Tag Archives: biology

Worldbuilding with Inkarnate

All speculative fiction writers know about building worlds with words, but what if you need more than words to visualise the space in which your story takes place?

I’m a bit of a perfectionist yet even so, I recently discovered that a guestimate right at the start of Vokhtah was not only wrong, it was very wrong. That, plus needing a distraction from my first jab of AstraZeneca, lead me to Inkarnate, a brilliant, fantasy map making app.

Within the first week of playing around with Inkarnate, I had a map of Vokhtah that was a million times better than the dinky map I’d made using only Corel Draw 8. The trouble was, the more I worked on the map, the more I noticed the gaps in my worldbuilding. You see, the eyries of the Vokh don’t just appear as haphazard dots on a map. They are chosen for very specific requirements, such as:

  • the security provided by the cave system,
  • the proximity to water [and hence to food animals]
  • and the distance from other Vokh [the greater the better].

But if eyries have pre-requisites, so do the Trader caravans that service them. All iVokh can fly, including the Traders, but few can fly well. As for the Plodders who carry the bulk of the Traders’ goods, they can barely fly at all. And this is where biology and terrain combine to create problems, because if eyries need to be near water, but Plodders can’t fly over obstructions like rivers, how do the caravans travel from gather to gather? [A gather is like a human market place.]

In book 1 of Vokhtah, the only river the Traders had to cross was the Little Blue, and it had almost stopped running by the end of the dry season [Tohoh]. The ford across the river was dangerous but doable. But then what about the other seasons?

In my current WIP, I sidestepped that problem by saying that no caravans could travel during the wet season [Kohoh]. Neat. Unfortunately, when I came to filling in the Inkarnate map, I could no longer avoid the issue of terrain because the story of Vokhtah continues on past Kohoh into Tuhoh [the season of new growth] and beyond.

How in heck was I going to solve the problem of river crossings?

The solution to the problem of rivers required a complete rethink of the map, starting with geology and basic physics. Water always flows downhill, and depending on the slope and density of the material it flows through, it either slows down and spreads out:

… or it runs swiftly and carves out gorges. And sometimes it creates land bridges that span the gorge from side to side:

Or sometimes the bridge is actually the rim of a pool that sits high above the river. When the level of water goes back to its normal level, the rim provides a way from one side of the river to the other:

When there is too much water in the pool, it cascades over the rim and becomes a waterfall that feeds the river below:

And yes, I spent a couple of days just researching rivers and terrain here in Australia. 🙂 Much of the info. I discovered came from these videos:

The middle video was shot by an amateur so the helicopter noise is quite loud, but it feels real, as if you’re sitting in the helicopter, experiencing the trip along with the pilot and sightseers. Videos 1 and 3 are professionally produced and provide better visuals.

One of the things I learned was that Katherine Gorge, which is where most of the images were shot, is actually a deep cut through a plateau. All the images I’d seen before this were from the river level and made it seem as if the gorge had cut its way through a flat plain. Not so.

The realisation that the gorge was part of a plateau changed my whole perspective about the Inkarnate map, and how the eyries and caravans [of Vokhtah] would interact with the geology. The end result is this:

Click the image to zoom in closer. The legend on the left identifies the icons used in the map, including the eyries belonging to the Vokh, from the most powerful [large purple] to least powerful [tiny white].

The fuzzy purple areas represent the native vegetation of Vokhtah. As the planet is quite different to Earth, I had to re-imagine the evolution of plants without chlorophyll [the thing that makes Earth plants green and which they use to synthesize food from sunlight, water and minerals in the soil]. I pinched the idea from Earth plants that don’t have chlorophyll of their own. They’re basically parasites, but hey… 🙂

To be honest, I can’t remember exactly why I chose purple/lavender but you’ll notice that most of the water sources on the planet are shades of purple as well. A trick of the visible light off water in a binary star system maybe? The notable exceptions are The Eye [the lake at the top of the map], and the two rivers flowing out of the Eye [Little Blue and Big Blue]. The Eye is a maar lake and it was formed from a volcanic eruption.

This is a photo of Blue Lake in Mt Gambier [Victoria, Australia]:

Click the link above to discover more about volcanic activity in Victoria.

All of the photos and videos in this post are of Australia, and this ancient land was my inspiration for Vokhtah. Thanks for coming on this little journey with me. 🙂

In my next post, I’ll start posting tips and tricks I’ve learned about Inkarnate, and how to use it with Corel Draw 8 to achieve special effects.

cheers,
Meeks


Pleasure and Pain, the carrot and the stick

Philosophers have been talking about human motivation since the time of Aristotle. Are our actions motivated by reason or feelings? Logic or instinct?

As a writer and someone fascinated by biology, I’m hedging my bets a little. I think most of us are motivated by feelings, but I believe many of those feelings are learned responses and as such, can be influenced by reason. Furthermore, I believe all warm-blooded creatures on this planet ‘tick’ the same way. We are all driven to seek out those things that give us pleasure and learn to avoid those that give us pain.

That’s pretty basic. In humans, the fear response – i.e. I-must-avoid-xx-because-it-is-painful – is controlled by the amygdala, an incredibly powerful part of the brain. The amygdala only has to experience something painful once. After that, it will warn us with ‘fear’ whenever we are in danger of repeating that experience. This is a great survival trait in the wild, but not that great in an ordered, civilized [with a huge grain of salt] world. Just think about phobias about spiders or snakes etc.

On the other side of the equation, a newborn baby’s suckle response is instinctive, but most other pleasures are actually learned. What baby is born liking ice-cream? -cough- Or alcohol? And that is a nice segue into learning to like things that go against our survival instincts.

“I tender as my first item of evidence, your Honour, the human love affair with motorbikes, motorcars and other machines that go fast and are highly dangerous.”

You’ll notice that apart from alcohol, I haven’t talked about pleasures that are, or become, addictive. Addiction is, to a large extent, a physiological disorder rather than a ‘choice’ whereas driving fast cars is something we choose to do for a variety of reasons.

But learning to like things that may be bad for us is not restricted to humans. All warm-blooded species to it, even those so-called lower order animals that are said to function solely on instinct.

Having grown up with animals, I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of pure instinct – i.e. the mechanical performance of actions without any element of choice [my definition only]. Am I trying to say that my dog and cat use logic like we do? No. But the mere fact that both species share my home, and actually seem to seek out each other’s company, is a fair indication that something has overcome their instinctive fear of and aggression towards each other.

Taking personal experience one step further, all the birds in and around my garden know two things about me:

  1. I put tasty things out on the compost, and
  2. I would never harm them

One magpie has taken this trust a step further and will take scraps of meat from my hand. I should also add that none of my magpie neighbours dive bomb me during nesting season. They will dive on Golli and Mogi [cat and dog respectively], but never on me.

Yet this lack of aggression is far from normal. I still remember walking through a park when the Offspring was very little and being chased by a pair of very angry magpies. I suspect most Australians will have their own stories of magpie aggression, so the behaviour of ‘my’ magpies is not ‘normal’, instinctive behaviour.

One of the most extreme examples of such counter-instinct behaviour is the story of the lioness who adopted a baby oryx [a kind of deer or antelope]. The story has a sad ending, but not because she ate the baby:

Closer to home, here’s a video about a cat that adopts ducklings:

So if all these examples are neither pure instinct nor the result of reason, then what are they?

You might say that in these two cases of cross species adoption, mother ‘instinct’ becomes stronger than survival instinct – i.e. knowing what to kill in order to eat. I prefer to think that the pleasure of mothering over-rides the instinct to kill for food.

Does the lioness reason her way to action? I very much doubt it, but then how much reason do we use when we put our own lives at risk to rescue a child from a burning house, or to drag someone from shark infested waters, or any other act of heroism you care to name?

Frankly, if reason were our motivator, no child would ever be rescued, no hero would ever be presented with a medal. Reason would tell us ‘this is crazy, don’t do it’.

So does that mean reason has no part to play?

Personally, I believe that reason builds a habit of belief, and it’s that belief that over-rides pure instinct. What kind of belief? How about courage, or honour, or the distinction between right and wrong, good and bad?

When we uphold those beliefs, and survive the experience, we are rewarded by a sense of satisfaction or pride. That is a form of emotional pleasure. On the other hand, if we don’t uphold those beliefs, for whatever reason, we are haunted by feelings of guilt and shame, both of which are examples of emotional pain.

I suspect that logic and reason are like muscles, the more we use them, the stronger they become, allowing us to over-ride some of our instinctive reactions to pleasure and pain. But…however we may rationalise our actions after the fact, the driver of those actions is still going to be a feeling rather than logic.

I’ve been thinking a hell of a lot about motivation lately, but I know reality is far more complex than the ideas I’ve explored in this post. I’d love to hear what you think. Are we rational creatures or puppets driven by biology…or maybe something in between?

cheers
Meeks


My Favourite Bits…Vokhtah

It’s that time. Sorry. Rather than posting an excerpt from Vokhtah today, I want to talk about language, and how it is the true, living history of a race or culture.

Think about Shakespeare. The Bard died in 1616, yet many of the words he made up…yes, made up…are still in use today. According to litcharts.com there are 422 words that almost certainly originated with Shakespeare. Many are nouns turned into verbs, or two words smooshed together, but they did not exist in that form until The Bard made them so. Want some examples? Here we go:

https://www.litcharts.com/blog/shakespeare/words-shakespeare-invented/

You can find the complete list by following the link to litcharts.com, and I guarantee you will be surprised.

Yet why should we be surprised? We know that jargon/slang changes from generation to generation. Who would have known 30 years ago that ‘my bad’ could mean ‘I apologise/I’m sorry/I was wrong’? Language always changes to reflect the needs or concerns of the time. It’s just a different way of looking at history.

So why am I making such an issue of language? Well, it’s because one of my favourite bits of Vokhtah is the language I created to express who and what the characters are.

There’s a Vokh-to-English dictionary at the back of the book, but in reality I didn’t use many of the words in the actual story. Readers quickly work out that ‘ki’ means ‘no’ and that a wingspan is fairly wide in relation to the size of the body. Fingerwidth is pretty self explanatory too, but the pronoun ‘it’ is where the conlang [constructed language] becomes most noticeable.

Remember how I explained that all Vokh and iVokh are hermaphrodites? Well, how can you use ‘he’ and ‘she’ when the character is both? Take away the gendered words and all you have left is ‘it’. Once you start using the word ‘it’ though, other words become problematic…like ‘I’ and ‘you’.

I solved that problem by using ‘one’ or ‘self’ instead of ‘I’, and just for fun I turned the word ‘you’ into a very nasty swear word. But then I really started to dig myself into a hole. How on earth could I write dialogue without pronouns? Try it. ‘Tain’t easy, and sounds really…ugly.

I’m not a linguist, but I do speak a smattering of seven languages [only two properly!], so the sound of the language was really important to me. I was seriously thinking about not having any dialogue in the story at all when Hungarian, and to a lesser extent Japanese, came to my rescue. Pronouns do exist in both languages, but who is speaking is often obvious simply by the form of the verb.

This is what the present and past tense of the verb ‘To Go’ looks like in Hungarian:

https://www.verbix.com/webverbix/go.php?&D1=121&T1=megy

For more on Hungarian grammar, please follow the link to the website.

Hungarian is my mother tongue so I’ve always known that in common speech, you almost always leave off the pronoun because it’s obvious from the form of the verb. In the graphic above, if you ignore the pronouns [shown in green] and just look at the verb forms, you’ll see that the verb changes… for each pronoun. In fact, the form of the verb is unique for each pronoun.

Thus, if I wanted to ask where you [plural] are going, I’d say:

Hova mentek?
[Hova is ‘where’. Mentek is the plural form of [you] go because the ‘you’ is known from the verb form itself]

From there, it was a fairly easy step to reach: ‘”Where going?” it asked.’ The number of iVokh ‘going’ is understood from the context of the paragraph. If you’re talking about multiple iVokh then the question implies more than one. If only one other iVokh is present then the question implies the singular.

From the Japanese, I borrowed the short, sharp form of the men’s language to allow for commands. Thus: ‘”Hold!” it cried.’

And then, because I’m a bit of a masochist, I added a bit more biology in the form of the cilia. Cilia are like tiny pipe organs, and they are how my aliens breathe and speak [the mouth is used only for eating].

But what is the most noticeable thing about pipe organs? It’s that they play chords – major [happy], minor [sad] and variations on discord. Thus the words are automatically coloured by an emotional element, making it unnecessary to say “Self feeling sad” etc.

Finally, I added one more bit of biology – scent glands at the base of each cilia. I blame Golli for this one. Golli is a cat, and when I pick him up for a cuddle, he always rubs his cheek against my shoulder. Yes, it’s a sign of affection, but it’s also his way of scent marking his territory via the scent glands in his cheek. So he’s really saying “I love you, and you’re mine!”.

The Vokh and iVokh never show signs of affection, but those scent glands do produce cues that sometimes ‘leak’ into the air as they speak. Think a whole range of sneaky farts that all ‘mean’ something different. So the spoken language of Vokhtah – the actual words used – can be quite rudimentary because two other emotional cues provide richness and context.

On the cultural side, I decided to make life even more difficult for myself by not having public ‘names’, only titles or ranks. There are strong biological and cultural reasons for this, but I can’t tell you what they are because the published story hasn’t revealed them yet. Suffice to say it’s all because of the big, nasty Vokh. 🙂

The cover of Vokhtah, book 1 of the Suns of Vokhtah series

One of the very first people who read Vokhtah said that I should change the dialogue into everyday English. I did think about it, for about five, very unhappy minutes. Then I realised the obvious: Vokhtah was going to be a difficult book to read no matter what, so asking Readers to get used to the dialogue was peanuts. And really, how could I change the language without changing the very core of the story?

Inevitably, this begs a whole slew of uncomfortable question: why bother creating such unappealing, difficult aliens in the first place? Why go to so much work and effort to write a story only a handful of people are likely to read? Why not use the tried and true trope of having a human main character who could ‘explain’ the bits that really needed explaining?

I guess the most honest answer to all those questions is the same as for the question: why climb Mount Everest? It’s because I wanted to.

Like almost every speculative fiction author I know, I wanted one shot at creating something new. Something that hadn’t been done before. A world that was not Earth, and an alien that was not human.

There’s a lot of ego involved in trying to climb the writing equivalent of Everest, but it’s also a rite of passage because it’s hard, bloody hard. For that reason alone, Vokhtah will probably remain the best thing I ever write. Also the least commercially viable. C’est la vie, n’est ce pas? [That’s life, right?]

Thank you for following me down this linguistic path, and if you know anyone who might be interested, Vokhtah will be free for five days starting on March 16, 2021 [that’s not until tomorrow for Southern Hemisphere readers]. I’m not expecting to make money out of Vokhtah, but I would dearly love to see one more review to bring the total up to 20.

Okay, that’s enough honesty for one day! lol

Much love,
Meeks


Climate Change made easy

One of the very first posts I ever published on Meeka’s Mind was this one. It hit the internet on December 29, 2011 and received two likes and two comments.

In that post I wrote:

‘…ordinary people like you and me are at the top of the list. We don’t understand the science – no surprise there – so we only know what the media choose to tell us, and the media are having a field day playing both sides against the middle.’

Absolutely nothing has changed since 2011. In fact, things have gone from bad to worse with idiots in the Federal government professing their undying love of coal on the floor of parliament:

As for the mainstream media, it continues to capitalise on the confusion by giving climate change deniers equal air time with genuine scientists. Sadly, even when the scientists do get to put their case to the general public, they lack the communication skills to present the data in a way non-scientists can understand. That’s why some deniers can get away with saying:

‘Yes, things are getting warmer, but its just natural cycles.’

‘Yes, things are getting warmer, but its just sun spots.’

‘Yes, things are getting warmer, but humans aren’t to blame.’

‘Yes, things are getting warmer, but technology will fix it.’

‘Yes, things are getting warmer, but it’s an act of God or Nature, and there’s nothing we can do.’

‘Yes, things are getting warmer, but it’s the fault of industry and there’s nothing I can do about it.’

‘Yes, things are getting warmer, but trying to fix it is too hard and we’ll all give up our comforts, so let’s just pray for a miracle.’

‘Yes, things are getting warmer, but it’s just the UN spruiking for more funding.’

‘Yes, things are getting warmer, but its just scientists scrambling for more research grants.’

I could go on, but I think you get my drift. Like all forms of manipulation, the most effective denials are the ones based on a tiny kernel of truth. Sifting the truth from the lie, however, requires the skills of a people person, someone who knows what they’re talking about but can communicate it in an easy to understand way.

One such communicator is my friend, Yorgos. We met on Twitter [@YorgosKC] but he also has a blog on WordPress and publishes novels on Wattpad. As an Indie author, Yorgos really does know how to communicate, but perhaps the most amazing thing about him is that English is not his mother tongue. I wish I could write as well in a second language!

Anyway, Yorgos commented on my recent reblog about climate change, busting climate change myths left, right and centre. The chart he refers to is on the original post which you can find here. Yorgos’ reply was so good I simply had to reproduce it here:

‘I got scared about it [climate change] a few years ago when I was in uni, studying physics and in “physics of atmosphere” we’ve been learning (to write it at exams to pass the lesson, mind you!) “We currently burn a year as much oxygen as earth created in a thousand years, which is not alarming, at all”. This, to me, was alarming. To save you the maths, it actually means, even if we forget this oxygen turns into carbon dioxide (which cause the global warming), human’s future is bound to be shorter than human’s past. And we were thought to consider that as “not alarming”. If “we”, the “specialists” think that, try to convince the ones that don’t know any better.
Now, to make a few things clear, if I may, global warming would have happened even if humans had never existed. But, as the chart shows, in a much slower pace. Also, the Sun’s regular 11-year circle raise of activity affects Earth’s temperature. But right now, Sun’s activity is at its lowest. Therefore, 2019 – if the Sun was the reason – would have been one of the coolest years of this decade. So, no, don’t blame the Sun. If you don’t believe me, check SOHO’s photos and you’ll see there are no spots on the Sun (the more the spots the hotter the Sun is). I’m mentioning this, because I’ve heard more than a few saying, “it’s the Sun. We can’t do anything!” It’s not! Furthermore, immigration to Mars (or anywhere, if that matters) is something that is not feasible, and won’t be feasible for centuries, but let’s say, 50 years. So, no, this isn’t a solution.
Finally, Earth is not in any danger. This change that affects less than 32km ring (including Troposphere) of a 16,400km radius sphere (including the whole atmosphere) doesn’t bother Earth, at all. But! It affects nature and life on Earth. And this nature, indeed, has its ways of “reducing damage” but doesn’t care about a few species, like humans. It won’t protect us, by all costs. Cockroaches and plants are enough for it. Also, neither a God, nor an alien super-civilization cares to save us. So, we should not expect a miraculous solution.
So, then “It’s the governments”. Right. That’s true, I won’t deny that, but, it’s also in the hands of each of us. Do you leave your router on while sleeping? Do you leave other devices on stand-by, instead of turning them off? Do you leave lights on, when you don’t need them? Do you use your car, unnecessarily often? These and so many other things we do daily, without giving them a second thought, are translated in raise of carbon dioxide (why the electricity part? because of the factories creating it). And you may think, “what difference will it make if I don’t do that?” A small one, true. But if all people do that it will make a huge one. So, it’s a start. So, yes, the governments and the industries should adjust, but this isn’t in my hand, but there are things that are in my hand. And your hands, too, so, let’s do what we can do.
That’s all. Sorry for the long, boring reply. Thank you for the very interesting post. And let me correct a fact on the chart: There are still Pokemons in North America 😁’

The one thing I’d like to add to Yorgos’ comment is a little bit about the time factor. During the normal warming and cooling cycles of the the planet, change happens very slowly, literally over thousands of years. This slow pace of change allows life on Earth to adapt to the changing environment, but this adaptation isn’t a conscious thing. Animals don’t look up and go ‘Ut oh, things are getting colder/hotter, I’d better start growing a longer/short coat’.

No. Adaptation to change in the environment happens at the species level…if the particular species is lucky. That luck depends on two main things:

  1. Firstly, individuals in the species have to be born with small mutations that make them better suited to the changing environment. For example, if it’s getting colder, a mutation that made an animal’s undercoat thicker would help it survive the cold better. If it survives better, there’s a chance it’ll have a better chance of reproducing and passing the helpful mutation to the next generation. As more individuals are born with this helpful mutation, they are more likely to meet and interbreed. If this happens, there is a chance that the mutation may become stronger. In time, there’s a chance that this new, helpful mutation will spread throughout the entire population, making the whole species better able to survive the cold.
  2. But spreading a helpful mutation through an entire population requires time. This is why cockroaches [and insects in general] possess a huge advantage over mammals like homo sapiens. Unlike us, all insects reproduce very, very quickly.

The following article talks about the four main types of cockroaches found in North America – German, American, Oriental and brown-banded:

https://animals.mom.me/long-roaches-reproduce-11115.html

I found this factoid particularly disturbing:

‘German cockroaches mature so fast that only a few weeks after hatching, they’re ready to make babies of their own. When you take all the different generations into consideration, one female can be the matriarch of up to 35,000 roaches.’

Now, let’s imagine that one of those German cockroaches is born with a mutation that makes it immune to cockroache bait. If it survives to adulthood and reproduces, it could make all the cockroaches in its area immune to the bait too. If we substitute ‘tolerance to CO2’ or ‘tolerance to heat’ for ‘tolerance to bait’, you can see how in a very short space of time, all the cockroaches could become better at surviving climate change.

Humans do adapt to environments too, but as it takes a minimum of 15 years for us to reproduce just once, spreading a helpful mutation through the entire population might take millions of years. When natural cycles happen very, very slowly, humans have a chance to adapt. When those same cycles happen quickly, as is happening now, we haven’t got a prayer of changing ourselves quickly enough to survive in the new environment. Genetically modified humans might survive, but they’ll be few and the modification may have unintended side effects that stop them from reproducing effectively.

Reading back over what I just wrote, I can see GM humans as the basis for an interesting sci-fi story, but that’s all it would be, a story. In the real world, technology will create domes and underground cities and all sorts of high-tech ways of adapting to the changes happening outside. But who will get to live in those rather large ‘bunkers’?

I don’t think I’m being cynical when I say that only the rich will get to survive climate change long term. For the rest of us, life will simply become more and more unbearable until one day it finally stops.

So… Do we stick our heads in the sand and pretend climate change is not happening? Do we pray for a ‘miracle’? Or do we pull up our big girl pants and do something?

Before you make up your mind, one way or the other, I’d like to leave you with a thought about the power of the ‘small’. The following quote comes from:

http://rc3.org/2009/07/30/stealing-a-penny-from-every-transaction/

‘…mobile carriers increase their profits by inserting that annoying instructional message that’s played after your personal greeting but before the beep when you get someone’s voice mail.’

Because we pay for mobile phone use by the second, those ‘instructional messages’ cost us time which translates into dollars, every single time. From the same article:

‘..If Verizon’s 70 million customers leave or check messages twice a weekday, Verizon rakes in about $620 million a year…’

Just from a few seconds worth of wasted time multiplied by millions of times… Wow…

So don’t ever think that little things don’t add up, and up and UP. We have power; we just need to work together to make it count.

cheers

Meeks

 


Bats, cats and Archeopteryx

A bit more biology about the Vokh and iVokh. They really are a bit like Frankenstein’s Monster!

Okay, so I’ve said that both Vokh and iVokh are flying hermaphrodytes, and in book 1, I mentioned that their ‘lungs’ are in their wings which are like ‘leather sacks’. These sacks can also be inflated with lift [a component of their atmosphere which acts a bit like helium] to help them fly. But where did some of these ideas come from?

The leather wings idea came from the common bat:

But I needed the iVokh to be capable of some technology, and while bats do have a ‘thumb’ to help them climb, they can’t make or use tools. That was when I realised that the iVokh needed proper hands. Trouble was, if they had more human-like hands, they couldn’t have long, bat-like ‘fingers’ supporting their wings.

It was at this point that the idea of inflatable wings occurred to me. I can’t take any credit for it as parafoils use the same principle, although in a very different design.

But if the Vokh and iVokh can inflate their wings, how do they de-flate them?

Enter brilliant idea number 548: let them have jets!

The modern jet engine basically sucks air in and expels it under incredible pressure to ‘push’ the plane along. The young man explaining the process in this video is a fabulous teacher!

The Vokh and iVokh don’t have combustion chambers, but they do physically compress the lift before squeezing it out of tiny sphincters on the trailing [bottom] edge of their wings. If any of you read book 1, Vokhtah, you may remember that the Rogue had incredibly powerful jets, allowing it to perform almost miraculous feats of acrobatics in the air.

For less virtuoso flyers like the iVokh, jetting requires something to push against – i.e. the ground, a wall etc. The stronger the flyer, the further that solid surface can be from its jets.

One problem with jetting is that once the lift is pushed out through the jets, the wings effectively deflate, leaving them ‘limp’. The best flyers can glide on limp wings, but for most iVokh, no lift means no flight. This is why they never use up all the lift in their wings.

Another issue I had with the flight mechanics of the Vokh and iVokh had to do with the surface area of their wings. Clearly the wider the wings the better their ability to fly. But I didn’t want them to actually look like bats.

I ignored this problem for quite a while until it suddenly struck me that almost all of the animals of Vokhtah had six limbs, not four!

Why would the Vokh and iVokh be any different? Um, because they’d look stupid? But what if that second set of arms weren’t actually visible?

I’m still working on a concept drawing, but basically the main arms would be situated in much the same position as human arms. The second set, however, would be located lower down on the torso and would simply  ‘move’ the folds of leather into various positions when not inflated. For example, when I write that such-and-such folded its wings to its sides, the folding is done by the second set of arms.

I mentioned cats in the title because of something I wrote in my last post. How could iVokh have both fangs and grinding teeth?

This photo of a cat’s skull explains:

As you can see, the jaws of a cat have those oversized canines as well as a total of four molars – one on each side of the bottom jaw and one on each side of the top jaw – plus eight pre-molars. Unlike the cat, iVokh have just two fangs and four molars. Oh, and my aliens also share a vertical pupil with both cats and foxes!

And finally, Archeopteryx. What body part did I steal from this ancient ancestor of birds?

Answer: the legs:

The bones of the leg are essentially the same as that in humans – thigh bone, knee, shin – until you get to the ankle. This is the point at which the leg of the Archeopteryx looks as if it has a second, back-to-front knee. It doesn’t. That joint is basically the equivalent of our ankle, but the foot is different. The reason is that humans are one of the few animals that walk with a ‘plantigrade’ foot posture – i.e. heel down first. Most other animals, including the Archeopteryx, run on their toes.

I’ve turned comments off as this kind of research is my obsession not yours, but thanks for keeping me company!

cheers

Meeks

 

 

 


Echolocation in iVokh, dolphins and humans

I started thinking about the creatures of Vokhtah back in November, 2004 when I did Nanowrimo for the first time. I knew right from the start that the Vokh would be vicious, psychopathic hermaphrodites with wings, but as I explored their lives I realised that they couldn’t possibly live together without killing each other. That was when I stumbled across a weird fact from nature – crocodiles allow plover birds to hop in their mouths and clean scraps of meat from their teeth!

This is called ‘mutualism’, a symbiotic relationship in which both parties gain benefits. In the case of the plover bird, it gets to eat the meat it picks from the crocodile’s teeth. The crocodile, on the other hand, gives up a very small snack in exchange for keeping its teeth clean and healthy.

I have no idea how such a relationship would have evolved in nature, but it did give me the answer to the Vokh riddle: my huge, intelligent aliens would live in a symbiotic relationship with another species. Enter the iVokh.

I won’t bore you with a history of how the iVokh evolved in my mind, it’s enough to say that they had to be similar to the Vokh, but also different. One of those differences ended up being teeth, or to be more exact the shape of the iVokh jaw. You see the reason the Vokh tolerate the iVokh is because they need the iVokh to raise their offspring. Part of that requires that the newborn Vokh be fed a gruel of mashed up grains and tubers.

But if the iVokh were like the Vokh and only drank blood [sorry I’m kind of skipping a few vital facts here], then how would they know to give the Vokhling gruel?

The answer lay in the fact that the iVokh had retained their molars [grinding teeth], and hence could chew. This gave them the ability to feed on a number of different types of food, not just blood. By contrast, the Vokh were so powerful that they could live on nothing but blood. In time, their teeth and jaws evolved to make it easier for them to eat their favourite food. That required bigger, stronger fangs, not molars.

But what do molars have to do with echolocation? Before I get to the Vokh and iVokh, I’d like to give you a quick description of how echolocation works in dolphins:

https://dolphins.org/anatomy

  1. In the simplest terms, dolphins send clicks through that bulge on their heads. It’s called the ‘melon’ and it amplifies the sound.
  2. The clicks spread out through the water and ‘bounce’ against objects in the water.
  3. This bounce returns to the dolphin as a kind of echo.
  4. The echo is captured by the dolphin’s lower jaw and is transferred to its inner ear [maybe like a vibration?].
  5. From there, the echo goes straight to the auditory part of the dolphin’s brain where it is translated into a kind of ‘image’.

The important thing to note here is that the echo does not return to the dolphin’s ear, or at least not directly. First it goes to the jaw. And there, tah dah, was one perfect, evolutionary difference between the Vokh and iVokh. As the lower jaw of the Vokh changed, so too did its ability to echolocate. It can still ping enough to avoid walking into things in the dark, but not enough to ‘see’ objects at a distance.

In my mind, I see this qualitative difference as being similar to the difference between the echolocation of a dolphin and a human:

I’ve mentioned Daniel Kish and his amazing ability before, yet for all of his skill, he cannot operate in his own environment as well as a dolphin operates in the ocean.

So that’s how the iVokh got echolocation. 🙂

In case anyone is wondering, the world of Vokhtah is a strange melange of science and paranormal fantasy. Along with their physical characteristics, most of which have parallels in real biology, the Vokh and iVokh also have mental skills that don’t. Despite the best efforts of all sorts of scientists, we still lack proof that telekinesis or telepathy actually exist. But while I love science, I’m not a scientist, and paranormal talents are fun to write about. 🙂

Thanks for coming on this odd little journey with me!

cheers

Meeks

 


Sometimes I surprise even myself…

Apologies if I’ve been less visible of late, but I’ve started writing again, and that tends to give me tunnel vision. The story I’m writing is the long delayed, next chapter of the Vokhtah saga.

The story of my psychopathic hermaphrodites languished for four years while I wrote Innerscape, but now they’re back, and I’ve had to re-acquaint myself with their world all over again. Part of that process was to do a backwards outline of the original story, and that’s where this post comes in. I’d actually forgotten that I wrote this preface to the Vokhtan to English dictionary:

Due to the radical differences between Vokh and human physiology, this sound guide is an approximation only. Where humans speak by forcing air past their vocal chords and then shape the resultant sound in the mouth, the Vokh and iVokh use their mouths for eating only. Their lungs are located in their wings, and they inhale and exhale through hundreds of small cilia on the leading edges of their wings, by-passing the mouth entirely. Thus the sounds they produce are akin to the multiple sounds produced by a pipe organ. Even pure sounds have a resonance human speakers cannot match.

Adding to the difficulty of accurately representing the Vokhtan language is the native speakers’ habit of deliberately distorting their speech with ‘chords’, in order to convey tone and inflection. Harmonious ‘chords’ – like the major 5th in human music – denote agreement, pleasure, delight etc. Discords, on the other hand, can imply a range of emotions from disbelief to contempt. Yet despite the musical quality of Vokhtan, neither the Vokh nor the iVokh have ever developed the concept of music.

Vokhtan for human speakers is further complicated by the fact that the spoken language also includes an array of scent cues produced in glands at the base of each cilia. These scent cues are aspirated with certain audible sounds to form a combined sound/scent amalgam. For example, in the word ‘Vokh’ the ‘h’ at the end represents both the sound of the aspiration, and the scent denoting respect or admiration, something humans are incapable of reproducing.

Please keep these difficulties in mind when attempting to speak Vokhtan.

lol – I really did spend a lot of time thinking about the Vokh and the iVokh. From 2004 to 2012 to be exact. There was so much to discover about them. I mean, they all have sharp claws, right, even the much smaller, less aggressive iVokh. But sharp, pointed claws tend to get in the way when you’re not killing something, so how were the iVokh supposed to craft anything?

The ladies reading this post will immediately recognize the problem of nails that stick out half an inch past the end of your fingers. So how did the iVokh manage? By doing what we do, of course. They squared off the tips of their claws. But wait…how would they have cut their claws? Clearly they would need tools of some kind. Not scissors, no, but something like a small nail file perhaps. Except that nail files don’t grow on bushes. The iVokh would need Smiths to make the nail files, and the Smiths would need metal of some sort…

And so it went. Every idea came with its own baggage of pre-requisites, and each day of writing revealed some new discovery. It was an exciting time, but that was then. Now, I have to relearn all these tiny, yet important details so I don’t make any horrible mistakes, like saying that one iVokh punched another.

The iVokh certainly fight, but not with a clenched fist. Why? Two physiological reasons:

  1. Even with their claws blunted, striking with a clenched fist would drive the claws into their own palms, and
  2. Both iVokh and Vokh hands are quite weak in comparison to the rest of their bodies. They do have opposable thumbs, but they only have two fingers, and those fingers are long and spindly. A punch would probably break the whole hand.

And these are the little things that I have to learn all over again. If anyone’s interested, I’ve been trying to do a graphic of the hand. Still very much a work-in-progress, but here it is:

cheers

Meeks

 


Anthropomorphising #robots…

GUEST: In recent years, we’ve seen a spate of movies and TV shows suggesting that robots will soon be so realistic and life-like that humans will form deep connections and yes, even fall in love. Movies like “Ex Machina” or the British TV show “Humans” both depict scenarios where robots or synths are so advanced…

via Why robots will never provide real intimacy — VentureBeat

No one truly knows where human ‘love’ comes from, but I’m astounded that anyone is still talking about whether robots/AI are capable of it.

Our capacity to love is, at its core, hormonal, i.e. chemical, i.e. biological. We are ‘wetware’ and until our technology gets to the point of being able to build robots out of flesh and blood, or some ‘substantially equivalent’ [rolls on floor laughing] material, we haven’t a hope in hell of reproducing the ability to love.

Some might even ask why we would bother building such a machine when a few minutes of sex at the right time of the month can produce a perfect specimen nine months later….


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