Sunday, 19 October 2014

A story from the Archives

At present I am quite ready to resume blogging!

But some time ago I decided to have my house renovated, and anyone who had done so will know that it is exciting to decide to do so, and pleasant to have the process behind you. The bit in the middle is where I am right now, however, and that part leaves no time for... well, anything, really. So expect the blog to resume in January. Meanwhile, I may delve into the Archives to see whether there are snippets there that can be posted with little effort.

I found something never shown before: I once wrote two small stories, or rather sketches, of human life in The Institute of Furahan Biology. Mind you, I have never claimed to be a writer, but for what it is worth, here we go.

In the New hades book shop on the Furaha site there is a book by Sigismunda Felsacker, titled 'Paleo days'. The story below is supposed to be a chapter from that book, called 'Landfall in North Palaeogea'.


From ‘Paleo Days’, by Sigismunda Felsacker
Landfall in North Palaeogaea

North Palaeogaea, I found, was quite different from the other palaeogaeas. Compared to the humid jungles of South Palaeogaea the landscape of North Palaeogaea is much more open. Although it was still warm in ‘North’, as we quickly came to call our new home, the heat was much more bearable because it was not nearly as stifling and damp. I grew up in the temperate climate of Bogoria, where my family was involved with the Institute, as was of course everyone else’s. Perhaps because of that I have never been able to like a hot climate, so the stay in South was at times hard for me.

In all fairness, I have to admit that it can’t have been too easy for my co-workers, because I tend to get crabby when the heat gets to me, or at least that’s what people say. Everyone else probably felt the heat in south just as badly, so I don’t think I was the only irritable soul around. My touchy state may explain how Gianfranco Mascalzone got to be so mad at me. I still think it was his own fault, so he had it coming, but anyway, here is what happened.

The flight from South to North was as boring as these flights always are. The lack of windows in the cabin did not help at all. Apparently, flyers in the past had actual windows, but the Management must have decided at one time or another to stop putting them in. I suppose they discovered that windows were expensive. We had screens, of course, but their small size -another cost-saving measure?- made everything look unreal. After a few hours of looking at the sea on a small screen from a few kilometres up we were all anxious to do something.

When we finally set course for our chosen landing area in the middle of North, the members of the out crew made for the 'outroom'. The outroom is a space in the flyer specifically adapted for exobiological surveys. Its most important feature was that it could be sealed from the rest of the flyer. After so many years of human habitation we knew there wasn’t any microbial danger, but Furaha had surprised us with stinging animals and other nasty surprises before. I was in charge, I wanted no mistakes, and so I insisted on going by the book.

Our impatient out crew was hardly able to wait for the doors to open. When they did, we saw that the pilot had set us down at the shores of a then unnamed lake surrounded by low hills. We saw grasses in the usual colour mix, from red and ochre to green-gold. There were trees and slender mixomorphs, and we heard the familiar sound of chikking spidrids. It looked good, sounded good, and smelled good, so we all wanted to go out.

The procedure held that we should only pass the screen after putting on our gear. But Mascalzone didn’t even bother to put on his Class I suit. He just jumped through the screen, wearing his normal clothes, and ran through the waving grass towards the lake. This was stupid, even for Gianfranco, because we had no idea whether there were any dangers hiding in the grass.

‘Gianfranco’, I yelled, ‘Get back here, you fool! You don’t know what’s out there!’

At that, he turned back to us and hopped up and down, waving his ungainly long arms in the air. I remember the sun reflecting off his glinting bald head. Shaven heads for men were the fashion that year, I think.

'What is there to worry about?’ he shouted back. ‘There’ve been surveys for over a hundred years, and what did they show? Nothing!’

What he didn’t mention was that the surveys of North had been Landscape Class only, and could easily have missed anything up to 50 kg in mass. He knew this, obviously, but Gianfranco never could be bothered to actually use his judgement. He drove me crazy.

The worst thing was that he had had ample opportunity to learn better, because his recklessness had landed him flat on his face in the past. In fact, it did so again now, literally. He kept on running and milling about, stupid grin and all, when his legs suddenly appeared to be yanked back from under him, throwing him face forward to the ground. He disappeared from sight into the vegetation.

Everyone in the outroom of the flyer froze on the spot, waiting for Gianfranco to get back up again. But he didn’t; instead, something thin and threadlike seemed to move and wave at the spot where he went down. We realised that this was something we hadn’t seen before. He could be in real trouble, and certainly wouldn’t be the first to die for no good reason. Helmut was the first to react; he had been putting on his environment suit, according to regulations, when all this happened. He only had his feet in the legs of the suit when Gianfranco dropped from sight. Now he went into high speed. I’ve never seen anyone getting into a Class I suit that quickly. He somehow managed to jump to the ground while getting his arms into his suit and closing it, all at the same time. He ran towards Gianfranco. The rest of us were either standing there, frozen, looking at the moving grass, or fumbling with our own suits, which seemed to resist being put on.

Helmut got to where Gianfranco was, and was cool headed enough to actually follow regulations: he stopped several meters away from Gianfranco, and carefully took the situation in. For what seemed like an eternity he did not do anything but just looked. Anyone who has ever been in an emergency knows how difficult it is to force yourself to take the time to think. Most people just start doing something, anything, no matter what. Helmut didn’t. Suddenly, he must have reached a decision, because he got out his knife, bent down, and started to saw at something near Gianfranco’s legs. When he had cut whatever it was he was sawing at, he again withdrew again to a distance of four meters, and froze in place again. Gianfranco, however, did nothing of the sort: he started to roll around on the ground and to scream. We could clearly hear him. “Get me out, you coward. Help me! Get on with it, you dumb bastard”.

At this, Helmut did nothing at first, and kept on staring at the tendrils at Gianfranco’s feet he had just cut. Gianfranco kept on shouting abuse at Helmut and slammed his fists against the ground. Helmut only reacted when he was satisfied the tendrils did not look dangerous anymore: he slowly stepped up to Gianfranco, and maliciously, with clear forethought, kicked him sharply in his left side with his Class I Environment boot. Gianfranco made an “oomph” sound and shut up.

Helmut stepped back, and when some of the rest of us finally got there, turned away and walked back to the flyer, looking very irritated. I knelt down near Gianfranco’s feet. A single tough-looking loop of fibrous material had wrapped itself around his right ankle, and had caused him to fall. The loop was still very tight around the ankle, and both cut ends were waving like crazy. That was all; other loops could be seen in the grass, but they moved only slowly, and did not look very menacing. That was it; there were no gaping maws, no venom-filled pits, nothing particularly dreadful.

Gianfranco was by now sufficiently calmed to look at his feet himself. He had gotten his wind back after Helmut’s kick, looked around at us, and said, stupid grin and all: “Look everyone! I just discovered the first new North species. I’ll call it a something mascalconata! I discovered it.”

At that we all stepped back. Not only could the fool have killed himself and perhaps Helmut as well, but he actually had the affront to suggest that a species be Named after himself. That's something you never do. Names are decided upon by an entire expedition, and only at a Naming. Suggesting your own name is barbaric, and I never would have expected any Institute member to do it.

I admit I wasn’t thinking too clearly, feeling the effect of the heat, still surprised by his complete disregard for proper procedure, and his bad manners. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done it, but at the time I swear I just saw a red haze before my eyes. I stepped up to Gianfranco, who looked at me expectantly, with his big grin. And I kicked him in the precise spot where Helmut had kicked him, only harder.

Later, we of course studied Gianfranco’s tendrils more closely. Apparently, they are mixomorphs, forming loops that lie hidden in the vegetation. When small hexapods or other animals get their feet snagged in the loops, the tendrils tighten, partly passively, and partly actively. Other tendrils in the near vicinity become active, swaying around for something to tie down. The tendrils are very tough, and can keep smallish animals tied down for quite some time. Long enough for predators to get there and kill off the unlucky animal, which is devoured on the spot. It has to be, because the tendrils keep it, or at least one of its legs, in place. The 'morph gets its reward by taking in some of the nutrients leaking out off the carcass into the ground. 

We had never seen anything of the sort in South or anywhere else. The ecological communities of the Palaeogaeas are so old that there are many more species per square kilometre than in places with more recent biotopes. The ‘holdit’ was a good example. We later called it that because that was typically what you said when you got one of your feet in one. It did not occur all over north, but only around the lakes we had just landed near. We learned to avoid them. When we did get snagged, the loop could be cut relatively easily with a knife.

When we later held the first Naming in North, the expedition almost unanimously decided to call it the ‘Supplantator incuriosus’, meaning the ‘tripper of the careless’. There was only one abstention. That particular Naming ended in a still-famous party. Mascalzone’s feelings were seriously hurt though, and he chose not to talk to the rest of us for several days, which suited us perfectly.

But that was later; that particular day, we hauled a protesting Gianfranco to the flyer. He was subjected him to a full medical by a very unsympathetic doctor Dendycke, who could have an awful bedside manner when he chose to. The rest of us had to stay in the flyer for at least a whole day, according to Regulations. So we spent our first evening and the next day in North in the flyer, grumbling about Gianfranco’s folly. Helmut, usually not that popular, received some well-meant slaps on the back. People grinned at me; I knew they wouldn’t exactly dare to slap my back, but anyone who had kicked Gianfranco was popular that evening.

But it was that day of delay which probably got me to be the first to ever see a Bogorbes, which is one of the best memories I have of North Palaeogaea. That discovery was worth kicking Gianfranco for; in fact, if it had given me a pair of Bogorbesses, I would have kicked him some more.


Sunday, 14 September 2014

A better mantacloak animation

I'm not saying I will definitely resume blogging, but I may...

I had prepared some nice new animations for the Loncon3 speculative biology event, and decided to add a few scenes to make a nice animation. The thing is, rendering each image takes so long, that it becomes very difficult to tweak the result: whenever you think something like 'the cloakfish should come in here and not there', or 'the light should shine on it from there and not here', you have to reprogram a scene all over again, and then have to wait while the computer renders the 500 or so images for each short scene. So I do not think I will start a career animating Furahan wildlife documentaries. Just the odd scene every year or so. Mind you, I have some three new tetropter scenes as well. But I will wait a bit with those. I am thinking about the ultimate post on toes: 'why large running animals really need toes or toe-analogues so you should not give them elephantine feet'.


But first: A cloakfish accompanied by Debussy. This is NOT the best way to look at the video, as it is a 800x450 video. I will upload it on Youtube as well:

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Back from Loncon3

'Loncon3', in case any readers missed my earlier post on the subject, is the name of the World Science Fiction convention that ended yesterday. Over 10,000 people bought tickets for one or more days, with over 6000 people attending at one day (Saturday, no doubt). I had only visited one 'WorldCon' before, in 1995 in Glasgow, but the atmosphere was as friendly as I remembered. I met Australian SF writers, painters, mathematicians, experts on mediaeval textiles and IT consultants making their own Star Trek episodes (Hi Anna!), just to give you an idea. My estimate is that the three sessions drew some 450 people, not bad for a convention with some 15 parallel sessions going on, apart from a well-equipped bar and many stalls with books and other items. The response was good, but it was also obvious that the science fiction crowd as a whole had hardly come into contact with speculative biology as a field: several people remarked that it was the first time that had heard the phrase. There is work to be done!    

There were three sessions devoted to speculative biology with five speakers. Darren Naish has already posted about the sessions on his Tetrapod Zoology blog, so I will be short here; for an account of the sessions and images of the speakers, visit his blog. It was very good to finally meet them in person; my contacts with Dougal Dixon go back to 1982, believe it or not, and with Memo to the early nineties, and still I had never seen one of them in person. We had to juggle a bit to make all five speakers fit in the first session, in part because we only learnt there and then that we had 15 minutes less than we thought, to clear the room for the next panel.

Click to enlarge; copyright Lewis Dartnell
Lewis Dartnell provided an enthusiastic introduction about astrobiology. He stressed the importance of plant life, something often glossed over in speculative biology: people go for animals only, forgetting the basis of the ecology. After a question from the audience he made a strong argument for the absence of other intelligent life in the universe. This idea is based on the 'Fermi paradox'. In short, this holds that there has been easily enough time for alien intelligences to seed the universe with civilisations, and we see and hear no sign of them: where are they? (here is a good website explaining the Fermi paradox). Perhaps there are 'filters' weeding out the evolution of technically capable lifeforms such as ourselves. It is possible that humanity has already passed the 'great filter' without realising it, which would mean the universe is now wide open to us. But if it is still ahead of us, somewhere in the future things will go very wrong indeed.

Slide by Darren to show part if the 'SpecBio' timeline; click to enlarge
Darren Naish then give a thorough review of the history of Speculative Biology (Zoology really) with many examples. He made an interesting comparison between, on the one hand, projects such as Furaha, Greenworld and Snaiad, and on the other hand speculation about 'missing links'. The first type might follow scientific rules but is essentially a fantasy, while the second concerns animals that must have existed in some form on Earth but whose details we do not know. Examples are protobirds, prototurtles etc. Darren argued that the two types of speculation are distinct and I agree: we are certain that animals of the second type once existed and are equally certain that those of the first type do not. I am not saying that there can be no complex life out there, but it won't be Furaha or Snaiad specifically.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Memo Kösemen showed, for the first time in public, images of how Snaiad came about (and no, I am not about to show any of these, so what you do get is a known image). He first sketched something and later retro-engineered the biology to explain the sketch. That is very familiar to me: many Furahan clades started in the same way: you find yourself doodling, and somehow a shape emerges on paper almost of its own accord. Only then does the logical part of the mind kick in and starts wondering 'what if...'. This is for instance how tetropters came about.

Anyway, Memo argued that the success of Snaiad was to a large extent due to his project being open to the public: as long as people followed the rules for a given clade, they could suggest animals of their own, and if Memo liked them enough those animals became part of the official Snaiadi canon. In that his procedure contrasts with the Furaha one; I never opened Furaha to such outside influences because I have so little time available for the project as it is, and would never have the time even to consider all suggestions with the attention they deserved. Of course, Memo now has an enormous number of species waiting to be drawn or painted...

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
As for Furaha, I showed some new animations as well as paintings never shown in public before. The ones above are landscapes in Vue, made to illustrate the point that planets are large and will have many biotopes: I never liked the idea of a 'desert planet' or a 'jungle planet'.  The animations, of cloakfish and tetropters in particular, will be shown here in due course.

Dougal showing a -rare!- manuscript of Greenworld and the Japanese published version; click to enlarge

Dougal Dixon discussed Greenworld, a project that is still waiting to be published in English (for a review of the Japanese version, see here and here). Both Furaha and Snaiad have humans on them, but the story is not primarily about them. In the Furaha they were introduced to provide human interest, in that the citizen-scientists of The Institute work together and quite often against one another to study life of on Furaha. The trick is to keep their number low though. The Greenworld story is to a much larger extent about the influence of humanity on a pristine world. Having lost much technical know-how, humans on Greenworld first live more or less together with the wildlife, but then their impact changes gradually, to resemble the one we are all familiar with, right here on Earth. No world seems big enough to house humanity as well as wildlife, neither the fictional Greenworld nor the real Earth. We do not now how these particular stories will end. Perhaps there is a link here with the 'great filter' of the Fermi paradox, that might be waiting for us in the future. Let's hope not.     

Saturday, 2 August 2014

More cloak and dagger stuff: cloakfish IV

Cloakfish have been discussed here previously; for the latest instalment, go here. Before I go on, I wonder how to call them; the plural of 'fish' is still 'fish' when you are talking about the same species, but as far as I know 'fishes' is correct when dealing with more than one species. So should I write sentences like 'Clown cloakfish are founds in their thousands under floatreefs' and 'The many cloakfishes of all shapes and sizes in the peri-Archipelago seas'?

Anyway, cloakfishes (!) were developed as animations before I painted them. So far, they were animated using MS-DOS, believe it or not, but the result was a bit two-dimensional. I later used Matlab too, but only as a painting aid, not to produce animations. Their bodies were very simplistic and the cloaks themselves were just sheets, without any thickness to them. But when I saw large cloakfishes in my mind's eye, they floated majestically into view, with cloaks as substantial as those of a manta ray. In fact, the one I will show now is a 'shortsleeved cloakfish' so it does look a lot like a ray, but with four-sided radial symmetry, obviously. So how could I realise such a vision?

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Well, with difficulty... The overall strategy consists of several steps: the firsts relies on Matlab to design the overall shape of a cloak, as shown above. The various curves are combined to form the outline of the cloak as well as of the part of the body -the dagger-  it is attached to.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Then, flesh out the form by creating two surfaces for each cloak so it smooths into the dagger. What you see above are two such half cloaks, together making up one cloak. If you were to stick four such ensembles together you would have a full cloak and dagger assembly.

Of course, there is movement to think of, and the shape of the cloak has to be changed over its movement cycle. I divided the cycle into 200 steps to have some temporal resolution. For each stage of the movement there are eight half cloaks, so we are now at 1600 files. All these shapes are written to store as 3D obj files, again, using Matlab.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Meanwhile, design a head in a suitable program such as Sculptris. There you are; it is not very detailed, but more details would probably not be visible anyway. Also create an underwater landscape in Vue Infinite with a simple animation to allow the cloakfish to glide through the water. Open the programming language Python and write a script for Vue Infinite; from within Vue, use the Python script to load the eight appropriate half cloaks for each frame, the head too, assign textures, transport the lot to the correct positions, render an image and store it. At a reasonable resolution of 640x360 that will take about 30 hours.

Copyright Gert van Dijk

All that remains then is to create a film, perhaps add sounds, etc. What you see above is a trial version in which the cloakfish is just white. I rather like the movement. For a better view, visit Loncon3, where I intend to show a good version... 

PS 1: this is post #200...
PS 2: I am considering returning to blogging regularly after Loncon3.

(PS 3: this is to stop a particular site from copying my blog: 7InDB4PgQaCddePKQEqA )

Monday, 28 July 2014

Website received a makeover

Copyright Gert van Dijk

With Loncon3 coming up quickly, I thought it was time to renew the Furaha website. The menu system was looking very outdated, and it has been modernised now. Mind you, I am not a website designer so my efforts are still the work of an amateur.

The contents are largely the same, but not completely; there are some new images, there is more information on locomotion, etc. I hope you like it! 

Monday, 21 July 2014

Speculative Biology at Loncon3; you know, Greenworld, Snaiad, Furaha, that kind of thing...

Well, I may not be back from being away in the sense that I will immediately take up churning out posts every two weeks again, but there is something I definitely would like to share with you.

Over half a year ago I thought that it was time to introduce Speculative Biology at this year's World Science Fiction Conference: 'Loncon3', held in London: Thursday to Monday August 2014. The original plan had to be modified quickly as the costs of flying people in from long distances was prohibitive. And then there were some other changes that meant that the program remained uncertain until a sort time ago; last night, to be precise!

But I can now officially tell you that Speculative Biology will definitely be there, in two sessions of 90 minutes each, On Thursday and Friday afternoon. The following five people will take part. The illustrations were largely taken from the folder I had sent to Loncon3.

Copyright Lewis Dartnell

Lewis Dartnell is an astrobiology research fellow at the University of Leicester where he studies the effects of cosmic radiation on the survival of Martian micro-organisms and persistence of biosignatures of their past existence. He is very active in science outreach and has published a popular science book on astrobiology; 'Life in the Universe: A Beginner's Guide'.
  Lewis has appeared on the Furaha blog in the past on several occasions: he wrote an article called 'Alien Safari' and even appeared in a video in another post on exoplanets.

Copyright Darren Naish ; that's him on the left...
Darren Naish is a paleontologist working on dinosaurs, but with a very wide range of interests. He is famous as the author of 'Tet Zoo', or 'Tetrapod Zoology', a Scientific American blog discussing animals, mostly, but with an occasional fictional one thrown in for good measure. Actually, he recently did discuss Speculative biology there. He and I both discussed the Brussels' 'future animal' exposition in our respective blogs (mine is here, with a link to his in the post).
   He is also one of the authors of 'All Yesterdays', a delightful book full of creative ideas on reconstructing animal; not just dinosaurs, but also today's animals, reconstructed by no doubt puzzled palaeontologists millions of years from now.

Copyright Dougal Dixon
Dougal Dixon needs no introduction here I think! His books basically created Speculative Biology. He will talk about Greenworld at Loncon3, an unknown project of his I introduced in my blog, first here, later here.

Copyright CM Kösemen
C.M. Kösemen is a name you might be less familiar with his alter ego Nemo Ramjet. Nemo's Snaiad is still one of the best known projects on 'exolife', even though his website has long sice disappeared into that void into which deleted websites go. Mind you, he did part of the illustrations of 'All Yesterdays' discussed above.

Copyright Gert van Dijk
 Gert van Dijk; well, that would be me, and I will bring lots of images and videos of Furaha with me to London.

I hope you like the programme; if you can, come and say hello! 


Sunday, 13 April 2014

Six years on, and 'away until back' again

Six years of blogging led me to compare the State Of The Blog to that of one year ago. The blogger 'stats' information states that the number of page views is over 307,000. Compared to last year's 225,000 that means that some 80,000 pages were viewed, or at least flickered up on a computer screen somewhere, however briefly. The 80,000 page views of the last year make up 26% of all page views in a six year period, which suggests a big increase. But shouldn't that increase show up in the graph of page views over time?

Click to enlarge
Here it is.  Hovering the mouse over the points of the graphs pops up the number of page views for that month. Apparently. Or not. The numbers for May 2008 to April 2009 are completely missing, and so are those for May 2010 to April 2011, and for May 2012 to April 2013. That is 36 months missing over a 155 month period. The months that are depicted in the graph together add up to 307,000 page views. Does this mean that the actual number of page views was  quite a bit higher? Blogger also provides a list of page views for each individual post.

Click to enlarge
Here it is, after some transformation in Matlab. The horizontal axis shows time in days with the present as zero on the left. The total number of views according to this method is over 145,000, or less than half of the other estimate. I do not know which data are correct. Oh well; note that the peaks do not say when a given post accumulated its page views. For some posts the views were all gathered  in the past, whereas others still attract new views every day. That holds mostly for the big peaks, and the posts they concern have been indicated in the graph above. For a list of the specific posts and links, you will find that most can be found in last year's summary here.  

The graph shows that there haven't been any big peaks for some time. The reason for that can be found in which posts attract the most attention, and that is most often because they link to a film or book with a big media presence. There haven't been recent films with alien wildlife in it that was interesting to write about recently, so that is part of the explanation of the absence of recent big peaks. Some of the posts on biomechanical subjects still attract attention, but it has become more difficult to post more on that, as I already dealt with the most obvious subjects.

After 197 posts, this one included, I have started wondering whether it is time to stop blogging. As I wrote before I have an impression that the blog is not as  fresh as it used to be, but perhaps that this just the result of having had less time than ever to work on Furaha or on the blog. Perhaps the blog and I need to go on vacation, but probably not together; I think it is time for another sabbatical, similar to the one two years ago.

I do not know when the blog will return, but some events will make me come back. One of these is that I have been trying for several months to get a session of talks on speculative biology on the programme of the next World Science Fiction Convention. That will be 'Loncon3', next August in London (I have only been to a WorldCon once before but can recommend it to all who like science fiction; they are not often held in Europe, so perhaps you should consider going if you are in Europe; there will be some 8000 participants). My efforts seem to be paying off, so if all goes well there will be talks, not just concerning Furaha, but about other Speculative Biology projects as well. I am tempted to disclose who else is likely to be there, but as the programme is not final it is better to be prudent and stay quiet. I expect the programme to become final and public in June, and will certainly come back to write about it here.

But now it's off towards the sunset again....