Category Archives: Musings

Roosters and Dinosaurs

Our new neighbors, a young couple expecting their first child any day, bought some baby chickens. One of them turned out to be a lad, who has grown into a proud rooster. He likes a spot near the fence that separates our properties, about 20 feet from our bedroom window. An ambitious bird, he believes one should start one’s day briskly at four am.

Sure, it’s both rude and illegal to maintain a rooster in our neighborhood, but I haven’t wanted to pester those kids when they’ve got parenthood on their minds. So I get up at about 4:10, sip coffee on the front porch as the sky lightens, and listen to that first bird of the rural morning crow with the confidence of a preacher outside a saloon. Gradually, other birds join in and, before it’s light enough to read a newspaper, an entire avian orchestra rejoices in frantic chaos.

If birds really did evolve directly from dinosaurs, it’s hard to imagine the early morning din of the primeval forest. Did my neighbors’ squawking rooster once inhabit a Tyrannosaurus Rex body with a syrinx (voice box) as big as a car? When he woke the jungle, did he roar and rumble notes deeper than those made by the largest pipes in a massive pipe organ? All the tweeting, chirping, whistling birds of today weren’t piccolos and flutes back then— they were bassoons and tubas and trombones. They were fog horns and sirens and Harley Davidsons. The lovely moss-draped forest we imagine was probably as noisy as Chicago in a bad mood.

A few years ago, Jack Horner published an interesting book called “How to Build a Dinosaur.” He postulated that animals retain all their old DNA as they evolve, with different genes turned on and off. In theory, he says, we could “turn on” the latent dinosaur DNA in a chicken embryo and recreate those charming critters.

Listening to the morning bird racket from my porch, I wonder if the language of the great lizards survives today in their feathered descendants, passed down from generation to generation, only now transposed a few octaves higher. If we slowed down a recording of modern birds, lowered its pitch dramatically, and amplified it to the level of a rock concert, would we be listening to ancient songs and stories composed in the Jurassic swamps? If we could translate them, I wonder what poetry the roosters and robins might sing to an irritated and dilapidated old mammal sipping coffee on his porch?


Here’s an interesting article by Jacqueline Ronson about chickens and dinosaurs:

Can I name my new van Tonto?

Naming vehicles is silly. On the other hand, I’ve named blank sheets of paper for a long time, and occasionally make money at it. I named one ream of blank paper “Jumper.” Others pages became Belinda, Marcus, Malcom, Billy Billy Billy, The Magician who was learning electronics, Miss Pounder the exercise instructor who inadvertently taught math, Bruce the Duck who saved the day, the evil Nightsmoke, Pon, Braindead the Algebra Student, and many more. Naming things is kind of what I do. Continue reading →

Cicada Songs, Ebola Dreams

I’ve read several popular books about diseases recently: Rabid, The Hot ZoneSmallpoxDisease, Spillover, and  Deadly Outbreaks. More books on a single topic than usual, but not with any project in mind. It just happened, the way it happens to folks who start to read books by Michael Connelly or Rex Stout. Several focussed on diseases that leap from animals to humans (“zoonotic” diseases). No curious person could resist daydreaming about some of the unsolved mysteries one encounters when reading about diseases like Ebola and Marburg. You play detective in your brain and then you almost certainly come up with your own crackpot theory, just like I did. Continue reading →

Political Plagiarism

Rand Paul is upset that people caught him using lines from Wikipedia and elsewhere as if they were his own. He feels like a victim and wishes he could just duel someone to settle it all. Or spend a couple days in detention after school, but certainly not his whole career. His words, I hasten to admit. Personally, I think most of what he did was harmless and we should cut him some slack. Continue reading →

Goats and Pigs, Iodine and Thiamine: a Hypothesis

It’s easy to decide that iodine deficiency plays some role in neurological diseases like ALS and Alzheimers. For over fifty years we’ve known that you’re much likelier to get one of these diseases if you spent your infancy in a region that’s deficient in iodine. Another example: exposure to the fungicide maneb dramatically increases the chances of getting a neurological disease from a toxin; maneb works by disrupting the use of iodine in animals. Our instincts shout that iodine must be involved; but we can’t say it out loud. Although iodine deficiency remains the number one cause of mental retardation in the world, we can’t prove it has a role in Alzheimer’s or ALS. No one has found a smoking gun. Continue reading →