Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Cross Foxes

Cross foxes are a color variation of the red fox (like the silver fox, which I have heard of before). They seem to inhabit the more nothern reaches of the Northern hemisphere.

Flickr Humane Society US Cross Fox Father Child

Looks like they can have a variety of fur coloring, from mostly black and grey with only a little red, to almost half and half.

Flickr Robert Kowaluk Cross Fox

What I can’t tell from the photos and texts is how bright the red coat might naturally be—I’ve seen some striking photos with really bright red and deep black. I suspect those may be photoshopped, but of course individual variation is always possible. And, naturally, if you wanted to use cross foxes with saturated red-black coats as inspiration for a fantasy story, no-one’s stopping you! 🙂

Flickr Stephen Brown Cross Fox Closeup

Aren’t they handsome?

Found via Jonathan Webers on Twitter.

Images via Flickr: Father and child by The Humane Society of the United States (CC BY-ND 2.0). Side profile by Robert Kowaluk. Closeup by Stephen Brown.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Exact Opposites Cats

Seriously, this is amazing: a pair of cats. One black, the other white. One has a blue left eye and a green right eye, the other a green left eye and a blue right eye.

Twitter Land of Cuteness Exact Opposites Cats

Granted, this is the Internet, and Photoshop is a thing. (And please note I didn’t intend to post this as an April Fool’s joke. As far as I know it isn’t, but as I said, this is from the Internet and who really knows.)

However, even if it were edited, it’s still a damn awesome photo. I immediately thought of a magic-user’s familiar or some such special pet. Wouldn’t cats like these be just astounding?

Found via Land of Cuteness on Twitter.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Visual Inspiration: Cayuga Duck

The cayuga duck is a breed known for its black to metallic green plumage, and—just like the black squirrels in NYC—to me they look absolutely marvellous!

Flickr Simon Redwood Cayuga Duck

There seems to be disagreement over the breed’s origin, but according to Wikipedia they were popularized around the Finger Lakes region (Cayuga being one) of the state of New York.

Flickr Dana Kee Cayuga Duck

Looking cayugas up also taught me that drake is the English word for a male duck. Live and learn!

Found via Good Stuff Happened Today on Tumblr.

Images via Flickr: side profile by Simon Redwood (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Frontal view by Dana Kee (CC BY 2.0).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Green and Orange Iridescent Turkeys

A lot of us in the U.S. and with U.S. connections are going to sitting down to a turkey dinner this week. A lot of us who live in the woodsier parts of North America also know that the farm-raised domesticated turkeys we put on the table are not the only kind of turkey out there. We have local flocks of wild turkeys around us who periodically come through our yard and entertain us with their antics. (We’re less entertained by the, shall we say, “fertilizer” they leave behind, but that has its uses, too.)

But did you know that there is a variety of wild turkeys found in the Yucatan Peninsula that has blue heads and irididescent turquoise-green and bronze-orange plumage? I didn’t until I stumbled across a reference to them this week. Look at these beauties!

Ocellated turkey, photograph by George Harrison via Wikimedia
Ocellated turkey, photograph by TonyCastro via Wikimedia

Ocellated turkeys, as they are called, are an important part of the local cuisine in addition to being extraordinary to look at.

The next time you’re writing a fantasy world and looking to spice up the local fauna, why not add some big shimmery-winged birds–that could end up roasted or stewed on the dinner table, too?

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

You Don’t Want War Elephants

If you’re building an army to conquer the pre-modern world (or a fantasy world something like it), you might be tempted to include war elephants. At first glance, they seem like a great idea. Elephants are large, thick-skinned, strong, and intelligent, with long tusks and powerful trunks. Including them in your army is about as close as the real world gets to having dragons on your side. Well, I’m here to tell you that in most cases, they’re actually not such a great idea. (There are a few exceptions; I’ll get back to those later.)

Not all elephants are trainable. Three species of elephants survive in today’s world: Asian, African bush, and African forest. Asian elephants can be trained, but the African bush and forest elephants cannot. Several other species and/or subspecies of elephants once existed in various parts of Africa and Asia, but they went extinct in antiquity as a result of hunting and habitat loss. Elephants susceptible to domestication have historically been used in North Africa and Southeast Asia for labor, transport, and war.

Elephants do have their uses in war. They have been used as mobile platforms for archers and light artillery. They can also trample and gore enemy soldiers, and use their strength to help demolish the defenses of towns and fortresses under siege. Horses who have not been trained with elephants will not go near them, so war elephants can be good for disrupting enemy cavalry. Off the battlefield, they are good for carrying or dragging supplies and heavy pieces of baggage like siege weapons. Despite these uses, there are a number of serious problems with using elephants in combat.

We may as well start with the moral problem. Elephants do not breed well in captivity, and so most elephants used for labor or war must be captured as calves from the wild and trained into obedience, often using quite brutal methods. It goes without saying that this is a terrible thing to do to any creature, let alone such an intelligent and social animal, but if you’re already building an army for world domination, I assume you’re beyond such niceties as moral scruples, so let’s move on to the practical problems.

One big problem is that elephants are not naturally combative. Apart from males competing for mates, mothers defending their young, and occasional rogue elephants behaving abnormally, an elephant is much more likely to run away from danger than toward it. It takes extensive training to get an elephant to withstand the chaos of a battlefield, and even then it was a common practice in the past to feed war elephants fermented fruit to get them drunk before battle. Getting elephants drunk helps keep them aggressive, but it also makes them harder to control. There is a real risk that a sober elephant facing the clamor and commotion of a battle will turn and run away, or that a drunk one will ignore its driver’s commands and simply go on a rampage. Now, I know what you’re thinking—drunk rampaging elephants sound like an awesome weapon to unleash on your foes, but keep in mind that around half the soldiers on an average battlefield are going to be your own, and there’s no way to be sure that an out of control elephant will do more harm to your opponents than to you.

Another problem with war elephants is the cost. Elephants in the wild may eat up to 300 kilograms of forage per day. In captivity, eating a richer diet, elephants consume around 50 kg of grain and vegetables per day, more if they are doing heavy work. That amounts to at least 18,250 kg per year. Pre-industrial agricultural yields could vary widely with region, climate, and farming techniques, but at best you could expect around 500 kg of grain per hectare of farmland per year. That means you’d need about 36 hectares of land dedicated to feeding just one elephant. 1 square kilometer of farmland could, under the very best conditions, just barely maintain three elephants. If you have a big enough empire with a strong enough agrarian economy, this may sound like it’s worth it, but consider the opportunity cost. The same farmland could also support 100 soldiers for a year, who can be trained in any number of specializations, will (hopefully) not get drunk and turn on your own troops, and can be more useful in most situations than three elephants.

Now there are a few situations in which elephants can offer a real advantage in war. One is when you’re fighting forces who have never encountered them before. To the inexperienced foot soldier, an elephant is a huge, loud, monster with giant tusks and a disturbingly prehensile nose. Few inexperienced armies have the discipline to withstand their first sight of an elephant, and many have been known to run in panic in the face of an elephant charge. After a little experience, though, this advantage wears off. Those who have seen elephants a few times learn how to deal with them, by facing them with a dense hedge of pikes or aiming for their eyes, mouths, and the soles of their feet with javelins. The Carthaginian general Hannibal got one battle’s worth of use out of his elephants before the Romans figured out how to counteract them.

The other situation in which elephants can be useful is among warring peoples who all use and fight with elephants. In this case, since all sides know how difficult and expensive it is to maintain elephant forces, putting on a big display of elephants in the field serves as a show of force, demonstrating the resources and organizing capacity of your army, which may convince your opponents to come to terms rather than risk a battle. War elephants were historically used as battlefield showpieces in this way by the kingdoms of India and Southeast Asia, as well as the Hellenistic kingdoms formed from the breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire. Getting effective use of your elephants in such a case, however, requires a major investment of resources which might be more practically spent elsewhere.

In short, if you are bent on conquering the world, I don’t recommend using war elephants. For the occasional times when they would actually be useful, they aren’t worth the cost. (And brutalizing elephants is horrible.)

Image: “The Padava Brothers Do Battle with the King of Anga” from a manuscript of the Razmnama via Wikimedia (currently Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; 1598; paint on paper; by Mohan, son of Bawari)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Visual Inspiration: Small Aqua-Blue-Brown Lizards

Now that summer is properly on the way here in the northern hemisphere, it’s time for summer critters. This aqua-blue-brown lizard, Anolis grahami, would make a lovely detail in speculative—or, indeed, in any kind of—story-telling.

Wikimedia jpokele Grahams anole Jamaica

In the real world, they’re endemic in Jamaica and an introduction to Bermuda. According to Wikipedia, occasionally you can see a pure turquoise blue lizard.

iNaturalist waynewg Grahams anole

Goodness, they’re incredible!

Found via Jon Suh on Twitter.

Images: Graham’s anole on Jamaica by jpockele via Wikimedia (CC BY-2.0). Graham’s anole on a piece of wood by Wayne Godbehere on iNaturalist (CC BY-NC).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Gaulish Wheelbarrow Pigs: A Cautionary Tale

Primary sources are a historian’s best friend, and sometimes worst enemy. Primary sources are essential to our understanding of the past, but if not handled carefully, they can also be deceptive. For a case in point, here are a couple of comments on the Gauls of northern Italy in the third and second centuries BCE.

The Gauls were a warrior elite who had migrated into northern Italy over about a century and established themselves as leaders of scattered towns and settlements in the Po river valley. Some of these groups settled down and built up local power bases based on agriculture and trade. Others made their living by raiding the rest of the Italian peninsula or taking service as mercenaries in the many local wars being fought between Italian peoples like the Etruscans, Romans, Sabines, and Samnites. The native people of the Po valley sometimes resisted Gaulish influence and sometimes assimilated into Gaulish culture. By the second century, the expansion of Roman power had subdued or eliminated many of these groups, while some others had allied themselves with Rome.

The cultural realities of northern Italy were complicated. The view from Rome tended to be simplifying and stereotyping, but even the stereotypes themselves could be complicated.

Here is how the Greek author Polybius, who lived in Rome and aligned himself with Roman culture, described the Italian Gauls:

They lived in unwalled villages without permanent structures. Sleeping on leaves and eating meat, they knew nothing but war and farming; they lived simple lives and had no acquaintance with any art or science.

– Polybius, History 2.17-18

(My own translations)

The image is one of poverty in both material and cultural terms. Polybius’ Gauls are little better than wild animals.

Should we take Polybius’ account as an authoritative statement on what the Romans and their Greek allies thought about the Gauls? There is no doubt that the image of Gauls as feral savages lacking even the rudiments of civilized life was common in the ancient Mediterranean, but it was not the only possibility. In fact, just the opposite was also possible.

Cato the Elder, a Roman statesman, took a different view of the Gauls. Most of his account is lost, but a couple of fragments survive in quotations in later works:

The Gauls devote themselves most diligently to two things: war and cunning talk.

– Cato the Elder, Origins 2, quoted in Charisius, Ars Grammatica 2

 

The Insubres [a Gaulish tribe] in Italy lay up cuts of pork, three or four thousand at a time, and the pigs grow so big that they cannot stand on their own or walk anywhere. If they want to take a pig somewhere, they must put it in a cart.

– Cato the Elder, Origins 2, quoted in Varro, On Farming 1.2.7, 2.4.11; Columella, Res Rustica 3.3.2; Pliny, Natural History 14.52

Cato was no friend to the Gauls any more than Polybius was, but his view of them is different. Unlike Polybius’ ignorant savages with no art or sceince, Cato’s Gauls are cunning talkers. In contrast to the poverty of unwalled villages and beds of leaves, Cato pictures Gauls as so rich in agriculture that their pigs grow too fat to walk unaided.

Polybius and Cato were roughly contemporary and moved in the same elite social circles in Rome. Despite the differences in their points of view, they both reflect attitudes that must have been current among the Roman upper class. We can explain the differences in their views by their different audiences. Polybius was writing primarily for his fellow Greeks and aimed to portray the Romans as a force for order and stability in the Mediterranean. The more wild and bestial he could make their enemies, the more he could burnish the Romans’ credentials. Cato, by contrast, was writing for a Roman audience in the aftermath of Rome’s complete conquest of the Po valley. By building up the Gauls as a worthy foe, he made the conquest seem more glorious.

The variations in these perspectives should not surprise us. It is rare that any group of people has a single opinion about anything. Even the most reductive stereotypes are rarely universal among the people who hold them. Individuals and groups alike can hold multiple attitudes at the same time, calling up one opinion or another as the occasion demands.

For more recent historical periods when we have richer records of peoples’ thoughts and words, it is easier to get a fuller sense of this sort of complexity. In more distant periods of history when we have much more limited records, it can be tempting to assume that the documents we do have represent an accurate picture of what people thought on a given topic. Polybius and Cato are a good cautionary example that even among people who traveled in the same social circles in the same places and times, multiple different opinions were equally possible.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Turning Vinegar and Lobster Shells into Sustainable Bioplastic

Four Master’s students from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, London, UK, have created a bioplastic from chitin combined with vinegar. This sustainable plastic can be manipulated to produce items of varying stiffness, flexibility, thickness, and translucence by adjusting the ratios of the base ingredients.

Instagram Shellworks Variety of Material Properties

Instagram Shellworks Bags Bubblewrap

Apparently, the material can also be turned back into the original bioplastic solution.

Shellworks is Ed Jones, Insiya Jafferjee, Amir Afshar, and Andrew Edwards. Their work is still at prototype stage, but it sounds like there is a potential for increasingly (if not utterly and entirely) recyclable, non-toxic plastic here. Sounds awesome!

Visit the Shellworks website or Instagram for more.

Found via Colossal.

Images: Variety of Material Properties by Shellworks on Instagram. Bags and bubblewrap by Shellworks on Instagram.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Crabeater Seal Teeth: Straight from a Nightmare

Whoa…! Crabeater seals come equipped with some serious dental power:

Twitter Cassandra Khaw Crabeater Seal Teeth

Wikipedia Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins Crabeater Seal Skull

If I saw this on a screen, I wouldn’t believe it. I’d just put it in the “stupid, unrealistic, flashy tv / movie / game design” bin.

Found via Cassandra Khaw on Twitter.

Images: Skull seen from the side via Cassandra Khaw on Twitter. Drawing of skull by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins via Wikipedia.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Tamias

Let me tell you about the word tamias.

Tamias is a word in Ancient Greek. It was the title of the official in charge of the Athenian state treasury. It is related to the verb temnĹŤ, which means to cut something up into pieces, especially used of carving meat.

Now, meat was not always easy to come by in ancient Greece. Most people would not have eaten meat on a regular basis, at least not from land animals—bird and fish meat was probably a little easier to come by, but meat from animals like cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs was a rarity. In fact, meat from these animals was almost always consumed as part of a sacrifice. When the ancient Greeks offered an animal to the gods in sacrifice, only a small representative portion of the animal was usually burned for the gods. The rest of the meat was cooked and consumed by the community.

Since sacrifice was a religious act, there were important rules about the procedure. One was that the portions of meat shared out among the participants had to be of equal size. To do otherwise would be to suggest that the blessings of the gods invoked by the ritual should come down unequally. The carver who prepared the meat for cooking therefore had a job that required both expertise and a solemn devotion to the good of the whole community.

When the Athenians were organizing their state and assigning one official to responsible for managing the state finances, it makes sense that they would invoke the image of the old sacrificial carver for an official who would take on a post of such weighty responsibility, but this is not where the saga of tamias ends.

A treasurer’s job is not just to share out funds equitably but also to store and guard valuable goods so they will be available in the future when needed. This is the idea invoked by the scientific name Tamias striatus (literally ‘stripey treasurer’) for this fellow. The chipmunk carries food in its big cheek pouches and stores it for the winter in its burrow.

From food to gold and back to food again: that’s the history of tamias.

Image: Eastern chipmunk, photograph by Cephas via Wikimedia

On, of, and about languages.