yet exist if your only evidence for prior existence is your own memory thereof?

It is, again, one of those questions that ultimately irrelevant to our understanding of and approach to the world. I also used to ponder that reality might be changing all around us every few seconds, but we would never know, and the only reality we would ever be aware of experiencing is the one we are experiencing right now.

I also enjoy pondering issues of identity and the internal experience of self, but I won’t go into that here. I did write a story, “Trying to Stay Dead“, about these issues. Go read it and enjoy it. And have a happy World Philosophy Day.

The Future Soon

So I’m sitting here at my computer, watching Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (because I’m a horror movie buff and Freddy Kreuger is one of my favorite supernatural movie villains), and because my brain sometimes goes off on tangents I started thinking about how I’d explain this sort of technology to someone from the past. Let’s say, oh, someone from 1508. How could you possibly explain to someone from back then that while I’m watching a moving picture on this box in front of me that I’m also writing up this screed which will also be viewed by maybe half a dozen people around the world? Ten years ago the technology wasn’t that different; watching movies on a computer wasn’t that inconceivable, and blogging was around (though back then I believe it was called “online journaling”). Twenty years ago the Internet wasn’t a household commodity but computers were widespread enough so that people could appreciate possible future directions. But five hundred years ago? Heck, indoor plumbing would be hard to explain.

Of course, the flip side of this question is obvious: what technologies will be around and commonplace five hundred years from now that we of the the 21st century would find inconceivable? Every time I try to come up with some brainbreaking technology of the future, it only ends up being an extension of modern technology. ((This, by the way, is one reason why I don’t put a whole lot of stock in the notion of the Singularity. The Singularity is here, and has been for a few hundred years.))

What are your thoughts? Assuming the human race is still around in five hundred years, what are some mindblowing technologies that would seem impossible or even unimaginable to us today/?

Plants with Eyes

Inspired by our recent trip to Safari West (where we got to play “Keeper for a Day”, which is why I got to hand feed a giraffe) and by watching The Mist, I’ve been amusing myself lately speculating about future directions of life on the surface of the Earth. Mostly I’ve been thinking about how marine ecology is full of things that sting, bite, deliver venom, lure unsuspecting critters to be food, and things that are just awfully good at hiding from the other things that want to eat them.

Now, marine life has been around significantly longer than surface life. Life on Earth first evolved in the oceans about four billion years ago, but the first land plants didn’t show up until about 475 million years ago, and it took about 75 million years after that for the for surface animals to show up in the form of simple insects and plants that bear seeds. This means that marine life has a significant head start over land life in evolving stinging, biting, eating, and venomous organs. Life underwater is much more fraught with peril than life on land (I know, try telling an antelope on the savannah that spending its life avoiding lions is a lot better than spending its life as a little fish avoiding a Portuguese man of war’s very poisonous stingers). So, given a couple more billion years, what will surface life on Earth look like (assuming that human beings are no longer around, having become extinct or simply gone on to better things)? The earth probably won’t be around in another four billion years, since the sun will become a red giant by then, so my speculations will necessarily be limited to two to three billion years.

Will surface life be just as full of stinging, biting, and muching things as underwater life? Insects, which have been around for a lot longer than other forms of animals, have got a jump on this sort of thing. Plants do it pretty well too. Some reptiles are pretty good at this sort of thing as well. Some simpler mammals have stingers that deliver poison (the platypus springs to mind, though as far as I know only the male of the species does), but most larger, more complex mammals simply rely on their big teeth and their big brains.

I’m not a theoretical biologist, though, so most of my speculations are limited to science fictional notions that I’ve picked up from other sources. In “The Mist”, King presents an alien ecology which is extremely dangerous to human beings, who barely stand a chance against even a relatively small insect like critter whose venom can kill one of us in just a few minutes. And David Gerrold, in his increasingly sparse and decreasingly impressive “War Against the Chtorr” series, presents a future in which the Earth is being “terraformed” by an alien species into an ecology much more dangerous and invasive than our own, and some of the character speculate that the alien ecology is much older than our own, so in its sheer ferocity it more resembles an underwater ecology rather than a contemporary surface ecology.

Of course, it’s also possible that the surface animals will simply continue to develop bigger brains and bigger teeth, relying more and more on those than on other means of hunting each other and hiding from each other. Maybe the future of life on earth will consist of faster antelopes and bigger lions. One thing that struck me as I was learning about the African savannah at Safari West is that Africa is simply swarming with antelopes and antelope like animals. Prey animals, in other words. And prey animals, with exceptions like giraffes and zebras, are usually antelope like (again, though, I have no expertise here, so any qualified zoologist, or any college student who has taken a introductory zoology class, will probably be able to correct me on this point). So maybe future ecologies on the surface of the earth will simply include variations on contemporary themes.

Then again, maybe things will get weirder, like the plants in this video:

Is that the coolest video ever or what? It’s from an animation studio called “1st Avenue Machine” and I like to think that plants in future ecologies will be just as bizarre as these.

Anyway, whether the future of the earth involves just variations on what we have already or something nightmarish like from the imaginations of King and Gerrold, it’s still a fun thing to speculate about. And maybe some day I’ll write a story about this theme.

Tip of the hat to the Weird Universe blog for the video.

Overcoming Fear

I’m sure that one of the factors that has been driving my perpetual mild depression over the years has been a perpetual, ongoing, permanent fear of risk, change, or growth.  My entire life, it sometimes seems to me, has been one long exercise in avoiding situations which make me nervous or where I could end up embarrassing myself or feeling at all uncomfortable.  It usually takes prodding on an epic scale to get me to undertake a large risk: if it hadn’t been for Jennifer’s skillful poking, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Ireland, for example.  Either time.  And I’d probably still be at that administrative assistant job I hated all that time ago.

So today I Googled “fear of risk”, and came across this little article: [LINK REDACTED PER THEIR REQUEST].  It looked a little Norman Peale for my tastes, but I read it over anyway, and found it pretty interesting.  The gist of the article is that the author discovered, from a book on acting techniques, that saying “Yes” to a situation key element in making any improvisational scene come to life.  Having done a wee bit of improvisational acting in my day (when I was working at the Renaissance Faire), I recognize this bit of advice.  The quickest way to kill an improv sketch is to reply “No” when your cohort comes up to you with an improbable situation.

The author of the article decided to apply that principle to his “real life”.  I like this idea, and I think it’s a good one.  I’d like to apply this principle to my own life: whenever confronted with a situation where I’d normally say “No” for fear of taking a risk or whatever, instead I’ll swallow my fears and say “Yes” (within reason, of course: nothing self injurious or that would hurt anyone else).

I should strike some sort of manly pose here, I think.

The problem that I’m having here, though, is that I feel like I’ve insulated myself for so long from anything that seems like a risk or an opportunity that I can’t see them when they show up.  So I’m looking for advice here: what suggestions do any of you have for finding new opportunities for risk and adventure in your life?  Or, similarly, how can I broaden my perceptions to see more of them in my own life?

Writerly Musings

I’ve been stalled on my writing for quite awhile now.  I haven’t worked on Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster for a few weeks, nor on any short stories.  I pulled out "Burying Uncle Albert" recently with the intention of revising it for the fifth or sixth time, but since I did so, it’s been sitting untouched in my notebook.

The causes of this malaise are multitudinous, I think.  First, there’s the house thing; buying a house without being sure that our current house is going to sell anytime soon is stressful, as is the whole process of keeping the current house terrifyingly clean the whole time, just in case someone decides to swing by and take a look during the day.

Second, work has been crazy.  Since I went into overdrive a couple of weeks ago to build our time tracking system, I haven’t really slowed down.  I’m productive but I feel like all my creative energy is pouring into clever and well written (I hope) PHP code.

Third, my lungs just won’t cut me a break.  Typically, I’m fine for a week or so, followed by at least two weeks’ worth of flareup.  I’m getting over another one just now, one that lasted less than a week, so let’s hope it stays away this time.  Still, when you’re sick for a very long time, even if it’s just a mild illness, you begin to wonder if you’re ever going to feel healthy again, and that’s a depressing thought.

Of course, all those reasons are BS.  I’ve written plenty while under similar stresses, and sometimes even under more.

Mainly, though, I’ve sort of been reevaluating my goals as a writer.  I’ve moved past the notion that I will ever make a living as a writer (I know that there are some writers, like the otherwise sensible Bentley Little, who don’t believe you can call yourself a writer unless you’re making a living at it, but I call BS on that), because I just don’t think that’s going to happen, not without either upping my productivity to epic levels that preclude everything else in my life or achieving some sort of miraculously breakout novel that will shoot up to the top of the bestseller lists and stay there for months at a time.  Or going to Stephen King route and doing both.  While I suppose it’s possible that Solitude will achieve that level of popularity, it isn’t very likely.  And I just don’t have the energy to reach the level of productivity that would be required for the first option; neither the energy, nor, honestly, the creative juices.

Besides, my current job with the University provides much better health coverage than I would ever manage to obtain as a full-time writer.

Likewise, I don’t think I’ll ever be a major prize-winning writer; none of my stories will ever be nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula (because, frankly, I don’t write in the genre those apply to), and I doubt I’ll ever be nominated for a Bram Stoker award or a Pushcart Prize, let alone a Pulitzer or a Nobel (though a man can dream).  I’ve read a number of those prize-winning stories; and they’re either so good as to make my own paltry efforts seem faintly ridiculous by comparison, or they’re so obtuse that I’m convinced editors buy them and people vote for them for fear of looking stupid if they don’t ("Hm, this story confuses and puzzles me and I have no idea what it’s about; I’d better buy it, or people will think I’m stupid for not understanding it").  My writing is neither that good nor that esoterically incoherent.

In a way this is all kinds of liberating.  For one thing, I can discard that piece of advice I find in most of the writing books, the piece of advice that bugs me every time I see it: "Write to your audience".  Hah. As if you know who your audience is.

More importantly, though, this all lets me give myself permission to be more experimental with my writing, to explore styles and themes that I was afraid to before (even though I learned decades ago that "experimental fiction" is simply a synonym for "retch-inducingly bad".

So having examined all this and having discarded "Get Rich!" and "Win Prizes!" as motivations for writing (but still keeping them in the "Wouldn’t it be nice to…" category), I can focus on what I really want to do with my writing.  That boils down, really, to two goals:

  1. To entertain people; and
  2. To make people think.

I want people to have fun while they read my stories, to laugh and generally have a good time, but I’m also interested in getting people to think, primarily about themselves and about the way they interact with the world around them.

Does that sound pretentious?  I think it sounds pretentious.  But it really boils down to saying, "Here’s a problem this character’s facing that may be similar to a problem the reader might be facing, so let’s see if the character’s solution works for them or not; either way, it’s at least one idea."  Which doesn’t sound like much to me at all.

Now, having recently read articles about global warming, poverty, genocide in Africa, and so on, there’s also a big part of me that wants to interject some themes of social justice into my writing.  I’m never going to be an ecologist or a conservation biologist who goes out and figures out ways to restore endangered habitats, nor am I ever going to be an anthropologist who goes to remote locations to find ways to preserve ancient ways of life for endangered cultures. I don’t have a lot of money or time that I can throw at these global problems, though, and the same health issues that plague me today also prevent me from ever seriously considering the Peace Corps or even AmeriCorps.

So I figure I can use my writing talents to address such concerns.  The challenge, though, is to figuring out how I can work these themes in to the stories that I do write.  I don’t want to write yet more screeds about the dangers of global warming or how awful things are for the poor; scare tactics and the like just don’t work, I think; heck, recent attempts to turn global warming into a national security issue and play it as a threat as dire as terrorism have just resulted in increased cynicism about the topic.

Of course, there’s a third goal in addition to the others listed above that I want to reach:

3. Be read, and read widely.

Put this goal ahead of "making money", and, what with the Internet and all, all kinds of possibilities open themselves up.  I could distribute my writing for free on my website (I already distribute some of my stories there, though there seems to be very, very little traffic on my site), or make photocopies and pass them out on the street corners.  To be read widely, though, the stories still have to be entertaining, which means the quality still has to be there.  There’s nothing at all wrong with being entertaining, even though self-professed experts frequently downplay the value of entertainment.  I see this all the time on a horror related mailing list I belong to, where Stephen King is bashed on a regular basis while horror authors who are decidedly not entertaining are regularly lauded.

What it boils down to, I suppose, is this: I like fiction that both entertains me and makes me want to be a better person.  And so that’s what I want to do for others with my own fiction.

So I suppose the reason why I’m stalled in my writing now is that I can’t figure out how to do that.  Of course, there’s only one way to learn how to do that, though.  And that’s to just sit my butt back down at my desk and start writing again.

And, fortunately, I think I may have talked myself into it.

Bees and other stingers

I’ve been following, off and on, the issue with the vanishing bees.  Colony Collapse Disorder is a pretty scary thing; while we don’t rely on bees exclusively for our crop pollination needs, they’re still crucial, and if the bees all go away, then things will be mighty tough.  I don’t believe we’ll face major famine and extinction, but food will be very expensive, and the human toll will still be frighteningly high.  Now, in our own little part of California, a very agricultural area, we don’t seem to have been hit particularly hard by CCD; I still see plenty of bees flying around, doing their bee stuff.  The worry is there, but seeing the bees (with whom I’ve always had pretty good relations) around makes me feel a little better.

There seem to be as many different theories about what’s happening to the bees as there are people looking at the problem.  The environmentalist wacko/doomsday theorist in me likes the idea that genetically modified crops are to blame.  It’s got a good beat, you can dance to it, and you can cast blame at the multi-billion dollar agricultural industry which is so dysfunctional in the United States anyway.  And while I do think that there are probably some aspects of the craze for GM crops that haven’t been studied thoroughly enough (if only because no one thinks to test for these things), the truth is that, according to my very few conversations with apiarists and farmers, the effects of most of these crops were pretty heavily tested on pollinating insects.  Plus, there have been GM crops in the field a lot longer than CCD has been an issue.

Another fringe theory that I’m less inclined to take seriously suggests that cell phones are to blame.  Yes, the signals from cell phones and cell phone towers can confuse bees and other insects and animals that rely on some sophisticated biological machine that we don’t quite get yet to make their way home, but the effect hasn’t been that strong.  What’s more, cell phones and cell phone towers have been around for at least a decade, but we’ve only observed CCD this past year.  The timelines don’t add up.

So it’s all still a mystery.  Major bee die-offs are not that unusual, but die-offs on the scale that we’re seeing now are unprecedented and scary.

Personally, I’m inclined to think that there may be a number of different factors which are contributing to the current problem.  Most bees in the agricultural industry are from one species, and whenever you have a large population with a nearly identical genome, you’re just asking for trouble.  Genetic variation is a nifty thing; when a new threat enters a genetically diverse population, the odds that someone in that population has a mutant gene that can fight it off and that can then be spread throughout the population rise.  But if those genes are missing, then such a threat can’t be fought off.  This kind of epidemic spread happens in any sort of ecosystem where the majority of a population has an identical genetic code, literally or metaphorically.  New computer viruses that spread havoc throughout the world do so partially because Windows computers are pretty much the same the world over, and if an exploit exists in the source code of the operating system on the computer I’m using, then it very likely exists in yours, and so the same virus can infect both.  If I’m running Linux and you’re running Windows, then only one of our computers will be infected.

So, there’s that.  I’ve also heard that GM crops can impact the immunological systems of bees; I haven’t been able to confirm that, but it’s an intriguing idea.  If it’s true, then this, combined with a lack of variation in the bees’ genetics, leaves them wide open to infection from other pathogens.  Researchers at UCSF have identified a fungus that may be the culprit, actually: a single-celled parasite called Nosema ceranae that has been found in many of the bees on which autopsies have been performed.  Since I’m not a population geneticist or a mycologist or an entomologist or an ecologist or an insect immunologist or any other sort of ologist, I can’t speak knowledgeably or authoritatively on the issue, but it’s an interesting idea.

One thing that sort of surprises me, though, is that Colony Collapse Disorder hasn’t been linked, in any of the news reports I’ve seen, with the phenomenon of the wasp mega-nests that were being found all throughout the South last year.  Seriously, we’re talking huge.  Paper wasps were building nests that filled up cars, nests with millions of insects when a nest would normally only contain a couple thousand.  These nests had several active queens at once, instead of just one.  Can you imagine walking into your barn one spring day to find that your old Chevy Packard has been packed with a monstrous paper wasp nest, and that they’ve been building smaller, "satellite" nests elsewhere in the barn as well?  Bees are fine little critters that do good and sting you only if you bug them, but wasps are flat out nuts and some of them will sting you just because they can.  And while bees disembowel themselves whenever they sting someone because their stingers are barbed, wasps have smooth stingers and can sting you again and again, and likely will, just because they’re ornery.  Doesn’t seem fair that while bees are experiencing a massive die-off, these wasps are having a population explosion.

Why the giant nests?  Another mystery, from what I’ve read, but some ecologists suggest that wasps normally experience die offs during the colder winter months which prevent their colonies from getting too massive.  But if the winter is too warm, then there’s no die off, and the colony just keeps growing and growing.  Others suggest that some of the queens are, for some reason, remaining in their original nests instead of heading out like they normally do to establish colonies of their own.  They’re lazy, but instead of killing each other, these queens learn to cooperate and build giant nests.

So, bees are dying off, and wasps are making giant nests.  It’s tempting to look for a common explanation.  If it really is an environmental factor that’s causing the giant nest phenomenon, then might the same factor have some role to play in the bee die-off?  Well, probably not, since the giant nest phenomenon was pretty localized to the American south and Colony Collapse Disorder seems to be turning into a global phenomenon.

Still, it’s fun to speculate.

Update:  Thanks to a friend of mine for pointing out this article to me about how cell phone signals apparently got linked with Colony Collapse Disorder.  Turns out it was some German researchers who were studying the effect of the radio signals generated by landlines on the learning ability of bees.  Nothing to do with cell phones at all, but the media, surprisingly, misinterpreted the research.  Imagine that.