Category Archives: Travels of an Intellectual Vagabond

Wherein I wax philosophical, intellectual, or pretentious.

On Self Acceptance

Accept Yourself
Accept yourself, dammit!

This topic was suggested by my mother-in-law, Janet Mueller!

I am not a therapist, counselor, or a psychologist, so I don’t know if I’m qualified to write this post with any authority. So I’ll write with without authority, and you can just accept that.

First, an observation. When I was doing an image search for the term “self acceptance” to use as the header of this blog post, I found a LOT of clip art featuring women, and only one or two featuring men. I don’t think that’s deliberate; I think that there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding the improvement of mental and emotional health, and that stigma hits men particularly hard. Real men don’t go to therapy. Real men don’t need to self-actualize. Real men don’t have to take anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds. Real men work through it all; heck, I saw a Twitter X post from a “REAL MAN” (in his bio, along with the fact that he was a God-loving Christian) who proudly stated that when his father died, he didn’t even go to the funeral; he went to work. Is this healthy? I’m going to say no.

The point, though, is that I had to dig a bit to find a bit of clip art that I thought was gender-neutral enough to include at the top of this blog post.

Self acceptance is hard. We talk a lot about having to accept our limits when we consider our dreams and our fantasies about what we want to do and about the changes we want to make in the world, and this too is considered “self acceptance”.

I think it’s important to accept your limits, of course, but it’s also important to realize where your limits are. And they probably aren’t as nearby as you think. I probably won’t ever win the Nobel Peace Prize, but I may, if I try hard, be able to write a novel that features a post-scarcity, post-colonial civilization that is intent on making reparations to the peoples it has harmed. This is pretty ambitious. I’ve actually been thinking about this for several years as part of a Big Secret Writing Project that, unfortunately, never got off the ground. It still percolates in the back of my mind, but it probably won’t get written anytime soon.

So: accepting yourself means not just accepting your limitations, but also your possibilities. Acknowledge the things you can’t do, but also bear in mind those things you might do, if you wish.

As Marianne Williamson wrote, in a passage frequently misattributed to Nelson Mandela:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.

This, I argue, is what self acceptance really is: the acceptance of your possibilities, not just your limitations.

Follow me for more wisdom!

Today’s recommendation is the movie Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead. I’m talking the live-action film on Netflix, not the anime or the manga. Jennifer and I saw this movie recently, and it delighted us both, and I loved its themes of self-acceptance, of friendship, and finding meaning in life, even in a zombie apocalypse. Plus, there’s no stupid love triangle or romantic subplot to distract from the zombie-squishing goodness! We saw the English dubbed version, but you can also watch it in Japanese with English subtitles. Highly recommended!

Post art for Netflix's Zom 100
Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead

AI and Science Fiction

Adorable humanoid robot working on laptop\

Please note, this post is based entirely on my own understanding of “AI” and the modern controversies surrounding these tools. It’s one of the topics I was given when I solicited topics for my daily blog posts.

AI in general

I am not a fan of what has been popularly called AI, as perpetrated on us by companies developing tools like ChatGPT or Midjourney or Dall-E or any of their equivalents. For one thing, the term “AI” — or “generative AI” — is a misnomer. There is nothing intelligent about these tools. They are not self-aware. They do not create anything. They do not feel anything. They are good at generating text or images based on large — I mean, HUGE — amounts of input. But intelligent? No. These tools are properly called “Large Language Models”, but that term is not precisely correct. It’s correct enough for my purposes, though.

One term that I have seen bandied about for such tools is “stochastic parrot”. 1, a term which basically means what I have just said above: they take large amounts of data and churn out predictive text. Another term I’ve seen online (usually in Facebook memes) is “plagiarism machines”. That’s certainly an appropriate term, because these tools are trained on, basically, the entirety of the internet, which includes a great number of copyrighted texts, and while OpenAI, the company that created ChatGPT, may have restrained their own tools from using these copyrighted texts, other corporations or open-source creators may not. Indeed, the issue of copyright for these tools has opened up a number of lawsuits and legal troubles. How will these issues be resolved? I don’t know. I can tell you, though, that the high court of Japan has ruled that copyrighted texts published there are fair game for LLMs.

Then there’s the issue of AI “hallucinations”, which is an entirely wrong term. AIs don’t hallucinate, any more than my cup of coffee does. They simply generate bad information. When I asked ChatGPT to tell me about myself, Richard S. Crawford the writer, it told me at first that I had written a number of stories and listed a couple of my publications; but then it also listed the number of awards I’d earned, and the fact that I lived in the Bay Area with my wife and children and a dog. All of this is, of course, false. I haven’t won any awards, I certainly do not live in the Bay Area, and while I do have a wife, we have no children, and there are definitely no dogs. This leads me to wonder what the point of ChatGPT even is, if I have to fact-check every statement it makes; and when people encounter “facts” that ChatGPT hallucinates into being, how many of them are going to bother fact-checking anyway. You thought the internet was bad at spreading dis/mis-information now, just wait until Google’s top results in its searches are AI-generated articles with no human intervention or fact-checking.

There are other problematic aspects of LLMs and the companies that create them, from the environmental resources required to keep them up and running (and you thought cryptocurrencies were bad), to the hordes of Kenyan workers paid at sub-subsistence levels to keep the tools from becoming Nazi parrots. But I’ll let other people address those issues. And I’ll only mention in passing the way AI grifters are using ChatGPT to scam Amazon’s KU program for money.

AI and Science Fiction

This is a topic I’m less familiar with, mostly because I don’t read a whole lot of science fiction. I know that there have been plenty of movies that feature AIs or self-aware computers — 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind — and most of the time, these tools are portrayed as dangerous and, well, not necessarily fans of the human race. HAL, in 2001, killed off all the crew in that movie, and attempted to do in Dave Bowman who figured out how to turn it off by removing its memory cores. And who can forget Skynet, the AI in the Terminator franchise, that started a nuclear war between Russia and the US? And finally, let’s not leave out the intelligent machines in that vastly silly Matrix series of films2.

On the other hand, the Pixar film Wall-E features an intelligent, presumably self-aware robot that basically saves the human race from itself. Or something. To be honest, it’s been at least a decade since I saw that movie.

I’m even less familiar with AIs in novels, but I do remember that in Becky Chambers’s truly outstanding Wayfarers series of novels, there are plenty of AI characters who run the gamut of ethical sensibilities, from benevolent to less so. The second book of the series, A Closed and Common Orbit, one of the best science fiction novels published in recent years, features an AI on a quest to find out what its own personhood means.

In short, AIs in media are more likely to be true artificial intelligences, sapient, self-aware, capable of emotion, all of that. LLMs are not that. They may seem it, but they are not. HAL is sapient, as is Skynet… LLMs, not so much.

Will the science fiction view of AI ever come into being? This question has been hotly debated by philosophers and technologists for decades. I remember reading John Searle’s essay in which he argued that a thermostat may be intelligent, simply because it “knows” what to do when climate conditions change3, and that was in 1991. A consensus has never been reached.

Personally, I don’t think so; at least, I don’t think we’ll ever see a human-equivalent AI. This is based on arguments I recall from college philosophy and psychology classes that human intelligence is not just a brain phenomenon, but a whole-body one; in other words, our sense of self-awareness is based not just in the brain, but takes input from all over our body, all our senses, all our organs, even the microbiome that makes up the population of our guts4. Unless we can build a human body from scratch and imbue THAT with an artificial intelligence, maybe we’ll see something human-like.

I feel like I’ve drifted from the topic. What was it? Oh yes, AI and Science Fiction.

Artificial intelligences were a part of the worldbuilding in Dune, as I recall (though it’s been decades since I’ve read that book). However, there was a “Butlerian jihad” which destroyed the AIs and made them illegal because they tried to take over and kill the humans.

In summary, I believe a Butlerian jihad may be just what we need right now.

I’ve decided that I’m going to recommend books I’ve read as part of this series of blog posts, and for this one I’m going to recommend the Hugo-award winning Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers. Start with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and go from there. You won’t regret it, I promise. And as I mentioned, while all these books are excellent, in my opinion, the second one, A Closed and Common Orbit, is the best.



I announced publicly on Facebook that I was going to post here on this blog daily in August, just as my friend Brian did in July, and I solicited topics. I don’t think I got 31 of them, so I’ll be soliciting more later on, but here are a few of them, mostly for my reference and not in any particular order. They are:

  1. Compelling fiction with non-violent plots
  2. My zucchini is conspiring with my tomato army to take over the neighborhood
  3. Dreams that find their way into your story telling
  4. ChatGPT and the delulu world
  5. Why grey cats are trouble
  6. Why black cats are special if not being troublesome
  7. Accepting life’s limitations
  8. The adventure with your tree!
  9. Why do you write? Approach philosophically or personally or some other way I’m not thinking of
  10. How awesome is Brian C. E. Buhl?
  11. Best Writing Advice I’ve Received
  12. The Future of Publishing
  13. How Gaming Can Influence Writing
  14. What Makes a Good Character Great?
  15. Maybe something about how raising cats is like writing stories
  16. Your favourite type of sandwich and what makes it delicious
  17. AI and science fiction
  18. The Barbie movie
  19. Art as a reflection of culture and society
  20. Self acceptance
  21. Harmful impacts of the Library of Congress classification system on historically marginalized peoples
  22. Your favorite teachers

Okay, that’s twenty-two. I’m gonna need nine more. I’ll think of something. If you come up with something, please post in a comment here or on Facebook! Thanks!


[A-Z] O is for Otherworldly Stuff

nessieThere probably isn’t a huge snakelike plesiosaur hanging out under the waters of Loch Ness in Scotland (though when I visited there in 2001, that didn’t stop me from looking carefully for Nessie). And there probably isn’t a giant ape-like critter lurking in the northern woods, leaving giant footprints in its wake. The Dover Demon was probably a monkey or something like that, and I’m reasonably sure the chupacabra corpses that have been found were simply dead coyotes with mange.

But my cynicism goes even further: I’m pretty sure we’re not being visited by alien creatures in UFOs, and I’m pretty darn skeptical about ghosts.

But I’m still interested in these things. I have several thick books about ghosts, a few about cryptozoology, and many about myths and folklore and even a dictionary of superstitions. In the 90s, I was interested in conspiracy theories, though only academically: I was interested in the mindset that would lead people to believe that, say, JFK was assassinated by the Zeta Reticulans because he was about to reveal the truth of Majestic-12, for example.

I was a big believer when I was a kid. My parents bought me books like Chariots of the Gods by Erich Von Daniken, and I pretty much ate them up. I was particularly enamored with the Bermuda Triangle… That is, until I read a book called The Bermuda Triangle Solved or something like that. It laid out in a very logical fashion the history of the Bermuda Triangle, and debunked all of the paranormal theories behind it. Time warp? Debunked. Alien abductions? Debunked. The truth is, there are actually no more disappearances or vanishings in the Bermuda Triangle than there are over any other comparable area of the ocean.

So while I am skeptical about just about everything paranormal and otherworldly, I am still fascinated by the ideas. I’ve written stories about ghosts and Bigfoot and giant squid and other cryptids.

Sometimes I do wish there was a bit more to the world than what can be measured with our existing senses, but then I start thinking about the sort of thing I wrote in my last entry, and realize the world around us is pretty damn spiffy as it is.

(Of course, I’m also an Episcopalian. More about that later.)

This out-of-the-world post brought to you by the A-Z Blogging Challenge.

[A-Z] Z is for Zoology Etc.

Animal_diversityWhen I first started college at UC Davis, my plan was actually not to study Philosophy or English or any of the liberal arts at all. I’d done so well in my science classes in high school (particularly AP Biology) that I originally planned on going into medicine, with a focus on Biomechanical Engineering, whatever that meant at the time.

But, as usually happens with freshmen in college, I ended up changing majors. First, I went in as a Biological Sciences major. Then I decided that Marine Biology was really neat, so I switched to that. Then I was going to double major in English and Zoology, theorizing that I could do science in the days and write science fiction at night (“I could make up realistic sounding aliens, and then write about them!” is what I told people). Then I really wanted to be a veterinarian, so I switched over to animal physiology.

Then came my sophomore year, and I was a bit more realistic about what I could achieve in college. Mathematics had always been my downfall in high school, and I was no better off in college, where Calculus just about killed me. And so did Chemistry. Ugh. I ended up taking Statistics twice, and did worse the second time around than the first. But I did fantastic in the biology courses and physics courses that I took. I got a B+ in Physiology 110, which many students agreed was one of the hardest undergraduate courses at UC Davis. Emboldened, I took another swing at Chemistry, only to fail again. Double ugh.

Then I took a course in the philosophy of the biological sciences, and it was like I’d found my true calling. I was one of the only students in that class who understood the material and what was going on. The professor (actually a professor of population genetics who happened to dabble in philosophy) was impressed by me as well. Just at the end of that quarter I officially changed my major to philosophy.

My memory’s a bit sketchy here, but, as I recall, to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree from UC Davis, you needed a total of 180 quarter units (each class, of course being 4 or 5 units). To get a degree in Philosophy you needed to have a minimum of 52 undergraduate units in philosophy courses. When I graduated, I had 80 units in Philosophy, and 225 units overall, the point at which the University pretty much booted you out. That meant I had over 100 units in a wide variety of other courses like Botany, the aforementioned Statistics courses, Religious Studies, Political Science, Anthropology, Sociology, Folklore and Mythology, History, and so on. Not enough in any one field to get a minor in any of them, let alone a double major. I just enjoyed learning about whatever tickled my fancy whenever I opened that course catalog. My major adviser called me an intellectual vagabond and a dilettante. I wasn’t sure at the time, and I’m still not sure, whether he was complimenting me or expressing his frustration.

And, ironically, I never took a course in zoology.

And when it came time to graduate, I froze in terms of what to do next. I could have gone on to graduate school in Philosophy (I had a particular propensity for the philosophy of science as well as symbolic logic and the philosophy of religion), but the notion of having to focus on one area of study for the rest of my life was grating to me. I ended up doing… nothing. Floating. Drifting. Taking on job as a barista, a clerk at a video store, a newspaper delivery driver, a pizza delivery guy, and so on. Really, it was by chance that I ended up working at the same University where I had studied, and sheer luck landed me into my current job (okay, I spent years teaching myself web programming, but you get the idea).

To this day, I still enjoy reading books on philosophy and science, and I pride myself on being able to talk intelligently on a wide number of topics, as well as being smart enough to ask questions on the topics I know nothing about. I went to library school for a little bit, on the assumption that I would be able to find in there a career that would let me be paid to be an intellectual vagabond and dilettante, but I wasn’t able to fully integrate my love of open source technology with what I was learning, so I dropped out. A silly decision which I still regret, but what the hell.

So now I get my dose of vagabonditry and dilettantism here and there, reading books, watching documentaries, visiting zoos and natural history museums, and so on, though I really don’t do any of those as much as I used to.

In a way, I still feel adrift. I like the job I’ve landed in, and I enjoy writing the stories I do, but I still wish I could have found a way to make my curiosity pay my way through life.

Pondering an editing project…

I’ve been a fan of Tom Waits and his music since 1990 or so, when my friend Mike introduced me to Waits’s 1985 album Rain Dogs. I admire his range and I find his subject matter enthralling. While Jennifer says my Tom Waits CDs can “live in your car” (apparently she’s not a fan), I listen to them pretty frequently.

Here’s one of my favorite Waits songs, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, from 1992’s Bone Machine:

For contrast, here’s “Drunk on the Moon”, another of my favorites, dating back to 1974’s The Heart of Saturday Night:

This song, in fact, inspired a character in my novella, “The Winds of Patwin County”, which is, I think, one of my more successful pieces of fiction.

For some reason, I associate Tom Waits with writing. And for that reason, I’m pondering a project: editing an anthology of original short stories inspired by the music of Tom Waits. I have no idea at the moment how I’d go about doing it (I imagine I’d need to get some sort of rights from Tom Waits’s label to do this). I would probably set up a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project; the money would go to production costs (it’d be self-published) and to paying the contributing authors.

I don’t know for sure, though. Any thoughts, anyone?

Imaginary Time at the Sandwich Shop (A Lesson in Cosmology)

I’ve been re-reading A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, the revised and updated edition from 1998. Oh, I know that a lot of advances have been made in theoretical cosmology, quantum mechanics, and high energy particle physics over the past ten years, but I still think that much of what Hawking wrote applies. People who know better are more than welcome to correct me on this.

One concept that caught my eye is “imaginary time”. Imaginary time, Hawking explains, can be described as a timeline perpindicular to “real time”, which is the normal experience of time that we as human beings have and that we observe as a feature of the universe we observe. I have a hard time conceptualizing this, but it seems to be useful when talking about Feynman’s notion of “sum of histories”, which is a useful concept for describing how a particle travels through the infinite number of possible paths it could take. When applied to the entire universe, we can think of the universe’s progression through real time as a sum of histories over imaginary time.

From here on, things get more confusing.

Hawking explains that in real time, the dimension of time expands and lengthens the more that the universe progresses, either expanding outwards or contracting inwards. In imaginary time, though, it’s just the opposite; in other words, imaginary time contracts in a manner that is inversely proportional to the expansion of real time. The best way I have found to think of this (and I may be completely wrong) is to think of imaginary time as a way of envisioning the number of possible paths that the universe could progress on in its expansion, by which I mean the total sum of the infinite number of possible quantum states that the universe could expand into. It’s kind of like ordering a sandwich at Togo’s. One you place your order at the desk, the number of orders that you could have placed shrinks down to one. This, in essence, means that when you walked into the sandwich shop, the value of Togo’s Imaginary Time was much wider than it is when you contract it down to the one sandwich that you order.

According to Hawking, then, while the observation of the universe in real time indicates that there was a Big Bang and there will eventually be a Big Crunch (or some other way that the universe comes to an end — I, for one, like the notion of the Big Rip, which is a notion I explored in my short story “Padma”, though you’d be hard pressed to see that in there), in imaginary time, the universe has no such grand entrance into being. It just sort of coalesces out of the infinite number of possibilities of existence that existed prior to the universe’s existence. This means that, in imaginary time, at least, the universe has no distinct beginning or end, and thus no actual boundary conditions. Thus, the universe has come into being without actually having started.

Yeah, that confuses me too, and I may have gotten it wrong.

The philosophical implications of this are that there is no need for the universe to have a “beginning” or an “end”. It just IS, without having been created ex nihilo. “What need, then, for a Creator?” he asks.

With all due respect to Hawking (and he deserves a lot), I’m not convinced that there are any philosophical or theological differences between a Big Bang model of the universe’s existence, and Hawking’s model of the universe as a closed surface (so to speak) without boundaries. Really, it goes either way. You could argue that the Big Bang model requires a Creator who created the universe from a singularity or from nothing, or you could argue that the Big Bang model does not require a Creator, that the Big Bang exploded from a singularity pre-existent in a “quantum soup” of whatever sort of particle that existed prior to that event (though, of course, any notion of “prior to the Big Bang” makes no sense from a cosmological perspective). On the other hand, you could argue that the closed surface without boundaries model negates the need for God because then the universe is just one possible state of being among an infinite series of possible states of being. On the other hand, you could just as easily argue that those infinite possible states of being had to come from nowhere, so why not God? The notion that the universe’s boundary condition is that it has no boundaries does not negate the possibility of the existence of God.

I’m not arguing for the existence of God here, of course. That’s beyond the scope of my intention right now, and I doubt I’d be able to convince anyone either way if they’ve already made their mind up. I’m just pondering a possible response to Hawking’s suggestion that the bounded without boundaries nature of the universe makes God redundant: and that is, it doesn’t. Not necessarily, at least, to someone who’s already made their mind up anyway.

Of course, if you believe the Universe came into being about four thousand years ago with all of these properties built into place to make it look like it was created fifteen billion years ago — the Omphalos hypothesis — then all bets are off, and all this speculation is pointless.

With regards to imaginary time itself… Well, people who know me already know that I have joked that I find the notion of imaginary numbers as morally reprehensible. What, the infinite set of real numbers ain’t good enough for you? You have to go so far as to make up imaginary numbers to explain things? Shame on you! So I think I will take the same moral stance on imaginary time. Shame on you, Doctor Hawking! For shame!

Thus endeth our lesson on the moral implications of modern cosmological theory. I hope you enjoyed it.

Fly Me to a Flying Suborbital Space Platform…

Today, Virgin Galactic unveiled their new spacecraft: the WhiteKnightTwo, christened “Eve” in honor of company founder Sir Richard Branson’s mother. Eve is the ferry craft that will deliver SpaceShipTwo and its passengers and payloads into space. Or at least to very high altitudes.

WhiteKnightTwo on the runway in the Mojave Desert.
WhiteKnightTwo on the runway in the Mojave Desert.

Naturally, I think this is damn cool. I doubt that I’ll ever get to fly on SpaceShipTwo myself (I’ll never have nearly enough money to afford it) but forays into space travel always make me excited. When I was a kid I was pretty obsessed with the idea. I had a toy lunar module that you could turn on and that would scoot across the floor with a loud whirring noise. I still recall the way my heart thudded when I watched the space shuttle Enterprise fling itself off of the ferry aircraft, a modified 747. And I watched several of Enterprise‘s test flights (Enterprise was never meant for actual space flight, of course). And I also watched the live coverage of Columbia‘s first flight. During one of these test launches, I remember the announcer practically screaming with excitement: “And there’s the launch of AMERICA’S FIRST SPACE SHUTTLE!” Of course, nowadays, space shuttle launches are barely noted in the news media. I built models of the space shuttle, and even today looking at pictures of the shuttle fills me with childhood nostalgia.

Space Shuttle Enterprise at Kennedy Space Center launch pad. Note the all white external tank..
Space Shuttle Enterprise at Kennedy Space Center launch pad. Note the all white external tank..

From what I can tell — because I haven’t really kept close track of these things since I was a kid — the SpaceShipTwo passenger vehicle itself has not yet actually been built. But Eve is supposed to tug SpaceShipTwo into orbit, sort of like how the modified 747 carried Enterprise into its test flights.

Artist's conception of WhiteKnightTwo ferrying SpaceShipTwo into orbit.
Artist's conception of WhiteKnightTwo ferrying SpaceShipTwo into orbit.

See how SpaceShipTwo is slung between the twin fuselages of WhiteKnightTwo?

I’m not sure how long it will be until SpaceShipTwo is ready to start flying people into space. Virgin Galactic plans on being the first company to offer commercial space passenger flights. I do hope that other companies will follow suit, and that NASA keeps up its scientific and research missions as well. I’m a big believer in the necessity of manned space missions, and I’m pretty excited about NASA’s Project Constellation. I think we’re centuries away from interstellar travel or extraplanetary colonization, but I think that, Charles Stross aside, we, as a species, will figure out how to do it.

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.

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.