Some Elk are Shy, and Evolution Is Quicker Than You Think

Some fascinating articles on the animal kingdom in the New York Times recently.

First, a delightful story about elks and magpies helping each other out, at ‘Shy Elk and Bold Birds Become Partners in the Wilderness‘. But only the nice, shy elk, not the bold curmudgeonly ones!

They get along, so to speak, because the elk needs grooming and the magpie is looking for dinner. But they may have never entered into this partnership if it weren’t for their particular personalities…

Robert Found, now a wildlife biologist for Parks Canada, discovered over years of observing their personalities that bold elk stayed, while shy elk migrated. But he noticed something else in the process of completing his research: As elk laid down to rest at the end of the day, magpies approached.

There appeared to be a pattern: elk of some personality types aggressively rejected magpies. Others didn’t. “Sometimes the magpies will walk around right on the head and the face of the elk,” Dr. Found said.

Also, ‘Things Looked Bleak Until These Birds Rapidly Evolved Bigger Beaks’

The population of North American snail kites — birds that use curved beaks and long claws to dine on small apple snails in the Florida Everglades — had been dwindling for years, from 3,500 in 2000 to just 700 in 2007. Things began to look particularly bleak in 2004, when a portion of the Everglades was invaded by a species of larger snail that the birds had historically struggled to eat. Ornithologists assumed the shift would hasten the snail kite’s decline.

But the number of snail kites in the Everglades grew over the decade following the invasion of the larger snails. The reason, according to a study published Monday in Nature Ecology and Evolution, is that the snail kites have rapidly evolved larger beaks and bodies to handle the bulkier snails.

Wait. One decade?

[Scientists] analyzed 11 years of morphological data they had collected on the birds. Because snail kites can live to the relatively old age of 8, that time period represented fewer than two generations for the birds. Nonetheless, the researchers found that beak and body sizes had grown substantially (about 8 percent on average, and up to 12 percent) in the years since the invasion.

Good news! Perhaps in thirty years humans can rapidly evolve to have webbed feet, to better survive the Waterworld-style post-climate change archipelago of the future. Maybe gills too!

“It’s not as great as it sounds.”
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Sunday Roundup

Let’s start with a fun–and super-geeky–rundown of all the military vessels in Babylon 5, over at The Wertzone! I love Babylon 5; it gets a bad rap among some SF fans for being a touch soapy in parts, but the series was remarkable for deeply exploring important themes, its commitment to ambitious, multi-season storylines and character arcs, and an extensive background lore covering thousands of years.

Plus: Vorlons!

Vorlon Heavy Cruiser

The Vorlon heavy cruiser is one of the largest ships in known space, at almost two miles in length. The heavy cruiser is equipped with a massive forward beam weapon, a scaled-up version of that on the transport. This weapon has never been seen to fire at full strength, but is considered to be unsurvivable.

jUJ5W
Ambassador Kosh, looking badass as usual.

How did you get into Star Wars, folks? For me, it was seeing Empire on TV at Christmas when I was about nine years old. And yes, I saw the second movie in the series before the first one, which is absolutely anathema to my current adult self who can’t watch anything he hasn’t seen from the very beginning.

“Who’s that little green man, mum?” “That’s Yoda, Dan.” “Cool!”

NASA photos of Antarctica–get them before it melts! (Sob.)

Jude Law’s going to be in Captain Marvel, which seems…fine? Brie Larson will be ace, though.

Law is playing Mar-Vell, the original Captain Marvel, a mentor to Larson’s character. Also of note, Keanu Reeves was being considered for the role before passing.

While Larson is the lead, Captain Marvel will co-star Ben Mendelsohn as the leader of the Skrulls and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. The film takes places before the events of the first Iron Man and will, at least partially, take place in outer space.

Finally, a lovely and smart review of Iain M. Banks’ 1994 essay A Few Notes on The Culture.

This particular moment in history—when unfettered capitalism, oligarchy, and toxic forms of nationalism all too often tend to be the order of the day—is quite a time to be reading about a socialist post-scarcity interstellar civilization, and one can definitely be forgiven for approaching the novels in a spirit of escapism. But one can also find inspiration in the progressive and optimistic worldview that underpins Banks’s novels, which was neatly summarized by the man himself.

I miss him. Happy Sunday, folks.

STARSLAM ’17

Science!

FiveThirtyEight has a wonderful story about how August 17th was pretty much the biggest day in astronomy history.

On that day, astronomers bore witness to the titanic collision of two neutron stars, the densest things in the universe besides black holes. In the collision’s wake, astronomers answered multiple major questions that have dominated their field for a generation. They solved the origin of gamma-ray bursts, mysterious jets of hardcore radiation that could potentially roast Earth. They glimpsed the forging of heavy metals, like gold and platinum. They measured the rate at which the expansion of the universe is accelerating. They caught light at the same time as gravitational waves, confirmation that waves move at the speed of light.

That’s a big day!

Richard O’Shaughnessy, an astronomer at the Rochester Institute of Technology, describes the discovery as a “Rosetta stone for astronomy.” “What this has done is provide one event that unites all these different threads of astronomy at once,” he said. “Like, all our dreams have come true, and they came true now…”

“It’s a wonderful time, it’s a terrifying time,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I can’t really capture the wonder and the horror and glee and happiness.”

Coincidentally The Wonder and The Horror and Glee and Happiness would be what I’d call a barbershop quartet, if I were in one. Or they were still a thing.

You Beta Be-read It!

If you deciphered my clever pun, you’ll have worked out that Causal Nexus is in the hands of my lovely beta readers! They always provide excellent feedback to strengthen the story, make the characters more interesting and point out those pesky plot holes that it’s easy for the writer themselves to miss after being down in the weeds of the story for so long. I can’t wait!

In the meantime I’ve started the groundwork for Untitled Book #4! Step one is to go back over Ascension Point and Venus Rising, and to compile a list of all the open plot threads that I’ve set up in the series so far, that I may want to pick up and complete in this, the final book in the series. I have a habit of semi-casually tossing little elements into my stories that hint at potential goings-on, so I daresay that I won’t choose to follow up on every single possible plotline that I sketchily set up; but in addition to the exciting new major story arcs I’ve got planned, I am planning to tie off at least the big loose ends from prior books and wrap up key character arcs, and thus generally bring The Unity Sequence to a satisfying close.

Sunday Roundup

Happy Sunday, folks!

Down in San Antonio, the winners of the 2017 World Fantasy Awards have been… well, awarded. Lovely to see Terry Brooks get a lifetime achievement nod. Shame I almost certainly won’t get around to reading many of these books for years, if ever.

In at #1 in the chart of movies I’m looking forward to that aren’t actually real: Black Panther vs. Wolverine!

That is probably the most lovingly created fan mashup trailer I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.

I haven’t seen Thor: Ragnarok yet (probably will on Tuesday) but if it’s even half as funny as James Corden’s Thor: Ragnarok 4D, it’s going to be hilarious.

“She’s crushed your special hammer!”

“Nooo!”

(Mild spoilers, but nothing you can’t guess if you’ve seen the trailers.)

Meanwhile, Amazon are in talks to produce a live action Lord of the Rings TV show. Personally, I’d much rather they spent their billions producing an adaptation of a never-before-filmed series: how about a Bas-Lag series based on China Mieville’s novels, or a Malazan series based on Steven Erikson and Cam Esslemont’s world? Push the envelope, Bezos!

Finally, over at the Wertzone, or rather at one of his other blogs Atlas of Ice and Fire, Adam has completed another series of wildly ambitious maps of G. R. R. Martin’s SoIaF world. That’s dedication.

Have a good week!

‘Bitter Grounds’ by Neil Gaiman

A fantastic short story for Halloween from Neil Gaiman at Tor.com.

In every way that counted, I was dead. Inside somewhere maybe I was screaming and weeping and howling like an animal, but that was another person deep inside, another person who had no access to the face and lips and mouth and head, so on the surface I just shrugged and smiled and kept moving. If I could have physically passed away, just let it all go, like that, without doing anything, stepped out of life as easily as walking through a door, I would have done. But I was going to sleep at night and waking in the morning, disappointed to be there and resigned to existence.

gaimen-berry-bittergrounds

Art copyright © 2010 Rick Berry, Neil Gaiman, and Ekaterina Slepicka

A Tale of Two Marketing Systems

Great stuff from David, as always. Personally, I’ll be putting my upcoming book up across all platforms, and leaving the others in the series there too, at least for some time. I might experiment with Kindle Unlimited while I’m busy writing book four!

David Gaughran

Lots of people right now are asking themselves whether they should leave Kindle Unlimited.

I’m generally agnostic on it, and I think writers should do what is best for them and their books, but there’s no doubt this is the big question of the moment.

That’s partly down to falling pay rates, Amazon’s inability to deal with scammers and cheaters, or the increasing concern about having all your eggs in one basket when something like this (or this, or this) regularly happens. But I think authors are asking themselves the wrong question.

The real issue, I suggest, should surround how you are going to find readers on these retailers (or on Amazon, if you have decided to swim in the other direction). Because I often see people taking the wrong approach – using the wrong tools for the job.

I gave a talk at NINC earlier this month…

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