Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book Blitz! Volume 4 - Ancient Ruins

If there's one thing Richard Ellis can be counted on to do it's write an interesting book about the ocean. The Atlantic seems to particularly fascinate him, so I suppose it's no surprise that he'd get around to writing about Atlantis sooner or later.  I wasn't particularly interested in the mythical vanished continent before picking up Imagining Atlantis. His books such as The Search for the Giant Squid and Deep Atlantic are more up my zoological alley. In fact, I'd always thought of Atlantis as something of a joke, lumping it in with ufology and the Sasquatch. I'll even go a step further. I bought this book based mostly on the exceptionally cool cover and the fact that I like Richard Ellis. Truth be told, I felt a little embarrassed carrying it around. I wanted a giant sticker on it that said "Hey! I'm a skeptical book! My owner is not into psychic surgery or crystal healing!"

But, you know what? No one should be embarrassed to carry this book. A book like this should be carried proudly. As it turns out my knowledge about all things Atlantean was very... wait for it... shallow. Yes, that's a horrible pun, but it's also true. As Ellis points out, the myth of Atlantis has real staying power. Why has it persisted for thousands of years? It's not even attached to any religion or cohesive story cycle. It seems to be an invention of Plato's, but why has this, of all things, become so ingrained in our culture? Ellis surveys the literature starting with Plato's Timaeus and Critias, passes briefly over some of the more outlandish ideas of what sunk Atlantis, continues on to actual scholarship, then to the history of catastrophe in the Mediterranean, and lastly surveys Atlantis as it's depicted in films, comics, and novels. Was Atlantis based at all in fact? Ellis tells you what he thinks. Then he gives the facts so you can form your own opinion.

What, you may ask, does The Tooth have to do with Atlantis? Not a whole hell of a lot, except that it too has an irresistible origin story. And, like Imagining Atlantis, the cover made me want to buy the book. What's inside is a joyous romp from start to finish. The gags are suitably over-the-top while the subtle expressions on the Tooth's "face" are priceless. I typically cringe at anything dental, but somehow here the idea losing a tooth over and over, only to have it come crawling back covered in gore from its latest battle made me giggle instead of gag.

My recommendation? Buy Imagining Atlantis AND The Tooth. Then book a vacation to some Greek isle and read them back to back.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Chat with Terence Zahner, Underwater Photographer Extraordinaire

Every since "meeting"  Terence Zahner, the mind behind ZahnerPhoto on etsy, I've been fascinated by his underwater photography. He takes lovely photos of things on dry land too, but it's the intimate portraits of squids, corals, fish, and other underwater denizens that seem most mysterious to me. I asked him a few questions about his artwork, and he's been kind enough to share the answers here. If what you read here doesn't make you want to visit the nearest seashore, I don't know what will!

How long have you been diving? Did you start taking photos right away?

I got certified in 2000, while on my honeymoon in Hawaii. We decided to try SCUBA at the recommendation of friends that honeymooned there the year before. After the first dive, we were so blown away by the experience that we started studying for our certification the same day. I am so fortunate to be married to my dive buddy.

I’ve always had the desire to share the underwater world with others who will never see it firsthand in the way I am privileged to. My first underwater photo attempts were with a disposable film camera. The images are abstract blobs of blue that I assure you were actually a turtle or a beautiful fish to my eye. I started shooting underwater in earnest with a compact digital camera and plastic housing in 2005. I’ve outgrown several camera systems along the way.

What's the most exotic place you've ever been on a dive?

The most off-the-map place is Saba, my new favorite place to dive. It is a tiny volcanic pinnacle in the Dutch Caribbean, a short flight from St Martin. Only about 1,400 people live there. It reminds me of Hawaii in several ways, and is much closer to home.

What's your favorite subject? I've noticed a lot of very detailed images in your shop lately, but I see a lot of tentacled creatures too. Do you play favorites?

I’m most obsessed with nudibranchs. For those who don’t know, nudibranchs are sea slugs, like snails without shells. They are typically flamboyantly colored and patterned and can be somewhat hard to find, especially in the Caribbean. I have a small but growing collection of photos that I have contributed to NudiPixel, an online nudibranch reference site:

I also love photographing cephalopods, in part because they are interactive. Most critters tend to ignore you or hide, but when I encounter squid or octopi there is really a sense that I am being observed and evaluated. One time an octopus even tried to take my camera. Their ability to camouflage and alter their appearance is so fascinating to watch and makes for a memorable occasion. I’m discovering that they are also very popular with my audience.

The natural labyrinth patterns formed by coral growth are another source of inspiration. I find them very relaxing to look at. Ultimately I have to be ready to photograph anything, because I almost never know what I am going to find.

What's the strangest thing you've ever seen underwater? Did you get a photo of it?

The strangest things tend come out under cover of darkness at night, my favorite time to explore the coral reef. Decorator crabs are some of the strangest things I’ve seen. They cover themselves with all sorts of debris, including other living organisms such as sponges, hydroids and algae. In addition to being cryptic, they are also very skittish. I do have a number of perfect photos that look like nothing special, until the crab is pointed out. I’m sure some people just think I am seeing things.

Anything else you'd like to tell us?

Support ocean conservation! I hope that my photographs help educate people on the incredible world that lies just below the waves.

I'd like to extend my gratitude to Terence for taking time to talk about his work and about the amazing world beneath the waves. Check out these links to see more:

ZahnerPhoto (Etsy Shop)

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Truth About Baby Opossums and Human Breast Milk

This is not Kirstie Alley
I, like most people, am always on the lookout for opossum news. And yes, I have written about them before. But today I found this gem:

Kirstie gives possum her publicist's breast milk

Associated Press
Nov. 2, 2004 02:10 PM

NEW YORK - Publicists are expected to do anything a star tells them to do -- but does that include breast-feeding a possum?

It does if Kirstie Alley's your boss. Vanity Fair says Alley once brought her pet possum to an event and when it started squeaking because it was hungry, Alley asked her publicist, "Say, aren't you nursing a baby right now?"

Seeing the possum's teeth, the publicist refused to breast feed it, but she did express her breast milk into a bottle, which Alley fed to her pet.

End quote.

My, what big teeth you have!
This brings up many questions, a lot of which I admit to being completely unqualified to answer. But as a Los Angeles resident, a past foster mom to dozens of baby opossums, and the acquaintance of someone who did once work for Ms. Alley, I feel that I can answer some of them. And so, as a public service, I offer my take on this story.

Question #1: Did this REALLY happen?

I have no idea. Honestly, it sounds phony as hell to me. But Kirstie Alley is a bit eccentric, and she does keep a lot of animals in her house, so I guess anything is possible.

Question #2: Aren't they called opossums, not possums?

Correct. Saying "possum" is like calling a mosquito a "skeeter". And using it in an article is called bad journalism.

Question #3: Could an opossum drink human breast milk safely? 

I'm going to go with "probably" on this one, because I believe a definitive study is yet to be done. Of course opossum milk is the best thing for baby opossums, but I can't see any reason why human milk would harm them short term. A much better choice would have been baby opossum formula though. And yes, there is such a thing!

Question #4: Actually, I was wondering if it would be safe for the human.

We are super cute and rabies-free!
Oh! Well, again I'm going with "probably", even if she had been foolish enough to try to clamp the joey to her nipple. Opossums do have a mouth full of sharp teeth but they don't suckle the way a human infant does. In the wild they actually swallow the very long nipples of their mothers and stay clamped there until they are old enough to move around on their own. In captivity this means that they must either be tube fed, or, when they are old enough they will lap from a spoon or dish. A note of caution here: tube feeding babies is for trained wildlife professionals only! The tube must be carefully inserted into a very tiny stomach (avoiding the lungs) and a very small dose of milk must be administered with a great deal of precision. Don't try it at home!

Question #5: Don't opossums carry rabies and other nasty things? Why would Kirsty Alley have an animal like that out in public?

Opossums are wild animals. They should not be pets. And they are capable of contracting rabies, but at a much lower rate than most other animals. This probably has to do with the fact that they are marsupials, and as such have a lower body temperature than other North American mammals. They are simply not very hospitable hosts to most common diseases. That said, the best place for an opossum is in your yard, not your house. They are excellent mousers, ratters, slug and snail eaters, and all-around do-gooders. As to why Ms. Alley had one, I won't even hazard a guess. 

For more opossum facts, check out The Opossum Society.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Manta Ray is All Right

Only 2 feet of acrylic between us!
You may have noticed that I've been on a fish kick ever since returning from the Georgia Aquarium. What can I say? There are a hell of a lot of impressive fish there.  Whale sharks! Jaw fish! Piranhas! And... Manta rays!

I confess, I love rays. Growing up in Florida my grandfather used to tell me about seeing them when he went night fishing. He said they were attracted by the lights, and that they were bigger than his boat. He didn't tell me about the fish he actually caught, only the ones he saw, so I ended up with an image of him sitting silently in his boat communing with giants. Grandpa was an animal lover too, in his way.

This is not how you should treat a manta ray
It turns out that the Georgia Aquarium is one of only four places in the world that keep mantas in captivity. It's easy to see why: they're huge! At birth they already have a "wing span" of 5 feet. And I do mean birth. These rays are ovoviviparous, which means that they develop in eggs which are retained inside the mother's uterus. This results in Mama Ray giving birth to one or two live young once they've fully developed. From there they just get bigger, topping out at around 13 feet wide. Some get much larger though, and have been know to stretch more than 25 feet across.

Nandi, courtesy of the Georgia Aquarium
I think all mantas are pretty great, but one at the Georgia Aquarium is extra special. Her name is Nandi, and she was rescued from shark nets off the coast of South Africa. She was still a baby of only 8 feet when she was taken to Ushaka Marine World in Africa. She was wounded and at first refused to eat, but careful attention from resident vets and caretakers soon brought her around. She stayed there until she outgrew her 580,000 gallon tank and plans were made for her to travel to the Georgia, where she became the first manta ray to inhabit a United States aquarium. Now she resides in a 6.3 million gallon tank, surrounded by other mantas, whale sharks, and lots of other lovely sea-going fish.

It's probably a good thing that I don't live in Atlanta. I'd be at the aquarium all the time, which would not be conducive to getting work done. Maybe I'll just have to learn how to crochet, and make myself my very own manta ray, like the one below from WeBeeUniquesbyJulie.

A rather soulful manta

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Heroes Con - 2011! And a Whale Shark!

Mr. Niles and the Monster
HeroesCon was over almost a week ago. I think I may have finally recovered.

Gabriel and I had a great time. This was our third year visiting Charlotte, and what can I say? They really know how to throw a Con! We got to meet up with some of our very favorite people, and met some new folks as well. For example, I was thrilled to finally meet Steve Niles. One might have expected us to have crossed paths before since he also lives in Los Angeles, is a friend to animals, and frequents the same comic book shop (House of Secrets), that I do. Ah, well. I guess that's what cons are for! Steve is obviously a very cool guy since he bought one of my very favorite sketches from Gabriel: Frankenstein's Monster, the furry vest iteration.

Gabriel, about 25 sketches into the show.
We had a great location in Artist's Alley, right next to Jeff Parker and down the row from Tom Fowler. Watching Tom break out the paints and get down to work always amazes me.

I spent a lot of time at the table, but I did get away long enough to purchase a copy of Think of the Children! from Christian Sager and E.C. Steiner. I had already read it online so I thought I kew what I'd be getting. In fact, the physical product is a strange thing of beauty. The cover is actually sculpted and the book is actually bound. Click on Christian's name to see a photo on his blog.

We were fortunate enough to spend time with Robert Wilson and his wife Tiffany Monhollon, who I was pleased to learn shares my love of thrifting. Chris Roberson and his wife Allison are always entertaining company, and I was happy to tell her in person how much I've been enjoying her new blog.  Dave Wachter was there too, all the way across the show floor from us but not far enough away to stop rumors of his impressive table set up from reaching us. I only wish I could be half as organized! It goes without saying that his art is awfully impressive too.

Giant Cat Head Sees What You Do
One thing I really like about Heroes is catching up so many comics fans after talking to them on Twitter all year. It's nice when someone comes by your table and you know the names of their pets and kids. That's something that just doesn't happen at a huge con like San Diego.

Charlotte is kinda quirky, in a way I like. You say you want giant crafty heads sitting in the park across from the Convention Center? Well, okay. Throw in some hoola hoopers and we've got a party.

After the show I was able to steal a couple of days to visit one of my very closest friends, Tricia who runs the lovely shop Upcycled Stuff. It was wonderful to spend time with her, and the icing on the cake was a trip to the Georgia Aquarium. Heroes Con and a whale shark? Yes! No wonder it took me a whole week to recover.
Now, that's a BIG shark
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