Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Holy Shit, Jellyfish!


I mean...look at that thing. What? Whose idea was it to make a living creature of the oceans of this Earth look like that? Why would you do that, nature? What's the deal? What happened here? Just for a start: depending on the species, jellyfish bodies are between 95 and 98% water. Plain old water, plus two percent fleshy, translucent membrane.

They have no brains. No specialized digestive system. No blood. No nervous system. No vascular system. Just a one-size-fits-all cavity where food meanders its way in and is passively digested. The gastrovascular cavity is basically a hipster nonchalantly swaying to the music at a Death Cab for Cutie show, because they're not as hip and unknown as they used to be and it doesn't want to look too enthusiastic.
Ben Gibbard
"Yeah, Ben Gibbard is alright, I guess," he said, tears glistening on his cheeks as "Transatlanticism" reached its climax
The only thing jellyfish can consciously do (if you can even call it consciously, which you probably can't) is flex a single muscle that kind of, sort of, in a way, gives them control over their motion. Like spreading your arms and legs out to slightly alter your heading while you're falling from 20,000 feet without a parachute.

The way they reproduce is weird as hell, too. A bunch of them get together and basically make a big old cocktail of sperm and eggs, which eventually leads to mass fertilization. The eggs hatch into little larvae called planulae, which stick to a firm surface and grow into polyps. Polyps are essentially what you'd expect to get if you cross-bred a jellyfish with a sea anemone, and if there are any mad scientists reading this and thinking that sounds like a good idea, please don't. You are the most boring mad scientist in history. Stop it.
Jellyfish Reproduction Cycle
If this diagram shows up in your plot to take over the world, there are several somethings wrong with you.

So the polyp grows up a bit, and suddenly things take a turn. In many cases, the polyp will spontaneously just...clone itself. Because jellyfish are both sexually and asexually reproductive organisms. And then sometimes, just for kicks, a few polyps will decide they're not in a place right now where they can afford to live on their own, so they'll find some roommates and form a colony. Not to save on rent money, mind you. They share a goddamn stomach. Because of course they do.

Finally, they fly the coop to become an ephyra, which is more like what you imagine when you think of a jellyfish. Then it grows tentacles, and becomes a medusa. Then it haunts your nightmares and inspires Nintendo to design a creature that can literally suck your life force out of your upper torso.
If you played games in the '80s and '90s, you are now having PTSD-esque flashbacks.
Holy shit.

"Ben Gibbard 2" by Sharat Ganapati - originally posted to Flickr as Ben Gibbard. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Holy Shit, Uhura!

The woman in the above photo is Nichelle Nichols, in character as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on the set of Star Trek. It's easy to forget (which is encouraging to me) how groundbreaking this character was for American fiction, and particularly for network television. She debuted with series opening episode, "The Man Trap," which aired in 1966.

Uhura was Chief Communications Officer aboard the Enterprise. That makes her the fourth link in the chain of command. So,..a black woman, in 1966, held a position of considerable power in a network television show. That's a mere two years after the Civil Rights Act. Deep-seated institutional racism doesn't just taper off that quickly. Uhura wouldn't have existed if Gene Roddenberry hadn't held downright shockingly progressive views for a man of his generation from Texas.
Gene Roddenberry
You wouldn't have known it by his face.

As a matter of fact, Roddenberry's original pilot featured a female First Officer, who was the intensely logical and level-headed presence on the bridge. The female character. In 1965. It goes beyond that, even. He stubbornly refused to allow any reference to organized religion as a going concern on the show. While working on The Next Generation, he told writer/producer Ronald D. Moore that he believed Earth's religions would taper out by the 23rd Century, to be replaced by personal spirituality.

But back to Uhura. At the end of the first season, Nichelle Nichols considered leaving to pursue a career on Broadway. One weekend, she went to a Civil Rights and met a big fan of the show who changed her mind. You may have heard of him, because he was Martin Luther King.

Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his Dream Speech
Yeah. That Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King told Nichols that Star Trek was the only show he and his wife allowed their kids to watch. He begged her not to leave, because he knew how important it was for black people in America, and in particular black women, to have a role model like Uhura. Someone who was not a servant of the heroes, but their peer. "Once that door is opened by someone," he said, "no one else can close it again.

So she stayed on for the duration of the series. It turns out, Dr. King was right on the money. Among those who called Nyota Uhura a major influence were Dr. Sally Ride, the first female astronaut, and Dr. Mae Jamison, the first black woman astronaut. Whoopi Goldberg, who played Guinan in The Next Generation, also looked up to Uhura. When she first saw Star Trek, she ran to her parents and shouted, "I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain't no maid!"

People make a big deal out of Star Trek, and we like to call those people nerds. But you can't deny the impact. It goes beyond launching a renewed interest in science fiction (and science in general). Star Trek played a crucial role in tearing down racist and sexist taboos, and it did so deliberately. Because Uhura's name? Comes from the Swahili, uhuru. Which means "freedom."

Holy shit.

"Gene roddenberry 1976" by Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Holy Dog Shit!

In the Fall of 2000, a group of four buddies decided to make a quick buck by robbing an upscale house in Lakeville, Indiana. What they didn't realize (until they were spotted) was that the property wasn't quite abandoned. There were three construction workers in a barn on the property. The jig was pretty much up...or it would have been if one of the burglars hadn't decided to do what is customarily referred to in Hollywood as "tying up loose ends."
Loose Ends Hendrix Album
Picture unrelated.
So he shot all three of the witnesses in the head, killing them all. The four criminals were apprehended, and their conviction on armed robbery was more or less in the bag. The trickier part for investigators was figuring out which of the four were involved in the actual murder. Juries like to take that sort of thing into account when deciding whether individual members of a criminal conspiracy should be locked up without parole and whatnot.

One of the four was a 21-year-old youngster named Phillip Stroud. He solemnly swore to the police that he was a mere lookout. That he had never left the car. That his involvement was minimal, and he would never have wanted anyone killed. Investigators may have believed him if it weren't for his shoes. Or, to be more accurate, the thing they found on his shoes.
Guess what it was?

That thing was shit. Dog shit. The police sent a tiny scrape of dog shit from Stroud's shoes to a Veterinary Genetics Lab at UC Davis, which is a thing that exists in our world (thank god). They also sent a fresh poo from the dog who lived in the house where the whole thing went down. Turns out, they were a perfect match. And outside the crime scene, close enough to the barn for it to be suspicious, there was a nicely flattened turd that someone had stepped in.

Stepping in dog poo is enough to ruin anyone's day. For Phillip Stroud, stepping in dog poo led to his conviction, which led to his being sentenced to death. A few years later, the sentence was overturned and commuted to three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. So if you're planning to murder anyone...well, first of all, don't. But watch for the telltale poo.

Holy shit.