Extinction Feed

The story of a thylacine

In 2005, I took a photo of the thylacine on display at the Smithsonian and posted it on Flickr.

Smithsonian Thylacine

Flickr photos sometimes accrete slow conversations about the image. This morning, someone writing as Katster54 left the following interesting story:

You know why the Smithsonian thylacine has a pretty face? Because it is one of the three living thylacines shipped to the United States from Tasmania in 1902. Photographs of them alive in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. are on the internet. They were a mother and three children. The mother, in fact, was pregnant and delivered in her crate enroute from Tasmania to the United States. She was in bad shape when she arrived in Washington D.C. in May of 1902. The baby she delivered enroute only lived a few months. She lived until 1905 and I think the last one of this group had passed on by 1909. If you look at hers and her children's photograph when she lived at the National Zoo, you will see that she and her children had beautiful faces. 

YouthCan 2007

Monday, I took my son Peter to YouthCan 2007, a conference for kids on helping the environment through technology held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Most of the people attending were part of school groups, some from as far away as Argentina, Russia, and Iran, though most from the US. In all, attendance was about a thousand.

A couple of years ago, I tried to arrange for a delegation from my son's school to attend, but in our district there were too many bureaucratic obstacles, and so I failed. This year, when I received a reminder of the event via email, on whim I decided that Peter and I would attend.

I decided to drive in rather than take MetroNorth from Pleasantville, since once you get off MetroNorth it is a bit cumbersome to get -- via public transportation -- from Grand Central Station to the museum. We left home about 8:30 AM and got a nice parking space in the museum parking garage (for which I later paid a hefty sum: $43).

(I had arranged for a babysitter for my daughter in in the afternoon [$30-something], and for the Mother Hen bus service [$30] to get her from pre-school and take her there, so Peter and I had as much time as we needed. Museum admission was free with the event, but I had already run up over a $100 tab as soon as I set the plan in motion. And Linda Hirshman wonders in a New York Times OpEd piece wonders at the struggle of moms rejoining the work-force, or meditates on our competing obligations; or something. It cost a hundred bucks to spend the day with one child in NYC without the other. In my utopia, this would be cheaper.)

IMG_0264.JPGWe arrived before opening ceremonies began; opening and closing ceremonies were held in the Hall of Ocean Life -- with the full scale model of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling -- a great venue for any event. The room full of kids and chaperons was better behaved than one might have expected as we waited for the rest to arrive because there was so much to look at just in that one room.

Andrew RevkinAndrew Revkin, a science writer for The New York Times and author of the kids' book about global warming, The North Pole Was Here, gave what was essentially the keynote speech. He made the interesting point that he realized that after writing 300 NYT articles, the people he should have been writing to were kids, since the decisions affecting our current climate are already made and that the decisions made now and in the near future most affect those under 19. I would have liked to see his one-hour presentation on his trip to the North Pole, but I had Peter signed up for something else, and so just bought a copy of his book to read later.

There were three program slots to sign up for. Our first was EcoMedia, held by The Bronx River Art Center:

Become educated about the Bronx River environment through several student multimedia approaches with different tools involving ecoTV, ecoGames, ecoWeb, ecoSound, and ecoPhoto.  See an amazing project unravel before your eyes as students in this ecological workshop, translate ideas like invasive species or watershed physics.

This was my first exposure to 13-year-olds giving software demos. I suppressed the impulse to try to help. It made the biggest impression of all on my 9-year-old son, who had seen mommy do many or all of the things the kids were showing him how to do, but having kids show him was different.


Miamia Country Day School on combating world hungerThe next session we went to was held by third graders from Miami Country Day School and consisted of a series of presentations by groups of third graders on solutions to the problem of world hunger.

How much land is actually useful for agricultural purposes? Find out and learn about a more effective way to grow crops in many of the poor regions of the world. Be ready to take home all you need to make your own container garden. Make up a recipe with organic herbs flown fresh from our school garden for your enjoyment! This workshop is hands-on, nose-on, and mouth-on.

The kids were doing a splendid job. But the room was hot and crowded (too small for the number of people there) so we slipped off for lunch before the end.

In the cafe, we found the group who had given the ecoMedia presentation, so we sat with them when we ate our lunch.

Guerilla GardeningThe third session we attended was Guerrilla Gardening, held by sixth graders from the Salk School of Science in New York City.

Save the plants and save the world! Learn how you and/or your school can create amazing indoor gardens while recycling and reusing your kitchen refuse. Plant beans, corn, potatoes, ginger, and much more. Leave with a head start on your own garden!

The students collectively taught a lesson that they might have had at school with their teacher. We drew sketches of various kinds of seeds found in many kitchens (kidney beans, bird seed, popping corn, etc.) then we made planters for them out of clear egg cartons and each came home set up to sprout the seeds on our windowsills.

IMG_0306.JPGAfter that, we attended the lively closing ceremonies in which there was some moderated discussion of what we had gotten out of the day. One of the teenagers attending had submitted a compelling short essay that was read out loud.

Peter at the microscopeAfter the official conference was over, we paid a visit to the Discovery Room, one of Peter's favorite parts of the museum. He looked at live grubs and butterfly wings under the microscope. We also spent a while in the museum's enormous gift shop.

eathing a snack at the end of the dayAfter a snack in the museum's main dining room, we went up to the top floor and saw the Audubon exhibit and the dinosaur skeletons. we saw a few more exhibits and then headed home.

For next year, when Peter will be in middle school, I think I'll try again to get a school delegation together to give a presentation.

Quaggas in 2006

Happy New Year!

I am pleased to begin the New Year by reading the New York Times Magazine article on the Quagga rebreeding project: Can You Revive an Extinct Animal?

The quagga is or was an extinct subspecies of plains zebra. Zebras with quagga characteristics have been rebred from the surviving zebra population. Are the quaggas? I'd like to think so. I find the story behind the quagga rebreeding project quite fascinating. I first found out about it in 1999. Here's a lovely shot of Henry, a rebred quagga. Isn't it marvelous?

A rebred quagga in the New York Times

May the New Year bring more things like this.

MEANWHILE, our Year's Best Fantasy 6 will be published by Tachyon Publications next fall. The series had been dropped by HarperCollins last spring. We found out right before Christmas that Tachyon had decided to pick it up.

Viewpoint for the Burgess Shale at Emerald Lake

Here is an attempt to recreate the view of the Burgess Shale near Field, BC as seen from Emerald lake, BC. (Click here for overlay.)

Google Earth could really do with some better satellite photos of the Canadian Rockies. Also, I'm not sore how good their data for generating the terrain is, in that the mountains still didn't look quite right, even if you took the fuzzy satellite imagery into account.

However, the most significant problem was that the tools for adjusting viewpoint didn't work the way I expected. I couldn't get Google Earth to let me raise my gaze enough to see the mountain ridge when I seemed to be in the right spot to see the Burgess Shale from the lake side.

And here is what the view actually looks like. The Burgess Shale is located where the ribbons of snow are on the upper right of the ridge.

  The actual view of the Burgess Shale from the shores of Emerald Lake 
  Originally uploaded by Kathryn Cramer.

(By the way, I have more photos of the Canadian Rockies than you could possibly want to see in a Typepad photo album. And further to the subject of the Burgess Shale, the Royal Ontario Museum sells marvellous plastic Burgess Shale creatures. We collected the whole set.)

Yes, I could do with a change of climate, too, but I don't think that's what we're talking about.

The following passage nearly made me snort my coffee out my nose, except it seems the poor fellow is serious. The best way to prepare yourself for this is to get out your old Monty Python soundtrack albums (there must have been soundtrack albums?) and put on the little number from The Life of Brian, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." (OK, I don't have the record either, but imagine you do and you've just put it on.) Now we're ready:

Greens need to be more positive: Blair adviser

Porritt, who is now an adviser on sustainable development to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, makes the comments in his new book, "Capitalism: As if the World Matters", seen by The Observer and to be published this week.

The book argues that all sides should embrace capitalism as "the only economic game in town" and thus search for ways in making free markets work for a more sustainable future, the newspaper said.

Without change by environmentalists, "a continuing decline in (their) influence seems the most likely outcome", Porritt says in his book.

In an interview with The Observer, Porritt added: "Environmental organisations for many years (were) saying 'no' and protecting and stopping because in a way that became part of the culture of the movement.

"There's still a lot of criticising and blame-laying and not enough saying what solutions are available."

Instead, he argued, the movement must emphasise the positive, worldwide benefits of issues such as using clean energy to help tackle climate change.

"If you consider the way the environmental movement portrays climate change, it's the end of the world as we know it," Porritt told the paper.

"In reality, climate change could provide a stimulus to an extraordinary shift in the economy (and) it could improve people's quality of life. You never hear of all that," Porritt told the paper.

Regardless of one's opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism, Porritt's punchline is, um, really strange. He's trying to tell us to look at the upside to Global Warming, isn't he? My personal quality of would be improved by migrating to the garden spots of the world at planned intervals over the course of the year. (I really could do without experiencing a harsh Northeast winter ever again.) But that isn't what's under discussion.

But if we are to take him at least a little seriously, I suppose we should imagine all the marvelous species that might evolve in time to replace us. I hear some species of squid are pretty smart.

(And yes, it is possible that he's been comically misquoted. Porritt sounds a lot more sensible here.)

Pakistan: What happens next matters.

There's a lot of stuff I've passed on blogging lately. I just wanted to say that I am as interested as anyone else in what became of people in the path of Hurricane Wilma, the Bush administration as we know it lurching towards its unhappy ending, and whether Judy Miller keeps her job. And I have a couple of blog posts of interest to me personally on other subjects saved up for when I get a moment. (I did manage to get out a cute kid post.)

When the tsumani hit, I thought it was the disaster with the largest number of casualties in my lifetime. I looked into the matter and was deeply ashamed that I didn't even recognize the name of the Tangshan earthquake.

Mostly what I've been on about is trying somehow to convey the urgency of a situation in which over three million people are living without a roof over their heads, of whole cities with many injured without a single surgeon available to help, of winter weeks away.

The easy way out is to think that there's just nothing you can do. But that isn't the case. And yes, giving money is nice, but those red plus signs do not rain down upon the afflicted adding to their hit points allowing them to survive. The situation is much more complex than that.

And you know it, don't you?

If nothing else, bloggers can keep it on the front pages, which keeps up the stream of aid donations. But the whole surround in which two countries hold in reserve the possibility of firey death for everyone involved, i.e. a nuclear war between two heavily populated counties, and that this is the excuse of stymied relief efforts just has to be over. The degree of abandonment by the international community these people are experiencing is something that should not hapen to anyone anytime anywhere.

This isn't just about counties far away full of people you would never have met anyway. This is the modus opperandi of the 20th century right there in our faces if we care to see it. This is the Ghost of Cold Wars Past come back to haunt us.

What happens next matters. Try to save them.

Quake Benefit Tonight in NYC!


Via South Asia Quake Help:

SAWCC Earthquake Relief Fundraiser
Performances & Silent Art Auction
Friday, October 21, 7pm

Asian American Writers Workshop
16 West 32nd Street, 10th floor
(btw. 5th & 6th aves, NYC)

Please join the South Asian Women's Creative Collective (SAWCC) to help raise funds for earthquake victims in South Asia. 100% of proceeds will be donated to the Edhi Foundation and to community members giving direct aid at the grassroots level. Please bring in-kind donations of painkillers, blankets, and warm clothing. Home-made food will be served.

For more information on in-kind donations: www.yourdil.org/projects/relief


  • Musical Guest: Falu - "Hidden Gem" hot pick in Pop Montreal Festival, September 2005
  • Performances by: Alka Bhargava, Edward Garcia, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Tahani Salah, Suneet Sethi, Saba Waheed, Kron Vollmer
  • Visual Art for auction donated by: Jaishri Abichandani, Amanda Cartagena, Chitra Ganesh, Swati Khurana, Maxwell Fine Arts, Saeed Rahman, Chamindika Wanduragala

Directions to Asian American Writers' Workshop
N, R, Q, W, F, B, D, V, 1, 2, 3, 9 to 34th Street; 4, 5, 6 trains to 33rd Street

Un-Glasgow Photos

I've begun a photo album of what we did while David went to Glasgow, which features such amazing shots as James Morrow climbing a tree, the skeleton of an extinct Stellar's sea cow, and even a live bear in a dumpster.

Typepad won't let me into the Configure screen this morning, so I'll have to wait until later to do the album design work.  (Also, I've got to get on with my day in a few minutes.)


Elizabeth shows her teeth.

A tech note: The photos taken in Washington, DC are by far the sharpest, because they were taken with my brother-in-law Tom's expensive Nikon digital. The photos of kids in the kiddie pool were, in fact, taken by Tom. After DC, all the photos are taken with my video camera (most extracted from video footage).

The Pro-Extinction Right in Action

There is a jaw-droppingly stupid bit in this morning's NYT story, "New Rule on Endangered Species in the Southwest." I would ask what this Bush administration official was thinking, except that  I already know that the administration would like to see the endangered species act dismantled entirely. So this really isn't about thinking:

Dale Hall, the director of the southwestern region, in a memorandum dated Jan. 27, said that all decisions about how to return a species to robust viability must use only the genetic science in place at the time it was put on the endangered species list - in some cases the 1970's or earlier - even if there have been scientific advances in understanding the genetic makeup of a species and its subgroups in the ensuing years.

There is a notable passage earlier on:

Mr. Hall's ruling fits squarely into the theory advanced by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property-rights group in California, that endangered species be considered as one genetic unit for purposes of being put on the endangered species list and in subsequent management plans.

Remember the Pacific Legal Foundation? I ask again, what is wrong with these people?

A Few Distractions

Elizabeth, in a rambunctious mood, put her head through the door of one of our glass-doored bookcases. She is OK, except for a very small cut on the back of her head. I have a few small cuts on my left hand from reaching into the glass to pull her out. (Typical of that kind of mother injury, I didn't feel a thing. Carl pointed out that there was blood on my fingers.) Even the books on the other side of he glass are fine.

Having cleaned up the broken glass, I am calming down at the computer  with a cup of chamomile tea  and am finding much on the web to distract me from the rush of adrelin and maternal hormones:

Now back to my regularly scheduled workload.

The Pro-Extinction Right

My son Peter has been deeply interested in extinct and endangered species from a very early age. It has become one of my interests because it is one of his. So when I read news stories related to this topic, my reaction to it is tightly connected with how my son would feel about it. Sometimes we read these stories together; somethimes I find things I don't tell him about because I know how much they would upset him. Something I happened across today falls into the later category: The Pacific Legal Foundation's project entitled Putting the Endangered Species Act On Trial. This came to my attention because of news coverage generated by their press release PLF Launches Sweeping Lawsuit Challenging Critical Habitat for 48 Species in California:

Sacramento, CA; November 15, 2004: Pacific Legal Foundation today announced its intent to file a sweeping lawsuit against the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service, challenging the critical habitat designations for 48 listed species of California plants and animals.  The lawsuit will be a statewide challenge to the federal agencies broad failure to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in designating critical habitats.  PLF filed a 60-day notice of its intent to sue today.

PLF believes the lawsuit is necessary to fix four dozen critical habitat designations that are now invalid under recent federal court decisions.  In particular, PLF says all 48 California designations contain the same fatal flaws identified by a federal judge last year in PLFs landmark court victory that invalidated the designation of thousands of acres of land as critical habitat for the Alameda whipsnake.

Specifically, PLF argues that critical habitat designations throughout California violate the ESA because the federal agencies did not adequately identify the areas that are essential to species conservation and routinely relied on inadequate economic analyses in evaluating the social impact of designations as required under the act. 

In the old days, they would have argued as did the Chairman of the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company in 1943 right before he logged the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker into extinction:

We are just money grubbers. We are not concerned, as are you folks, with ethical considerations. (Philip Hoose, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, p. 129.)

These days, such men at least bother to lie. The press release has an extremely silly fig leaf of an argument that the lawsuit is to the benefit of the species named. (Come to think if it, this explantaion reminds me intensely of the Grinch's explanation of why he's taking the Christmas tree.) But a quick look at the project overview reveals that they have no interest in preventing extinctions, only in dismantling legal protections for endangered species. Their several attacks on the Bush administration are particularly noteworthy. Apparently Bush is too much of an environmentalist for them: PLF Calls Speculation over Bush Administration Policy on Salmon Nothing But a Political Ploy in an Election Year:  Environmental Activists Are Politicizing Issue after Losing in Court, PLF Says, and Bush Administration Salmon Policy Puts Politics Before Science, the Law and People. The Pacific Legal Foundation is after nothing less than having the Endangered Species Act declared unconstitutional.

Why? I wondered with rising horror. Do these people just not believe that species can go extinct? Or do they just not care? I looked at the names of the members of the PLF board of directors. I wanted to write to them and ask for some explanation. And if I asked nicely, I might even get one, but it would almost certainly be the same kind of doubletalk that goes into their press releases.

I looked up some of their directors on the web, examining their biographies as I would that of Ted Bundy, looking for clues as to what could have gone wrong with them to make them want to do this. Surely the answer mostly comes down to money, but just as not everyone motivated by money is a bank robber, neither does everyone motivated by money take on ecocide as a special project. What is wrong with these people? You tell me.

Field Guide to North American Thylacines

thylacineAs far as I know, only two museums in North American (and probably the Western Hemisphere) have thylacines: the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. As previously discussed, the Smithsonian thylacine is displayed behind a curtain. Today we hunted thylacines at the American Museum of Natural History. We looked. We asked. We were directed to the section on extinction and endangered species in the Biodiversity Hall. But no thylacines were in evidence. Finally, I spotted someone with a staff badge that read MAMMOLOGY and asked her about the alleged thylacine at the AMNH. She told me that the museum had two thylacines, but that she thought neither was on display. Thus concludes our summary article on thylacines in North America: your best it the view of a thylacine's butt available at the Smithsonian.

Along the way at the AMNH, we did find a dodo skeleton . . .

. . . and a flock of passenger pigeons . . .

. . . but no thylacine.

This extinction gig really sucks, doesn't it?

Portrait of Peter & calligraphy, Jae Leslie Adams, Letter Arts, Madison, Wisconsin.

The Tammar Wallaby Reintroduced in Australia

The Tammar Wallaby, extinct in Australia, has been reintroduced. I think this is neat:

ALMOST a century after being declared extinct in Australia, the tammar wallaby has been given a second chance of survival.

Twenty of the small rare wallabies, preserved on an island in New Zealand, were today reintroduced into South Australia's Innes National Park, at the tip of the Yorke Peninsula.

The species, once widespread in SA was wiped out in the early 1900s by foxes, hunters and land clearing.

Now, former SA Governor Sir George Grey has been heralded with saving the tiny wallaby by shipping a small number of the marsupials to New Zealand's Kawau Island in 1870.

Sir George took the wallabies to be part of his private collection but their numbers quickly swelled and became regarded as pests, digging and grazing in foliage and destroying native vegetation.

Twenty of the wallabies were brought to Australia last year and spent six months in quarantine before today's release into their homeland.

SA Environment and Conservation Minister John Hill said the reintroduction of the tammars was one of the most significant environmental events of the decade.

The Strange Case of the Veiled Thylacine

Speaking of thylacines, there is something I've been meaning to write about. In general, I really like the Smithsonian's new Hall of Mammals. But there is one thing about it that really irritates me: the thylacine is displayed behind a curtain. There is a dingo in the foreground, and dimly visible behind it is the outline of the thylacine. The Darwinian visual argument is that the thylacine was driven to extinction by the more highly evolved dingo. If you push a button, a light illuminates the thylacine so you can see it a little better, though still not very well. Here are a couple of pictures.

First, here is the thylacine's bottom, which you can see if you crane your head a bit.

Smithsonian thylacine's bottom

The Washington Post remarks that the museum staff had some problems with mounting the thylacine:

Extinct animals that are represented include the thylacine, an Australian mammal known as the Tasmanian tiger or wolf, which was wiped out by the dingo, a wild dog. The thylacine, a carnivorous marsupial, was also the hardest animal for the staff to mount and preserve. The museum received the skin in the 1920s, but the fur was in bad shape and needed major reconditioning.

Note that the Washington Post staff writer, Jacqueline Trescott, is under the mistaken impression that dingoes caused the thylacine's extinction. Dingoes may have wiped it out in Australia, but the thylacine's final demise in Tasmania, its last range, walked on two legs, not four. It is one of the really clearcut cases of a species driven to extinction by human action. The online Thylacine Museum's discussion of the thylacine's history from 1805 to 1933 concludes:

Guiler (1966) states that the last confirmed wild thylacine was shot at Mawbanna in April of 1930.  That year, a closed season on hunting was granted for December, the alleged breeding season.  On 7 September 1936, the last captive died in the Hobart Zoo.  Ironically, in that same year, thylacines received total legal protection.  By then however, it was far too late.

We can see hairless patches on the hindquarters; the Smithsonian's thylacine is not in great shape. But there can't be many out there to see. The Thylacine Museum lists only two on display in North America: the Smithsonian's and one at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The majority of the Smithsonian's visitors will never have seen a thylacine before and never will again. This is all they get: a veiled indistinct animal hiding behind a curtain presented as an evolutionary dead end -- a deserved extinction.

Smithsonian thylacine

This second picture was taken while I stood on one foot, keeping my other on the button to keep the light on. It is the best of several shots. Once I was finished attempting to take pictures, all the children had escaped and there was no time to read them the plaque. (The back of the dingo is in the foreground.)

So how did the thylacine come to take the veil? Was the Smithsonian embarrassed by its motley specimen? Was the person in charge of designing the "interactive" aspects of the Hall of Mammals given too much power and authority? Is the Smithsonian embarrassed to have acquired the pelt so soon before the species went extinct? Did someone with no concept of the scarcity of thylacine specimens design the exhibit? Did someone feel a sexual attraction to it perhaps? (Was Ashcroft struck with a desire to mount the thylacine?) Or is it a visual pun -- curtains for the thylacine? Who knows.

From the perspective of the future of mammals on this planet, the thylacine is one of the most important specimens in the Hall of Mammals, since on our current trajectory, many other species exhibited may soon share its fate.

Take down the curtain and face the Sixth Extinction.

How to Make a Thylacine Costume


Peter wanted to be a thylacine  for Halloween. (A thylacine is an extinct marsupial carnivore also known as the tasmanian tiger; its closest living relative is the tasmanian devil.) I made some non-committal noises and changed the subject. That sounded like real work, and I am quite overwhelmed at the moment.

But yesterday morning, a vision of how I could make a thylacine costume quickly and easily came to me. The key element of a thylacine costume is the tail: a long, stiff stripped tail. I knew I needed foam rubber, a material that would make a suitable thylacine hide, and something to stripe it with. After disappointing visits to a fabric store and an upholstery store, I would my materials at the hardware store: a yard of 72 inch-wide tan naugahyde, a linear foot of 18 inch-wide white foam rubber, and a role of dark brown duct tape. Peter is 48 inches tall, so one yard of naugahyde was enough. For someone taller, you'll need more.

When Peter got home from school, I measured the naugahyde against him and folded it over so that the doubled portion was long enough to make a jacket. I made a slit opening on the front and then cross-wise slits for the neckline. Then I draped the folded naugahyde over his shoulders (wrong side out) with his arms out to the sides and I drew in where the seams needed to be. I quickly sewed the seams with the eager children looking on. (This involved a certain amount of barking and snarling on my part: Don't step on that pedal! Put down the scissors! etc.) I had never sewed naugahyde before and I was much easier than I had expected. Then I clipped the extra fabric away from the arms and torso and drew the remaining cutting lines for the tail using the full length of the fabric, which when initially cut out looks a bit lite the tails on a tux. I sewed the two sides of the tail together and then turned the whole garment right side out. Next, I stuffed the tail with foam rubber so it was good and stiff.

Peter and I worked together with the duct tape to make the stripes on the tail and the back. Then I clipped the edges of the jacket portion to give it a more pleasing shape. Next, I set the kids up with something else to do and used the brown duct tape to finish seams and edges. I used foam rubber and duct tape to pad the shoulders and the chest so that the jacket hangs better.

After the tail and the stripes, a thylacine's other most striking features are its jaws -- which opened amazingly wide, its ears, and its dark eyes. It is my belief that a picture of a thylacine with its mouth way open was one of the inspirations for the alien in Alien. It was a scary-looking creature which is, I think, one of the reasons it is now extinct.

The design for the head is a hood in which the child looks out through the open mouth. I snipped some frightening teeth out of the foam rubber. I got Peter's raincoat and looked at the construction of the hood to see how to make the head. I made a naugahyde hood based on that. Then I made big ears out of two naugahyde triangles using duct tape and them sewed them to the hood using the machine. The two rows of teeth were attached to the inside of the hood using the duct tape. Then I snipped the (somewhat anime-influenced) eye shapes out of duct tape and stuck them to the head. I added a visor to the hood to lengthen the snout and made the dark nose with duct tape over lumps of foam rubber left over from making the teeth.

I'll take some pictures this evening when he wears it to a Halloween party. This morning -- after the fact -- it occurred to me to look for other designs for thylacine costumes on the web and I didn't find any. So I though as a public service I ought to write this down before I forget how I did it. I'm really pleased at how it turned out.


Extinction & the First Grade

Wednesday morning, Peter and I give a presentation on extinct species to his first grade class. Peter's been looking forward to this for months, and did some fine drawings that we could use. Topics of our previous presentations for his class include:

  • frogs (I brought our Australian White's tree frogs to school);
  • fossils (David bought someone's collection of fossils at a yard sale, which I have augmented);
  • the human brain (we have a model brain and I even made up a version of "Head, shoulders, knees, & toes" that begins cerebellum, frontal lobes, frontal lobes . . .);
  • and last time my dad, John Cramer, taught the kids about electricity and magnetism and told them about why he decided to become a scientist, resulting in several of the kids afterwards saying they wanted to be scientists when they grow up).
The schools around here benefit from a lot of this sort of thing, since there are a lot of high-powered parents out here. Looking through photos in the lobby of the kids' preschool, I saw pictures of one of the other parents, children's book author and illustrator Matthew Van Fleet, in a preschool classroom showing the art from one of his books and telling a story.

At Readercon last year, I moderated a panel (that I had also suggested) about the joys and challenges of intellectual life with small children:

[#45]Sat 10:00aF
Does Your Baby Make You Smarter? Kathryn Cramer (M), Samuel R. Delany, Alexander C. Irvine, James Morrow, Kit Reed, Katya Reimann. Kathryn Cramer says: "The conventional wisdom is that having a baby wrecks your career and halves your I.Q., but I think the reality is much more interesting." The pitfalls are often discussed, but what are the benefits to the creative process of having a small child in your life? Can simply talking and reading with a child on a regular basis change the way you approach your art? Do such activities actually change your brain as well as your child's?

It went very well and several people told me that it had really affected them. A male author who had been reluctant to have children despite his wife's desires had decided to agree that they should start trying.

When he was about two, and already very interested in animals, Peter got hooked on the subject of extinct species by the book Gone Forever!: An Alphabet of Extinct Animals. My mother was visiting and we went to Borders with Peter. We were shopping for books for him when he brought us, one by one, every copy of Gone Forever in the store. We took the hint and bought him the book. He loved the book but wanted more information on the animals in it, some of which -- the quagga, for example -- I'd never heard of.

The experience with Peter and what I learned about recent extinctions and attempts to clone extinct species inspired me to write the story "Disextinction, Inc.," published in the Futures column in Nature in 2000 as part of their millennial series of science fiction short-shorts, and available on the web from Fantastic Metropolis.

It seems to me that there are two main approaches to maintaining an intellectual life while caring for small children: compartmentalization and a more go-with-the-flow & learn-from-the-experience way of doing things. For better or worse, I've taken the latter approach. And while it can be tremendously inefficient, I've found pursuing topics that emerge from the interests of my children energizing and illuminating.

So there we were, Peter and I, in his classroom with a box we brought full of stuff to teach them about. I didn't know exactly what we needed to cover, since I was so used to my own very knowledgeable child that I was no longer in touch with what ordinary bright first graders knew about extinct species. In addition to an assemblage of Peter's toys, I brought a pile of beautiful books, including:

  • Rosamond Purcell's Swift as a Shadow. Purcell is a museum photographer with a loving and compassionate eye for her subject matter. The book is a compilation of museum specimens of extinct and endangered animals.
  • A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World's Extinct Animals by Tim F. Flannery, Peter Schouten: A beautiful pictorial book with recent extinctions in chronological order.
  • Errol Fuller's marvelously obsessive The Great Auk, in which he compiles most of what it known about the great auk. He has, for example, photos of all the known stuffed specimens and all the extant great auk eggs. In an interview about the book that I can't lay hands on just now, Fuller remarks estimates he spent about $200,000 of his own money on work on the book, a sum he's astonished he was able to come by honestly.

Our presentation ended up being quite concise. From a first grade perspective, extinction was something that happened only to dinosaurs. Together, Peter and I changed that point of view, acquainting them with fascinating animals recently gone extinct: the thylacine, the great auk, the quagga, the moa. At the end, I asked what people could do about the problem of extinctions. One eager boy, raising his hand urgently until I called on him, answered "Form an angry mob!" Then I read them my story "Disextinction, Inc." and discussed with them that they could become scientists and work on the problem of extinctions. Earlier in the presentation, I had explained the difference between and extinct species (the thylacine) and an extinct subspecies (the quagga), and told them about the quagga breeding project, and how they were rebreeding an extinct subspecies. (Look at this picture to see what they've been able to do.) I told them about extinct species cloning projects, but also explained that the very best way to deal with extinctions was not to let animals become extinct in the first place. (And indeed, forming an angry mob might work better than some more scientific approaches.)

Overall, I found it the most satisfying of the presentations I've given. The message was clear and was not one they will forget. I left the books there for the class to look at over the course of the day.

Environmental Health News

I discovered a very interesting news web site today, Environmental Health News:

www.EnvironmentalHealthNews.org is published daily by Environmental Health Sciences, a not-for-profit organization founded in 2002 to help increase public understanding of emerging scientific links between environmental exposures and human health.

Among other things, it carries a report of a study suggesting that Dioxin, not lampreys, drove the Lake Ontario lake trout to extinction.

Definitely worth a daily look.

AND SPEAKING OF THE ENVIRONMENT, how did I miss this Henry I. Miller guy's crazy attempt to exploit West Nile hysteria in order to reintroduce DDT? Sick, sick, sick.

New Species of Prehistoric Mammals

Peter's going to love this Washington Post story:

Six New Species of Prehistoric Mammals Discovered in Africa

Five of the new species are Proboscidea, or "trunked animals," the report said. These included three species of Palaeomastodon, four-foot-tall one-ton mammals with short trunks and tusks on the upper and lower jaws:

"They probably seemed like weird-looking pigs," said University of Michigan paleontologist William J. Sanders, another member of the team. The Chilga discoveries are the most recent palaeomastodons ever found. The animals apparently went extinct in Africa and never crossed to Eurasia.

The team also discovered remains of a new species of Deinotherium, another short-trunked animal with downturned tusks on its lower jaw. The Chilga fossil -- the oldest deinothere ever found -- was "about halfway between a large pig and a small hippo" in size, Sanders said. Deinotheres migrated to Eurasia, dispersed widely and evolved to elephant size before dying out about 1 million years ago, he said.

Chilga's fifth trunked animal was the earliest known species of Gomphotherium, a one-ton ancestor of modern elephants, which migrated to Eurasia and spread everywhere on Earth except Australia and Antarctica.

And finally, the excavators also discovered the largest and latest example of Arsinoitherium, a fearsome-looking beast with two divergent horns in its forehead. Before the Chilga discoveries, scientists speculated that the arsinoitheres lost a battle for habitat with the later-arriving Eurasian rhino, with which it shares a resemblance -- but no relation.

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party of Literary Discussion

I woke up from a dream that Peter was attending a writers workshop with a bunch of people I knew. I was very worried that he couldn't actually literally write, but Kathy Goonan assured me that his stories were good so they'd find a way around the writing part. He'd brought to the workshop an enormous beautiful blue beetle, which escaped, but after a long confusing dream sequence in which Peter's rabbit also escaped, the bug was caught and I could go. So I left and walked around town while he was at the workshop, and found myself at the counter of a line of cosmetics designed by M. John Harrison. The saleswoman was very eager to apply samples to me, and I was resisting. When I looked at the clock, it was just before 6, so here I am.

I think I'm done discussing the New Weird for now. I've feel like I've been the Mad Hatter's Tea Party of Literary Discussion.

I as I said yesterday, I was willing to entertain M. John Harrison and China Miéville's whole post-Seattle No Logos stance for the purpose of discussion, but what the whole exercise proved to me was that you can't really discuss literature in those terms unless you are talking only about a single author. I think I've learned my lesson and won't be drawn into a literary discussion on those terms again.

For the uninitiated, post-Seattle refers to the Seattle WTO thing as a pivotal event and No Logos apparently refers to Naomi Klein, who has codified post-Seattle politics or some such. It is the globalization of anti-globalization.

I have other problems with what I understand to be post-Seattle politics, but as a literary impulse, I think post-Seattlism is DOA. It energized the discussion by creating suspense but prevented most of the actual discussion from taking place.

In the interests of rejecting potential commercial globalization of their movement (or its symbolic exploitation or some such), they were very coy about who was in it or what works they were discussing, wanting instead to discuss matters of principle and say what their movement wasn't.

You just plain have to be able to say what you are talking about to have a meaningful discussion of literature. I think the noses out of joint are largely a result of the failure of this experiment.

Now that we've celebrated the unbirthday, I think I'd like my cup of tea, please (or coffee, actually).

MEANWHILE, Greg van Eekhout's readers discuss the Harrison interview in Strange Horizons in which he says,

I think it's undignified to read for the purposes of escape.

(Via Patrick Nielsen Hayden by e-mail.)

Well, enough lit-crit escapism and screaming literary class anxiety! Let's regain our dignity and see what's been going on in the world while I've had my head buried in people's fantasies about fantasy.

Tecnhonrati's breaking news appears to be broken at the moment, which is unfortunate, since that is my favorite way to read news.

ON HUMAN ORIGINS, there have been a couple if interesting news stories in the past few days.

This morning in the Financial Times, I see

The oldest known fossils of modern humans have been discovered in Ethopia. An international team led by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found the skulls of two adults and a child dating from 160,000 years ago - 40,000 years earlier than the previous oldest remains of Homo sapiens.

The discovery, described on Thursday in the journal Nature, fills a big gap in the human fossil record: the absence of accurately dated hominid remains in Africa between 120,000 and 300,000 years ago.

(I should have read my e-mail from Nature more closely, otherwise I would have known this already!) Here's Nature's summary:

Evidence for the 'Out of Africa' hypothesis for the origin of Homo sapiens has been questioned because of the lack of African hominid fossils from a critical period, between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago. New finds from the Middle Awash region of Ethiopia have filled that gap. A near-complete adult skull and a partial child's skull have been dated to about 160,000 years old, making them the oldest remains that can be firmly assigned to modern Homo sapiens. In addition this shows that morphologically modern humans had emerged long before 'classic' Neanderthals vanished from Eurasia. The series of illustrations on the cover, by J. Matternes, are reconstructions based on the fossilized adult male cranium from the Herto locality.

Also, and more significant in a science-fictional way, is the suggestion that we are all descended from a human population of about 2,000 which lived about 100,000 years ago and that there was a point when our species nearly went extinct. This is based on lack of genetic diversity among humans as compared to our closest relative, chimpanzees.

There's a novel in that. (Paging Rob Sawyer!) I can't find the version of the story I was reading yesterday, but here's the ABCNews version.

ONE FURTHER NEW WEIRD REMARK: I just encountered an interesting Naomi Klein quote about the post-Seattlism: This is a movement that has declared it has "no followers, only leaders." This was exactly what was wrong with the New Weird discussion; an attempt to follow that model when discussing literature stood this inclusive discourse on its head.

THE LIGHTER SIDE OF SPACE OPERA RESEARCH: Found as a reply to what must have been a bit of porn spam inserted into the Yahoo Space Opera Discussion Group:

Look, if we wanted great sex lives, we wouldn't be reading space opera, so go find a more appropriate group to post in!

I'm still wipping the tears out of my eyes.

And check out this reader testimonial in praise of reading for escape:

One of my greatest loves in SF is the Space Opera. You can't beat it for sheer mindless entertainment, and sometimes, you just don't want to have to think about the hero's motivation. Or the alien's. You just want to blast things. Space Opera is perfectly suited for that.

For sheer space operatic fun, I don't personally think that anyone beats Edmond Hamilton. You can't get any more operatic than the works of someone nicknamed "The World Wrecker."