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....

Monday, 24 March 2014

Walking on Kepler-22b, or: How many legs are best for megamonsters? II

The documentaries 'Alien planets revealed' and 'Aliens: are we alone?' are nearly identical productions about the Kepler satellite, looking for planets around other stars. Planet hunting has been very successful: in a few years knowledge expanded from not knowing whether our own solar systems was the only one in existence  to the realisation that planets are a dime a dozen. The free app 'exoplanet' regularly updates what is known about such planets. At the time of writing it has data on 1768 confirmed exoplanets. Most are 'hot Jupiters', massive planets very close to their stars. They, and any moons orbiting them, are too hot for Earth-like life, so what everyone is really looking for are planets of an Earth-like mass circling their star in its habitable zone. This 'Goldilocks zone' is not too hot, nor too cold, but just right to have water in fluid form and therefore life as we know it.

From Exoplanet app; click to enlarge
The various techniques of detecting exoplanets all have in common that the planets most easily detected are the most massive ones close in to their star. Even so, techniques gradually get better and smaller and smaller planets can be detected. The graph above was produced by the exoplanet app, and shows the mass of planets compared to the year of discovery: if techniques keep on getting better, many planets with a mass around that of Earth will be discovered in the near future, and we may even expect much smaller planets to be discivered. I suppose that for a while each new Earth analogue will be announced everywhere, and perhaps that will generate interest in speculative exobiology as well ('Hey! We thought so all the time. Come and have a look at Furaha, Nereus, Snaiad and the others!').

'Alien planets revealed' is in part about the planet Kepler-22b, while 'Aliens: are we alone?' is about Kepler is about '701.04', or Kepler-62f, discovered later. The radius of Kepler-22b is 2.38 times that of Earth, and its mass is estimated to be 6.4 times that of Earth; for Kepler-62f the values are 1.41 times Earth for its radius and a mass of 2.8 times Earth. Both documentaries use the same image material to illustrate the consequences of a high gravity for legged locomotion, which is perhaps more apt for Kepler-22b than for Kepler-62f. Oh well, never mind...


Both might be 'ocean worlds'. Both contain a discussion of life in the seas, of which a short clip is shown above. While the text mentions the need for streamlining as something of universal value for a swimming animal, the animals are less streamlined that I would have thought. Perhaps, but I am guessing here, that is due to an unwillingness of the animator to give the animals a completely fish-like of dolphin-like shape. Even though that would make sense, the result might not look sufficiently alien anymore.

My attention was caught more by a discussion of life on land. A high surface gravity has been discussed in the blog more than once, which is not surprising as it affects so many design features of animals and plants (for instance here and here). The documentary is about walking, and high gravity can be expected to have at least four effects on the design of a walking animal.

Firstly, to minimise muscle energy expenditure you may expect pillar-like vertical legs. Any position with angled bones requires energy to keep the joints from bending. You can expect legs to become more vertical on a planet as animal mass increases, which is very visible on Earth. You would also expect animals with the same mass to have more columnar legs on a high-gravity than on a low-gravity planet; I may do the calculations one day to investigate how animal mass and gravity together should affect bone and muscle size. 

A second effect not directly found in textbooks, but which seems to make sense to me, is the 'zigzagging' of a series of leg bones: they will tend to angle forwards and backwards in alternating fashion (the principle is discussed here and here). The idea behind that is to keep all joints fairly close to a vertical line from the hip down to the foot: this decreases the leverage of the joints and again saves on muscle effort. 

A third effect is found in the number of legs. In a post entitled 'How many legs are best for megamonsters? For megamonster syou may read 'high mass animals on an Earth-sized world', but also 'medium maas animal on a high-gravity world'; the effects are very similar. I calculated the relation between the mass of an animal and the mass of all leg bones, assuming that each leg would support its fair share of the animal's mass. I was surprised to find that the least bone mass was needed if the animal had fewer legs, so theoretically one legs would be most efficient. However, that high 'efficiency' only holds true if less bone mass is the only factor to be considered. But there are other factors, and an optimal solution is biology usually represents a careful weighing of many factors. A larger number of legs would protect against falls and allows better survival chances in case of injury of a leg. In the documentaries, someone must have decided that this risk avoidance would be best served by equipping the animal with eight legs. I do not think that we know what the optimal number is, but meanwhile I have nothing against eight legs.

Finally, there are gaits to consider: there is an infinite number of ways to describe the order in which you can move eight legs in a walking cycle, but which is best? The safest solution is to move just one leg at a time, leaving the other seven on the ground. At the other side of the spectrum there are very fast gaits using just two legs: even crabs and cockroaches can run bipedally! But running can cause falling, and a fall on a high-gravity world may kill you. A safe solution is to always support the body by at least three legs, forming a tripod. So, based on safety and a guarantee that there must be three legs on the ground at any time, how many legs are needed?  It the animal has four and uses a lift-one-leg-at-a-time strategy, the puzzle can be solved. With six legs you can form the basic insect gait with two alternating tripods. That is shown above: note that the left and right legs of each pair move alternately, and each pair is exactly out of phase with the pair in front of it. The results are, going front to back, the left-right-left pairs move in unison, as do the right-left-right legs; but exactly out of phase, of course.


Are eight legs better? Well, it allows the animal to lift more legs at a time while still having three on the ground, and that can be done in various ways. Another solution is simply to expand the principle of the hexapod, and have the new pair of legs move exactly out of phase with the one in front of it. Each tripod becomes a tetrapod; a 'table' if you like. In the 'double table' scheme shown above you can lift and move each table and keep the animal perfectly stable and safe.


And here is the result of the documentary. The person doing the introduction is Lewis Dartnell, who once introduced Furaha at the Cheltenham science fair. Hi Lewis! The documentaries develop the same 'double table' gait through a genetic algorithm. That is fascinating, as it is based on a model taking many forces into consideration. The person who did those simulations, dr. Bill Sellers, has a very interesting home page on animal movement simulation. I had hoped that the genetic algorithm would have resulted in something a little more surprising than the double table that the old-fashioned logical approach predicted, but the double table does make good sense. I am playing with the idea of writing a genetic algorithm myself to see whether this is just one optimal solution, or whether there are several that are nearly just as good. Perhaps it will help to begin to answer the question 'what is the optimal number of legs for large animals taking lots of variables into consideration?.