Category Archives: The World Around Us

I Love Ants

Well, actually, no, I don’t love ants. Ants drive me crazy, especially when they’re crawling all over the house. They’re interesting critters in many ways, and for years I’ve been attracted to Douglas Hofstedter’s notion of intelligent anthills as he presented them in his book Godel, Escher, and Bach. But just keep them out of my house. Especially my kitchen.

But this is cool: today, Science Daily reports on the discovery of a new species of ant found in the Amazonian rain forest. It’s an odd looking little ant. Here’s a picture of it:

(Click on the thumbnail for a larger picture.)

The main thing to know about this ant is that it’s blind, and it has really long mandibles for its mouth. You can see the mandibles even better in this picture:

The Latin name for this new species of ant is Martialis heureka. Roughly translated, that means, “Ant from Mars”. This new species is so peculiar, so unlike any other known species of ant, that entomologists joke it could only have come from Mars. More significantly, it’s so unusual that it gets its own genus, separate from every other ant species. They suspect it’s an underground dweller, blind because it lives in the dark and doesn’t need eyes, and with huge forceps-type mandibles that make it all the easier to grab little subterranean critters and munch on them. I’m not sure what it feeds on, because the article doesn’t make it clear. It does say that this species of ant is predatory, so I’m going to say it feeds on mites. I’ll make sure that they stay away from my mite collection.

Some scientists are calling this a fossil ant species. It is, quite simply, the Coelecanth of ants. No new ant species have been discovered since 1921. Spiffy.

So how cool is that? Bizarre space ants from the Amazon. These critters will very likely show up in my next Story of the Week, tentatively entitled “The X of Doom”.

Evil Gnome Video

I found a copy of that Evil Gnome video on YouTube.  Here it is for your viewing pleasure:

I’m still trying to figure out what the thing is.  I don’t buy into the notion that it’s a viral marketing gimmick; I think if it were it would be of better quality.  I’m still of the opinion that it’s a genuine video (as in a video shot by some random guys instead of a viral marketing company), just not a video of a creepy gnome like creature lurking around a town in Argentina.  Judging by the nearby foliage, I’m thinking the critter looks to be about a foot tall, which rules out even the shortest primordial dwarf.  My best guess at this point is that it’s some sort of small monkey.  I’d even consider the possibility that if it is a monkey, someone might have dressed it up in some weird outfit.  I’m just about 99% sure it’s not a supernatural critter of any sort.

Evil Gnomey Goodness

Back in 2002, for various reasons, my family and I decided to give my stepfather a lawn gnome for Christmas.  The reasons for this are multitudinous and probably beyond the scope of this blog; let’s just say it was well earned.  To prepare my stepfather for the lawn gnome’s arrival, I put together a series of emails and photographs to send to him detailing the gnome’s global journey on its way to my stepfather’s home.  You can read all about the gnome’s journey here: The Journey of Dandelion Snailrider.

Evil GnomeToday, my little sister found this report for me on the website of The Sun, a British newspaper with all the reliability and integrity of the late Weekly World News:  "Creepy Gnome Terrorises Town in General Guemes, Salta, Argentina."  The story comes complete with creepy gnome video goodness, and is worth checking out just for that.  She sent the link to me in IM, suggesting that the Argentinian town in question might be under the dominion of Dandelion Snailrider’s evil twin gnome.

This makes me happier than it really ought to.  I love the shot of the gnome limping along under the streetlight like a diminutive Igor with a conical hat.  I think it’s about 95% probable that this is either a hoax or some other critter being mistaken for an evil gnome, but it’s still kind of creepy.  I suppose that there’s a slight possibility that there’s a doorway opening between various dimensions, allowing an invasion of horrific beings to wreak havoc on the earth; I hope that’s not the case, though, because it would mean that my career as a horror fantasist would be over before it’s really begun.

Yikes

This article from the Guardian has got to be one of the most depressing things I’ve read in a long time.  I certainly feel sympathy for these people, though it does put elements of my own life into perspective:  Life without hope: America’s child prisoners. That this article was published on a British news service provides in interesting perspective on the issue.

Three Real Life Supervillains

In comic books and novels and movies, supervillains are the guys who have Grand Schemes for taking over the world.  They use Doomsday devices, they make their headquarters on zeppelins or in underground lairs, and they wear outlandish costumes.  Think about Doctor Doom from the Fantastic Four, for example; he’s an evil genius, and he wanders around in that outlandish green cape and iron mask.  And what’s with the Green Goblin, anyway?

Of all the comic book supervillains I can think of off the top of my head (which isn’t all that many, since I’m not a big comic book reader), I think Lex Luthor is probably the closest to how a real life supervillain might operate.  Sure he’s into the Grand Schemes and he has access to high powered super evil mad gadgets and space travel, but he’s also happy working behind the scenes in high politics or in corporate boardrooms.  He’s evil and manipulative and can work with tyrants in third world nations just as easily as he can work with super powered demigods from beyond the galaxy.

But are there really people like Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom in the world?  I decided to do a little research project and find out.  I went to Wikipedia and to the Interpol "most wanted" pages, and discovered there aren’t all that many of them out there.  There are plenty of evil people in the world, but not many who have been able to bring ruin to whole nations, who have access to lots of money, and who are just plain diabolical.  I originally wanted to make this a Top Ten list, but I had trouble finding ten.  Then it was going to be a Top Five, and even that was tough.  Finally, I settled for list of just three, and I welcome any suggestions either of my regular readers might have for more Real Life supervillains.

Anyway, so here’s my list.  These are real life supervillains.  They don’t wear capes or masks, and they don’t have secret bases on the moon. However, it can be easily argued that any of these men are just about as evil as Doctor Doom or Lex Luthor.  Sit take, take a breath, and prepare yourself for the top three real supervillains of our age.  For this list, I decided to include those guys who are still alive, though they may either be still at large or in custody somewhere.  (I’m also trying to avoid controversy by refraining from including political reasons for including anyone on my list.  I decided to limit myself to their capability for destruction and the breadth of their schemes.)

1.  Charles G. Taylor.  Although Taylor was freely elected president of Liberia in 1997 by a landslide vote of nearly 75%, it’s generally agreed that most of the people who voted for him did so out of fear that he would resume the costly and disastrous civil war that he had instigated in 1991.  Hundreds of thousands of innocent people were killed during the conflict, and millions were left homeless.  Without a doubt, Taylor was responsible for some of the deadliest and most horrific conflicts on the African continent in the late 20th century.

Current Whereabouts:  Currently in detention at the International Criminal Court, facing trial from Sierra Leone’s Special Court.

2.  Osama bin Laden.  Once a favored son of the wealthy bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia, now the reputed head of a global terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Western civilization.  It could, technically, be argued that Al Qaeda is not all that organized, but it is indisputable that bin Laden is responsible for founding the organization, funding its major operations from his own personal fortune, and orchestrating many of its most destructive attacks.  Once a major financial and strategic supporter of the Mujahadeen — the guerrilla force that opposed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s — bin Laden definitely went on to bigger and more ambitious schemes later on.

Current Whereabouts:  Unknown, but reputed to be in hiding in Pakistan.

And, finally, my nomination for the supervillain most truly like Lex Luthor:

3.  Viktor Bout.  Also known as the "merchant of death", this Russian arms merchant is responsible for illegal weapons to nefarious groups throughout the world, including as many different sides of the various conflicts in Africa as possible.  The child armies of Sierra Leone, various death squads in South America, and even Al Qaeda have reportedly benefited from Bout’s dealings.  Through the purchase or outright theft of hundreds of weapons left behind in the various Soviet states after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the use of fake companies which he can bring into existence and disband when necessary to avoid any legal prosecution, Bout has armed more illegal groups than any other arms merchant.  The Nicholas Cage film of 2005 Lord of War was reportedly based on Viktor Bout.  It’s kind of scary to think that he’s just a little bit older than me.

Current Whereabouts:  Technically unknown, but has a home in South Africa and another in Russia.

The End of Batboy?

It’s been all over the blogosphere that the Weekly World News is shutting down in August.  It’s a shame; when I was in high school, my friend Barry and I would stop by the grocery store and pick up a copy on the way to the bus stop, and snicker over the stories which we knew some people were accepting as true.  And now, it’s folding.

I think there’s more to this story, though.  Bob Greenberger, an editor at the WWN, wrote Friday on his blog:

Friday morning, Jeff Rovin comes in for a meeting and then the staff was to be called in. He’s looking harried, not at all relaxed. At 11:30, we’re finally shown into an office where we are told the Board of Directors has chosen to close Weekly World News. The reasons given make no sense. We’re stunned and shell-shocked. We’re to stay on through August 3, finishing the reprint issues and then we’re done. A glorious, funny, odd publication, born in 1979, will go out with a whimper and all I can think is that something’s going on that they’re not telling us because it just doesn’t make sense.

Did you catch that?  "…it just doesn’t make sense."  What this reminds me of, more than anything, is when Art Bell "retired" (for the first time) in 1998, sparking speculation that government agents had threatened him and forced him to retire (the truth — that he was taking time off to resolve some legal issues — was much more mundane, but as I recall Bell did nothing to defuse the initial speculation).

I’m betting that this thing with the Weekly World News shutting down is a publicity stunt.  In true WWN fashion, I predict that they’ll be back and running within a few months, with a story that the government had forced them to shut down because they knew too much about how the aliens were working with Bigfoot to cover up the Kennedy assassination and how that tied in to the imminent arrival of the arch-angel Gabriel along with seven secret prophecies of Nostradamus that prove that the earth will end next Tuesday.

But, then, I’ve been wrong before…

Southern Lawn Care

Showing skin gives new company boost in business

So you pay a few extra bucks and instead of having a neighborhood kid come out and mow your lawn, you get a hot babe in a bikini.  I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with that per se, but I find the concept very… weird.  The article doesn’t say whether the women will be wearing stiletto heels while doing the lawn, but that seems like it would be a logical part of the outfit.  And it works for the men, who, instead of having to mow the lawn themselves, get to sit out on the front porch, drinking a beer, and watching a woman in a bikini mow the lawn.

I wonder how their wives feel about it?

What I find most fascinating is that this is a thriving business in the Bible Belt.  Sure, the twisted version of Christianity which is stereotypically associated with that area is all about the subjugation of women, and you can’t get more into that mindset than having scantily-clad young women perform manual labor (though they could be naked, I suppose), but women in bikinis — doesn’t that, like, led to children having sex?  And terrorism?  Perhaps the thinking is that since the young women are going to hell for wearing a bikini in public anyway, they might as well be doing something useful while doing it, like entertaining men doing manual labor.

Blossom!

By the time we got to the corpse flower at UC Davis’s botanical conservatory yesterday, it had pretty much stenched itself out.  The flower blooms, at full strength, for about 18 hours, from what I hear, and it had started doing its thing the day before.  While we wandered the campus looking for the conservatory, we encountered people who told us that the flower could be smelled from two or three buildings away; and one professor I spoke with today says his jacket still smells.

But there was still some of its pungency there.  We walked all the way across the campus and made our way through the maze of greenhouses, and stood in line for a chance to get up close to the flower and smell it.  It stood about three feet tall; not the tallest corpse flower bloom in the world, which was apparently two or three meters in height, but respectable nonetheless for a guy like me who’s used to seeing flowers that are no more than a couple of inches high.  I couldn’t smell the flower until I got right up to it, which was sort of disappointing.  Still, once I was close, I could detect a very definite smell like rotten meat or fish.  And a botany student very helpfully held a small battery powered fan up to my face so that I could get a better whiff of the thing.

A three-foot tall flower that smells like rotten meat!  Awesome!

Surrounding the pot with the plant were pots with clones of the same plant, none of them blossoming.  We could see the plant in various stages of its life cycle, which was pretty interesting.  And there was also a small display of the various insects that are attracted to the bloom and that act as the flower’s pollinators.  You know: dung beetles, blowflies, that sort of thing.  Critters that are attracted to that sort of smell.  The insects were all mounted in a display case, which is fine with me.  Much as I appreciate the wonders of the natural world, I am not particularly inclined to get friendly with a dung beetle.

On the way back to the car, Jennifer and I speculated on how such a thing as the corpse flower could have evolved.  It probably evolved the way most life forms on earth did, with lots of trial and error on a good bit of luck over millions of years, but Jennifer held out for an extraterrestrial origin. Who knows? She could be right.

Me, I’m happy to place the corpse flower in the same category as the duck-billed platypus: the category of things that prove that God just has a weird sense of humor.

What is "Santanic", anyway?

From the Columbia Chronicle:  "Secret Service investigates Santanic [sic] Vampire".  I’m not entirely sure what to make of the headline; all I can figure is that certain Latin rock musicians are recruiting legions of the undead to violently influence the political process.  With "Likens", no less.

But law professor Neil Richards makes the most important point, I think: "[I]f he’s a vampire, why is he the one staking people? Shouldn’t he want to bite the president and feed on him?"  Yeah, that’s right.  Suck it, fang boy.

A Sad Day In Chelonia

Charles Darwin’s tortoise dies – Top stories – Breaking News 24/7 – NEWS.com.au

Harriet was 176 years old.  Imagine that; imagine being a tortoise 176 years old.  This was the tortoise that Charles Darwin studied on that Galapagos.  She was around during the Civil War, and during both World Wars.  Nations have risen and fallen since Harriet was born.  Well, okay, maybe not that many nations, but still.  The British Empire fell.  And through it all, of course, Harriet was just a tortoise who had much more important things on her mind: like crunching leaves, eating sticks, and wondering how in the world to convince her human captors that she was, after all, female.

She lived a long, full, and occasionally confused life.  Godspeed, big turtle.

Harriet the Tortoise