Monthly Archives: August 2013

Medical Microfiction: Stromatolites

The architects that built the world are long gone. Many aeons ago, they lived, labored, and died in mats in the shallows. Their offspring, architects also, plied the family trade atop the graves of their forebears, until they too passed. And so one biofilm atop the next, strange, striped stones emerged.

We remember them for the rocks, but the architects left something greater still. Together those venerable microbes spun sunlight into atmosphere, shaping the very air into the element which gives voice to speech and song.

We stand not on the backs of giants, but on the bones of bacteria.

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English: Stromatolites growing in Hamelin Pool...
Stromatolites: they’re rocks, but they deserve a little respect. They oxygenated the atmosphere! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stromatolites are not technically “medical”, but they’re certainly a nifty piece of science, and one I was dying to share with you! First, let’s dissect the word. “Stroma” comes from a Greek word meaning mattress  or bed. “Lite” comes from the Greek for stone. As the story describes, stromatolites are fossilized stones that were formed by thin layers of bacteria dying off atop one another over a huge period of time. Think of them as something like coral reefs, but far older.

One of the most important ancient sources of stromatolites were the cyanobacteria responsible for transforming much of the methane in Earth’s atmosphere into oxygen, thus allowing creatures like ourselves to live, love, and breathe. We owe a lot to these little guys, and I wanted to take a moment to remember their inestimable contribution to our lush, green Earth. Those of you who have been reading my blog from the very beginning may recall that I’ve mentioned the Great Oxygenation Event once before, but I thought they were interesting enough to bring up again. I think it’s important to remember that while human beings dominate the planet now, all our accomplishments rest on the shoulders of those that did the work before us. Even the air we breathe is something to be grateful for; it came from somewhere.

What other parts of the natural world deserve our gratitude? What tends to get overlooked in our day-to-day shuffle?

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Motley Microfiction: Organic Groceries

Mold everywhere. Mold on the Monterey Jack. On the leftover General Tso.  Mold dissolving that lone Granny Smith in the crisper into putrid rot. And then the most painful loss: all that free-range bacon, forever consigned to the blue-green arms of the selfsame thief who’d stolen the rest of Mark’s supper.

His stomach rumbled, reminding him of his folly. He should’ve picked up groceries last week, but there’d been cleaning to do, and that bother with the police… well, best not to dwell on past mistakes. Mark grabbed his chloroform, machete, and cloth bags and set out for Whole Foods.

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Apples (Granny Smith variety pictured) are amo...
Granny Smith, but not THIS kind… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s late here, but I’m feeling the urge to get a story out for you to cap off your weekend or jump start your Monday. Sorry for the spotty posting schedule over the last couple of weeks. I’m still finding my feet with classes and homework this semester, and now I’ve landed a research assistant position (yay!) which means even less free time for me to do the things I love (boo!).

I’ve been writing in the meantime, and storing up quite a few stories that I can’t wait to share with you! My problem is making time to write up a thoughtful, researched post to go with each story, especially for the medical-themed ones. I absolutely detest the spread of misinformation, and I’m committed to making sure my scientific posts are as accurate as possible so that you don’t ever lose Jeopardy! because of me someday.

Say hi to Alex Trebek for me why you’re at it!

Today’s post is about a man with a well-rounded diet. He eats humans of all varieties! I had fun with the wordplay – thinking up foods that have people names that he would have stored in the fridge. Did I have you going for a minute there? 😉

How was your weekend, friends? What’s been going on in your neck of the woods while I’ve been glued to the textbooks?

Motley Microfiction: George’s Id

“I think we all owe each other an apology,” ventures the knight in lion livery. “I’ll start: I’m very sorry for telling nasty lies about my friends.”

“I’m sorry too,” says the boy king with the stag banner. “I had trouble sharing.”

The dragon-mounted warrior woman adds, “I forgive you all for trying to steal my throne.”

“We’re all to blame,” says a grizzled lord in wolfskins,“but we’ve finally learned the true meaning of friendship. Now who wants a hug?”

George Martin awoke fighting against the sheets entwining him. “Just a nightmare,” he repeated in the darkness, “a nightmare.”

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English: George R.R. Martin signing books in a...
English: George R.R. Martin signing books in a bookstore in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Slovenščina: George R.R. Martin med podpisovanjem knjig v ljubljanski knjigarni. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s story is best appreciated if you watch the Game of Thrones series or read the books they’re based upon, by George R. R. Martin. For the uninitiated, Martin as an author is known for ruthlessly killing off characters in spades, even beloved fan favorites. It’s an ongoing joke that no one’s safe in his series. Anyone can die, at any time, even for pointless and unsatisfying reasons.

And yet, we keep coming back for more.

I got to thinking what such a man’s id (the deep, suppressed part of his mind) must be like. Obviously all the violence and sex are on parade in Martin’s books, so that must mean that inside his deepest, darkest soul, he’s keeping something even scarier locked up. I propose that the “something” is a deep desire to write children’s stories where everyone learns the meaning of friendship and shares their toys.

These are the things that terrify a man like George R. R. Martin.

Yes, that’s right. You and I may have nightmares about falling, or spiders. Personally, I have a recurring nightmare involving zombies. But not our friend George.

Poor George.

Any other Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire fans out there?

Friday Fictioneers: Checkmate

Checkmate

No-one knew how the castle wound up in the middle of rural Ontario, but the experts agreed that the alabaster beauty was medieval European in origin. 11th-century French to be exact, based upon the crenellations, arrowslits, and machicolations.

“Well that’s obvious,” said Mayor Biggins. “Anyone coulda told you that from the ditch!” He waved toward the deep furrow running due east from the castle, all the way to the shores of the Atlantic.

Outraged, France demanded the return of its chateau. Words were exchanged; the UN got involved.

A week later, the castle vanished again, replaced by a 40-foot-tall Bishop.

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Copyright: Claire Fuller

This story was written for Rochelle Wisoff-Fields’s weekly Friday Fictioneers flash fiction event. The challenge is to write a 100-word story using a photo prompt. As always, I welcome comments and constructive feedback. Enjoy!

Medical Microfiction: Cardiometer

Measure the Immeasurable

It was a problematic calculation, to be sure. Some might say impossible. But the real headache lay in finding an appropriate unit of measurement. Amperes, Kelvins, parsecs — inadequate alone, but each needed for the answer.

To the books, then. He dredged up old science and new, eventually delving into sources that some might call pseudoscientific.

What of it? The point was to build the device, and he did.

He called up the one who’d first posed him the question, invited her to his lab, and knelt on one knee.

“I love you this much,” he said, and pushed the button.

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I love you
This candy loves you, but how much? (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

A nice, sweet little story for you guys today. A cardiometer, as its name implies is a device used to measure heart activity. There are several devices that fall into this general category, and mostly they use electrical impulses to make their readings. Heart-measuring devices include electrocardiographs (ECGs), cardiac monitors, and Holter monitors, to name a few.

Of course, on a more general level, this story’s about the formidable task of measuring things. Measuring gives us a way to make sense of the world. We measure oceans, and they lose their limitlessness. We measure mountains and depths and the distance between stars. We calculate the speed in which we’re all hurling through space, and estimate the age of our happy green rock.

But how do you measure something like love? I have no idea, but that hasn’t stopped me or anyone else throughout human history from asking that impossible question: “How much do you love me?”

Happy Monday, friends, and while you may never know the measure in which you’re loved, may that love always feel endless.

Storytelling is Linear

Marjorie plummeted from the clifftop toward the surface below. But the surface was an ocean battering the cliffs, so she didn’t die on impact.

She flailed and foundered. She couldn’t swim.

But it wasn’t an ocean of water. It was a lake of fire. Even with her flame-resistant bodysuit, she’d have burned in minutes if not for the vessel that hauled her aboard. Marjorie marveled at the translucent walls, for it was a blood vessel, and a massive one.

Up the bloodstream, Marjorie emerged in an atrium. Not the heart, but a starlit chamber.

She had wings, so she flew.

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Well, that was one of my more absurd pieces,  but trust me, I’m going somewhere with it. Today I want to talk  about the limitations — and possibilities — present in the written word, and what it means for us writerly types.

Let’s start with the basics: language is linear. We can say or read exactly one word at a time. It makes the most sense when you contrast a conversation with photography. A picture is worth a thousand words because visual communication is not constrained by linearity. I can say, “The dog… jumped,” but you have to wait until I finish the sentence before you know what the dog’s going to do. By contrast, if you watch a video of the dog barking, you see both the dog and its actions at the same time.

English: Hallway at the Royal York Hotel
Your story is like this hallway, only with more pirates. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Think of language as a long hallway with many doors on either side. You are trying to walk from one end to the other, but as you go, you have to step over obstacles, occasionally stop, or even back up a few steps to let another person by. Eventually you’ll get to the end, but it will take time, and there is only one way forward.

For writers, this is problematic. You want to tell a good story. You can see the setting, the characters, and the whole plot in your mind’s eye. But what to tell the reader first? Do you describe the setting? Give some dialogue? How much description should you use? How do you organize the plot? Remember, readers can read only one word at a time. You may be omniscient, but your readers can only see straight ahead.

Today’s story illustrates this difficulty. In each sentence, did you find you had to revise your mental image of the action? Storytelling is linear. You can only picture what I’ve already mentioned, and even then only if I’ve written them without ambiguity. Is it a ship or a blood vessel? You can use the context to make an educated guess, but you can’t tell for sure without more information.

Sometimes this phenomenon is useful. I write a lot of flash fiction, and when I want to write a twist ending, sometimes I hold back a piece of crucial information in order to produce an emotional response: laughter, sadness, surprise, horror, warmth, and so on. Good jokes are made of this stuff!

Headache
I always feel like this when trying to write good sentences. (Photo credit: Lel4nd)

But linearity can be a huge headache. I’m talking about the problem of wordy prose. Speculative fiction author Cat Rambo wrote some advice on her blog recently on how to write well-crafted, complex sentences, and it really got me thinking. Long sentences are gorgeous when pulled off correctly, but when they’re less than masterful, they’re a train wreck. The hallway gets cluttered, and the reader can’t find her way through. Poorly organized prose forces her to reread several times in order to understand the meaning.

One of Cat’s best observations is how in well-executed dense prose, every  word carries its weight. This idea is at the crux of the oft-repeated advice to Murder The Adverbs when you’re first setting out to write good fiction. Adverbs tend to clutter the hallway and force more reevaluation than a good description would.

So what’s a writer to do? As someone hanging out on the amateur end of the pool, I recommend studying the heck out of the pros. Read, read, read. When you find someone whose style makes you melt into little puddles of happy, take a moment and really look at their sentences. Think about the order in which the information is presented.

And of course, in your own writing, be aware of the constraints of linearity. Try to picture things from the reader’s standpoint, and make it easy for the reader to race down the hallway. It’s hard to get lost in a good book when you keep tripping on confusing details and falling on your face.

Except I forgot to mention: you don’t have a face. You’re a peanut butter monster! Rawr!

If you’ve made it this far, have an excellent weekend! I am positively fried from the first week of school, but gradually finding my feet.

Do you like wordy prose? What do you think of the problem of linearity? What tips or advice can you offer to make wordy prose work?

Friday Fictioneers: A Branch Too Far

It began with a nest of sparrows in the oak overhanging the driveway.

Phil, annoyed at scraping bird poo off his Porsche each morning, sawed off that hospitable branch and laughed at the frantic chirping as he fed the whole thing into the woodchipper.

After that, the oak turned downright hateful. Halloween-like, it scraped fingers on his bedroom wall at night and, with one well-placed branch, punched a hole through the bay window.

The neighbors spotted him scaling the trunk the next morning with a chainsaw. Minutes later, it all came down – oak, Phil, and chainsaw – right on the Porsche.

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This story was written for Rochelle Wisoff-Fields’s weekly Friday Fictioneers flash fiction event. The challenge is to write a 100-word story using a photo prompt. As always, I welcome comments and constructive feedback and love browsing the other entries as well!

Copyright: Roger Bultot

Medical Microfiction: Pogonotrophy

Monsieur’s Moustache

Friday night at the pub and he’s caught me staring again.

“Do I have something on my face?” He wipes his spectacular whiskers, so carefully cultivated into a proud handlebar.

“Nah, you’re fine.” I quaff some beer to disguise my expression. Thank God I ordered the stout. It blocks out that monstrosity. Nearly. I can see its hairy tips protruding on either side of the glass.

“Are you sure? Because you keep giving me funny looks.” My friend looks cross.

How can he just ignore it? It’s right under his nose! The moustache rubs its whiskery ends together and hisses.

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Example of the English Moustache
Example of the English Moustache (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pogonotrophy is a fancy word for the art of growing that thick, coarse facial hair that men first get around puberty. Another name for this sort of hair is terminal hair, which also includes armpit and groin hair on both sexes.

Hair gets more complicated than that, though. Before we have terminal hair, we’ve got vellus hair, which is the fine, light hair found on children’s and women’s arms and legs. And before that, waaaay back when we were still in utero, we had lanugo, which is a downy and dark hair whose name means “wool” in Latin. Generally, this hair is shed before birth, or for some babies, in the weeks right after birth. In rare cases, something goes wrong and the child ends up stuck with her terminal hair her whole life, making her look kind of like a Wookiee.

Die Gartenlaube (1874) b 061
Die Gartenlaube (1874) b 061 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are your feelings on moustaches, my friends? Do you participate in Movember, that glorious celebration of all things hairy-lipped? Or are you, like me, more of a patron and appreciator of the Follicle Arts?

Link Roundup 8-12-13

A multicolored Perseid meteor striking the sky...
A multicolored Perseid meteor striking the sky just to the right from Milky Way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve conquered my first day of the semester with no problems, so I’m taking the suggestion of a reader and writing a little nightcap article. That means it’s time for a link roundup! Here’s some interesting reads that caught my eye around the interwebs this week. What’s happening on your blog? What fun or thought-provoking articles did you run across?

Writing

When you hire that poet on Craigslist to mock you, good things happen. I want to hire this guy for my birthday!

Author Cat Rambo shares some advice on the topic of wordy prose. When can you get away with it, and when should you just say no? It’s a longish read, but trust me it’s well worth your time.

I discovered a tool called Submissions Grinder this week that has been a treasure trove of information. It lets you search for fiction markets by word count, genre, and style, and additionally provides some interesting data on response time and percent rejections. I’m a bit of a data junkie, so this kind of thing sucks me in.

Science

Cool things afoot in the world of epidemiology as scientists test out a vaccine against malaria. My other favorite anti-malaria solution involves weedkiller.

This chemist writes an excellent rebuttal to a fear-mongering list that made its way around the ‘net about allegedly dangerous food additives. I love this article because it puts into words both our fear of all things “artificial” and “chemical” while showing why there’s no need to be so afraid.

Tiger cubs! Tiger cubs! Tiger cam!

One Awesome Video

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy brings us time-lapse footage of the sky over Australia during an eclipse.

Podcasts I liked:

 Drabblecast #97 – “Daydream Nation”: Ever wondered what the dating scene would be like if we could share our dreams when we met each other? This episode notably had one of my favorite pieces of 100-word flash fiction I’ve ever heard. It made me want to stand and applaud, and stayed with me for days afterward.

Drabblecast #99 – “Sarah’s Window”: a haunting little tale that explores the difference between how parents love their children and how, in turn, children love their parents. Reminded me of this E.M. Forster quote: “A wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and — by some sad, strange irony — it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love not with gratitude but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy.”

Motley Microfiction: Weekday Warriors

Around the tavern’s table sit the four most-feared warriors in all the land: Conan the Bloodthirsty, Robin Quicksilver, Esmeralda Copperflame, and their leader, Paisimander the Wise.

Dice clatter on the table.

“A disgruntled middle manager flanked by auditors appears,” says Paisimander. “Conan, you’re first.”

“My accountant casts Creative Accounting,” announces Conan.

“That’s a +2 deflection bonus versus mathematical attacks. The middle manager begins Motivational Blather.”

Chaos breaks loose. “Quick, someone interrupt him!”

“Cast Extra-Long Lunch Break?”

“No, try this: we duck into the Break Room for coffee.” Everyone grunts their agreement.

Dice clatter.

“Coffee maker’s busted.”

“Crap.”

“We’re so screwed.”

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Conan the Barbarian (1982 film)
Once, we were the warriors. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s story is an homage to the changing faces of heroism. I love RPGs, both in video game and tabletop game form. It cracks me up about medieval RPGS in particular how we indulge in escapism by imagining life in what was, objectively, a very hard time period to live in. While the life of a medieval warrior may have been pretty good compared to his peasant and serf counterparts, I’d wager he’d trade it all for the chance to be an accountant living now. Coffee breaks, dental insurance… what’s not to like about an extended life span?

And so today, I’ve given them a chance to live out their wildest fantasies in my story.

An insightful reader who previewed this story pointed out that in some ways, this reversal is also about growing up. We used to be the warriors, but then we became adults, got jobs, and are now the accountants. But we are more like warriors playing at being an accountant. Underneath we’re still the over-muscled heroes we were all along.

Do you enjoy RPGs? How do you feel about the change from weekend to weekday warriors in our old age?