Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Shade-Tree Biotechnician

Speaking of mutations, here's something you don't see every day -- a frost-bitten succulent (I think it's an aeonium, but who knows) that's grown some albino heads. Notice how the albino section on the otherwise-green head is divided not leaf-by-leaf, but rather along an arbitrary line. I've seen similar divisions of color on scales in patterned reptiles, as though the pattern had been laid down using a stencil, and it's always puzzled me.

Right. So, I've been neglecting my Henry notes. Let's try and make some substantial headway, shall we?

It started when a friend of mine told me about his comparative anatomy final. The final consisted of a long table loaded with skulls to identify. My friend got all but one -- and nobody got that one. Was it a primate? That was the best guess.

It was a bulldog.

Years later, when I first moved in with the missus, she had a pet Pekingese named Ping-Ping. (I bear no responsibility; the missus has a taste for foofy names.) He was a great little guy, who cured me of my distaste for small dogs. (Hint -- they're like pit bulls. If they're nasty, you want to look at the owner.)

But his poor horrible little face! The socket where his eyes and snout met was continually wet, as were the deep folds of his eyelids, and the organic fluid of tears and snot bred a stinking bacterial culture that must have been ongoing hell for a sensitive nose. They itched, as well. And sometimes he'd do these weird inverse sneezes, where he'd convulsively suck air in through his nose.

Bulldogs die of respiratory and cardiac disease. Pugs have the same problems as pekes. The things we breed dogs for -- hip displasia, skin conditions (we had a Shar Pei with terrible acne, and the worst part was trying to watch TV while the missus squeezed the dog's pimples), spinal problems...

It could have been worse.

If you can explain the human desire to breed miserably deformed pets, keep the explanation to yourself. I'm trying to keep my misanthropy under control.

Eusocialism fascinates me. It's the social pattern where individuals are physically specialized depending on their caste, and where reproduction is the responsibility of queens. It first showed up in the cockroaches that evolved into termites, but it's since cropped up all over the place. Bees. Ants. Shrimp? Naked mole rats?

Oh, yeah.

So this is a pattern that crops up repeatedly, under a wide variety of circumstances.

As for the fruit flies. For those who don't know, fruit flies are a standard lab animal for genetic research. They reproduce rapidly, have been thoroughly studied, are prone to visible mutations... A true friend to man.

So they'd be a natural animal to use if one were to attempt to induce speciation. And this isn't as far-fetched as you might think We've observed a number of species evolve. Check it out -- and take a look at section 5.3 for fruit fly information...

This is the second story I've done that draws on my early fascination with the stories Microscopic God by Theodore Sturgeon and Sandkings by George R.R. Martin. Silly as it may be, this is actually one of the more scientifically credible Henry stories.

I think this one explains itself. But let me say this -- my convictions on the subject of overpopulation have been strong enough to keep me from having children. I like kids. I'd rather help out with the ones that are already here than make new ones.

And abortion is none of my damned business.

When Howard Chaykin did his comic American Flagg, I admired the way he dropped the talking cat Raul into the mix without any explanation. (For the record, American Flag is one of the great secrets of genre fiction. Everybody read it in the day, and everybody was affected by it.)

That's not how I do things. For me, one of the pleasures of science fiction is the ability to make a ridiculous, surrealistic event seem reasonable, comprehensible, even inevitable.

So I rationalized the Colonel, my talking chicken character. And an interesting question arose. If a machine is capable of giving the impression under scrutiny that it is human -- thorough conversation over a telephone or the internet would be adequate scrutiny -- it is said to be able to pass the Turing test. Wouldn't it be dehumanizing to treat a machine capable of passing the Turing test as other than human? Regardless of the actual sentience of the machine or program in question, is there an internal requirement to be humane to that which seems human?

And while there is some humanely produced poultry in the US, large-scale poultry production might be the most massive and grotesque system of organized cruelty the planet has seen thus far. The disconnection between the population and the animals they eat has turned livestock into a component in a bioreactor. And the large-scale international results include the destruction of local farming traditions in the Caribbean, and so on, and so on. I might feel differently if factory-raised chicken wasn't disgusting, like tofu with a moral taint, but it is.

That'll do it for now. With any luck, I should be able to get caught up tomorrow.