Ocean Current Helmsmen – a poem by Kate Rauner

Sea monkeys - a favorite of comic book ads

Sea monkeys – a favorite of comic book ads

The fairy shrimp I netted
In thickly stagnant ponds
Have cousins in the oceans
And the oceans may respond.
Once thought as floating helpless,
Adrift at waters’ whim,
It seems they may create
Currents as they swim.
Swarms of tiny sea-monkeys,
Each with its own motility,
Make swirls and eddies as they swim;
Fluidic instability.
Great herds of plankton could, therefore,
Mix oceans as they swim,
Effect the climate of the world
With their lacey limbs.

This effect needs to be confirmed, but is just too poetic a possibility to ignore. I also couldn’t resist slipping in the fairy shrimp – as a kid, I netted fairy shrimp in a stagnant pond choked with leaves and algae. The shrimp had to swim up to the surface through black water for a little sun. I’d watch them swim in a jar for a while, and then dump them back since I didn’t know what to feed them. I never thought what a billion billion of them might accomplish.

What Makes a Novel Successful Is In the Mind of the Reader

Never Let Me GoI read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro with a purpose – I want to understand what makes a science fiction novel popular and commercially successful. According to the cover, Time called it “the best novel of the decade.” Over a thousand reviews on Amazon average to four stars. So I read the book trying to pay attention and learn.

The book opens with a data dump – something all writing advice says you must not do. We do learn a titillating detail: that the characters are “donating” their organs until they “complete.” It don’t think this next sentence is much of a SPOILER – it seemed obvious in the first few pages that these young, healthy people “donate” organs until they are killed. Later we learn they are clones and a callous world thinks raising children to produce adult-sized organs is acceptable.

Despite the science fiction premise, the book is about the relationships of teenage boarding school kids – who likes whom, who bullies whom, and (as they grow) who has sex (not graphic). The narrator tells the story as a memoir and frequently interrupts herself to explain things. Although the story covers their teens and 20s, the characters sound pretty much the same throughout the book. They seem to have little initiative, and though they are raised to accept being “donors”, no particular indoctrination justifies their passive attitudes. It was hard for me to identify with any of them. Only one character was upset at having his organs harvested.

The premise is flawed for me. I will accept a fictional world where “they” raise others to provide organs, but they harvest the organs in four separate surgeries with lengthy and presumably expensive recoveries between. That makes no sense – it would be more efficient for a callous society to harvest all the organs at once. But not as tragic, I suppose, for the characters.

The Big Discovery near the end of the book occurs when the two main characters sit in arm chairs and listen to a third character explain things (while inexplicably worrying about men moving a piece of furniture in the next room). What happened to that cornerstone piece of writing advice, “show, don’t tell”?

I can’t explain this book’s appeal, but I can quote from those who love it (from Amazon):

  • “Kazuo Ishiguro’s quietly disturbing novel aims to make us question the ethics of science”
  • “richly textured description of the relationships”
  • “the author not only conjures the question of the meaning of life, he asks us to contemplate the tragedy of wasted lives.”
  • “a transcendent novel, an astonishingly powerful work of literature”
  • “This novel works beautifully on multiple levels, giving it a quality that kept me thinking about its plot, characters and themes long after I finished its final page”
  • “The horror of Never Let Me Go is that the [characters] know almost exactly what lies beyond the curtain and they continue to look and participate in the pageantry of life anyway. How human of them”
  • “The book is a beautiful meditation… I must say that I am baffled at all the negative reviews” [About a third of the reviews are 3, 2, or 1 star]

I don’t yet know what I’ve learned from the book – maybe that general literary fiction has a wider appeal than the genre of science fiction (one five-star review said “the story didn’t feel like science fiction” and I agree), that teenage angst is not as interesting to me as it is to many others, and that what writers really need to do to be successful is find “their” readers.

Fog in the Black Range – Haiku by Kate Rauner


Cooling meets dew point in fog

That hangs in the pines

Black Range by Kate Rauner

Black Range by Kate Rauner

Long, Long, Long Lost Brothers

Dendrogramma_enigmatica_sp._nov.,_holotypeThirty years ago, Danish scientists collected small, floating marine creatures off an Australian coast. Among those specimens, they have now announced, are “two new species of what they call Dendrogramma in a study published in the journal PLOS ONE.” These new species are so strange they may have last shared a common ancestor with humans 600 million years ago. They may represent a new phylum.

Long before modern science, philosophers separated life into the Kingdoms of Animal and Plant. In Today’s taxonomy, Kingdoms are divided into Phyla; for example, Chordata, the phylum that unites you and me with sea squirts. A phylum is a very basic classification. A new phylum is an extraordinary claim and requires extraordinary scrutiny.

The Dendrogrammas are weird little guys, but aren’t likely to star in their own SyFy monster movie. They look like odd jellyfish. The Kingdoms of Animals and Plants got all the big, flashy species, at least from a human point of view. Once microscopes allowed a more detailed examination, three or four groups of microbes (the science is still developing) were so different they were classified in their own Kingdoms, and they won’t get their own monster movie, either. But we still live on the Planet of Bacteria. We, who have dominion over the beasts of the field, should contemplate our small brethren who out-number us, out-weigh us, and may out-survive us.

Volcano in Slow Motion – a poem by Kate Rauner

The Goddess Pele by Arthur Johnsen for Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

The Goddess Pele by Arthur Johnsen for Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Evacuate! Emergency!
But there’s no rush for those who flee
This lava flowing to the sea
Since nineteen hundred eighty three,
Its edge is marked by burning trees.
No one will die, thankfully.
Walk away from this calamity.
The Goddess Pele’s Hawaii’s
Built for herself, not you or me.

There seem to be a lot of volcano stories this year, including Kilauea’s Pu’O O’O crater venting lava towards homes – for example: LiveScience.com

Like Houdini, James Randi Entertains and Debunks Frauds

Randi is famous for debunking psychic frauds who bend flatware

Randi is famous for debunking psychic frauds who bend flatware

I love magic – real magic done by slight of hand and misdirection, not camera tricks. There have been several TV shows recently that revealed some of the tricks of the magic trade. Penn & Teller are well known for this, and for their dislike of bullshit.

Now there’s a documentary coming out about the Amazing (James) Randi, a venerable magician who, like the famous magician Houdini, has been debunking psychics and frauds for decades. There’s a challenge on his site randi.org offering a million dollars to anyone who can prove something paranormal. Randi’s team has evaluated claims of psychic powers, ESP, dowsing, magnetic humans, astrology, faith healing, and more. He says that scientists are ill-prepared to evaluate such claims – you need a magician to catch a magician; or a well-meaning person who has fooled themselves. As Richard Feynman said, “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” So far no one has claimed the prize, but it will truly be amazing if someone does – a breath-taking surprise to science. I’d love to see that, but sadly, so far, the paranormal is home to superstition.


James Randi

It may be harmless entertainment to read your horoscope every day, but superstition can cause harm, can even kill. What intentional frauds do is immoral, sometimes illegal, so I applaud Randi. But I do disagree with him on one point. He says, people don’t really want to know how a magic trick is done, it bums them out. Not me – I am even more amazed when I see how I have been tricked (I’m always tricked – I can never figure out magic), and still enjoy seeing the trick again. I can love magic, science fiction, and fantasy, and yet live in the real world. Reality, after all, is pretty amazing. Besides, no matter how hard you believe, reality always wins.

I don’t see the release details yet, but watch for the documentary. StrictlyDocs.com

BTW – Penn and Teller have a new TV show on the SyFy channel: Wizard Wars which promises to take “viewers behind the scenes of magic by challenging a new team of magicians each week to create the most jaw-dropping illusions.” The episodes I’ve seen so far make me realize that magicians spend a lot of time perfecting their routines – and the show doesn’t allow them that time. But I’ll keep watching.

Penn & Teller

Penn & Teller


You Are a Zoo – a poem by Kate Rauner

You are home to millionsgerm-virus-md
More microbe cells than yours.
A human microbiome,
The normal flora forms.
You grow your unique garden
In skin and gut and hair.
The most obsessed collectorgerm-virus-md2
Simply can’t compare.
Ten thousand species strong,
Four pounds of life inside.
They crowd out nasty pathogens,
Even detoxify.

Fun microbe fact: the average healthy adult has 10 times as many microbial cells as human cells. There’s lots of information on harmless and symbiotic microbes that we humans are healthier for housing. Try LiveScience.com or blog.ted.com

Thanks to Clker.com for the illustrations.germ-virus-md4