Links: Starships and Striped Critters

What do space travel and striped mammals have to do with each other? They’re both awesome, of course!

Raccoon-like Animals

Everyone knows what a raccoon (Procyon lotor) is, right? Here are couple of similar animals that aren’t as well known.

Raccoon dog タヌキ Nyctereutes procyonoides

These canines that are known as tanuki in Japan are mentioned in various anime, but until a few weeks ago, I thought they were entirely fictional. Cute, aren’t they?

Closer to (my) home…

Ring-tailed Cat / Miner’s Cat (Bassariscus astutus)

My family once encountered a ring-tailed cat alongside a rural street when I was a teenager. We studied it for several, surreal minutes while it considered us from a tree limb. We had no idea what it was. I remember digging for weeks until learning these relatives to the raccoon are a rarely-seen native (to Oregon).

Space Travel

Someone shared a link on the Hatrack River forums to a comparison Website of Starship Dimensions. If you’re  a fan of any science fiction shows set in space, then trust me that you will enjoy this site. Don’t overlook the horizontal scrollbar.

What good are starships without destination stars? Topics in Astronomy, by Harry Foundalis includes a comparison of actual star sizes, temperature classification, and their estimated proximity to us. This site requires more brainpower and a difficult trick with the eyes to appreciate fully.

HD Video Comparing Star Sizes


Write or Die

Burgandy Iris © Ann M. Lynn
Wicked-looking bearded iris

It’s been a tiring week but productive.

My biggest accomplishment in writing was finishing the Suicide scene in DeCo. I think I’d still be dragging the poor scene out if not for help.

The help came from Write or Die by Dr Wicked. Write or Die is a program meant to subdue the internal editor for a set amount of time or words.

To use it, select a goal and a punishment. In Gentle Mode, a text box pops up to remind you to keep writing. In Normal Mode, an annoying sound file is supposed to play (but doesn’t on some computers), and Kamikaze Mode eats your words until you start typing again.

I’ve used the program before, and it’s a reliable cure for a minor case of writer’s block. More difficult blocks require stronger medicine, of course.

The Write or Die website also includes a podcast and a blog about writing productivity, features that might distract from the actual act of writing. Be ready with excuses if you’re inclined to dig through the entire site.

Flowers, Flowers Everywhere

In my Ramble post, I promised post pictures of some of the plants in my yard. This post will have little to do with writing and everything to do with fulfilling that promise.

(That said, it is also important to fulfill any promises made to readers in fictional works. Conflict implied in an opening needs to come to some sort of resolution by the ending. Otherwise, readers/viewers/listeners feel cheated. I think we’ve all experienced that feeling.)

A Spring Day Without Snow

Apple Branches - © Ann M. Lynn

This apple tree is huge. These are some of the lower branches.

Apple Blossoms Closeup - © Ann M. Lynn

These apple blossoms overhang a bench.

Unknown purple flower - © Ann M. Lynn

This is one of the many unidentified plants growing in my yard. They grow in the sunny spots as a clumping ground cover and are more purple in real life.

Various unidentified shrubs, ground covers, and other perennials that have pink, yellow, and white flowers grow in seemingly random locations around my small yard (less than a quarter-acre)  along with grape hyacinth, irises, tulips, snapdragons, and Virginia creeper.

The irises, ranunculus, a snowball bush, and smaller flowering plants are beginning to bloom. My roses won’t start blooming until June, when there is almost no chance of snow.

I might forget to share more photos of my yard’s flora. If I do and you want to see more, feel free to remind me.

Added 5/26/2010:

Ranunculus Flowers © Ann M. Lynn

Weird Science in the News – March

It’s time for the weird! This month, I’m providing background music that brings back the oddities of the ’80s:

The definition of weird is subjective, and I do my best to incorporate different perceptions while keeping the number of articles small. That last part was difficult for this post, because this has been a busy month for science journalists. 

Don’t you love reminders that we’re on a ball floating in space? Well, this month started out with one: “Chile Earthquake May Have Shortened Days on Earth”.

Fortunately, the change to our planet’s days is too small to percieve as we go about our daily business. Which is really good, because some of us already deal with distorted perception from changes in our brains. Am I complaining about my migraines? No, certainly not. Pain, black floaters, and the rare sensation of my consciousness trying to escape out of the back of my neck is nothing on what some people deal with: “When the world looks like a real-life Wonderland”.

Movie monster
The Predator, master of cloaking tech

Scientists have been attempting to make an invisibility cloak for longer than I can remember. A cloak that allows its wearer to move unseen is a tempting concept, one used in fiction for centuries, and won’t be dropped until someone makes it a reality. Each experiment does seem to bring scientists closer to their goal. The latest approach seems to be a German experiment with tiny crystals. A member of the team was quoted as saying large-scale cloaking “could become a reality in 10 years.” Hm, I haven’t heard that before.

Just like no one has ever talked about finding the secret of immortality. Well, wait a minute–I’ve learned of a way! Reincarnate into an immortal jellyfish, avoid predators and toxins, and pray for someone to rescue you when your habitat dies. All right, I’m being snarky. However, the animal called the immortal jellyfish does exist, and it possesses an unusual ability to prolong its life. You can read more from “The world’s only immortal animal” on a Yahoo blog  or from Discover’s older blog post, “The Curious Case of the Immortal Jellyfish“.

Here’s one of my favorite discoveries of the month. A NASA probe captured the first evidence of recognizable multi-cellular life under Antarctic ice, encouraging more daydreams of higher life off-planet. Something that might have been a jellyfish offered up a tentacle for scientific study, but more interesting is the brightly-colored, shrimp-like creature that showed off on video.

More news that didn’t surprise as much as delight me involved microbes. A recent study by the University of Colorado shows that Hand Bacteria Left On Surfaces Could be Forensic Tool and provides good material for science fantasy and crime fiction.

And finally, Johns Hopkins scientists have determined that the drug, minocycline, prevents HIV breakouts. This antibiotic, which may become a part of the drug cocktail used to treat AIDS, has been used since the 1970s as a treatment for acne.

You may now return to your normal programming.

How I Chose an Avian Villain

Oak tree at sunset

This last week, I researched birds for the villain in my fairy short story.

Fortunately I don’t write for money; for several weeks of work, I can expect $0-$75, depending on where the story prints, if at all. Publications buying at  professional rates pay at least 5 cents per word.

Even if the story doesn’t sell to anyone, researching is worth the effort. That may seem crazy, but I guess that’s part of being a writer. My subconscious wants the story written, so I’m going to treat writing the story seriously.

Included in that seriousness is considering character details. If a bird’s in a story, then that bird better make sense. I don’t want the embarrassment of a reader–and avid birdwatcher–telling me such-and-such bird wouldn’t behave this way or be in that location. Plus, even readers who don’t know a chickadee from a crow might sense whether or not I’m BSing.

So, what did I need to know? Here are the criteria for the bird that attacks my fairy main character.

  • Lives in Oregon for some, if not all, of the year.
  • Perches in oaks, given a choice.
  • Visits human developments, like urban parks.
  • Catches insects in flight.
  • Is large and aggressive enough to target a creature with a 6-inch wingspan.
  • Hunts during wind storms, when necessary.

Those are challenging criteria, for the reasons listed below.

  • Oregon is not known for its biological diversity, so my choices were limited before I added more criteria.
  • Many large insect-eaters,  like jays, prefer conifers and so might not look for my fairy near an oak.
  • Many of the larger birds avoid places like urban parks.
  • Some of the birds I looked up tend to grab insects that are resting on something; or, like the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) and members of the Family Columbidae (pigeons and doves), they aren’t known to eat insects at all.
  • My fairy’s size, which is based on the size of Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) leaves in springtime, required at least 7 inches in an avian adversary. This is an estimate based on a picture of a juvenile tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor; ~5 inches) preparing to consume an adult Luna moth (Actias luna; 3-4.5 inches).
  • What bird in its right mind would hunt in windy conditions? Shorebirds are possible exceptions, but they don’t fit into the story.

Until late last night, I thought I would need to change the criteria or drop the attacking bird from my story. This distressed me, because each criterion was chosen to add drama and relevancy to the story. In addition, I had become attached to the idea of using the Purple Martin (Progne subis).

This large, territorial swallow grows to 7 inches, catches insects in flight, takes advantage of human offerings of protection, spends time in oaks, and breeds in Oregon, among other locations.

Most bird guides include that information. What I still wondered was what the purple martin does in strong winds. In a stroke of luck, I stumbled upon a chapter of e-book, Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, which explains how purple martins fly in wind storms.

Perfect! Well, good enough for fiction, and that’s what matters.

Phasmid Pictures

As a follow-up to my previous post, here are links to pictures of the phasmid species I saw at an arthropod exhibit. Most of these links will take you to Bugs in Cyberspace, an online store for insect hobbyists.

Note as you read more about insects that “nymph” also means an adolescent.

Jungle nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata)

Leaf insect (Phyllium bioculatum)

Vietnamese WalkingsticksVietnamese walkingsticks (Baculum extradentatum): Pictures of this species are common on the Internet, though they rarely show details. One photograph (at left) from the Butterfly Pavilion came out better than my others and as clearly as most I’ve seen online. I wonder how large of an area they roam in the wild, because most of the Pavilion’s walkingsticks were against the cage like these two.

Macleay’s spectre* (Extatosoma tiaratum)
*One of their many common names. A Wikipedia article contains more information on this species, if you’re interested.

Pink wing stick insect (Sipyloidea sipylus)

That’s it for now! If you’ve seen a phasmid in the wild, please comment on how you recognized it from its surroundings and whether you took pictures.

Have You Seen a Nymph Lately?

Nymph (n):
1. minor goddesses of nature, interchangeable with fairy in some works of fiction
2. butterfly in Family Nymphalidae
3. Jungle Nymph: Heteropteryx dilatata, a phasmid originating from West Malayasia

Above are not the definitions you would find in a typical dictionary.  Rather, they lead us to this week’s focus: fairy features seen in real insects.

Yesterday, I visited the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado to research for a story… Okay! It was a family trip. However, some of the creatures at the place reminded me of the fairies in a short story I’m writing.

Many people these days imagine fairies as tiny women with equivalent-sized butterfly, moth, or dragonfly wings sprouting from their backs. While this image is attractive, it makes little sense if fairies were to live in today’s world near humans. In that case, fairies would need camouflage.

Yesterday’s trip gave me better views of what that camouflage might look like. Despite its name, the Butterfly Pavilion is more than a butterfly exhibit, housing various live invertebrates and vertebrates, including spiders, honey bees, sea stars, and fish. Other than the lepidopterans (butterflies and moths), the animals with the strongest similarities to my fairies were phasmids (stick, leaf, and ghost insects).

Phasmids resemble sticks or leaves, so much so that I stared at a glass cage full of rose branches for several minutes before my husband helped me identify which rose leaves were really leaf insects (Phyllium bioculatum). An interesting fact about Phyllium is that they change colors throughout their life cycle to blend in with changing leaf colors.

Other phasmids at the Pavilion were Vietnamese walkingsticks (Baculum extradentatum), jungle nymphs, Macleay’s spectar (Extatosoma tiaratum), and pink wing stick insects (Sipyloidea sipylus). Unfortunately, I could not convince my new camera to focus on phasmids instead of plants, so you’ll have to browse the Internet or wait for me to find available pictures if you’re curious what these unique creatures look like. [Ed. – See 1/5/09 post.] Anyway, appearance and abilities vary by species, sex, and throughout their developments. For example, some could fly and some reproduce by parthenogenesis (without fertilization).

Perhaps, unnoticed and female-dominant fairy societies aren’t so strange?