NaNoWriMo 2007

That’s right: National Novel-Writing Month is upon us again. For the entire month of November, thousands of intrepid (“foolish” might actually be a better word) writers will be attempting to write a 50,000-word novel. In thirty days. No, I’m not kidding.

It can actually be done. I managed to bang out my first novel Wormhole, Wormhole in thirty days. Don’t look for it in bookstores, though…just because you write the 50,000 words doesn’t mean you’ll actually produce 50,000 publishable words. Hopefully, this time I’ll actually get around to the vital revision stage.

Wish me luck! Anybody who wants to watch my progress (I can’t imagine why, but I won’t ask questions) can find my profile here.

Messing With the Mind: Linguistic Experiments

I’ve always been fascinated by enormous impact that language has on the mind. I’ve discovered that a change in writing style can, temporarily, produce an enormous change in mood, attitudes, and even perception for the writer (I’m certainly not the first to discover this, the Internet is ripe with other examples). So, I thought it might be informative (and amusing) to make myself a guinea pig for some linguistic experiments.

  1. “Question your data”: If the thing-I-call-myself performs the action-I-have-labeled-writing in a manner such that the-thing-I-call-myself makes no assumptions about the items-I-call-facts, then perhaps the thing-I-call-myself will begin to doubt these things-called-facts, or perhaps enter the state-I-call-openmindedness.
  2. “Efface the self”: Write without ever referring to “yourself.” Do not use the words “I”, “my,” “our,” or any other such words that imply that the writer has a “self.” It will very rapidly be discovered that one who adopts such a writing style will begin to feel very strange, and to lose their sense of the thing they formerly called “themselves.” It’s a very Buddhist way to write.
  3. “What nouns?”: In reality-ing, us-process discover that thing-processes are impermanent, and thus probably do not deserve such constant, stable label-entitydecays as noun-namings. Although writing in this manner-labeling can be rather confusing and disorienting, it-entitydecays is at least an interesting exercise.
  4. “The direct approach”: Do not use Adjectives. Capitalize Nouns. Do not clutter the Sentence with Words. Replace Adjectives with Verbs. Minimize Sentences. Lose Mind.
  5. “Do like the Germans”: Germanpeople are unafraid of wordcombinations. They willingly wordcombine separate rootwords unfearfully. Although admittedly the practicalresults of this in the Englishlanguage are somewhat confusingdisorienting, it makes an interestingexperiment.
  6. “Don’t be specific”: Another Buddhist experiment in language. Never refer to a specific “object.” All is one. All is all.
  7. “Be way, way too specific”: Use as many descriptive adjectives as your descriptive task requires. Be as mechanically and clinically precise as the current descriptive task warrants. Be coldly and exactly logical in your writing, whether descriptive or otherwise. Leave no room for linguistic ambiguities to enter into your descriptions. Although this particular method may be somewhat difficult to read quickly and easily, it at least leaves no room for errors to be inserted.

Try it! You might be surprised at just how dizzy, disoriented, dissociated, discombobulated, or deharmonized you can get.

Life Imitates Art: A Somewhat Twisted Look at Parasites

Everybody knows the story. It shows up in a lot of sci-fi movies: a secondary character gets attacked by some sort of creature that latches onto their head and forces them to do its nefarious bidding. Well, as it turns out, this isn’t science fiction. Such phenomena are actually observed in nature (thus the lame “life-imitates-art” reference in the title). As it turns out, there actually exist a few species of insect and virus that alter (and sometimes control) the host’s brain. As a service to those warped-minded individuals (such as myself) who find this kind of thing fascinating, I present to you, dear reader, the List of the Most Disgusting and Interesting Parasites I Could Find:

AUTHOR’s NOTE: I take no responsibility for any vomiting or nightmares resulting from reading through this list…

  • Emerald Cockroach Wasp (Ampulex compressa): This nasty little insect mounts the back of a cockroach, jabs its stinger through the back of the roach’s head, and using a precise set of sensors, guides the stinger, brain-surgeon-like, into the part of the cockroach’s brain that controls the escape reflex, injecting it with a venom. The wasp then — and this is the part that really blew me away — leads the now “zombified” cockroach around by the antenna, until they reach the wasp burrow, where they, in the standard fashion, lay an egg inside the cockroach, which eventually hatches, and the cockroach gets eaten from the inside out. As usual. Credit for the article upon which this bullet point is based goes to this site.
  • Hairworm (Spinochorodes tellini): This was the first of the creepy brain-parasites I learned about. This diabolical little nematode enters a grasshopper’s body, and steadily grows until it occupies nearly all of the space within the grasshopper’s exoskeleton. Then, when it’s time for the worm to escape and mate — which it can only do in the water — it forces the cricket to drown itself in a puddle, thus freeing the hairworm to frolic and breed. You can learn more here.
  • Rabies: All right, this one’s not as obscure as the others, but I still find it fascinating, in a macabre sort of way. I mean, rabies is practically the perfect parasite: it induces violent behavior in those infected by it, which leads to biting and scratching, which are the perfect methods of transmission of the virus! It’s hard to get much more direct than that. I’ve always though that a form of rabies that could spread more easily (perhaps even through mere close contact) would make a great basis for a horror film.
  • The Ichneumon Wasp: This wasp is the creepiest, in terms of sheer gore. The female wasp stabs her ovipositor (that’s such a cool word…an ovipositor is basically a tube that a female insect uses to insert or deposit eggs) into a caterpillar, and injects some eggs. Before long, wasp larvae hatch and eat the caterpillar from the inside out. This, too, would probably make a good horror movie.
  • Lancet Fluke (Dicrocoelium dendriticum): This fluke loves mammalian livers. In order to spread to a new liver, the parasites, excreted in the host’s feces, must be eaten by a snail. Then, when an ant drinks moisture from the snail’s trial (why it would do this is beyond me; snail slime is nasty), it becomes infected with juvenile flukes. These spread into the tiny little bundle of neurons the ant calls a brain (all right, it’s actually called a “ganglion” if you want to be specific). There, they lie in wait, controlling the host ant’s actions until nightfall, when they force the ant to climb a blade of grass, and latch on, waiting to be eaten by a liver-bearing herbivore. Creepy. Thanks to Carl Zimmer’s article The Return of the Puppet Masters for information about this one.
  • Toxoplasma gondii: This nasty little parasite lives in cats, and spreads from cat to cat mainly via rats and other small mammals. The creepy thing is that, although otherwise normal-seeming, T. gondii-infected rats are completely unafraid of the smell of cats, a scent which normally terrifies them. Kind of makes you wonder: who among us might at this very moment be under the influence of…the parasites. Heh…silly idea…the parasites are our friends…the parasites want to help us…Hm…I don’t know what compelled me to write that… Credit for pretty much all of this bullet point also goes to Carl Zimmer.

I’ll amend this list if I run across any other interesting additions.

Memorizing the Periodic Table

Partly out of boredom, and partly out of irritation at never, ever knowing the atomic weight of a particular element, I have decided to embark on the journey to memorize the entire periodic table (well, all the elements up to and including Uranium, at least). But what would even give me such a peculiar idea? Well, blame Oliver Sacks. I was reading through his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (excellent book, by the way, for those who haven’t read it), and I was particularly intrigued by his discussion when talking about numerical savants’ familiarity with numbers: Dmitri Mendeleev, the developer of the periodic table, carried around a deck of cars with the elements’ properties listed on them, and looked them over until he knew them by heart. I’ve always wanted to learn something this thoroughly (and, in fact, I had a set of cars like this myself when I was younger). So, there you have it. I’ll keep my reader(s?) abreast of my progress.

Helium Shortage

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Nothing in this story is made up. I swear, this is pulled right from the news.

Perhaps, if you listen to the news for long enough, you’ll hear about this most unusual state of affairs. But for those who haven’t, then brace yourselves for some terrible news: the world is in the grip of a helium shortage! No, I am not kidding. This is not just a test. We really are getting dangerously low on the buoyant gas. Party stores have been forced to limit sales of balloons. All over the world, voices are slowly dropping an octave. Okay, I made the last one up.

Still, one might think “Well, so what? What’s helium good for, anyway?” Well, as it turns out (to my surprise) it’s actually rather important. While its most public use is for balloons, funny voices, and irritating dirigibles, helium in its liquid form has proven to be an incredibly effective coolant, and one of the only ones which can get metals cold enough for them to become superconductors. And superconductors are vital in MRI scanners.

But how the hell could we possibly be running low on helium? It is, after all, the second most abundant chemical element in the Universe. I wondered that when I first heard the report, but the newscasters were kind enough to explain it. You see, most of the world’s helium is produced as a byproduct of the extraction of natural gas. The problem is that the demand for helium isn’t really rising fast enough to justify the expense of reclaiming it from the crude natural gas. So, we may be teetering on the brink of a global disaster.

But even if global helium production dries up completely, fret not! For, apparently, America has some sort of massive helium stockpile, something like three years’ worth of global demand. I’m not even going to ask why.

So, things aren’t as bleak as they look in the world of balloons and MRI’s. And there will be one bright side, if the world’s supply finally does dry up: we will never again have to listen to some fool at a party inhaling the balloon and doing the Munchkin Land joke.

Portal Continued…

Well, by accident, I managed to finish Portal in a single day. Sure, I would have liked to go through it slowly and have a look at all the scenery, but when you get immersed in a puzzle like that, you become like a lab rat in a maze: the cheese doesn’t even matter anymore; all that matters is the goal.

Still, despite that, Portal turned out to be one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s definitely the best first-person-shooter-like game I’ve ever played. The environments were perfectly designed, the puzzles were challenging, but not brain-hurting, and it was incredibly, incredibly immersive. It was so immersive, in fact, that when I became trapped in a room filling with poisonous gas, I realized that my heart was actually hammering. (People who have played Portal will agree with me…for everybody else, that’s just a cruel teaser).

So, my previous conclusion stands: you should buy Portal. If you can’t buy it, or don’t want to, find someone who has (and no, you cannot come to my house. Don’t even try it. I keep vicious attack ostriches).

And one last note on Portal (this may be a semi-spoiler, so don’t read it if you want to keep all the mystery intact):

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Portal

This morning, I woke up at 8 A.M. Willingly. I didn’t have to get up that early. I could have chosen to sleep in. The fact that I didn’t must mean that today is a special day. And it is. Today, Portal was released.

I have been awaiting this game since last year. For those who don’t understand why, you can learn more about the game here.

It is, as I expected, Portal is one of the most original FPS-style games that I’ve ever seen. After all, what other first person shooter allows you to bend spacetime? And the way the designers incorporated this bendiness into the multitude of puzzles is absolutely brilliant. My waiting, it seems, was not in vain.

But perhaps even cooler than the ability to step through a wall and drop out of the ceiling is the psychological aspect of the game. I won’t give anything away, but I’ll just say that this game, more than any other game I’ve ever played, will mess with your head. You begin to get the distinct impression of being a lab rat. Add to that the confusion of popping through one portal and ending up somewhere you hadn’t intended, and it becomes a disorienting (but incredibly amusing) ride.

If you don’t own Portal, buy it. Unfortunately, you can’t buy it separately from the Orange Box (the game set that also contains Half Life 2: Episode 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2), but Portal alone is worth the US$49.95.

Given all the effusive gushing praise I just heaped on Portal, one might wonder why I have not slipped entirely into a disoriented, game-induced trance. Well, as much as I enjoy it, I’m not always very good at puzzles…so, before I started babbling to myself and pulling my hair out, I thought I’d give my weary brain a chance to rest and work out all the cramps I just caused it.

Many, many thanks to Valve and the other producers/distributors of Portal.