The personal blog of the cultural ambassador to the newly discovered planet of the Ant-people (the Myrmeiods).

Monday, August 6, 2012

Editor's Note


I'm the author of this blog. I'm thinking of either ending this blog, or putting it on hiatus. Readers, do you have an opinion? If the threat of this stopping triggers an outcry, I'll keep it going, but if nobody really cares I'll put my energy into something else. Please let me know.


Monday, July 23, 2012


It’s been both quiet and busy here, these last few weeks. It’s fall, now, and harvest season for several local vegetables. The La’helis don’t sell vegetables, but they do have a garden for their own use, and they’ve been busy harvesting. The new orchardist is also busy planning crabapple crosses ahead of the flowering season. The heat is starting to back off a bit, and the days are noticeably shorter, but it doesn’t look like fall in any sense I am used to. No leaves are falling. The trees here  are all evergreen, as I think I’ve mentioned before.

Not much is going on, other than the harvest and our preparations for our trip. Ka’te can go, we got that settled out. But I thought I’d take the opportunity of little news  to describe something the ethnic Imperials have unquestionably given this country, since I have otherwise painted them in an unflattering light. It’s a little, local thing, but a fairly good example of how things work around here.

All the larger towns and cities in this country were originally Imperial settlements. The local cultures preferred a more dispersed settlement pattern, and their cultural descendants are still mostly rural people (hence “country folk”). Since the Imperials were dependent on water transportation, all the cities and towns are along navigable rivers, including the town that I go into to do my shopping. The river wouldn’t quite count as navigable to us, but it is big enough for the Myrmeoid barges, which only need about 40 centimeters to float.

But, the town does not rely on water only for transportation. They also use the water to generate a modest amount of electricity and some mechanical power for mills, and for that they need dams. But dams would cut off the runs of various fishes that come up from the sea to breed, among other problems. On Earth, we ran into the same problem, of course, and decided to sacrifice the fishes, precipitating various political and technical struggles  over the following generations. We’re still dealing with this, centuries later. But in this country at least, they did something different, and it was the Imperials who did it.

Imperial food culture is based mostly on fish, since they were an island culture originally. They prefer oceanic fish, but of course once you get inland, freshwater fish are cheaper. The fish runs were a major part of the local culture and economy, and the upstream towns refused to allow their supply of fish to be cut off. The solution they finally hit on was to build a canal several kilometers long, along an old, silted-in river channel.  At the top, the canal takes water from the river, but the bottom of the canal is higher than the bottom of the river so that in a drought it is the canal, not the river, that will run dry. Then there is a series of eight dams along the canal. Each dam takes half a day to empty before the spillway must be closed so the reservoir can refill, so some of the dams are paired; two supply electricity to the hospital, and two supply electricity to the communications tower and the police station and jail. The other four supply mechanical and electrical power to factories and mills. The workers rest while their dam recharges. 

But at the bottom of the canal, this big pulse of water has to rejoin the river, and it used to make the water level very variable in a way that caused environmental problems. The solution lay in more engineering, but not by Myrmeoids—they brought in this planet’s equivalent of beavers.
These are, of course, snakelike animals covered with short, mottled brown feathers. They’re about three meters long. They have big front teeth, like beavers, which they use to fell small trees and also to cut channels through the marshes that form at the edges of the ponds behind their dams. Unlike beavers, though, they don’t eat bark. Instead, they eat a particular kind of fish that lives only in these ponds. The people encouraged the fish-beavers to move in by splitting the bottom of the canal into several smaller canals, of the size fish-beavers prefer. They also fenced off certain areas so that the fish-beavers would not be able to use the whole thing at the same time. Then when the first dams were exhausted, the fish-beavers could move to the areas that had been fenced while the first impoundments grew back. Within a few years, the bottom of the canal became a huge marsh that evened out the flow of water, something like a giant sponge might. Mosquitoes love it, of course, but then the dozens of kinds of gorgeous dragonflies love the mosquitos, and the town makes a lot of money from tourists who come to the marsh for recreational hunting—of dragonflies. The people train their pet house-wasps like falcons.

Imperial culture does this sort of thing a lot. We have a history of trying to solve one problem and in the process creating three more. Myrmeoids can certainly  make the same kinds of mistakes. But it is part of the Imperial culture to, as they would put it, “study the enemy and the battlefield before committing troops.” They don’t always agree with other peoples (or each other) about what really constitutes a problem, but once they decide to attack a problem, they study the matter very carefully. They anticipate better than we do.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The High Seas

It looks like we'll get permission to take Ka'te with us on our trip--we have the permission of the La'helis, and although we're waiting for permission from the government (since they are funding the trip), they are unlikely to deny a child the right to travel with her mentor. In the meantime, we are getting ready, making plans...though we have to wait at least a few more weeks, since Dan is still growing into his new body and his hormone levels are still shifting wildly.

While we wait, Dan has been getting to know his new family--he's still living with the La'helis, but when his new job starts he will leave the La'helis and become a Banesi. They are a large family, as most ethnic Imperials are, and they run two merchant marine ships and a small warehouse. Dan has no prior experience sailing, but since most sailors are flyers, very few sailors have sailed before molting.

Today, he took me down to the port to meet some of the Banesis and to see a war ship that's in port for a resupply right now. The Banesis were friendly, and it looks like Dan is starting to make friends, but nothing of particular note happened while we were talking to them. But I want to tell you about the ship.

It wasn't  like a scaled-down version of one of our navel ships. If Myrmeoids had wanted to build an aircraft carrier, they would have built one about the same size as our aircraft carriers, because the size would be dictated by the behavior of the sea and the wind, not by the size of its crew-members. But of course, we have huge amounts of steel recycled from the days of heavy mining and we have high-energy infrastructure  adapted from the days of fossil fuel--Myrmeoids don't have any of that. They can't make large quantities of steel, and they can't build the huge machines necessary to create aircraft carriers. A lot of Myrmeoid watercraft are either simple barges or leather coracles built on wooden or recycled aluminum frames. But coracles are vulnerable to attack, so war ships and armed merchants are made of wood. They are wooden sailing trimarans. That's what I saw today.

This is the kind of ship built from the huge trees. Its main hull is over two meters across at its widest point and twenty-three meters long, cut from a single log. The secondary hulls are over a meter wide and about twelve meters long. The mast rises twenty meters from the deck and can support any of several configurations of sail. Aside from the small size of the crew members, such a boat would not seem particularly impressive given that we tend to think of sail as definitely low-tech. This sailcraft isn't. For one thing, nothing crude could handle the open ocean of this planet; Antworld is a bit smaller than Earth, but its continents are mostly clustered together, something like Eurasia and Africa but without the Americas. The ocean is thus split into a relatively tame Mediterranean-like sea and an outer ocean whose waves regularly rise hundreds of feet. For another thing, a ship like this can move under sail on the lightest breeze, can handle serious gales, can sail in any direction including upwind, and can go faster than the wind can. They cannot go as fast as our racing boats can, being much heavier, but they don't break as often, either. Unless taken in battle, a good Myrmeoid ship lasts an average of thirty years.

Unless taken in battle. There are no major wars on the planet at present, and this country's navy has nothing to do except deal with pirates and function as a kind of coast guard. In my experience, they seem kind of peaceful, and I'm used to thinking of sailing vessels as peaceful, beautiful things. Beautiful this one is, painted a camouflage pattern of blue, pale yellow, and white,  but it's loaded with weapons. I'm not allowed to go into specifics--the ship I saw is not a state secret, but it would be considered rude of me to actually publish its details for the whole planet to see--but it was scary. Most Myrmeoid weapons are anti-ship, not anti-personel in design, since the people are small enough that it's hard to hit them. The weapons also have to be small enough to be operable by small people, so no cannon balls or big explosive shells. Instead, the ship was bristling with harpoon guns that shoot bolts that explode, set fire to sails, or inject corrosives into the wood of an enemy hull. In battle, flyers would also take to the sky carrying tiny incendiary bombs and engaging in dogfights that end in hand-to-hand combat thousands of feet above the surface of the sea.

Dan is proud of the capability, but not proud of the violence. He says that anyone who fights to kill has already lost. Yet his merchant ship is armed, and he will have to learn to use its weapons. He doesn't see any conflict there. He does not object to defending himself from pirates.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Fans of Change

You know that old expression about a certain something "hitting the fan"? Well, I finally get it!

It's gotten so ridiculously hot here that Dan rigged an electric fan for me--it's solar powered. I really should have brought one of my own, but not even the diplomatic corps thinks of everything. They don't use fans for comfort here, since Myrmeoids tolerate heat better than we do, and they don't cool themselves by sweating, so a breeze doesn't do them as much good, so Dan had to build one from scratch. He used the head of one of the small, portable wind turbines they use on the coast (it's maybe 45 centimeters across), removed its snubbing mechanism, and rewired it so that it spins under current instead of generating current by spinning. Then he welded the casing to a metal ring that I could tie securely to the center pole of my house. It has a battery pack I can recharge from the same solar panel where I recharge my other electronics, and I can adjust the speed by adjusting the electrical power through five different settings. It really was a lot of work, though Dan has brushed off my thanks, saying he plans to get a patent, and if any other humans come to this country, he'll get rich making fans for all of us.

Anyway, looking at this thing, it occurred to me it must look a lot like the first household electric fans--just an exposed rotor fixed to a motor and mounted on some kind of stand. The ring fans we take for granted must have come later, maybe a lot later. And if--a certain substance--hit this primitive sort of fan, it would hit the moving blades and centripetal force would throw it all over the room--a sudden, big, awful mess. Which is exactly what "___ hitting the fan" means!

The reason why I bring this up, is that the metaphorical ___ has indeed hit the metaphorical fan. All those political posts I've been publishing? Well, I'm not being reprimanded or censured in any way, but my host government has finally that perhaps my experience of their culture has been somewhat one-sided, and I've been told to do some traveling. Dan will go with me as a guide--he's not due to start his new job for another five months or so, and his new employer will appreciate his expanded experience. We're trying to get permission for Ka'te to come, too, it'll be a great educational experience. So I'm not exactly in trouble, and this is a tremendous opportunity, and not just for me, but it's obvious that I've given offense, and that bothers me. Still, I would not retract anything--it is the truth as far as I can tell, and I have been honest about the limits of my knowledge.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


Dan has learned to fly.

"Learned to fly" may be something of an over-statement, since he's still not allowed to fly in public air space, but he's trying his wings all over the farm. He won't go by land if he can go by air, now. The kids have recruited him for their games; they've rigged a kind of crossbow which shoots grass stems a couple of meters, and Dan flies along and catches them and pretends to die, falling out of the sky. Sometimes he is an enemy warrior, sometimes a marauding animal, sometimes an evil alien. Yes, the kids play "alien attack," and the fact that I AM an alien seems to bother them not one bit.

Actually, I suppose the enemy warrior is probably an invading Imperial, making Dan's participation ironic, too. While I do find it a bit disturbing that so many of these children's games involve pretending to be attacked by something (at least they always have themselves win), they do have the impressive ability to differentiate between the personal and the political. As I understand it, the Imperial invasion remains quite real, and much of the way the La'heli's live is a subtle act of resistance, yet individually the Imperials are not evil--they are not even a distinct "them." And while the governments I represent are friendly and respectful, that could change someday--and of course, we are not the only kind of alien. So the children are right to trust both Dan and I, yet psychologically prepare themselves to fight that which we represent.

You know, thinking about this, the bravery of these people in welcoming us astounds me. Individually I am continually struck by the fearlessness of most Myrmeoids with respect to me. If I so much as fell over in a crowded street I could become a mass murderer. I am such a giant. And yet when I go into town, most of the people just ignore me. Sometimes people come up to introduce out-of-town friends to me, or to suggest some kind of business deal, but that's about it. I go to a store to buy something, and of course I can't go inside, so I just sit down in the street and say something--everyone in town recognizes my voice now, to the shop clerks will come outside to take my order--and traffic parts around me as though a giant sitting in the street were the most ordinary thing in the world. And I haven't quite been here two years yet!

But of course, I really wouldn't hurt any of these people, so the fact that I can hurt them is irrelevant. I am very careful when I walk in crowded places. But can I swear that my species will never hurt theirs? No, I can't. And it's not because they're small that they're vulnerable, it's because we have them outgunned. They could have all of our technological wonders; they are smart enough, and in some ways their technology is more developed than ours. But they've chosen, the entire planet, to simply not have the industrial revolution.Credit--or blame--the fact that they had a nearly planetary dictatorship at the time when the steam engine was developed. I'm a bit fuzzy on the details--and there are books on this on Earth, so you can look it up--but it was something like the Imperial leadership feared that fossil fuel could be the beginning of an arm's race they might not win. After all, there are vast coal and oil deposits in the continental interiors where Imperial power has always been weak. They were always a naval power, principally. The native peoples in the interiors, for their part, feared that fossil fuel could free the imperials from the water and make their power total. So between the two groups, they pulled off a planetary ban on fossil fuel use that remains in force to this day. And their planet is the better for it. I can't tell you how green and how...diverse? this place is. It's like, everywhere you look is some new and different live thing, it's incredible. But the people here have no air force, no anti-aircraft or anti-missile capability, and no capacity to get anything much beyond low planetary orbit.

Maybe it's their pragmatism; they'd rather make friends while they can, so our people will protect theirs if the political wind ever shifts--if so, it's working, as I'd certainly stand with them if I had to. Not like I could do much of anything. Or maybe I've underestimated them; they do have an understanding of chemistry and biochemistry we can only dream of.

Look at this; what a weird and impolitic thing for me to be writing about! It speaks volumes about both our species' governments that I can even consider publishing something like this. I'm sure it will make some people angry. And yet, something about my mission here seems to include looking at these people directly, and honestly reporting my thoughts and impressions, not simply communicating soundbites and talking points. I didn't mean to write about any of this stuff today; I was just going to tell you about Dan learning to fly. But I won't delete it.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Catching Up

I'm sorry it's been so long since since I posted anything. It's been crazy here this past month, and I'm just about emotionally wrung.

We took care of Ka'heni's body and Dan's old skin the same day, and in the same way; they have no funerals here, and it's one of the differences between our peoples that remind me I'm an alien here, even when the inhuman bodies of my friends and hosts don't seem important. Bodies are easy to ignore--as you read this, you can't see or touch my body, my shape doesn't matter to you, I'm just a mind, just words. We're used to this. I can recognize the mind of a friend on a flat screen covered only with changing words, and I can recognize the mind of a friend in the body of an eight-inch-long ant. Shape doesn't matter. But they have no need for funerals here, and I feel very far away from home.

They treat dead bodies, cast-off exoskeletons, and unwanted and uneaten eggs and larvae all the same way, as a special class of almost sacred trash, carried out to special, designated dumps or crematoria with solemn ceremony. When someone dies, mourning is a private thing, though several weeks later they do hold a sort of a wake, to help everyone get past their grief and back into daily life. We just had that party yesterday, so I guess this post is me getting back to daily life.

Dan is learning to fly. He had to recover from molting, build his body back up, and then he spent a week or two flapping madly every chance he got, his feet dug in to roots, fallen logs, or the carpet of my floor, so he wouldn't take off before he knew how to control his wings. Today he let go for the first time and went straight up about six feet before letting up. He drifted back to the ground like a fluttering leaf. I'm getting used to the new way he looks, and wondering how much longer he will stay here--he's got a job lined up, he starts as sailor aboard a merchant marine in five months, but usually new flyers take some time to travel between one molt and another. I'll miss him.

Ka'heni's last larva is not alone; I should have anticipated it, since the kids are is same-aged batches, but once Ka'heni decided to keep an egg, the female fliers each kept their next egg and added them to the pile. So there's four larvae now. Two of them, Ka'heni's and another, were laid the same week, and nobody knows or cares which is which. They don't pay any attention to biological parentage, only family. Mostly the larvae are kept inside, both to protect them and because there is no reason to take them anywhere else--they have no central nervous systems yet, so there is no point in showing them things. But I was curious, so someone carried one of the larvae out to me. It did look a bit like a sock, but only about three inches long. What it really reminded me of was just a really big, white maggot, a pale, soft tube with no legs or eyes, just a pair of jaws and a mouth. I had to keep my hands away from the mouth, as they bite reflexively and do not let go. I know the eggs are about the size of a marble, and that they hatch out at about half an inch long. Over three months they grow to eight inches long, then pupate for four months. It's only when they enter pupation that they legally become people; larvae are considered property, something that makes some sense considering that the offspring of layers are all genetically identical to their siblings, and so interchangeable until they grow brains capable of learning, but is still odd to think about. Again, it's not how we do things. It blows my mind that these grublike things will grow up to be people, and that post-pupals think they're cute.

And there are two new La'helis. The new layer, Ta-he'ki, is another accountant, and she has something like the equivalent of an MBA as well--not quite lineage, but close. It seems the La'helis want to explore getting into some new markets. The other new member is Dan's replacement, in as much as it (I've been criticized for ascribing gender to those without it) is a second post-pupal, but Ka'de is not an engineer. Instead, as Ka'heni suggested, we've got an orchardist knowledgeable in botany. Ka'de actually has lineage, as of a few weeks ago, though it's only thirty years old. Of course, the official story is that Ka'de was hired to transform the La'heli's plant genetics just as Dan transformed their mechanical apparatus a generation ago, but unofficially I think the hope is that Ka'de will, to some extent make up for Ka'te's loss of Dan. She's young to lose daily contact with her mentor, and anyway, more and more we are realizing that Ka'te's intellect is something special. She needs every advantage of education we can get her, and for a country family, that means making sure she has real experts in her life to talk to--real experts in its life for it to talk to, I should say, but it's no good; I can't stop thinking of Ka'te as a little girl. And it forty years she could become a male flyer, for all I know. I am sure she'll have lineage someday, if she wants it.

So here I am babbling, just telling you one thing and then another as they come into my head. I'm just emotionally tired. And it's hot. It's been hot for months, and still getting hotter. The Myrmeoids don't care; they have three different body temperatures, and they can adjust their bodies to whichever one suits the conditions of the moment. They're nice and comfy, because the air is still cooler than they are except at mid-day, while I'm sweating my brains out even in my sleep. And I still keep wearing clothes. Honestly, I need to quit that. No one here would care; they don't wear clothes, and a naked man's body wouldn't look any stranger to them than a clothed man's body. And the midges and mosquitoes and so forth here ignore me. I'm being stupid. I need to stop.

Friday, April 27, 2012


What a day!

And I thought everything seemed pretty normal in the morning—I left on my delivery rounds, and Dan set out in the opposite direction to go see a friend on another farm and have a look at their cider presses. I'd got into town and picked up my load, and I was getting close to my first stop, when I heard a low, loud drone coming up very quickly behind me.

Of course, it was a flying Myrmeoid, but the road was quiet today and the sudden sound startled me and I didn’t have time to think, just to react to what sounded like a giant bug flying at my head. I half turned, and threw my arm up protectively—and the flyer landed on my arm.
It was La’ne-ni, one of the La’heli flyers. I offered her my hand so she could talk to me, and she told me Dan had begun to molt, and had asked for me. Molting is a dramatic, dangerous process, something like human labor, except they give birth to themselves. They can die of it, and there's nothing you can do if it goes bad, but you can be there for them.

I didn't think I could make it in time, but La'ne-ni told me to drop my pack and she'd talk to the landowner about it. She also told me about a short cut through the woods. I ran most of the way, but she beat me back to the farm house and showed me which window to look in to see Dan.

He looked pretty normal, except he was standing stiffly, in an odd position, and not moving at all. There was an odd milkiness to his eyes. I could smell his fear, and I would have spoken so he could recognize my voice, but one of the others came over to tell me he couldn't sense anything at all--he had detached from his old exoskeleton just a few minutes earlier, and was now blind, deaf, and unable to smell.

“So he doesn’t know I’m here?” I asked.

“He knows; he knew you would come, therefor, he will assume that you have arrived,” the Myrmeoid at the window told me—I was just bowled over by that, I just didn't know what to say. So I just waited with the others.

Dan was standing on a stiff, woven mat that I could see was actually tacked to the floor, the claws of his feet dug in to the mat fibers. I knew the mat was important—when he got ready to pull out of the old exoskeleton he had to have something to pull against, some way to anchor the old exoskeleton. Otherwise he wouldn't be able to pull free and as his body tried to change shape his circulatory system would kink and he would die. The way you know you are going to molt is actually a sudden, irrational fear of being sucked up into the sky--it's the subjective experience of an instinct to get somewhere protected and to dig in with the feet. When the fear comes on, you've got about three or four hours to get ready--five at the outside.

So I watched, at it seemed for a while as though nothing was happening--and then a triangle of black appeared on the top of Dan's thorax. Then the point of the triangle elongated, shooting towards Dan's head, and a second triangle appeared, facing backwards from the first, and shot backwards. Dan's red-brown skin had split, and the split was growing as his body inflated itself with air.

It didn't take very long after that. The new, larger thorax domed up out of the old one, and as the cracks spread further the head and legs pulled free--I put all this in passive voice because Dan wasn't doing any of this deliberately. The progressive inflation of different parts of his body was causing him to bloom out of his old self like a flower. Finally, he stood for a moment entirely off the ground, his legs in the air, held almost vertically by his abdomen still caught in the old skin. Then two of the old legs buckled and he fell sideways. Two people caught him and laid him on the ground and he started to kick and struggle, pushing the old skin away from his abdomen as fast as he could. Then he lay for a moment, an odd, black, crumpled thing that looked nothing at all like my friend. The old exoskeleton lay beside him, and except for the two broken legs and the shredded abdomen, it looked like the Dan I knew--except the eyes. The eyes were clear shells.

Someone gave Dan water, and it was then I noticed the clumps of what looked like wet tissue on his back. They were growing, lengthening. I couldn't quite see the movement of growth itself, it was too slow, yet as I looked the filmy crumpled ovals grew, unfolded, filled out, till they became clear and shiny as soap bubbles and four wings, eighteen inches from tip to tip filled the room, reaching up and out as though ready to flap.

"Dan!" I shouted, though of course he wouldn't recognize it as his name. He recognized my voice, and held his antennae weakly out to me, listening, gathering scent. I smelled his greeting and reassurance, but no surprise. He had indeed assumed I was there.

He flapped his wings weakly, slowly, and folded them back down his back as they dried and lost that soap-bubble luster. Someone gave him more water. His body was changing, too, his legs and antenae shortening even as his thorax and abdomen continued to grow. He was becoming a creature of the air. Then, as the new exoskeleton began to harden it lost its wrinkled look and took on a glossy shine. I had been watching not much more than twenty minutes.

It will take him a day or so to grow into himself and lose the awkward weakness of molt. It will take him even longer to build up his flight muscles up enough so he can learn to fly. But he's through; he's a flyer, now. I left and went back to my house, to let him rest and to write this post.

But as I was walking, La'ne-ni again flew up to me. While Dan was molting, Kahe'ni completed a molt of her own; she is dead. The La'heli layer is free of her body completely. She doesn't have cancer anymore.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Guest Post From the Myrmeoid Counterpart: Senses


I am taking the liberty of posting twice in succession in order to cover a topic that I did not have space for in my last post; the way we sense our world. We have come to the realization that many of you think we have poor eyesight and poor hearing, since we cannot communicate using these senses. This is incorrect; actually, our hearing and sight are arguably stronger than yours, though fair comparison is difficult.

In brief, my visual and auditory acuity are both slightly better than that of average humans (in this respect I am an average Myrmeoid). I can also see some ultraviolet shades, though what you see as deep red I see as black. My hearing is likewise sensitive to a higher pitch range than yours. I can hear some animal calls that you cannot, and some orchestral instruments are silent for me.

The difference between is is not one of acuity but of perception; we do different things in our minds with what we sense. I have been puzzling over how to describe our perception because, of course, I do not fully understand yours. For that matter, I do not fully understand mine, because, of course, I have never perceived the world in any other way. Language may offer a key; your word "image" does not correspond directly to any word of ours. It means a visually perceived form. This word is strange to us, because for us, form is inherently not visual. Form is tactile, or...I was going to write auditory, but that is not right. I hear using the fine hairs at the tips of one of my pairs of antenae, and I also use the same organs to perceive fine air movements and airborne scent. I can distinguish between smell and the other senses, but hearing and air current perception have a blurred boundary for me. It is the air currents, together with changes in background noise, that tell me the shape and location of something I cannot touch. I am told that you can do something similar, though not as well, and that the blind, and even the deaf and blind among you can sometimes form some idea of physical relationship in this way. But whether touching an object or not, I think of objects as touchable--Mr. Grisholm reports that he thinks of objects as images, even if he cannot see them. Perhaps this is analogous.

In your language you say an object IS red, or blue, or whatever other color, but our equivalent translates as closer to saying an object HAS red or blue color. For us, color is not an intrinsic property of an object, but we do attribute color and visual texture to objects we feel or "hear." I can tell which colors go with which objects. What I cannot do is make an object in my mind out of what is actually just a pattern of light. When I look at a video screen, I do not experience the illusion that it is a window on a three-dimensional world. I see a flat, colored object.

I can perceive concentrations of color or brightness, so I can find a window, even if it closed, and I can find an island to land on if I am flying across water. I can see changes in my visual field easily, meaning I can spot very tiny movements without any particular effort. Our apartment has been invaded by ants, and Mr. Grisholm did not notice them until we pointed them out--apparently, although his visual apparatus is equal to the challenge of seeing insects, he does not usually notice objects that small unless he is looking for them. We notice. Also, we cannot close our eyes, having no lids, and we see well in low light, so in some sense we are actually more visual creatures that you are; we cannot turn off our sight. Even in sleep, I can be startled and woken by a change in visual pattern.

As an interjection, I recognize that our ant problem will seem funny to many of you, because we are similar to ants in shape if not in size. We do not mind that humor, though we object to being called "ant-people." Of course, "Myrmeoid" means "ant-like," but at least it has no objectionable connotation. Our equivalent term for you translates as something like "branched worm," a term that should make clear to you why we don't like "ant-person," just as it also makes clear why we understand why you call us that. But no, I feel no personal kinship to ants, and I have no moral difficulty whatever with buying poisoned bait for them.

In terms of sound, I can recognize voices, hear emotional timbre (a learned skill, obviously, but I am learning), and differentiate notes and musical chords. I actually love music. Live orchestral performances are my favorite; they make my whole body, especially my wings, vibrate!

What I don't do is perceive time as intrinsic to sound. Your sense of rhythm is not only physical, but also auditory, and so sounds separated in time by less than a second still have a definite sequence for you. I am inclined to forget the order of sequential sound as soon as I hear it, which is why I cannot make sense of vocal language or remember songs.

On a different note (I have just learned this idiom, and I am pleased by the pun), our gratitude to Ambassador Kilmon; we read with interest his account of adapting the birthday ritual, and we decided to follow suit and have birthdays. Mine was last week, and several of my friends here rented out my favorite sushi place in the area. They even gave me a party hat, which of course I could not wear, but I did stand on top of it for pictures. Presents included a bottle of very fine Champagne (I don't know how I will drink such a monstrous thing, though it is fun to imagine trying--practically speaking I will probably give most of it away), a miniature bottle of brandy (more my size), several very fine pieces of rare fruit, a pair of Japanese-style chopsticks (not to use--they will make a fine souvenir), and a stained-glass lampshade without the lamp. This last may be my favorite; I like to stand inside it and look out through the pretty colors.

Afterwards, we visited a small shop that sells coffee, baked goods, and ice cream. I am fond of coffee drinks, and we ordered a chocolate cupcake with a birthday candle on top. I also tasted all eight flavors of ice cream, and I discovered that I am fond of ice cream as well. I find that in terms of physical pleasure alone, Earth is fantastic.

More touching, however, was the fact that I did not organize my own party, I only stated that I wanted one. My friends organized all of it, including figuring out what foods and gifts and activities would please me. I had not previously counted any human beings as friends, though I deeply appreciate the companionship and help of many, especially Mr. Grisholm. But as a public figure and an alien, I rarely interact with anybody except my fellow ambassadors who is not either paid to interact with me or motivated quite obviously by curiosity about my species. I had not known anyone, let alone so many, actually liked me personally.

So, now, as you noticed, I speak and write of "my friends."

Guest Post From the Myrmeoid Ambassador; Gender

It has been some time sine we interjected. We have been quite busy here doing the talk show circuits and attending meetings--a human colleague of ours has programmed a Braille-capable cell as a speech generator, allowing us to speak for ourselves, and to read transliterated English in real time. Our new ease of communication has dramatically increased our desirability as guests, apparently--and frankly we greatly enjoy being able to converse with multiple people at a time. None of us have ever done this before.

But we did want to post again, and there are still some misunderstandings that may flow from our human counterpart's posts which we feel we must try to correct.

The political issues implied by his most recent post we have already addressed, and will not do so again in this forum--except that as a resident of the Imperial Islands myself, I truly hope you do not think us capable of "breeding children as cannon fodder." It is true that hundreds of years ago, we DID send first-post-pupals to war, though never in tactically sensitive nor overtly dangerous situations. We would not do so now. It is unfortunate that we are now being judged based on the observations of an outsider, however well-intentioned.

But the two misapprehensions we want to address now relate to gender and vision. Vision will have to wait until the following post, however, as there is no way to adequately handle these subjects very briefly.

Ambassador Kilmon has correctly described our various life stages and castes, but he persists in using human terminology and gender indicators for us. We understand why; he is attempting to relate to us, and to make us relatable, and for that we are grateful. He is also coping with the difficulty that English has no adequate genderless pronouns--we understand "it" carries a connotation of non-personhood. We are thus unsure what else he should do in this matter. The ambassador may have chosen the best available linguistic course. Yet misunderstanding can still happen, and we wish tor correct it.

Principally, the problem is the pronouns. Ambassador Kilmon's designation of his friend, Danesinoru La'heli, and the child, Ka'te La'heli, as male and female respectively projects upon them gendered characteristics they do not possess. That Danesinoru is becoming biologically male does not lessen the inaccuracy. In short, our maleness does not make us men.

Your conception of manliness is, quite appropriately, derived from the nature of men and from cultural constructs that have some form of relationship to that nature. For example, men are bigger than women, so you associate maleness with a greater capacity for violence, for good or for ill.

But as a male, I am physically smaller than females of my species. Further, I have wings, which give me the advantage of greater mobility, but also make me extremely vulnerable. While flyers are the warriors in every one of our known societies, as an individual I would not want to fight physically with a layer. I would lose. Not that such fights occur, I only wish to emphasize the difference in our peoples in this respect.

Nor does gender mean for us what it does for you. For you, it primary. Even the minority of humans who have indeterminate gender or who claim no gender at all are often adamant about their gender identity--even if its unusual nature causes great emotional pain.

In contrast, I had no gender at all until I was in my early forties and my personality was already fully formed. Arguably, I have none now, as I do not much care about my maleness. I care about my status as a flyer. All males are flyers, so perhaps I cannot really separate the two, but female flyers relate much more strongly to male flyers than to layers. A good illustration of the distinction I am making is that of the eighteen Myrmeoids currently deployed in teams across your world, roughly half are female, but not one is a layer. We had no rule against layers performing this service, nor would we have objected had one come. Most of us are used to being deferential to layers, and they are generally the heads and centers of our families, so we would not pressure a layer against doing anything she wanted to do, however odd. But a space-traveling layer would be odd. They have no desire to fly, and little to travel.

In sum, by referring to us with your pronouns you risk interpreting our personalities through the lens of gender roles that are controversial among you and completely inapplicable to us. Since your language has the structure which it has, we can only recommend that you periodically switch the pronouns you use with us, at least in your minds. If you have been thinking of me as male, try to think of me as female; any aspect of my personality that appears to change when you do so was probably not mine to begin with.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Time Goes By

I've been spending a lot of time with Kahe'ni recently. We never really were friends before, not that we had anything against each other, we just didn't talk. Part of it, I guess, is that I won't be able to spend time with her later--it's now or never to talk to her, and I pick now. Part of it is that I don't really have much else to do, besides talk with people, and except for the children, everyone else here spends a lot of time working. Kahe'ni spends most of her time now on an oxygen line, and it's not portable, so sitting and talking is about all she can do. I entertain her, and telling me about her planet probably helps her feel useful.

But she does have a lot of useful things to say. She has seven decades of personal experiences to talk about, and that's probably the smaller part of what she knows. She was telling me something about this country's history--not like she remembers several hundred years of history, but her interests and perspective as the layer of a country-folk has lead have lead her to an almost personal appreciation of it. Today she told me a story somewhat different than the one I was told when I was briefed for my service here.

I was told that when the Imperials arrived here almost six hundred years ago, the land was occupied by several different tribes, most of which lived by small-scale horticulture and hunting and gathering. Most of the tribes were warlike, always fighting with each other. They also fought against the Imperials, but the Imperials had a higher birthrate due to a combination of a better diet, since they ate a high-protein, fish-based diet, and had more effective medicine. As a result, the Imperials could sustain higher losses in war and still win, which they did in areas near the shore and near navigable rivers. The tribes in those areas were ultimately eradicated. In other areas, conquest was not economically feasible, so the Imperials made treaties with those tribes. The colony gradually developed as a multi-cultural society, and eventually fought for and won its independence.

I'd figured out pretty quickly that the coastal tribes were not entirely eradicated; the language of the country folk is not mutually intelligible with any of the languages of the inland tribal peoples, for one thing, nor is it remotely like Imperial in its structure, although the two have many words in common--there's been a lot of borrowing in both directions over the years, apparently. But I didn't really understand what had happened--clearly the coastal tribes did not escape intact.

So yesterday Kahe'ni told me. No wonder she takes it a bit personally; it's not only her people, it's her caste. It's the layers, specifically, who were lost.

All Myrmeoid cultures have the same demographic categories; caste is a matter of biology, and they can't change it any more than...I was about to say any more than we can change sex, but of course that's not quite right. Caste, and the fact that families must unite all stages of life and all three castes, are not culturally dependent, I mean. How families are assembled and how families relate to each other IS culturally dependent.

The Imperials live in large families that function as units with the state. Children are separated from their families as early as possible and educated in groups in order to instill solidarity. The coastal peoples used to have small families organized loosely into tribes. People stayed with their families longer, and only flyers ever moved between tribes. The tribes were at war more or less constantly, but war to them meant little skirmishes over land rights and served to keep each tribe more or less in balance with it's resource base. The tribes had no chiefs, but were knit together politically and culturally by the layers, who were each the heads and centers of their families. It was the layers who maintained the structure of each family and each tribe over time, handing group identity off from generation to generation, layer to layer, since their biology makes it hard for a family name to be passed down through a genetic lineage.

When the Imperials came in, they moved slowly enough to learn something of the local culture, and they learned about the central role of the layers--and they killed them. Better nutrition had nothing to do with it; the Imperials had greater military force because their efficient brutality caught the locals by surprise, and because unlike most Myrmeoid cultures in which flyers are the warriors, if warriors are needed, the Imperials train second-post-pupals and even children for war. Since Myrmeoids can produce babies at a prodigious rate if they want to, Imperials can simply start breeding about fifteen years before they want to attack, and built an army about as large as they like. In all fairness, I don't think they do this anymore, but five hundred years ago they bred children as cannon fodder and swarmed over whole cultures like...well, ants. Their victims, whose warriors did not begin training until their forties, couldn't keep up. They declared the land theirs, and when the layers objected, the Imperials had them killed as ringleaders of rebellion.

Without their layers--and without many of their flyers--the families and tribes collapsed. Within a single generation it became impossible for anyone to identify as a member of a family or tribe--everyone lost track of themselves. A lot of the children were taken away to school, further disorienting and disrupting the survivors. This is what they mean when they say the coastal and river tribes were eradicated. They're very sorry about it, apparently--but the children are still taken away to school, according to law. A lot of them never come back.

It's not a racial thing--genetically, everyone's gotten mixed up. If there was once a genetic distinction between the two groups, it's been lost centuries ago, because flyers don't really keep track of who fathers their children, and no one keeps track of where flyers came from; flyers are still allowed to transcend tribe. But family and tribe were never about genetics, they were about group connection to the land and they were about stories. The stories moved between generations and made unrelated people family, binding them to the land and to each other. Just like a flyer could lay her egg in the communal nest and trust the family would take care of it if she took care of the family, a family could trust its children to the land and to the tribe, knowing they would be taken care of, as long as the pattern as a whole was kept going.

When the layers were killed, Kahe'ni says, it was like the baskets of stories fell over and broke, and the stories scattered and shattered and died--this is the imagery she used. She, and many of the other country-folk layers, are trying to re-gather the stories, make and fill new baskets--and it is not finished. Five hundred years, and it is still not finished. She's told the stories she has to many people already, but she also had had many babies. She wanted one more. I guess she wants to retell her stories, too--and I'm a writer. I'm a student here. I guess my job is to collect, record, and retell her stories?

She sits next to her oxygen tank all day now, disconnecting only to relieve her bowels and bladder, to lay her daily egg, and sometimes to walk slowly around her farm in the evening--she breathes with her abdomen, remember, and the tube covers her whole abdomen, so other abdominal functions require disconnecting so she doesn't foul the tube. This morning, when she got back from one of her walks and reconnected--her abdomen heaving painfully and asymmetrically around the cancerous mass--she told me not to feel sorry for her. Or, at least, that's what I thought she said. We were speaking Imperial at the time,since she knows I'm still more comfortable in that language, and Imperial does not distinguish between singular and plural pronouns. They do distinguish between inclusive and exclusive pronouns--one "we" includes present company, the other doesn't. She used the exclusive version, excluding me. So what she said, grammatically, could have meant "don't feel sorry for me, Kah'eni," or it could have meant "don't feel sorry for us, the country folk." Context suggested the latter, since she went on to explain that they have influenced Imperial culture at least as much as the other way around, that they have retained their language and much of their culture, that even their way of life has been changed more by time than by the Imperials. Most of their produce is native in origin, and while they no longer hunt as much, they do raise urdles, which is much the same thing. They're still here.

Maybe she meant both things, herself and her people.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Happier News

Kahe'ni is still doing ok, except that her breathing is getting labored. She says it doesn't hurt, she just feels a bit out of breath. She says this a good sign; how she will die depends on the direction in which her tumor grows and which organ it most seriously presses against. She says the shortness of breath is a good sign, because if it grows into her lungs at least her death will be relatively quick. She said this almost cheerfully. She's not afraid at all, and I don't know what to say to her. I did volunteer to walk to the hospital and get an oxygen tank for her. The things are incredibly expensive, but half the expense is transportation, and I can help there. It will ease things for her.

So why did I title this "happier news"? Because I'm tired of thinking about cancer so I'm going to think about marriage instead. The publisher is totally interested in as many Earth-ritual manuals as I can write, and today I'm writing one on marriage.

Really, it's a great opportunity to talk about how we Earthlings do things--there's sex, love, family structure, religion, and food, all wrapped together. The really difficult part, of course, is that Myrmeoids don't marry, so how are they supposed to go through the ritual?

What I did was to draw an analogy between human marriage and Myrmeoid third-post-pupal circles. Virtually all known Myrmeoid societies are organized around families headed by partnerships among third-post-pupals, in much the same way that our cultures usually include some kind of partnership among men and women. How and when circles form, an how big they are, varies culturally, just as our marriages do. Circle members are usually deeply connected to each other, and almost always remain together until death, so they may be able to relate emotionally to married couples.

But these circles have no sexual component. Layers don't mate at all, of course, and flyers, I've noticed, treat sex as something like drinking coffee--an enjoyable thing to do with friends. Flyers may or may not mate with other members of their circle, and since no one but flyers even has sexual impulses, no one else cares who has sex with who. Also, Myrmeoids don't fall in love--they do love, they just don't generally do it suddenly, nor do they have what we call romance. Emotionally, circles are more like business partnerships. They form because people who get along fairly well have a common interest. The love develops gradually, after the fact.

Still, it's the closest analogy I can think of. Here is my rough outline for a Myrmeoid wedding ceremony. It's for a newly forming circle, not an established circle taking on a new member, which is actually quite rare. Obviously, I'm using a Protestant Christian wedding as a loose template, as it's the one I know the most about. If I get a chance I'll do several other versions, too, for other traditions.

Costumes; Myrmeoids don't wear clothes, but they do wear jewelry, body paint, or decorative strings and cloth pieces, so I'm saying layers need to wear white ribbons, plus something "old, new, borrowed, and blue." Flyers wear black or blue decorations. Layers carry a flower, flyers carry a green sprig.

Ritual; I couldn't think of any reasonable person to give away the brides, so I'm skipping that. I also decided to have the layers waiting at the alter, with the flyers processing up the aisle, because there are usually a lot more flyers than layers, and I thought that having a whole crowd waiting at the alter would look stupid.

There must be an officiant of some sort, but I couldn't have this person deliver any kind of inspirational words about what marriage is, because Myrmeoids can't talk to more than one person at a time. So instead I'll have the officiant release friendly, loving, and trusting pheremones, by way of example. Likewise, I can't do an exchange of vows, because no one else could witness it. Instead, I have vows written up ahead of time, and the circle members all sign it. Signing documents is not a Myrmoid custom, but it seemed fairly likely to translate well. Rings are a problem, for various anatomical reasons, so I had them tie gold-colored thread onto each others' left foreleg. A Myrmeoid can stand on any three legs, and needs two feet for most object manipulation, because each foot has only two fingers. So I have them stand in a circle. Each bride/groom uses the first and second foot on the right side to tie his or her neighbor's string, while presenting the left forefoot to the neighbor on the other side.

Kissing is a problem, since they don't and can't kiss. I could have them lick each other, but friends do that anyway, there's nothing especially marital about it. At the moment I'm thinking of doing something with cooperation--maybe if they all pour things into a vat to make a mixed drink? Something they can cooperate to do together quickly, something pleasurable.

The reception can have cake and presents and dancing--Myrmeoids do dance, though not in pairs. It's something like square dancing. They do it without music, since they can't hear rhythm, but they can move rhythmically. Their dancing is all about synchronized movement--not everybody moving the same way, but everybody moving in an organized way, so that you can separate and go through complex independent movements and then come back together and know each other will be there. I wish I could introduce the Virginia Reel, but I'm not sure Myrmeoids can make an arch with their forelegs big enough for others to go through.

I'm totally including the Hokey Pokey, though. Except that it's liable to be a very long dance--I mean, they have six legs, four antenae, and an abdomen to put in and out and shake all about.

I REALLY wish I could watch two dozen Myrmeoids doing the Hokey Pokey.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sad News

Sad news, this week.

Kahe'ni, the layer of the La'helis, is dying. She has a cancerous tumor in her abdomen, and given that her exoskeleton will not permit her body to swell outward, the growth will soon put enough pressure on her vital organs to kill her, one way or another. Surgery is nearly impossible for Myrmeoids, since it means cutting holes in their skelletons. They do have chemotherapy drugs, but they would only give her a chance at survival whereas the crippling side-effects would be a certainty. Myrmeoids tend to have less patience with lingering than we do, and Kahe'ni has chosen to accept only palliative care. She is 73 years old, not ancient by Myrmeoid standards, but certainly old. She says she is tired.

But, she has a distinctly Myrmeoid last wish; to have another child. Since Myrmeoids care for children communally, there is no worry about bringing an orphan into the world, and Kahe'ni is still laying an egg a day anyway. All she has to do to have another child is make sure an egg is kept, and the egg she layed this morning will be. It will hatch in five days. I gather Myrmeoid larvae look rather like stuffed socks--I used to stuff one sock inside the other, so they wouldn't get separated, until I noticed the kids were stealing them to play "house" with. Now, I guess they can play with a real larva. Beginnings and endings.

I don't know Kahe'ni well. I know she is the family accountant, and that, like most layers, she is central to her family, something like its heart. Myrmeoid families are, by definition, a partnership among all the castes, and while families can have multiple layers, the La'helis have only one. They'll have to bring in somebody new, and Kahe'ni is talking about who the family should look for as calmly as if she were simply retiring. I guess it will be hard for them to lose both their engineer and their accountant at the same time, but Kahe'ni says they should look for a botanist next. I don't know how she's regaining her composure.

She's a lot bigger than the flyers. Her exoskeleton is a glossy black, though visibly scratched in places, and her abdomen is long and heavy. Myrmeoids don't turn grey or get wrinkled when they get old, but they do slow down, and Kahe'ni walks slowly and rests often.

She's walking even more slowly now. I can't really think clearly.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A very Merry Birthday to All?

An odd thing has happened. Remember that birthday party I threw for Dan two or three weeks ago? Well, it's become the most exciting thing anyone's done for a long time. Everyone wants to have Earth-style birthdays; it's the new "in thing"!

I had written up a booklet for all the attendees, so everyone would know what to do and why during the party. I expected the booklets to become keepsakes, or just get thrown out afterwards, but instead it seems everyone in the area has read a copy, and every week someone has a birthday party. No one else has done ice cream, as it's too hard to make--they seem to be gravitating to pudding instead, and a lot of them are developing no-bake cakes, but the Ra'heli family--they're bee-keepers and candle-makers, mostly--are doing a brisk new business in birthday candles. Most people can't blow out a candle, so they use snuffers, so I hear. I don't think most of them are even waiting until their birthdays to have birthday parties--they just want to have the party.

This is incredible--and also a little scary. I was worried, at first, that I might have done something to damage these people's culture. I was thinking about the history of missionaries on our planet. Dan says not to worry; he expects contact with Earth to change his people's cultures in some way, but has pointed out I'm really not powerful enough to change anything the people don't want changed. After all, there is only one of me. Thanks for the ego-boost, Dan.

But really, for most of them, I think the birthday parties are less about adopting a cultural practice and more about experiencing Earth in some way. It's like how, when I was a kid, we had to dress up like Pilgrims and Indians in school before Thanksgiving--they can't see Earth, so they're trying to get a sense of it by pretending they belong to its culture. Just today, I've been asked to write more of these things, for other ceremonies--weddings, funerals, Bar Mitzvah's, retirement parties--a major publisher is interested, and they've already agreed to start printing the birthday booklet.

I'm really excited about this. I'd been worrying a bit about my job--there isn't much mass-media here, so I can't do anything like a talk-show circuit, and I've been wondering how much of an impact I can really make--how I can represent my culture when I only really interact with a few hundred people on a semi-regular basis. This is how, I guess--I can write these celebration manuals. I'm psyched.

It's getting hot out. It's only a few hours past dawn, and already I'm sweating just sitting here. I guess the summers here are real scorchers. The La'helis don't care, much. Myrmeoids have three different body temperatures, and they can shift to whichever temperature is closest to the temperature of the air and stay pretty comfortable. I wish I could.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Very Merry Birthday

I've been working on this party for weeks, and today was finally the day. Do you know how hard it is to throw a planet's first ever birthday party?

As I've mentioned, Dan is curious about Earth. A few weeks ago I mentioned a birthday party, and Dan asked me about it because they don't have birthday parties here. They keep track of their ages, but it's not considered a big deal. This may be a species difference, not a cultural difference, as I don't think any Myrmeoid culture that celebrates birthdays. But Dan decided he wanted one, just to see what it would be like, and we realized that his birthday (or, rather, molt-day--the anniversary of the day he finished pupation) was just a few weeks away.

Everyone was into it--the La'helis, a lot of Dan's friends from other families, Dr. Nades, we invited maybe two hundred people and I think they all showed up. Except that I had to teach everybody what to do. It's not something we normally think about, but a birthday party is a kind of ritual or ceremony. There's the cake, and blowing out candles, and clapping when the candles are blown out, and cutting the cake, and giving wrapped presents, and what wrapping paper is and why....Think of one little detail; you can buy wrapping paper, or you can use newspaper, but you cannot use toilet paper. Why not? You could wrap the toilet paper around and around the item...but I've never seen it done. We have a rule; gifts cannot be wrapped in toilet paper, and even though I've never heard anyone state the rule, I've never once seen it broken. There is so much to explain! I ended up writing and printing up a little manual on all the birthday traditions, what they mean, and what exactly everybody was supposed to do at the party. The result was almost a choreographed performance, but I think we all had fun.

It was a bit strange, watching Myrmeoids act so deliberately human. After I sang the Birthday Song and Dan blew out his candles, everybody clapped. Myrmeoids don't clap. Some ran up and hugged Dan. Myrmeoids don't hug--to express affection, they touch each other with their antenae or groom each other with their tiny tongues. Watching their small, ant-like bodies go through these alien gestures was truly strange. Sometimes they got the ritual charmingly wrong; after cake and ice cream I noticed dozens of people going up to Dan and saying something to him--it was the same something, but it wasn't in either of the Myrmeoid languages I know. It took me a few minutes to realize I was looking at transliterated English; they were all, one at a time, reciting the lyrics to "Happy Birthday." Fortunately, not all two hundred guests did it or we'd still be at the party.

I want to talk about the food. I'm kind of proud of how we managed it. We'd talked about traditional birthday foods, and cake wasn't hard--I adapted a Smith Island cake recipe, since the layers are thin enough that the cake works at the Myrmeoid scale--but Dan had decided he wanted to have pizza. Never mind that this planet has no dairy and no yeast breads, he wanted pizza. I finally talked him out of it on the grounds that I couldn't think of any way to adapt pizza to the very small Myrmeoid mouth. But, denied pizza, he fixed his heart on ice cream. Again, there's the problem of dairy, and the even more serious problem of freezing; no one has freezers here, and of course there is no snow or ice for hundreds of miles.

Finally, it was Dr. Nades who came through. It seems there is a freezer used for research purposes at his college, and he talked some of his colleagues into getting him in (quite against department policy, I might add) so he and another friend could make ice cream. I adapted a dairy-free recipe and gave Dr. Nades descriptions of home ice cream-makers. He designed and built the ice cream-maker, mixed up the batch, and even organized a group of people to fly the ice cream to the party--they used something like a litter with long twine handles. I love the thought of the eminent and dignified Dr. Nades sneaking into the freezer lab in the middle of the night to make ice cream. The stuff was delicious, by the way; the recipe we used ended up tasting a little like almond raspberry.

I'm also really impressed Dan was able to blow out the candles. There were only four of them (I figured 47 candles plus one to grow on and then divided by twelve. They use base 12 around here, not base ten, so this is kind of like using one candle per decade) but one Myrmeoid lung is about the size of two or three kidney beans. They breathe through holes on either side of the abdomen, and the two lungs have no air passage between them, so to blow out a candle Dan had to lift his rear-end sideways to the candle and blow a single tiny lung's worth of air at the flame. Yes, it did look a bit like he was farting the candles out, but no, I didn't laugh. Myrmeoids don't exactly fart, so it would have been too hard to explain. That he got each candle to go out (he did them one at a time) is further testament to the changes his body is going through; he now has a flyer's extraordinary lung power. Right in the middle of an alien birthday party came evidence that he is getting older in a very Myrmeoid way.

We had dessert first, before the ice cream could melt, and then presents. They don't have wrapping paper here (or newspaper or toilet paper), and an extraordinary number of people independently hit on the idea of given Dan flower buds or nuts, or small fruits with a thick peel, on the grounds that these items include their own wrapping. Others gave him wind-chimes or small candies, or pieces of personal jewelry. They have no tradition of personal presents here, and little sense of personal property, so most of the presents were simple, cheap things. The one stand-out gift was a generous coupon card for the hardware store in town, so Dan could get supplies for his beloved machines. I gave him a small Earth globe, about two inches across, so he can carry it, with the topography exaggerated so he can feel the continents and mountain ranges. How did I get such a thing? That was Dr. Nades again; he has friends in the exogeography department. The flyer is useful.

After the presents, the party became a fairly ordinary feast, with plenty of food and alcohol. No, Nades did not get drunk, but Dan got him some wine. You remember what I said about wine being almost impossible to buy.

I think the kids will be demanding birthday parties next; Ka'te is already talking about it. Maybe I should start a catering company for Earth-parties? But I'm really feeling a lot better about myself as ambassador. After stumbling my way through so many science questions over the past few weeks and generally feeling like I don't do anything except hang out with my friends, it occurs to me that not everybody could have done something like this. Not everybody could describe some aspect of our culture that we take for granted clearly, and I did it AND collaborated with an engineer to reinvent an ice cream maker. Not to toot my own horn; I'm not the smartest guy in the room or anything, but I guess I didn't get appointed to this job for nothing.

A funny detail; while Dan was cutting the cake, one of the kids asked me how big a piece I'd eat back home--Dan was cutting pieces about the size of an almond, and generally making my poor cake look like it had been chewed up by mice--so I said "are you kidding? At home I'd eat two cakes myself!" And her antenae spread wider and wider and wider, until they stuck out sideways in total dumbfounded amazement. I had to confess; a cake that size would feed ten or fifteen of us. But the story spread around, and by evening all the kids were giggling about the giants on Earth who can eat cakes the size of houses.

Fi Fie Foe Fum!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Shape of Past and Future

I keep thinking about that snake I saw the other week. I've been in parts of earth that look like this--rural areas with patches of woods--but I've never seen a predator like that there. I mean, coyotes and foxes, but no wolves and mountain lions. Surely a python that big is more the equivalent of a wolf? I've asked about it, and yes, that thing is what they call an apex predator, the baddest beast in the jungle. So why is it here, in this sleepy little farming community?

I've been wracking my brain for a week, trying to think of why this seems so strange to me--just like I've been trying to think of why those chains of flowers look so strange. It's an issue of things about Earth I don't know that I know--but that are recognizably different here. The way moving around feels different, even breathing feels different, because the oxygen concentration is marginally greater than an home, and the planet as a whole is marginally less massive. My first week or two here I kept stumbling around, dropping things, falling over myself, because the gravity was not quite what I expected it to be. I knew enough to have an expectation, but if I hadn't known ahead of time what the difference was, I never would have identified gravity as the thing that was different.

The flowers are still puzzling me, but I think I've got the thing with the snake figured out.

The issue is size; I mentioned how the network of forest corridors they have around here made is possible for them to keep major predators while we lost most of ours? Well, I don't think those networks would have worked if there weren't a large number of very large preserves somewhere around here, and I don't see how a people as purely pragmatic about nature as these people are would summon the political will to protect so much land.

Or, rather, I didn't see it. I talked to Dan, and he explained it to me.

The short version of the tale is that the local people didn't protect the land, the Imperials did, back when this was part of their empire. They had some notion of this continent as an untouched wilderness, millions of local inhabitants notwithstanding, and while they generally sucked the land as dry as they could otherwise, they set aside huge tracts of land as protected wilderness. Actually, there were three separate systems: there were game preserves, for recreational hunting and forestry; there were wilderness preserves, from which no resources were extracted; and there were People's Preserves, for hiking and what-not, since the country people were excluded from the game preserves. And since the country folk were excluded from the game preserves, they did their best to maintain privately held forests for timber extraction and hunting--and as a place to hide from the Imperials in case it came to war. Which, of course, it did. After the revolution, all three Imperial systems were dismantled, but most of the land remained protected, for forestry, hunting, watershed protection, and also for its own sake. The huge amount of forested land is the legacy of four separate systems of land management by two different peoples living in the same country.

Of course, after the revolution, the Imperials didn't leave any more than the British left America after the American revolution. The long generations of colonialism had created a new people, both through simple divergence and through close contact and intermingling with the locals. Sometimes it seems like there are two separate cultures in this country, sometimes it seems like there is just one. For example, even though there are ethnic Imperial families and country families, and there are the two different languages, almost everybody speaks both languages fluently. Dan was raised in an Imperial family, and his name follows Imperial conventions, but his first language was the country language. He learned Imperial at school. The whole thing is complex.

We got the test back, by the way; Dan is, or will be, a male flyer. He is both tickled to death and not surprised; he says he can feel his wings now, feel his body as it will be. It's like how you know where your limbs are, even if you can see them. When humans (and Myrmeiods) lose limbs, we can sometimes continue to feel as though we have them, to feel our bodies that they are supposed to be. Well, Dan can feel his body as it will be. If he covers his antenae with a sheet (like one of us closing our eyes), he can fool himself into believing that he is a flyer already, feel the wings, the smaller legs, the huge thorax and shrunken abdomen. Then he shakes off the sheet and feels the air currents responding to the shape of his actual body--the second post-pupal body he has had for thirty-four years. It no longer feels like him.

But now, at least, he can start looking for jobs, since he can prove to employers that he will have wings. He's not sure yet what he's going to do, but he's thinking he wants to go to sea.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Birds and the Bees.

It's spring, I have belatedly realized. It's been spring for about a month, now. I should have figured it out--I knew the winter solstice had passed and that the days were getting longer, but the weather has been warm, and everything has been green. I hadn't thought about seasons--I think I assumed that this area was tropical, a place with no winter. Actually, we're about at the latitude equivalent of maybe Maryland. Cold is no problem, and the short days slow plant growth, but not by enough to hurt the plants. The problem is that even that slight slowing means that leaves grown in the winter often can't make enough food for the tree to cover the cost of growing the leaf in the first place--not before the leaf is half-eaten by bugs. So the trees stop putting out new leaves for two months. Now, new leaves are coming out, along with a lot of flowers, and the old leaves are being dropped--we've got fall and spring at the same time! They call it the color season.

Would you believe Ka'te explained this to me, about the energy budgets of leaves? She talked someone at the next farm over into lending her a textbook on botany, and even though she's only seven, she's puzzling her way through it and giving mini-lectures on the subject to any adult who will listen.

Incidentally, there's little to no artificial global warming here; this planet is naturally hot. I believe the reason is that no continental mass exists straddling the equator. Warm equatorial water just goes around and around the planet--it never gets diverted towards the poles, so it never cools down. Or something. I probably sound like some kind of idiot, all the things I don't know even about my own planet. I'm starting to forget that there is any expertise at all in relating socially to people who look like ants and talk by touching my fingers, that not everyone could do what I am doing--living in a strange place and learning a new culture all by myself. But I am not by myself--I have Dan and Ka'te, and several other friends I haven't mentioned yet, and even my pet, Jim. I'm starting to seriously need some prop for my ego other than the fact that I spend time with my friends and have two part-time jobs doing manual labor.

Hold on, Dan is here--he just waved hello, he's gotten me to teach him some human gestures, and waving is his favorite. He'd like to try flipping the bird, too, the rudeness of it sort of tickles him, but his forelegs don't rotate at the elbow. He can't turn the back of his forefoot forward. Anyway, he only has two fingers per foot, which generally precludes sticking up the middle one. Maybe I can think up some other manual insult....

I assume he came to talk to me, but he's playing with Jim instead. Jim likes Dan, and leaped from my knee to go wrestle. do do do do, doodling until he's done, do, do, do....

Ok, it's been about two hours. Dan wanted to talk about sex, would you believe it? It seems he's starting to notice female flyers. I said that suggests he's going to be a male flyer, but he said not necessarily--flyer, yes, male, maybe not. Not all flyers are "straight," to use our terminology. The casual way Dan reminded me of this surprised me--there's no word for homosexual in either of the Myrmeoid languages I know, so I had assumed that either there are no gay Myrmeoids or that they are pretty seriously homophobic as a culture. Turns out it's just a complete non-issue. Male and female flyers have almost identical social roles, so nobody cares who they have sex with.

Anyway, male or female, Dan is trying to sort out these new feelings, and none of his friends have sexual feelings, so he can't talk to them. Really--before the last molt, Myrmeoids are sexless in a way that even our children aren't. Their sex organs don't even connect to any bodily opening. I told him he could talk to Nades, but he just giggled; apparently the idea of asking the eminent Dr. Nades about something as inherently private and vulnerable as sexuality is still beyond the pale. Having met Nades, I kind of understand; the guy is intimidating. So, Dan came to me, and we had something of a "guy talk." Which was totally weird, because Dan is as ignorant as a teenager but he's also forty-six years old, and mostly more mature than I am. I didn't really know how to talk to him about it.

Dan's personality is starting to change. He's becoming more driven, more willing to risk, more restless. It's like he looks around him and doesn't see the farm or my house or anything, only the adventures and possibilities out there waiting for him. His body is changing, too--nothing I can see, of course, his exoskelleton hasn't changed, but he's eating more than he ever has before--and in smaller meals. His digestive tract is actually shrinking, making room for reproductive organs and probably the larger heart and lungs of a flyer (all these organs are in the abdomen, by the way, the "tail" end of a Myrmeoid's three-part body. The chest area, or thorax, is all muscle). He won't get the blood test back until next week, but we're sure he's a flyer. The fact that he wants to badly now to be one is itself a sign; two months ago, he didn't care one way or the other. I'm jealous; he's mature enough to actually be able to talk intelligently to girls and he's going to grow wings. When I went through puberty, all I grew was zits.

It's a beautiful day. It feels like spring...I'm going to try to talk somebody into letting me stick my hands in the dirt and do something useful. Everything is growing and moving and buzzing about. I even saw a new animal today--when I walked Dan out to the path I saw this thing hanging from one of the trees, maybe five feet up, snapping at the bees visiting the meadow flowers. At first I thought it was a good-sized snake, maybe four feet long, but the thing has a neck, like the urdles do, so it isn't a snake. Also, it has feathers--bright blue, red, and green feathers. I never cease to be amazed at how alien this place is, and yet how like Earth it is, too. There are no vertebrates with legs on this planet, other than me and the other ambassadors--I've got the best legs of any man in the country, I guess! So, obviously, there are no birds. No legs means no wings, no birds. Yet this brightly-colored feathered snake-thing looked at me and it sang.