Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Myth-takes of Easter Memes

Every Easter there’s a lot of bullshit memes going around. So to pre-empt them, some facts…

EASTER EGGS ARE CHRISTIAN

Greek Easter Eggs - Arthur Etchells, some rights reserved.

Greek Easter Eggs – Arthur Etchells, some rights reserved.

People have been dying/decorating eggs for tens of thousands of years, but the earliest known example of people exchanging coloured eggs at Easter time is that of the early Mesopotamian Christians, who exchanged eggs dyed red. The eggs represent rebirth, and the red represents the blood of Christ. The Greek Orthodox Church still does it this way. It’s nothing to do with “Ishtar” or “pagan fertility rites”.

THE TIME OF EASTER IS DICTATED BY PASSOVER

Easter moves about because it is the first Sunday on or after the first full moon after March 21. Biblically, Jesus is reported to have risen on the Sunday after Passover, and the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE decided they were more interested in keeping the Sunday rather than matching Passover. There’s a lot of symbolism linking the crucifixion of Jesus to the Passover, and that’s why early Christians associated the two so strongly.

EOSTRE PROBABLY DIDN’T EXIST

This one is a little controversial, but the only source that mentions this Germanic goddess is the English monk Bede, who mentioned her in passing in relation to the name of a Germanic month. While Bede was a smart guy and had no reason to make it up, if worship of her was as widespread as people tend to believe I think there’d be other references to her, either in word or architecture or crafts.

ISHTAR HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH EASTER

Ishtar was a goddess of fertility, love, war and sex in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. Contrary to any photoshopped images you may have seen around, her name is pronounced “Ishtar”, neither eggs nor rabbits were symbols associated with her, and she certainly wasn’t worshiped anywhere near Britain or Germany, which is the only place Easter is called Easter.

DON’T BE SO FRICKIN’ ANGLO-CENTRIC

So much of the bullshit is based on the English language, on the word “Easter”. But in other countries, where most of the Easter traditions started, it’s not called Easter – most commonly the word is based on “pascha”.

Indies Don’t Need No Stinking Curator

I’ll be the first to admit there can be quite a few problems with independent publishing, but the persistence of the refrain “solve the problems of indie publishing by making it more like traditional publishing!” is becoming ridiculous.

This is in response to “Curation, Please!”, a column by James Patrick Kelly in the March 2015 edition of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Kelly goes through the five things he knows about self-publishing*, and I agree with him, and talks about editors and gatekeepers as “curators”.

“In an ideal world, where we were all immortal and lived in a post-scarcity utopia, there would be time enough for us to sample all new stories personally. But until that happy day arrives, we have to rely on curators to read and make recommendations for us.”

There is no “indie curator” that Kelly trusts, and he doesn’t trust on-site reviews because of the possibility of buying reviews. Leaving aside the fact that trust is a very subjective thing, and it’s pretty easy to distinguish a paid-for review from an honest one once you’ve read a few, we don’t have to rely on curators at all. Assuming there’s a decent number of reviews (on Amazon), just look at the top-ranked positive review and the top-ranked negative review, and that should give you a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

More useful than that is the automatic recommendations Amazon generates, which suggests books based on the purchases of other people who have bought the book you’re looking at: These are books they’ve forked out money for, so you know the recommendations haven’t been “bought”. This isn’t perfect, of course, since people have a wide variety of tastes that don’t always go together, and it’s theoretically possible that a lot of them bought the recommended book because it was on the “also bought” list, but they didn’t actually like it. However, if you see two books on this list by the same author, that’s a pretty good sign that those who bought the first book liked it enough to buy the second.

“So here’s my modest proposal for self-publishing: we need some curation…maybe the indie writer community could steer some of its promotional savvy toward creating its own curation infrastructure.”

Apparently Kelly has missed the point that any curator established by the “indie writer community” would probably be considered biased by himself, and therefore not trusted. Let’s consider how this curator would get paid – obviously a writer paying the curator to review their work is a pretty dubious affair. Perhaps all the independent writers could pay a certain amount to fund the salary of the curator, except they’re probably going to get annoyed at the time it takes the curator to get around to reviewing their own work, and therefore resent the fee. Maybe the curator could create a magazine that people subscribed to, that included reviews of independent books and authors, and perhaps some short stories that the curator feels are worth reading. They’d have to pay the author for the stories, of course. What a fantastic business model, I wonder why no-one has thought of that?

Hopefully this demonstrates that the whole idea of a curator of independent publishing defeats the purpose, because once that happens the publishing isn’t independent, but rather based on the tastes of the curator, ie: Traditional publishing.

On this whole topic I have only a couple more points to make. First, a comment on Kelly’s “post-scarcity utopia”. Time is only one lack that people have, the other is money. Indie books are rarely above $5 each, there’s often discounts and promotions, series collected into one low purchase price and so on. If an indie author has written a series the first book is usually free or 99c, a very cheap way to try the author out. The authors still make money because their royalty rate is so much higher. In traditional publishing the cheapest book is $10, most are even higher, and new books spend an inordinate amount of time in hardcover at $25-30. In this very issue of Asimov’s there was a book review that I found interesting, but it was hardcover for $25 so I know it’s going to be a long time before that’s cheap enough that I’m willing to buy it…and by that stage I will have forgotten all about the review. Publishing online removes this problem, which I’ll talk about below.

The final point I want to make is the most obvious one, in that it all comes down to personal taste. It’s very rare that I’ll read a magazine and like every story published in it, because the curator and I have different tastes. The best I can hope for are a couple of stories I think are awesome and a few that I think are reasonably good, and that there aren’t too many I thought were a complete waste of time. So it’s not that much different from checking out different indie authors. One of the problems with editors is that they have to appeal to their entire readerships, so they’re looking for stories that will appeal to the majority of their tens-or-hundreds of thousands of readers. It’s inevitable a certain amount of homogenisation will creep into the selection. This might be what Kelly wants – I had a recent conversation about Terry Pratchett** that clearly demonstrated that quite a lot of people do seek this – clear knowledge of what to expect from a story.

Myself, I like having my expectations challenged. I like reading things I find strange or surreal, things that have knew thoughts or show me different ways of thinking. Now, it’s true that a lot of this stuff is mediocre at best, but after dropping 99c on a new author I’m not really that concerned. When I was a kid looking for books I’d walk into something like Dymocks or Barnes and Noble, and I left dissatisfied more often than not. Either I could find nothing I wanted to read – or at least, nothing I wanted to drop $15 on for a test – or there were many books I wanted to read and I could only afford to buy one or two. Sometimes there was a book from a new author that looked interesting, and if it was in paperback and there was nothing else I wanted I’d buy it. More often this book was published at the same time as a few other books I was interested in reading, books that I knew I would like, so I’d buy those books instead. The next time I went to the bookstore and there was nothing to interest me there’s a good chance that new interesting book would have completely slipped my mind, and if I did remember it there was a good chance it was no longer in stock because the bookstore hadn’t sold enough copies to keep it on the shelves.

Now everything is digital, and a lot easier. Books are always on the shelves, and there’s often new authors I can try out for a dollar rather than fifteen dollars. If I don’t want to buy the untested book at that time, it goes on the wish list and is not forgotten. Or I can try 101 authors for free, such as the example below.

So the main point of this post is: Considering the ability to buy from home and have the books instantly delivered, the wide range of ways to get an idea about a book before you read it, and the incredibly low prices, the barriers are lower than ever for you to find stories that you like yourself rather than passing off that selection to a third party. So why not have a go?

FOOTNOTES
* The five things James Patrick Kelly knows about self-publishing:
1) “Indie authors” can be confused with Indie Publishing or Small Press, which are publishers with less than $50 million per year according to Wikipedia.
2) More control is in the hands of authors.
3) Responsibility for the quality of the work rests entirely on the author.
4) Promotional acumen is the survival skill for all writers.
5) Vanishingly few writers of any persuasion, indie or traditional, earn a living wage. He also notes that because of indie publishing the definition of “professional” needs to change, for things like SFWA.

** Someone was going to try the Discworld series for the first time, and asked where to start. I suggested at the beginning, not just because Julie Andrews suggested it, but because I think that’s where Pratchett’s best books are most highly concentrated. Others suggested starting towards the end of his oeuvre, because he had developed as a writer and worked out his style. I found that his later books became predictable and repetitive, both the plot and the jokes, and weren’t as exciting and original as his first books (still really good though, for sure). Basically, I picked up The Colour of Magic because of the Josh Kirby cover and was blown away by fast-paced original writing that was really unlike anything I’d read before. Others want a more formulaic approach, they want to know what they’re getting when they buy a book. That’s perfectly fine, and they’re going to get a lot more out of curators than I do.

Ingredients of a Noir/Punk Story

I’m exploring the x-punk genres, and one of the aspects is the noir feel of the stories. The setting is dark and foreboding, people – including the heroes – operate on the edge of the law, the endings are usually less happy than not completely depressing. So I read Bad Girls by Max Scratchmann again – it’s a collection of eight short stories written in the 1980s – and it’s got those noir aspects as well as the hyper-descriptive language that tends to be used, language that makes the reader feel the grime and the characters attitudes. As an example: “A letter had clung gastropod-like to my mat and there was something familiar, sticky-sweet and nauseating about the fawning tilt of the handwriting. Violet ink on faintly scented lilac paper.”

I noticed another aspect of the genre that I had previously missed: Abuse of power. In one of the stories there is a policewoman working as a collector for a crime gang who coerces the women she collects from to sleep with her, which is a fairly blatant abuse of power. The stories that really fit the noir feel have the same thing, some abuse of power that has to be tolerated, handled or, for reader satisfaction, punished. In x-punk stories, this tends to be someone who is so rich/powerful they can effectively ignore the law with no repercussions. In Neuromancer, for example, this is the Tessier-Ashpool family. The story I’m writing already has a rich family of inherited wealth, so it should be easy to slip in some power-abuse.

Non-Polar Membranes

Life In Cryogenic Conditions

A pretty interesting resource for science fiction writers just popped up. It considers the evolution of life in extremely cold places, such as Saturn’s moon Titan where the surface temperature is about –179 Celsius, specifically what sort of membranes might be available for life to use. In addition to the extremely low temperature which would insta-freeze most molecules into solids, at that temperature the liquid oceans are composed of methane, which is non-polar… so that has to be taken into account.

The researchers at Cornell University ran a computer model with the compounds that we’ve detected in Titan’s atmosphere, and come up with acrylonitrile as the best candidate to form membranes in those conditions. They’ve termed these membranes azotosomes (as opposed to the liposomes that make up our cells) and have calculated they have pretty much the same characteristics as liposomes. Acrylonitrile has three carbons, three hydrogens and a nitrogen, which makes the membrane a lot thinner than liposomes, but that’s pretty much a requirement for working at such a low temperature. The other main difference between azotosomes and liposomes is that in terrestrial liposomes the oxygen-powered polar head is on the outside, interacting with water molecules, while the non-polar tails create the inner barrier, while azotosomes have the nitrogen-powered polar head on the inside of the membrane, and the short non-polar carbon tails interacting with the liquid methane. This can be seen in the image above, where A is a lipid membrane and B the hypothesised acrylonitrile one.

This is not proof of life on Titan, of course, but it’s evidence that at least one of the necessary components for life – compartmentalisation – is possible on that moon. The other components of metabolism are still necessary, and I wonder how they’d run at that temperature; would reactions necessarily be far slower than those of life on Earth, and if so how would that affect the organisms? How would that affect a sentient organism?

Scientific American Article
James Stevenson, Jonathan Lunine, Paulette Clancy: Membrane alternatives in worlds without oxygen: Creation of an azotosome, Science Advances Vol 1, No 1.

The Free Market in the Bacterial World

Bacteria can exchange vital nutrients with other bacteria, effectively distributing metabolic functions within the microbial communities. This is one of things that was supposed to differentiate unicellular life from multicellular life…

As reported in io9:

Just over a year ago, the lab of Christian Kost, based out of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, showed that two strains of bacteria, genetically engineered to lack one nutrient and overproduce another, could support one another in the same flask if their deficiencies and surpluses were complementary. On their own, either strain would not survive. (The nutrients were the two amino acids, histidine and tryptophan).

These bacteria grew 20 percent faster than strains that didn’t require the exchange of nutrients, indicating a benefit to specialisation (of the kind that would be familiar to any beginner economics student). Anyway, the really interesting news here is that the nutrients aren’t excreted into the media and absorbed by other bacteria; a bacterium that lacks one of the nutrients will actively seek out other bacteria that have the nutrient and then hook up a tube to them to exchange nutrients. This could be mutualistic or parasitic, but either way it’s pretty high-level behaviour for a single celled organism.

Of course, it has been known that bacteria exchange DNA and RNA through this method for quite a few years and its pretty clear this is happening in the wild as well as in the lab – and between bacteria of different species.

This has significant implications for the way we think bacteria evolve (although I don’t think many microbiologists will find this result particularly revolutionary, more another piece in the puzzle). It’s not just that bacteria don’t rely on mutations to adapt, they can pass genes between each other, now it turns out they might outsource some metabolic pathways. When a particular compound becomes scarce and they can’t synthesise it, they just seek out other bacteria that can.

There’s still some questions, of course, including how the bacterium can tell which other bacterium to attach to, and whether the other has to be “willing”. However, the idea of bacteria as individual organisms swimming alone in their environment in competition with everything they come across should be dead in your head by now.

(image source: Electron microscopy image of E. coli using nanotubes to survive off of a continuous trade of amino acids with other bacteria. Martin Westermann, University Hospital of the University of Jena.)