Mr. H. was my home-room teacher for grade five (he was also the Phys-Ed. teacher, but that’s another story…); I didn’t like him (and he probably didn’t like me: I found out years afterwards that he told my Mom I was “…a snake in the grass”), but he had some good moments:
On the first day of grade five, Mr. H. set up two small cages at the back of the classroom; each cage contained an exercise wheel and a white rat. The rats would “…teach us a life-lesson; they are an experiment in healthy living,” Mr. H. told us (I don’t think the rats had volunteered).
White rat number one would be fed a carefully planned, healthy diet, and we could supplement its intake by offering veggies, fruits, nuts, and a few choice table scraps (everything to be approved by Mr. H.).
White rat number two would be fed a limited diet of rat food to ensure it received some nutrients; but we, the students, could supplement its diet with any form of junk food we wanted to. We were to record our observations.
There was no observable differentiation between the rats when they began their lives with us. Both looked healthy, with sleek, white coats, and each patrolled their cage-perimeter and whirled their exercise wheel on occasion.
After several weeks…
Rat number one (unofficially named Sinbad) was the model of health: his fur was glossy, he was active, and he enjoyed his exercise wheel; he ran smoothly, for lengthy durations.
Rat number two (also unofficially named: Lumpy) was noticeably less active: his fur seemed dull and blotchy. Mr. H. advised us to be scientific, and to write observations, but to be sure to note when our observations were subjective.
Just prior to Christmas break…
Rat number one (Sinbad) continued his active, sleek existence (he would often grasp onto the top of the cage with his front paws and hang for several seconds (working on his upper-body?)), but rat number two was definitely looking sickly : his fur was matted (he was rarely observed ‘grooming’), he spent most of the day sleeping, and he rarely used the exercise wheel (I made a pact with myself that I’d try to slip him something healthy; at the very least, I wouldn’t feed him any more junk-food).
A couple of weeks after Spring Break…
Lumpy was pretty much the same: matted, discolored fur; and he was lethargic, rarely stepping onto the exercise wheel.
But Sinbad was curled up in a corner, dead.
Maybe Lumpy was on to something, perhaps he was a thinker: a Zen monk of rats.
Perhaps it was his imagination that granted him longevity.
Mr. H. attempted to explain genetic predisposition; and, he pointed out, the lesson we should take away was the quality of life that rat number one had enjoyed.
At the end of the school year, Lumpy was still alive and one of the students took him home as a pet (Mr. H. certainly didn’t want the thing).
As I sat on my sofa last night, reading a book (The Map and the Territory, Michel Houellebecq) and drinking a glass of cold beer (Unibroue Maudite) , I know what message I took away from Mr. H.’s White Rat Experiment.
I was perusing my old journals and found the following quote from Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (p. 55):
“They’re afraid to sit next to a nigger and have a meal, but they’ll eat eggs that came right out of a chicken’s ass.”
I remember Fanny Flagg (Patricia Neal) as a celebrity game show regular in the 1970s; she was a minor celebrity actress, but her 1988 novel — which recounts the burgeoning friendship between two women in Whistle Stop, Alabama — was, in my opinion, her crowning achievement (the book was also adapted into a movie and Fanny Flagg was nominated for a screenplay Oscar).
Fanny Flagg was dyslexic and wrote despite the fact that her inability to spell was a personal embarrassment. The Whistle Stop Cafe was loosely based on the Irondale Cafe, which is apparently still open for business and is renowned for its fried green tomatoes.
If you’re looking for an enjoyable summer read, this might fit the bill (the movie is also quite enjoyable; but, as usual, I preferred the novel).
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt, is set during the Gold-rush of the 1850s and could be classified as a literate western; a genre that doesn’t usually enthuse me, but I may have to revisit my preconceptions.
Eli and Charlie Sisters are infamous guns-for-hire. Charlie is formidable and serious about their occupation; unfortunately, Eli doesn’t have an aptitude for the work, but he follows his brother through a series of violent episodes.
A vein of gritty realism runs through the story, which is Eli Sisters’ version of his final assignment as a hired killer. As they travel, the brothers meet a host of interesting characters, such as: the prospector who uses dirt to make coffee; Tub, the one-eyed horse; and Herman Kermit Warm, who has invented an extremely profitable chemical (and it is Warm who is the Sisters Brothers’ target).
The novel is easy to read, yet contains remarkable depth.
On the way home from work several yeas ago I stopped for a ‘cleansing’ walk in Pacific Spirit Park.
I kept to the public pathway until I spied an intriguing, overgrown deer-path. I held my breath and looked both ways along the public path; heard nothing, saw nothing, so I climbed over the rustic, wooden fence and followed the deer-path as it wended its way between maples and alders. After a few minutes I came to a particularly pleasant spot: a circle of alder trees delineated a clearing about ten meters in diameter. A large, flat boulder — stippled grey-green — sat in the middle of the circle.
A rustling caught my attention; at the edge of the clearing, to my left, a small bird regarded me out the corner of her eye; her feathers were mottled greys and pale yellow-greens; these colors, along with her moss-green head and elongated, ochre beak, provided natural camouflage against the leaf-strewn earth.
She began to chatter her beak while simultaneously producing a guttural cawing.
I took a step toward her; she hopped backward and discharged chatter-caw profanity, so I sidled a wide-berth around her and sat on the boulder. She seemed amenable to sharing, as long as I respected her personal space.
She glanced at me, hopped about, and then flew into the branches of the tree directly behind her. She was filled with nervous energy; she flitted down to the ground, then up into the next tree, down, up, down, working around the clearing counter-clockwise from tree-to-tree. When she was about three-quarters of the way ’round the circle, paranoia bubbled up from the dark depths of thought: I imagined that she was spinning a trap; I jumped up, dashed out of the clearing, and back to my car.
Once inside the car I had a good chuckle at myself.
The next day I decided to go back to the clearing. I couldn’t find it. I’ve searched a half-dozen times, but I must have forgotten exactly where I’d stepped off the public trail.
“The leaves of memory seemed to make
A mournful rustling in the dark.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Burning of the Driftwood.
I’d guess I was four or five.
The crèche was jiving, so I shuffled off to my nook. Our crèche-room had six nooks for privacy: there were many more than six of us, but few enjoyed solitude. I’ve always valued time alone; usually, nobody bothered me when I relaxed in my spot.
I was studying three fluorescent tubes in the ceiling, which normally cast a glare; but, for about a week, two of the tubes had been dark and lifeless. The third tube was dimly lit, and evenly spaced grey bands flowed noiselessly through its length. I marveled at the bands of shadow as they were emitted — like puffs of smoke — close to one end of the tube, floated mysteriously through the tube, and were absorbed near the other end. I sat calmly, hushed, hoping nobody else would notice the phenomenon. I was afraid the tube would be replaced if it was observed being different.
“Kurt?” Dr. Jhertzen appeared from around the corner; a small girl was beside and slightly behind him. “Oh. There you are,” he said, and propelled the girl toward me.
I looked into her deep, dark-brown eyes and smiled; she smiled back and we hugged. Her soul was pure. She smelled of lilacs, though it was many years later when I made the connection.
Dr. Jhertzen pulled us apart and said, “Kurt, this is Callie Lambda. Could you teach her to mesh?” The girl’s eyes widened when she realized she might be staying with our crèche.
Jessie was our de-facto leader, so I wasn’t sure why Dr. Jhertzen was leaving the girl with me (perhaps it was due to the scarcity of Lambdas; Callie was the only other Lambda I ever met), but I said, “Sure.”
I never argued with Dr. Jhertzen, but meshing wasn’t something you could teach: it was a thing you just did; like breathing. Meshing makes groups fit; it blends personalities together so that the edges disappear. Meshing is like the rounded corners of our crèche-room, where ceiling, floor and walls subtly curved into one-another without abrupt joints. Jessie said I was a genius at meshing, but she was much better at it when leadership was required. I couldn’t lead people, I could only mesh. Sometimes it exhausted me.
Dr. Jhertzen looked at Callie, said, “Don’t disappoint me,” and then left.
She was nervous, so I gestured toward the ceiling, at the two tubes that were burned-out. I said, “He didn’t even notice they were dead.” It took her a while, but she finally noticed the bands moving along the third tube and pointed them out to me.
I led her back to the group: “Hey, Jess,” I said, “come and see what Callie found.” Everyone followed, and they all thought the shadow-bands were pretty awesome (the three light-tubes were replaced later that day).
Callie died in an experiment a few weeks later.
I really wanted to like this book, but it didn’t quite work for me. It garnered glittering reviews, and the few that didn’t appreciate the novel seemed to focus on the difficulty of unexplained jargon in the first third of the story
[There is a plethora of undefined, eccentric terms tossed into the story at the beginning, but things sorted themselves out quite nicely as I kept reading. A glossary would have been a nice addition; and, in case you plan on reading The Quantum Thief, there is a glossary at Wikipedia]
The problems I had were more related to character and story: I prefer characters to be more fully developed than they are in this novel, and the story, though at times interesting, didn’t have enough depth to carry the novel.
The novel was plot driven, which, for a light-reading experience, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There were some interesting flourishes — for example, the gogols, alluding to Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol — but the plot was filled with resolutions that depended on various forms of deus ex machina: it seemed more like the running commentary of a computer game than a novel. I think the book would appeal to MMRPG (massively multiplayer role playing game) enthusiasts who enjoy reading.
The author, Hannu Rajaniemi, has a PhD in String Theory and has created an interesting phantasmagoria within (I assume) a realistic depiction of theoretical physics. The story delves far beyond cyber-punk; it is set in a future that has left humanity behind, where the synthesis of human and machine has spawned a solar system filled with god-like beings, incredible possibilities, and deadly weapons.
The story moved along at a quick pace, and I enjoyed the imaginative architecture of the author’s world-building; but, as a novel, it wasn’t quite my cup of tea.
Posted by db johnston under Current events
, Interesting stuff
| Tags: bio-computers
, Hokkaido University's Research Institute for Electronic Science
, Ig Nobel award
, Masashi Aono
, Slime mould
, The Blob
, Toshiyuki Nakagaki
|  Comments
Slime moulds germinate from a spore and begin life as a haploid (one set of chromosomes) amoebae organism, flowing along the floor of a forest, eating bacteria. When food supply becomes scarce, a chemical (cAMP) is released, which induces the individual amoebae to congregate into a mass: they form streams of cells, referred to as pseudoplasmodium, and the separate streams congregate to form a mass as large as one-hundred thousand cells. The individual amoeba secrete adhesion molecules; they bond together, and develop a slime sheet ‘cap’ that envelops the mass. The mass then behaves as a single organism, gliding across the forest floor, leaving a trail of slime in its wake.
It is a brainless, primeval organism, yet Japanese scientists have studied the slime mould colonies for years as the colonies have navigated mazes. The scientists believe that the behavior of the slime mould may facilitate the design of complex problem-solving bio-computers.
[Image by Toshiyuki Nakagaki].
According to Toshiyuki Nakagaki (at Hokkaido University’s Research Institute for Electronic Science), slime mold colonies use a form of information-processing to optimize a path through a maze (toward a food-source, which is signaled by a higher concentration of ammonia); and, at the same time, the organism avoids stressors that would damage it. They are able to adapt to environmental variations and can develop resistance to new stimulus.
Nakagaki’s research of slime mould garnered an Ig Nobel prize (Ig Nobel prizes are a spoof of Nobel Prizes and are awarded to scientists who “first make people laugh, and then make them think.”).
Apparently, slime moulds are able to develop more efficient networks than our most advanced technology. Masashi Aono, a researcher at Riken (in Waka, Japan) would like to develop a bio-computer: his lofty plan is to eventually duplicate the human brain with slime moulds.
For some reason the movie The Blob just burbled into consciousness.
Posted by db johnston under Lists
| Tags: peaceful sounds
| 1 Comment
Some of my favorite sounds:
Children playing in the schoolyard across the street.
A church bell
A friendly hello
Waves massaging the shore
The kree-eee-ar of a red-tailed hawk.
Rain (when I’m inside, reading a good book by the fire)
A cat’s purr
A ‘real’ voice on the phone
A bubbling brook
The car engine starting when I absolutely have to be somewhere
Baseball cards in bicycle tire spokes (a sound I haven’t heard in decades)
The Rolling Stones — the band’s name was inspired by a Muddy Waters’ song, Rollin’ Stone — consider July 12, 1962 as their first performance, which took place on the stage of the Marquee Club in London. At the time, the group was; Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Ian Stewart, Dick Taylor, and Tony Chapman.
It was their music of the late 60s and early 70s that has a special place in my heart and memory; and, in particular, the three albums they created back-to-back-to-back that I think was the pinnacle of their artistic output: Beggars Banquet (1968), Let it Bleed (1969), and Sticky Fingers (1971). Their best music was wonderfully multilayered, unlike most rock.
I searched high and low for my absolute favourite Stone’s album, Let it Bleed, but could only find Sticky Fingers, an excellent album, but darker in tone, with songs like Sister Morphine and Dead Flowers.
The music of the Rolling Stones, along with rock bands such as Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, and Little Feat, are inextricably tied to my past.
While my wife and I drove to Cosco and back for groceries, we listened to Sticky Fingers, reminiscing and reveling in the deep cuts that we haven’t heard in years. I had bittersweet flash-memories of High School and College, of some friends that didn’t make it, and others that took different paths. I sent silent prayers to all of them.
It’s odd to see clips of the Stones performing as old men; I’ll always see them in my mind’s eye as the young, revolutionary, bad-boys of rock.
The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, was written in 1955 and is considered to be a classic mystery novel; not a who-done-it, rather, a psychological trip through a murderer’s consciousness.
Many readers have commented that the book’s protagonist, Thomas Ripley, is a sociopath, but that Highsmith writes in a manner that elicits sympathy so that the reader wants Ripley to get away with his crimes. I cannot fathom that sentiment. I did want Tom to succeed to a certain extent, but only for the sake of the story and its continuance; ultimately, I wanted him to be caught because there was nothing likeable about him; he was cold, completely self-absorbed, and matter-of-fact about the violent crimes he committed (he had an occasional twinge of guilt, but was able to displace it far too easily).
When Ripley claims to love a character, he is really in love with the character’s position in life, the comfort that comes with it, and the poise with which the person accepts their station in life. When Ripley meets Dickie (Richard Greenleaf), he is able to live vicariously through the other man; Ripley wants a life like Dickie’s so badly that he would consider anything to obtain it. There are hints of homosexuality in Tom’s character, but I think that Marge Sherwood — Dickie’s girlfriend — may be correct in stating that Tom has no sexuality: his lust is for an exciting life at the expense of others (this is quite clear from the beginning of the novel when Tom has devised a flim-flam tax scheme that tricks people into writing checks and sending them to him: he never cashes the checks; it is the thrill of deception and the excitement of possible capture that drives him).
I enjoyed the first half of the novel; but, for me, the last half fell flat: there were too many plot-points that strained belief and there was not enough morality, or depth, to plug the holes. The novel had an interesting concept, but, sadly, it didn’t work for me.
There is also a movie version, which modified many of the details found in the novel. I don’t recall all the particulars, but I think that Tom’s character may have been less sociopathic (and more obviously gay) and I think that Marge and Freddie Miles (Dickie’s friend) have larger parts in the movie. I also think that the police and other characters were not as easily deceived by Tom in the movie (which, in the novel, stretched credibility).
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