Friday, December 19, 2014

Info for you Detective Writers

NOTE: I have an interest in science (why else would I have earned a B.S. in Natural Science?), therefore follow various journals. They are a great help as story prompts, and adding technical detail to stories. Whenever I run across something interesting, I'll kick it out this door.


The following article appeared in the recent DiscoveryMagazine.
Microbes on Pubic Hair Could Help Solve 

Sexual Crimes
By Carl Engelking  

Forensic specialists may have a new tool to catch perpetrators of sexual assault – and it is courtesy of the microbiome.
The microbiome, the community of bacteria and viruses that live on and inside the human body, has been a fruitful area of recent research. For instance, studies have linked our helpful army of microbes with our likelihood of obesity and our ability to metabolize certain sugars. The recent Human Microbiome Project categorized thousands of different strains of bacteria that live on us. And now, researchers believe, the microbes on pubic hair could help solve sexual crimes.

A Hair of Evidence

Forensic investigators glean DNA from hair all the time, but this method isn’t without its flaws. To get the best DNA evidence, investigators are looking for hairs that were actively growing and still have the root attached. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often. Most hairs on a crime scene are dead and shed naturally, which leaves the DNA in those hairs degraded and thus complicates investigations.
But the story doesn’t have to end there for hair. A research team led by Silvana Tridico from Murdoch University in Australia decided to investigate if the microbes on a strand of hair could be personally identifiable.

Bacterial Transfer

Seven volunteers (three males and four females) trimmed their scalp and pubic hair at three different points in time and submitted samples for analysis. Researchers processed the samples to identify the microbes by their DNA. Scalp hair had roughly 50 microbial strains while male and female pubic hair harbored over 70 distinct microbe types. Each subject’s microbial community was so personalized that researchers could identify individuals.
The microbial communities on pubic hair generally remained individually distinct and consistent over the course of the study. But one instance was telling: a romantic couple’s bacteria, on the final collection, looked much more similar than it had on the first two collections. The reason? They had had sex the day before. This surprising result indicated that humans swap external microbes during intercourse, suggesting that the microbiome could be useful in forensic analysis on sexual assault cases.
Researchers published their findings Monday in the journal Investigative Genetics.

Positive, But Preliminary

It’s unclear what role hair microbial signatures will play in the future of fighting crime. These findings were preliminary, and the sample size was incredibly small. Future investigations will need to seriously examine the efficacy of tracking microbial migrations during sex.
However, it’s a promising idea. Someday, in addition to DNA, microbes may help bring about justice.

Photo credit: Pimnana_01/Shutterstock

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Give Yourself a Great Present

There are a number of things a serious writer does.

1. Write every day.
2. Read other writers' works.
3. Learn something new about the art of writing.
4. Do their best at work so they can afford to write.
5. Pray.

Regarding the writing every day thing, hopefully it is on a new work or editing a piece you want to publish. There are other things. Posting on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin or other social sites does not count unless you are using complete and grammatically proper sentences, otherwise they are a procrastinator's dream. Journal entries or a letter to Santa Claus do. So does a year-end review. This can be one of your greatest tools for moving from a good writer to a great writer. Yes, this is about resolutions.

I had the privilege of growing up in a community heavily influenced by Jews. While I was brought up in the Christian faith, it was difficult avoid not being influenced by my friends. I celebrated Jewish holidays with them and Christian holidays with family – the best of two worlds and made out like a bandit. However, in later years I came to appreciate the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish new year. During 2014 it fell on Sept. 24.

During this time, a person reviews the year past in some detail before making a plan for the next year. Such introspection is far more beneficial than the typical New Year's resolution thing that usually ends in failure, laughed off, and forgotten.

What sort of things did I focus on before writing down goals for 2015? (Yes, written down).

1. Review what I had planned to accomplish in 2014. (This included personal as well as professional goals.)
2. For each one, how did I do? Fell on my face? So-so? Pretty well? Right on!?
3. For each goal that was less than stellar, is it worth trying again? What can I do to do better?
4. What do I want to accomplish in 2015? (Let me share some professional goals.)
a. Complete the edit of A Pirate's Legacy VI by April 1.
b. Submit “a” to publication
c. Complete research for new novel, Herakleides: Prelude to War (done)
d. Draft “c” during National Writing Month in November (done)
e. Edit Herakleides during Dec and Jan and have ready for publication by Jul
f. Write synopsis and begin research on Just Me in Feb and have everything ready to write draft in Nov 2015 for the National Writing challenge.
g. Write bi-monthly eFile Anatomy of a Story
h. Submit one book review per month
i. Learn and apply a new or forgotten aspect of the writing art

As you can see, a pretty ambitious and busy schedule, but it's not just a list of want-to-do. Having spent a month thinking about each goal, I have a plan on how to achieve them (with alternatives because neither the world or me are perfect). The over all list is posted prominently where I work. Personal goals are posted on a mirror. That's because I have to look at myself and discuss with that reflection how those things will be accomplished today or explain why I didn't do so well yesterday.

Serious business? yes, but how else does a person improve on what they did yesterday? How do we become a better person and a better, productive writer?

Have a great and productive year ahead.

Extra - An Interesting Writing Prompt

I enjoy learning, mostly about history and science and after retiring, returned to school to add a B.S. in Natural Science to a list of other degrees and certificates. However, learning does not stop at the ivy arch so the Internet just keeps me stoked because of articles like this which appeared in the recent Discovery magazine's eFile. (

During the first part of November a wanna-be writer said he wasn't participating in the annual National Writing challenge because he couldn't think of anything to write about. One look at this story and how many different stories pop out in different genres? You better believe this little gem is going to appear in my writing sometime in the near future in at least one short story and woven into a novel.

A Beautiful Web of Poison Extends A New Strand

June 21, 2011 12:51 pm I just got back yesterday from the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution. It took place in a big hotel on the outskirts of Norman, Oklahoma, during a windy heat wave that felt like the Hair Dryer of the Gods. It had been a few years since I had last been to an SSE meeting, and I was struck by how genomic everything has gotten. No matter how obscure the species scientists are studying, they seem to have outrageous heaps of DNA sequence to analyze. A few years ago, they would have been content with a few scraps. Fortunately, SSE hasn’t turned its back on good old natural history. There were lots of fascinating discoveries on offer, about species that I had assumed had been studied to death. My favorite was a talk about the rough-skinned newt, the most ridiculously poisonous animal in America.
The scientific tale of the rough-skinned newt begins five decades ago, with a story about three dead hunters in Oregon. Reportedly, the bodies of the hunters were discovered around a camp fire. They showed no signs of injury, and nothing had been stolen. The only strange thing about the scene was the coffee pot. Curled up inside was a newt.

In the 1960s, a biologist named Butch Brodie got curious about the story. The newt in the coffee pot–known as the rough-skinned newt–has a dull brown back, but when it is disturbed, it bends its head backward like a contortionist to reveal an orange belly as bright as candy corn. Bright colors are common among poisonous animals. It’s a signal that says, in effect, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave me alone.” Brodie wondered if the newts were toxic, too.

Toxic, it turns out, doesn’t do the newts justice. They are little death machines. The newts produce a chemical in their skin called tetrodotoxin, or TTX for short, that’s made by other poisonous animals like pufferfish. Locking onto sodium channels on the surface of neurons, TTX blocks signals in the nervous system, leading to a quick death. In fact, TTX is 10,000 times deadlier than cyanide. While we may never know for sure what killed those three Oregon hunters, we do know that a single rough-skinned newt could have easily produced enough TTX to kill them, and have plenty of poison left over to kill dozens more.

Now, if the whole idea of evolution makes you uneasy, you might react by saying, “That couldn’t possibly have evolved.” Experience has shown that this is not a wise thing to say. Brodie said something different: the most plausible explanation for a ridiculously poisonous animal is that it is locked in a coevolutionary arms race with a ridiculously well-defended predator. Another biologist mentioned to him that he’d seen garter snakes dining on rough-skinned newts, and so Brodie investigated. He discovered that garter snakes in rough-skinned newt territory have evolved peculiar shape to the receptors on their neurons that TTX would normally grab.

The co-evolution of newts and snakes became a family business. Brodie’s son, Edmund, grew up catching newts, and today he’s a biologist at the University of Virginia. Father and son and colleagues have discovered that snakes have independently evolved the same mutations to their receptors in some populations, while evolving other mutations with the same effect in other populations. They’ve also found that both newts and snakes pay a cost for their weaponry. The newts put in a lot of energy into making TTX that could be directed to growing and making baby newts. The evolved receptors in garter snakes don’t just protect them from TTX; they also leave the snakes slower than vulnerable snakes. They’ve studied newts and snakes up and down the west coast of North America and found a huge range of TTX potency and resistance. That’s what you’d expect from a coevolutionary process in which local populations are adapting to each other in different environments, with different costs and benefits to escalating the fight.

This story is so irresistible that I’ve written about it twice: first, ten years ago in Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea,, and then in updated form last year in The Tangled Bank. I figured that the Brodies et. al. had pretty much discovered all there was to know about these creatures. But in Oklahoma, I discovered that they had missed what is arguably the coolest part of the whole story.

Think about it: you’re a female newt, you’ve fended off attackers with a staggering amounts of poison in your skin, and now you want to pass on your genes to your descendants. You lay a heap of eggs in a pond, and what happens? A bunch of pond creatures come rushing in and have a feast of amphibian caviar.

What could you possibly do to ensure at least some of your offspring survived? Well, you have an awful lot of TTX in your system. You have enough of the stuff to give your eggs a parting gift to help them out there in the cruel, predator-infested world. Make your eggs poisonous.

That is exactly what female newts do. In fact, they load their eggs with TTX. To figure out if this poison provided a defense against predators, the Brodies and their students traveled to a group of ponds in central Oregon that are home to thousands of rough-skinned newts apiece. They collected dragonflies and other aquatic predators from the ponds and put them in buckets filled with newt eggs, along with muck from the pond bottoms. The scientists found that almost none of the predators would touch the newt eggs. Since these predators eat plenty of eggs of other species, this result shows that TTX does indeed help the newt eggs survive.

But there was one exception. Caddisfly larvae turned out to relish the newt eggs. In fact, the caddisflies actually grew bigger if they were supplied with newt eggs and pond muck than with pond muck alone. And yet the Brodies and their students estimate that there’s enough TTX in one newt egg to kill somewhere between 500 and 3700 caddisflies.

You know where this is going. At the evolution meeting, one of their students, Brian Gall, described feeding newt skin to caddisflies both from the central Oregon ponds and from ponds elsewhere without newts. The newt-free caddisflies would happily munch on newt skin from which all the TTX was removed. But if there was more than a trace TTX in the skin, they refused to eat. The caddisflies that fed on newt eggs, on the other hand, would eat the most toxic skin Gall could provide.

It appears that the caddisflies have evolved much like the garter snakes. In ponds where rough-skinned newts lived, the caddisflies have evolved defenses against TTX. In fact, Gall reported, the caddisflies appear to put the snakes to shame. Evolved snakes are 34 times more resistant to TTX than vulnerable ones. The caddisflies have increased their resistance 175 times.

It’s not clear whether the caddisflies and the newts are truly co-evolving, however. The Brodies will have to find out whether adding extra TTX to eggs increases their survival in the presence of caddisflies. Another intriguing possibility arises from their discovery that the caddisflies actually harbor some of the TTX they eat in their tissues for weeks after eating the eggs. Perhaps the caddisflies are stealing the poison to protect themselves, as happens in monarch butterflies eating toxic milkweed.

In other words, this wonderfully deadly story isn’t over yet.

[For more information, see this new paper in Can. J. Zool., and Understanding Evolution, an educational web site. Ed Brodie tells much of the story pre-caddisfly in a chapter of the new book, In The Light of Evolution (full disclosure: I wrote a chapter in it, too, which you can read as a pdf here)]

Have a tremendously productive new year and Happy Writing.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Which Way Did They go?

Bubbling at the top of a pot of characters is the hero and the villain, and the idea is to develop both and show how they are different and maybe not so different. That is easily done when they interact, but what if there is a long-distance relationship? Case in point, the main character or characters are moving about, preparing to launch an attack on the villain to free kidnapped victims. The villain is moving about several hundreds of miles away laying a trap and preparing for the attack. How to bridge the gap and develop each character? A technique is to use multiple points of view.

Typically, using different points of view has advantages.
  1. It solves the problem of the main point of view character being unreliable.
  2. It shows how the hero appears to others.
  3. It is one way to contrast the hero and villain which is central to a good story.
  4. It can show precisely how dangerous the villain is.
When using this technique the writer must be wary of a couple things. One is to give sufficient warning that a shift occurs if within a chapter, and two, be careful about "head-hopping" which can confuse and/or pull the reader out of the story. So, why and how am I applying this technique?

In a work under development, the hero and villain are miles apart. Yes, it is possible to TELL that the villain is evil, but SHOWing that he is evil and why may be preferable. The simplest method is to devote a chapter that introduces the villain, describe the kidnapping, and a disregard of the lives of innocent people; however, this story is part of a series that has another villain, an individual who will become a serious threat to the hero's family, who is responsible for launching a 400-year vendetta that focuses on the hero of the parallel series occurring in our era. It is in this chapter that he is also re-introduced. The relatively brief appearance and in another chapter later is all that is necessary as the focus is on the villain of this story. In order to further flesh out this character, I switched the viewpoint in additional chapters to demonstrate just how vicious and depraved he is and his justification for such behavior. As the story is told by an omniscient narrator and the shifts are done within entire chapters, the reader shouldn't become lost or distracted. There is a different aspect to using multiple points of view, and that relates to scene-hopping within a chapter.

Switching points of view within a chapter can work as long as the writer gives sufficient warning of the changes. How the writer does this is up to them. I use the same technique as if making a shift in time, a visual page break, centered on its own line.  Sometimes I use ~, other times *, whatever works so that the reader is alerted to a change and can easily keep up. Utilizing this shifting technique is important as the story unfolds into the rescue of the wife and son of the protagonist's mentor, who were kidnapped and supposedly being held for ransom -- actually a way to lure the mentor into a trap to kill him. Underlying is the hope this tactic will lure the main hero, too, as the villain really, really wants revenge on him. 

The shifting of view point comes into serious play at the conclusion of the story. From the beginning, the reader is introduced to a number of "minor" characters, each playing a significant part. In the attack, we have the mentor commanding a fleet of four ships that makes a frontal assault on the fortress from the sea. There is also our hero who takes a large force ashore to cross over the island and attack from land. He is also charged with the actual rescue. We also have another player and her ship of children who first spy on the fortress to gain needed info on defences and the exact whereabouts of the kidnap victims. She also establishes a working friendship with the local Carib natives so that a land attack is possible, and then is responsible for taking the rescued wife and son aboard, to getting them out of harm's way.

To accomplish the spying and moving the kidnapped victims to safety are two of her crew who pose as Caribs. When a major complication arises the protagonist's son enters to warn of trouble and while he is supposed to stay out of danger, becomes involved in a fight with defending soldiers. Finally, there is another character, captain of the ship that transported the hero and his troops to the island, and then engages a warship to prevent the villain from attacking their rear. Scene changes within the battle chapter are, in a modest word, as frequent as raindrops in a downpour. This multiple view point approach is important as each change focuses on events and information that the reader will want and need. Transitioning appropriately and smoothly will prevent losing or frustrating the reader so to show what is happening and set the scene for what will or can happen.

There is just a lot more that goes into a story, requirements and tricks that must be learned and practiced before a writer can just sit down and transfer what develops through imagination into a visual media. So, how do you use this technique?