Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: March, 2010

On Rejection

After not making through to the third round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest, my mind naturally turned towards rejections.  After all, it’s probably the only thing I can talk about in regards to writing without sounding too much like an ignorant amateur*.

Psychologically, of course, they make me somewhat unhappy.  I’ve put all this work creating something and another person doesn’t want it.  Although the story itself isn’t personal, per se, putting in the work is an intensely personal endeavor.  It’s lonely and egocentric in a way that, say, devising a set of scientific experiments isn’t.  But to the agent, editor, or reader, it’s nothing personal.  They’ve never heard of the author before and don’t particularly care.  That story that the author has slaved over is but a collection of words.  And if that particular collection doesn’t look pleasing to another person, then why bother acquiring it?

There is the strong possibility that my writing just isn’t very good.  I’ve been submitting things for over a decade now and maybe yet another decade of scribbling won’t improve matters.  I know I’m no literary genius.  And I’m pretty sure I lack the abundance of natural talent possessed by other writers who have been doing this since they were three.  Bluntly put, I’m not an optimistic person, and there are a fair number of times, this included, when I think that it’s all pointless and compulsive persistence.  Yes, that’s very nice that you’re pounding your head bloody against the wall.  But really, who cares?

No, I’m not quitting writing.  I’ve faced worse rejections in life and have yet to quit anything else.  It’s that persistence thing again.  I have this delusion that I haven’t submitted my stuff to the right person yet.  I typically submit a short story to several places (not all at once, mind you), and it’s only when I’ve gotten a pile of rejections that I begin to think that perhaps there’s a fatal flaw in that particular story and that I should just move on.

I have to admit, my first impulse after being momentarily stunned by the cut (it was the first time I’ve actually submitted a novel) was to send the submission to the next market that I had already thought about on my mental list.  So the novel didn’t pass ABNA?  Whatever.  I’ve already sent a query to another place.  Sure, they probably won’t even reply until six months later with a “no”, but it’s better than giving up now.

*Or maybe not.

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It’s Not A Secret If Everyone Knows About It

After reading a post on So Anyway about private blogging, I’ve come to the conclusion that I still don’t really understand it.  If you post on the web, someone’s going to find it–most likely it will be the person who you’d least like to find it.  Password protection seems a bit pointless and iffy–after all, passwords can be cracked.  And if more than one person knows a password, the chances of it getting out are magnified.  So what’s wrong with the old pen and paper and keeping the files offline?  If you truly do not want an audience, that’s what you’d do.  But people don’t do that.  Instead, they do this private blogging bit, submerged in an illusion where they get to control the audience.

The thing is, you can’t.  If people really want to read your stuff, they will.

However, people can password protect their blogs if they want.  I’m not saying that they can’t.  It’s like me not understanding why some people like durian or why someone would paint their house sea foam green.  What I really can’t wrap my head around is the fact that some people have private blogs yet they publicize it, trying to get more readers.  It’s like they don’t understand the term “private.”  If you’re going to be serious about private blogging, keep it that way.  Posting links to your private blog to public forums defeats the entire purpose.

As you can see, I blog under a pseudonym.  One could argue that I’m practicing a form of private blogging and that I shouldn’t be calling the kettle black.  But it isn’t about that at all.  I’ve always been aware that people in real life would find my writings online.  Indeed, they have*.  This isn’t something that I actively seek or hide.  But I don’t normally talk about my online babbling because I don’t think it’s that interesting.  Blogging is navel gazing.  But people are nosy, I suppose.  Someone (who thinks this pseudonym thing is some elaborate cat-and-mouse game I’ve concocted) once remarked to me, “Now that we’ve found you, I bet you’re going to make up a new pseudonym and disappear again.”  That’s too much work.  I’m already too heavily invested with what I’ve managed to carve out (or not) with this particular internet handle.

I merely wanted to make a distinction between two personas–what I am and how I think–with an emphasis on distinction.  Because when people do a cursory Google search, of course it’s going to reveal only certain aspects of me.  If anyone wants to figure me out more personally, they’re just going to have to do a little more digging–just like in real life.

*Yes, undergrads with too much time on their hands, I mean you.

Wings, Wind, and Wacky Workshops

While there is a saying that a butterfly can affect the creation of hurricanes, the reverse is definitely true–climate change can affect butterflies.  In yesterday’s Randall Women in Science seminar series, Camille Parmesan (a University of Texas Austin lepidopterist and lead author of the IPCC that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore) discussed the actual data in her lecture “Responses of Wild Life to Anthropogenic Climate Change: The Limits of Adaptation and Potentials of Ecosystem Restoration.”  (Aside: The following includes my notes and recollections of the lecture.  Any mistakes are my own and if anyone has addenda and corrections, please let me know.)

Despite this year’s bout of freak winter weather in the U.S., global mean temperatures have definitely increased in the 2000s compared to the 1990s.  In fact, 2009 is the fifth hottest year on record.  If one calculates this out, it’s about 0.7 degrees Celcius increase since 1900.

“Pah!” you might say.  “0.7 degrees is nothing! I can’t feel the difference between, say 40 and 41 degrees.”  Well, that 0.7 degrees has already had a profound ecological effect.  It’s hard to see that if you’re mostly stuck in the temperature controlled suburban indoors.  But in the field, it’s a different story.  For example:

*Mismatch of trophic levels.  Because of the increase in temperature, spring events have started to shift.  In temperate northern climes, that’s a mean advance of 2.8 days per decade.  This means that animals, such as amphibians and butterflies, are beginning their breeding cycles earlier and at a faster pace than plant life cycles. Eventually, there’s going to be a complete mismatch of the life cycles of animals and their food sources, thus putting the viability of those animals at risk.

*Habitat ranges are shifting northward and upward.  Because a species’ historical habitat is becoming warmer, the species will naturally move north and to higher altitudes.  Not all species will move north, though, and as a result, the entire range will decrease as the southern part of their range contracts.  And there’s only so much you can go up as mountains are finite.  In a couple of range studies done in Europe (where species surveillance is far more extensive than the U.S.), 65% of the species surveyed had colonized northward and 22% had contracted southern ranges.

*Community turnover.  In a Nature study done by Parmesan, over 1,700 plant and animal species were surveyed worldwide.  62% of those species responded to temperature change and 52% changed where they lived.  Because there was such variability between species, this means that there’s going to be a change in communities.  That is, a particular ecosystem isn’t just going to shift a couple kilometers north.  Animals and plants will respond differently so that it will be more of a staggered move.  Different species that had never had contact with each other before will start sharing the same habitat and who knows what sort of interaction they will have.

*Expansion of disease range.  Just because an oyster population, say, moves a couple hundred kilometers north, does that mean that species’ associated diseases will stay put in the old spot.  The parasites will move with their hosts.  And as they move to new locations, they will come in contact with new hosts that have yet moved with no developed defenses.

*Declines and range contractions of sea ice species.  Take the prime example of the polar bear.  Yes, its icy habitat is shrinking.  But so is its food source.  Polar bears require two kilograms of fat a day.  If seals were still around, their nutritional needs would be met.  But due to the decrease in seals, polar bears are now forced to hunt terrestrial animals which don’t have enough fat.  Also, because it isn’t cold enough, the dens that pregnant females make are collapsing, killing the bears–further decimating the population.

*Climate change affects the nutritional value of food.  One example is the koala.  Increased carbon dioxide levels wreak havoc on the biochemistry in eucalyptus plants–the sole food of the koala–rendering the plants less nutritious.  As a result the koala population is suffering from malnutrition.

*Humans are affected, too.  In the northern polar region, native populations are having a harder time hunting traditional foods–so their diets have literally changed from seal to frozen pizzas.  Seasonality is compressed and permafrost is being lost.  Vector borne diseases are shifting north and infestations normally killed by the cold are now thriving.

*There are no genetic changes.  One argument is that species are moving northward because there’s evolution happening, that these species are learning to adapt to a colder environment.  This is not so.  Analysis of species’ genomes have not revealed any genetic change that would help the animal or plant tolerate a temperature change.  It is the temperature change itself that appears to be the likely culprit for species translocation.

Dr. Parmesan seemed skeptical that anyone will be reducing their emissions any time soon.  In fact, she was resigned to the fact that global temperatures will rise in the foreseeable future.  However, she pointed out some possible solutions (which might cause invasive species purists to go crazy): 1) assisted colonization or moving species outside of their range in anticipation of the range change; 2) restoration of historical habitats; and 3) creation of new habitats adapted to the future climate.

Further Reading
(note: some articles may require subscription or registration)
*Singer MC. “Complex Components of Habitat Suitability within a Butterfly Colony.” Science, Volume 176, Issue 4030, pp. 75-77 (abstract and full text)
*Fleishman E, Austin GT, Weiss AD. “An Empirical Test of Rapoport’s Rule: Elevational Gradients in Montane Butterfly Communities.” Ecology: Vol. 79, No. 7, pp. 2482-2493. (abstract and full text)
*Parmesan C, Yohe G. “A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems.” Nature.  2003 Jan 2;421(6918):37-42. (abstract and full text) (pdf)
*Seimon, TA et al. “Upward range extension of Andean anurans and chytridiomycosis to extreme elevations in response to tropical deglaciation.” Global Change Biology.  Volume 13, Number 1, January 2007, pp. 288-299. (abstract and full text)
*Kunkel KE, Changnon SA. “Climate-Years in the True Prairie: Temporal Fluctuations of Ecologically Critical Climate Conditions.” Climatic Change. Volume 61, Numbers 1-2 / November 2003, pp. 101-122. (abstract and full text)
*Crozier L. “Winter warming facilitates range expansion: cold tolerance of the butterfly.” Oecologia.     Volume 135, Number 4 / May 2003, pp. 648-656. (abstract and full text)

Question and Answer Session (Paraphrased)
Q: Aren’t there going to be unintended side effects to this ecosystem engineering?
A: Since there’s global warming already, there’s going to be a risk either way–whether you do nothing or engineer new ecosystems for species.

Q: Aren’t other places already considering habitat restoration, except with a monoculture?  They might want to restore the Native American Prairies, but it would be easier just to plant one type of grass.
A: Yes, but conservationists will have to partner with industry if we want to keep biodiversity rather than just planting another crop.

Q: What exactly is an ecological community? And are people accepting of it?
A: Communities are dynamic and not stable.  Idealy, it would be made up of species that are historic to that habitat and species with foreign genotypes for diversity.  It would be interesting to introduce historic species and alternative species and see who wins.  It also takes a lot of money to establish a community.  Right now, there’s a community project going on in Copenhagen.

Q: Are climate models accurate enough so that we could already change habitats, say in the Palouse?
A: It depends on the geographical area.  If the models are consistent for that particular geographical area, then yes.  But if the models are conflicting, it is probably better to stick with traditional conservation.

Q: What about the “unseen majority”?  How does climate change affect prokaryotes?
A: There’s some experimental data, such as on soil microbes, but not on the scale of animal studies. (So the answer to this, currently, is unknown.)

* * *

Twelve other graduate students and I were also lucky enough to attend a dinner with Dr. Parmesan. She mentioned that as a scientist, it’s somewhat frustrating going to climate change meetings.  First, there are very few scientists who end up influencing policy.  Mostly it’s politicians. And usually it’s the person who has the most endurance, i.e., the person stands and talks the longest. No matter your ideas, if you don’t have the endurance, you’re probably not going to be heard.  Second, it’s difficult to get moving on solutions to the climate change problem because no one thinks long term.  Politicians maybe think two years ahead–to when they’re re-elected.  Industry doesn’t think much longer than that either–it’s concerned about profit and loss, not what is going to happen fifty or a hundred years in the future.

Dr. Parmesan also had several observations about being a woman in science:

1. In a Berkeley study, it was found that the person who did best in science was a married male with family.  Why?  Two reasons.  One, the married male with family had a support group (spouse and kids–not just the spouse) who helped him roll with the punches–as opposed to single scientists of either gender.  Two, the married male with family had more downtime available than his female counterpart who ended up doing the majority of the domestic chores along with her career.  Downtime is critical for recharging energy and creativity for the career.

2. Take away from above study: If you’re a married woman with kids, make your husband do at least half of the housework.

3. For couples who, on the surface, appear to have everything from career to kids, it actually isn’t everything.  Both the man and the woman in the relationship will have made certain sacrifices in order to get their lives at that point.

4. A woman shouldn’t compromise if she wants to further her career. Dr. Parmesan was fortunate in that her husband was willing to leave his career to go with her if she found a professorship elsewhere.  Currently, she is very disappointed that all of her female grad students have decided to follow their husbands and settle for less rewarding jobs.

5. Being female in science isn’t really that much harder than being male.  It’s just different.  Women might worry about kids, but men have stuff to worry about, too.  Case in point–

Dr. Parmesan related an anecdote during her time as a post-doc at an ecology center in California.  The center held a number of workshops which she attended.  Typically in these workshops, no one really knew each other beforehand.  She noticed that in seminars attended by at least 30% women, there was a lot more collaboration and an air of wanting to get things done.  When there were less than 30% women, the first day of the workshop became totally useless as the male scientists tried to one-up each other on who was right or wrong.  Every time she would try to say something, they would totally ignore her.

She was very frustrated with this until she talked with a transgendered scientist who gave her some insight into the male psyche.  Males need to establish a hierarchy first; females at this point are irrelevant.  In order to do so, they engage in behavior that is very similar to macho tennis players lobbing balls at their opponent.  Once they establish the hierarchy, then things will go back to normal.  So Dr. Parmesan tried this–in workshops dominated by men, she would simply sit and listen on the first day while the men fought for dominance.  On the second day (once all the posturing had ended), she started participating and found that the atmosphere was just like that of groups with more women.

“Taking an animal behavior course was very useful,” she concluded.  “As a result, I was  less annoyed.”

Don’t Drink the Cat Lady’s Tea

Monster by A. Lee Martinez is a fantasy novel with comic overtones.  The titular character, a pest control agent for cryptobiological creatures, works with a paper gnome that’s actually a physical manifestation of an extradimensional creature.  His girlfriend is literally a demon from hell.  He’s called in when Judy, a night shift worker at the local food mart, encounters a yeti in the ice cream aisle.  But that’s just the start of an explosion of mythological creatures in a mundane suburbia.  Monster and Judy eventually learn that the sudden appearance of all these “cryptos” may be tied to the fate of the universe and a sinister cat lady.

While I found the plot engaging, the main character–initially–was less so.  Monster, frankly put, is a loser and a coward.  He fell into the pest control business by default, he doesn’t care to try to be better, he only cares for instant gratification and not the consequences (hence the demon girlfriend), it’s all about him, and when the going gets tough, he runs away.  Despite all the extraordinary things happening to him, he acts like a dweeb.  He is uncomfortable and unlikeable–a failed frat boy with no ambition.

Martinez uses the character of Monster as a metaphor for us–especially for being complacent.  How many of us have gone through the motions of life, content to let the gravity of circumstance drag us through out experiences rather than making any effort to break out and do something different?  How many times have we made the choice of instant gratification over long term effects?  Do we automatically always follow instinct in not rocking the boat?  Monster realizes all of this almost at the last moment and–of course–makes a decision that could both be viewed as heroic and a vote for the status quo.

Although I’m not so sure that Monster really deserved Martinez’s happy ending for him, I did like the novel for its freshness in a market that’s currently dominated by tough protagonists in leather.  In a way, the characters seemed more realistic.  While there are certainly people who act heroically all the time, Monster–because of his cowardly nature–seemed more genuine.  Judy behaved with a mixture of befuddlement and denial with the extraordinary events.  Her foolish actions are not of a stupid character but rather that of an extremely frustrated person who has discovered that her previous, comfortable life is gone.

And the cat lady was chilling in her “niceness”.  Because you have to figure that something is wrong if she’s keeping the universe’s consciousness as a cutting board in her kitchen.

Characters on a Collision Course

Last month, I’ve been limping along in my planning for Script Frenzy. I said I would come up with an outline but I didn’t. But I still have a month yet so maybe I’ll get to it in the next week or two.

In my case, it’s easy to come up with setups and characters. Usually, something I see or read triggers something in my subconscious and it all comes bubbling up. But naming characters (and places, if I’m doing some world building) is like pulling teeth. I scour name and place lists and just hope that something will click.

The main character for Black Albedo (yes, my script has a title!) is Ari, an astronaut facing a mid-life crisis. C.E. Murphy once described one of her characters as “superman gone to seed” and I think that’s an apt description for Ari–except that not only does he look like he’s gone to seed, he also thinks he’s gone to seed. Ari has serious self-confidence issues.

Another character I have going on a plot line heading on a collision course with Ari is a megalomaniac tycoon named Carlise who wants Olympus Mons to be the star attraction in his amusement park. Both Ari and Carlise will start out self-centered. Maybe later, they’ll both eventually find out (in different ways) that they need to pay more attention to the people around them.

Ari will also have two sidekicks who are both more clever and talented than he is but with less ambition–(as one sidekick is an escaped convict and the other an escaped genetic experiment, their main goal is to not be caught by the authorities). As the story will be part road trip, I’m sure I’ll have to come up with more zany characters as I go along.

I’m also thinking of adding a reality show–in the form of a futuristic equivalent of television broadcasts that the characters see as they pass screens in various locations. Hopefully, I can find a way to make the reality show (tentatively named “Airlock Island”) parallel the main story.