Thursday, 31 July 2008

Texturing the planet

Finally the work of making a texture for Furaha is nearing completion.

After ample deliberation I decided upon places for likely deserts, based on some understanding of Earth's climate system. I did receive help, but in the end I confess there was lots of guesswork. It was good to have that major hurdle out of the way, as I could then concentrate on creating the texture itself.

To do that, I needed to become more used to Photoshop (never mind 'proficient'). In the end I took published maps of Earth (NASA's 'Blue Marble' series), and I cut bits and pieces out of these maps, and pasted them, with some rotation if necessary, on my new map. I used some of Photoshop's tools to bridge the borders between these pieces with believable intermediaries. That took some time, mostly because I was learning this as I went along.

Having done that, it was time to create some shallow seas, done by lightening a few pixels here and there near some coasts. And there we are! The real texture is much bigger than shown here, by the way. It is probably much too light, but that was handy during construction to see what I was doing. Compared to the Blue Marble pictures, this texture is much too bright, so it will probably has to cross over to 'the dark side' before I post it on the website.

Click to see in a bigger window

That's not all though, I also worked on a programme to cover part of the land with snow and ice, depending on the season. You can see the result for Earth below. I can of course do it for Furaha, but the advantage of doing it with Earth is that the result at least allows an idea of how well it all works. The programma works by taking the distance from the nearest pole (latitude) as well as elevation into account. These are combined in such a way that the chances of snow cover are bigger as you come nearer the pole and as you get higher up.
The same is true for the Earth: mountain tops may be covered in snow when there is no snow at all in the surrounding valleys, and the nearer you get to the equator the smaller the chances of finding a snow-covered peak are.
Where the program goes wrong is in forgetting about precipitation: the definition of a desert is a place with very little precipitation; and when there is no rain or snow, you do not get an ice cover, no matter how cold it is. The Tibetan plateau may be such a place: there should be no snow, but the programme puts it there. Oh well; that can be edited.

Click to see in a bigger window

What's left? Well, rivers, lakes, sea ice that changes with the seasons, seasonal changes in the colours of the land due to plant life, etc. Much to do yet...

Sunday, 20 July 2008

The Interplanetary Zoo II

It's time to bring another of Edd Cartier's wonderful drawings back(I've found about 10, so we haven't run our yet)

Now thís is really an odd design. People who design alien lifeforms often try to get away from the shapes we know to enhance the alien nature of their designs. I have my doubts how far you take take that line of thinking, because biomechanics will work the same all over the universe. If you wish to swim, streamlining is efficient, given certain characteristics of size, density of the fluid, etc., etc. Leave that as it may be for the moment, and approach the problem from a different angle: perhaps an alien design works as such if you cannot immediately work out what the general build of the animal is. If you wonder 'how does this thing work?', then the designer may be onto something.

Like the previous one, this creature seems to have a rotund body slung between two walking limbs. The limbs divide in separate parts, but that is nothing novel: our legs also end is toes, and the prototypical arthropod limb also is 'biramous', meaning it has two branches. But this one is slightly different, in that the split into 'toes' happens fairly high op the limb itself, so the 'toes' take on an aspect of legs themselves. They seem capable of somewhat independent motion. If our legs would split into two separate 'leglets' at the level of our knees, would we say that we had two lower limbs or four?

Never mind, but the point is that this is a shape that takes some study before you start to see how it works. As such, it's delightfully alien.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Rhinogradentia III

The previous post on the Rhinogradentia mentioned the book by one 'Karl D.S. Geeste' entitled 'Stümpke's Rhinogradentia'. It turned out that Geeste and Stümpke are in reality one and the same person, who in real life is called Gerolf Steiner. This puts the interview, in which Geeste questions Stümpke about how the Rhinogradentia came into being, in a new light: in essence the interview is an autobiographical style figure. There are only a few pages about the early history of the Rhinogradentia in the book, but they have something to tell.

The overall feeling you get from the Rhinogradentia is one of good uncomplicated fun, without any cynicism or sarcasm. There is hardly even irony. It is all extremely good-natured. Even the responses to letters Steiner received from people who had failed to get the joke, or who felt that scientist should never joke in such a way, show a great deal of respect for the sentiments of the senders, even when these were rather dour. And yet, the circumstances during which the Rhinogradentia were conceived were not nice at all. The following is from 'Stümpke's Rhinogradentia (Fischer Verlag 1988, pp 64-67).

The project started by chance early in 1945, in Darmstadt, in the western part of Germany. Germany was not yet beaten but Darmstadt was occupied by Americans. There was nothing to eat, so Steiner had even tried frying snails with the last 10 grams of fat. He found that the mucus of the snails made the snails stick in his throat, so he was unable to eat them, and cried for being so hungry. Steiner, bombed out of his own home, lived in a room in a house in the outer parts of the city, less damaged by bombing than the city centre. He had some paper and some pencils there, that had survived the bombing. One day a student who wished to become a zoologist shared some asparagus with Steiner; this was a wondrous great gift. He wished to do something in return, and decided to make a drawing for her; something not too serious, but uplifting, and with a zoological theme. And that's how the Nasobem was born. Because he liked the drawing himself, he made another one for his own amusement. And later another one, etc.

By itself this story is not that surprising or that moving. But there are a few sentences describing what life was like in the suburbs of this ravaged city. These tell their own story and make you wonder how Steiner managed to evade cynicism or despair. For those who can read German, the original text follows first, followed by my translation. I tried to stay close to the original text.

"Ein bisschen satt zu essen zu bekommen, gehörte zu diesem Beglückenden ebenso wie später die Frülingsblumen oder die schönen Chorgesänge der freigelassenen Russen, die plündernd durch die Gegend zogen. Dazwischen hörte man das irre Schreien vergewaltigter Frauen, die sich -ausgebombt- in ihre Gartenhütten einquartiert hatten."

"To be able to get a bit to eat so you didn't feel so hungry anymore was one of the things that made you happy, just as much as spring flowers later did, or the beautiful choir singing of the freed Russians, who wandered through the countryside, plundering as they went. In the midst of this you heard the mad crying of raped women, who, having been bombed out of their homes, had found shelter in garden sheds."

What a contrast.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Locomotion in the game 'Spore'

'Spore', for those few who do not yet know, is a long-awaited computer game in which the player must design and guide a creature from life in some warm pond to a space-faring civilization. While there may not be that much overlap between those who play computer games and those who are interested in exobiology, 'Spore' should hold some interest for either party.

A few weeks ago a part of the game was introduced on its own: the 'Creature Creator'. If you type that into Google with 'spore' along, you will find it in no time. There is a free trial version as well as an inexpensive complete version. The 'creator' allows the user to stick various bits and pieces together to design interesting animals. The parts can be rotated, scaled, etc., and the animal can be coloured to great effect. The program works very smoothly. The resulting animals have a characteristic cartoonish shape and mode of movement to them, so I recommend playing with the trial version.

There are many things you cannot control, however. For instance, you can control the thickness of a body segment, but this works fro all dimensions of that segment. It would be hard to depict a very flat animal with this program, at least so it seems to me now. Another thing that had me puzzled was how the programmers dealt with movement: you can stick on predefined limbs, and then the animal will walk all by itself. I was interested in how the programmers had solved the problem of gait. The Furaha site contains a page on various gaits, and those who have read that will know that there are many different gaits, that all depend on the number of limbs. To see what would happen, I designed a simple animal with a sausage-shaped body, and stuck on up to five pairs of limbs.


Let's start with the simplest design, a biped, with just one pair of limbs:

By the way, the video catch mode is built into the program; very neat! As you can see, the phase difference between the legs is exactly 50%, or indeed what you would want a walking bipedsuch as ourselves to do. I haven't sen anythingresembling gait controls, and if there aren't, there will be no way to get a kangaroo-like gait. That's a pity in a way, but I guess the complexity of gait control might confuse many players. To keep the number of videos down, I will not show you a tetrapod gait. It turns out there is only one, and it is a trot: the left fore and the right hind leg move in unison, and opposite to the other pair. Again, only a trot, so no walk, pace or gallop! Perhaps a walk could be added in the future: having a slow and a fast gait might make the species involved more interesting to look at, and it can't be very difficult to put in.


Now, let's increase the number of legs to three; what gait will that give us?


It's a tripod walk! Nice one. The right front, left middle and right hind legs move together, in phase opposite the remaining pair. You can also view this as the phase changing by 50% as you go from to first to the second pair of legs, and from the second to the third pair.


And now, of course, four or five pairs of legs. The result follows:


Well, well, the programmers decided to stop following that pattern, and now all legs on one side simply move together (except during turns, and designing a neat way of turning must have taken some thought). Using five pairs had exactly the same effect. Again, there is no way to control the gait, so there is no way to obtain the nice rippling effect successive small phase differences have on the general feel of how a centipede moves.

While I would like to see more control over body shapes and gait, let me stress how much fun it is to play around with this program. It really does what it sets out to do extremely well. In fact, the programmers even foresaw that some players would develop animals without any legs at all: even then you get movement of a sort. And oh yes, stride freqency seems to go down as body size goes up. I'm impressed.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Rhinogradentia II

In part two of what will probably be three entries on Rhinogradentia, let's have a closer look at some of the biology and a bit better look at the man behind the work. The book mentioned in the first part, 'Bau und Leben der Rhinogradientia', shouldn't be too difficult too find. But there was a second book, and that one seems to have been published in German and perhaps once in Japanese too, judging from a Google search for the author. It is called 'Stümpke's Rhinogradentia' with the subtitle 'Versuch einer Analyse', which translates as 'An attempt at analysis'. It was written by one Karl D.S. Geeste. My copy, the second printing, appeared in 1988.

It contains a number of essays and historical remarks about Stümpke's work, who as we saw previously did not exist. Gerolf Steiner is the true author's name. It was not until I started writing this blog entry that I found out, 20 years after having bought the book, that 'Karl D.S. Geeste' was another pseudonym of Gerolf Steiner! You may check this on the following link, a website from the university of Karlsruhe. It states, in German only, that Gerolf Steiner celebrated his 100th birthday in March of this year (2008). Congratulations professor Steiner! I never expected Geeste and Steiner/Stümpke to be the same man, as the 'Attempt at Analysis' contains an interview of Stümpke by Geeste, which fooled me completely.

So is there more biological news in there? Yes; and parts of it concern details of the plates in the Rhinogradentia book. For starters, have a look at the Nasobema and its young on the opening illustration in the last entry. What Steiner, as we now know him to be, had to add to the plate was (my translation): 'Please note the allometric growth of the extremities. The hind legs of the young animal are relatively much longer than its mother's". Indeed, and what a nice detail.


Above is another such detail. First, the cover of a Japanese translation. The cover shows 'Orchidiopsis', an obvious example of mimicry: the animal looks like an orchid and thereby lures insects to itself to eat them.

Next, there is an image I made in which the insects are enlarged (clicking on the image will enlerge it in turn). Geeste/Stümpke/Steiner has this to say: "The hexapterate in the top right shows some primitive characteristics: paranota on the abdominal segments as well as cerci. Its larva -bottom right- with small wing buds makes it clear that this is a case of incomplete metamorphosis." Well, well; the island group where the Rhinogradentia live has more biological surprises than just snouters. There are primitive insects, and elsewhere we read about 'land trilobites'.


Here is a final one. Something is sitting on the tree trunk in the figure above, but what is it? Surely it is nothing but an unfinished doodle? No, it isn't.

Geeste: "On the trunk in the background [there is a] Tillinellia farfalloides, a land living prosobranchial snail with collapsible pseudopods. The animal grazes on algae and lichens on trees and can glide back to the floor." He adds that the animal was named for one Tilli Ankel, otherwise introduce only as the wife of one W.E. Ankel. Language lovers will recognise the Italian word for butterfly, 'farfalla', in the second part of the animal's name. Isn't all this a bit overdone for a few rough lines in a drawing? Not really, because the 'attempt at analysis' contains a lovely drawing of Tillinellia, and here it is for all to see:

One final remark; the German text on the site of the university of Karlsruhe mentions two other pseudonyms: Trutzhardt Widerumb and M.I.Kashkina. I couldn't find anything about the former, but the latter authored a short paper in the (really existing) scientific journal 'Russian Journal of Marine Biology (2004; 30: 148-149)' on 'Dendronasus sp - a new member of the order nose-walkers (Rhinogradentia)'. There is a drawing which I will reproduce if anyone asks for it. Did Steiner in his nineties really continue his fifty-year old work? If so, how amazing! Or does this Kashkina for once really exist, as there seems to be at least one other paper by the same author possibly of a more serious nature. Am I being fooled again?

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Rhinogradentia I

One of the best known examples of fictional life must be the 'Rhinogradentia'. This word, composed the usual scientific hodgepodge of word stems from first Greek and then Latin, means 'nose walkers'. And that is exactly what these odd little mammals do: they walk on their noses. If they do not use them for walking, there are other uses too: for example they catch insects with them, either by mimicking flowers or by entangling them in mucus. The one above doesn't do anything as fancy: it simply walks on its nose.

The Rhinogradentia were first described in a little book published in 1957, entitled 'Bau und Leben der Rhinogradentia' (Literally: 'Build and life of the Rhinogradentia'), written by Professor Dr. Harald Stümpke (that is what the book would want you to believe; the real author is Gerolf Steiner). The book has later been translated into English (the snouters), French (les rhinogrades), Italian (i rinogradi) and Japanese (sorry, no idea). My copy, a German one, dates back to 1981, and contains line drawings in black and white.

The book is still available, certainly in German and English, which probably says a lot about its qualities: it is still funny and entertaining after 50 years. It has received quite a bit of attention on the internet as well. It featured in the 'Tetrapod zoology' blog, not just once but twice, and there is even a Japanese site showing photographs of models of various Rhinogradentia. These look very much like the original drawings. I would be curious to read the text, but Google's translation services leave enough to be desired when it comes to Japanese to leave it unsaid.

If the Rhinogradentia have already received so much attention, is it necessary to repeat all that here? I will only go into the Rhinogradentia shortly here, and in a next instalment I will discuss a few things about the Rhinogradentia not easily found on the internet.

The drawing shown at the top depicts the first 'Nasling' designed by Steiner, so in a way it is the prototype for all others. The very first drawing may not exist anymore, as it was an aquarel given to a student out of gratitude for having given the author some asparagus (more on why asparagus was important in the second instalment). The drawing was inspired by a poem by Christian Morgenstern; it starts as follows:

'Auf seinem Nasen schreitet

einher das Nasobem,

von seinem Kind begleitet'

(Literally: 'On its nose strides the Nasobema, accompanied by its child'). Regardless of any poetic qualities, you can see that the drawing certainly does justice to the text. The word Nasobema, by the way, means 'nose walker', but here the word for 'nose' is Latin and the one for 'walk' is Greek, just the opposite of 'rhinogradens'. I guess the biology doesn't really make much sense: the animal still has perfectly functional limbs, and there appears to be little evolutionary reason to develop an alternative mode of locomotion under these circumstances. But the fun of Steiner's work is that it is so well carried out otherwise that you immediately overlook such matters. There are life histories, quotes of (equally nonexistent) scientists, and many more details to entertain the reader.


Just one other example should wet the appetite for more nosewalkers. The drawing above shows Otopteryx volitans. The discussion starts whether it was sufficiently evolved to separate it from the other Hopsorrhines (it turns out it isn't), and then delves into its flying habits. It flies backwards... Landing and taking off are disussed as well, which is proper if you start thinking about it: flipping the tail downwards and backwards must have some interesting aerodynamic effects! The text states that its fur glistens so much that it resembles a humming-bird.

The other two drawings show the love of detail. I left the legends in, even if not all readers can read the original German text, simply to give a feel for the work.

The next instalment will provide a bit of background. To end this one I would like to report something of interest: while searching Google, I came across this intriguing mention: apparently someone in 1970 named a real butterfly species 'Rhinogradentia steineri'. So they do exist, in a way...