Border Follies

There are four borders on our planet and we’re not one of them.

There are four borders on our planet:

  1.     The air we can breathe and the air we cannot.

This border is gradual and becomes more real as any of us ascend into our atmosphere. While the troposphere contains ~80% of our air (which is a mix of gases as faithful readers already know), the stratosphere holds a mere 19% or so. As we leave sea level and go up mountains, there is less air, therefore less pressure exerted by the air upon us. By the time we get around to climbing Mount Everest, there is so little oxygen left in the lower pressures of atmosphere experienced at that altitude that climbers must bring their own. On the other hand, it gets much colder as we climb so there are two good reasons to remain close to flat land: (1) decreasing air and (2) decreasing temperature. This is all graphed out in the Pressure scale helpfully included in the following:

The Structure of the Atmosphere

As a little imagination game, imagine that your roommate and/or spouse (depending on years of commitment) has just cracked open a rotten egg in your kitchen. The spreading smell represents earth’s atmosphere and you want to get as far away from that particular atmosphere as possible. The farther you remove yourself, the less the smell and (for purposes of this analogy only) the less atmosphere there is. Although you can’t really smell air, you can experience its absence quite profoundly (caution: side-effects may include a light-headed feeling, confusion, dizziness, shortness of breath, and death).

2.   The air we can breathe and the earth we cannot.

While sea level and much mountain air is pleasant to breathe, inhaling earth of any kind results in clogged oral and nasal passages. If attempts to breathe earth are continued, bronchi and alveoli may become non-functional leading to a lack of air and at least some of the side-effects mentioned above. Do not breathe earth. While it is good for plants to stick their snouts deep within a nice chunk of earth, particularly when it is enriched with supplements, we must insist that you do not attempt to replicate their behavior. While a diagram of the earth coming into contact with air is not very exciting, there are many important processes that happen between the various solid surfaces, natural and human-made, and the air. Here’s a nice diagram of how the stuff we put into the atmosphere comes back for visits:

The structure of earth’s atmosphere and how what we do on the surface has an effect.

3.    The air we can breathe and the water we cannot.

You would think this boundary is as boring as the one between the air and the earth and you would be incorrect. The atmosphere and bodies of water of significant size have a very dynamic interaction. This incredible time-lapse map of global oceanic currents (courtesy the nice people at NASA) shows their beauty, dynamism, local and transglobal effects, their overall complexity:

But these are only the surface manifestations of phenomena that reach into the clouds and oceanic depths as well. The following video, produced by NASA using data from a number of their satellites and narrated by Liam Neeson, starts with an explanation of how the earth is protected and affected from the sun’s energy output by the magnetosphere.

Chances are that you may have missed the thermodynamic heat pump that powers circulation in our oceans. It is called thermohaline (“temperature-salt”) circulation or conveyor belt. As surface water is warmed by the sun at the equator it is swept north and south toward the icy poles. There it is cooled. As cold salt water is denser than the warm variety, it sinks as it approaches the poles and is swept along the ocean’s floor back towards the equator and elsewhere around the globe. Given the complexity of the currents and circulation, it is thought that it may take up to 1,000 years for one unit of water (let’s say a cubic kilometer) to circulate back to its point of origin.

4.    The water we cannot breathe and the earth we cannot breathe.

This is not our realm. We belong walking along the surface of the earth, breathing the atmosphere and drinking the purer forms of water. We must take our atmosphere with us when we move into the water or earth.

Our takeaway lesson? While you can only breathe the air portions of this very real barrier between the air and water or between earth and water, the effects that air, earth, and water have on each other is astonishingly complex and persistently in motion. Without this perpetual motion going on between the three of them, there would be no weather and no recycling of the gaseous and aqueous realms so necessary for us to live.

The fifth border is imaginary—human-made—compared to the four above. Here is one way of picturing it:

For a more legible version

All these countries, all these governments, all these people divided up by imaginary lines cut into the earth and bleeding the blood of its citizens. Why do some people want to go elsewhere? Why are “violations” of these imaginary lines fraught with so much emotion, so much passion, so much need?

Here’s another way of looking at these imaginary lines:

Adjusted Net National Income Per Capita - US$
Courtesy World Bank databases (if you’re curious, it is free to do your own data searches)

At one end of the spectrum of net national incomes, we have Malawi, a country that is full of nice people who through no fault of their own barely scrape through a year on virtually nothing… and that’s the AVERAGE income! At the other end, we have Qatar, Monaco, the Scandinavian countries, some others (the names aren’t as important as the concept here). The average net national income across all countries is around $45,000/year.

The reasons the imaginary boundaries are important is that people who have governments that don’t work in the interests of the families who live there want to leave and find opportunity elsewhere, which makes their destinations nervous—probably for some good reasons. The destinations of choice all seem better from a distance as the people who want to leave their countries are doing fairly poorly. As more people arrive at their destinations, it is likely that the quality of life in that country will be overwhelmed by newly arrived citizens—and the existing citizens who were already doing poorly and will see a deterioration in their quality of life. On the other hand, the people who leave their countries of origin leave behind many family members, the culture and geography they know and appreciate, their way of doing things, which may have been that way for millennia and are much loved.

The solutions are not easy. I propose the following:

  1. The countries that are not doing well by their citizens must determine why there are disparities in quality of life and correct them so that anyone who wishes can make a one-to-one comparison between their lives at home and their imagined lives elsewhere.
  2. This will often mean that the people who are doing the best in those countries must find ways to share their success with more of their citizens. As it is often the case that wealth from natural resources, agriculture, etc., are harvested by the poor and enjoyed by those who are already comfortable, that seems to be an appropriate basis for sharing. Do corporations and governments own the natural resources of any particular country? I would think all citizens of the planet “own” them equally and that the corporations and governments are only there to ensure equitable distribution of them and any profits that arise from manufacturing.
  3. The countries that are doing well must find ways to channel resources to the countries who are not. These resources must find their ways first to the people who need them the most. Once inequities in education, nutrition, safety, health, domicile and baseline income are addressed, more generalized issues (e.g. governmental corruption) must be addressed as well.

This kind of change is needed. The earth—on its own—figures it all out in spite of the various environmental disasters we keep visiting upon it. Now, we the people must figure out how to stop killing each other—or passively allowing each other to be killed—and work through the inequities that we allow to exist between us.

It is easy to come up with arguments that refute these positions: political, religious, racial, gender, class, family history, income, etc. It is better to stop arguing and get to solutions. We are all one thing and that thing is the human species. Let’s solve our problems so we can all stop with the stupidity.

Featured image

The Seasonal Song

Five triplet trills…

Five triplet trills
sound out from the trees
and a similar song
responds from the shade.

In the spring and the fall
the finch sounds its song,
a merrier music
than the other bird calls.

Sometimes it hides high
in the branches above,
in a flutter of wings
it rests inches away.

When it warms, it moves on,
when it freezes, it goes
but it’s back for the best parts
of the seasonal show.

Featured image


Another Slow Day in Paradise

It was another slow day in paradise.

It was another slow day in paradise. A and B were flitting about the huge meadow with its vast and varied flowers, shrubs, and trees, all of them spaced perfectly so every flower, shrub, and tree got the perfect amount of sunlight, the perfect amount of water sipped from the fertile earth. Every kind of beetle, fly, bee, ant, butterfly, and spider floated about in the gentle breeze, while every kind of bunny, mouse, cat, dog, horse, goat, sheep, pig, lion, giraffe, elephant, and gazelle pranced about, munching on all of the good things there were to eat, which sprang back up as soon as they were nibbled. A stream ran through the center of the meadow but then again there were streams with stepping stones every so often all over the place. Some had waterfalls and some had pools of just the right depth in their centers, causing the stream to widen a bit more than usual, then tighten back up after the pool was behind the coursing waters.

Theit (that’s what it liked to call itself when it came down to check in with A and B; it wasn’t a real name, sort of a joke—”the it”—you see?) had just wafted in from everywhere and coalesced in the form of a fluorescent tapir. Theit had tried subtler appearances but had to spend too much time convincing these two that it was it. Theit did it gently as the last time it at coalesced, A and B had run off screaming and it took precious seconds to find them cowering behind a baobab tree. This time, Theit found form behind a yew bush growing near one of the streams and strolled out to talk to “the experiment,” as it called them in its mind.

“Hi A. Hi B. How’s it going down here?” The fluorescent tapir spoke in a perfect East African accent, which sounded startlingly like many of the sounds A and B heard on a daily basis, except shaped more carefully and regularly into sounds that made sense to their minds.

A and B stared at the tapir and knew what it said. This sort of thing had happened before and while it had been confusing and a little terrifying at first, they had grown accustomed to unexpected creatures sauntering up to them and having a chat. After all, they spent a good deal of any day doing the same thing with squirrels and horses. Walking up, having a chat, the creatures chatting back. Why not this oddly-hued beast with truncated snout?

“Hi Theit!” they said in unison. It was like they shared a brain. Not always in a good way either. “It’s going the same as always. Nothing new to say, just having a nice day speaking to everyone and enjoying the sunshine and streams and fruits. Did you want something in particular?”

“Well, yes. It’s lesson time.” Theit noticed that both of them shuddered. Theit was aware this was not their favorite activity, which was exclusively wandering about bothering their fellow creatures and picking an excessive number of flowers, which it had warned them about on numerous occasions: “They’re for the bees and butterflies, you two. All you’re doing is taking beauty out of the ground, sniffing it, then throwing it down. Just lean over and do your sniffing on the living thing, please!” he had said. They went ahead and picked flowers as if they had no memory at all.

“Do you remember what we talked about yesterday?” Theit had a really confused sense of time as it meant nothing to it at all, while still being this counter-function it had implanted in the world so that stuff might eventually get done.

A and B shook their heads. No surprise. And, to be fair, it may have been more than a day. Theit needed to work out how to be more regular in lesson-giving.

“Well, we worked through addition and subtraction. Remember those? I give you two fruit, then I give you two more. How many fruit do you have?”

“Two” they said in unison.

Theit breathed in slowly and then let the air escape from the tapirs lungs. “No. I first gave you two fruit. At that time you had two fruit. Then I gave you two more. How many fruit did you have?”

“Two” they said in unison. Then B said “Two two.”

“Good, B! And how many is two two? What do we call that number of fruit?”

“Fruit” said A. “Two two” said B.

“And what do we call “two two,” B?”

“Four?” said B. “Fruit” said A.

“Very good, A! I can hear that you remember the word for two two! That is very nice! Please teach that to A so he remembers, okay?”

“Yes” said B.

“Okay, let’s see how you remember subtraction. If you have four fruit and I ask for two fruit back so that I may share them with other creatures. How many fruit do you have?”

“Two” said B.” “Fruit” said A. At this point Theit thought A’s time might be better spent smacking himself in the head with a rock but Theit didn’t make him do that. Although that made sense. That would have been beneath Theit’s mission with this experiment, which was purely about creation, observation, data, and outcomes.

“B, could you help out A with this subtraction concept? There are bigger numbers to add and subtract and even different ideas that are not addition and subtraction and we must talk about them as well.”

“Okay” said B. A said “fruit!”

Theit was a little worried. It seemed that B was slowly understanding the information being shared but A was not. And both of them, to be honest, seemed more concerned with playing with the creatures and picking flowers than they were in learning. How was multiplication and division going to go if adding and subtracting up to four was proving this difficult? Theit let a rare shudder ripple through the tapir’s frame, although Theit was the one shuddering. Was this another failed experiment like the bacteria that ate all its own young and didn’t multiply? Or the lizard that popped off its own head when it was caught by a predator? They seemed like good ideas at the time—bacteria that controlled themselves, lizards with an escape mechanism—but those had gone wrong.

Theit didn’t really know how long that thought lasted. Was it brief or was it really long? In any case, Theit looked up and A was chasing a bunny through the meadow grasses and flowers and B was chasing A. Neither A nor B were catching what they chased but they laughed as they ran. You couldn’t really hate that.

“Come here, you two” said the fluorescent tapir. “More studying to do!”

A and B took their time but came over looking a little petulant with the tapir, which was an odd look as tapir’s usually provoke giggles rather than petulance. Theit didn’t care. It was time for lessons.

“Okay, let’s try something. It’s a trick I use all the time and it works on stars, planets, galaxies, and universes. I even used it here to make all these grasses and trees and flowers and bunnies. You like all these things, right?”

A stared and B nodded. A looked at B and noticed the nodding thing, which he had seen before, and nodded as B took the time to stare.

“Now, I’m going to talk about multiplication. It’s a way to make big numbers of things out of small numbers of things. Just listen and see if you get a pattern. We’re going to start with “one.” One multiplied by one is one. You can say this more simply just by saying “times” whenever you would say “multiplied by,” okay?”

“Okay” they said in unison. Theit had no idea if they were mimicking him or understanding, so he went on.

“If one times one is one, guess what one times two is?”

A said “one” and B said “two.” Perhaps there was some hope for B.

“Next. One times three is what, B?”

B said “three.”

“A. Anything?” asked Theit.

“One” said A, looking quite determined. Inside, the fluorescent tapir sighed a little sigh.

“B, what is one times four?”

“Four” replied B. A rubbed his leg and looked at a flower.

“Let’s try it something, B. What is four times one?”

“One” said B. Theit’s brief snout wiggled a little. It was confirmed. This was going to take a long time. Whatever would happen when the discussion turned to algebra? The snout wiggled ferociously at this thought. Theit sent a calming wave of thought through the tapir and got it to settle down. No one liked a condescending teacher, even if the teacher was a loveable tapir in bright colors.

Theit had a thought. There was a lot to do. Although Theit was coalesced in various forms all over this universe and every other universe doing this same kind of stuff, Theit thought that it might be time to pay attention to some of the more curious experiments and leave these two to their own devices. Their meadow too. It was a nice meadow and was perfectly balanced to live without dying and replenish itself without looking too sad. That took a certain amount of stamina from Theit’s other projects, which were infinite in number and completely manageable but still….


Theit visited A and B, this time as an enormous paramecium with lots of undulating cilia. A and B knew it was Theit because they had never seen this thing before. Although they found it sort of horrible, they also knew that it was okay to approach it as it ciliated its way over to them.

“A. B. How are you?”

“Good” they said in unison.

“Getting enough to eat?”


“Finding enough playmates among the squirrels and bunnies?” Theit asked about these because it seemed that A and B had a particular fondness for them over the larger animals or the ones who roared, although they all lived well next to each other. As was planned.

They both nodded. That seemed like an advance. Perhaps B had taught A the nod thing.

“Okay. Well. I have good news and bad news. Which would you like to hear first?”

“Good” they said again, although perhaps they meant that they would like to hear the good news first. That’s how Theit interpreted it.

“Well then. The good news is that all of this stuff you like is going to stay here. You can play with it all and eat fruit and drink from the streams and have as much fun as you like. Would you like to hear the bad news now?” Theit asked.

“Good,” which Theit took as a tacit understanding that they would now like to hear the bad news.

“Well. Hmmm. The bad news. Erm. I’m not sure how this is going to work out but I’m going to be away for a while. I’m not going to be able to perform maintenance on this place. Instead, you’re going to have to start doing it yourself. What does this mean? Well, it means that I’m going to give everything the power to multiply and divide but I’m also going to give everything the power to add and subtract. New stuff will come alive and old stuff will die. Bunnies and horses and trees and flowers and bees will all multiply but their cells—the little bits of life inside them that make all of this stuff work—will divide. That probably makes no sense to you at all since you haven’t really graduated from basic addition and subtraction (and I really don’t want to think about algebra or calculus, Theit said internally) but I’m hoping that if you see it happening it will make sense over time. It may take a while.”

A and B stared at Theit and didn’t move. They really had no idea what Theit was talking about. This was often the case and sometimes if they remained really still for a sufficient amount of time, Theit was quiet and loped off into the trees. It didn’t seem like this thing was going to lope but they could hope.

“It’s been nice, A and B. You’re the only ones I’ve made that are as hairless as you are. Really, you’re just a variation on a theme. See the hairy ones over there? The ones chasing after a zebra? Yeah. You’re the hairless—relatively speaking, of course—variety. And you walk on your back legs without using your front legs. I’m pretty sure that’s going to have consequences, by the way, but that’s beside the point. I do like you. Don’t take any of what’s about to happen personally. It’s not. Really. I just have a lot to do.”

With this statement, Theit coalesced a giant chunk of wrapped paper blocks out of the air and opened one to a middle page.

“See these? I’m going to call them “books” because they don’t have a name. They don’t have a name because I’ve been thinking about them and it’s come time to make some, so here they are. If you look at this page (it’s called a page, guys), you’ll see black squiggly marks. That’s called “writing” and this writing is in the first language of your creature-type. It tells you stuff. But I can’t wait around for you to learn what it says. I’m going to call this “homework” and you have to worry about what it says or you’re going to be a little out of luck for a long time. Okay?”

“Okay” said A and B.

“Okay” said Theit. Then he made the paramecium lope off into the woods.

A and B stared at the “books” and then stared at each other and then sat down.

Then they got up and ran after the bunnies and squirrels.

After a while, A and B noticed that the grasses changed colors and were replaced with other grasses and other flowers and that when they picked the flowers, they didn’t grow back. They noticed that when they picked fruit from the trees, the fruit didn’t grow right back. They noticed that the beasts who roared stopped other creatures from moving and tore them apart and that the smaller creatures kept away from the roarers. Some of the larger creatures were none too thrilled with the roarers either, so a lot of creatures moved away from them and lived in trees. A and B moved along with them. After they ate all the low-hanging fruit, they climbed trees to get the other fruit. After they ate those, they started to look at the bunnies and squirrels sort of like they saw the roarers looking at the bunnies and squirrels. They caught a few and tore them apart but then the bunnies and squirrels got smart and stayed away. And then the streams dried up, so A and B had to start walking. Their hips hurt. Their feet hurt. Their lower backs hurt. And they learned to feel pain, which led them to cry. Then they learned to say mean things to each other, which made one or both of them cry more.

Then one day, B got fatter and fatter and eventually a new creature popped out. B took care of the little creature until it grew. A wandered around playing with animals and flowers and leaving B to do all the work of raising the creature, which was as hairless as they were. And they kept walking until they found a place to call “home,” which was not much like their old place and had less fruit and the creatures stayed away. But it was home and they raised their creature and then another.

There was only one thing they had forgotten. They left the books at the place where Theit made them and had no idea how to get back there.

It took a long time for them to figure anything out. They remembered Theit fondly now and made up some stories, almost none of which were true. And they left out the bits about the fluorescent tapir and the enormous paramecium. They had a difficult time believing those themselves. So who would believe them?

Featured image

Paramecium caudatum

The First Date

She looked fine.

I met her on one of the less-populated branches of the web, one where unpopularity could be confused with privacy, where loneliness could be mistaken for intimacy.

She looked fine. She seemed fine. As I approached, trembling a little on the inside, I could smell her and she smelled better than all the flowers that had ever wafted their perfumes past me.

She turned a little, perhaps shy. We had never met and it was to be expected. At least I thought I expected it. The shyness. Maybe what seemed one way was another. In retrospect. Maybe it was caution. Or curiosity. Was I what she was looking for or just another guy on the web?

I approached. She extended a hand and helped me up. This was moving quite fast! I considered my options and settled in, feeling her energy coursing into me as I pulsated against her, brittle limbs embracing, tight and loose, urgent and relaxed.

It was then that it all went wrong. She turned her head, opened her mandibles and bit into my left eye, blinding me. But she just munched, cracking the crisp facets of what had been a perfectly good eye into a chitinous snack. I opened my mandibles to protest and she assumed, I guess, I was offering her one. Well… both. But one at a time in a token act of selfless courtesy on my part, I suppose. And there it went, my left mandible falling apart in her mouthpieces and departing whatever still remained of my head.

At some point in this dismemberment, I realized I was still within her, priming what would be a new generation of young mates, guys and girls, ready to pair off and go through something horrid like this when they grew up and became adults. At this point, I felt a flutter of hope and tried to pry myself off her, away from her hooked arms, her tight and unyielding embrace. She would have none of it.

It’s an odd thing, being eaten so soon in a relationship. I know I had hoped for a second date, maybe a third. This had been my first, of course. It would be my last. Perhaps my expectations had been too high.

Featured image


Thanks to confabler for unwittingly providing me with the idea for this piece!

I Was Nominated (and Accept)

Confabler nominated me for a Sunshine Blogger Award!

My distant, yet close friend Confabler has nominated me for the Shiny Shiny Sunshine Award. I love her imagination and sense of whimsy; she lets her muse du jour lead and she follows. There’s a wonderful freedom to that which is (1) difficult to allow in the rational process of “writing” and (2) enjoyable to find.

1. If you were to choose an insect that would take over the world after human extinction, who would that be?

It sort of depends on our route to extinction. If it involved an epidemic, the population of flies might see a giant uptick. This would be a good one:

Gauromydas heros

If it is a slow process, then I nominate the Japanese Rhinoceros beetle because it would be awesome if creatures  with such improbably fashioned protuberances were to be the alpha species (Megasoma and Titan beetles would be acceptable alternatives):

Allomyrina dichotoma

 If our extinction took all other terrestrial life along for the ride, I would like to see this enormous isopod (a relative of our terrestrial roly-polies) rule the seas (note inclusion of actual human hands for sense of scale):

The underside of a male Bathynomus giganteus, a species of giant isopod captured in the Gulf of Mexico in October 2002.

2. How old were you when you first read Harry Potter? And your favorite author of course?

I was pretty old when I read my only Harry Potter book (the first one). I didn’t enjoy it enough to complete the series, although I’ve seen all the films and enjoyed them well enough. In the period I read that first one, I was typically reading a lot of history and didn’t find that it was a good use of my time. When I was really young, I read the Classics Illustrated versions of novels, which were quite good at introducing a curious young mind to the wonders of literature without having to do the work (sort of illustrated CliffsNotes (I didn’t use these in school though), if you will). When I was a little older, I read Robert E. Howard, Sax Rohmer, John Carter of Mars, H. Rider Haggard, Stanley Weinbaum, George McDonald fantasies, etc.

My favorite author is Gabriel Garcia Marquez for One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. His writing is so rich, amusing, full of simple wisdom and abundant humanity it is hard to believe he was just a human being writing about the lives he saw playing out around him. I literally would read some passages and have to put the book down as if I had just sipped the richest chocolate elixir in the world and needed to savor it until I sipped again. His Spanish-to-English translators did a good job in getting it right; Gregory Rabassa (OHYoS translator) was even praised by Garcia Marques himself!

3. If you were invisible what is the craziest thing that you would do?

Here’s an odd one: Go and hang around bigots, transcribe their conversations, and publish them for the world to see how terrible people speak when they think no one is listening (but, oh yeah, we have the internet so this already happens). If I could walk through things, which seems fair since I’m invisible, I would go around seeing what it felt like to do that—see if there were different textures to different things on the inside than on their surface.

4.what food makes you feel like a hungry hyena?

This has changed so much over time! These days, I don’t get this kind of urge anymore. In my early adult (late teen?) years… ICE CREAM!!!!

5. A song that makes you dream?

Gymnopedie #1 by Erik Satie

6. Have you ever planted a tree?

Yes. Unasked but answered: quite a few!

7. Choose your man: superman/ Spiderman/ iron man and if he was your best friend one thing that you would make him do?

Can I choose Supergirl? If I can, I would have her take me around to various places in the world, build shelters so I could stay there and visit free, then whisk me off to the next place on “our” list (she would be enjoying the sight-seeing with me, of course! What kind of boor do you think I am?!?!).

8.How much time do you spend in front of the mirror everyday?

As little as possible, which involves shaving and brushing my teeth. I find that shaving my teeth first helps with the brushing.

9.why you started blogging and tell us about the post enjoyed the most making.

I was having a bunch of conversations with people who did not seem to understand the wonderful humility of learning and doing science and wanted to see how well I could write about how science is a discipline that can assist us all in not leaning out too far over our skis (getting ahead of ourselves and pretending we know stuff we don’t). Blogging has become so much more than that since my first post on June 22, 2016, and I have had so much fun writing fiction and revisiting some poetry I wrote several decades ago (and finding them easier to “fix” than I remembered).

I’m not sure which of my posts I enjoyed the most. They’re all my children so I like them all? I probably like the odd bits of fiction that I had no idea were inside me when I woke up and then found them on the page looking up at me. I like The Big Day of these. Of the science posts, I like The Mess: Parts 1 & 2 and the Appendix 1 items best (maybe). Of the historical pieces, I like Risk Management. Of the life pieces, I like Building Blocks the best. Anyone who reads this is encouraged to make up their own mind; I am hopelessly biased.

10. Which social media platform are you addicted to (including WordPress)?

I don’t do much social media except WordPress. I don’t like Facebook at all and deleted my account. WordPress is addicting but in a very healthy way! You get to create something and share it with new friends from all over the world. That’s a great addiction have.

Now the rules:

1.thank the person that nominated you.

Thank you, Confabler. You are a true virtual friend, and I don’t mean that in any Pokemon way either!

2. Answer the questions from your nominator.


3. Nominate fellow bloggers you follow.

Hereinafter lie the following nominees in no particular order (order, of course, being an illusion):

Confabler – it would be completely wrong not to boomerang this thing back at her; how could I like what she writes and like that she nominated me but ignore why we share interests at all?

November_child –  in her poetry, every word is judiciously considered for its various meanings and the images they stir and she makes great short stories that are deep and playful and serious all at the same time

anonymouslyautistic – for doing an AMAZING job of writing about this misunderstood spectrum of living – and for inviting others who share her interest to contribute

English Lit Geek – because she searches the web and her library for poems that communicate her inner soul to us all out here in the ‘sphere and I appreciate this!

Wiser Daily – because this guy writes REALLY well about every single subject he wraps his mind around, because he is not a scientist but writes extremely clearly about science, because he is just a damned good writer!

Breathmath – because they are doing an astonishingly serious job of trying to get the world to see the beauty in mathematics

Sheryl – because she’s written a book, is working on others, has great tips for doing the same, and kindly visits my offerings fairly often

The Nexus – because he writes REALLY well about physics and does a great job of doing what I set out to do, whether I’m doing it on any given day or not

The Biology Yak – because she is passionate about biology and shares her passion in every word on every topic she chooses

afternoonifiedlady – even though I have no idea what it is to be an afternoonifiedlady, I love her rants about living with and without her ex and trying to wrestle with notions of romance – she is very witty and amusingly pissed off!

Yaskhan – for her lovely, succinct way with words

urbanagscientist – because she is at least as worried about the misunderstanding of science as I am

Luke Atkins – because he writes really well about difficult subjects and he writes like the stuff matters a lot, which it absolutely does!

And there are more in my list of 119 writers that I am following but this is enough for now.

4. Give them 10 questions to answer.

If you wish (and I clearly cannot impose this on any of you, please respond to confabler’s funny questions. I enjoyed them, maybe you will too!

Kind regards, MSOC

It was Generous of confabler to choose me. Now I have to Jump off and do other stuff!

Building Blocks

I am not a psychologist. I am really not an infant behavior specialist.

I am not a psychologist. I am really not an infant behavior specialist. I have never been a parent, although I have been a child (as I am a male, I probably still am one). On the other hand, it only takes a modicum of observational insight to notice that humans establish, almost insist on, dominance and submissive roles in many of or interactions. No, not THAT kind, although that is certainly a clear example of the phenomenon (and whatever… not my boat; if it floats go ahead and paddle forth (that’s probably a bad pun)).

Parents with two or more infants, particularly twins, or who host play dates with children of near-identical ages have probably seen dominance behaviors in simple interactions. Imagine two infants with a set of blocks positioned between them. It is likely that one of the two children will start dominating block play fairly soon, either by gathering them disproportionally to themselves, building something, or even exhibiting aggressive behavior towards their peer. They are peers, after all. Just a couple of infants who are supposed to be playing. For some reason, one is likely to develop an advantage of some sort with the blocks. The other child may be unmoved and unimpressed or see the behavior and attempt to gain block parity with the dominant child. This may lead to new dominance or to an increase in aggressive behavior—new attempts by the initially dominant child to have more blocks, throwing blocks, vocalizations by one or the other or both, banging blocks together, etc. It is probable that most of these interactions will be interrupted by adults. If they are not, it is likely that one child will dominate.

Dr. Anthea Pun et al., Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, published a study earlier this year in which 48 infants between 9 and 12 months of age were shown to exhibit submissive behavior to infants from numerically larger groups or to smaller groups that included larger infants—numerical and size-dominance. The following is a summary of the study’s significance:

The ability to detect dominance relationships is essential for survival because it helps individuals weigh the potential costs and benefits of engaging in a physical competition. Here we show that infants as young as 6 mo of age are capable of detecting dominance relations when provided with an ecologically relevant cue such as social group size. Furthermore, infants can infer the social dominance relationship between two competing individuals based on the size of the group to which they belong, and expect individuals from a numerically larger group to get their way. These findings reveal that infants may have an evolutionarily ancient cognitive capacity to represent social dominance relations that is shared with other species within the animal kingdom.

In the body of the paper, the study states that it seems that numerical size of a group is a more significant determinant than individual size. They cite several examples in chimpanzee and bird species wherein a single individual within a group does not gain dominance without the support of a group, regardless of the individual’s size. Interestingly, they also indicate that adults process social status indicators (e.g. military rank) in the same region of the brain in which group size (i.e. “numerical ratio discrimination”) is processed—the inferior parietal cortex (IPC).


Of course, like all studies, this is dependent on many studies on similar questions. But it is the last sentence in the quoted paragraph that concerns me today:

These findings reveal that infants may have an evolutionarily ancient cognitive capacity to represent social dominance relations that is shared with other species within the animal kingdom.

This is elaborated on as follows:

Competition for valuable resources such as mates, food, and territory (1) is commonplace across the animal kingdom. To minimize the cost of fighting (e.g., energy spent and personal injury or death), natural selection appears to have favored the emergence of cognitive adaptations that help individuals predict whether they stand a chance against an opponent (25).

Okay. This seems like a set of behaviors that is well understood in our world, so well understood that infants “understand” that larger groups and/or groups with larger infants may have a dominance advantage over them, although it is an abstract concept to them at the time (i.e. they are probably not competing for mates, food, or territory unless their parents have abandoned them entirely).

This is the problem, though. Social cues that serve various fauna populations well to this day do not do our species much good at all. I would argue, in fact, that these behaviors set up domination/submission conflicts that have sometimes laughable, sometimes mortally serious implications for how we all live together. The behavior reveals itself everywhere!

Families in the same neighborhood compete to “keep up with the Joneses.” Who has the nicest driveway? Who has the best grille? In less suburban settings, the metrics may change but the game is the same. Who has painted their house, rethatched it, most recently? Who has the most wives and/or children (probably a correlation therein)? Who herds the most goats? It’s all about numerical (or value) domination and all is arbitrated right there in the IPC. If families do this, then the towns and cities in which they live also vie for superlatives. Who has the best sports teams? How many sports teams? Who won the season most recently and how often? From there, we go to national competitions, typically for resources of one type or another, which confer status and likelihood of dominance. Why? Wouldn’t it be better if competition was treated as a method of entertainment it is intended to be rather than a measure of self—and therefore group—worth? Wouldn’t each nation, each continent, the whole freakin’ planet gain a mutual advantage if those infant minds were not sorting out who to push about and who to fear… at the incredibly tender age of 9 to 12 months?

Let me put aside a notion really quickly. I am not talking about the benefits of “communism,” “socialism,” or any other imaginary sociopolitical construct. Any movement initiated in the name of Marx (wait, that’s not the one I meant!) quickly became an authoritarian state, with the most powerful enjoying luxuries the least powerful could not imagine. Just like infants sorting out who gets the most blocks.


What I am discussing is the potentially vestigial nature of infantile power-grabs, by which I mean that it is possible that our species has outgrown its need for this constant balance of power game. We have a vestigial tail—the coccyx—a bump that is located precisely where tails are located in other species and which we share with other tailless great apes. It is an important attachment point for a number of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Those of you who have angered it by sitting on it too carelessly will probably sit with greater care forever more. The coccyx isn’t the only example of items in human anatomy that are vestigial but it will do for the purposes of our metaphor.


If our IPC insists on keeping score as we group up, which is going to happen—we are a gregarious species, although not all extrovertedly so—we are going to keep making intellectually unsupportable claims about our superiority over others in our family, community, etc. We are going to keep believing that “our team (whoever that is)” have better recruiting, better warm-up games, better coaches and management, better fill-in-the-blanks (I really don’t care) than other teams. “Our nation” is number one, whatever nation that is (at least the politicians in that nation are going to say so; you can tell them by the gravy of corruption dripping from their lips). As long as “our nation” is peddling its superiority over its neighbors—or more likely, nations with delicious resources—this power-grab business will continue. The following clip from HBO’s series Newsroom addresses the “number one” business fairly directly with respect to the U.S. but again it is not my intent to be negative about one country or another. I am after the foundational issue, which is why some of us, as infants, start grabbing power while others might not like it but go along to get along? It’s wired in and it is going to take a conscious, deliberate, and probably relatively slow process to stop us behaving in accord with vestigial processes—by-products even—of the inferior parietal cortex (an irony that this rank ordering business occurs in the inferior PC!).

The foulest blunders our IPCs do in the name of supporting notions of superiority and domination are in the name of genderist, racist, nationalist—in general, chauvinist—thinking. Millions of people have engaged in dominant behaviors characterizable in the simplest way as “murder” because they have come to believe that their beliefs about another group of humans are correct and that other group is fated by deities to die because of their imagined inferiority. I wish I were still talking about infants and blocks at this point. I am not. I am saying something that everyone—those who read this and the billions who don’t—understands at a fundamental level. When one group of people goes after another group of people (or, for that matter, when one person goes after another individual) and kills them, it is murder and the verdict is not changed by calling it war or serial killing or ethnic cleansing or forced emigration (which results in numerous unnecessary deaths) or any other thing.

Women—yup, about 50% of the population (although seeing difficult days at present) of our species—are still treated as property of the male or of their family in many countries. They do not have an unencumbered right to vote in some countries (the U.S. “granted” women the right to vote in 1920, 144 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed (by men, just a footnote here, folks)). They, on average, do not earn as much as men doing the same job. While women nominally have equal rights in many countries, their rights within cultural groups are often quite different than what the law dictates.

This is just plain odd, not to mention wrong. While women comprise 50% of the earth’s human population, they bear 100% of the earth’s human children. In many families, women are responsible, at least tacitly, for raising the children. This works as follows: “I am the breadwinner” said Bob “and your job is to stay home and raise the kids.” That’s the explicit version of the conversation. The implicit version doesn’t happen… it just “is.” And perhaps that is not entirely bad but isn’t it just another form of the play block problem? The dominant person, often the male, tells the less dominant person that he’ll play with the blocks and she will play with the dolls. It should be a conversation (and often is in some cultural segments) but it should ALWAYS be a conversation and dominant/submissive posturing should not be part of the outcome. If all else fails, the jobs should be based on competence, merit, capability.

The place in our culture that this conversation has really been a complete mess for centuries, at the least, is in matters of ethnicity or race, which are often confounded by geographical separation as well. In her work The History of White People, Dr. Nell Irvin Painter discusses how the notion of “whiteness” became a stand-in for superiority and for suppression of regional rivals at least as far back as the Greeks and the histories of  conflicts documented by Herodotus. This whole process of domination was executed in part through creating a characteristic that was a “god-given” right for one group to dominate another. That right was “whiteness” and it is also the false notion that empowered enslavement of Africans, Indians (particularly in Central and South America but also in the “sub-continent” of India and elsewhere).

American Progress, John Gast (1872) depicting Columbia, with telegraph wire and a book of knowledge, penetrating the “darkness” of the American West, driving the Native Americans and Bison before them (no kidding, this is how people thought! It was a popular engraving of the time)

The thing is we all have the capacity to be equal at the moment of our birth, absent very real differences in diet, cultural safety, exposure to environmental hazards (including drugs, lead, cigarette carcinogens, alcohol, plasticizers, etc.), and the like. As we grow older, the patterns of dominance emerge and submission kicks in. We have the intellectual capacity to understand that this is not the way we should live our lives.

Am I arguing against competition in products, in markets, in some people just doing some things better than others? Absolutely not! Differences among us will always exist. The differences that do not exist in the first place must go the way of our tails, though. I am white (actually sort of a weird, mottled pink as I have – or had – freckles and my skin is less uniformly “flesh” colored (is that even a color? really?)) than it once was. Do I care? No, I do not. I do not believe I am superior to anyone on earth. I do believe that to achieve this view, I have had to recognize this ancient dominance game that our IPCs play on us and I have to deny its sway. You can too. Every time your mind tells you that you or people that look like you or people from your family or neighborhood or state or nation or gender or race are better than someone else, find your voice and tell that idiot (your own internal, ancient idiot) NO!!!!!

That is a start. If we all do what I’ve described persistently for the next several decades, centuries, perhaps millennia (I sure hope not), we will become the species we should be, the species without that vestigial argument running around in our heads.

If we make it at all.

Featured image

Pun, A., Birch, S. A., & Baron, A. S. (2016, March 16). Infants use relative numerical group size to infer social dominance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 113(9), 2376-2381. doi:10.1073/pnas.1514879113

Scry the Tomorrow

Thieliz and Troon had arrived at the hidden pond some hours ago and promptly fallen asleep on the reedy, cool bank, sheltered by the forest of willows from the Known World where their countless nosy cousins, siblings, and elders frittered away their day. They knew the narrow path through the dolorous green limbs and greying trunks of this tree-nest and came here when everyone became too much. But they also came here to fashion tools for their private annual mission.

Once they had shaken themselves alive from their torpid shells and gently brushed off the few insects friends who were visiting, they looked about and each chose a firm, tawny reed from among the pussy willows that danced slowly about the limpid pond, still and deep beyond measure. The reeds were easily broken into hollow bits as long as their forearms and had a sweet taste that was fun to sip but left them dozy, unsteady on their feet, and they couldn’t enjoy the nectar today.

Instead of sipping the sweetness from the reeds, they stuck them in the pond, just beneath the scattered lily pads that skirted the edge and inhaled cautiously, letting the darkness slide up the straw until it had nearly reached their lips, then the blew out the contents, repeating this several times until all the deliciousness was gone and no water had reached their lips. They flipped the thin tubes and did this again, one more set of flirting with the honeyed dew and the depthless pond, then they were done with that and ready for their quest into the woods. The reeds were then stowed in thin leaf pouches that they wore on a tendril twine sash around their waists.

While they had come through the fields and forest to get through the narrow break in the willow realm around the pond, finding their quarry would take them through a burrow that beckoned on the far bank. Thieliz thought it had belonged to a badger at some time in the distant past, while Troon imagined it was the work of a bumbleworm, although Thieliz always reminded Troon that she had invented the bumbleworm herself and the furry serpent didn’t exist outside of her own fanciful head. But it didn’t matter. However it had come into being, there the burrow was yawning widely, waiting for them to crawl down into its temperate chambers and branching tunnels.

Once they had gone far enough, the mosses and lichens lit up with the soft teal chemistry of a trillion tiny lights, oozing into brightness, then dimming to a soft glow. The rooms were large enough for them to stand, for neither of them were very tall by the standards of trees and reeds, and the glow lit their path without casting shadows forward or behind. They strolled along, taking only left turns for the longest time until the reached the root room, where the trees above all united and drank from a subterranean spring that leaked up through the ground in just the right measure to sustain the ancient friends blowing in the noonday winds.

Eight paths led out of the room but only one took them to their destination and it was always a little different depending on the time. As it was a little after the sun sat highest and six ticks beyond dawn, it was a simple matter; the passage directly in front of them took them onward and, after a bit more slow, steady progress, upward to where they had to crawl again.

The burrow opening popped them out in a shaded patch of meadow grass, yellowing in the heat of mid-day and waving at the clouds overhead. It smelled of suckle, which must have been close by but none was to be seen here.

The twins kept to the tree shade and slipped away to their right and into a sliver of black that separated a single oak into two towering, forked trunks that dissolved in a head of big dark leaves pendant from uncountable branches rising up and gone. Just beyond this oaken crevice lay a small clearing among the trees, dark as night but with a cluster of ancient arboreal skeletons at the center, spiraling out to a single remnant of the great oak that had passed most recently in all-time.

It was hollow at its core, green bits of moss encasing the crust of bark, algae spilling off into the tiny pool of dew that had collected inside. Thieliz smiled at Troon, who smiled back. There was a single brown leaf afloat on the surface of the dew, which Troon removed gently, placing it on the ground and making a  note to herself to return it after they were done.

“I wonder what we’ll learn this year, T.” Troon spoke first as Thieliz had promised not to be so pushy this year.

“We will see what we see, just like always, T.” Thieliz couldn’t help but be bossy and Troon knew that she would find some way to claim her place in their twindom, being slightly older by a minute from when Troon hatched.

Each twin took their reeds from their pouches and held them gently in their left hands, important for doing what they were about to do. They sat at the edge of the oaken memory, one on each side and opposite of each other, arranged in what their inner selves told them was to the star and to the moon, and inserted the clean, dry tubes between their lips, then bent over and placed just the tiniest bit of the tip into the shallow reservoir collected from the morning’s fog. One sip, the least amount possible, as the oaks in their numbers would punish them severely if they demonstrated greed or thirst. This was not the place for that kind of silliness.


They both dropped onto their backs, their legs still crossed before them, knees, calves, shins, and feet still touching the bark. And they saw what they had come to see, what the oaks had to say to them this year.

The world beyond their world was too hot. Grasses and trees burnt everywhere there was land, sending thunderclouds of black smoke into the air, clotting the sun’s rays with motes burned from the living souls of all the beauty that was devoured in the flames. The sun disappeared and became night in the day. No moon peered through the ever-present gloom. There was no cycle, no renewing, no change. Darkness overcame it all and all the green was gone. All the brown was gone and became sooty blackness all around.

And that was all there was.

A day passed with the twins lying completely still in the clearing. Then they awoke and slowly climbed out of what they had seen. Neither said a word. No words could be said. No one would believe them this year and no one could stand to hear what they had to say even if they could.

The darkness of the depthless pool waited for them in the sunlit space among the willow forest and pussy willows, with their catkins fluffing out in their time. They went to join the others who had seen the bad before them. And their time had come for them as well.

Featured image