So it turns out octopuses will never rule the earth.

Wow, here’s one of those science articles in The Atlantic–“Octopuses Do Something Really Strange To Their Genes” by the excellent science writer Ed Yong–that demand a full reading because every paragraph is a cephalopodic mind freak. Turns out that cephalopods have an extraordinary ability to edit their own nervous system genes in a massive way. The astonishing nervous systems and intelligence of the octopus has been created by editing the RNA, as if humans could go in and edit our own DNA to make us smarter, say. Which we can’t. Hence Trump.

The downside of this is that in order to this, cephalopods have to maintain the integrity of their RNA…and I mean maintain it over hundreds of millions of years. So their nervous systems have evolved to incredible degrees–human brains are much more intelligent than any cephalopod, obviously, but the other parts of our nervous system are infinitely less so–we can’t disappear into our surroundings, say, or communicate via rapidly changing colors in what is probably language, or control eight limbs that operate autonomously from one another. But if you carefully edit your RNA to dispose of any unwanted mutations you are essentially putting a brake on natural selection, that is, you are not letting evolution make the changes that alter the genome and create new species out of older species. Humans are the result of series of changes in genomes from apes twenty of thirty million years ago that went into overdrive about four million years ago. The Australopithecenes four million years ago were basically bipedal chimpanzees. Two million years later was Homo erectus , every inch a human. We showed up 200,000 years ago, though none of us today are exactly the same as we were then. We have not stopped evolving (our brains are larger, for one thing, and structured a bit differently). And we are still apes, just dramatically transformed by an extraordinary number of mutations. Our genome has changed fundamentally over and over, and you can even see that process at work around you. In me, for instance. I’m way taller than most people, everything bigger. I’m full of mutations. I could have eventually led to a sub species of really huge, really dumb homo sapiens–homo sapien brickus–and ruined everything. Luckily I had no kids.

But this can’t happen among cephalopods. Well, among coleoid cephalopods, the smart ones, that is octopus, squid and cuttlefish. Nautilus never made that adaptation–this may have been nearly half a billion years ago–and so never developed the ability to edit their own RNA. And while an ocean existence makes for far less evolutionary change over vast expanses of time than a land existence (the ocean changes very little, and is much safer) so that the nautilus today looks remarkably similar to the nautilus in 400 million year old fossil beds–natural selection at some point extended its lifespan to twenty years. That is a very good age for a mollusc (cephalopods are molluscs.). That was about how long our own early ancestors, australopithecines like Lucy, lived. Nautiluses have unedited naturally occurring mutations in their genes, and while Nautilus lives are so stable and unchanging there is little chance for any of those mutations to succeed as new species, it has lengthened their life span because living longer is apparently useful (or not unuseful, anyway). And that was a very fundamental change in the nautilus genome. Three hundred million years ago they probably lived no longer than an octopus, two years. The genome was fundamentally altered. Probably very slowly, over tens if not hundreds of million of years, but it was altered, and now a pet nautilus would live longer than your cat.

Your pet hamster would outlive your pet octopus, though. Would outlive virtually every coleoid cephalopod (that is, all the cephalopods but the nautilus). For at least 350 and perhaps as much as 480 million years the octopus has carefully maintained the vast number of edits in its RNA, because their extraordinary nervous system is based upon the integrity of that design, just as the computer you are reading this on can only function if the memory maintains the integrity of its design–go in their and randomly mutate the thing, moving chips around, deleting some, adding others, and you’ll be looking at a blank blue screen. The cephalopod nervous system, perhaps as extraordinary a work of nature as our own, is a delicate construct, built by billions of generations of cephalopods carefully maintaining the original RNA structure and making myriad new carefully selected edits. It’s like they’ve been speaking the same language for half a billion years with the same basic grammar, so that one could pick up a book written hundreds of millions of years ago and be able to read it still. It would be less changed than English now has changed from English a thousand years ago. There is a continuum in octopus RNA across deep time. Nothing has fundamentally changed, Roman Latin didn’t turn into Chinese. The same basic design has remained for half a billion years, just fine tuned to an amazing degree. Which means you can never have a giant six legged octopus attacking ships and tearing the Golden Gate bridge apart. You would need to have a genome that can change dramatically with unedited RNA allowing for mutation. Nor could ever have them leaving the water and becoming land animals. Or shedding limbs and walking about. Or flying starships and colonizing other planets. You can’t even change the octopus genome to let them live longer than two years.

So you have extremely intelligent invertebrates–smarter than probably 99% of vertebrates–trapped in bodies that, like some ancient, primitive molluscs of the Cambrian Era, live a couple years, lay a zillion eggs, fertilize them, and die. You can fine tune your nervous system till you are an eight legged Einstein but you can’t alter that ancient method of self-destructive reproduction. So you have invertebrate geniuses trapped in bodies designed for no brains at all. Octopuses will never rule the earth. They’ll live an astonishing two years–some only six months–and die. Squids live a year. Even giant squid live less than five years. (Their vertebrate arch enemy, the sperm whale, lives to be seventy.)  And so “Octopuses Do Something Really Strange To Their Genes” was one of the most exciting articles I ever read, and one of the saddest.

However…recently a deep sea Graneledone boreopacifica was observed guarding its brood for an astonishing fifty three months (the longest brood time ever witnessed in the animal kingdom)…which is over twice as long as the typical longer lived octopus lifespan (some live as little as six months). A female octopus spends about one fourth of her life brooding and then dies (of starvation) and if that ratio holds, the Graneledone boreopacifica could live as long as twenty years….or about the length of a nautilus life span. Somebody let some mutations slip through, apparently. Perhaps there’s no reason an octopus can’t live as long as a nautilus. An incredibly smart nautilus at that. Of course, that depends on whether those mutations don’t unravel that beautifully maintained matrix of RNA edits that goes back half a billion years upon which the extraordinary sophistication of the coleoid nervous system is dependent. But a problem solving, tool using octopus could do quite a bit in a twenty year life span. Maybe in a hundred million years we’ll know. Well, we won’t. We’re terrestrial animals, and mammals, and primates, and humanoid. Ours is a tough neighborhood. All the various human species have had a million years or two and then gone extinct. It’s a rough world out here on land.

I never metamorphic I didn’t like or if you can’t say something gneiss say nothing at all.

Beautiful little piece of reddish rock, layered, I picked up along the side of the road west of the Salton Sea under the assumption it was chunk of petrified wood. Closer examination at home showed that it is more likely a fossilized and mineralized square inch of beach, or perhaps grains of sand laid down in the bed of a slow moving stream, or in an inlet of the long gone sea. Buried and compressed it hardened into sandstone and then was folded into the earth, under millions of tons or rock, and heated by the mantle below (or perhaps the energy displaced by the slow movement of the fault beneath our feet), which transformed the component sediments into something still layered but harder and more crystalline. Gneiss. Not sure where the red came from. Perhaps this was once one of the red sandstones one sees everywhere in the West, littered with dinosaur bones. There was iron everywhere once, it seems to have turned all the sediments red. Perhaps there was more oxygen in the atmosphere then, enough to turn a tree into a torch at the slam of a baseball bat, enough to oxidize all the traces of iron in the sand into a brilliant red. Perhaps. That’s the theory, anyway.

Now I find this little rock here, in the sand, no metamorphic outcroppings let alone mountains for miles. So water dropped it here. Who knows how much weather that took? How many torrential rains and flash floods were required to drop this little rock here at my feet on these archaic flats? It sat there, glittering in the waning sun, surrounded by the sand verbena that clustered in vast herds across the ancient sea floor. They shivered in the dry wind, as if cold, though the temperature was near ninety and the rock was warm to the touch, as if right out of the oven. I picked it up and rolled it about in my hand, thinking of ancient worlds.

A rock on my desk

Damn, thought I found this nifty chunk of basalt out near Anza Borrego. It’s got a flat bottom (no jokes) and it is yet another rock I have on my desk for allegedly utilitarian purposes. This one, I told my wife, would make a great paperweight. But I just like rocks. I stood there in the ninety degree heat just west of the Salton Sea Basin, flowers in a zillion colors in every direction, fixated on the rock in my hand. I love basalt. I pictured it forming far below my feet, rising, cooling, a tiny bit of the earth’s mantle cooled and frozen into hard, simple stone. I was hoping it was a billion years old. I always hope basalt is a billion years old. It wasn’t. The basalt in the area was a mere hundred million years or so. Still, it does make a good paper weight, even if it’s a relative infant, mantle wise. There is something fundamental about basalt, a strength, a simple plainness, an assurance that our planet is solid and very real in the vast emptiness of the universe.

But a few minutes ago, eyes drifting from the TV where the LA Kings were being humiliated by yet another Canadian team, I started looking closely at my paper weight again. The lighter, granitic smears bothered me. Why were they there? And I hadn’t paid much attention to the bits of white on the surface. With the Kings collapsing in their own zone again, I grabbed a magnifying glass. It’s not a very good one, but through it I studied those white bits. Damn–structure. I screwed up my eyes and squeezed every bit of nearsighted vision I had remaining. Sure enough, there it was-a cylinder, ringed, tapering. Perhaps some sort of gastropod shell, some kind of pointy shelled snail maybe an inch long. I look carefully over the rock and see similar structure in some other bits. Shells. This is limestone. A very dark limestone. I took it into the kitchen and let water run over it. Wet, it’s nearly black. I found an article online about black limestone, and how to tell it from basalt. Basalt typically contains some larger non-basalt crystals. I pored over the surface of the rock again with the magnifying glass looking for crystals. Nothing. Just little hints of fossils. Bits of living things. This rock is made of organically produced structures that once contained soft bodied, skeletonless creatures, invertebrates. Organisms that needed the shelter of a shell they made themselves. Animals trying not to be eaten.

It dawned on me that I was holding in my hand the end result of the evolution of predators, of meat eaters, because before predation there was no need for shells. Everybody ate algae. There was need for shells or hard body parts or beaks or teeth. But I was holding those long deceased animals’ shells. A half billion years of protection against murder reduced to its basic minerals and a few whole bits and congealed together on the floor of the ocean after the animals shed or died in them, then pressed down by the weight of millions of years of sediments above, then hardened into rock, into this limestone. It’s like holding a handful of millions of untold histories.

The black color? I suppose it’s black the way some shales are black, shales of hardened darkened mud. I really don’t know. Basalt would have been so simple. Formed deep beneath us under the tectonic plates we stand on, and stretched out into ocean floors, then lifted up as the plates crunch into each other, pushed upward into mountains and then broken down again by water and wind and earthquakes, carried along by floods too many to count and left in the dirt at my feet between bunches of violet sand verbena and a few wild poppies. A simple story, basalt. Now I have instead a compacted chunk of the story of life, and I stare at the damn thing and feel hollow.

Facebook knows that a sucker is born every minute

(Written c. 2008, when social media users were much more innocent, apparently.)

I’ve discovered that it is possible to use Facebook without revealing any information about yourself at all. None. What is required for registration you make up. You use an alias email. Therefore nothing of use goes to Facebook or any of the big, scary search engines that trawl the databases for whatever reason. You can even set up a fan page using your own name that requires giving no useful information. (Did I do that?). What is astonishing about Facebook is how all the information it has acquired on people is given over completely voluntarily. No torture necessary.

The scary fact is that none of the info they have on you is ever eliminated. There is no law requiring them to get rid of that info, the way there is with financial institutions, etc. Indeed, there are no laws about Facebook whatsoever. People simply cannot get themselves to believe that anything on the Internet could be, potentially, deep down malign. (This has certainly changed.) Yes Facebook is now, right now, being used to collect information on citizens in ways that neither the Third Reich’s RSHA or the Soviet’s KGB could ever imagine. I know paranoid leftists and paranoid rightists who will readily give all kinds of personal information to Facebook without batting an eye. I wish I could say I’m being paranoid but I worked in that side of the industry (data mining) for ten years. It is all about acquiring as much information from as many people as possible. There seems no limit to what people will tell a website. They have analytical tools now of astonishing sensitivity and breadth, and have ways of storing information is usable forms that are beyond the average person’s understanding. I’d constantly see the new tools coming out to mine that info. They were able to get more and more specific. When you can direct ad campaigns at individual users—that means someone knows so much about you that they can accurately predict what will attract you to send money. There are technologies now that can be that specific across databases that contain millions of individuals. They can even see what those people look like. There are pictures of them posted everywhere. Not only on their own site but on other people’s sites. Facebook didn’t develop that technology as a favor to its users.

HR departments regularly go to Facebook and do a search on an applicant’s name to see what comes up. (This was new at the time.) The applicant doesn’t even have to be registered with Facebook. If some jerk posted a photo of you on their website smoking a joint and then tags your name…..there goes that job. Same with security clearances. Medical insurance. SSI. Credit companies. Homeland Security. And that is just in this country. They all use Facebook and people just pretend they don’t. People think Facebook is all about having friends. Facebook is about information. That’s why it’s worth a gajillion dollars.

Facebook knows that a sucker is born every minute.

Greenwich Weird Time


This July will have five Fridays, five Saturdays and five Sundays. Then August will have one Monday, seventeen Wednesdays and an indeterminate number of Thursdays, plus several unnamed days you can sleep right through. September will have no days at all, only nights. October seems to have disappeared completely, while November and December are now December and November. Weird. Apparently Brexit broke Greenwich Mean Time and until a replacement can be found, hopefully much more agreeable than Greenwich, things will be all messed up. Not that it matters to me, as I’ve been using the same Gloria Trevi calendar since 1993.


Five Fridays, five Saturdays and five Sundays, though you’ll have to look for Gloria Trevi calendars on your own. 

Our grandkids will never believe that people used to walk to the North Pole


Sea ice in Arctic shrinks to second lowest level on record. Could be ice free by 2030…. There is no going back, and won’t be for eons, perhaps until the next Ice Age. Incredibly profound change. The arctic will be open to navigation in the summer months before we know it. You’ll be able to go from the Chicago in the middle of North America to Novosibersk the center of Asia entirely by water. Hell, there might be “adventure cruises” doing just that within a decade or two. I think the melting of the Arctic will not only be environmentally and climatically profound, but it permanently alters geopolitics and even the way we view the world on an east-west axis, because the quickest way between Asia and America will no longer be via the Pacific. While we can barely get our heads around any of this, kids born today will have trouble believing that people used to walk on the North Pole. Global warming has happened so much faster than we thought it would.


Second smallest Arctic ice pack ever, despite the cloudy summer. (Image from the National Snow & Ice Data Center)

Beneath the Planet of the Ralphs

That Ralphs on Glendale in Glendale, the underground one, our pal calls it the Morlock Ralphs. I’d been calling it Beneath the Planet of the Ralphs, but English not being an agglutinating language like Sioux or Turkish or even long dead Sumerian (those poor things), one of those languages that can pile entire sentences into single words with all kinds of grammatical magic and trickery, an appellation like Battle Beneath the Planet of the Ralphs is just too cumbersome. Oddly, you could agglutinate it into a single noun (the-beneath-the-planet-of-the-Ralphs Ralphs), which is a throwback to the compounding possibilities in our Germanic past, like how the German Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän (Danube steamship company boat captain, once a real gig in Vienna apparently, unlike Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, which was just some smart assed German messing with our minds), could be rendered in English, given a handful of hyphens, into that Danube-steamship-company-boat-captain guy, all nouned together in one big noun, morphologically. But we prefer to keep them hyphenless as a series of separate nouns, having no problem with nouns following one another like a line of ducklings behind their mother, something that seems to drive Germans batty, es ist so unordlich. However, once we verb Danube steamship company boat captain guy (and I worked with a very attractive woman once who vociferously loathed verbing anything, it made her so mad, but that’s another story, and it is, actually, though I don’t think I ever finished it), we are forced to agglutinate those nouns supercalifragilisticexpialidociously into danubesteamshipcompanyboatcaptaining, which could mean, say, verbing a series of nouns just to annoy an attractive lady you work with. The problem with that in regards to the beneath-the-planet-of-the-ralphs Ralphs (aka Morlock Ralphs) is that saying we are beneaththeplanetoftheralphing (that is, shopping at the beneath-the-planet-of-the-ralphs Ralphs) would be interpreted as beneaththeplanetofthepuking which makes no sense at all, except in strictly morphological terms. An agglutinative colorless green ideas sleep furiously, colorlessgreenideassleepfuriouslifying something just to be irritating. Not that I mind being irritating. But saying Morlock Ralphs is easier.

Journey to the Center of the Ralphs is good, too–my wife came up with that one–but I am exhausted from all this wanton agglutinating and just want to lie here smoking and staring at the ceiling.