Sunday 30 November 2014

Righting a wrong farf

Please read the previous post first, if you haven't done so already. I ended that post with the observation that the wings might bend in the wrong direction. To see whether the opposite looked better, I inverted the warping of the wing and decreased its amplitude as well.

So here is the same farf but with wings that flex the other way. This one is better, I think.


Addition made December 2, 2014

Here's another small improvement: the plants in the background are completely static, whereas they should sway a bit in the wind. That is something Vue can take care of, so after some careful additional programming here is the result. Mind you, the video represents a time lapse shot of the tetropter in flight, and the relative speeds of motion of the tetropter and the plants have not been adjusted yet to look correct in relation to one another. But it works. Somewhere in the future the body of the tetropter needs to become more detailed and more mobile, etc., etc....

Saturday 22 November 2014

The wrong farf (Tetropters VI)

I made a few animations especially for the Loncon3 convention, some of them concerning tetrop
ters (see here for the previous tetropter post). The reason was that I wanted show some of the 'flight platforms' that tetropters could conceivable evolve into. So far, there are the 'standard, 'rowing', 'helicopter' and 'farf' modes.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

These modes all have to do with the relative amount of movement in all the four ways a tetropter wing can move. The image above shows the idea: there is a general tetropter body, characterised by its vertical position, four jointed legs at the bottom and a head with sensors at the top (there is a head with smaller eyes and a mouth at the bottom end of the body, not visible here). The red, blue and green axes run through the attachment point of one wing and concern the movement of that wing. There are similar axes systems for the other wings, but these are not shown (the wings are, though, just). The arrows indicate the direction of rotation of each axes. A to and fro movement around the blue axis will result in a clockwise and anticlockwise movement. If you combine that with an up-and down movement around the red axis you get interesting patterns: the wing could describe a circle, but the most common pattern is a horizontal figure of eight. The wing moves clockwise and down, then at the end moves up quickly, so it can move down again while moving anticlockwise. That just leaves the green axis, which rotates the wing around its own longitudinal axis, allowing it to achieve the proper 'angle of attack'.

I said there are four ways to move a tetropter wing, and the fourth is not a rotation around an axis as are the first three, but warping the plane of the wing. Well, if you followed that an can envisage it, top of the class. Its more or less what you need to describe the movement of the wings of animals with hovering flight, so we are on common ground here.

I will probably come back to the other tetopter flight modes later, but let's talk about the farf mode. A farf is short for farfalla, the name the Furahan citizen-scientists gave to tetropters with a very long wing base. In fact, the image above has just such a wing membrane: you can see that the membrane lies against the vertical blue axis over its entire length. Actually, the wing membrane shown here would not be an actual one. It is just a rectangular placeholder, but is does show the principle of the thing nicely. This arrangement means that movement around the green axis cannot take place, and to get a good angle of attack the wing will have to warp considerably. If you think this scheme reminds you of a butterfly, you are right: butterflies also have wings with a broad long wing base. In fact, 'farfalla' is Italian for butterfly.

So here is an animation of a farf, made for this post, showing the placeholder wings. Not too bad, is it?

And this is the one I showed at Loncon3, with colours etc. Just about the day before I showed it, it dawned on me that I probably made a mistake in warping the wings. When the wings clap together, they have to be more or less flat, and then they should peel apart, first at the top, and then downwards towards the bottom. Well, that bit worked, but for some reasons I had also warped the wings in such a way that the distal end of the wings –that is the bit farthest away from the body- leans into the movement, so it moves before the part near the body. But the wings would encounter resistance from the air, and so the tip of the wings should probably lag behind the proximal part instead of leading it.

I do not think anyone noticed, but I also did not give the audience a long time to think about it. I will have to do another animation with the opposite effect, to see whether that looks better. But there's no time for that yet... Meanwhile, I hope you still enjoy the 'wrong farf', warped as it is.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Sean's 'spineless' story

With builders all over my house there is still no time to write new blogposts, but I have found a few minutes to bring you the second of my Furaha stories. Those who do not like them need not worry, because these are the only ones I ever wrote. So, here we go, with another glimpse at life in a culture dominated by the Institute of Furahan Biology.

Sean’s 'Spineless' Story

‘Spine Country is not for the spineless’, Sean Nastrazzurro said to a crowd of undergraduate students. They had just come bustling in and had sat down at Sean’s table, which had been the only one with any vacant chairs left. They were sitting on the terrasse of the Bar des Biologistes, where Sean used to go after having given his afternoon lectures, to drink some spiked coffee and also to look at the young female students passing by. The undergraduates had begun talking about the prospects for their first Field Trips, one year from now. Sean had heard countless such conversations, but listened because they he could not help overhearing them anyway and because he was a bit bored. A thin boy had mentioned Spine Country, where Sean had worked for several years. At that point he had decided to join in their conversation. His remark had had the desired effect: they had stopped talking and were looking at him.
‘That’s what they told me when I went there: Spine Country is not for the spineless. In fact, they tried to warn me away from it, when I was up for my Field Trip, as you are now.’
He looked over the rim of his glass at the students, particularly at the girls, to see if they were impressed. They looked at best mildly interested, so he decided to put in a bit more effort.
‘But I didn’t listen, and went anyway. The place nearly killed me on several occasions. I remember three Class IV Danger Situations in the first two years I was there. But what I really learned from my FT was that you have to rely on your own ingenuity, and shouldn’t just go by the Book’.
This was a shrewd move on Sean’s part, because he knew that undergraduates became restless before their Field Trips and always felt that the Institute restricted them too much. The ‘Book’ he referred to was the Institute’s Handbook for Field Trips. It represented the IFB’s hard-learned lessons how to survive in Furaha’s unknown wildernesses, and students were told again and again to go by the Book. In most cases the Book was right: the lessons in it were quite often hard-won, but that didn’t keep the students from disliking it.
‘Tell us what happened, Dr. Nastrazzurro’, a somewhat plump blond girl named Hilde with a tight shirt asked. ‘Did you get to add a Caution?’
In her eyes, adding a ‘Caution’, a cautionary addition to a Rule, was probably heroic hard-won proof of having survived a dangerous situation. Sean looked into her eyes with what he hoped was a wise expression.
‘No, I didn’t. But I can tell you what happened, so you will now that there is more to FTs than going by the Book.’
Sean pulled up his left trouser leg, and bared his leg, which still had enough of a tan from his last holiday on it to look manly. The students all looked silently at the ragged scar running down the side of this leg.
‘See that scar?’ Sean asked needlessly. ‘I got that in Spine Country’.
He dropped his trouser leg and sat back. He could see that he had their full attention now. Hilde leaned forward over the table with great interest. Sean sipped his spiked coffee without taking his eyes away, and nearly spiked his right eye with his spoon as a result.
‘Hmph’, he said, blinking his tears away, ‘Let me think for a minute now’.
This was no exaggeration, because he needed to come up with a good story.
‘Let’s see… Well, I first travelled to Spine Country as a botanist to study thornbushes.’
At this, Hilde backed away a bit with a vaguely disappointed look on her face. Sean, who was indeed a botanist, silently asked himself for the thousandth time in his life why the girls always went for the Carnivore guys.
‘I mean’, he added quickly, ‘that my Professorandus wanted me to study the way thornbushes lock their branches together with their spines, but I did a double task. I also studied the impact of large animals on the Thorn Biome’.
That went down a lot better, as Sean knew it would: ‘Large Animals’ usually got people's attention.    

‘One day, I was very far away from my camp. I had gone out very far, near to Coogan’s Bluff, at the transition between Spine Country and the Hopeless Desert. That’s a place you don’t want to be unless you’re well prepared. Come to think of it, perhaps you shouldn’t want to be there at all. But I had come well-prepared. For instance, I always had my nose filters in. You need nose filters because there are microtetropters there that zoom in on moisture and will burrow right up your nose, if you aren’t careful.’
At this, Hilde turned up her own nose and shivered delightfully.
‘I also wore my protective goggles, and wore my belt with positioning equipment, my emergency medkit and my EK. So, I…’
'What is an EK?’, the thin boy interrupted, the one who had brought up Spine Country in the first place.
 ‘An Emergency Kit, that’s what an EK is. Don’t get caught without one. Now, let me go on’, Sean said, looking reproachfully at the boy.
‘So, except for all the usual tools, such as a corder and a CRM analysis kit, I…’
‘Plant CRM in Thorn Country is similar to Bogorian geneshards, right?’ the same boy asked, who apparently badly wanted to impress the girls. As everyone knew this about complex replicating molecules this feeble attempt did not earn him any respect.
‘Obviously, my dear boy, obviously’, Sean said, to add insult to injury.
He was pleased to see that some the girls frowned at the boy, who seemed to shrink a little. Sean finished his cup and paused to look into it. Unfortunately, none of the students got the hint and offered to get him another one, so he sighed and went on.
‘I was weighted down with all this equipment, and that didn’t even include the sample cases and portable immobilisers to hold the specimina’.
He said ‘specimina’ instead of ‘specimens’, because jargon helped to impress the students. They tended to copy it immediately. 
‘One day, I stopped to drink some water, and set down my pack under a Bruja Tree. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of Bruja Trees?’
They all looked at him blankly, which he took as a sign of interest, which it was not.
‘Bruja Trees, or Knuckle Bushes, are large mixomorphs that compete with desert plants in arid regions.’
Sean started to speak about the mixomorph-plant interactions, and about the way thornbushes curved their spines around one another to create an impenetrable wall. This was something he was really interested in, but he saw that they were losing interest quickly, and changed tack.
‘All of a sudden, a big Thornrunner came out from under some thorn bushes near my shelter’, he said. ‘It looked ferociously at me, and I knew I shouldn’t disturb it, but nobody had told the Thornrunner that it shouldn’t disturb me! Now thornrunners are kind of stupid. They are the only animals that can run through thornbushes, because they are so tough that the thorns can’t puncture their skin. This thornrunner did not like my looks, or perhaps I startled it, but it did its thing: it turned its eyes out of the way and made a run for it. It came straight at me, so I had to jump aside to avoid it taking a bite out of my hide!’
He paused to add drama.
‘I couldn’t jump far enough though, because the ground was covered with footspikes and blister roots. Footspikes are barbed sticks growing out of the ground. Sometimes they are hidden just beneath the surface. If you step on one, it will go right through your shoe and leave a nasty barb in your foot. Blister roots are even worse, because they are poisonous, and even a light touch will burn your skin. Because of them you can’t run fast in Spine Country, because you have to look where you put your feet at every step. So I couldn’t get away from the thornrunner fast enough, and it took a swipe at me and bit a chunk of flesh right out of my leg. I was lucky it didn’t get all four of its jaws around my leg, because it would probably have bitten my foot off entirely.’
Caught up in his own story, he picked up his cup again, only to discover that it was still empty. He looked around at the students, none of whom made any attempts to order him another spiked coffee. Still, they were all looking at him earnestly, except for the thin boy, who seemed to have lost interest. He had dug out a link and had started to work its controls. Sean didn’t much care for him anyway.     
‘That must have been really awful’, Hilde said, once more leaning over the table.
‘What did you do then? How did you get back to camp?’
‘Well, that took some doing, I can tell you’, Sean said happily. ‘First, I started to...’
‘I don’t get it, dr. Nastrazzurro’, the thin boy interrupted, ’You said we shouldn’t rely on the Handbook too much, but what did you do that wasn’t in it?’
Sean was surprised for a moment, at a loss for words. In fact, what he had said earlier about the Book was only meant to get their interest, and he had more or less forgotten about it. He started to think of a reply, but the boy, tapping at his link, beat him to it.
‘This is strange’, the boy said with a frown. ‘I've called up the Handbook’s link version, and I can’t find anything about any thornrunner attacks on humans. I thought animal attacks resulting in injury were all supposed to be on the link?’
The students looked from Sean to the boy and back again.
‘Of course they are’, Sean tried, ‘But you must have the general version there, not the detailed one for local researchers.’
‘Oh no, doctor Nastrazzurro’, the thin boy said in a high-pitched voice. ‘You see, I want to go to Spine Country for my Field Trip, to do research on thornrunners. I want to become a Zoologist.’
Sean began to really dislike him.
‘I have requested access to the full records, and got it. I just linked into them. There is not a single record of any thornrunner attack on a human being on record. Let me see…I’m down to Class VII Danger situations now, but still nothing… maybe if I look for events at Coogan’s Bluff…’.
Sean saw that this irritating spotty pre-zoologist was really spoiling his story, and tried to change tack again.
'Never mind all those old records, let me just get back to my story now. With the wound in my leg, I had to…’
‘Aha!’ the boy yelped, without listening to Sean at all.
He stabbed at the display with a bony finger.
‘There was an incident at Coogan’s Bluff, reported by automatic medsoft. A junior botanist was treated for a stab wound in the left leg, caused by stepping on a footspike! Let’s see, there’s a link to Records… Here it is: there is one reprimand on record for someone not wearing class II leg protectors.’
The boy looked up, a grin on his thin face. The other students seemed unsure what to do. They looked at Sean now, waiting for his reply. Sean knew he was beaten.
‘Oh well’, he said. ‘I might have touched a footspike, it all went so quickly, but only because the thornrunner pushed me aside. And if you wear Class II Leg protectors in Spine Country, you’ll get toerot.’
The students’ expression did not change, even though that bit actually was true.
Sean added: ’Anyway, se non è vero, e molto ben trovato.’
‘What does that mean, doctor Nastrazurro?’, Hilde asked. She was leaning backwards now, her arms crossed in front of her.
‘It’s ancient, it's Italian, and it means that it’s a good story even if it isn’t true’, Sean mumbled. The students looked silently into their glasses and cups. Sean sighed and did the same, but his cup was still empty. He stood up, bade the students good-day, and walked to the bar to get himself another cup of spiked coffee. While he waited at the bar he thought to himself ‘No sense of humour, undergraduates don’t have a sense of humour. And I hate zoologists anyway’.

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 incuriosorum’, 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....

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?.

Sunday 9 March 2014

The Creative Radiation of Cloakfish (Archives IX)

Cloakfish have not featured on this blog often (here and here); the last time was almost two years ago, so it is time to have another look, this time at their earliest evolution. Note that in the 'Archives' series of posts, 'evolution' often does not refer to the fictional biological evolution of these animals, but the evolution of the concept.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Leafing though the mouldy sketches in the damp crypts of the Museum of Furaha Biology reveals that their creative evolution started as an offshoot of Fishes. Furahan Fishes started their biological evolution not with series of paired limbs, but with an undulating membrane on either side of the body. Thinking about the movements of such membranes generated cloakfish as an offshoot. The sketch above was originally annotated in Dutch, but for this blog I overlaid them with an English translation. I hope they more or less speak for themselves. The  uppermost picture shows an undulating membrane with a central plane -a rectangle-. The second row shows the 'movement volume' of such an undulating membrane: over time, each point in this volume will be occupied by part of the membrane. In the third row I played with the idea of what would happen is this central plane would not be flat, but curved spirally itself. On the right side you can see how the membrane would undulate up and down around this central plane. The bottom row shows the movement volume of the membrane assuming such a curved central plane. The bottom right picture shows what would happen if you were to group three such volumes together, and that grouping is where Cloakfish depart from Fishes forever: we now have multiple membranes around a central axis, not one at each side of a body.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
The next leaf of the sketchbook shows the evolutionary jump to a fully developed cloakfish:  the four membranes, the cloaks, surround a central rod, which I could not resist calling a 'dagger'. The body is largely a cylinder stabilised by four fins. The picture also shows an immediate variation on the theme: such a device can pull just as well as it can push. But the central plane of each membrane has reverted to a flat rectangle. I thought that undulation of the membrane around a curved surface would result in a net rotation force, so the poor animal would start rotating around its longitudinal axis. Perhaps I ought to consider the forces of that approach again, but at any rate that is how the basic cloakfish came into being.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Once there is a plan, it becomes tempting to start pulling at it to see where that leads to. The top animal here departs quite a bit from the general cloakfish, as its frontal cylinder is nowhere to be seen! It is in fact a tadpole with a cloak-and-dagger propulsion system (well, it also is not much like an earth tadpole in that it has no jaws and multiple eyes). The middle animal certainly is a generic cloakfish, although again with some twists: the front fins have rotated by 45 degrees compared to the cloak-and-dagger. The cloaks are much larger at their end than at the front or middle: this is probably as close as you can get to propulsion with a screw without continuous rotation. The bottom one has the fins and cloaks aligned, causing its four eyes to rotate as well. Whether bending the central rod as shown here would work well is dubious, is think.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Here is the result of more pushing the envelope. The left image shows a vertical cloakfish. I certainly did not spend enough attention on the cloak movement, as their shape looks rather unconvincing; then again, visualising the position of four membranes over time is not all that easy. The animal, looking suspiciously like a potted plant, could perhaps travel up and down as day makes way for night to filter plankton wherever it is most abundant. An animal with a horizontal position can do that as well, and if this animal is limited to the vertical position, that will limit its manoeuvrability severely, whereas a horizontal cloakfish could still choose to swim vertically upwards it is needs to; I like that idea. 

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Of course, cloakfish can be flattened. That separates the cloaks so their movement volumes no longer all touch one another around the animal, but the membranes could still interact in pairs. How the membranes interact is explained on the main Furaha site (which is currently being redesigned). Note that this lineage has rotated its general body alignment by 45 degrees compared to the general pattern, so there no longer is a top fin, but there is a top eye. The dagger has increased in girth and now houses most of the body's internal organs; in conventional cloakfish this part of the dagger is hidden by the front cylinder.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Why not flatten the animal laterally? Here you see the result, this time with the overall rotation set to the 'top fin' mode. I doubt that such an animal, which probably has exquisite control over its cloaks, needs the four fins emanating from the front cylinder fro movement, but they do look good. The one on the right has also flattened the cylinder laterally, and is an overall exaggeration of the left one. I have this feeling that these are reef cloakfish.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Has the creative evolution of cloakfish stopped after this early burst of adaptive radiation? Not at all, but creative evolution is like biological evolution in that there may be periods of sudden intense speciation followed by slower adaptation. Dixon's recent mention of equipping his animals with a mother of pearl finish made me want to want to paint an animal with such a finish, and here is a first attempt. The result does not work well yet, but that is not surprising: painting a mother of pearl effect is difficult (if you want to see it done much better, search Google for 'Paul Quade Cambrian').

If I manage to reach that level I will certainly post the result here. Meanwhile, here is a  bioluminescent general cloakfish, another painting experiment.