message board virus and cuttlefish
Wednesday, April 11 2007
The forecast was for rain and snow tomorrow, and, since the garage was now mostly empty of firewood, this meant I would have to harvest some more. But first I'd need to get the Stihl Farm Boss chainsaw working. I tried all the things suggested in the manual, even taking out the spark plug to dry it when it was clear the thing was flooded. Evidently I was doing something wrong.
So I drove into Kingston and took it to the place Gretchen had bought it, Herzog's True Value. Soon I was standing out on the sidewalk in front of the store with two employees as they tried to start it. I was careful to note how their procedure differed from the one advocated in the manual. For starters, both made their starting attempts without the chain brake engaged, a serious no-no according to the manual. Secondly, their use of the throttle seemed to be more experimental and less dogmatic than the manual suggested it should be. They'd start with it in the cold start position, give the start cord a couple pulls, and then click it open a tick wider, pull some more, and then click it even wider. Eventually they had to fetch a spark plug wrench to do the flooded engine procedure. After that, though, the saw started fairly easily, though not anywhere near as easily as I expected from my experience with things like lawn mowers.
Back home, in the woods behind the house, it took only a few minutes to cut up most of a dead oak tree I'd felled back in February. The Farm Cut through oak as if it was butter, with an order of magnitude greater enthusiasm than the 120 volt electric chainsaw I use around the house. Its abilities derive from more than just the strength of its engine, which is only rated a half of a horsepower more powerful than the 3.0 hp electric.
Having been sent by Slate.com to watch a few videos by the gangsta R&B artist Akon on YouTube.com, I found an interesting new form of virus propagating there. In the Comments & Responses section for the video "Smack That" were several copies of the virus. It's one of the chain mail variety, depending on the superstition of users to spread. This is how it reads (and yes, you better heed its message or you too are doomed!):
WHEN U R READING THIS DONT STOP OR SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN MY NAME IS SUMMER I AM 15 YEARS OLD i have BLONDE HAIR , SCARS no NOSE OR EARS I AM DEAD IF U DONT COPY THIS JUS LIKE FROM THE RING COPY N POST THIS ON 5 MORE SITES OR I WILL APPEAR ONE CREEPY NIGHT WEN UR NOT ExPECTING IT BY YOUR BED WITH A NIFE AND KILL U THIS IS NO JOKE SUMMET ING GOOD WILL HAPPEN TO U IF YOU POST THIS ON 5 MORE FLASH BOXES
Perhaps I've been living under a rock but I don't know some of the seemingly-adolescent terminology in this virus. What is a "flash box"? What does "from the ring" mean? I suppose it doesn't matter; evidently there are a lot of superstitious people out there willing to help this grammatically-challenged sequence of characters thrive in the YouTube environment.
While eating a pint of Ben & Jerry's pistachio icecream (the local Hannaford isn't yet carrying Americone Dream), I watched a fascinating hour of Nova about the cuttlefish, a plump cephalopod with short tentacles and an amazing ability to assume a wide variety of appearances. I'd had no idea how complicated the cuttlefish's disguise system was. It turns out that cuttlefish skin is densely covered with pixels similar in effect (if not in actual mechanism) to the kind used in an LCD monitor. They have several layers of these pixels, some of which are deeper in the skin and are as reflective as mirrors. The ones on the surface come in three colors that can be mixed and matched in various combinations to create other colors. Each pixel consists of a sphere of pigment that is normally too small to be seen unless muscles around it stretch it out into a disk. Every cuttlefish has about 20 million of these pixels on its skin, and since the surface areas of their skins are (on average) not any bigger than a 21 inch monitor, they actually have ten times the pixel density. In addition to their ability to control the color of their skin, cuttlefish can can also change its texture, suddenly erupting in patterns of bumps or fleshy spikes. All of these pixels and units of skin surface are controlled individually by the cuttlefish's brain, which is enormous by invertebrate standards. Usually the cuttlefish uses these pixels and skin bumps to imitate patterns in the seafloor around it, though sometimes (particularly during mating or when trying to hypnotize prey) they put on amazing strobing displays, with high-contrast stripes moving in waves across their skin. But if a cuttlefish wanted to, he could suddenly render a temporary tattoo of the Mona Lisa across his back and then make it get up and dance. (Or not; perhaps individual cuttlefish pixels share control signals with other pixels and such fine control is impossible.)
Laboratory tests have confirmed that cuttlefish are as intelligent as many mammals; they can, for example, learn two purely-symbolic rules connected with how to solve a maze. Unfortunately for them, though, they don't live long enough to acquire much wisdom. After about two years they get together and spawn, after which they quickly die.
When mating, the males grossly outnumber the females, using their pixels to decorate their skins with crazy animated displays. There's also a certain amount of fighting, but nobody seems to suffer much from it. The smartest and smallest of the males short circuit the process by making their skin pattern imitate that of the female, which allows them easy access to her. The female collects sperm packets from many males during this process, and can decide which to use later when she actually does the fertilization of her eggs (a manual, "conscious" process in cuttlefish). Interestingly, she uses the packets from "cross-dressing" males for a disproportionate fraction of these fertilizations. One theory is that cross dressing is an unusually-clever strategy, and that cleverness is a valued trait among the big-brained cuttlefish.
At some point today I went to the New York Times website and saw that Kurt Vonnegut had died at the age of 84. Before reading any more, I went out to the teevee room to tell Gretchen, who is a huge Vonnegut fan. "No!!" she cried, but of course this did no good. Vonnegut had spent a long time on this world, but he'd done what he could despite the futility and now his obligations were over. As methods of immortality go, being a successful novelist is one of the most effective. Unlike those of most other novelists, though, Vonnegut's were actually about the tension between meaning and futility. He'd also been keen to explore the tension between actually being righteous and simply acting that way for selfish reasons.
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