31 December, 2010

Tomes 2010: Geology on the Road

I didn't mean for this installment to be travel-themed.  It's just how we ended up.  There are two odd men out, so I suppose there'll be variety for the sake thereof and all that.  Besides, the travel theme goes well with Silver Fox's meme.  So why the hell not?

And so, without further ado, our final Tomes 2010!

Geology of the North York Moors

You may notice this isn't accompanied by a book cover image.  Best I can do for a link for ye is to direct you to where I filched the picture, which discusses some o' the geology, at least.  This tiny little book is one of those delightful bookstore finds.  My copy is vintage '79, and must have been picked up by vacationing Americans.  It's a quick, simple guide to one of the most interesting national parks in England.  If you can lay your hands upon a copy, do, but be warned: it will make you want to spend an outrageous amount of money to hop a plane for Great Britain.  At least you'll have clear diagrams and succinct but solid text to help you find the best geology available.

Hiking Guide to Washington's Geology

I picked this up at Mount Rainier, and it's been my constant companion since.  It's had horrible things done to its cover from being in the same bag as a hand sample of sandstone, but it's soldiered through.  There are 56 hikes in here.  You'll want to do them all.

It covers eight regions: the Coast Ranges, the Puget Lowland and San Juan Islands, the North Cascades, the South Cascades, the Columbia Basin, the Okanogan Highlands and Rocky Mountains (yes, Washington has Rockies!), the Blue Mountains, and the Four Corners.  No, Washington does not have a Four Corners region in the sense that four states meet in a corner, but it's roughly rectangular, so that last bit covers all four corners.  The hikes are awesome.  Don't quibble.

The trails are clearly described, so well done that even amateurs like me can figure out what they're looking at.  Nearly everything intelligent I ever say about Washington state geology from now on will be on account of this book.  Just so's you know.

Hiking Oregon's Geology

This book was written by Ellen Morris Bishop.  That should be all I have to say about that.

What, you want me to sell you on this book?

Fine, then.  90 geological hikes.  Covers the Klamath Mountains and the Southernmost Coast, the Coast Range and Central-Northern Oregon Coast, the Willamette Valley, the Columbia River Gorge, the Cascades, the Deschutes Basin, the High Lava Plains, the Basin and Range, the Owyhees, the Blue Mountains and the Columbia Plateau.  Is that enough for you?  It should be.

And did I mention Ellen Morris Bishop?

If you don't know her, go read In Search of Ancient Oregon.  Then you'll know why I say, 'nuff said.

Geology of the North Cascades

This is the perfect blend of information and travel guide.  The first several chapters give an overview of the geology of the region.  This is no simple matter.  The North Cascades are a crazy-quilt of exotic terranes, plutons, oceanic sediments and seafloor, all scrambled and mixed up any-old-how by the vagaries of a subduction zone, then topped off with a bunch of young volcanics.  But after reading the first half of the book, you'll have an excellent idea of which bits are where and why.

Then the second half of the book will take you on a long ramble through them.  There are 154 notes on geologic points of interest.  That means roughly 154 places I want to visit this summer, and I'm not looking forward to trying to whittle them down to a manageable handful!  Plus, there's a recipe for roast chicken.  But it's not just any ol' recipe.  It's one you can make and bake right in the Great Fill.  Yes, you will be burying chicken in old debris flows and baking it right inside the geology.  Is that not teh awesome?  Yes.  Yes, it is.  And no other book I've ever seen on geology has ever offered anything like it.

Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings

You may think that a book on Japanese architecture from 1885 would be dead boring.  In this book's case, you would be wrong.

Soooo very wrong.

Not only is it richly illustrated with a great many beautiful engravings, not only is the prose clear and the descriptions of even the most fiddly bits of architecture and house construction concise and easy to follow, not only does it range from design to construction to decor, it takes many hysterically funny side trips.  Mr. Morse, you see, had a rather jaundiced view of American habits, and he wasn't afraid to spend several pages bashing them.  He had a caustic wit.  He had a keen sense of timing and effect, and understood that sometimes a diatribe requires detail, and sometimes the detail is best left to the readers' imaginations.

Two examples will suffice.  Here, on page 172, he compares Japan's carpenters to America's:
It is a remarkable fact, and one well worth calling attention to, that in the smaller towns and villages, in regions far apart, there seems to be artistic workmen capable of designing and executing these graceful and artistic carvings, - for such they certainly are....  I do not mean to imply by this general statement that good workmen in Japan are not drawn to larger cities for employment, but rather that the smaller towns and villages everywhere are not destitute of such a class, and that the distribution of such artisans is far more wide and general than with us.  And how different such conditions are with us may be seen in the fact that there are hundreds of towns and thousands of villages in our country where the carpenter is just capable of making a shelter from the weather; and if he attempts to beautify it - but we will not awaken the recollection of those startling horrors of petticoat scallops fringing the eaves and every opening, and rendered, if possible, more hideous by the painter.
That, my darlings, puts me in mind of Jerome K. Jerome's remarkable ability to say ten thousand things with just a few choice words.

Here, on page 117, Mr. Morse goes after American interior decorating atrocities:
If a foreigner is not satisfied with the severe simplicity, and what might at first strike him as a meagreness, in the appointments of a Japanese house, and is nevertheless a man of taste, he is compelled to admit that its paucity of furniture and carpets spares one the misery of certain painful feelings that incongruities always produce.  He recalls with satisfaction certain works on household art, in which it is maintained that a table carved with cherubs beneath, against whose absurd contours one knocks his legs, is an abomination; and that carpets which have depicted upon them winged angels, lions, or tigers, - or, worse still, a simpering and reddened maiden being made love to by an equally ruddy shepherd, - are hardly the proper surfaces to tread upon with comfort, though one may take a certain grim delight in wiping his soiled boots upon them.  In the Japanese house the traveller is at least not exasperated with such a medley of dreadful things; he is certainly spared the pains the "civilized" styles of appointing and furnishing often produce.  Mr. Lowell truthfully remarks on "the waste and aimlessness of our American luxury, which is an abject enslavement to tawdry upholstery."

We are digressing, however.
Such digressions season the book throughout, and have turned it from mere tome on foreign architecture into a delightful exploration of different cultural worlds.  There's a good reason why this book is still in print and available 135 years after its birth.  I've spent nearly a year reading this book, dipping in to it a few pages at a time, savoring it for as long as I can, because I'm sure I'll never read another book on architecture this good ever again.

Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings

I've read translations of the Book of Five Rings (Gorin no sho), seen programs on Miyamoto Musashi, and read the works of other martial artists, but this is the first time I've read a translation of Musashi's work and a history of his life by an actual martial artist.  Kenji Tokitsu does a wonderful job rendering Musashi as a human being, which is difficult, considering the man is a bloody legend.

And, for the first time, I've read a translation of the Gorin no sho that actually made sense.  That's no mean feat!  Musashi wasn't writing for novices, he was writing for people he'd already taught.  Most translators render the words without meaning.  Kenjii renders not only the words, but the concepts behind them, in a beautifully clear translation with extensive notes.  And he leads up to that translation by exploring Musashi's life, his development as a martial artist, and the Japan he lived in. 

This book also includes some of Musashi's lesser-known works, which helps complete the picture.  And, speaking of pictures, there are beautiful color plates of Musashi's art work - he wasn't just a martial artist, but a supremely gifted painter and calligrapher.

Musashi's legendary status is well-deserved.  This book honors that, but also shows him as what he was: a human being.  And it's written by a man who knows his stuff: how to translate, how to write, and how to think and act like a martial artist.  It's rare to get hold of a book in English that combines all three.  This is one, and I'm very grateful he wrote it.

And that, my darlings, is that: the final set of Tomes 2010.  64 books, 12 months.  Stay tuned for Tomes 2011, which shall no doubt be as varied and filled with startling, cherished finds.  Happy reading!

30 December, 2010

2010 Year O' Travels, or D'oh, Shit, Another Meme!

Silver Fox, once again, has tagged absolutely everybody for a meme.  And, since it gives me fodder and a chance to put up pretty pitchoors, why the hell not?

In years past, this meme would've been dead easy: twelve months of "Ummm.... nowhere."  I didn't tend to get out much.  Then I met my intrepid companion, who endures any number of inane schemes, and off we've gone.  But I'll have to get a bit creative with the winter months.

Ready?  Let's go!


I went to other worlds!  Winter writing season, y'see.  Furthest I got from home was in my own mind, where I kicked around Athesea for a bit and did some desultory world-building.


Look, Ma!  I can escape the Muse, flee the house, and go see Epica!

Okay, so I only made it so far as downtown Seattle, but that's an epic* journey during the winter writing season, lemme tell ya.

*No pun was actually intended.  No, seriously. 


Other worlds!  Thrills!  Chills!  Carpal Tunnel!  Woot!  As far as leaving the house, about the most exciting it got was the grocery store.  And the Home Depot.  Betcha didn't know there's good geology to be found at the Home Depot, didya?

***Update*** Oh, right, the squirrel.  How could I forget the Burien Squirrel?!


I escaped the Muse and went to see ginormous rhodies down in Federal Way.  Made friends with a White-Barked Himalayan Birch.  Ah, spring!


Gearing up toward the summer adventuring season.   I gently slipped free from the Muse for an afternoon by telling her we had to do downtown Seattle for "research purposes."  Same for Madrona Park on a lovely early summer day.  Bonds duly loosened, my intrepid companion and I then managed to bugger off to eastern Washington for two blissful days of superb geology and waterfalls with butterflies.

Upon our return, we took a side trip down the fossil freeway.

And that pretty much finished May, and put paid to the last few days of the winter writing season.  Summer adventuring season, here we go!


Lessee... we started out with the Seattle Art Museum, where I saw amazing art that included some geology, acquired superpowers (thanks to our own George W.) and made friends with stone camels

Shortly thereafter, we buggered off for the first real ramble I've ever taken through Oregon, where there were rose gardens and incredible coastal geology and more incredible coastal geology and got pretty pitchoors and saw the Columbia River Gorge for the first time, although I haven't written that bit up yet.

 Then we had the Museum of Flight and Lincoln Park.

Which was more than enough adventuring for June, but we only stopped because we ran out of June.


We solved the mystery of the Mukilteo Lighthouse, and I got some super-spiffy photo sequences of waves breaking with Mt. Baker in the background.

Then we engaged in a lot of sea mammal molestation at the Seattle Aquarium, and by that, I do mean a lot.  Ha ha!  I got to see the octopus before PeeZee did!  Nyah-nyah!

Not content with mere sea mammal molestation, we branched out at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium and molested regular mammals, along with a sea mammal molestation reprise, capped by an evening at the beach.

 And I got to see PeeZee and Ophelia!  Woot!


It was all about the mountains, baby, yeah!  First, we headed up Mount Rainier for a walk in the clouds:

And then came our big trip to the Olympics.  ZOMG.

I shared some preliminary geological findings, outtakes, and more outtakes, and I've still got 10 tons of photos left to blog!  So much nummy geology!


Last month o' the summer season, which meant I had to milk it.  I started out with a quick jaunt to the scientific wonderland that is Seward Park, and visited a quite-lovely fault scarp.  Enjoyed some quiet time by a glacially-carved lake, as well:

And then it was off to Lockwood in Oregon, where I killded my car dead, but with Suzanne selflessly running rescue missions and my insurance company's eager assistance, we managed to salvage the trip.  I love them all more than I can possibly convey (and let's not forget my intrepid companion, who wouldn't let a little thing like my totaling the car stop us).  So we got up to Mary's Peak, which has some of the most astounding geology I've ever seen, and we made it down the coast, which I haven't written up yet, but will knock your socks off when I do.


Winter wasn't coming, so we went to Discovery Park, where we found the lighthouse gleaming and the bluff looming.

And as summer gasped its last gasp, we visited St. Edwards State Park, where I did a little geology without help of geologist or book.  Guess all that geo-travel taught me something!

And that was that.  Summer all gone.


The start of the winter writing season, and I'm off to Xtalea once again.  There's nothing like building a world to help you understand this one!


Blind fucking Guardian:

And a Chinese fucking Elvis. Furthest from home I've managed to get IRL.  Far enough for now, innit?

It's been an eventful year, and next year's shaping up to be more eventful still.  Looks like we'll be revisiting this meme come a year from now.  In the meantime, if you haven't written your travels up yet, and you feel like revisiting your adventures near and far, feel free to consider yourself tagged!

29 December, 2010

Two Must-Reads You May Not Have Read

Whelp, Christmas is over.  We've got a bit o' breathing room before New Year's.  Time now to catch up on some of that great stuff you put off.

Brian Switek's got 6 Strange Fossils That Enlightened Evolutionary Scientists.  It's Brian, so I don't have to tell you how awesome it is.  Just get yer arse over there and read it if you haven't already.

And Bora's got an epic-length (by blogging standards) exploration of science and journalism that will probably tell you quite a lot you didn't already know.  And you'll be surprised by just how much the 19th and 21st Centuries have in common:
Apart from technology (software instead of talking/handwriting/printing), speed (microseconds instead of days and weeks by stagecoach, railroad or Pony Express, see image above) and the number of people reached (potentially - but rarely - millions simultaneously instead of one person or small group at a time), blogging, social networking and other forms of online writing are nothing new – this is how people have always communicated. Like Montaigne. And the Republic of Letters in the 18th century. And Charles Darwin in the 19th century.

The whole thing's well worth your time.  So I won't detain you here any longer.  Go.  Read.  Enlighten!

28 December, 2010

The Quote Detective

I love language, and what can be done with a well-turned phrase: metaphor, simile, analogy, a quip and a quote.  I love how language can evoke and expand.  And when something so good comes along that people feel compelled to pass it along, I love finding out where it came from.

That's not always easy to do. Things change in the retelling.  Origins get misty.  That was the case with the widely quoted and misquoted description of the Basin and Range as "an army of caterpillars marching northward toward out of Mexico."  It's been repeated in a variety of ways in a plethora of sources.  But who said it first?  Who looked at those wriggling mountain ranges and thought, "Hmmm, caterpillars!"?

Thanks to Silver Fox and her fellow investigators, now we know.  But this isn't just the story of a quote, but how the combined power of Google, Twitter, and a determined social network can uncover the 124 year-old truth in a day.

Go.  Read.  Delight!

Dana's Dojo: Keeping Up Appearances

Today in the Dojo: Untangling the thorny problem of describing characters' physical appearances.

Clothes and manners do not make the man; but, when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance.
-Henry Ward Beecher

I'm afraid we're about to get snowed under by albinos.  It's almost a foregone conclusion: you get a wildly successful book including characters with unusual physical traits, and it seems that a billion other authors think that was the golden key to bestsellerdom.  People want albinos - or sparkling vampires, or boys with scars on their foreheads, or...

Well, it's a load of bunk, of course.  An intriguing physical characteristic will not compensate for awful characterization and a worse plot.  This is not Hollywood, folks.  We can't say our character looks just like Brad Pitt or Catherine Zeta-Jones and expect the readers to come flocking in.  Granted, there are probably a few sad readers out there who will say, "Oh, look - an albino!" or whatever flavor-of-the-month, and buy your book on the strength of that alone - it's a funny old world - but there aren't enough of those to push strong sales.

Since that's the case, we're left in a bit of a dilemma.  Should we describe our characters physically, or leave it up to the reader?  Does every main character need a standout physical trait?  How much is too much - or too little?

I shall attempt an answer. 

27 December, 2010

Some Beautiful Bits

It's the Monday after a holiday, and we all know what that means: bleh.  So I figured you could all use a little beauty in your lives.

Back in November, Jessica Ball at Magma Cum Laude had a lovely post up on the Eternal Flame Waterfall. Our own George W. recently sent me this Earth Science Picture of the Day, giving us another view of that gorgeous, unique fall:

How awesome is that, right? 

Here's another something awesome - Brian Romans got a glorious view of Niagara Falls on Christmas Eve:

Of course, there's a lot of hydrology in the way of the geology, there.  Callan Bentley found some shots taken in a brief time when that wasn't an issue:

How cool is that?  More here.

Right, then.  Now you're fortified with some beautiful things.  Now you can go forth and conquer the universe - or at least, have another caffeinated beverage. 

26 December, 2010

Christmas Rocks

In more ways than one.  For instance, I'm not at work.  Woot!

By the time you read this, it'll be Boxing Day, so Happy Boxing Day!  That holiday always confused me as a kid.  I had no idea why there would be a special holiday for beating people up.  Then I found out it was an extra holiday lucky people in Britain and other such countries celebrated that had nothing to do with boxing, and I think this is where my anglophile tendencies began, because who wouldn't want an extra holiday right after Christmas?  Even if it did have a funny name.

In fact, it seems no one's quite sure why it's actually called Boxing Day.  Who cares?  There's sales on - reason enough to celebrate!

We have rather more luck with Christmas, where the name is obvious and the seasonal celebrations easily traceable.  Hudson Valley Geologist Steve Schimmrich has a good primer up on all that.  And Doctor Science points out that no, in fact, Christ is not the "reason for the season," as so many fundies like to pretend (h/t).  And it wasn't a foundational holiday for early Americans, either.  Our own national hero George Washington saw it as a prime time to launch a sneak attack, as the colonists who would become Americans didn't celebrate Christmas but Germans did.  Isn't there something in Sun Tzu about taking advantage of enemies' hangovers?  I'm sure there must be.

Retailers would have us believe it's all about buying shit, and giving and receiving gifties is awesome, but Doctor Science has some of the other reasons us secular types enjoy a good midwinter celebration:
To have a green tree in the house, filled with light, in the darkest and coldest time of year, as we feel the year turn from old to new -- how can that not be numinous? When we decorate with green branches and red berries, this isn't from Christian iconography --
"I remember hearing," said Susan distantly, "that the idea of the Hogfather wearing a red and white outfit was invented quite recently." NO. IT WAS REMEMBERED.
(from Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett). The rising of the sun and the running of the deer, seeing our families and having enough to eat: all of these things are worth celebrating. Such celebrations don't have to be either secular or religious, in the usual sense: they are pagan in the sense of "rustic, countrified, what the common people do". Human, in other words. 
Good reasons all.  And I'm not fussed about what our midwinter celebrations are called.  "Christmas" is a decent enough shorthand for all those midwinter celebrations.  But next year, I might start popping off with "Happy Boxing Day!" just to see how many Americans have no idea what I'm talking about.

But all of that's just a long lead-up to what we're really here for: the presents!  And thanks to our geobloggers, Christmas this year rocks!

Follow me after the jump for ye delights.

25 December, 2010

Pimping Mah Coffee-Stained Writer Post

Cuz I promised Nicole I'd fill in while she's on vacation, and here we are: Flawed Characters.  Enjoy!  And while you're there, have a look round the place, why don't you?


Merry Kittehmas!  Or Cephalopodmas or Squidmas - really, you can choose any animal you like!

Gifts May Be Late - Kitteh's Got Dem
This was the scene as I tried to wrap and pack my parents' Christmas gifts.  She's sleeping on the shot glasses.  How that can be comfortable, I don't know and don't necessarily want to ask.

Eventually wrestled them away.  But I've had to leave the green tissue, which she decided the instant I removed it from the box was the most awesome Christmas gift my mother's ever sent her.

I Got Paper!  Ana Box!
She is, at this moment, sleeping on the green tissue once again.  Eventually, my living room is going to be filled with tissue, boxes, and other odd bits of packing material that my feline has decided make her life worth living.

So this is Kittehmas.  Ai hopes u can haz wunderfull wun!

24 December, 2010

A Special Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais

Happy Yule, my darlings!  Whether you're celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, the Solstice, or whatever other midwinter festival, I hope you're having a blast.

And here, courtesy of Ricky Gervais, is a nice bit of ammunition for all of those relations who might be giving you guff for being an atheist at this time o' year (h/t):
Wow. No God. If mum had lied to me about God, had she also lied to me about Santa? Yes, of course, but who cares? The gifts kept coming. And so did the gifts of my new found atheism. The gifts of truth, science, nature. The real beauty of this world. I learned of evolution – a theory so simple that only England’s greatest genius could have come up with it. Evolution of plants, animals and us – with imagination, free will, love, humor. I no longer needed a reason for my existence, just a reason to live. And imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza are all good enough reasons for living.
Haven't lacked in the reasons for living department myself.  If I want transcendence, I can wander off into the mountains and soak some right up.  A nice waterfall's quite enough cathedral for me.  Communing with the universe via Hubble isn't a bad way to spend an afternoon, either.  Crack open a book on science, and I have all of the wonder I need to sustain my soul for a good long while.

And I do believe that's where all of those friends and relatives who give us atheists the old pitying stare and the firm lecture have an abject failure of imagination: they can't imagine how a universe without god can possibly be enough.  I say the universe doesn't need a god.  Gods are surplus to requirements.  It's already got an embarrassment of riches.  Gods just get in the way.  The stories about them are fun, true, and I do enjoy a good myth, but as an explanation for how the universe really works, myths are poor substitutes for the real truth.  I've never yet come across a myth that astonishes me half so much as what physics has revealed.  The natural wonders around me don't need a god to make them wonderful: geology, chemistry, physics and biology have done a good enough job of that - far better, in fact.  The stuff we humans make up isn't a patch on the breadth, depth, and astonishing underlying simplicity of reality.  

As a bonus, science doesn't require me to go sit in a church on Sunday mornings and condemn the unbelievers to hell.

For some people, I suppose, the world is not enough.  Something in their wiring requires a deity to make them feel like their life has meaning.  Sometimes, I wish I understood why.  I used to, until I gave up on the god thing and realized how very unnecessary that had been.  I suppose I used to have the same fear of falling that so many others do - felt if I didn't have a god there whipping me, I might stray from the straight and narrow.  But morality hasn't been a problem.  The opposite, in fact.  Morality's easier when it just comes down to us.  We've got to treat each other well, help each other out, because we're all we've got.  There's no one coming down from Calvary to save us.  We've got to do it ourselves.  So unfold the hands, roll up the sleeves, and get to work.

We haven't got dominion over the Earth.  We're residents, and if we tear the place up, well, we haven't got anywhere else to go, so best take care of it.  That includes our fellow creatures, who support our lives here in ways we're only just beginning to understand.  Ecology is a crazily interconnected thing.  If you think that story about a missing horseshoe nail causing a war to be lost is a good proverb about the importance of the small details, well, you might want to have a look at what happens when something so seemingly inconsequential as an insect is removed from the food web.  Even bacteria matter far more than we might have cared to admit. 

Thing is, I can see those things, now that I'm not worried about the afterlife and all.  Far from contracting, my worldview has expanded since getting rid of gods.  Anyone else experienced the same thing?  Anyone else found a universe of possibility opening up before them once they'd taken the god-goggles off?  Wonderful, isn't it?

And like Ricky said, I no longer need a reason for my existence.  I know, roughly, why I'm here: there's a whole story of evolution and reproductive biology behind that, a history of contingency and coincidence and one damned thing after another that led to the person typing this.  I don't need any more reason than that.  It doesn't concern me.  It's an inane question, really, asking why I exist and not some other combination of genetic material, what reason I was put on this earth - I've come to find out that not everything needs the kind of reason religious people mean.  I'm here.  The important question is, what am I going to do now I'm here?  And that I get to decide for myself.  There's no one set path I must follow.  I can explore, let my imagination lead me around by the nose, let curiosity drag me from one adventure to the next, without ever worrying whether it's the right thing to do.  "An it harm none, do what ye will."  I have filched that from Wicca and live by it daily, happily.

Do I feel like I'm missing something?  Yes, all the time.  I'm missing those years I wasted chasing after religion when I could have been chasing after science instead.  Aside from that, no.  There are no gaping holes left in my life, no god-shaped gap demanding to be filled.  I can't even imagine wanting a god to worship anymore.  I'm filled to overflowing with the wonders of the universe: there's no more I desire.  Well, that's not strictly true.  A bank account full enough to live off of for the rest of my life wouldn't go amiss.  More time to explore the universe, then, you see!  But that's just a fancy, nothing more.

So sorry to disappoint those fundies who love to dream and tell tall stories about those sad, crying, empty atheists who sit around miserable and alone at Christmas.  The reality's quite different.  Oh, chances are, I am alone - but that's not because I'm an atheist, it's because I'm a writer whose family lives out of state, and hence I can plead inability to get time off work and money for travel in order to squeeze out a little extra time with ye olde scribbling.  Blissful, that.  So yes, fundies, there's one consolation for you: I'm alone.  But sad, crying and empty, I am not.  How can I be?  There's too much wonder in the world for me to ever be miserable for long.

My darlings, atheists and believers and all in between, I do hope you're putting this holiday to great good use.  There's food, family, friends, fun and loot to be had.  Whatever your reason for the season, just pause for a moment to reflect on how many reasons we have for living.  There are so many, great and small, that we'd be here well into the new year before I got done listing them all.

Here's to you, and here's to life, and here's to another shopping season successfully survived!

23 December, 2010

Tomes 2010: Harry Potter Mania Edition

Don't ask me why, but for some reason, I decided to re-read Deathly Hallows.  I think it's because my coworkers were babbling about the film.  Then I decided, fuck it, I'll read 'em all.

I've got a story to tell you 'bout that, actually.  Not the most recent trot through the lexicon, but how I came to be a Harry Potter fan at all, and why Quidditch is my favorite sport outside of steeplechasing (the kind with horses, not merely humans).  So, settle in for a bit, even if you're rabidly anti-Potter.

So this one time, back in Flagstaff, when my friend Justin was still my Entertainment Executive, he forced me to read the books.  I believe it was before I saw the movie, but my memory's unclear on this point.  What is crystal clear is that I didn't want to read them.

"Justin," says I, "these look stupid."

They were not, he assured me, stupid.

"Justin," says I, "these are fucking kids books."

They were not, he assured me, merely for children.  British author J.K. Rowling, in fact, thought more of children than most of our American authors tend to.  She even used big words.  Did you know, he said, that the title of Sorcerer's Stone in Britain was actually Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone?  Because the British thought kids were smart enough to figure out what the real name of that famous alchemical substance was, but American publishers thought they'd scare the audience away if they so much as mentioned the word philosophy.

"Justin," says I, "even so, I do not fucking want to read these books."

Our arguments about entertainment usually ended in just one way.  And this one ended with me grumbling my way home with two books in hand.

My Doom #1
So, being obligated now, I cracked open the first one, not expecting much of anything.  A few hours later, I set it aside and opened the second one.  I don't remember stopping for dinner.  I don't know if anything at all about the world outside or my own biological needs impinged upon my awareness.  I was too busy fighting Voldemort at Hogwarts to worry about Muggle bullshit like that.

At about three or four in the morning, I finished all Justin had given me.  And I knew a few things.

1.  There were two more books in this series.

My Doom #2
2.  I had stupidly told Justin I'd borrow them later if I decided I'd ever read them.

3.  It was the wee hours of the morning and I had to go to work the next day.

4.  Wal-Mart is open 24 hours.

5.  But there was a blinding snowstorm, with several inches on the ground already, and the plows hadn't been by.

6.  I owned the most obstinate, skiving, broken and temperamental Ford Escort known to man.

7.  It was doubtful the car would run long enough to go to Wal-Mart even in the best of weather, much less when it was peeing down snow.

8.  I was going to die if I didn't get the next two books RIGHT BLOODY NOW.

22 December, 2010

The World Is Weird

Check out what I came across whilst pulling images off of Google for the valley I'm working on:

Blood Falls
So at first, I was like, "Is that some sort of dye experiment gone horribly awry?"  But no.  It turns out to be something quite different and altogether natural, no matter how unnatural it looks:
The Taylor Glacier is unique among the Dry Valley glaciers in that the presence of subglacial brine near its terminus results in geomorphic behavior more like that of a temperate or polythermal glacier. Ice-penetrating-radar data indicate water or slush below the glacier corresponding to an 80-m depression in the bedrock topology at ~4km up-glacier from the terminus. This depression is below sea level and forms what is believed to have been a third lobe of Lake Bonney. When the chemically reduced subglacial brine flows from below the glacier and is exposed to the atmosphere, it becomes oxidized and a red salt cone, known as Blood Falls, precipitates at the northern end of the glacier terminus.
Sometimes, I get the impression that no matter what weird, wacky shit I attempt to invent, the world's gonna clear it's throat at every turn and say, "Been there, done that."  At least I'm not ashamed to admit that the vast majority of "unique" stuff I'm writing about will have been filched from the real, live, complex and delightfully bizarre universe around us.

21 December, 2010


Long-time readers may recall that in my deep past, I wanted to be an astronomer.  I've still got an abiding fondness for such things, but I don't get to feed my inner amateur astronomer much up here.

So when Twitter started buzzing with word of a total lunar eclipse for the night of December 20-21, I looked out the window, saw clouds, and said, "Bah, humbug."  But that didn't stop me from heading outside at a little after 11pm to have a hopeful look.

The clouds had parted!

Stayed out there for almost an hour in flip-flops, too intent on watching the moon vanish to run back inside for sensible shoes.  This was the event of a lifetime, wasn't it?  I mean, seriously, people, those of us who got to see it either outside or streaming live online were witnessing something extraordinarily rare:
This lunar eclipse falls on the date of the northern winter solstice. How rare is that? Total lunar eclipses in northern winter are fairly common. There have been three of them in the past ten years alone. A lunar eclipse smack-dab on the date of the solstice, however, is unusual. Geoff Chester of the US Naval Observatory inspected a list of eclipses going back 2000 years. "Since Year 1, I can only find one previous instance of an eclipse matching the same calendar date as the solstice, and that is 1638 DEC 21," says Chester. "Fortunately we won't have to wait 372 years for the next one...that will be on 2094 DEC 21." 
Soooo lucky Seattle's cranky winter weather chose tonight to have a lengthy cloud break at just the right time.  So lucky I follow Phil Plait on Twitter, and that he kept us all up-to-the-minute caught up on what we should see and when.   He also had a super-spiffy blog post up with about all you'd need to know.

If I'm still alive in December of 2094, I shall have to make sure I'm ready with a camera that can record the event.  By then, we should have much better.  But mine did remarkably good for a little pocket model, and would've done far better if I'd have binocs.  Still, got some fun stuff!

First Look, through thin clouds

That's what made me dash back inside and snatch up the camera.  Over the next 40 minutes or so, I watched the bright bits of the moon get smaller:

And the clouds cleared away near totality, and the last sliver of moon gleamed:

You can just barely see it.  And then, boom: totality.  Which was about the time my camera said, "Sod this for a bloody lark, I can't see a damned thing," and packed it in for the night.  Luckily, Phil was able to catch some good images:

Totality! Moon is deep Orange. Gorgeous!

Last one. Deep into totality.
Awesome!  I'll never forget the moon, nearly invisible, glowing a faint pale orange in the sky, deep in our shadow.  Love love love this universe!

How many of you guys got to see it?

Update:  You, my darlings, must click here to see my friend Michael Smith-Sardior's outstandingly beautiful photo of the eclipse!

Dana's Dojo: Curses! I'm a Foil Again!

Today in the Dojo: Manipulating foils and mirrors to contrast and enhance.

I made the mistake once of asking Nikki for some column topics, expecting something rather easy that I could breeze through in an afternoon.  I should know better.  First she hits me with Subplots, then we get into Foils and Mirrors.  I latched on to Foils and Mirrors.  I have mirror characters, thinks I.  How hard could it be?

Yes, I know.  I don't blame you for laughing at my folly about now.

There is not a word about foils and mirrors in the index of any of my books on writing.  Nary an article in any of those magazines I lug from apartment to apartment.  Not a single damned useful thing anywhere.

Grr, said I, and turned to the intertoobz.

A little while later, after sifting through the pages that assumed I want to do something arts-and-craftsy with actual foil and mirrors, I found some information that really kind of bugged.  Literary definitions were pulping foils and mirrors into a kind of blended mush.  Foil didn't mean what I thought it did.  Mirror barely appeared at all.  But there was some great stuff in those articles that made up for the shattering of my assumptions.

I will, of course, be putting the patented Dana Hunter spin on things, and redefining things just a bit.  But for the most part, I've adjusted my own definitions to come more into line with common wisdom, and only imposed my own idiosyncratic interpretation where it seems to resolve the most confusion.

So here we go....


The term foil came into literary use by way of the jewelry biz: jewelers place a bit of foil behind a gem to make its brilliance really pop.  Some clever literature person looked at that, had a brainwave, and filched the concept.  Voila, the literary world now has foils as well.  Only the foils involved here would probably be very upset if we tried to smash them flat and stick them behind the gemstone in a brooch.

And so, in its simplest sense, the idea of a foil is a character who sets off another and makes them really shine by contrast.  Sticklers say that the foil must enhance the main character rather than the secondary ones.  And then some either very confused or extremely clever persons took off on another definition of foil, which is a thin sword used in fencing, and said, "Hmmm.  The foil could be the bastard who foils the protagonist, ha ha ha."

Indeed.  But it works, although it tends to confuse things a bit, as there are no specific terms for which type of foil we mean.  Do we mean a Watson, whose dimness and goodwill makes Holmes' intelligence and coldness stand out like a halogen?  Or do we mean Snape, who constantly trips up poor Harry Potter and makes his life miserable?

"Mirror" is sometimes used as a synonym for "foil", so I shall appropriate it to my own nefarious purposes and create the following definitions for our discussion: a foil opposes, a mirror reflects.  Remember that mirrors are also used to reflect and enhance light as well as simply reflect images, so this works very well.

Right, then.  So what are they?


Literary definitions are narrow and persnickety.  They are refined beings and don't like to mix with the commoners.  We, however, are not literati: we are rough-and-ready writers who are looking for tools, not objets d'art.  We don't care what shape the hammer is as long as it will do for pounding down the nails.
And so, while we will use the classical definition of foils and mirrors as characters, I set out to prove to you that anything can be a foil or a mirror.  In a pinch, a lump of rock will do.

Michael Connelly uses the media as a foil to his main character Harry Bosch in City of Bones.  I use a manor house as a mirror for Luther Novotny.  Everything from nature to a play has been used as a foil or a mirror in great works of literature.  Don't limit yourself to narrow definitions.  When you think foil and mirror, think things as well as people.  People are preferred most of the time, but there are times when people will not do the job.  The hammer is made of glass.  Time to look for the flatiron you acquired on impulse in the antique shop the other day, and then that nail's gonna be pounded.

In fact, I would even go so far as to say that your foil or mirror could be something within the characters themselves.  That's blurring the lines into conflict, but why not?  Who says we can't use a screwdriver to set the screw before we start twisting?  Just remember you're the only one likely to know that's what you were doing, so don't be too upset when the literati don't ooh and aah over your clever use of the concept.  It's okay.  We'll know.


Like real foil and mirrors, what kind you use and where you put them make an enormous difference.  If you want the room to be brighter, you stick the mirror behind the lamp: if you want the room to look bigger, you stick a larger mirror on an accent wall.  If you want to become a fencing champion, you must have the proper foil.  It's the same thing in writing.  A misplaced or misused foil or mirror will spoil the effect.

There are a few simple things to consider.  Did I say simple?  I assure you, I speak in relative terms.  We all know that nothing in writing is truly simple, no matter how easy it sounds.

First, what effect are you going for?  If you want to throw some caltrops in the path of your happily skipping hero, only a foil in the sense of an object with which to inflict jabs will do.  If you want to make someone shine brighter, or highlight some aspect of them, then you'll want to reach for a mirror.  So, the first simple question becomes: do I want to obstruct, enhance, or reflect?

Secondly, probably most obviously, you'll need to know whom you're applying that to.  It's not always as obvious as it seems.  Foils and mirrors are most usually paired with the main character, but you can use them on secondary characters as well.  It could be the villain.  It's just probably a good idea not to use them on a bit player, because that's like putting mirrors under the kitchen sink to make that cabinet look bigger.  Remember that foils and mirrors are a value-added option, so you don't want to waste them on things of minor importance.  So, the second simple question becomes: who's worth it?

Thirdly, you'll need to decide to what degree and when.  Some foils and mirrors are there from the beginning and patently obvious.  Some show up at a critical juncture, perform their function, then bow out quietly (or not so quietly, depending).  Some only gradually become recognizable for what they are as the story unfolds.  So, the third and not-quite-so-simple question becomes: How much am I emphasizing, here, and where do I want that emphasis to be noticed?

Once you know the answers to those questions, you'll probably find it fairly easy to decide what kind of foil or mirror you'd like to use: character or otherwise. 

I'll share with you a personal anecdote at this point in case you like to see the silly goober manipulating the mirrors, and to give you an idea of why one might choose not to use a person as a foil or mirror.  When I was first starting to write Luther, I realized he was a hard nut to crack.  He was one of the ominous mysterious types who never really gets close to people and whom no one ever really knows.  I wanted the reader to have some way to gain insight into him, and it wasn't happening through his interactions with other characters as much as I might have liked.  A Watson was completely out of the question: this man does not like sustained human company.  He makes Holmes look positively gregarious by comparison.  And so, I brought out the details of his manor house and turned it into his mirror.  If you look closely at that house and its grounds, you can see into his soul.  His house is him.  He chose every aspect from where it was located to where it was built and what objets d'art fill it with great care.  The beauty of the manor house is that it also mirrors anyone who goes there.  What people notice about it tells you as much about them as Luther.

See the power of a mirror of the proper size, type and placement?  And why you should not limit yourself to living beings when creating one?


And now we come to that part of any arts-and-crafts missive where demonstrations of what can be done with all those bits of things you just bought can be used.  Maybe I'll even throw up a completed piece in the true spirit of things.  Only this time, it'll be of the kind of quality you can hope to match with the instructions rather than one of those confections the directions promise you'll achieve but must have been done using a different set of instructions and materials altogether.

I've got a few examples of what foils and mirrors are good for.  This is by no means the comprehensive list, just something with which to prod the muse and make her/him stop jeering at Survivor and get to work with the scissors and glue.

*A caveat: I use the word "hero" for the character the foil or mirror is being placed against.  Remember that this is a shorthand: it does not mean that the character being set off must always be the hero.*

  • Use your foil to prepare your hero for the final fight against the villain by making him/her overcome a similar but lesser obstacle.
  • Raise the stakes by having your hero fail against a foil whose opposition is similar to what the villain has on offer.
  • Make your hero's life miserable by constantly having to deal with all of the crap the foil throws his/her way, as if the other crap they had to deal with wasn't already quite enough to be going on with, thank you so very much.
  • Show how heroic your hero is by the way s/he handles all the thrusts and jabs from the foil.

  • Raise the stakes by having the hero's mirror fail against the same or similar obstacle that the hero will soon have to deal with.
  • Give the readers (and the hero) false hope/confidence by having the mirror succeed in the same or similar situation the hero will soon be encountering.
  • Make facets of the hero shine all the more brightly for being compared to/contrasted by the mirror.
  • Reveal aspects of the hero via the mirror.

For further ideas on the possible uses of foils and mirrors, visit Traci's Ten Assignments on Dramatic Foils.  And you thought I was snarky!  Not only is this list of assignments a pleasing read in its own right, it's chock full of interesting possibilities.  She was only giving teachers ideas for making comparison/contrast papers involving foils more interesting, but she ended up handing us a sparkly new hammer for the toolkit.  And as a special bonus, you'll get a Magic Eight Ball reading, too!

20 December, 2010

The Allure of the Orcas Chert and How to Keep Undergarments Fresh in the Field

I can always count on Dan McShane to provide me some local yum, and he had me drooling over the Orcas Chert the other day.  I'll let him 'splain and filch one of his pictures:
The Orcas Chert is part of a suite of rocks belonging to the Northwest Cascades System (NWCS). The NWCS is not a simple assemblage and taking a walk along the the Orcas Chert exposed on the west side of San Juan Island is a good reminder.  Lappen (2000) assembled the Geologic Map of the Bellingham 1:100,000 Quadrangle that includes much of the San Juan Islands. The accompanying report provides only a brief description of the geologic setting but I think it sums up the NWCS rather well as "This structural system is a thrust stack of mainly oceanic lithologic packages (terranes) of varying age, structure and metamorphic history." I would emphasize "varying" as an understatement. When I get asked about these rocks or other assemblages of metamorphic rocks in the San Juans or Northwest Cascades I often say these rocks have had a long hard life. 

There's schist in that thar chert!  How does he know I'm a sucker for schist?  Argh, now I want to go to the Islands, mon!

And thanks to Anne, who tweeted the following, I'll always have clean underwear out in the field.  I am not giving away the secret here.  You will have to click this link.  Do not do so with your mouth full of food or beverage, because I refuse to be responsible for what happens if you do.

19 December, 2010

Ding, Dong, DADT Is Dead!

I am petty much dying of shock, because somehow, six Senate Republicans managed to do something right for a change.  Drugs?  Blackmail?  Vestigial human decency?  Who knows?  All I know is, 57 Dems, 6 Republicans, and 2 Independents pulled together and


You may ask, why not 58 Dems?  Well, that's because Sen. Manchin seems to find holiday parties more important than voting for legislation that restores civil rights to those who serve in our country's military.  When it comes to lead, follow, or get out of the way, he apparently chose option 3. 

Would've been a perfect day if the Senate hadn't been busy killing the DREAM Act earlier.  Sens. Lugar, Bennett and Murkowski deserve no blame on that one - they did the right thing, it was five defecting Dems who decided children who got dragged into this country illegally don't get a chance to go to college and get decent jobs in the only country they've ever truly called home.  You can find the offending dumbfucks at the link, and add them to your list of Dems who deserve to get primaried when next they beg for our votes.

Still.  Banner day.  I have no idea how the hell this happened - I expected Senate Cons to stand united against teh gayz, considering what frothing insane Tea Partiers are likely to do to the Republicans who try to take even small, popular stands for basic rights and freedoms - but I'm so glad DADT is dead.  Let's hope Gates et al work quickly to get the new policy in force.

And should you get a chance, give an LGBT servicemember a hug today.

Cantina Quote o' The Week: E.B. White

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

        -E.B. White

Alas, I don't know quite where this quote came from.  I just know that I love it, because I live it every day.

E.B. White, of course, was the author of Charlotte's Web, which is a good book for determining who among us is destined to grow up a sociopath or a critic.  If you didn't cry, you're probably one or the other.

He's also the White of Strunk & White fame.  He also satirized Freud.  No wonder he won the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

18 December, 2010

Hey! I Practice Alt Med, Too!

Kimball Atwood's been kicking the arses of all those who like to babble that because alt med's popular, even the most implausible, most wootastic woo should be studied.  We're talking folks who think that homeopathy should be studied, despite the fact the basic science isn't behind it at all - you'd have to overturn pretty much all of physics and chemistry for it to qualify as anything remotely possible to actually work as more than a placebo mixed with willful idiocy.  The people who back randomized, double-blind, clinical trial after clinical trial for the wooiest of woo despite assloads of evidence already available showing it doesn't, can't, and will never work are the same ones who would probably demand said trials for butt reflexology if enough dumbfucks fall for a hoax.

But I digress.  I was about to tell you about the fact that I, too, practice complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM).  I found this out while reading Kimball's lovely smackdown.  Here's the passage that revealed all to me:
In addition to the ethical fallacy just discussed, there is another fallacy having to do with popularity: the methods in question aren’t very popular. In the medical literature, the typical article about an implausible health claim begins with the irrelevant and erroneous assertion that “34%” or “40%” or even “62%” (if you count prayer!) of Americans use ‘CAM’ each year. This is irrelevant because at issue is the claim in question, not ‘CAM’ in general. It is erroneous because ‘CAM’ in general is so vaguely defined that its imputed popularity has been inflated to the point of absurdity, as exemplified by the NCCAM’s attempt, in 2002, to include prayer (which it quietly dropped from the subsequent, 2007 survey results).

By these standards, I so totally do practice CAM!  Yep, it's that slippery of a definition.  Y'see, sometimes, when I feel like I might be coming down with a cold, but it might just be allergies or too much smoking instead, I run this little litany through my head: "I hope I'm not getting sick!  I hope I'm not getting sick!  I hope I'm not getting sick!"  And sometimes, when I wish really hard I won't get sick, sometimes I don't get sick!!!

So imagine me getting surveyed:
Survey Person: Do you pray for wellness or healing?

Me [sarcastically]: Well, I'm an atheist, but I sometimes hope really hard.

SP: Great!  We've got you down for prayer, then, you alt-med lover you!

Me: Wait, what?  Hey!  Come back here and erase that right now, you fucking bastard!

SP: [vanishes into the distance at a brisk run]
And that, my darlings, is one of the great many reasons why you should always treat the argumentum ad populum with grave suspicion.

Just like you should butt reflexology.  Or is that butt-print astrology (ass-trology!)?  It's so hard to keep all this butt-related woo straight!

17 December, 2010

Putting the "Awe" Back in Awesome

Apologies to whomever posted this on Twitter, because it was last week and I cannot for the life of me remember who.  One day, I'll remember to jot these things down.  But it's definitely too good not to share for lack of being able to credit.

Every science blogger needs to read "Rehabilitating Awesome" by John Pavlus.  So should everyone who loves science and wants other to love it, too.  If you haven't yet, here's why:
My humble opinion is that engagement should start from first principles–and I don’t mean elementary physics. Take the beginner’s mind, not the post-doc’s or the cynical reporter’s. Why did we as science writers get into this business? I can’t speak for you, but in my case it wasn’t because I loved how the word “chromodynamics” looked next to a forbidding table of statistics. It was because at some formative point in my life I felt awe and associated it with science. As in,”Wowwww”–then “why?”–then “ohhhh.” I would hazard that many scientists had a similar experiences that sent them on their professional paths.

Awe is our first principle. If we weren’t all using science to chase it in some way or another, why be in this business at all?

So there’s our answer about engagement. Every damn person who’s ever breathed air has once wondered why the sky is blue. So, whatever your scientific subject, just go back in time, dig out that tiny neutron-dense core of wonderment that you felt, and you’ll be well on your way to bringing someone else along for the ride. Easier said than done, of course — but perhaps not as difficult as many of us have learned to believe.
All right, then?  Think you can do that?  Of course you can.  Science makes it easy.  Science is amazingly awesome, frequently dramatic, beautiful even when it's ugly, and has the power to make even the mundane look like the most extraordinary thing you've ever seen in your entire life.

It inspires awe.  All you have to do is add the "some," then kick it up a notch or two.  Dead easy, right?  Yes, it is - take a trot down my blogroll and you'll see science bloggers doing it every single day.

16 December, 2010

Twelve Months of Verdad (2010)

Oh, dear.  End-o'-year memes.  Silver Fox has got one, and tagged each and every one of us, so here we go:
The rules for this meme are simple, as explained by DrugMonkey: Post the link and first sentence from the first blog entry for each month of the past year.
Without further ado, then, I present: Twelve months o' Verdad.

It's 2010!


I have a confession to make.  
I have come to this realization after filling in a few blank spots leading up to a few things in my narrative outline, and contemplating the deeply emotional reaction of X-Files fans to that bit in the movie where Mulder and Scully almost kiss after several seasons' worth of sexual tension, only to be interrupted by a very bad bee.
Join me after the jump for further details on my conversion.
Oh, yes.  
Aunty Flow is here, and has been pestering me with chronic cramps all day, which means I don't have the energy to wield the Smack-o-Matic on some politician's deserving derriere.  
Apologies for the lack of beating up dumbfucks lately.  
When we went to Arizona last year, my intrepid companion and I crossed Hoover Dam.

I don't know whether to thank the Cons or scream:
I have to go to bed early so that I'm nice and fresh for fending off used car salesmen in the morning.

A Bloodbath, Not a Massacre
Because if it was a massacre, Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell would've ended up added to our list of national embarrassments. 


Today in the Dojo: Why the willing suspension of disbelief and the factual facts depend utterly upon each other.
 Right, then.  There it is.  And you can bet I'll be working on snappy first lines in the new year, because this was rather a bit embarrassing.

If you're up to the task of posting your last twelve, consider yourself tagged.

15 December, 2010

A Bout of Insanity: Devis in the Details

For my Wise Readers, who may or may not be eagerly anticipating the next bout, here ye go.

And for those dying to be included in the insanity but who haven't got round to asking, you can send me a request to be a Wise Reader at dhunterauthor at yahoo dot com.

Unchaining Ourselves

The Great Chain of Being needs breaking.  Brian Switek took bolt cutters to it in a SciAm guest post last week, and my, how the creationists howled.  Got so bad that Bora called in the cavalry.  Did my duty, registered so I could comment, and laughed my arse off because these silly little nitwits howling their protests got me to thinking a lot more seriously on the subject.  What follows is an expanded version of the comment I left.

First, an explanatory image, taken from a wonderful lecture by evolutionary biologist Lindell Bromham:

On this depiction of the great chain of being you can see that plants are higher than inorganic things, animals are higher than plants, humans are better than animals, angels are above humans and so on. You might say, ‘Oh, we don’t believe in that any more.’ Yet, if you pick up any evolution textbook or even a popular science evolution book, you will often find something that looks very similar to this.
And creationists apparently can't stand it when somebody like Brian comes along and says this:
At the beginning of the 20th century, American fundamentalism was gaining momentum and the public circus that was the Scopes trial turned the teaching of evolution into a controversial public issue. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, anti-scientific opposition to evolution remains a prominent cultural force. Be it straight-up young-Earth creationism or its insidious sibling intelligent design, fundamentalism-fueled views of science and nature abound. Groups such as the National Center for Science Education are continually tracking the spread of anti-evolution agendas which would further erode the quality of scientific understanding. Perhaps this is why we keep returning to the March of Progress. When the fossils and stratigraphy are laid out so plainly, how can any reasonable person deny that evolution is a reality? Yet, by preferring this antiquated mode of imagery, we may have hamstrung ourselves. Given all that we have gleaned about evolution from the fossil record—especially the major pattern of contingent radiations cut back by extinction before bursting into numerous splendid forms all over again—why not bring this wonderful "tangled bank" imagery to the public?
Yes!  Having come out of a march-of-progress, great-chain education, I can give you plenty of reasons why it's well past time to break the chain and go to the bank.  And don't tell me it's too complicated for kiddies and laypeople to understand, and that a nice, neat line is the best way to introduce folks to evolution.  It's not.  Far from it.

Ultimately, that linear way of explaining evolution set me back several years.  Yeah, it may be simple, but it's too simple.  It doesn't leave room for all the side trips, dead ends, and scenic routes, and it doesn't give a person room to think outside of a destination.  That confused the hell out of me, because there are plenty of things that didn't reach the supposed destination, but were there for a good part of the journey.  It's like supposing several cars worth of people can only travel between Phoenix and Flagstaff: you can't explain then why some of them buggered off sideways to Prescott instead.

View Larger Map

Handy map illustrating the concept for those who aren't from the area.

Then I started reading books on evolution.  And there was this tree:

Darwin's Sketch

Once I saw the tree, started thinking not in chains but in trees and bushes, it started to make sense.  Not every branch goes "up."  The top of the tree isn't the only place to be.  It's still a simple model, but it's one that leaves plenty of room for all the bits that don't fit when you chain yourself to the Great Chain.

That's true in a lot of things about life.  It's time to let go of the black/white either/or thinking and embrace the world as it is: fuzzy, chaotic, contingent, and far more interesting than mere lines from A to B.

So grab your bolt cutters, my darlings, and join Brian Switek in cutting those chains.