Saturday, December 22, 2012

The 12 Days of the Ice Age

by me

Let's pretend we've sung the first 11 verses already. Now for the final verse:

On the twelfth day of the Ice Age my true love gave to me
12 humans hunting
11 glaciers creeping
10 seas a-shrinking
9 tundras freezing
8 ground sloths grazing
7 horses hoofing
6 mammoths marching
4 saber-tooths
3 cave bears
2 mastodons

Monday, March 19, 2012

A review of the language podcast, Lexicon Valley.

I just gave five stars and a very positive iTunes review to Slate's new weekly podcast Lexicon Valley. Lexicon Valley explores interesting and often timely questions about the quirks of the English language. The show has already covered some pretty piquant issues, such as Ebonics in public school curricula, the origin of the word fa***t as an epithet, and the reason you won't find the word "Jew" in the International Scrabble Dictionary even though it's still a playable word.

Lexicon Valley earned my top rating not only because I'm a language nerd, but because after an initial run of six episodes the Lexicon Valley producers are now conferring with the "poobahs" to determine the podcast's fate. They suggested that positive reviews on iTunes would weigh in their favor, and as it happens I wanted to give them a good review anyway. So everybody wins.

Go listen to an episode of Lexicon Valley. You don't even have to be a language nerd to enjoy it. Here is my review:

You may be surprised at how much you learn -- Lexicon Valley is a delightfully approachable podcast about the quirks of the English language. The hosts are so personable you may not at first realize that some of the language questions they tackle are pretty big ones (e.g. How much does the culture of the times influence what is considered grammatically correct? Is Ebonics an official dialect of English, and what does our answer to that say about us?). Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield do not take themselves too seriously, and let's face it, that is easy to do when talking about language. The editing is refreshingly simple; for contrast I refer you to the almost oppressively mannered style of other intellectual shows like Radiolab. (No offense whatsoever intended to Radiolab, but I mean, really.)

I hope Lexicon Valley continues to broadcast far into the future, because English has a great many quirks to explore and I would like to hear Lexicon Valley's take on all of them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Through the App Store To the Stars: A review of Star Walk.

I'm not an astronomer. I'm not an amateur astronomer. I wouldn't even call myself an amateur stargazer but I do love looking at the night sky -- and during the winter months in New England one has a whole lot of time to appreciate the night sky.

Unfortunately I live in Allston, a district of Boston surrounded too much by city light to see very many stars even on clear nights. Orion's belt and other cosmic landmarks nevertheless manage to make regular appearances. And I have enjoyed some dramatic night-sky moments like the 2011 perigee-syzygy of the Earth-Moon-Sun system (aka the supermoon) when an enormous moon hung over the horizon like a ripe blood orange.

The supermoon over Boston, March 19 2011. Lovely, isn't it? And the supermoon is kind of pretty, too.

Recently this past winter I observed a really bright yellow spot of light in the sky that I was pretty sure was unusual. I figured it had to be a planet since there weren't any comets, meteor showers, or other cosmic shenanigans on the books. I couldn't identify it but there it was, rising and setting night after night. And if it looked that bright in Allston, how much brighter must it actually be? Which only added to the mystery.

Soon after I first noticed it, my stepdad and I got iPhones together. My stepdad and I are very much alike, and perhaps we're like you, in that we love neat things -- apps, gadgets, tech, toys. Things that make you say, "That is so cool." So while we waited in the store for our new phones to be activated we checked out  the iPads on display, and that is how we discovered Star Walk.

Star Walk is an app, branded by its maker Vito Technology as an "interactive astronomy guide" for "augmented stargazing."

Okay, really, Vito? That's the best you can do? How about this:

Star Walk lets you cradle the universe in the palm of your hand like a marble.

It's an interactive star map that you navigate with your iPad or iPhone touch screen -- zoom in, zoom out, spin the panoply of stars this way and that until you get dizzy and need to lie down. Tap an object and then tap the information button to learn about it. Search the Star Walk database by name for a specific star, constellation, planet, galaxy, or satellite. Find out what's in the sky right over your head, right this very second. 

"That is so cool," said my stepdad, and I had to agree.

I downloaded Star Walk to my new iPhone that night, and then I went outside and pointed my phone at the sky. The screen immediately transformed into a viewfinder and displayed the sky just as it looked from Earth, but overlaid with a labeled map of everything visible overhead from where I stood in Allston. There was the moon, there was Orion's belt, and there was the big bright yellow thing that had been bugging me for weeks -- it was Venus, and Venus was beautiful.

Venus (bottom) and Jupiter (top) -- not actual sizes, apparently.
Photo credit: John Chumack (by way of Weekly SkyWatcher).
It wouldn't be hyperbole to say that the moment of discovery was breathless and a little giddy. In less than a second Star Walk had oriented itself and mapped out and identified the visible universe as seen from my exact location on Earth. 

All I could say was, "That is so fucking cool."

Star Walk received all sorts of best app awards, including the iPad Developer Showcase 2010 Apple Design Award. It was noted on the Sunday Times App List and Netted by the WebbysGizmodo called it "one of the most awesome uses of the iPad's hardware we've seen yet." And according to the Vito Technology web site it's the favorite app of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, for what that's worth. The important thing is that Star Walk has earned a lot of frothy acclaim.

And deservedly so. Want to know what the night sky will look on your birthday this year? Star Walk will show you. Want to impress people at a cocktail party with cool facts about Betelgeuse? Star Walk will inform you that it's a red supergiant and whose long-ago supernova death could appear to us some time within the next millennium. Want to find out where the International Space Station is? Don't mind if I do, Star Walk, where is it? At the time of this writing it's somewhere through my apartment floor on the other side of Earth, floating around near a southern-sky constellation known as Vela.

Star Walk has also informed me that Vela used to be part of the larger constellation of Argo Navis, shaped like a ship. According to Star Walk Argo Navis is now divided into three smaller constellations: Carina (Latin for 'keel'), Puppis ('poop deck'), and Vela ('sail').

That is so cool.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I want to believe.

According to some, I should be ashamed of my interest in cryptozoology. I am well-educated and intelligent; I am therefore expected to hold the entire subject in contempt. If I do not, some people insist on holding me in contempt for what they see as my credulity. After all, I am a science writer. Skepticism is requisite in someone whose profession is founded upon the scientific process. And yes, when it comes to contentious topics like cryptozoology or the paranormal, I am a skeptic.

But I am also a writer. I like interesting things. And though I may be a skeptic, I am not interested in skepticism. Pure skepticism is boring. Just as believers sometimes make themselves ridiculous by closing their minds to scientific fact, skeptics can be every bit as obnoxious, small-minded, and ridiculous as the people whose beliefs they despise.

It's true that most of the A-list cryptozoology legends -- the Jersey devil, Sasquatch, Nessie -- are absurd. You think that plesiosaurs are still hanging around, looking exactly as they did tens of millions of years ago? You think they've been living, dying, feeding, and breeding in great enough numbers to keep from going extinct, while somehow remaining undetected within the extremely limited limits of a freshwater lake? And they still, despite our vigorous search for evidence, will not give us so much as a single scale off of their backs? You can see where I'm going with this.

Image from

On the other hand, the desire to believe it all  -- the desire to believe that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of, etc. etc. -- is completely understandable. That impulse has driven a huge amount of legitimate scientific discovery. And although I don't believe that a species of plesiosaur has made its habitat in the chill waters of a Scotland loch, I do believe that it is far, far more interesting to imagine that it has, than to dwell on the fact that it hasn't.

And I think the fact that we still go out and look for evidence, the fact that a great number of people persist in these beliefs, says something about human psychology. What it says about human psychology I haven't yet determined, but I bet it's fascinating.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What 'scolopendra' means and why I care.

'Scolopendra' is a kind of centipede. It's a genus that includes all the largest centipedes in the world, like Scolopendra gigantea, also known as the crazy motherf***ing Peruvian centipede that can catch a bat in mid-flight and eat it. (Here is a Youtube video of S. gigantea in action. Despite the fact that it's narrated by the sublime David Attenborough, the video will very likely give you nightmares and leave you questioning the existence of God.)

In the American Southwest lives Scolopendra heros, otherwise known as the Redheaded Scolopendra. She is not one of the Scolopendromorph heavyweights (she is only an average of 6.5 inches long), but she has a stylish black body, 21 or 23 pairs of bitchin' yellow legs, and a bright red head. (This is her aposematic coloring -- very bright, distinctive color markings, to warn predators that the bearer of the markings should not be eaten because it is poisonous. In my opinion, the presence of 42 legs is sufficiently discouraging in a meal, but the color is also a pretty good idea.)

Anyway, long ago, 'scolopendra' used to mean an ill-tempered woman: a shrew, a scold. Since I have red hair, and I like to think of myself as ill-tempered, you will occasionally find me online under the name Redheaded Scolopendra.

One other thing: I absolutely, with a nuclear-powered passion, hate centipedes. Hate 'em. They give me the howling fantods. Yet I'm fascinated by them. Maybe it's my fondness for doing research of any sort that led me to learn about them. Maybe I had the ill-conceived idea that to know your enemy is to fear it less. I dunno. Why do I assume the name of the very thing I loathe? I dunno. Am I crazy? I dunno. Well, OK, probably.

P.S. Scolopendra gigantea is over 12 inches long. You're welcome.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Inventing a cryptozoological mystery species.

My current work in progress, Beings of the Ancient Age, is about cryptozoology.

I spent the last six months trying to invent the perfect cryptozoological animal for my setting in the New England/Acadian forest in Maine. I had to think up a fictional source for an entire body of fictional folklore. Finding an animal that's plausible both as a cryptozoological legend and as a legend specific to Maine -- it was a job of work, let me tell you.

I decided that my make-believe nonexistent species would be the pleistocene-epoch dire wolf. The dire wolf (Canis dirus) was slightly larger than the modern gray wolf, and was a pack hunter like the gray wolf. But its legs were shorter, possibly because it chased other megafauna, not the relatively small and agile animals that the gray wolf preys upon today.

Dire Wolf drawing by Mark Hallett

The idea that the dire wolf didn't go extinct with all the other pleistocene megafauna, that it survived and is now frolicking somewhere deep in the forests in Maine -- I mean, come on. It's not any weirder than the idea of plesiosaurs in freshwater lakes. And the idea that a creature long supposed to be extinct might still be alive -- a lot of cryptozoology is based on that theory.

But a few days ago, I found out that in fact Maine already has a history of dire wolf sightings (or something that some people say they think could in theory possibly be a dire wolf-like animal). So imagine my dismay. Sure, I hit the nail on the head as far as plausibility goes, but the whole fun of it was going to be inventing my own crazy eyewitness reports and blurry photographs. And the real world beat me to it.

But it's National Novel Writing Month, and I'm 10,500 words into my novel. I don't have the leisure of inventing a whole new mystery animal from scratch. And I'm sort of locked into using wolves, whatever their species or epoch of origin. I've come up with some wild, canid-style shenanigans that will happen later on in the story, things that wolves might do, but other kinds of animals, not so much. So dire wolves it is, I guess.